The Contumelys

by John Holbo on November 5, 2004

The left and right hemiblogospheres are presently linked – if at all – by a corpus callosum of profound mutual contempt. Countless linky axons of aggravation transmit negative affect side to side. I won’t bother demonstrating this obvious fact with links, though I discuss it a bit here.

And so, in the interest of entente – or at least to preclude the need for split-brain surgery to prevent the equivalent of a interwebs-wide grand mal epileptic seizure, as the storm moves left to right and back – I propose … a contest! Awards! For outstanding and meritorious achievements in the field of contempt. I think we will call these awards … The Contumelys! (I imagine sort of a golden turd-looking thing on the head of an human figure, on a pedestal.) I haven’t really worked out all the details because I haven’t worked out any of them. There must be awards for Left and Right. And I think, though I can’t imagine how I could enforce this, that lefties should nominate righties and vice versa. I’m certainly not prepared to be judge, jury nor executioner. Except for executioner. I’m more than prepared to delete comments to this thread mercilessly. Because mostly your contempt isn’t worth much to me. Unless you find some way to profit yourself, or others, by it.

UPDATE: Apparently there are problems with comments not showing, even after waiting, even after multiple attempts to post. Sorry about that. What can I say? Be aware there’s a problem and try again later. Maybe it’s temporary. Kieran?

As Nietzsche writes [I’ve changed one term to suit the age]:

The fool interrupts. – The writer of this blog post is no misanthrope; today one pays too dearly for hatred of man. If one would hate the way man was hated formerly, Timonically, wholly, without exception, with a full heart, with the whole love of hatred, then one would have to renounce contempt. And how much fine joy, how much patience, how much graciousness even do we owe precisely to our contempt! Moreover, it makes us the "elect of God": refined contempt is our taste and privilege, our art, our virtue perhaps, as we are the most modern of moderns. (Gay Science, §379)

(Don’t worry, right-wingers, you won’t get gay science cooties, let alone gay science married, if you read that all the way through before noticing where it was from.)

Why is there no verb, ‘to x something’, meaning ‘to have and exhibit contempt for something’?

But why draw attention to this semantic space, however vast and central to our emotional lives? Why dig down for bitter roots, which sprout as hardy volunteers soon enough?

Not to raise a crop of Timons, gentle reader. Rather, it seems to me we should not (as the servant puts it) ‘walk, like contempt, alone’. For one thing, if fifty truly exemplary specimens from both sides could be exhibited for all to judge, at least one line of complaint would be reduced to shamed silence: aggrieved noise to the effect that it is down to the terrible, awful, unprovoked incivility and hostility of the other side.

What I am looking for, you see, are the artistic, witty, insightful, thoughtful, well-turned, educational expressions of contempt. The contempt should be, at least in part, reality-based. Elegant and brainy if you please. The sort of thing that might raise a grudging smile if you were behind a veil of ignorance, watching the mud wrestling yet unable to tell which westler – is you. In short, we seek the better angels of our contemptuous natures. (Nothing from Adam Yoshida, obviously. Or those slack-jawed morons Kieran quotes below. Please stay well within the bounds of human decency.) A few gem-like paragraphs maximum, perhaps with a link to the original. I’m hoping that the effect of concentrated, high quality volleys, back and forth, will produce a higher – hence deflating – sense of the absurdity of the emotional exercise.

Hence, contemptuous catharsis.

Probably I’ll just provoke a vicious undignified mess. In which case I’ll close the thread and pretend it never happened.

But I hope I don’t have to, for I hope no one will have to write of me, as Melville did of Ahab (chapter 34):

He blogged in the world, as the last of the Grisly Bears lived in settled
Missouri. And as when Spring and Summer had departed, that wild Logan
of the woods, burying himself in the hollow of a tree, lived out the
winter there, sucking his own paws; so, in his inclement, howling old
age, Holbo’s soul, shut up in the caved trunk of his body, there fed
upon the sullen paws of its gloom!

