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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mudslinging: A Good Sign For Democracy

The campaign for Australia's general election on Mar. 13 promises to be one of this year's most lively events. That is chiefly because it will give the country's politicians a chance to enhance their reputations as some of the world's most skilled practitioners of verbal abuse. Not long ago the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, called an opponent "a piece of criminal garbage" and "a stupid, foul-mouthed grub". By Australian standards, these were almost compliments.


You may think that it does not require much erudition or imagination to label someone you don't like a slob, cretin, moron, toad or snake. Some people considered, for example, that President Francois Mitterrand of France struck a more decorous, if double-edged, note when he described Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, as having "the lips of Marilyn Monroe and the smile of Caligula". But she may have disliked that even more than being called Attila the Hen, as some Britons styled her.


The language of political discourse reflects as well as influences a nation's culture. Italian commentators expressed lofty indignation when the English soccer player Paul Gascoigne, asked for his opinion on being dropped from his team, Lazio of Rome, responded with a profoundly unaromatic belch. But Gascoigne's "commento gastrico" was undoubtedly found hilarious by millions of English soccer fans. It was the sportsman's equivalent of the infantile howling, hooting and yapping that often passes for learned discussion in the British parliament.


We may criticize our politicians for failing to elevate their rhetoric to the intellectual level of the debates in pre-Civil War America between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. But in an age of mass democracy, when political leaders deliberately fill their speeches with sound bites for television, this state of affairs is unlikely to change much. Where mass democracy does not exist, as in some former communist countries, political language is not just stilted but sometimes quite incomprehensible. I have seen audiences stare in confusion when President Franjo Tudjman of Croatia enlarges on his pet theme of "Serbo-Bolshevik hegemonism". Even more bizarre was Enver Hoxha, the late Albanian leader, who used to condemn his enemies as "clerico-fascist annexationists" and the like.


In Russia, the outlook is mixed. Alexander Rutskoi, the Vice President, made a promising start when he derided the Gaidar government as "young boys in pink shorts". On the other hand, too many politicians in Moscow go in for banal denunciations of each other as dictators and saboteurs. Give me Australia any time, whose democracy will never be in trouble as long as politicians keep calling each other sleazy rats and silly bunches of slime.