In the Arena

Epithets I Have Known

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Some epithets are really quite brilliant: wanker, for example, with its intimations of onanistic futility, is one of the best. (But then, the Brits, who invented the term, are so much more elegant than we are when it comes to the creative use of the mother tongue.)

Others, involving defecation and copulation, can be effective and satisfying–as when Libby, one of my characters in Primary Colors, calls someone a “wet turd of a human fart.” More often, though, they’re just crude and ineffective.

The weirdest class of epithets are those intended to transform positive qualities into ironic deficits. They almost never work, except to turn their purveyors into wankers–that is, poseurs afflicted by onanistic futility. I can cite three examples of this phenomenon, directed at me in the past:

Back in 1993, the Hillaristas working on the Clinton Health Care plan called me, and others like me, incrementalists because we didn’t support their employer mandate-style plan. (I supported some version of an individual mandate or voucher system, as I still do, and I remember Ira Magaziner accusing me of being the exact opposite of an incrementalist, “How is what you support different from a single payer system?” Well, it depends on the implementation…and, remind me, what’s so wrong with a non-socialized single-payer system anyway?)

Then, in 2002, Bill Kristol asked me, “When did you become such a damn realist?” because I raised these sorts of warnings about going to war in Iraq. He was, of course, turning the realpolitik beliefs of the Bush 41 foreign policy into an epithet. Didn’t work out so well for Bill and the neoconservatives.

And now, among certain precincts in the blogosphere–those prohibitively clever sorts who opine daily and endlessly about journalism without doing any reporting (or much thinking) about it–a new epithet: serious. This is meant to convey disdain for those of us who grant undue credibility to people in positions of authority or people of moderate political views. The critics have a point: There is no credible moderate position on issues like torture. And those people in positions of authority who gave Bush the benefit of the doubt on the war in Iraq–including my singular and momentary lapse on Meet the Press–failed the test of being truly serious. But, all things considered, I’m not ready to surrender that very valuable word to the cynics and will continue to use “serious” as I always have, unironically. Usually.

To my mind, being a “serious person” means the following: you study the facts on the ground, you study the history, you take into account opinions on all sides–not just your side–and then you come to a conclusion. Essentially, that’s what I try to do, and also the people I admire across the political spectrum (including many who reside in the blogosphere). I don’t always succeed, of course. Sometimes, instant opinions offered on TV shows (see above), can seem deeply unserious and ill-considered the moment they escape one’s lips. And various serious people I know have momentary or long-term lapses, sometimes very serious ones, on this issue or that. I can disagree with someone profoundly–as with John McCain on Iraq–and still value their opinions on other issues (immigration, fiscal responsibility and so forth).

So, for the record, I embrace the epithet: I am a serious incremental realist.