Tuesday, May 08, 2007

'Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever'

For those not versed in pre-20th-century syntax, the last bit of that quotation means 'and let the people who are misguided enough to want to be clever do whatever they like, poor godless souls', though of course that would not have scanned at all.

When I was a child my mum used to say it to me a lot, presumably because she thought I was an insufferable little smartarse. I don't think it ever occurred to her that she was also implying that I was bad. But what she thought of as cleverness was definitely something she didn't completely trust.

This of course is one of the things that informs the oft-repeated adjective 'clever' to describe the Prime Minister, which has been just a tad overdone in recent weeks. Like the Kingsley line, if only in its implication, it appears to construct 'clever' and 'good' as mutually exclusive.

Alas, yes: this time it's a Labor dog-whistle, being blown by their use of the word 'clever' in a sneering, grudging, nobody-loves-a-smartarse kind of way. Labor is calling Howard 'clever' as an insult: a synonym, directed at those who know how to interpret its use, for 'overflowing with rat cunning and seriously not to be trusted for a nanosecond'.

Now, the Prime Minister is, as we say, big enough and ugly enough to look after himself, and his tender feelings are not what concern me here. It's the sub-Orwellian abuse of language in the service of politics, and more specifically the use of the word 'clever' as a barely disguised insult, that is getting me down. That, and the hypocrisy of Kevin Rudd's use of it in particular; Rudd makes no secret of the fact that he actually values intelligence highly, most of all his own. When he indulges in this mediocrity-valorising verbal tic, he isn't even being sincere. It's not a pretty sight.

And the result of Labor's chant of 'Howard is very clever' is to pander to and reinforce the general national mistrust of any form of cleverness -- in exactly the same way that the Howard government has devalued the word 'elite': the way the two major parties are using these words leaves the Australian public in no doubt that both the elite (that's the so-called cultural elite, of course; the sporting elite is, well, you know, elite) and the 'clever' are to be sneered at, mistrusted, resented and deplored.

This kind of thing is the 'exaltation of the average' that frightened the bejesus out of Patrick White in 1958. It's alive and well and living on both sides of Australian politics.

As for 'Be good, sweet maid', I've just (for the first time) looked it up: it's from a short poem by the 19th century British clergyman and writer Charles Kingsley. Those who recognise his name will probably remember him as the author of the allegorical and highly political children's book The Water Babies.

And if only my Ma in the 1960s, and with her both of the major Australian political parties in 2007, had paid more attention to the next line of his poem. 'Do noble things, not dream them, all day long.'


Dany le roux said...

Dear Pav,
We need a change in government and every little bit helps. “Clever” is not undergoing any less of a metamorphosis than did “connaitre” when it produced words such as “to con” and “cunning” whose meanings imply knowledge which is deliberately not shared for the purpose of taking advantage.
“Spruiker” is now in the political lexicon and is one of our best home grown political words because there is a need for it .If “clever” is not needed in its Rudd form it will die a natural death after the election.

fifi said...

Fabulous post.
Yes, clever and its implications of its polarity from goodness. As girls, where did we fit?

The "Water Babies" was a book which is embedded in my brain: I still have my original hand-me down copy. Oh, my goodness, you have just provided me with "a moment", as they say.

I shall go about my day, trying to do noble things rather than dreaming them, but sadly, dreams creep in to distract me. At least I am being noble in my daydreams, occasionally.

A wonderful day to you.

Ampersand Duck said...

This post very spookily ties in with finding a copy of The Water Babies yesterday in an antique shop. It was a stomach-churning issue, heavily abridged, and illustrated in an awful way that had smiling half-naked children frolicking all through it in sugary colours. Not a single figure, child or adult, had any expression except smiling in a syrupy way. It was like they'd all been injected with botox and given lots of valium. My recollection of the story is that there is quite a lot of fear and darkness in it, especially at the beginning, and I remember thinking yesterday how bland the story seemed when presented in such an inoffensive way. It was pulled down to just an 'average' children's tale -- but a creepy one. Much like the way both political parties are repackaging themselves at the moment.

dogpossum said...

