The Age of Redefinition

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On the evening of January 20, when President Obama started the delivery of his state of the union address, Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg rapidly, and very appropriately, fell asleep. Some of the other justices looked as if they were ready to drop off too. I’m sure that most of the television audience, unburdened by protocol, went all the way to dreamland.

The irritating thing was that stories about Ginsburg’s snooze— which was the only important event of the evening — were headlined and teased with words like these: “81-Year-Old Justice Caught Nodding Off.” If you still need to be convinced about liberal bias in journalism, ask yourself how many stories on Ginsburg’s far-left opinions have been headlined with a reference to her age. “81-Year-Old Justice Opines Again”? No, no chance of that. Write a bizarre legal document? An act of courage. Fall asleep during a boring, pointless speech? Senility.

We are living in a time when even common news stories make it virtually impossible to pin down the simplest facts, such as where, exactly, something happened.

But since we’re talking about journalists who hit the wrong target, consider an article published by FoxBusiness on January 15. It’s not important in itself, but it presents a fair sample of the things that make American journalism so horrible to read, or even to think about.

The article, written by Larry Shover, is ostensibly a news story about a decision made somewhere in the constipated bowels of Swiss banking. In reality, it’s an advertisement for the author’s skills in Writing. In an earlier life, Mr. Shover must have been a sports reporter. He shows the typical sports guy’s zest for in-group chatter, incomprehensible to everyone outside the dugout. This is part of a larger problem, characteristic of journalists in every field. They want to do something with their material, something glitzy and clever, no matter what the effects on communication.

According to Shover, Jan. 15 (or maybe it was Jan. 14, or Jan. 13; he never says) was no common day:

It was shaping up to be a sleepy morning until the Swiss National Bank — in a surprise move — decided to lift its minimum exchange rate, put in place in 2011, of 1.20 euro for every Swiss franc.

One point twenty euro[s], eh? But if the rate was “lifted,” what was it before? Like all those “journalists” who report on schoolteachers striking for “higher” wages, this author doesn’t specify the point at which the lift began. But wait! Perhaps, just perhaps, he means that the limit was removed entirely!

Unless you’re inside the dugout, it’s hard to tell what he means. We are living in a time when even common news stories make it virtually impossible to pin down the simplest facts, such as where, exactly, something happened.

To continue with the words (and punctuation) of Mr. Shover’s article:

We are not yet far enough removed from the rear-view mirror to see clearly however this SNB surprise action can today, be likened to a steam locomotive’s piston valve or blood pressure medication.

The only thing that’s clear about Shover’s story is his assumption that every reader he is laboring to inform knows as much about the subject as he does. Like the guys who write the sports headlines — “M’ville Nine to Mr. C: Drop Dead” — he’s not going to let anybody else in on the secret.

Do I need to mention that this is also the pattern in political reporting? Am I the only one who had to check 20 news reports about the Republicans “increasing” their majority in the House (or “maintaining” their majority, as Democrat journalists expressed it) before I discovered an article that told me how many seats they’d won?

And, of course, metaphors. Shover’s article goes on:

This “Swiss-central bank Shocker” . . .

But wait. . . . That’s in quotes, but who said it? Anybody? Well, who cares? No one wants to report on a non-shocker.

I resume:

This “Swiss-central bank Shocker” quickly unsettled a fragile layer in the economic mountainside causing plates of snow to tumble from the Matterhorn — traders and citizens alike have filled the morning selling Swiss stocks — causing one of the largest one-day drops in 30 years.

Notice that the fall of a metaphorical “layer” caused actual “snow” to “tumble” from an actual “Matterhorn.” Odd.

Mere amateurs in meteorology would expect the author to say, in plain terms, what he’s talking about. But a jazzy, hip, contemporary writer wouldn’t get any fun from doing that, compared with the fun of writing jargon and metaphor:

In addition, the SNB, weary of its precarious position of being everyone’s chaperone, cut its deposit rates (now -0.75%) along with its target range for three-month Libor (now between -1.25% and -0.25%).

Before you can ask, “What’s a Libor?”, Shover moves on to the ethics and the personal meaning of the whole thing:

Central bank “snap decisions” ought to be reserved for econometric case studies or faraway countries with delicate balance sheets. Many a trader rebooted a computer, phoned a colleague when the Swiss Franc jumped 30% in the wee hours of this morning.

