Insults? Perhaps the best in the last 10 years time came from Christopher Hitchens: "If they gave Jerry Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox." And amongst the worst, this week, from the New Zealand caddie Steve Williams when he called Tiger Woods a "black arsehole".
The media called it racist, but more than anything else it was simply uncouth. No wit, no style, no real meaning. John Bright, a nineteenth-century Quaker politician, had the right insult for Steve Williams. "He is a self-made man and worships his creator."
Personally, I'm not too sensitive about being insulted. People on the whole are pretty annoying and need an occasional put-down, me included. Throwing a decent insult at someone can be half the fun of life, but Steve Williams' comment about Tiger Woods wasn't even half decent. There wasn't the faintest glimmer of humour; there was no play on words, nor anything that indicated why Tiger Woods might deserve it. An insult like that simply demeans the person who delivers it. A good insult needs a more pungent filling.
This week I've been in Thailand where political correctness is unknown. Thais love throwing a good insult; but at the same time they tend to like people, and are rather polite. To insult a foreigner, the offensive part has to be based on something other than race or colour. Scanning the Thai-language newspapers over the weekend, I managed to find Koreans called "pickle-eaters", Chinese "floor-spitters", Americans "burger-belchers" and a visiting dignitary from Nigeria as "coming from the land of stinky-armpits".
Whether these insults are truly offensive or not is irrelevant, they at least explain what it is we should take exception to in these people, whereas William's comment about Tiger Woods was plain abusive. Even so, I doubt it had much to with racism, more to do with Williams' having an inferior person's superiority complex. After all, he's only an overpaid porter and, despite making millions from it, my guess is, for ending up a caddy rather than a golfer, he hates most of the world. Just change "black" for chink, frog, paki, pom, queer, or wop - to Steve Williams, everyone is a potential arsehole.
It's a style of abusiveness that was common in a previous generation of antipodean men, when masculinity was defined by having BO and swearing a lot. These days people from Down Under have grown more refined, but fifty years ago, far too many of them, both Aussies and New Zealanders, enjoyed being as brainlessly belligerent as Steve Williams. I remember getting a bellyful of it in the sixties the first time I visited Sydney.
One evening I was standing on a packed bus going up the hill to Kings Cross when a fat, rednecked Aussie got on. He wore shorts, had sturdy walking boots, a dirty shirt, and reeked of sweat. He pushed his way down the crowded aisle until he arrived at where I was standing. On a seat next to us was an elderly Aboriginal man sleepily enjoying the effect of having had a few too many beers.
The sweaty Aussie glared down at him. "Hey, abbo. Stand up and give your seat to a white man."
The black man got up unsteadily and the redneck sat down. The Aborigine was now standing next to me; he appeared to be only just this side of consciousness and swayed dangerously whenever the bus went round a corner. Each time he did so he toppled against me, and on the third occasion, I murmured something peevishly British, like, "Excuse me, do you mind..."
In a flash the Aussie redneck was on his feet, his face pushed into mine, his voice raised. "Don't yer bloody talk to an Aussie like that mate. This bloke's one of ours. Show 'im some respect, yer fuckin' pommie bastard!"
Mindless antipodean belligerence, just like Steve Williams. And it's not just Tiger Woods who's been at the wrong end of it. After he'd caddied for Phil Mickelson, Williams said, "I wouldn't call Mickelson a great player, 'cause I hate the prick."
Steve Williams' talent lies in neither loyalty nor words. Presumably, though, he's good at carrying things.