I keep thinking of the expression "you think too much", which I regularly hear (usually men) use on me when I'm explaining some of my thesis ideas or the sort of articles I read for work.

My response is usually "I'd rather think too much than not at all", which is kind of weak and implicitly accepting the idea that it's _possible_ to think too much at all, but, you know.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Oh Dany, I know, I know, I know. I wrote the post and took a lot of trouble with the links and so on and then I nearly took it all down.

But I am sick to death of the 'clever' schtick and I mourn for a country that dislikes brains so much. I've seen several other instances of that just this week. It needs to be said.

Fifi -- yes, there was a paragraph there originally about the gender-specificity of the line -- the implications that boys could be as vile as they liked as long as they were smart -- but it was too distracting from the main point. Real MSM journalists and editors are always telling me exasperatedly 'Don't bury the lead', and I think I'm coming round to the truth of that, after decades of resistance.

&D, 'bland yet creepy' -- exactly. Your coincidence made me shudder. I vividly remember the copy of The Water Babies that we had at home -- full-page colour illustrations, and Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid with a classic hooked nose, knobby elbows and so on. But I got a hell of a shock when I read a few things online about Kingsley and was forcibly reminded (something I had totally repressed) that what happens right at the beginning is that Tom dies. And then Ellie dies as well. And Kingsley seems to be saying it's the best thing that could possibly have happened to them. Which, in Victorian London and certainly if you were a chimney-sweep, is probably true.

DP, oh yes, I got 'You think too much' all the God-damned time earlier in life. Free of it lately though -- maybe there's a rule that says once one is over a certain age one is allowed to exercise the grey matter in peace.

I can't hear the phrase 'You think too much' without seeing Alan Bates and Anthony Quinn on the beach in Zorba the Greek. 'You think too much, that is your trouble. Clever people and grocers -- they weigh everything.'

Ariel said...

That is both sad and infuriating coming from Kevin Rudd, who is not only clever, but can actually write and articulate complex arguments about cultural change, if he chooses to. A sad reflection of our current climate and what the voters value (the Ordinary Australian).

I get head-shaking reports of my son: 'his problem is, he's so CLEVER'. Including a parent who said that was behind his 'personality problem'. She said he read too many books which were giving him ideas beyond his age. SIGH.

Zoe said...

I read the use of clever a bit differently, as a pre-emptive disarming of the Coaltion's positioning of Rudd as clever/intellectual. He's only smart, Howard is tricky.

dany le roux said...

I forgot to say yesterday that your post was really beautiful.

Lunar Brogue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lunar Brogue said...

My fear is that soon a good shank of our everyday language will have been sucked into the political/commercial spin cycle, leaving us wrong-footed in "the war against mediocrity" ("the race from the middle", "the battle of the beige").

This Stella Artois slogan "says it all": I'd rather die of thirst than drink from the cup of mediocrity.

Just like our sneaky PM, who proclaimed in August 2004 that "This election, ladies and gentlemen, will be about trust," we have a global beer manufacturer, whose commercial success is at least partly owed to massive brand and image conformism, suggesting a "potentially dangerous" rejection of mediocrity.

"Not happy, Jan!"

Dave Bath said...

I am sad that "clever" is being misused, and glad you lament this.

"Cunning" is good, (particularly as JWH misleads by being a cunning linguist), but is perhaps too-easily dismissed.

I've used "canny" over at DeadRoo, which (to me at least) has the right hint of sneakiness.... "Australia's canniest politician and worst leader in history".

feral sparrowhawk said...

The abuse of clever is, I think, evidence that for all Rudd's virtues the ALP machine remains what we see in most states - a body seeking power for its own sake and fundamentally contemptuous of ideas and intellectuals.

Nasty as that is, it is still a huge step up on Howard et al. I'm not arguing equivalence, but it is just one more reason I try to create alternatives.

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