Swaggering, sneering incivility

by Henry Farrell on January 5, 2010

“Clive Crook”:http://clivecrook.theatlantic.com/archives/2010/01/geoff_dyers_american_friends.php tells us that Americans are ever so much more polite than Brits, and then goes on to complain about blogs.

Jarringly different standards apply in politics, and especially in the political blogosphere. There, “coarsening” is too mild a word. All that swaggering, sneering incivility: maybe I find it disgusting because it’s so unAmerican.

Fair enough if you don’t like it, but I am still at a loss to understand the difference between all this twuly vewy howwid incivility and “suggestions that civil liberties types would be perfectly fine with the deaths of millions of their fellow citizens if only they could get their way”:https://crookedtimber.org/2009/10/09/centrism-as-tribalism/. Perhaps it isn’t incivil by definition when it’s an FT pundit doing it rather than a nasty little leftist blogger? Or perhaps Crook believes that he’s just telling it like it is? (the rather obvious rejoinder being, however, that the bloggers he detests so much fancy that the same thing is true of them). I’ve previously invited Mr. Crook to explain the difference between the kinds of things that he says about lefty civil liberties types and the forms of debasing discourse that he so deplores; so far, he has unaccountably failed to do so. In the absence of such a clarification, I can only presume that his distinction rests on the Yes Minister theory of irregular verbs – I engage in vigorous yet fair truthtelling, you perhaps say things a little too stridently for your own good, he is a disgusting, swaggering and incivil boor.



dsquared 01.05.10 at 3:21 pm

Just scrolling down the blog, I see this on Paul Krugman:

Interesting for once (off the top of my head I cannot think of another instance) to see him express the view that Republican ideas are not wrong by definition. That’s a breakthrough. If it keeps up, he might soon be judging issues on the merits. What his admirers will make of that, I shudder to think

I think that that the irregular verb is more to do with the object than the subject; ie, one is “vigorous and yet fair” in criticising the Democratic Party, “perhaps a little strident” in criticising large banks and “disgusting, sneering and swaggering” when criticising Clive Crook.


thinkocerous 01.05.10 at 3:24 pm

It’s frustrating that he’s incapable of engaging in a discussion about anything. He has one unshakable bedrock belief, “I am a reasonable centrist,” from which all else follows. Only thing is, that’s a contentless belief without policy content. It boils down to “I am awesome, you are poopypants,” or “extremist.” He simply can’t engage with rational points made by conservatives or (more so because Crook is a conservative doesn’t like to admit it) liberals.

Clive Crook neither publishes nor accepts letters from its readers. It is Clive Crook’s editorial policy that the readers should have no voice whatsoever and that Clive Crook weblog shall be solely a one-way conduit of information. The weblog is reserved for the exclusive use of Clive Crook to advance whatever opinion or agenda he sees fit, or, in certain cases, for paid advertorials by the business community.


ajay 01.05.10 at 4:41 pm

All that swaggering, sneering incivility: maybe I find it disgusting because it’s so unAmerican.

Next: “all that fast, dangerous driving in the streets of Rome: maybe I find it terrifying because it’s so unItalian” and “all that glacial, convoluted bureaucracy in Delhi: maybe I find it exasperating because it’s so unIndian”.


JoB 01.05.10 at 4:51 pm

Isn’t it unamerican to find things unAmerican?


christian h. 01.05.10 at 5:04 pm

Clive can just fuck off, if you ask me.


Ex-PD 01.05.10 at 5:12 pm

#4 – I don’t know about that, but it is very, very played-out.


ajay 01.05.10 at 5:24 pm

Well, quite. America’s a big country and it has (no more than) its fair share of swaggering, sneering and uncivil people.


alex 01.05.10 at 6:20 pm

I thought it was the generally-accepted view that the USA had more than its fair share of EVERYTHING, and that’s the way we like it, sucka…


P O'Neill 01.05.10 at 6:35 pm

He’s the thinking man’s David Broder.


The Raven 01.05.10 at 6:48 pm

Crook, like many people, confuses manners with the person. Many truly destructive people are polite and “well-spoken,” yet what they speak is filth.