Pity the poor trader, having to reboot like that. Were transfusions necessary? And what a fresh phrase, wee hours of this morning!

Shover provides other fresh phrases and cute metaphors (besides chaperone, snap decisions, and rear-view mirror): immediate fall-out, surprise divorce, standard fare, stave off, claws its way back, seen the elephant, its ultimate entrails are indiscernible (huh?), panties in a bunch . . . Whose panties? Those of “corporations and countries,” of course! But I’ll bet you didn’t even know they had underwear.

I can’t resist mentioning that when I first saw it, the page that offered Shover’s article had a teaser to another piece, which concerned the release of Yemenis from the prison at Guantanamo. The teaser was illustrated with a photo of a chain gang at an Arizona jail.

Hence the word "reign," and hence the appropriate and formerly general impression that government is the master and wizard of terror.

Well, peace to the Swiss and whatever they did with, to, under, over, or around the euro. The big news in January was the terrorism in France. It’s interesting that when you slay a handful of journalists in a Western country, you attract the kind of attention you don’t attract when you rape, torture, and kill large populations elsewhere. Yes, the Charlie Hebdo events were news and deserved to be. But I wouldn’t plaster them with the kind of metaphors the media uses for nearly every violent event. Particularly notable was the glee with which Megyn Kelly, pundit-reporter for Fox News, discussed the events on her Jan. 9 TV show. “A three-day reign of terror,” she said, was “coming to a head."

A general protest needs to be lodged against coming to a head. Its literal reference is to a pimple getting ready to pop — and if that’s not the image it conjures up, what exactly is that image? But however that might be, you’d think that anyone would have sense enough not to combine coming to a head with reign of terror. It’s dumb. It’s also wrong: there was no reign of terror in Paris in January 2015; there was a gang of murderous fanatics. And it’s misleading: reigns of terror (the first of which occurred in France in the 1790s, when a regime of radical democrats set out to exterminate all possible opposition) are the effects of government, not of volunteer terrorists. Hence the word reign, and hence the appropriate and formerly general impression that government is the master and wizard of terror.

The common phrase war on terror amplifies the misunderstanding. How do you declare war on an international gang of bigots and morons? One might, of course, try the smaller expedient of keeping them out of the country and removing any who managed to get in. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make snappy headlines, and it might offend the sensibilities of people who think that if you stop anybody at a border, you’re a racist.

No, I didn’t consider the Charlie Hebdo attack an insignificant event. Not at all. I just didn’t consider it a reign of terror. But this is an age of arguing by redefinition, of saying that X is Y and then believing it. Such beliefs are, disappointingly, sincere. As Swift wrote, “When a man's fancy gets astride on his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding as well as common sense is kicked out of doors, the first proselyte he makes is himself.” Anyone who makes the experiment of calling a tweak in Swiss banking an avalanche, or a terror attack a reign of terror, will soon believe that idea himself.

You saw redefinition in action, and on a broad front, in the aftermath of the big, self-congratulatory anti-terrorist march in Paris. It was supposed to be a demonstration in support of free speech. Within a week, however, European governments had resumed arresting people for saying bad things;and presidents, prime ministers, and the Pope o’ Rome had resumed their habitual redefinition of free speech as appropriate speech and responsible speech and legal speech — in short, as anything other than free speech. There was a large-scale reinstitution of that favorite word of communist and other dictators, provocation.

It’s interesting that when you slay a handful of journalists in a Western country, you attract the kind of attention you don’t attract when you rape, torture, and kill large populations elsewhere.

The Pope was especially lively on this topic. His asinine comments about free speech can be found at this place. Sure, he allowed, everyone has free speech. It’s a “right.” But curiously, it’s a right with limits. Free speech must be distinguished from speech that provokes those who don’t like your free speech. The Pope’s example was saying bad things about somebody’s mother. All right, shall we stipulate that free speech means “every kind of speech that does not say bad things about somebody’s mother”? No. The Pope intended some larger stipulation and restriction, some grand but vague set of responsibilities that he had the power to define but did not fully communicate at the moment. Otherwise, perhaps, he would have been licensing every atheist, Muslim, evangelical Christian, and devout Catholic to attack him for so provokingly lecturing them about their duties. We know this: “You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” That is completely out.

