The High and the Mighty
by Stephen Cox | Posted January 29, 2014
Two thousand thirteen was a hard year for this column. As soon as things seemed to be settling down, another threat or evil tendency always intruded itself. You know what happens when you finally get the floor washed and waxed: along comes your neighbor, or the guy who’s replacing the sink, or your friend who just happened to be driving past, and suddenly the place is filthy again. Word Watch is still trying to clean up the mess of 2013, and now 2014 is making its own kinds of mess.
The verbal polluters hail from the strangest places. In December, Word Watch was informed, through the majesty of CNN, that someone absurdly styling himself William, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, Baron Carrickfergus, Royal Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, and heir to the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not to mention the British Dominions beyond the Seas, had made himself the centerpiece of a video documentary — a work so repulsive that it has to be noticed, and warned against, despite the strangeness of its apparition.
The thing is called “Prince William’s Passion,” but don’t get the wrong idea. What he’s passionate about is animal conservation in Zimbabwe. Oh fine. But the offspring of his passion — a documentary of unbearable length, whatever time it literally consumes — can be viewed for only a few minutes before one’s sanity is endangered. I stopped watching as soon as I suspected I was going crazy, so I didn’t get to see it all. It seems improbable, however, that the epos includes any reference to the fact that Zimbabwe harbors not only animals but one of the most rapacious tyrannies on earth. Prince William’s passion is conservation of wild life, not of human life.
Well, we all have our passions. Job candidates are tortured to reveal what they are passionate about. The people one meets at parties disconcertingly confess their lifelong passion for rubber baby buggy bumpers. Dead people are praised for having consistently succumbed to — I mean followed — theirpassions (note to file: check the Hitler obits). Angry people call radio advice shows to complain that their spouses are frustrating their passions — and again, sex is not the problem. The passion always turns out to be something like writing children’s books or running a home for ferrets.
Zimbabwe harbors not only animals but one of the most rapacious tyrannies on earth. Prince William’s passion is conservation of wild life, not of human life.
So the prince has passions; so what? What most alarmed this viewer was the documentary’s sad evidence of the deficient education that royal persons now receive. As the grand summary of his weltanschauung — or is it only his gestalt? — His Highness uttered these memorable words:
Conservation is so key.
For years we have observed the ugly progress of key from a normal, though uninteresting, modifier (“That was a key consideration”) to an ungainly predicate adjective (“That consideration is key”). So what’s wrong with that? Two things.
1. Key naturally evokes images of a physical object, an object that exists not for itself but as a means of opening or entering something else. The original setting of key was in sentences such as, “That consideration is the key to our success.”Thrusting key onto the stage alone is contrary to established and useful idiom and associations; it needs, at least, a noun immediately following it (“key consideration”).
2. Used in the new, naked way, key usurps the place of more useful and exact modifiers. There’s a big difference between an important consideration and a crucial consideration,a helpful consideration, and so on. Key obliterates the alternatives and ends the possibility of precision.
Maybe that’s why it has become a cliché — that is, an easy substitute for thought. Much worse, however, is the elevation of key to the status of a metaphysical quality that cannot be qualified but can only be intensified. How key is conservation, Your Highness? Is it really key? Sort of key? Very key? He can’t say. All he can say — with passion — is that it is so key. Dude.
Another dude is Christopher James (“Chris”) Christie, governor of New Jersey. Unlike Prince William, Christie is a dude but not a twit. He earned a lot of praise when, on January 9, he held a long, colloquial, and seemingly frank press conference to deny that he had anything to do with the artificial bottleneck that his aides created at the entrance to the George Washington Bridge, in order to wreak vengeance on political foes. What has been forgotten was Christie’s first response to the bridge news (Jan. 8). Here is the entirety of his statement:
What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.
Notice that second sentence. It declares that the governor is outraged that wrong conduct happened without his knowledge — literally meaning that he wouldn’t have been outraged, had he known about it. He came close to a similar blunder in the first sentence, which damns whatever it was that he saw “today for the first time” but leaves open the possibility that he wouldn’t regret any bad behavior he’d seen for the second or third time.
Almost everything about the statement is odd. When have you ever heard of conduct being made? And when, in normal life, have you heard an apology that says nothing whatever about what is being apologized for? Unfortunately, however, such abnormalities have become normal in our political life. Politicians and their highly specialized, highly paid, highly communicative aides are constantly losing control of basic English, and apologies are constantly being wrenched into things like pretzels — all twist and no center.
Obama’s popularity is now at an all-time low, and according to all available polling, a major cause is people’s growing conviction that he is a phony, pure and simple.
Following the practice of his friend, President Obama, Christie originally reacted to criticism by sneering at it. He spent a long time denying that the bridge episode had happened. He ridiculed the very idea. He found nothing exceptional or exceptionable in the long, gross imposition of force that someone perpetrated on the public by restricting rush-hour access to a bridge in order to conduct a “traffic study.” If Christie had any interest in what words mean, he would have said, “What the hell kind of study!” and brought the matter — whether it was a traffic study or an intentional persecution of innocent drivers — to an immediate end. Of course he didn’t. Then, like Obama on the IRS scandal, he became outraged. Aren’t you tired of that word? Aren’t you saddened by it?