The Raven 01.05.10 at 6:54 pm

L’esprit de l’escalier reminds me that “well-spoken yet speaking filth” could describe all the conservative US Senators. One gets nowhere in the Senate without good manners, but this does not prevent Senators from plotting horrors on the national, or even planetary, scale.

Ravens, on the other hand, croak.


John Quiggin 01.05.10 at 7:06 pm

And of course, demands for civility from the left are unAmerican political correctness.


Substance McGravitas 01.05.10 at 7:12 pm

Clive Crook writing on an Atlantic blog complaining about swaggering, sneering incivility? And he’ll resign when?


Keith 01.05.10 at 7:47 pm

Complaints about incivility are just code for “shut up, you dirty hippies and do what your betters tell you!” Everything else is, as they say, commentary.


The Raven 01.05.10 at 8:17 pm

There are manners that are an expression of decency and human feeling and manners that are an expression of membership in a social group or class. Most of the talk about “manners” from the right is covertly saying, “They aren’t our sort. Pay them no mind;” one can tell because the complaints are not addressed directly to people, nor does the right make any effort to be “civil” to its opponents.


Sock Puppet of the Great Satan 01.05.10 at 8:47 pm

“Clive Crook tells us that Americans are ever so much more polite than Brits, and then goes on to complain about blogs.”

Crook really has taken to dialing it in since 2009. All his FT columns are concern trolling.

“There, “coarsening” is too mild a word. All that swaggering, sneering incivility: maybe I find it disgusting because it’s so unAmerican.”

Sneering incivility unAmerican? Fucking wussy little turd Crook should read a fucking biography of Patton.


The Raven 01.05.10 at 8:51 pm

“[…] nor does the right make any effort to be ‘civil’ to its opponents.”

Correction. “[…] nor do the people on the right who make the criticism make any effort to be ‘civil’ to their opponents.” Some people on the right genuinely do believe in civility as decency, but they’re not the ones slamming the left for incivility.


Alex 01.05.10 at 10:02 pm

All that swaggering, sneering incivility: maybe I find it disgusting because it’s so unAmerican.

Well, I think this snobbery, hypocrisy, and low-level incompetence is just un-British!


novakant 01.05.10 at 10:07 pm

Many truly destructive people are polite and “well-spoken,” yet what they speak is filth.

Yeah sure, but that’s not an argument against civility – I thought this issue had been resolved sometime towards the end of the 70s…


stostosto 01.05.10 at 10:16 pm

Crook is too good a name for Clive. He is full of it. He is loaded. He is rich. Ah, there it is: Clive Rich. That fits.


Jamey 01.06.10 at 1:12 am

When it comes to political debate (as opposed to ordinary non-political social interaction), I would rather err on the side of incivility than civility. As previous commenters have pointed out, there is too much about the conservative view of civility that is a mask for unwarranted deference to authority or to those that they view as social betters.

It certainly is very harsh to say about the Bush administration that they mislead us into an unnecessary war in Iraq or to say about some legislators that they put the interests of their campaign donors above the interests of the public. But if such charges are true, labeling them as uncivil becomes just a way of trying to shut down debate. It’s ironic that conservatives spend so much time howling about political correctness. They’ve done a marvelous job of convincing the mainstream media that certain ideas are offensive and uncivil and should be banned from mainstream discourse.


Kaveh 01.06.10 at 2:33 am

@21 I think the argument that politicians represent the interests of corporate donors rather than those of their constituents is not taboo even in mainstream media… is it? I think there the problem is actually the opposite–because people just don’t make resisting the influence of big business a priority, the language gets ramped up from “politicians represent corporate interests instead of yours” to “corporations control our government”, and the politicians who are actually reasonably likely not to put corporate donors’ interests over their constituents’ (like Kucinich) are also using that hyperbolic language, making it a bit easier to tar them with the “extremist” brush.

The war and things related is on a whole different plane in terms of obvious or well-supported claims being completely shut out of the mainstream media in the US.

“Bush lied us into an unnecessary war” is more dryly factual than harsh. What’s really harsh (and also factual, or at least there is evidence for this) is saying that the Bush administration tortured prisoners to extract fake confessions to produce fraudulent evidence to justify the bombing and invasion of Iraq. The Economist, when they were supporting Kerry in 2004, said that in their view, they didn’t think it was actually the case that Bush & company were pushing a view they knew to be false–they were just overzealous and careless about presenting evidence to the public. Putting it that way I think acknowledges that “Bush lied us into war” is not an unreasonable thing to say, even though they happen not to agree with it.