Am I being provocative? Will the Pope have me arrested?

The Pope is in the religion business. If he were in the business of selling antiques, I assume he would be threatening people who laughed about used furniture. But that’s what he is: a salesman for old, trite, useless intellectual objects. I don’t mean Christian ideas; I myself am a Christian. I mean the old, trite, useless, egregiously false, totally baseless and debasing, grotesquely unwarranted notion that you have a right to control what I say, especially if you’re insecure and stupid enough to believe that what I say threatens your own beliefs.

To leave one sad subject for another: there is fresh evidence that the practice of defining things to suit yourself has become far too popular in American universities — fresh evidence that the head offices at these institutions are havens for people who have never progressed beyond the stage of childhood at which saying makes it so. During the past few months, the University of Virginia has made itself a case study in arrested development. A popular magazine said that an anonymous woman had been gang-raped at a UVA frat. The published words made the story true. Administrators and faculty members immediately concluded, and announced, that rape was a desperately serious problem at Virginia and, very likely, every other institution of higher education. This also was accepted as true, because they said it. Greek activities were forbidden on campus; the frat house was vandalized; important Eastern newspapers made mighty utterances. When the story proved (to put it delicately) incapable of corroboration, university administrators welcomed the frat to resume its activities, as if making that statement would restore amends. All very simple: reality is what you say it is.

The Pope is in the religion business. If he were in the business of selling antiques, I assume he would be threatening people who laughed about used furniture.

A more recent example is the attempt by Duke University to convert the tower of its chapel — which is, pace all media reports that I have read, a Christian church — into a minaret for the use of Muslim students. No one — at least no one who gets his words in print — appears to have asked why the Muslim students needed a minaret, or if they did, why they couldn’t pay for one themselves. Paying for things oneself seems never to be considered. I doubt, however, that the minaret idea was cooked up by Muslims. It appears to have been the inspiration of people deeply cubicled in the administrative complex. One of them, it seems, was a certain Christy Lohr Sapp, associate dean for religious life, who triumphantly (triumphalistically?) announced, “The use of it [the church] as a minaret allows for the interreligious reimagining of a university icon.”

How many begged questions do you discern in that comment? It assumes (A) that “reimagining” is always good; (B) that “interreligious” is always good; (C) that “interreligious” has a meaning; (D) that if some action is “allowed,” one must do it . . . Four is enough for me; you may find others. Lohr Sapp must have assumed that saying these things would make them true. Alas for her, within 48 hours of her statement, reality intervened. Donors (for once!) protested, and the “interreligious” activity was canceled — for the time being. Despite all that, I think it’s remarkable that Lohr Sapp, who as associate dean of religious life is presumably acquainted with basic religious terminology, reimagined the chapel as a “cathedral” and then as a “minaret,” and reimagined an icon as something like a tall building that is supposed to attract the eyes of donors but is currently being underused by a politically correct administration that can therefore convert it to any purpose it wants.

When he wrote The New Class, Milovan Djilas had no idea how large the class of ideological managers could be, or how many philistines it would contain. Christianity? Islam? Judaism? Hinduism? All the same — from the bureaucratic and interreligious point of view. Yet there are some things in life — most of them, in fact — that cannot achieve any value apart from their individuality. Christianity is not deism. Judaism is not Eleanor Roosevelt. And Islam is not an ersatz form of do-goodism. None of the cultural and intellectual contributions of these faiths could have been made on the basis of interreligion. And none of their salient defects — about which devout people, at their best, are scrupulously self-critical — could ever have been identified from an “I’m OK-you’re OK-but especially I’m OK” perspective, the perspective that makes it appear that every religion is at all times and in all ways a religion of niceness, togetherness, and especially peace.

This is the kind of reimagination that Islam is now suffering. America, the first nation in the world to separate church from state, now abounds in state-authorized definitions of religion. Not since Pontius Pilate have so many theological decisions been attempted by politicians. And not just American politicians. On Jan. 9, French President Hollande, that great religious authority, declared that the Charlie Hebdo “terrorists and fanatics have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.” The next day, French Prime Minister Valls declared that France was at war “against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity." That takes in a lot of territory. The prime minister will have to do a good deal of fighting if he wants to win that war. Looks like jihad to me. Maybe he could begin by trying to convert his president to his ideas about Islam.

