Ridicule

“Don Quixote, Sancho Panza and the dead mule” 1867
Honore Daumier

Ridicule

It seems almost an age since the Republican Primary Debates, but there is an aspect of that contest that still comes to my mind. Part of Donald Trump’s victory was due to his success in ridiculing his opponents.

He became the twelve-year-old we hated in grade school. Senator Marco Rubio, who is not a tall man, became “little Marco.” Governor Jeb Bush, who has a quiet demeanor, became “low energy Jeb Bush.” Carly Fiorina, who is not conventionally pretty, was ridiculed for her face. (Alone of these targets, she managed to turn the barbs to her advantage. She’s probably been fending off that kind of mockery since kindergarten.) But the others, the men, were surprised to be attacked on this level and could not recover.

By the way, if you could recover, please tell me how you could. When I was mocked, particularly when I entered the field of philosophy — for being a woman or, in after years, a single woman — I just got mocked. End of story.

Remember Soren Kierkegaard? In earlier posts, we talked about him in his peculiar relation to a woman he both idealized and jilted. He’s an important philosopher, doubtless Denmark’s greatest, but I was reliably informed that, to this day, Danish mothers will not name their sons “Soren” because the name still smells of the scorching ridicule that Kierkegaard suffered during his lifetime.

Like many boys who aren’t big hulking athletes, the young Kierkegaard developed an ironical style that he trusted to defend him against boys who were bigger but less gifted.

Approaching mid-life, SK was widely acknowledged to be the most talented writer and thinker in Denmark. When he took his daily walks in Copenhagen, making mental note of his fellow city dwellers with a portraitist’s eye, he was genially recognized wherever he went. It was an honor to stroll with him, or to engage him in a moment’s conversation, or just to exchange courteous greetings.

What changed all that? Kierkegaard made the mistake of entering into a dual of wits with Peder Ludvig Moller, editor of The Corsair, a satirical magazine. With words and drawings, Moller proceeded to caricature SK’s uneven gait, the cut of his trousers, the curvature of his spine and bent posture, and the possible connection between his unlived sex life and his talent.

Children began to hoot when he passed them in the street. His tailor asked him to get another tailor. Undergraduates gave the name of “Soren” to the lead character in an irreverent play that had a run as far off as Norway and was staged before the King. In a formal age, when titles were honored and academic distinction conferred especial authority, graduate students addressed him in the street by his first name.

The thing he hadn’t counted on, when he assumed he could outdo Peder Ludvig Moller of The Corsair in a battle of wits, was that Moller could beat him – and beat him down to the ground – in malice!

The tribe of Jehudah, popularly known as the Jews, were (along with Benjamin) the surviving tribe from the original twelve tribes of Israel. The other ten tribes were lost after the Assyrians overran the Northern Kingdom. For some reason (explain it how you will) the Jews survived, even though they were invaded by the Babylonians and conquered in their turn.   The Jews then went to the enormous and perilous trouble of collecting, editing and collating the records of their interesting adventures with God. The Bible is that very record, of course.   The stories in the Bible include incidents where God intervenes to save the people of the twelve tribes, with whom He has a particular agreement or contract.

The Bible includes stories like the parting of the Red Sea. This divine intervention allowed the fleeing Israelites to escape their Egyptian taskmasters, whose chariots and charioteers were drowned in the waters that closed over the former slave owners when they tried to continue their pursuit.

We omit a number of vicissitudes through which the Jewish people passed in the ensuing millennia. One of their breakaway sects became a separate religion, Christianity. Christianity beat Judaism in the race to win over the powers of the day. It then dominated the thinking both of the greatest intellects and of the common people in the Western World down to the modern era. Which brings me to an incident I read about (sorry, can’t remember the source), during perhaps the twelfth or thirteenth century, when Christendom was at the height of its power and prestige.

As is humanly understandable, Christians took their then dominant position to be a sign of God’s favor. They also took the humiliation of any group of Jews they could lay hands on as proof that “the Jews” had lost God’s favor.

It happened one dark day that an unlucky contingent of Jews was taken by force to an offshore island that was known to submerge when the tide came in. The point of drowning these Jews was to underscore the claim that God’s favor had passed to the Christians. The persecutors stood on the shore, showing their grasp of the Jesus message by yelling this taunt: “Why don’t you ask your God to part the waters!”

When your mouth is filling up with sea water, there isn’t too much you can say about the Jewish assignment to continue as a witness and metric of God’s presence in the world.

My mind goes to a gospel song about Noah in the Ark and Daniel in the lion’s den. There is a question noticed in the song: Why would anybody choose to get into such a fix – one that needs (but does not always get) a rescue from above? The chorus explains it:

I’d rather be on the inside lookin’ out

Than to be on the outside lookin’ in.

 

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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