16 May, 2008

Pride (in the Name of Bastard)

I've been waiting for this:

Anyway - if elitists are to unite proudly, why must they agree to be referred to as ‘bastards’? It is not their right to _choose_ to be called bastards. It is a judgemental if somewhat anachronistic slur on their mothers and possibly fathers.

Could the carnival not be called just the “Carnival of Elitists”? Just a thought.

I knew that at some point, someone would kick up a fuss about including the word "bastards" in a carnival name. I just rather thought it would be aimed me rather than directed at Paul at Cafe Philos. The poor bastard had nothing to do with naming the Carnival, after all, but it seems that his enthusiastic support has him taking my bullets.

Paul: you are a gentleman and a scholar. Your sacrifice was not in vain.

I'm sure plenty of people have thought what this commenter said. And to them, I say: "No one's forcing you."

If you want to be simply an elitist rather than an Elitist Bastard, that's your right. Gather round yourself elitist non-bastards, put together your own (more creatively-named) carnival, and fight the good fight on a more rarified front. The world has room for a myriad of elitists. The more, the merrier.

Just a bit o' advice: don't name your carnival "Carnival of Elitists." It has no zing. It has no zip. It doesn't have that certain je ne sais quois. And it'll end up looking like you're riding on our coattails. This would be sad.

Now, if you're wanting to count yourself amongst the elitists, but are too upset by the silly word "bastards" to join up, perhaps it's time for some exploration. Bastard can, indeed, be a perjorative term, but it's taken on different connotations over the years.

It can mean something that's neither one thing nor the other, but an amalgam. Think bastard sword, for instance: the hand-and-a-half sword, which chose not to be for just one hand or two, but allows a choice.

Seems a good enough term for us Elitist Bastards, who have no trouble simultaneously being common as muck and smart as all get-out. We're not a pretentious elite, but a more populist one. We think intelligence is something to be celebrated, but I doubt any of us think it's something reserved to a select few, and we certainly don't think it has to make you a stuffy, proper, boring git. Calling ourselves bastards is a joyful way of announcing we're out to have fun with our elitist tendencies.

And what's so wrong with being a bastard, anyway? The United States of America was built in large part by a bastard: Alexander Hamilton. He was a bastard by birth, back when illegitimacy was an actual stigma. That never stopped him from becoming a brave bastard, a brilliant bastard, a tenacious bastard, and a nation-building bastard. Our Constitution, our federal government, our treasury, and our industry can all be laid largely at his feet. He's an icon of Elitist Bastardry, and I say it's time we start being proud of that fact.

Being a bastard in the sense of an offensive, abrasive person isn't at all bad, either. Observe:

H.L. Mencken was a bastard. He had a core meanness that showed itself in his writing and in his personal life. Without that meanness, though, his writing might never have gotten so startlingly good. Lots of people need lots of things to do what they do. Mencken simply needed to be hard.

In the early part of the 20th century, America needed Mencken. We needed him to wash away some of the Emersonian/Whitmanian enthusiasm that had started to clog up the collective joint. Not that Emerson and Whitman didn’t have their place. As Mencken himself notes in his essay “The National Letters,” it took Emerson and then Whitman, among others, to stand up and defend the possibility of an American Mind and an American Voice. They did so with boldness and with prose falling over itself in its excitement about itself. Sometimes with Whitman it seems that we’re but one or two orgasms away from the final utopia of ecstatic democracy. This newfound confidence, speaking out, proclaims that America has finally figured out what it is. An American literature of the late 19th century was coming out of the Wilderness with something to say.

Mencken wasn’t so sure. Surveying the landscape in 1920 and musing about what had been accomplished in the wake of all this exuberance, he had this to say about our literature: “Viewed largely, its salient character appears as a sort of timorous flaccidity, an amiable hollowness.” Mencken then proceeds over many pages to tear the national character a new one.

We're at another point in history when the national character needs to be torn a new one. "Timorous flaccidity" and "an amiable hollowness" seems to describe our nation's intellectual drive quite well in places. In others, we're talking equally hollow, but the vicious, biting hollow of the terminally self-esteemless. It's time for the bastards to step up, be hard, and shame the nation into appreciating its brain power once again. We need bastards who can do this:

He had to show us in our dumbness, engaged in the same fruitless struggle that lays low every beast in time. Funnily, and in spite of all his maddening missteps of judgment, Mencken — in being such a relentless bastard year after year — gave the American voice back a little of its humanity.

What's wrong with being those bastards? Absolutely nothing.

Now, I do understand that some folks have more trouble with the word "bastard" than others. It's not enough for them to be in such illustrious company as Alexander Hamilton and H.L. Mencken. Perhaps we should pour those folks a nice glass of Fat Bastard Chardonnay and introduce them to the Australian definition of the word:

Like mate, the term bastard itself is not distinctly Australian. What is, though, is our tendency to use it with considerably frequency, and to mean different things by it depending on the context. A characteristic distinctive of Australian English is the way we use words and phrases that could possibly be considered to be offensive in an inoffensive or even affectionate way.

And that's the sense in which it's meant here: "How are you, you elitist bastard you?" rather than "Omigod, you're such an elitist bastard!" Just because we're elitists doesn't mean we've checked our informality and sense of humor at the door. Much the reverse. Like the Aussies, we're able to relax, have fun with the more outrageous bits of the English tongue, and show our love for each other and our elitism by calling each other Elitist Bastards with hearty good humor.

So could we call our Carnival of the Elitist Bastards simply Carnival of the Elitists? We could. But it wouldn't be half so much fun, then, would it?


Efrique said...

When I started reading this post I was going to mention the use of the term in Australia.

In this form:
"He's a complete bastard!"
it means what it would mean in, say, the US.

When combined with other adjectives that don't just modify "bastard", it is more of a placeholder, like "thing" or "guy", and takes its meaning entirely from context and manner of expression.

"Old bastard" can mean "old friend" (without any reference to your age or ancestry), or it simply mean "old guy" (note that it usually refers to males, except it can readily refer to groups of mixed sex).

"I'm a cranky bastard" will generally mean "I am cranky"; the bastard carries little or no additional meaning. Or "he's a clever bastard" just mean's he's clever.

[Using an insulting term as a term of affection can happen more widely than just using bastard, but you have to watch the other social cues - if you insult someone to their face with a warm smile, generally no insult whatever is intended - if anything, it's the opposite (because you'd only say it like that to someone with whom you felt genuine affection). ]

If anything, in the context, I simply saw "Bastards" as making it clear that we didn't particularly see ourselves as elite in the most pejorative sense, but were adopting the term in order to embrace that which is denigrated by the people who use the term "elites" to dismiss opinions they disagree with.

In fact, *without* the addition of "Bastards", the title doesn't work for me at all - it would feel kind of creepy. With it, it's perfect.

Efrique said...

d'oh. I didn't finish expressing the sentiment in the first paragraph. I meant to add "But since you already did, I'll just expand on it."

Matt said...

Well, let me be the next elitist bastard to say that this request to denude our beloved carnival of the word bastard is complete bullshit, and I say this with all respect for the humanity of the commenter but none for the comment itself. Complaining about the use of a word and suggesting that it be dropped, essentially calling for the emasculation of this steed we call our carnival, well, this is exactly the kind of elitist bullshit that gives elitism a bad name.

Yes, pride. And thank gods for the Aussies, without which it would be at least an order of magnitude more difficult to demonstrate that words belong to the human mind and not to some elitist dipshit's strict constructionist reading of the dictionary.

Onward bastards! Anyone got the H.L. Mencken CotEB badge? That'd be a gem.