Just Keep Talking

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In case you think that United Statesians are the only people who are losing command of their language, and American politicians are the permanent world champions in the Oaf and Malaprop contest, consider what happened in the Canadian Parliament on May 18.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, known on the street as Li’l Obama, got upset about his colleagues’ slowness in voting on, of all things to get hot about, an assisted-suicide bill. So he stomped across the chamber toward Opposition Whip Gord Brown and some other people, including opposition member Ruth Ellen Brosseau. In the language of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is so nicey-nice that you can hardly understand it, “in video from the House, Trudeau is seen walking toward Brown in a crowd of MPs in the Commons aisle, taking his arm in an apparent effort to move Brown toward his seat. While doing so, he encountered Brosseau, who was also standing in the aisle and was seen physically reacting after the contact.” In the language of a more alert reporter, Trudeau “strode across the floor with an anger fierce in his face and eyes, towards a group of individuals. What took place was the prime minister physically grabbing people, elbowing people, hauling them down the way.” Brosseau said she had been “elbowed in the chest [i.e. breast] by the prime minister.” Others reported the PM’s deploying “the f-word” and continuing the confrontation in dialogue with the New Democratic Party Leader, who characterized him, aptly enough, as “pathetic!”

Later, amid loud cries of scorn and derision, Trudeau “apologized.” This is what he said:

I want to take the opportunity . . . to be able to express directly to [Brosseau] my apologies for my behavior and my actions, unreservedly. The fact is, in this situation, where I saw . . . I noticed that the member, the opposite member whip, was being impeded in his progress, I took it upon myself to go and assist him forward, which was I now see unadvisable as a course of actions and resulted in physical contact in this House that we can all accept was un, un, unacceptable. I apologize for that unreservedly and I look for opportunities to make amends directly to the member and to any members who feel negatively impacted by this, by this exchange and intervention because I take responsibility.

Here, in the comments of the lordly Canuck, are the same four and twenty blackbirds that American politicians are always baking into their own verbal pies:

A. The “apology” — but for what? For trying to “assist” someone. Some crime, eh?

B. The misleading description. Trudeau, it seems, took “a course of actions that resulted in physical contact.” Gosh, we all do that every day. I guess he’s no guiltier than the rest of us, eh?

This is a society in which tens of millions of people spend all day on their cellphones, and far too many people are paid to start talking and never stop.

C. The total disregard, or ignorance, of common idioms. English speakers never talk about “a course of actions.” It’s action, for God’s sake. Can’t you listen when other people talk? But when you’re a politician or other prominent personality, you don’t have to. So you don’t.

D. The reduction of a dramatic offense to something merely “unadvisable.” By the way, no one says unadvisable if he’s ever heard of inadvisable.

E. “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” — or at least of ignorance. You’re getting close to illiteracy when, within a very few words, you say, “We can all accept [that something] was unacceptable”; when you join accept with a clause, as in such current clichés as “you need to accept that your husband is a drunk”; and when you utter that virtually meaningless cliché “negative impact.”

F. The shifting of blame from actions to feelings, and hence from self to others — those others who “feel negatively impacted” by what you did. I am so sorry that you feel that way — now get over it.

G. The stilt stumble. Instead of saying that someone had trouble getting through the crowd, you climb on your stilts and say he was “being impeded in his progress.” My, Justin, what a big boy you are!

So much for Mr. Trudeau’s “unreserved” apology — and its ilk, whose name is legion, on both sides of the border.

Modern society is verbal to a degree that often makes me feel like Norma Desmond, longing for the days of silent movies. This is a society in which tens of millions of people spend all day on their cellphones, and far too many people — from talk show hosts and alleged teachers to political “consultants” and “activists” — are paid to start talking and never stop. But there appears to be an inverse relationship between quantity and quality.