I confess a partisan agenda as well, before I declare the games open. Russell Arben Fox has an interesting post up about the hazards of left condescension to religious folk. Namely, it ticks them off, causing them to vote Republican, doing nobody any good. "The left doesn’t have to flirt with theocracy … it just needs to show some respect." I think there is something right about this analysis. But there is also something wrong with it. Anyway, I find myself semi-agreeing with Jim Henley, on the other side. (Oh, I see Kieran got there first. Well I won’t make a link. Just scroll down, you lazy bastards.) Henley rather strongly maintains this ‘moral values’ dog don’t hunt. To think so is "naive and even condescending." Damn. This is  bad, if true, because then Democrats are condescending if they do, condescending if they don’t. But how can that possibly be right? Pardon, but it is false that there is anything inherently condescending about being a Democrat. Quite the contrary. We’ll get back to that. Henley writes:

Conservative, values-minded Christians aren’t looking for validation.
They’re looking for specific policy outcomes that their strongly-held
beliefs entail – among them, the prohibition of abortion and the
marginalization and if possible elimination of homosexuality. They are
not empty urns waiting to be filled with liberal policies dissolved in
honeyed words about faith.

Mmmm, liberal policies dissolved in honeyed words. Oh, wait, just me sucking my paws, dreaming of spring. This brings me back to my initial skeptical reaction to Russell’s post.

It seems to me there is an assymetry between left and right in terms of sensitivities and respect, the latter being a two-way street in any well-designed status traffic system. The simplest way to see the assymetry is to turn Russell’s formula around and offer it as advice for the right (imagining that the percentages had been just a little different.) You don’t have to flirt with gays, just show them some respect. But, of course, this isn’t a proposal of a diplomatic means to an end, as Russell’s proposal is for lefties, who have nothing against religion. (Or if they do, that has nothing to do with being a lefty.) For the right offering simple respect is abject surrender, since the whole point is NOT to show respect.

This struck me while I was reading prof. Bainbridge’s post and TCS essay (as per this post over at our other blog).

1) Bainbridge is sensitive to, and upset by, perceived liberal airs of superiority, leading to disrespect for his Middle American, conservative, religious dignity, sensibilities, values and virtues. (So he indulges in what I have come to call ‘the narcissism of small diffidences’. His antennae are exquisitely attuned to sleights. Or maybe he’s just ticked off this week, a real sore winner. I can’t honestly say.)

2) Bainbridge feels no compunction about disrespecting liberals – lobbing insult for insult at Eric Alterman, which is fair enough. But beyond that, he not only exhibits airs of moral superiority himself (who doesn’t think their own morality is superior? You would change it otherwise.) He actually assumes his own moral superiority over liberals as a premise in his argument to the conclusion that the conservative majority should legislate to reflect "their morals and values" because these are the true moral values.

As Randy Barnett notes, in a post Bainbridge singles out for criticism: "Assuming morality is an objective matter, majority opinion does not make something immoral." Not without the additional premise that this majority – conservatives – is inherently and certainly morally superior to this minority – liberals (and libertarians).

Again, everyone is a little elite of one, in that we all assume our own morality is superior (in some sense). But we don’t all go and insert a claim to personal, inherent moral superiority as a premise in our arguments. From the fact that I am better, what I say must be true? If some liberal argues like that, you can ask him to cut it out. For Bainbridge, this argument form is indispensable.

In short, dammit, its conservatives who can’t help be condescending. Bainbridge rails against elitism, but it is his position that is not just elitist but inherently elitist. He rails against revolting elites, while participating in a revolt of the elites. At least Russell Kirk – whom Bainbridge quotes as a cudgel against libertarians – is unapologetic on behalf of the elitism he shaires with Bainbridge. "Civilized society requires orders and classes," etc. Well, there you go.

Back to the Contumelys. I have this naive notion that despair at the spectacle of absolute ludicrous quantities of mutual contempt on all sides breeds tolerance and mutual respect – due to laughter at the absurdity of it, or weariness at the endlessness of it. Like in Doctor Marvin Monroe’s Family Therapy Center.

