Today's Ignoramus-Nation Moment: 'Best Revenge'

By James Fallows

LivingWell2.pngIn the final two days of the campaign, the Romney-Ryan ticket and its supporters are all over President Obama for talking about "revenge." On Friday, when trying to shush supporters who were booing the mention of Mitt Romney's name, Obama said they shouldn't boo -- they should vote. Because, as he said in an ad-libbed line, "voting is the best revenge."

In the eyes of the right, that line is the offense -- and apparently they're not kidding. Fox News was immediately on it as the latest election-changing gaffe and outrage. And here's a sample from a Romney stump speech yesterday that then was included in an ad:

Yesterday, the president .. told his supporters, voting for revenge. Vote for revenge? Let me tell you what I'd like to tell you: Vote for love of country!"

The Fox Nation headline was "Obama: Vote for 'Revenge,' Romney: Vote for Love of Country.' "


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No doubt the Romney campaign felt that it had caught Obama in an on-the-record version of the "clinging to guns and religion" line four years ago. Finally we get a real look at the guy, and what we see is someone who, like his mentor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, (a) doesn't love his country, and (b) is showing traits of that unsettling "angry black man-ism" that he usually manages to conceal so shrewdly behind his cool manner and big smile.

Of course, what we're actually seeing is the entirely different option (c): That Obama is so familiar with bookclub-level literary allusions (in this case the aphorism "living well is the best revenge"), rather than anything super highbrow, that he (c1) recognizes them as cliches or formulas that can be adapted, and (c2) assumes that at least some other people will also recognize them as such.

Illustration of point (c1) concerning language so familiar it can be adapted: In the first season of Homeland, the Brody family is taking a drive from the D.C. area to Gettysburg. They've just been discussing "Four-score and seven years ago..." One of the kids asks how far they still have to drive. The mother says, "Three-score miles." In the circumstances of that car, this also illustrates (c2).
 
When it comes to Obama's off-hand remark, I have exactly zero doubt that he thought he was applying a widely familiar term. That is what anyone of his age, background, and education would have had in mind. Let me put it this way: Last night, in an NPR interview with Guy Raz, Taylor Swift, who is all of 22, was discussing poems by Pablo Neruda. Is it so surprising that a sitting president, who is nearly three decades older than Swift and, unlike her, a college and law-school grad and author of a memoir packed with literary allusions, would have heard the very familiar saying "living well is the best revenge"? And would know that it doesn't mean anything like what Romney claimed. [Update: a number of people have written in saying, "Ok, what does it mean?" That's why I have the links below to Calvin Tomkins's article and other references. Look it up! Or listen to R.E.M. Short answer: it is about the opposite of "revenge" in the normal sense.] [And another update: This post's title is obviously exaggerated for effect, and I am not saying that anyone unfamiliar with "living well..." is an ignoramus. I am saying that the Romney campaign certainly knows what Obama was saying, and why -- and the ad suggesting otherwise is pandering to know-nothingism.]

Bonus question: is it possible that Mitt Romney himself -- who went to Stanford and then BYU, who lived in France, who went to Harvard Business School and like Obama to Harvard Law, who has lived for decades in Boston and considers himself well-read and has some literarily accomplished advisors -- has never heard of this saying? Is it conceivable that he actually believes Obama was talking about revenge-voting as if it were basically like "revenge sex"?

Just to show that familiarity with the phrase is not confined to people interested in F. Scott Fitzgerald; or Gerald and Sara Murphy, the arty American exiles in France who were supposedly the model for Dick and Nicole Diver in Tender Is the Night and were the subjects of Calvin Tompkins's very popular book Living Well Is the Best Revenge and New Yorker article; nor even George Herbert, the English poet who 400-plus years ago coined the term "living well is the best revenge," I give you R.E.M.:

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Plus:

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Bonus-bonus question: Why are reporters outside the Fox News ecosystem reporting this "controversy" at face value? E.g., from ABC News:
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I am going to town on this because it's the end of the election cycle, and I don't know whether to laugh or cry* about this latest glimpse into our public culture. Maybe I will escape these next two days by watching football. Or opening Tender is the Night for the first time since college.
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* Not really! This is a cliche that I am using on purpose. In real life I am sitting here drinking some coffee.

And one more update! Fox goes all in, saying that Obama "coined a new campaign catchphrase":

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This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/11/todays-ignoramus-nation-moment-best-revenge/264502/