Day 6

'Sucking Up': A brief look at brown-nosing, from Dante to Kellyanne Conway

Deborah and Mark Parker, authors of 'Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy', discuss why kissing up is as relevant now as it was in the day of Dante.
(Getty Images/University of Virginia Press)
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Deborah and Mark Parker were at a party with friends when someone starting talking about an office suck-up.

Then another friend chimed in with their story about a workplace brown-noser.

It makes frank communication within society impossible.-  Deborah Parker, co-author,  Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy
Deborah Parker is a Professor of Italian at the University of Virginia and is the co-author of 'Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy'. (University of Virginia)

Suddenly, the entire group was laughing and sharing their own tales and complaints about the suck-ups and kiss-ups in their lives.

Deborah Parker is a professor of Italian at the University of Virginia. Her husband, Mark Parker, is an English professor at James Madison University.

Mark Parker is a Professor of English at James Madison University and is the co-author of 'Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy.' (University of Virginia)

"Afterwards, Mark and I thought: 'Instead of complaining about this, why don't we write about it?'," recalls Deborah.

The result is their new book, Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy.

A sycophant is someone who flatters another person in an effort to gain influence, or to gain power from them. Sycophants are known more colloquially as suck-ups, brown-nosers, kiss-ups, toadys, leeches, sponges and ass-kissers.

As the Parkers tell Day 6 host Brent Bambury, they had initially thought about telling the story of bootlickers by citing literary examples, of which there are plenty.

"Often when people do talk about these stories they turn them into anecdotes, so there's almost a kind of literary element or a narrative element involved in it," says Mark.

But as they started researching, they came upon a number of sycophants from the worlds of politics and entertainment, among others — so they expanded their book to include suck-ups beyond the world of literature.

     

Political sycophants

Brown-nosers have existed since the beginning of time, but in the current political climate, and with the addition of social media, the sycophancy seems much more prevalent.

What seems to be important is that it's communicated publicly and in as many media as possible.- Deborah Parker, co-author,  Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy

"It's so much more visible," says Mark. "Often when people sucked up … in the past they often hid it and it came out later, or by oblique ways."

Mark points to the Watergate tapes.

"You often hear people doing some full-frontal sucking up," he says, "but at the same time they came out 15 to 20 years later. Now we see it instantly."

As with other administrations, President Trump is surrounded by people who work to flatter him and his family.

What's different now is that the sucking up is very public and seemingly shameless.

"Kellyanne Conway [is] going on TV and, you know, hawking Ivanka Trump stuff," says Deborah. "And they don't seem to think twice about it."

In January, we heard former White House press secretary Sean Spicer lie outright about the size of the crowds at the president's inauguration.

From August of 2017, Donald Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, delivers opening remarks while hosting a listening session with military spouses as Counselor to the President, Kellyanne Conway, looks on. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Deborah also mentions former White House communications director, Anthony Scaramucci.  

"I'm sorry he's gone because he was hilarious and saying, 'I love the president', no less than five times," she says.

But, notes Deborah, the sycophants surrounding the president aren't particularly creative or entertaining in what they say.

"What seems to be important is that it's communicated publicly and in as many media as possible."

    

Henry Ass-Kissinger

Washington is a district filled with people trying to get ahead. In his 2013 book, This Town, Mark Leibovich refers to Washington as "Suck-Up City."

It's a reference the Parkers use in their own book.

"Although it would be difficult in this cesspool of bootlickers, hypocrites, and other assorted pond scum to identify Suck-Up City's flatterer-in-chief, Henry Kissinger would surely be a top contender," they write.

Kissinger is an American diplomat who served as National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under President Richard Nixon, and who continued on as Secretary of State under President Gerald Ford.

From the time he was a graduate student … at Harvard he had that reputation of always playing both sides.- Deborah Parker, co-author,  Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy

The Parkers say that Kissinger honed his skills as a person of influence in Washington, and as a sycophant, while he was a graduate student at Harvard.

"From the time he was a graduate student … at Harvard he had that reputation of always playing both sides," says Deborah. "To the point where fellow students used the A in his [middle] name, calling him Henry Ass-Kissinger."

Kissinger, who met with President Trump in October, has long held influence around the world. But if he's known to be a sycophant, why don't people see through it?

"I think he's acquired this reputation of being immensely knowledgeable about world affairs. And he is immensely knowledgeable about all kinds of world leaders," says Deborah.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office, October 10, 2017, in Washington, DC. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

     

The social impact of sycophancy

The Parkers write about the many uses of sycophants in literature: Iago in Othello, Rev. William Collins in Pride and Prejudice, Uriah Heep in David Copperfield, and Grima Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings.

It really tears the fabric of society.- Mark Parker, co-author,  Sucking Up: A Brief Consideration of Sycophancy

In Dante's Inferno, Deborah says her students are always surprised to find where Dante places the sycophants in the nine circles of hell.

"Murderers and assassins, tyrants, they're higher up in hell than the flatterers," she says. "The punishment is that those who were full of crap in life are literally immersed in it in the afterlife."

Circa 1300, Dante Alighieri (1265 - 1321) the Italian poet. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

She says that Dante understood the suck-ups well, and that he viewed sycophancy as a sin against the community.

"Because … it makes frank communication within society impossible," Deborah says.

According to Mark, this is what is at the heart of sucking up.

"It's not just the people in that, sort of, double transaction: the enabler and the sycophant," he explains. "It's also the people around. There's a sense in which the real victims in this are the bystanders."

"What happens is, in a culture like this," he explains, "any kind of exchange that's frank becomes impossible. You don't even know if someone, when they are telling you the truth, they may be telling it to you in some kind of oblique way."

"It really tears the fabric of society."

When asked whether he thinks that, in 20 years, the current period of sycophancy will looked upon as an aberration or as a period of normalization, Mark fears it's the latter.

"I think it's close to becoming more normalized, but it really is hard to say if it's worse now than at other times. I think it's more public."

           


To hear the full interview with Deborah and Mark Parker, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.