September 4, 2004

"Barking mad."

I've been trying to chase down the "barking mad" meme. Wonkette has a post a couple days ago about Googling "Zell Miller" and "barking mad": only 16 hits at the time, but it was still early. It's up to 74 now. But it's not just a reaction to Zell Miller. On "The Daily Show" in mid-August, Maureen Dowd called Dick Cheney "barking mad." Since then, I've been noticing the phrase, which I think is funny, because I have a literal mind, and I picture the person actually barking. There's a great section of Spalding Gray's "Monster in a Box" where he describes going a bit mad and literally barking. But it seems to have become the standard way to call someone crazy. When did that happen? I used Nexis to try to trace the meme down, but unfortunately I was using a newsgroup file that included British and Australian newspapers. I could barely see the American examples! Clearly, the phrase has a British origin. But why the sudden outbreak here? And it's not just that people have gotten crazier lately, so don't try to sidetrack me. I know everyone likes to call people crazy in this election season, especially since "he's crazy" worked to down the most promising of the Democratic candidates in the primaries. Maybe it will work again: Cheney's crazy! Bush is crazy! Wolfowitz! And they're not just crazy, they're barking mad!
I'm going with the suspicion that Maureen Dowd is the American infection point. (Email me if you have another suspect.) Here's the Google result for "barking mad" and "Maureen Dowd." 213 results. I see she made a big impression a year ago, after the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the University of Michigan affirmative action case, Grutter v. Bollinger. She wrote:
The dissent is a clinical study of a man [Clarence Thomas] who has been driven barking mad by the beneficial treatment he has received. It's poignant, really. It drives him crazy that people think he is where he is because of his race, but he is where he is because of his race. Other justices rely on clerks and legal footnotes to help with their opinions; Thomas relies on his id, turning an opinion on race into a therapeutic outburst. In his dissent, he snidely dismisses the University of Michigan Law School's desire to see minority faces in the mix as "racial aesthetics," giving the effort to balance bigotry in society the moral weight of a Benetton ad. The phrase "racial aesthetics" would be more appropriately applied to President George W. Bush's nominating convention in Philadelphia, when the Republicans put on a minstrel show for the white fat cats in the audience.
Ah! But the Maureen Dowd "barking mad" infection point could be traced even farther back, as a Nexis search revealed. I found an October 14, 1999, piece in The San Francisco Chronicle interviewing the writer Edmund Morris (author of the Reagan biography "Dutch") about what he thought about Dowd calling him "barking mad." (He said "Like all barking mad people, I feel perfectly normal.")

Well, I don't claim to have solved the mystery of the "barking mad" meme. My sketchy research leads me to think Dowd has only labeled three persons "barking mad": Morris, Thomas, and Cheney. And she's already dealt with Zell Miller's speech, and she did not call him "barking mad" or even "mad." She said:
Zell Miller, playing Cotton Mather behind the cross-like lectern, made Mr. Cheney seem rational, with a maniacal litany of weapons he said Mr. Kerry had opposed that can destroy any mud hut in any third world country: B-1 and B-2 bombers, F-14A Tomcats, F-15 Eagles, Patriot and Trident missiles, and Aegis cruisers.
She did imply Miller was way beyond "barking mad" though, if he made the "barking mad" Dick Cheney seem rational. I guess Miller was so crazy, in her view, that one cannot speak directly of that craziness but can only indirectly approach the topic with a comparison to another person already established--in Dowdworld--as "barking mad."

And speaking of memes, is it Dowd who got the lectern-looked-like-a-cross meme going? "The Daily Show" used it later the same day. No, here's an earlier reference (in the NYT). I wrote about the lectern on the second day of the Convention, and, though I said it reminded me of a pulpit, I didn't see the cross. But clearly we can't blame Dowd or the NYT for setting off the observation that the lectern looked like a cross. How do I know? Because a Google search using the word "lectern" produced 409 hits, and a Google search trying the misnomer "podium" produced 7,350 hits.

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