I don’t think Obama ever said “Bush lied us into a war for oil” (much less “Bush and Cheney had prisoners tortured to extract fake confessions…”), whereas I could at least picture him saying McCain will represent the interests of corporate donors.


nick s 01.06.10 at 3:32 am

Crook apparently has no concept of “well, bless your heart” means in the American South.

Well, bless his heart.


novakant 01.06.10 at 5:48 am

@21 – I’m certainly not deferential to authority (just ask some of the CT staff, lol) and I wouldn’t encourage such an attitude in others. My notion of civility is wholly compatible with strong criticism (“harsh” is too ambiguous), I just don’t like rudeness and strong language and I don’t think it achieves what some seem to think it does. And just in case, I’m neither prude nor prissy, it’s just that on an average day in London you’re confronted with so much rudeness that one simply gets tired of it and doesn’t want to encounter it in other contexts.


Alex Prior 01.06.10 at 6:49 am

An interesting point on “incivility”. In Australia, the High Court extended the common law defence of “qualified privilege” against a defamation action to include “a communication made to the public on a government or political matter” on the basis that there should be “freedom of expression on those matters which enable people to exercise a free and informed choice as electors,” provided only that the defendant doesn’t make the statement out of malice (extraneous to the government or political matter).

It is an interesting acknowledgement that there are times when “incivility” is essential to the well-being and efficient functioning of a democratic society.


bad Jim 01.06.10 at 9:25 am

Yet another manifestation of IOKIYAR, or OMG there’s a black man in the White House, you aren’t manly unless you support whatever military adventure is being bruited about.

I would have thought there would be general agreement about ignoring anyone who advocated for the last war, whether they did so out of ignorance, cowardice or avarice. Is it just that there are so many of them, insisting that they were right to be wrong? There weren’t that few of us, but too few care to remember.

Perhaps it is just like pissing yourself in a dark suit: you get a warm feeling, but nobody notices.


ajay 01.06.10 at 9:31 am

L’esprit de l’escalier reminds me that “well-spoken yet speaking filth” could describe all the conservative US Senators. One gets nowhere in the Senate without good manners, but this does not prevent Senators from plotting horrors on the national, or even planetary, scale.

“We train our young men to drop liquid fire on women and children, but we won’t allow them to write “fck” on their airplanes, because that’s obscene!”

Col. Kurtz would have made a terrific blogger.


bad Jim 01.06.10 at 9:55 am

This is kind of priceless:

The problem in my view is less Mr Obama and more the attitudes of the claque of official and unofficial supporters that surrounds him. The prevailing liberal mindset is what makes the criticisms of Mr Obama’s distance from working Americans stick.

If only the Democrats could contain their sense of entitlement to govern in a rational world, and their consequent distaste for wide swathes of the US electorate, they might gain the unshakeable grip on power they feel they deserve. Winning elections would certainly be easier – and Republicans would have to address themselves more seriously to economic insecurity. But the fathomless cultural complacency of the metropolitan liberal rules this out.

The attitude that expressed itself in response to the Palin nomination is the best weapon in the Republican armoury. Rely on the Democrats to keep it primed. You just have to laugh.

So, what. Democrats are just deracinated urban cosmopolitans, which is to say sneering Jews? Sorry, Clive, I have two guns in every closet* and I think health care reform is a wonderful thing and carbon output reduction is a critical issue.

* Not entirely kidding. Three closets have two each, including some antiques. I only bought one of them, and probably shouldn’t’ve.


bakho 01.06.10 at 12:33 pm

The conservative blogs ARE terrible and horrible. Most lefties don’t read them, but the level of discourse on the right is probably what Cook is referencing. Unfortunately, they don’t say “Conservative blogs” or they would get even worse treatment from the right wingnuts.


The Fool 01.06.10 at 1:32 pm

Complaints about a bloggers incivility are inherently ad hominem. You either have a counterargument or a debunking analysis or you don’t.

Michael Jordan often trash talked his opponents. He also played phenomenal basketball. Complaining about his trash talking would just make you look like an idiot who missed the point.