One thing that everyone continues to be tired of and saddened by is the president’s folksy fakery. There are millions of examples, but here’s one from an interview he gave on Nov. 14:
I’m just gonna keep workin’ as hard as I can around [he emphasized that word] the priorities the American people have set for me.
If you want proof of how out of touch Obama is, try that remark. Nobody thinksthat by dropping his g’s he’s bein’ anythin’ other than phony, yet he jus’ keeps on doin’ it. As for workin’, it didn’t take very long for people to find out that Obama doesn’t work very hard at anything but golf. After seein’ his popularity fall from very high to very low during the first few months of his presidency, he started playin’ these verbal tricks. Result? Nothin’. His popularity is now at an all-time low, and according to all available polling, a major cause is people’s growing conviction that he is a phony, pure and simple. But he jus’ keeps on pretendin’ that he’s nothin’ but a workin’ man, sweatin’ away on the job site jus’ like ever’body else.
Another thing that hasn’t changed is the president’s curious conviction that he lives in the 1970s. I doubt that there’s a political program he’s offered that wasn’t one of the American people’s priorities, as identified by Jimmy Carter — with the sole exception of amnesty for illegal aliens, whom ’70s Democrats generally perceived as inimical to the cause of high union wages. (They still are inimical to union wages, but the unions of today are down so low that their only hope is to assemble enough naïve voters to help them retain their political power and subsidies.)
The tipoff is that word around. Nobody but leftists, embedded in the ideas of the ’70s like rocks in a glacier, uses around in that (frankly) idiotic way. Asked what they’re doing with their lives, kids who have been coopted into what are now old-leftist pressure groups can be depended upon to say, “I’m working around issues of income inequality”; “We’re working around questions of peace”; “I’m interested in working around issues like, uh, climate change.” In the same way, Obama keeps working around priorities.
Just try to picture this working around. Imagine an issue, or a question, or, for God’s sake, a priority. Never mind whether you think that the American people set thatpriority. Just try to picture the thing itself. Now picture somebody working around it. What’s he doing? Is he fencing it off? Laying tile to keep the ground water out? Or is he evading it, as people do when they try to get around an obstacle?
However you picture it, around in ’70s speak has the same rhetorical function that it has in such sentences as, “I think there are around a hundred fallacies in the president’s argument.” Its only use is to impart vagueness. Yet in the stale old “radical” tradition from which Obama has not escaped, people assume that around imparts some kind of solemnity. It doesn’t, and the fact that they think it does is sad evidence of their inability to reflect on what they’re saying.
It wasn’t the grace of God that kept Barack Obama from poverty. It was a banker grandmother, elite private schools, an indulgent Harvard Law School, adoption by a political machine, and fat contributions from wealthy people.
The president’s addiction to folksiness is closely linked to his passion for clichés. Almost anything he says is a cliché, but I was especially impressed by the phoniness of the double cliché he emitted when speaking on January 7 of people’s supposed entitlement to be paid despite the fact that they don’t have a job. He was speaking in favor of the dozenth extension of unemployment benefits since mid-2008. How could anyone be in favor of that? Because it helps people survive until they get back to work? But economic studies, with which Obama is presumably familiar, indicate that people tend strongly to get back to work when their unemployment payments are about to cease.
Obama stated his reasons, and they had more to do with metaphysics than they did with economics: “We’re all in this together,” he opined. “There but for the grace of God go I.”
May I suggest that it wasn’t the grace of God that kept Barack Obama from poverty? It was a banker grandmother, elite private schools, an indulgent Harvard Law School, adoption by a political machine, and fat contributions from wealthy people. In return for these favors, he now spends his days ladling out clichés like we’re all in this together. And he talks of God.
And speaking of God: the deity’s friends and purported friends — holy men and hirelings, true shepherds and false — have performed more service for the English language than anyone but that skeptic, Shakespeare. Consider the King James Version of the Bible. Consider the Book of Common Prayer. Consider the Anglican manner of the KJV and BCP, as echoed by Jefferson and Lincoln — or, if you want libertarians, Paterson and Rand. But that was then; this is now. A news item of January 4 reports that “the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans,” is supporting yet another revision of the Book of Common Prayer, which his cohorts have already revised within an inch of its life. This revision eliminates all mention of sin from the baptismal service, thereby eliminating a good deal of its seriousness and almost all of its purpose. If you’re not a sinner, why do you need to be baptized? Why do you need a church, and a baptismal rite to let you into it?
Well, not to panic. Welby is far from the real leader of the world’s fourth-largest group of Christians. Outside of Britain, which is the only place affected by this latest theological-linguistic plague, he is generally regarded as a fifth wheel. And the anti-intellectual, or at least the anti-theological, tendency of the current mania for revision is sharply opposed by other religious potentates. According to AFP and the Mail:
Former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali said the move, which is being trialed until Easter in around 1,000 parishes, was part of a "constant dumbing down of Christian teaching".
"Instead of explaining what baptism means and what the various parts of the service signify, its solution is to do away with key elements of the service altogether."
Amen. But look at what Britons call this process of dumbing down. The “move,” they say, “is being trialed.” Lord save us — this locution may invade America. Beware the first symptoms:
“Are Jim and Susan living together?” “Yes, they’re trialing their relationship.”
“The administration continues trialing its newest version of what happened at Benghazi.”
“I was once a conservative, but I was only trialing.”
“I trialed writing English, but it was just too tough for me.”
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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