Praise Whether Due or Not

Article excerpt

In the musical "My Fair Lady," Zoltan Karpathy, the unctuous character obsessed with Eliza Dolittle's pedigree is described this way: "Oozing charm from every pore, he oiled his way across the floor." It was Karpathy who discerned (wrongly) but with great fanfare that Eliza was foreign royalty, a lady of status.

Status counts in Richard Stengel's light but stimulating analysis of ingratiation "You're Too Kind: A Brief History of Flattery," and although Karpathy failed to earn a mention in the book, a host of other equally slithering fawners show up. Uriah Heap makes the cut. So does Eddie Haskell from "Leave It to Beaver." Even Satan does a turn, each knowing in their way that toadying, manipulation and pretense starts with recognizing on which side your bread is buttered.

This is a book about hierarchy and expectation and it is a political book. Reading it was a reminder of a Washington fundraiser I know (he uses the Karpathy quote to describe his modus operandi) who flatters the powerful and turns that flattery into money. Mr. Stengel recognizes the transaction.

"Flattery is strategic praise, praise with a purpose. It may be inflated or exaggerated or it may be accurate and truthful, but it is praise that seeks some result, whether it be increased liking or an office with a window. The kind of manipulation of reality that uses the enhancement of another for our own self-advantage. It can even be genuine praise."

From this working definition Mr. Stengel builds a narrative that offers both cultural history and utility. It describes the art of flattery and its practitioners through the ages - as an evolutionary imperative, really - and it offers how-to tips on refining the craft.

Along the way Mr. Stengel who was a senior editor at Time magazine and collaborated with Nelson Mandela on "Long Walk to Freedom," employs a chorus of observers who are as taken with the subject as the author himself, andsome immortal in the bargain.

They include: French moralist Francois de La Rochefoucauld ("Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers"), President Abraham Lincoln ("Everybody likes a compliment"), rock-and-roll singer Sheryl Crow ("lie to me and I'll promise to be deceived") and Christopher Lasch, Daniel Boorstin, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Tacitus, Hegel, Lionel Trilling, John Stuart Mill, Jesus Christ, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pliny, and W.H. Auden - each offering pithy observations too long to cite here.

Oh, and did I mention that these are just the eminences who turn up in the first 12 pages of the introduction. Suffice it to say that Mr. Stengel sustains the pace and frequency of quotations throughout the book, giving it at times the aspect of a reference work. But it is all fun and supports Mr. Stengel's basic premise that flattery is, as Benjamin Franklin might say the "meat and sauce" of human nature. But before humans put flattery into play, the author is quick to point out, there were the vain and grooming-obsessed chimpanzees.

"The social organization of chimpanzees is almost too human to be true," says Mr. Stengel kicking off a discussion of grooming activities initiated for food, sexual favors and to separate the Alpha-males from the rest of the boys. (One grooms up.). "Chimps don't tell each other `You look marvelous,' but the bowing, the grooming, the coalitions formed by the less powerful with the more powerful all mirror the same quid pro quo dynamic that forms the basis of one kind of human flattery, the strategic kind."

From Darwin territory Mr. Stengel proceeds to cover the history of civilization as something of a flattery time line, beginning with the Egyptians who erected pyramids to flatter themselves. …