Thursday, December 14, 2023

Quote of the Day (Phyllis McGinley, on the Lessons of ‘The Demagogue’)

“That trumpet tongue which taught a nation
Loud lessons in vituperation
Teaches it yet another, viz.:
How sweet the noise of silence is.”Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet Phyllis McGinley (1905-1978), “The Demagogue,” in Times Three: Selected Verse From Three Decades (1960)

 “The Demagogue” is an unusual poem in the collective works of Phyllis McGinley. Her contemporary reputation as a master of light verse—not to mention her undisguised affection for her suburban lifestyle—resulted in her being slighted by more fashionable writers who appeared in The Paris Review, such as W. D. Snodgrass or, nearly 10 years ago, Dan Piepenbring.

But from time to time she took note of the events of the day, in ways that were not fundamentally humorous—and perhaps nowhere with such compressed, ironic force, as in the lines I’ve quoted above.

I was unable to locate the magazine in which “The Demagogue” first appeared, but the Table of Contents for Times Three indicates that it came out in “The Fifties.” 

My guess, then, is that it was written in reaction to the braying, bellicose, and bullying U.S. Senator from Wisconsin who wreaked so much damage in that decade, Joe McCarthy.

(Did “the noise of silence” represent the random moments when he caught his breath before exploiting the media’s appetite for bright, shiny, fact-free soundbites—or the Senate censure that led McCarthy to be ignored by colleagues and reporters at last?)

McCarthy’s psychological descendant remains in existence today. Amazingly, diehard supporters try to explain away the threats of this new demagogue as “just kidding,” even when he disclaims any intention to be a dictator except on the first day in office his second time around as President.

The wonder is not that he continues to advertise his transgressive intent, but that some people refuse to credit it, while others who should know better from past experience believe that somehow he will be stopped. Yet it’s a shorter distance than many apologists hope from whipping up frenzy as a demagogue to exercising ultimate power as a dictator.

Just remember: When it comes to seizing such opportunities, fortune favors the knave. 

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