If you want to talk trash back while debunking, go right ahead — if you can. If politeness is more your style then leave that stick up your ass and shut the fuck up.


zic 01.06.10 at 3:29 pm

Crook censors his comments. I stopped posting after he didn’t publish two of mine, and after he banned me on a third occasion.

I’m not rude; I’m a middle-aged liberal wife and mother. And I challenged his conservative views; didn’t use cuss words, and didn’t call him — or anyone else — an idiot. But I did likely say his writing showed total lack of understanding of what goes down in real people’s lives.

If challenging ideology is rude, there can be no effective political debate of ideas.

Personally, I think Crook’s the worst blogger at The Atlantic.


Memory 01.06.10 at 7:18 pm

(My apologies if this posts twice, my browser cut out when I tried to post the first time and the comment has not appeared a few minutes later.)

The claim that incivility in politics is atypical or unAmerican reveals a staggering ignorance of history that inclines me to dismiss this person’s ability to comment on American politics generally. Let us ignore the early American democracy (which featured such gems as the accusation that Jefferson was an atheist who would set up guillotines and confiscate bibles), the stunning viciousness of the Jacksonian era, and the entire period surrounding the Civil War as being too remote or atypical to define what is “American” and view only the last century and a half – though it is worth noting that all of this does prove the unimpeachable pedigree of wild, hateful political speech as being one of the great traditions of the Republic.

It would be fairly accurate to describe the political campaigns of the late 19th century as scurrilous attacks on the ‘character’ of one’s opponent hung like a threadbare shroud over a series of vapid generalities (e.g. “State’s Rights,” “The Tariff,” or “Government Waste”). Hyperbole and venom on the occasional issue of substance were normal as well; if one wishes to research this in detail, I recommend newspaper archives for the period following the Haymarket bombing and trial. The Progressive Era featured a political rhetoric in which it was unremarkable to accuse opponents of complicity in (if not direct responsibility for) murdering children. The 1930’s offered a political field in which Roosevelt’s opponents sequentially accused him of being a fascist (descriptions of the NIRA and AAA) then a communist – in both cases of destroying, corrupting, and hating America and American values. Roosevelt returned uncivil rhetoric in kind (though admittedly generally with greater elegance), with major presidential and campaign speeches in which he attacked his opponents in terms that simply do not exist in the contemporary political vocabulary. The 1950’s featured a political climate in which it was normal to accuse political opponents of being direct or indirect agents of the Soviet Union intending to lead the country to foreign conquest and the abrogation of the Constitution. For a mild sampling of this, I recommend ignoring McCarthy and instead reading Richard Nixon’s campaign speeches from the 1950 campaign against Douglas – that campaign was based largely on personal attacks that must at least be considered uncivil and might justly be taken as representative because it made Nixon the darling of a substantial wing of his party and secured his nomination for the vice-Presidency. The rhetoric of the 1960’s and 70’s over the Vietnam War, Johnson’s Civil Rights and Great Society legislation, and the Nixon impeachment are also not describable in any realistic way as ‘civil.’

One might argue that the 1980’s saw a rare interlude of politeness in politics , though I would argue that this relies on a very selective memory of the 1980 and 1988 campaigns. This aside, however, American politics is defined by vicious rhetoric directed at persons, policies, and groups that would make Gladstone and Disraeli hit the fainting couch.

And if I might insert a minor observation about a particular variety of political rhetoric, I would argue that it has been a remarkably consistent pattern of the campaign rhetoric of the Republican Party to accuse their political opponents of being not only wrong but outside the proper definition of American since the Party’s creation (when in the period from 1856-1864 such a claim was both defensible and central to the political appeals of the party’s radicals). The specific manifestation of the unAmerican character of their opponents changed over time from secessionists to corrupt urban machines manned by literally foreign immigrants, to irreligious or Catholic foreigners, to the bearers of corrupt foreign political doctrines, to Communists, to a vague stereotype of feminized leftism, but the rhetorical construction of politics as an existential contest between the guardians of true American identity and their opponents is branded in the genetics of the party.


freepatriot 01.06.10 at 7:26 pm

seen the guy with the sign that equates congress tpo slave owners and tax payers to niggers

that would be a TEABAGGER

not a liberal blogger

so where is the hate coming from ???


