• 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.

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

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