INSULTS FOR PAUL GREENBERG

by Russell T. Johnson

Paul Greenberg's Colum One column in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette on Sunday, May 4th is titled "The decline of insult." In this column he did something he does a lot. Some unsuspecting guy has written a letter to the editor, and Greenberg berates him on some point of style rather than the substance of the letter. Here's a quote, "It wasn't the scope of your dissatisfaction...that disappointed [the editor]...but the insipid languange in which you expressed it. It makes one wonder what ever happened to the art of insult in this country.... Where has it gone -- the wit, the brevity, the intellect, the perfect touch?"

His complaint was that the letter writer's prose was dry and clinical. "...Plodding prose.... You sound as if you're responding to an offer in a mail order catalogue." Mr. Greenberg is homesick for the good old days of flamboyant political invective when John Adams called Alexander Hamilton the "bastard son of a Scotch peddler."

The reason he doesn't hear insults of the stinging, literate variety is that he's the editor of the only paper with a statewide circulation. Attatch that to a brittle ego and you've got a combination that does not have to handle any sharp edges. Buuuuuuut, since he specifically lamented the absence of that kind of insult, I'm assuming a dispensation. So, Mr. Greenberg, in answer to your request:

Greenberg, you vapor, you empty sack, you lightweight poser, you lake of words in a puddle of thought. A reader writes his opinions for you to consider and you berate not his substance, but his style, which unlike yours, does not resemble the angst poetry of a teenager. Your columns are all form and no substance, usually just a ratty shoebox of historical and literary quotes gathered from reference books and organized into paragraphs by Jackson Pollock. You are to literature what a Wal-Mart bag is to luggage.

You've got the humility of Uriah Heep and the talent of a Vogon starship commander. The reason you're quick to condemn and eager to punish is that you believe that your circumstances are held under a pretense. I've been reading your Sunday column for ten years and I have not seen anything that might attract the favorable attention of the Pulitzer Prize committee. What scribbling did you sign your name to that put such a prize in your hand? Whatever you had then, you no longer have. You traded your muse for a resume.

I'll bet you were a decent writer before you got the Pulitzer. Just like Spielberg was a great film maker before he got the Oscar. There's something about the big prize that dries the artistic soul. You spend the rest of your life trying to live up to it, and in trying too hard you fall flat. The rest of your career you spend swinging for the bleachers and striking out. The reason you keep trying to earn that prize is you don't think you earned it the first time.

There. How's that for literate invective? Is that what you found lacking in the letter you recieved from the reader? I could go the other way with it. I could use sarcasm.

"Oooh, Mr. Greenberg, your sensitivity, literacy and depth of knowledge are so profound that I tremble like a storm-tossed bird in the shadow of your intellect."

The trouble with sarcasm is that you hear comments very much like that spoken sincerely by people who can't distinguish good writing from what it is that you do. They accept uncritically the legitimacy conferred by the prize which you yourself suspect that you don't deserve. And then you want to believe that it isn't sarcasm and so that's what you believe. Haven't you ever doubted the sincerity of the people who flatter? You can spot phony praise when it happens to others. Can you spot it when it happens to you?

Your most objectionable habit is your treatment of civilians, and you do it week after week. As editer of the only statewide paper, you are the gatekeeper of public discourse. Any opinion that wants a statewide audience can be promoted or suppressed by you. So these civilians take time off from making their livings to set down their thoughts on paper and send them to Mr. Important Greenberg. Then Mr. Editor comes around from the blind side and sucker punches them with gratuitous insults.

Maybe it's your agenda to discourage participation by those with the highest potential. In this way you keep the locals in their place and protect your phony franchise.

What do you get out of this? You can not be proud of yourself. If you picked on another editor or columnist I'd say you were being brave. But any mere reader who takes the time to organize his thoughts into paragraphs gets a snarky browbeating from you, your featherweight opinions ballasted by a resume accumulated from a klatsch of self-validating intellectuals who sit in a circle and hand plaques to each other.

Lest you dismiss that last comment as jealousy and sour grapes, just three weeks prior you did it yourself. I refer you to your Column One article of 20 April. In the article "Eyes on the Prize" you verify the wisdom, taste and righteousness of the Pulitzer committee for declining to award a prize for editorial writing this year, thus not devaluing the prize. They validate your brilliance with a prize. You validate theirs with an aritcle by a prizewinning author.

I hope that was as good for you as it was for me. The art of the stinging, literate insult isn't absent. It's been suppressed by politeness and fear. People know that your paper can make life hard on those who offend you in your sensitive ladyparts, so they defer and tolerate.

RTJ--5/18/2008

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