And tolerance is good. It erodes the bad, causing Democrats to win in the long run. As Burke writes, "nothing aggravates tyranny so much as contumely." Lets purge it clean out of our systems.

So what were the clever, wise, insightfully contemptuous things both sides said about the other, all electoral season long?

I’m really trying to be even-handed here. It’s been a bad week.



No Preference 11.05.04 at 6:18 pm

What, you say that “eroding the bad” enables Democrats to win? Nothing better illustrates your stinking leftist bias.

I would nominate Atrios and TBogg for Contumelys on our side.


jet 11.05.04 at 6:21 pm

“Why is there no verb, ‘to x something’, meaning ‘to have and exhibit contempt for something’?”

Contemptus, to despise.

Thy pompous delicacies I contemn. –Milton.


jholbo 11.05.04 at 6:21 pm

I consider that a distinctly mediocre first entry. Also, too unspecific. May better follow!


jet 11.05.04 at 6:21 pm

“Why is there no verb, ‘to x something’, meaning ‘to have and exhibit contempt for something’?”

Contemptus, to despise.

Thy pompous delicacies I contemn. –Milton.

My wife says I’m a hopeless fool of a rhetorician, but I *can* use a dictionary :P


No Preference 11.05.04 at 6:25 pm

May better follow!

sadly, your own post did not fulfill that aspiration.


Jay Conner 11.05.04 at 7:01 pm


I learned it from Ogden Nash, viz..

I objurgate the centipede
a bug we do not really need
at sleepy-time he beats a path
straight to the bedroom, or the bath
you always wallop where he’s not
or, if he is, he makes a spot



Jay Conner 11.05.04 at 7:03 pm


I learned it from Ogden Nash, viz..

I objurgate the centipede
a bug we do not really need
at sleepy-time he beats a path
straight to the bedroom, or the bath
you always wallop where he’s not
or, if he is, he makes a spot



Dubious 11.05.04 at 7:10 pm

In the spirit of the original F*’d up way that President and Vice-President used to be elected in electoral college, I propose that electors must nominate 2 candiates, one from Left and one from Right.


nnyhav 11.05.04 at 7:18 pm

find some way to profit yourself, or others, by it.

By despising both other halves?


Aurochs & Angels 11.05.04 at 7:20 pm



Aurochs & Angels 11.05.04 at 7:23 pm

Ah, see somone beat me to it.


Erin Stafford 11.05.04 at 7:43 pm

Here’s John Scalzi, dishing out plenty of contempt for all sides of the political debate:

However, that post is rather old, so if the Contumelys have a eligibility window like the Oscars, it might not be qualified to run.


foo 11.05.04 at 8:06 pm

As a sometimes-conservative, I nominate this screed from the noid over at “EjectEjectEject.”

A sample:
And all of this rage and fury and spitting and tearing up of signs, all of these insults and spinmeisters and forgeries and all the rest, seem to come down to the fact that about half the country thinks you deter this sort of thing by being nice, while the other half thinks you deter this by being mean.

It’s really just that simple.

It all comes down to carrots (liberals) or sticks (conservatives). By the way: if you’re in a rush and need to run, here’s the spoiler: You can offer a carrot. Not everybody likes carrots. Some people may hate your carrot. Your carrot may offend people who worship the rutabaga. But no one likes being poked in the eye with a stick. That’s universal.

I’m a stick man. I wish it were different. But part of growing up – in fact, the essential part of growing up – is realizing that wishing does not make it so.

Folks, it’s time to reach down deep and get in touch with our inner adult.

Read the rest, it gets “better.” Surely worthy of at least an Honorably-Mentioned Contumely.


rosalind 11.05.04 at 9:28 pm

I’m not sure if this is exactly the right sort of thing, but David Rees’s new message on his homepage made me smile a bit through the tears. It’s certainly contemptuous:


Keith M Ellis 11.05.04 at 10:50 pm

I have contempt for my fellow liberals who claim to not be morally judging other people when they are, in fact, morally judging other people. Oh, and then morally condemning other people for morally judging other people. That kinda rankles, too.