Take Hillary Clinton. (Please!) She does nothing but talk. That’s been her sole occupation for the past 50 years. But somehow, the more she talks, the worse she gets. The more she talks about anything, the worse she gets about whatever that is. If you haven’t seen the YouTube video, “Hillary Clinton Lying for 13 Minutes Straight,” take a look at it, especially at the parts where she denies ever having changed her mind — or her essential values, or her basic concerns, or what she fights for, or whatever phrase she wants to substitute for mind. More hilarious still are the parts that show her lying — needlessly, endlessly, pathologically — about the nonexistent attack on her at that airport in the Balkans.

Now consider her attempts to jimmy her husband into her campaign. She and the liberal media (at present, her only friends and audience) still believe that Bill Clinton is the most popular person in the world. On May 20, Mr. Clinton appeared in my county, speaking in a high school to what was termed “a good crowd.” At the same time, the cops were blocking off streets for a Sanders rally. Who’s popular?

More hilarious still are the parts that show Clinton lying — needlessly, endlessly, pathologically — about the nonexistent attack on her at that airport in the Balkans.

It must seem strange to Mrs. Clinton that every time she brings up her husband, she loses more supporters. Insanely, she keeps on trying. On May 15, desperately attempting to get the workers of Kentucky to vote for her, despite her promise to put coal miners out of their jobs, she actually called the guy her “husband” — something she had hitherto avoided at all costs. (Understandable — she got where she is because of her own accomplishments, right?) She screamed about “my husband, who I’m gonna put in charge of revitalizing the economy, cause, you know, he knows how to do it.” At the mention of “my husband,” she waved her hand nonchalantly, as if already enjoying absolute power.

Note the phony folksiness of “gonna” and “cause,” and the real lack of grammar embodied in “who.” In view of her syntax, and her total absence of reference — what do we know that Bill Clinton knows about doing it? — Democrats should no longer complain about these qualities in Donald Trump. She’s right down there with him. Incidentally, if Bill knows how to revitalize the economy, why isn’t he doing it? What’s standing in his way? Has Hillary never anticipated these questions?

The “13 Minutes” video shows how dumb politicians can look when they’re trying to be clever. But here’s where the Dumber Principle comes into play. That’s what R.W. Bradford called the idea — useful to politicians, salesmen, conmen, evangelists, and people who are anxious to unload the house that they paid too much for — that “there’s always somebody dumber than you are.” On May 20, after the crash of the Egyptian airplane, I saw a Democratic spokesman castigating Trump for immediately suggesting that the cause was terrorism. The Fox News interviewer was apparently too dumb to mention that Mrs. Clinton had done exactly the same thing. He was also too dumb to deal with the contention that “there’s no evidence it was terrorism.” He looked puzzled, as if there was something he was missing, or something he had forgotten . . . But he never found it.

At the mention of “my husband,” she waved her hand nonchalantly, as if already enjoying absolute power.

The missing concept was the distinction between evidence and proof. Of course there was no proof of terrorism, or anything else, a few hours after the plane fell from a clear sky into the sea. But there was certainly evidence. The plane, which was on its way from Paris to Cairo, two top targets of terrorism, fell from a clear sky, into the sea, and without any cry of distress.

Confusing evidence with proof is a common dodge, a dumb looking for a dumber, and ordinarily finding it. President Obama used it on May 12 to debunk the FBI director’s contention that police are making fewer arrests because of the bad publicity they got from real and alleged abuses in black neighborhoods. “We have not seen any evidence of that,” the president said; it was all “anecdotes.” I’m not debating the substantive issue — I don’t know enough about it — and I don’t know whether there’s proof, one way or the other. But if you’re looking for proof, you need to start with evidence, and since when aren’t anecdotes evidence? Obama’s use of “evidence” to mean “proof” was simply a way of deferring the inspection of whatever evidence exists, until everyone forgets the matter. He did the same thing with the evidence of IRS harassment of rightwing nonprofits. But don’t let the blame stop with him. Where is the interviewer, or even commentator, who says on such occasions: “Excuse me. We’re talking about this because there is evidence. We’re trying to find out whether it’s proof or not.”

