Who came up with the "low, sloping forehead" dis?

The NY Times' David Carr sparks red state rage over an offhand insult. We trace it to its prehistoric roots

Published June 29, 2011 5:30PM (EDT)

New York Times media columnist David Carr sparked a ruckus after a Friday appearance on "Real Time With Bill Maher," where he referred to the states of Kansas and Missouri -- "the middle places" -- as "the dance of the low, sloping foreheads." Conservatives pounced -- especially Glenn Beck, who darkly read eugenics and "mass death" into Carr's comments --  while Carr claimed it was in jest, and that he could hardly be considered anti-red state, since he comes from and identifies with the Midwest.

We're apt to believe Carr (who didn't respond to an email from us) and write the whole thing off as a jokey misfire and desperate Fox campaigning. But we were interested in where that wonderful, vividly demeaning expression -- "dance of the low, sloping foreheads" -- came from.

Undoubtedly, "low, sloping foreheads" is a reference to the Neanderthals, our phylogenetic cousins, whose skulls were, indeed, low and sloped. Poet William Carlos Williams used that expression to portray, in more sympathetic terms, the plight of downtrodden townspeople in New Jersey, in his mid-century epic poem "Paterson" (1963): 

                low, sloping foreheads

The flat skulls with the unkempt black or blond hair,

The ugly legs of the young girls, pistons

Too powerful for delicacy!

The women's wrists, the men's arms red

Used to heat and cold, to toss quartered beeves

And barrels, and milk-cans, and crates of fruit.

As for the full idiom, one other writer appears to have employed the expression "dance of the low-sloping foreheads": the Weekly Standard's Matt Labash, in a piece about the 2000 Florida election debacle, to describe the hapless voters confused by that notorious butterfly ballot. 

But that piece came out in November 2000 (and the expression was thrashed by Todd Gitlin in this Salon piece for "defending idiotic electoral arrangements [and] smirking at subliterate Florida voters"). Carr already had a history of using the expression before that. (Did Labash pick it up from Carr? We put in a call to Labash but never heard back.)

Here are, most recent to earliest, invocations of the phrase from Carr:

  • Referring to Internet commenters: Speaking at the American Society of News Editors' annual conference in April 2010, Carr referred to the rising prominence of anonymous commenting on the Internet by saying, "Comments become the dance of the low, sloping foreheads."
  • About certain views on Fox viewers: In a 2004 review of the book "Crazy Like a Fox," by Scott Collins, Carr said: "While the smart set would love to write off the dominion of Fox News -- from worst to first -- as the triumph of the low, sloping foreheads, Collins demonstrates that Fox News won the war by redefining the battle."
  • VHI stars: In a 2005 column about MTV and its stable of sister networks, Carr  says, "MTV's older sister, VH1, which seemed to be tipping into irrelevance, was repositioned with a B-list nation of talent, a dance of the low sloping foreheads that made viewers feel both superior and engaged." 
  • "Blade Runner" actress Sean Young: When Carr ran the New York Times' Carpetbagger blog in 2008, he titled a post "The Dance of the Low Sloping Foreheads." The forehead in this instance was actress Sean Young, who heckled director Julian Schnabel during an acceptance speech at that year's Director's Guild Awards. (Young checked into rehab for alcohol abuse mere days later.) 
  • Fellow addicts: In his 2009 memoir, "The Night of the Gun," David Carr describes a portion of a stint in rehab by saying, "I skipped the dance of the low-sloping foreheads -- oh, I mean quality time with my fellow addicts in the meds line ..."
  • The subjects of writer Eddie Dean: In August 1999,  Carr (then editor of the Washington City Paper) described his writer, Dean, as "the chronicler of the 'dance of the low, sloping foreheads.'" In elaborating, Carr went on to describe Dean's style by saying, "At his best, he produces low-to-the-ground gothics, full of horror and laughter and regular people doing irregular things ..."

So Carr, it appears, is the man who animated the caveman. We asked Dean how he thought his editor conjured the phrase. He told us: "Like the late great Lester Young, Carr has his own lingo that is part street poetry and part secret-code, and you'd need a hepcat's dream-book thesaurus (as yet unpublished) to fully discern what he actually says much of the time."

Here's the comment that set it all in motion:

By Peter Finocchiaro

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Glenn Beck Media Criticism The New York Times