October 19, 2009

OCTOBER 19 - Spiro Agnew warns us about effete intellectuals

Nowadays, Conservative Republican provocateurs like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Ann Coulter get lots of media attention for coming up with new insults aimed at liberals and Democrats.

But Spiro Agnew (1918-1996), the Republican Vice President under President Richard M. Nixon, was paving the way for them four decades ago.

Agnew unleashed one of his most famous zingers on October 19, 1969, at a Republican fund-raising dinner in New Orleans.

Four days earlier, opponents of the Vietnam War had organized a major anti-war demonstration, the October 15th Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.

Hundreds of thousands of people participated in moratorium events in the United States and Europe.

Agnew was a staunch defender of the Vietnam War, so naturally he had to take a swipe at the protesters.

He characterized them as people who “overwhelm themselves with drugs and artificial stimulants.”

He went on (and on) to say:

“Education is being redefined at the demand of the uneducated to suit the ideas of the uneducated. The student now goes to college to proclaim rather than to learn. The lessons of the past are ignored and obliterated in a contemporary antagonism known as ‘The Generation Gap.’ A spirit of national masochism prevails, encouraged by an effete core of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” 

Other Conservatives and the press especially loved that last sentence. And, soon, the core of the insult was compressed into the phrases still heard today – “effete intellectual snobs” and the shorter version “effete intellectuals.”

Spiro generated a number of other “Agnewisms” before resigning as Vice President in 1973, such as the nattering nabobs of negativism and the “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.”

He resigned as part of a plea deal to avoid potential jail time for bribery and tax evasion dating to his tenure as governor of Maryland, just prior to becoming Nixon’s V.P.

It was quite a scandal at the time. But, heck – at least Spiro wasn’t taking drugs or acting like an effete intellectual. Though I do think he might have qualified as a nattering nabob. (You could look it up.)

Here are some of the other famous quotes and phrases linked to October 19:

“It was a pleasure to burn.” - The famous opening line of Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451, in which social rebels try to preserve what effete intellectuals (and other authors) wrote in books. The novel was copyrighted on October 19, 1953.

“Nudge, nudge, wink, wink..” - One of the many great catchphrases from the Monty Python's Flying Circus TV series, first used in a sketch in Season 1, Episode 3, which was first aired on BBC-1 in the UK on October 19, 1969.

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