Eric Cantor and Famous Literary Sneers

House Republican leaders Cantor and Boehner

House Republican leaders Cantor and Boehner

If you’ve been paying any attention to America’s budget battles, you know that Congressional Republicans are currently engaged in a dangerous game of chicken with President Obama over raising the debt ceiling. Today’s post on the subject features a parallel with Macbeth and a glance at famous literary sneers.

In a previous post I compared uncompromising Republicans threatening to shoot themselves (and, unfortunately, the rest of the country with them)  with a scene in the movie Blazing Saddles.  Economists agree that the situation is dire.  If the ceiling, which is routinely raised every year, doesn’t go up, the country will begin defaulting on the money it owes.  Stocks will plummet, interest rates will rise, and we may even be plunged into a second recession. Yet attempts at compromise by  House Speaker Republican John Boehner and President Obama were sabotaged by Boehner’s second-in-command, Eric Cantor, who won’t be satisfied unless all the concessions come from Democrats.

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, disappointed because she felt the country had a chance to get a very good deal from the Boehner-Obama compromise, sees the House Majority Leader involved in a naked power grab for Boehner’s position.  “To understand Cantor,” she writes, “think Macbeth with all the vaulting ambition and none of the accompanying guilt.”

Fellow columnist Dana Milibank agrees and writes about Cantor’s cultivation of “the strategic sneer”:

It comes, frequently, when he answers a reporter’s question about something President Obama has said: The House majority leader’s lip curls up on the left side and a look of disgust washes over his face. This week, he has been coupling the sneer with lines such as:

“How in the world can you even accept that notion?”

And, “That is laughable on its face.”

And, “That doesn’t make sense. . . . That again is just nonsensical.”

And, “Come on — let us think about this.”

In Milbank’s view, Cantor wants power and

he is prepared to risk the full faith and credit of the United States to get it. In a primacy struggle with House Speaker John Boehner, he has done a deft job of aligning himself with Tea Party House members in opposition to any meaningful deal to resolve the debt. If the U.S. government defaults, it will have much to do with Cantor.

Milbank’s column got me thinking about famous sneers in literature. Sneering seems to involve both a sense of one’s superiority and contempt for one’s opponent. It may be the ultimate form of disrespect.

Three passages immediately came to mind.

First, there’s the sneer of Percy Shelley’s Ozymandias (Rameses II), captured well by the sculptor of a now decaying statue:

Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
A shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things . . .

There is the sneer of the villainous Blifil as he seeks to take down the hero of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones:

“I see, sir, now,” said Blifil, with one of those grinning sneers with which the devil marks his best beloved . . .”

And then there are Heathcliff and Catherine ganging up on Edgar Linton in Wuthering Heights.  Note the insults they dish out to Catherine’s husband:

Heathcliff measured the height and breadth of the speaker with an eye full of derision.

“Cathy, this lamb of yours threatens like a bull!” he said. “It is in danger of splitting its skull against my knuckles. By God! Mr. Linton, I’m mortally sorry that you are not worth knocking down!”

And then, when Linton, overcome by nervous emotion, collapses in a chair, his wife turns on him with cutting sarcasm:

“Oh, heavens! In old days this would win you knighthood!” exclaimed Mrs. Linton. “We are vanquished! we are vanquished! Heathcliff would as soon lift a finger at you as the king would march his army against a colony of mice. Cheer up! you sha’n’t be hurt! Your type is not a lamb, it’s a sucking leveret.”

“I wish you joy of the milk-blooded coward, Cathy!” said her friend. “I compliment you on your taste. And that is the slavering, shivering thing you preferred to me! I would not strike him with my fist, but I’d kick him with my foot, and experience considerable satisfaction. Is he weeping, or is he going to faint for fear?”

There are few things that bother me more than such contempt.  One of the foundational things I taught my children was to respect other people, and I make a point of respecting even those (like George W. Bush) that I disagree with. We diminish our humanity when we sneer at others.

It’s important to remember that those who are disrespected can strike back, especially if they are backed into a corner. Here’s what happens next in Wuthering Heights:

The fellow approached and gave the chair on which Linton rested a push. He’d better have kept his distance: my master quickly sprang erect, and struck him full on the throat a blow that would have leveled a slighter man. It took his breath for a minute; and while he choked, Mr. Linton walked out by the back door into the yard, and from thence to the front entrance.

Not that I want Obama to behave thus.  Better to have Tom Jones’s response when Blifil’s perfidy is exposed and justice prevails. Squire Allworthy is prepared to cast away Blifil without any resources, but Tom magnanimously makes sure that he is provided for. Better to take the high road, regardless of what political expediency might suggest.

Incidentally, by the end of the book Blifil is preparing to enter politics.


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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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