“When political ammunition runs low, inevitably the rusty artillery of abuse is wheeled into action,” Adlai Stevenson, American politician and diplomat, remarked in 1952. As the Democrat Party’s candidate in 1956 and later the country’s ambassador to the UN, he had his fair share verbal duels. “I do not have your talent for obfuscation, for distortion, for confusing language, and for doubletalk. And I must confess to you that I am glad that I do not!... I will wait for your answer until hell freezes over,” he chided the stonefaced Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, leading John F. Kennedy to remark “I did not know Adlai had it in him.”
Stevenson, known as an “egghead,” might have been saddened to see that barbs and abuse are no longer rusty artillery but a daily weapon. Last in this long chain is the exchange of discourtesies between two ancient empires whose current presidents seem to be touched by the tempers of their ancestors- Gallic vs. Black Sea.
In past last eight days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron told each other more or less the same thing - that the other was destabilizing Europe by his policies and that his days were numbered. “Turks deserve better than the Erdoğan government,” said Macron at the height of the crisis over Turkey’s decision to explore for resources in the East Mediterranean. Erdoğan retorted with the usual “Eyy Macron,” and claimed that it was Macron - “who could not lecture Turkey on humanity” - who was on his way out. The Turkish Foreign Ministry, in an unusually political statement, condemned French President Emmanuel Macron over his “arrogant” remarks made with “colonial reflexes.”
The two leaders are used to trading barbs. Last year, Erdoğan called Macron “brain dead” and referred to his understanding of NATO as “sick and shallow” when the two sparred over NATO’s role in the global arena.
The exchange also sounds very close to what Macron had with President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil over Amazon fires last year. Macron said that he hoped Brazil would soon have a different leader and Bolsonaro accused Macron of being a small-time opportunist with a colonial mindset.
Barbs old and new
Historically, both nations can boast of being at both the giving and receiving end of perfect put-downs with internal and external adversaries alike. One of the well-known anecdotes is that of Georges Clemenceau, France’s Prime Minister during the First World War, who said of his British counterpart David Lloyd George, “If only I could piss the way he speaks.”
Keeping up the frenemies tradition cross channel in the 20th century, President Francois Mitterrand described British Premier Margaret Thatcher as having “the eyes of Stalin and voice of Marilyn Monroe.” However, Mitterrand used the best of his highbrow barbs closer home, such as calling Izmir-born Edouard Balladur “the Ottoman strangler” - a nasty reference to his Gaullist opponent’s Byzantine political tactics and his birth in Turkey, which Balladur, who refused the honorary key of Izmir, downplayed with voters.
But the Napoleon of French insults was none other than Bonaparte himself, who called the Brits “a nation of shopkeepers.” He was also quick to level insults at home. Convinced that he was betrayed by his foreign minister Jean-Maurice de Talleyrand, he called him “a thief, a coward...a turd in a silk stocking.” The unperturbable diplomat coolly remarked, “What a pity, such a great man and so ill-bred.” Possibly the worst insult to the emperor who spent his life trying to make up for his humble beginnings.
Hot-tempered Turks have always been up for a verbal battle - and ready to resort to force in the face of an insult. Perhaps the funniest - and one of the most controversial - of these insults to the Ottomans is the so-called Zaporozhian Cossacks’ letter to Sultan Mehmed IV - Mehmed the Hunter- known more through the works of artists than historians. It is not part of the Ottoman archives and its authenticity is questionable. Allegedly composed by Ivan Sirko, the Ukrainian-Cossack military leader in 1676, the letter mimicked the style of the Ottoman rulers who refer to themselves as “the son of Muhammad; brother of the Sun and Moon; grandson and viceroy of God; ruler of the kingdoms of Macedonia, Babylon, Jerusalem, Upper and Lower Egypt; emperor of emperors; sovereign of sovereigns; extraordinary knight, never defeated.”
“O sultan...secretary to Lucifer himself. Thou Babylonian scullion, Macedonian wheelwright, brewer of Jerusalem, goat-fucker of Alexandria, swineherd of Greater and Lesser Egypt, pig of Armenia... screw thine own mother!” read Sirko’s letter, competing with many dirty limericks of today - including the one Boris Johnson composed for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, again using the imagery of a goat. Whether real or a parody written by Polish ruling classes, the letter has also spurred a well-known 19th-century painting by Ukrainian artist Ilya Repin, a poem by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a song by Leo Ferre, and a film. Rumor had it that Stalin knew it by heart and recited it occasionally.
More on written insults. Selim I, known as Selim the Grim, sent a series of belligerent letters to Ismail Shah, the founder of the Safavid dynasty in Iran before he beat him at the battle of Chaldiran in 1514. Exasperated that the Shah would not face him on the battlefield, he urged him to fight like a man or “exchange his helmet with a veil and his armor with a chador.” How’s that in comparison to the infamous letter Donald Trump sent to Erdoğan, which is, to my amateur eye, is rather like the pot accusing the kettle of playing with fire?
When it comes to namecalling, it is impossible not to remember the description of Egemen Bağış, then Turkey’s chief negotiator to the EU, of Avignon Liebermann, then Israeli foreign minister who made headlines for flushing the toilet whilst giving a radio interview. Bağış, who combined mischievous Turkish humor with the ribald witticism of his native New York where he was a translator and lobbyist early in his life, said, “Liebermann has to forget his days as a nightclub bouncer in Moldova and transition into a statesman.” The reply did not come from Israel but from a Turkish journalist: “Minister Bağış should be able to understand that losers with poor careers often fail to make the transition into the role of decent politicians.” Mr. Bağış currently heads Turkey’s diplomatic mission in Prague, a city where ribald humor is much appreciated, with the “Urinating Men” statues of provocative artist David Cerny to prove it!
Let us finish with two diplomatic anecdotes on Winston Churchill, one of which is narrated by a former ambassador of Turkey to the Czech Republic and, like eloquent Stevenson, a true egghead.
“An empty taxi drove up to 10 Downing Street,” Winston Churchill quipped about the man who defeated him for prime minister in 1946, “and out of it stepped Clement Attlee.”
The second is the exchange between Bernard Shaw, playwright and critic, and Churchill. Shaw wrote to Churchill, “Am reserving two tickets for you for my premiere. Come and bring a friend—if you have one.” Churchill replied: “Impossible to be present for the first performance. Will attend the second—if there is one.”
Ah, the delights of needling a man of power, with no consequences of court or jail!