MAXWELL: The lowdown on old curmudgeons from a proud one

2/4/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


As an opinion columnist, I receive a lot of mail from some very nice folks who wish that I, along with my colleagues, would write (their words) “uplifting,” “positive,” “compassionate,” “neutral,” “milder,” “inclusive” essays.

Translation: Write about things that are trendy and cute.

Not a chance.

Although I lack their fame and skill, I put myself in the company of Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, Ambrose Bierce, John Simon, Paul Fussel, W.C. Fields, George Bernard Shaw, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Parker, Woody Allen, Calvin Trillin, Roy Blount Jr., Groucho Marx.

I am _ by temperament, interest and instinct _ a curmudgeon.

Here, taken from Jon Winokur’s book, The Portable Curmudgeon, are two definitions. Archaic: “a crusty, ill-tempered, churlish old man.” At least, I am an old man. Contemporary: “anyone who hates hypocrisy and pretense and has the temerity to say so; anyone with the habit of pointing out unpleasant facts in an engaging and humorous manner.” Well, I am not always funny.

Here is the real lowdown on curmudgeons: We really do hate people who automatically say, “Have a nice day,” and we throw up when we hear that insufferable answering machine message saying, “Have a God-blessed day.”

I mean, suppose I do not want to have a nice day? There are days like that, you know. Take the day when I learned that George W. Bush had won the presidency. That was no nice day for me. It was a hellish day, in fact. All of my ranting and fulminations against the congenial Texas governor had all been for naught. Think of it: I had cultivated exquisite contempt for the man only to have it all shoved down my throat.

And take the day when the Judiciary Committee approved Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court. That, too, was a sad day in the Maxwell household. If someone had said, “Have a nice day,” I would have, well, let us just say that the speaker would have departed with hurt feelings.

Whenever people ask me how I am doing, I tell the truth. On some mornings, when I have a hangover, for example, I say I feel like, well, my boss will not print my response. On days when I have received unexpected money, I say that I feel just great. See the difference?

If Twain or Mencken were alive, they would hurl polemical thunderbolts each day at the likes of Jerry Falwell and that entire crowd _ especially hypocrites such as GOP Rep. Henry Hyde _ in Washington.

And, yes, our new president would be a constant target. He sashayed around the nation intoning straight-arrow morality when he himself is a dubiously reformed profligate, a boozer who was arrested for driving while drunk and concealing that fact until a critic outed him. Dorothy Parker would be all over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s detractors. Parker would point out that these goody-two-shoes who condemn the New York senator have engaged in similar or worse behavior. She would tell them to shut up.

Pretense is probably our favorite target. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column blasting Republicans who now want Democrats to stop being sore losers and accept Bush as president. These are the same guys and dolls who tried for eight years to bring down Bill Clinton. I also took a shot at white Southerners, still fighting the Civil War, who now want Democrats to forget and get over having lost the White House.

I have written many times, in a nasty manner, about the hypocrisy of Justice Thomas and California businessman Ward Connerly. While both benefited from affirmative action, they turn around and pretend that they pulled themselves up by their own little bootstraps. Theirs is the worst kind of lie because they have pulled down the hatch and denied similar opportunities to other African-Americans. I would have no gripe with these two frauds if they simply say: “Yes, white folks and affirmative action helped me get where I am. And I am grateful. At the same time, though, I now believe that affirmative action is harmful.” No problem.

I have the greatest contempt for whites who do not know any black people, who would not hire a black person, who would die if their child dated or married a black but who preach that racism is not a problem in our fair land.

Curmudgeons also come down hard on incompetence, conformity and pomposity. I love Winokur’s assessment of his bad-tempered colleagues: “Curmudgeons are mockers and debunkers whose bitterness is a symptom rather than a disease. They can’t compromise their standards and can’t manage the suspension of disbelief necessary for feigned cheerfulness. Their awareness is a curse; they’re constantly ticked off because they’re constantly aware of so much to be ticked off about, and they wish things were better.”

Who would disgree with Winokur when he says that “anybody who isn’t a curmudgeon nowadays simply is not paying attention”? Well, I am paying attention, and I am in a perpetual state of ticked-offness.

A few days ago, a nice woman telephoned and said that she was sending a William Wordsworth poem that would put me in a good mood. I told her to keep her poem, that I was no mood for British Romanticism, that I do not want to be in a good mood. A curmudgeon in a good mood is no curmudgeon at all. He is like a Marine who cannot shoot a weapon.

Again, Winokur states the case well: “Curmudgeons have the temerity to comment on the human condition without apology. They not only refuse to applaud mediocrity, they howl it down with morose glee. Their versions of truth unsettle us, and we hold it against them, even though they soften it with humor.”

So, if you see a grimacing, profane curmudgeon on the street, remember this Hungarian proverb: “The believer is happy; the doubter is wise.”