And I’m a liberal! I suspect this hypocrisy annoys the conservatives even more. Not that they really have a leg to stand on, so to speak, the bastards.


Uncle Kvetch 11.05.04 at 10:57 pm

I have contempt for my fellow liberals who claim to not be morally judging other people when they are, in fact, morally judging other people.

Keith, liberals can’t morally judge other people (even when they sound like they are), since by definition they have no morals. Didn’t you get the memo?


Uncle Kvetch 11.05.04 at 10:59 pm

I have contempt for my fellow liberals who claim to not be morally judging other people when they are, in fact, morally judging other people.

Keith, liberals can’t morally judge other people, since, by definition, liberals have no morals. Or didn’t you get the memo?

What we do do, on the other hand, is sneer. Most contemptuously. Nyeh-heh-heh-heh.


Matt 11.05.04 at 11:21 pm

I like Bainbridge most of the time. He’s a smart guy and his textbook is a good one. But it is funny to hear him going on about those darn elitist, isn’t it? He is constantly posting about his fast cars- BMW’s and Porsches and the like. He has a blog specially devoted to fine wine, for god’s sake. He talks w/o a hint of of self-consiciousness about how important it is to drink each type of wine in the appropriate glass. He teaches law at UCLA. He doesn’t like kids. Yes, he has much, much in common with middle america. So much more than, say, Dennis Kucinich.


mn 11.05.04 at 11:32 pm

David Rees and Adam Felbers and the Poor Man rule.

This, too, although not contempt-filled:


John 11.06.04 at 12:54 am

What we do do, on the other hand, is sneer. Most contemptuously. Nyeh-heh-heh-heh.

We’re like Elves!

I think the issue I have with conservatives whining about liberals whining about them is that sure, they don’t like being condescended to, but when you peel away the layers of their dislike (rather like taking apart an onion), the fact is that they’re already being very openly condescending to the liberals, and they really do think that the rest of the country should sign onto their moral beliefs, and not criticize those beliefs, because of course, those beliefs are right. I don’t know about the liberal ideal, but my ideal is that everybody is free to believe what they want and worship how they want, the government is ran by logic and reason (Where are you now, Thomas Jefferson?), and nobody’s religion gets forced on anyone else. A state of neutrality if you will. Conservatives tell me I’m trying to force my ideal on them. Well, that’s not really possible, since my ideal is based pretty much off having their ideal off my back. If somebody is sitting on top of you, and you push them off and rise to your feet, you haven’t imposed on them, you’ve regained a state of neutrality. That’s the difference between legalized gay marriage and forcing churches to perform gay marriages, it’s the difference between legalizing abortion and having forced abortions, and it’s the difference between having the prayers of one sole religion in school and having a class that teaches about all world religions equally.

Do I make any kind of sense with this at all? People say the Democrats need to reach out to Middle America, but when I talk to some of the people from Middle America, they tell me Lincoln was a criminal, the U.S. favors those “d*mned uppity n*ggers” too much, and we need to go kill all the Muslims. Ladies and Gentlemen, Middle America scares the fucking hell out of me.


s_bethy 11.06.04 at 1:40 am

I believe this one falls short in the ‘clever and wise’ department, but it’s way long on contempt.

Adam Yoshida says…

…The Democrats and their allies staked everything on the defeat of this President. All of the resources they had accumulated over a generation of struggle were thrown into this battle: and they have failed. Despite all of their tricks, despite all of their lies, the people have rejected them. They mean nothing. They are worth nothing. There’s no point in trying to reach out to them because they won’t be reached out to. We’ve got their teeth clutching the sidewalk and out boot above their head. Now’s the time to curb-stomp the bastards.


Kathryn Cramer 11.06.04 at 3:05 am

I nominate whoever come up with the blue states/red states IQ graph.


s_bethy 11.06.04 at 4:00 am

Okay, here’s a snide one from the left. I guess my politics are showing.

