And yes, there is a book’s worth to say about this rude word, all of it entertaining. But since my annotated copy flew off in an airplane seat pocket the other day (there were extenuating circumstances -- children, diapers, seat swaps) I can’t share all the juicy quotes I marked. Luckily, others have liked the book as much as I did: See James Parker at the Barnes & Noble site, for instance, and John McIntyre’s blog post yesterday.
The finished copy has now arrived, so I can at least quote a couple of my favorite bits from the final chapter, on assholism in public life, where Nunberg zeroes in on one of the assholiest features of political discourse: fake outrage.
You’re acting like an asshole … if you accuse someone of incivility knowing full well that no neutral observer would interpret his behavior that way. Nobody for a moment hears any “violent rhetoric” when Obama says he’s itching for a fight with the Republicans or when Michele Bachmann describes Washington as “enemy lines.” The only purpose of a charge like that is to give your own partisans the enjoyment of imagining the irritation it will engender, all the more because it’s so transparently phony.And then there's the fake outrageousness meant as bait for (real or fake) outrage. When journalist Westbrook Pegler maligned Jews as geese (“fouling everything in their wake”), says Nunberg, he was expressing genuine anti-Semitism. But "when [Ann] Coulter makes an analogous remark about Muslims, she’s only trying to sound offensive ... We know that she doesn’t lie awake seething about Muslims the way Pegler did about Jews.”
Fake offenses, fake responses -- what would Kant have said? That we should try to restrain ourselves, says Nunberg, out of respect for the dignity of the topic. But where's the fun in that?
While I'm in book-review mode, I also want to recommend a title published several months ago, on writing and the teaching of writing: "Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing," by Peter Elbow. I haven't finished it, but like Language Hat, I don't to wait any longer to mention it, because whenever I dip into it there's something thought-provoking. On punctuation, say:
Punctuation is fascinating because it's where a certain kind of rubber hits a certain kind of road. It appeals to something deep in our relationship with language because it's the only visual cue that takes us from silent, timeless visual symbols on the page to audible, in-time, mouth-moving, performance in our bodies. It's where the mind meets the body, where the eyes meet the mouth, where space meets time.Amazon offers a generous sampling of the book; see for yourself.
(FTC notice: The publishers of these books provided free review copies.)