Julia Grey 01.06.10 at 8:26 pm

All that swaggering, sneering incivility: maybe I find it disgusting because it’s so unAmerican.

What America is he talking about here? The one on Neptune?

“Swaggering, sneering incivility” is as American as racism and apple pie.


piglet 01.06.10 at 9:03 pm

“But if such charges are true, labeling them as uncivil becomes just a way of trying to shut down debate.”

This absurd debate reminds me of the self-appointed thought police spinsanity.org. At some point, almost all their articles boiled down to saying that any harsh criticism of the Bush government was out of bounds of their idea of political debate. According to them, you can’t say “Bush lied” just because he made demonstrably false statements. You’d have to present water-tight proof admissible in a court of law that he knew the claims were false. Of course such proof is difficult to come by. The point is that in any country of which I have knowledge, it is understood that a politician who repeatedly made demonstrably false claims deserves harsh criticism and it would be seen as ridiculous to defend such politician on the grounds that such criticism was impolite.


Northern Observer 01.06.10 at 9:10 pm

I just want to second Memory’s post. It seems to me that the prime qualification for being a high profile pundit/journalist in America is to be completely ignorant of the American political past.


James Wimberley 01.06.10 at 9:11 pm

Ale xin #18: “I think this snobbery, hypocrisy, and low-level incompetence is just un-British!”
Is low-level here an intensifier or a softener? And doesn’t Britain lead the world in high-level incompetence as well?


Karin 01.06.10 at 11:11 pm

Funny, because Geoff Dyer, who is a Brit, had a piece in the NYT just last week calling Americans much more polite and charming that the British.


Substance McGravitas 01.06.10 at 11:20 pm

It seems to me that the prime qualification for being a high profile pundit/journalist in America is to be completely ignorant of the American political past.

What America was Tocqueville describing that was so admirable? What happened in America between then and now that destroyed this Utopia?


d2 01.07.10 at 2:11 am

Tickled at your parting allusion to my favorite ‘Yes, Minister’ quote. For anyone that doesn’t know it:

Bernard: “It’s one of those irregular verbs, isn’t it: I have an independent mind; you are an eccentric; he is round the twist.”


Alphonse 01.07.10 at 3:07 am

Alex Prior, in an Australian context, confuses malice with lack of civility … which is a bit rich coming from a country that is still recovering from 12 years of malicious civility.


Tim Wilkinson 01.07.10 at 3:15 pm

My predominant reaction to the block quote from Dyer’s hackneyed effort: fascination at the exemplary loathesomeness of the sentence “I pay a considerable sum of money to play indoors at Islington Tennis Centre”.

I pay a considerable sum of money to play indoors at Islington Tennis Centre. Eighty percent of the time, the next people to play indicate that your time is up by unzipping their racket covers and strolling on court, without saying a word, without a smile, without acknowledging your existence except as an impediment.

It’s a paean to pure pusillanimity:

I Pay a Considerable Sum of Money to Play Indoors at Islington Tennis Centre
by Geoffrey Dyer

I pay
A considerable sum of money
To play indoors
At Islington Tennis Centre.

Having adopted an attitude of some exaggerated hostility to the fellow, I found myself taking on the viewpoint of the person expected both to indicate that Geoff’s time is up, by – finally – ‘strolling on court’, and to make friendly overtures. This lent some irony to his remarks on the topic (‘without a smile’, you say? ‘an impediment’, you say?).

Now look here, my good man – do you realise I pay a considerable sum of money – quite a considerable sum of money – to play indoors at Islington Tennis Centre? I imagine even you will have heard of Islington Tennis Centre, hmm? Hmm. Well I play there – indoors – and I’ll have you know I pay a considerable sum of money for the privilege.

The lack of self-awareness, and of likeability, that I choose to infer might suggest that “I always feel good about myself in America; I feel appreciated, liked” has less to do with the quaint charm of the average New Yorker than with the misreading of some subtle culture-specific cues, perhaps encoding ‘you are quite an asshole’ or signalling ‘I am quite a wanker’. (This rudeness lark is tremendous fun.)

I pay a considerable sum of money to play indoors at Islington Tennis Centre. One to savour.

‘Now, I want you each to tell the group something about yourself – something you feel sums you up – in one sentence. Geoff?’…

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