January 30, 2004,
EDITOR'S NOTE: Oh, how we do miss "The Misanthrope's Corner" like this February 5, 2001 beaut, in which the incomparable Florence King, savanting idiocy across the fruited plains, warns America that it is under attack the Invasion of the Duh People!
But will anyone listen!
Of course, this column, and all of Miss King's curmudgeonly oeuvre for National Review, can be found, and enjoyed, in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope's Corner, 1991 to 2002, which is available only from NR. Order it securely here.
The other day I made a phone call to reschedule an appointment with a new optician. I sensed something memorable was going to happen as soon as I heard the receptionist's voice. It was trite and flat, incapable of expressing joy or sorrow, excitement or serenity, aversion or ardor: the voice that people imitate when they say, "Duh."
"What did you say your name was?"
"How do you spell that?"
It was a first. I've been through some rough patches in my time, but they were eased by certain small advantages life has dealt me. One is my name. Among the auxiliary reasons why I never married (never mind the main one) is that I hated to give up a path-smoother like King. Many people spend their lives correcting the spelling and pronunciation of their names, and it's hard work, but in this, at least, I've always belonged to the leisure class.
If his receptionist couldn't spell King, what was the optician who hired her like? I wouldn't trust these baby bloodshots to just anybody, to paraphrase Lynda Carter, so instead of rescheduling the appointment I canceled it.
The receptionist was the most extreme example of a human posthole I've yet encountered, but by no means the only one. The Invasion of the Duh People is upon us. Duhs are at the gates, and usually on the telephone. They seem to cluster in that mangled universe known as Customer Service assigning order numbers, straightening out exchanges and returns, and computing state sales taxes. Our calls are very important to them, which is why I dread buying, subscribing, complaining, or inquiring about anything whatsoever.
Take my catalog order. In the "Color" block I wrote "1st choice, blue; 2nd, green," but all I got was a postcard saying, "We are unable to fill your order. Please call our toll-free number." I did. When the rep came on, I gave her my order number and she pulled it up on her computer and read my name and address back to me. "Right," I said.
Then, silence. A long silence. I thought she had put me on hold but there was no rock music, and it didn't sound like hold somehow. The silence had a nice antiquated sound, making me think of the days when a clerk simply laid the phone down and "stepped away from her desk" to retrieve an actual file from an actual file cabinet.
As my reverie faded, I had an eerie feeling that she was still there. "Hello?" I said.
"Yes." Just that, no more, not even an inflection.
"I got a card saying you're unable to fill my order but it doesn't say why."
"We didn't know what color you wanted."
Nearly two minutes had passed in total silence, yet she had sat there in ox-like placidity, waiting for me to speak first, unable even to bring herself to prompt me. I had to supply all the initiative.
Then there's newspaper delivery. To a Duh, my Sunday-only subscription and my neighbor's weekday-only subscription must be the same subscription, so they placed mine at his door. When, six phone calls later, I finally convinced them that I was the Sunday subscriber, they started putting his at my door. This way, the whole block gets to watch two people stealing each other's newspapers.
Smart people work in Customer Service too, but there's no way to be sure of getting one, and less chance of keeping one. Follow-through is a thing of the past at the "communication centers" where Customer Service reps are stabled. When you call you must talk to whoever answers. If you get a smart one and ask for her name so you can call her back, she'll just say, "Anyone here can help you." But you never get the same person twice, so each time you have to start at the beginning and tell the same story all over again. Take, for instance, my charge-card snafu involving two secret code numbers based on my birthday and one based on my mother's. It makes less and less sense with each telling, so if you happen to draw a Duh late in the game, the result is two Duhs.
IT'S one thing to have a Duh IQ; quite another to have a Duh attitude, like the interviewees in Jay Leno's sidewalk surveys who grin proudly when they have trouble placing James Madison. Leno's use of the Duh attitude as popular entertainment recalls a wildly popular '40s radio offering, It Pays To Be Ignorant, a bent quiz show whose theme song went: "It pays to be ignorant, to be dumb, to be dense, to be ignorant, it pays to be ignorant just like me!"
This was such a playground favorite that teachers tried to ban it. At my school you got sent to the principal for singing it, but it spoke too clearly to American ideals ever to be entirely squelched. It's still being sung by such devotees of the Duh attitude as New York governor George Pataki, who derided Hillary for quoting E. B. White during her senatorial campaign.
"Mrs. Clinton," he huffed, "quoted some guy, Wyatt or somebody I don't think he was from Brooklyn with some definition of a New Yorker that she must have read somewhere. I don't know who that guy was. I don't know what he wrote. . . . I don't think people from Brooklyn or Peekskill would have quoted that person."
If America were ancient China this would be the Duh Dynasty, but instead of Duh vases and Duh figurines we produce Duh Republicans they prefer "populists" who are forever reaching out to "the real people" with the boastful assurance that it pays to be ignorant. If Pataki ever wants to read something somewhere, let it be James T. Farrell's A World I Never Made. He will meet Al O'Flaherty, a shanty-Irish traveling salesman from the South Side of Chicago who longs to be a gentleman. To that end he carries his well-thumbed copy of Letters of Lord Chesterfield everywhere he goes, quoting from it to prostitutes to reassure them that he'll treat them right.
Al O'Flaherty would break your heart. I don't know about Pataki's.