‘bink’, over at Daily Kos says:

The Republican Party has got to give up its obsession with sex. Oval office blow-jobs. Marital infidelity. Gay sex. ESPECIALLY gay sex. The Republican Party is the party that brought gay sex into the American living room and they want it to stay there.


aj 11.06.04 at 4:13 am

My nomination is not partisan, and not a blog post, but for sheer elitist contempt, it’s hard to match these gems from the 19th century:

“The highest man may comprehend the lowest, but the lowest can no more comprehend the highest than if he belonged to another order of beings, as for some purposes he practically does. A single human mind may engender thoughts which the combined efforts of millions of lower intelligences cannot conceive. This is not the faith of Demos. In his vague way, he fancies that aggregated ignorance and weakness will bear the fruits of wisdom. He begins to think that science, thought, and study, are old-time illusions; that everybody has a right to form his own opinion as to whether the world is round or flat, and that the votes of the majority ought to settle the question.”

Or maybe this:

“A New England village of the olden time—that is to say, of some forty years ago—would have been safely and well governed by the votes of every man in it; but, now that the village has grown into a populous city, with its factories and workshops, its acres of tenement-houses, and thousands and ten thousands of restless workmen, foreigners for the most part, to whom liberty means license and politics means plunder, to whom the public good is nothing and their own most trivial interests everything, who love the country for what they can get out of it, and whose ears are open to the promptings of every rascally agitator, the case is completely changed, and universal suffrage becomes a questionable blessing.”

Or maybe this:

“When a man has not sense to comprehend the questions at issue, know a bad candidate from a good one, or see his own true interests—when he cares not a farthing for the general good, and will sell his vote for a dollar—when, by a native instinct, he throws up his cap at the claptrap declamation of some lying knave, and turns with indifference or dislike from the voice of honesty and reason—then his vote becomes a public pest. Somebody uses him, and profits by him. Probably it is a demagogue, possibly a priest, or possibly both. In any case, it is folly to call him a free agent. His inalienable right may perhaps be valuable to him for the bribe he gets out of it; but it makes him a nuisance and a danger to the state. It causes pulpit, platform, and press, to condone his vices, and debanch the moral sense of the people by discovering objects of sympathy in vagabonds, thieves, and ruffians. It gives power to the communistic attack on property, and makes it difficult to deal with outbreaks of brutal violence against which even humanity itself demands measures of the most stern and exemplary repression.”

Francis Parkman, “The Failure of Universal Suffrage” (1878)

Sorry for the length of this comment, but you really need to see old-style elitism in detail to get an idea of the world we have “lost.” The left and right have tried hard this week, but all they’ve proven is that they just don’t make contumely like they used to. Another sign of the impoverishment of our politcal discourse?


s_bethy 11.06.04 at 4:44 am


If only that were ‘lost’ elitism. Sounds more like political consulting to me.


aj 11.06.04 at 10:14 am

I don’t mean that virulent elitism has been lost – but I don’t think it’s expressed as openly in public as it was in the late 19th century – and certainly not with the same eloquence.


Yusuf Smith 11.06.04 at 3:53 pm

I’ve had similar problems with comments not showing up on my MT (3.1) blog. In my case you just have to press reload, and it’ll show up, and I’ve inserted a message into the comments template telling people this.


Douglas Anthony Cooper 11.06.04 at 11:43 pm

Okay… I’m placing my head on the chopping block. I’ve done what everyone should do during the Black Night of the Soul — launched a blog.

Among other things, I’ve posted a chart comparing the average IQ of states voting Kerry vs. states voting Bush. (If you haven’t yet seen this, it’s pretty amusing.)

Judge away. (Note that I’ve put up links to Smart Conservatives — I’m not entirely blinded by ideology.)


Jason G. Williscroft 11.06.04 at 11:51 pm

Sounds like “disdain” to me.

I’m reminded of an old Navy toast (usually reserved until near the end of the evening):

May the bleeding piles assault you
And corns adorn your feet;
May crabs as big as cockroaches
Crawl ’round your balls and eat;
And when you’re old and feeble
And your mind’s a total wreck,
May you fall right through your asshole
And break your fucking neck.

Cheers! :)

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