Why Can't the Americans?

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November
30, 2000

Malcolm
Bradbury died the other day, aged 68. Actually, he was Sir Malcolm.
A knight. I didn’t know that. I knew almost nothing about him,
except that I liked him.

I liked him
for one sentence I came across in a collection of modern quotations:
“It had always seemed to Louis that a fundamental desire to
take postal courses was being sublimated by other people into sexual
activity.” A man who could write that line was worth knowing.
It appeared in a book with the inspired title Eating
People Is Wrong
– a sentiment I heartily endorse and
can only admire him for putting into words.

He also wrote:
“I like the English. They have the most rigid code of immorality
in the world.” And this: “You Liberals think that goats
are just sheep from broken homes.” Don’t you love him
already?

The English
speak their language so well. We Americans borrow it and mess it
up. We don’t know how to have fun with it. We think polish
is phony; it embarrasses us. For them polish is joy. We allow them
to practice it, because it’s their way; but we frown on it
amongst ourselves.

What could
be more English than Gilbert and Sullivan? Gilbert’s deadly
wit could take the form of a one-sentence letter of complaint to
a railway company: “Sir, Sunday morning, though recurring at
regular and well foreseen intervals, always seems to take this railway
by surprise.” No volume of yelling could make the point so
well.

Even English
politicians can be witty. When the Earl of Sandwich predicted that
John Wilkes would die “either on the gallows or of a loathesome
disease,” Wilkes instantly retorted: “That depends, my
lord, whether I embrace your principles or your mistress.”
Another politician said of an opponent that he “has sat on
the fence so long that the iron has entered his soul.” Yet
another quipped: “The honorable gentleman is indebted to his
memory for his jests, and to his imagination for his facts.”

And of course
Winston Churchill was renowned for his merciless epigrams. He said
of Ramsay MacDonald: “We know that he has, more than any other
man, the gift of compressing the largest amount of words into the
smallest amount of thought.” Of Clement Atlee: “He is
a sheep in wolf’s clothing.” He also called Atlee “a
modest little man with much to be modest about.”

F.E. Smith,
a lawyer, was once scolded by a judge: “I have read your case,
Mr. Smith, and I am no wiser now than I was when I started.”
Smith replied politely: “Possibly not, my lord, but far better
informed.”

Why hasn’t
this country, which is not totally devoid of intelligence and humor,
cultivated wit as the English have? Ordinarily, we Americans prize
efficiency, and wit might be defined as efficiency of expression.
But we use the English language very inefficiently, wasting huge
quantities of words.

Our politicians
are among the worst speakers of English on either side of the Atlantic.
Or Pacific, for that matter. Here is a sentence Al Gore, alleged
intellectual, once said: “In many ways, the act of voting and
having that vote counted is more important than who wins the majority
of the votes that are cast, because whoever wins, the victor will
know that the American people have spoken with a voice made mighty
by the whole of its integrity.” As for George W. Bush, even
the attempt to utter a simple sentence seemed to defeat him: “I
know how hard it is to put food on your family.”

Such verbal
clumsiness is unworthy of any human being, let alone those who are
supposed to be exemplary leaders. What makes it really appalling
is that Gore went to Harvard and Bush to Yale. Maybe they don’t
teach remedial English in the Ivy League.

The habit of
witty expression adds an element of fun to English public life.
American politics is distinguished by the sheer dreary banality
of its language. Our politicians feel no obligation to be succinct,
let alone delightful, in speech.

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Joseph
Sobran (1946–2010), conservative turned libertarian, was one
of the most significant American writers. See his
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intellectual journey
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