Our own president may be harder to convince. Last year, he convulsed Americans with laughter by asserting that ISIL is “not Islamic.” “ISIL” stands for “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” I found that out; why hasn’t he?

And he is not alone in his odd claim to religious expertise. Great Islamic scholars have concerned themselves for more than a millennium with the question of what is Islamic, but they didn’t have the benefit of Howard Dean’s profound investigations:

Former Democratic Party head Howard Dean objected to calling the shooters in the Paris attack "Muslim terrorists," though the attackers were witnessed shouting "Allahu akbar" as they fired.

Dean, speaking Wednesday on MSNBC, argued that they should be treated as "mass murderers" instead.

"I stopped calling these people Muslim terrorists. They're about as Muslim as I am," he said. "I mean, they have no respect for anybody else's life, that's not what the Koran says. And, you know Europe has an enormous radical problem. . . . I think ISIS is a cult. Not an Islamic cult. I think it's a cult."

Back to the practice of journalism: does anyone, on such occasions, ever ask the speaker which part of the Koran he’s talking about? I mean, really. If he stood up and said that “Christianity is a religion of peace,” which is what they all say about Islam, shouldn’t some canny reporter bring up the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition or some of the juicier parts of the Old Testament? Shouldn’t someone recite

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword—
His truth is marching on.

Someone should, but probably no one would. It would cost the journalists too much brain power just to figure out what the song meant.

As for me, I’m beginning to think that Justice Ginsburg’s method of dealing with presidential speeches may have a much wider application. Suppose we all grew too sleepy to find the News pages on our computers, or the Opinion pages (which are often, as we know, the same thing). Suppose we all discovered that we were old enough to take a snooze. What would happen then? What would happen to the pundits and the prophets? What — more to the point — would happen to the ad revenues?

/emp




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Comments

Jacques Delacroix

Stephen: Every time I read one of your columns on writing, a thin rivulet of cold sweat runs down my back and the part of me that's self indulgent about writing, and prone to lazy clichés gets gopher pounded.

There may be a simple explanation to several of the instance of meaningless reporting you give: The writer simply does not understand the topic on which he is reporting so, he just tries to make seductive noises to cover up. This explanation is easy to grasp on television news. The anchor just recites words gathered by someone else; the someone else may not himself be especially fluent in the topic. Sometimes, television news, and to a lesser extent, radio news, sounds as if it were read by a clever foreign actor who has mastered the sounds of a language of which he has no knowledge.

Some staffing on television is just implausible. Take the case of Fox News, which I like overall better then the competition. What's the likelihood that the cable network is actually able to locate the large number of attractive women it displays every day, who are also competent in their specialty, as well as cultured in a conventional way? And how plausible that the network finds blondes, specifically, with these attributes given that only about only 10 or 15 % of people in America are blond? It seems to me that to ask the question is to answer it. (Nevertheless, when you criticize Megyn Kelly, you are skating on thin ice in connection with your personal safety: Megyn does no wrong, cannot do anything wrong, period. That's a given.)

When I was growing up on a farm I was told that you can't have a dog that retrieves ducks with 90% success, guards small children from harm, and is cuddly on your lap. (I know, I did not grow up on a farm but this trick always gets the attention my narrative deserves.)

In the print press, where the requirement of a pretty face is looser, although not absent, other restrictive practices account for widespread incompetence. The first factor is the obligation to belong to a narrowly defined ideological tribe in order to be hired. Here, I use the word "ideological" loosely because the relevant lines may be drawn around fashions, complicated mental tics, especially those that prevailed at the time the journalist was in college. And since fashions change, we might just as well refer to ideological strata of journalists who may not even know what the word "ideology" means.

To the extent that my observations are correct, I blame widespread press incompetence on pseudo-specialized undergraduate education. One thing is sure about "Communications" majors: they are not English majors. I suspect that they learn only form and are not used to handling content, or to seek it, or to check it out. They graduate with a superficial understandings of the motions of journalism and not overwhelming concern for understanding the story itself. This is just not where their hearts are.

