"You Ignorant Slut"

Of the many, many wonderful things penned by the late Ralph Wiley, in many ways my favorite is a simple declarative sentence that he issued in response to Saul Bellow's snide rhetorical question, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus?"

Wiley responded, "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus."

I got to thinking about that line this morning as I began the gradual realization that I had, to put it mildly, missed a few things about the late James Kilpatrick.

Like many other forty-something Americans, I used to watch a lot of 60 Minutes. It came on CBS right after the 4:00 NFL game ended, and it was therefore very easy for me to simply glide smoothly from watching Mike Webster crushing opposing linemen to watching Mike Wallace crushing evasive interview subjects, though I did have to admit that in some ways Wallace did more damage. One memorable segment, back before Andy Rooney was involved (which tells you just how long ago this was, since Rooney is older than anything not made entirely of hydrogen) was "Point Counterpoint," a prearranged debate between a designated liberal (Shana Alexander) and a designated conservative (Kilpatrick) that addressed some issue of the day.

I couldn't begin to tell you what any of those issues were, but I can tell you that Kilpatrick came off as a blowhard. I was not the only one to notice this, as he was skewered by a number of parodists, the most famous being the creators of the movie Airplane! and the then-revolutionary TV show Saturday Night Live. In the former, a Kilpatrick clone is shown in a televised debate about the impending airline disaster, saying, "Shana... they bought their tickets. They knew what they were getting into. I say, let 'em crash!"

On SNL, the Weekend Update news report simply recreated "Point Counterpoint," and, following Jane Curtin's sensible liberal commentary on some subject or other, Dan Aykroyd would crisply respond, "Jane, you ignorant slut!" and launch into a series of baseless ad hominems. This catchphrase became so famous that the first thing I thought of when I heard Kilpatrick was dead was in fact "Jane, you ignorant slut!"

In his later years, Kilpatrick turned up in my mailbox, primarily because my grandmother, who is something of a stickler for spelling, grammar, and usage, would clip his column "The Writer's Art" for me. Not at my request, mind you, but out of a feeling that an English teacher and writer could not help but benefit from his sage advice on pressing issues such as the split infinitive or the proper use of it's. From time to time I would actually use one of these columns in class, such as the it's column, but I would more often look them over and consign them to the circular file. Frankly, even when I agreed with Kilpatrick about a matter of English, I didn't care for his style. He was still a blowhard.

This tendency became most obvious in his periodic columns where he answered questions from readers. Casting himself as the judge of "the Court of Peeves, Irks, and Crotchets," he would examine the evidence provided by the reader and pass judgment on the usage in question. Not all his judgments were bad, in my professional opinion, but there was something irksome in the way he dispatched them, a smug and self-satisfied sense that his was the final authority on English--that his opinion was tantamount to law.

As you may have gathered by now, I am one who, when told not to write a certain way, will immediately attempt to write that way just to see if I can pull it off. And seeing as how we do not have an Academie Francaise to determine what is and isn't official in our language, anyone who designates himself an authority on English had better be prepared to demonstrate his qualifications to me. In other words, Kilpatrick is not the judge; I am the judge. And so is any reader.

(By the way, this dissatisfaction with Kilpatrick's style was explained perfectly by David Foster Wallace in his brilliant essay "Authority and American Usage," where he lauded Bryan Garner for his un-Kilpatrick-like approach in his Dictionary of American Usage. By casting himself as the attorney pleading his case to the judge/reader, rather than as the judge pronouncing law to the reader/plaintiff, Garner made his points about the use of language far more effectively and far more persuasively, at least according to Wallace. It's one of my very favorite essays ever, and you can find it in Consider the Lobster.)

And that pretty much summed up what I knew about James Kilpatrick when he died a few days ago. Point Counterpoint. Jane, you ignorant slut. Court of Peeves. He had rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. So it goes. He had kicked the final can.

But the worms I had never noticed inside that can were numerous. And thick. And ropey. Writhing in frantic disarray, they knotted around each other in a manner more disgusting than I could ever have imagined. And as I looked at them squirming, all I could think was "How the hell did I miss all this?"

Because Kilpatrick wasn't simply a generic conservative blowhard. No, he was out there on the point of the spear, a columnist and editor for the Richmond News Leader during the height of the Civil Rights era, doing much of the same dirty work at the same time as my home state's Jesse Helms. And it was Kilpatrick, as often as not, who gave the opponents of the Civil Rights movement their vocabulary, as well as his own full-throated support. He opposed integration in public schools, preferring instead the doctrine of Massive Resistance, in which systems like Prince Edward County's simply shut down their schools rather than allow blacks and whites to be educated together. And in an astonishing column that was spiked by the Saturday Evening Post in the wake of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four young girls, Kilpatrick penned these words:

"The Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race .... When the Negro today proclaims or demands his 'equality,' he is talking of equality within the terms of Western civilization. And what, pray, has he contributed to it? Putting aside conjecture, wishful thinking and a puerile jazz-worship, what has he in fact contributed to it? The blunt answer, may it please the court, is very damned little."

I can only imagine what Ralph Wiley would have said in response to that. But I imagine that, once he had finished dispatching Kilpatrick's naked bigotry with a pointed observation that in itself proved the idiocy of Kilpatrick's claim, Wiley would have looked at me, shaken his head, and said, "Pete, you have got to pay some fucking attention."

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 18, 2010 10:06 AM.

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