Let the sap run out

Russell Baker

July 31, 1991|By Russell Baker

IT WOULD be useful if cultural historians could pinpoint the moment when Americans, more or less simultaneously, stopped saying "wise up." Until that moment, being "wised up" was the essence of Americanism and anybody who wasn't "wised up," or at least capable of "wising up," was probably "a hopeless sap" and deserved everything that hit him.

"Sap," incidentally, is an other important word that has fallen out of use. Plenty of synonyms have tried to replace it. "Airhead" is in vogue right now. But "sap" had a simple force, with a sound as businesslike as a pistol butt on the side of the skull.

Moreover, if it is totally lost to the language, Americans will never again be able to relish that moment in "Horse Feathers" when Groucho Marx interrupts his classroom lecture by telling Chico to "drill a hole in yourself and let the sap run out."

Being wised up meant being too smart to fall for the kind of people who tried to treat you like a "sap." Above I said it was the essence of Americanism, but "Americanism" was the kind of word that immediately put wised-up people on guard, as did almost all political ideas ending in "ism."

When you heard somebody turning America into an "ism" you immediately knew, if you were wised up, that this bird doing the talking was grinding a political ax and you'd better be on guard if you didn't want to be taken for a sap.

The value of being wised up was probably strongest during the Depression when people were suffering the consequences of long years of gullibility. In "Romantic Comedy," a book about the sophisticated movie comedies of the 1930s, James Harvey notes that one of the great strengths of those comedies was their wised-up view of the world.

This rooted these frothy film fantasies in a stark realism which perhaps could have flourished only in the Depression. These comedies, as Harvey observes, rejected the conventionally sentimental view about the sweetness of American small-town life and saw it instead peopled with connivers, busybodies, malicious gossips, narrow bigots and biting dogs.

Accepting the sentimental view of small-town life was for saps, as were the assumptions that the public was good-hearted, the cops kindly and the businessmen beneficent. The 1930s comedies took it for granted that the public knew selfishness, greed, duplicity, mendacity and mean-spiritedness were commonplace in American life. They were movies for a wised-up audience.

Once World War II was under way, being wised up was valued less, and perhaps even deplored since a nation trying to wage a war successfully cannot afford to have its public totally wised up. Still, as illustrated by the literary war tales and many a TV comedy since about that war (the Sergeant Bilko series, for instance), soldiers who were wised up tended to be the ones who thrived.

The onset of the cold war and Sen. Joseph McCarthy made it dangerous to be wised up. Many Americans then made a virtue of a nasty necessity, which was to behave respectfully toward people they feared, and started priding themselves on their "Americanism."

It would have been the ideal moment for a revival of "Don't be a sap. Wise up!" The style in wisdom had changed, however.

Just as deadly to the cause of a wised-up America was the serene eight-year reign of President Eisenhower with the virtue of positive thinking being preached ad nauseam. Eisenhower himself, who was scarcely ever criticized by press or public, said that he did not mind criticism provided it was "positive criticism."

With the Depression receding into memory, Eisenhower was leading us into an Age of Saps. It reached some kind of milestone in a press conference one day when a reporter rose to ask, "Mr. President, why do young people like you so much?"

Even Eisenhower must have winced at that, for his attempt at a reply was even more muddled syntactically than his usual press conference language. I have since wondered if he wasn't fighting an impulse to say, "Wise up, man! Don't be a sap!"

So what about the crime bill now in Congress? It really will get everybody off drugs and end all this violence, won't it?

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