Of course, when I seem to favor English majors, I refer to Old School English majors, from the era before Postmodern LBGT Deconstruction. I think, without being able to prove it, that there are still American universities offering Old School English majors. I believe their graduates are low on the list of the hiring priority lists of press organizations. Another potential culprit is the ease which which one can find on the internet strings of words that seems relevant and to copy and paste them mechanically. The best students learn a great deal in college, including bad habits.

With all this, I am not sure sophisticated measurements would demonstrate that public writing is much worse today than it was when I was young, in another century. We have to remember that it's probably true that many more people write for public consumption than used to be the case then; I mean as a percentage of the population. One thus has to dig deeper into the drawer to find "communicators."

The simple speculation that reporters and anchors, and the like simply don't understand what they report on came to me first forcefully while watching TV5, the international French language channel. It dawned on me several years ago that the commentary often did not match the images on the screen. Then, I began to notice something about news of America, specifically, on that French language channel: The French commentary is often not really in French. Rather, it's in a make-believe language that sounds like French, that is obviously somehow connected to French but that cultured French speakers who don't know English probably do not understand. The commentators will, for example, mistranslate such simple English terms as "police officer," and "to go home." I know this is hard to believe, but the English word "gun" is often rendered as "gun," as if the French language did not abound in words to designate firearms. I continue to watch the TV5 channel because it's enjoyable in a sort of surrealistic way. News in America is also often surrealistic. And why not, the first paragraphs of your column report on a purely surrealistic event?

Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

One word I've found commonly used in the press today is "boon". The first time I read this, I thought the authors meant to say, "boom". It's probably just phonetic similarity, but I thought "boon" was negative, like "bane". I looked in the dictionary and saw that "boon" actually means blessing. Perhaps this relates to the press' (like his'?) propensity to use obscure, undefined talk.

As far as the Pope railing against hurtful speech, I think of how much Catholics talk about forgiveness. It is ironic that the leader of the Catholic church apparently can't apply this principle to offensive speech.

Finally, when you discuss the "reign of terror" and "bring to a head", I summarize this as the media's MO. To not make like the press, MO means modus operandi. This Latin phrase means method of operation. And yes, "MO" is one of my favorite catchphrases. To the point of media's MO, I summarize this as fear mongering. Like you said at the end of the article, it's how you sell that snake oil. You can explain the snake oil reference if you want.

It's Good to Consider What We Say,
Scott

Bruce Ramsey

I read his piece. Bad writing, but I did get what he meant in the first sentence you quoted: "to lift its minimum exchange rate, put in place in 2011, of 1.20 euro for every Swiss franc," means that 1.20 was the old rate. But as I read the story, Shover has it backwards: the old rate was 1.20 francs for every euro, or 0.83 euro for every franc. The current rate is one franc equals 0.99 euro. But if the franc went UP — which the stories and charts show — then each franc is worth more in euros. The franc went up from 0.83 euro to 0.99 euro.

I was a business writer for years, so I know what libor is — an acronym for London Interbank Offered Rate, a market rate of short-term loans banks make to each other. Shover should have defined it. What I don't get is how an interbank loan rate can be negative.

Johnimo

Excellent article, but I've one little bone to pick:

"A general protest needs to be lodged against coming to a head. Its literal reference is to a pimple getting ready to pop."

I prefer to think of it as a beer coming to a head and thus getting read to spill over, out of the glass and onto the counter where it will be difficult to drink and will require cleaning up. As I sit here in Neptune's Brewery in Livingston, it just seems more acceptable and even colorful to think of my favorite chocolate porter coming to a head.

Bottoms up, and carry on good sir.

Matt

I think a reporter (several reporters) in today's world would most certainly point out how "wrong" it is to speak of Christianity as a religion of peace. They would point out how much blood has been shed during the last 2000 years or so in the name of it. I don't doubt at all that this would happen.

The rest of this article is excellent.

Jacques Delacroix

Matt: Why the past 2000 years? How about the last 300 years? How much blood has been shed in the name of Christianity since, say, 1650? I think the answer is: "Just about none," but this atheist is eager to learn.

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