Let’s see. What else can I pick on this month? Here are two other instances of people emitting words long after they’ve run out of anything that makes sense to say.

My use of the first example demonstrates my integrity, because I’m bringing up a flaw in one of my favorite things in the world, Turner Classic Movies. TCM has given me so many hours of knowledge and pleasure that I am willing to forgive even the dumb things its announcers say about Hollywood people “accused” of communist sympathies; actual communists are unknown to TCM. But in the land of TCM, unlike a communist dictatorship, all kinds of movies are shown, and no movies are cut or censored. In our era of censorship and self-censorship, this is a shining accomplishment. So I am also willing to forgive the offense I am about to mention — although to forgive is not to forget.

So here it is: TCM keeps advertising its annual film festival as “the intersection of emotion and excitement.” This leaves me speechless, and not with admiration. An advertisement has to say something, but not that. No, not that. In a purely linguistic sense, President Obama’s failure to distinguish “evidence” from “proof” is of no importance, compared with TCM’s demand that we picture an intersection where emotion and excitement, which is a type of emotion . . . intersect. I may be too smart, or I may be too dumb, but I cannot picture that.

Confusing evidence with proof is a common dodge, a "dumb" looking for a "dumber," and ordinarily finding it.

Passing quickly, and finally, to someone who is not as likable as TCM, to someone who is not likable at all, I come to “Pastor” Jordan Brown, the idiot who tried to shake down Whole Foods in Austin by falsely alleging that when he ordered a cake that said “Love Wins” the store handed him a cake that said “Love Wins — Fag.” Linguistically, this event was important only because many of the media refused to state the offensive word, making up for their self-censorship by joyously presenting a picture of the cake itself, with the word on it.

But the bone I want to pick with the “pastor” has to do, not with the cake, but with one of the inspirational statements he tweeted to advertise his “church,” which if it existed was in the self-help, love-yourself business. The statement, sent out on April 14, just before the affair of the icing, was: “You cannot become what you will not confront.” If anything can be less than nonsense, that’s it. But it isn’t a peculiarly Jordan Brown statement. It’s the kind of idiocy exuded from every organ of the self-help monster that continues growing, 30 years after it ran out of the clear, simple, and actually helpful advice with which it began. Its brain is dead, but its words go on.

I like to remember what the actual pastor of an actual gay church once told me, in defense of other people’s right to say nasty things about gays: “Freedom of speech means being able to talk long enough to prove you’re a fool.”




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Comments

Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

Recently, I was thinking that I would challenge you on your next "Word Watch" article. I was thinking, "Talk is cheap, so why waste time considering it. Actions speak louder than words." First, when I consider this, if talk is cheap, then I have no justification for throwing up moron talk. Moron talk is what politicians are PhD's in, which I summarize as talking around the issue. Talking around the issue reflects this article's title, "Just Keep Talking". If you never shut-up, people will forget what you said earlier and get bored or irritated and stop listening to you. This is why my counter charge is to say that actions speak louder than words. I do see that this could also be self incriminating because it defends moron speech with the statement that all that matters is my actions. I speculate that your good point is that my speech is like the clothes I wear and how clean my body is. What I say is on my outside and is something that others will judge me by.

Keep Up the Good Work,
Scott

Stephen Cox

Thank you, as always, for your comment, Scott. It's true that we need to distrust people who are simply members of the "chattering classes." It's also true that we need to distrust people who say that they are "men of action" who "can't be bothered by all this talk." Isabel Paterson said that words are the tools of the thinker. It's not words vs. action; thought, informed by words, motivates people to act.

Paterson made that remark while discussing the importance of getting words right. If, for instance, people use words that confuse important distinctions or make it easy to misinterpret the actions of others, then we need to help them take a critical view of the words they're using, which are ordinarily the words that "everyone" is using and misusing—or the words that people with prestige are using for their own manipulative purposes. Hence Word Watch.

Best, as always,
Stephen

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