Functional Illiteracy

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As you know, the cable networks are filled with advertisements both for medicines and for lawyers who sue about the results of medicines. Medicine ads (note: not lawyer ads) include lists of the unfortunate side effects that the advertised commodities may possibly have. While attractive, smiling, sociable actors illustrate the lovely lives of elderly, sick, drug-dependent people, cheerful voices observe that customers may be subject to shortness of breath, sore feet, heart attacks, pneumonia, depression, insanity, and the seven-year itch.

But lawyers must be suing on the ground that the names of the listed ailments are too hard to understand, because now there’s an ad advising you that Eliquis, which has been defined as “an anticoagulant for the treatment of venous thromboembolic events,” “may cause paralysis — the inability to move.”

Anyone can abuse anyone, at any time — so what?

I would think that any patient who understood the business about “venous events” would also understand “paralysis,” but we can’t count on that, can we? One of my best students recently entertained me with a self-joshing anecdote about his failure to perform some household task, to which his roommates responded by calling him a d*****b**. (I realize that half my readers will resent me for being too prudish to spell that out, and the other half will resent me for bringing it up in the first place.) He quoted the phrase several times, but I began to wonder whether he knew what it literally meant. “No,” he confessed. “I don’t.” So I explained it to him. He blushed, and volunteered not to use it again. But he hadn’t been curious enough to find out what he was saying, before I brought it up.

As I say, he’s intelligent. He has a much larger vocabulary than this incident suggests. Multitudes of our fellow citizens do not. That’s one reason why today’s comedy is so grossly dirty. I have no moral objection to bad words. Most of Abraham Lincoln’s jokes were dirty, and harmless. I think it’s funny when the cartoon kids on South Park break into filthy grownup language; it’s one way of showing how inane adultspeak can be. But you’ll notice that when South Park makes fun of, say, Al Gore, it doesn’t call him dirty names. Its purpose is to deflate, not to abuse. Anyone can abuse anyone, at any time — so what?

Now along come Kathy Griffin and Samantha Bee, and all they can do to satirize President Trump is call his daughter a c*** and pretend to decapitate him. (Griffin did the second, some time ago; Bee did the first on May 30.) Such displays of political rhetoric are dumb enough for anyone to understand — no dictionary, no act of reflection, is required. But why should anyone want to stage them? The usual explanation is that artists of this kind are themselves too stupid to think of anything even marginally clever. But if they have any instinct for their audience — and they must have some — they presumably think that gross abuse is the highest form of art the audience can enjoy. If they’re right about that, we’re all in trouble. Bear in mind that both Bee and Griffin number many defenders among the reputedly educated class.

Even as she spoke she must have been able to hear the sound of her audience contracting.

On May 31, on Tucker Carlson’s show, Tammy Bruce said that Samantha Bee and her ilk “make Trump look like Sir Galahad.” I have long admired Ms. Bruce; she’s very smart and very articulate, and she’s a libertarian. She was certainly right in what she said. But alas, poor Tammy: even as she spoke she must have been able to hear the sound of her audience contracting. Who the hell is Sir Galahad? Do I have to look that up?

And do I have to think before I speak? For Tammy Bruce, the answer would be obvious: Yes. Sure. Of course you do. For other people, that issue would be problematic. Wouldn’t thinking be a speed bump?

Here opens an endless vista of public figures, and public bores, who are generally the same thing, careering toward success along the great highway of language, without a care or a stop sign in the world.

When, on May 18, a lunatic killed ten people at a school in Santa Fe, Texas, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) rushed to the first available mike and reassured his constituents as follows:

Texas, as a state, we’ll make it through this. This community, Santa Fe, will make it through this, leaning on each other, praying for each other, standing with each other. We will make it through this.

I’m surprised that Cruz could make it through that impassioned speech. I know it was hard for me to get through it, and I was merely listening. I’d had no idea that Texas was about to fold like a map and blow away. So it was unsettling to learn that the state could be preserved only by people standing on it and leaning on each other as they stood. Yes, it unsettled me. It made me sick. Why didn’t it make Senator Cruz sick too?

It’s the kind of thing that people who aren’t very bright come up with when they try to insult everybody else’s intelligence.

And why doesn’t it make the New York Times sick to publish such headlines as “F.B.I. Used Informant to Investigate Russia Ties to Campaign, Not to Spy, as Trump Claims” (May 18)? What next — “Joe’s Diner Used Stove to Fry Eggs, Not to Cook Them, as Bill’s Diner Claims”? This is a nasty recipe. First you separate two synonyms (informant and spy); then you assume they are not synonyms at all but the most obvious kind of antonyms, implying that if the reader doesn’t see that, he or she just isn’t very bright. Finally, you decorate the dish with a ritual slam of Trump and his claims, claims having become a word you use for self-evident falsehoods. Like everything else in the Times, this is all supposed to be so erudite that if you question it, you’re just not (to repeat myself) very bright. But it’s not. It’s the kind of thing that people who aren’t very bright come up with when they try to insult everybody else’s intelligence. They’re convinced that nobody else can think, so why should they?

Most forms of stupidity are not that cynical. Rudy Giuliani was not trying to put something over on anybody when, speaking of the Mueller investigation, he told Fox News (May 31), “The whole thing should be squashed.” Picture someone taking the Mueller investigation, placing it on the floor, and squashing it like a pumpkin. But darlings, I’m sorry: the word is quashed. Rudy Giuliani is 74 years old; he has spent his life speaking and writing. He’s a lawyer. He was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Quash is a common legal term. Squash is not. Enough said.

But returning to headline writing — here’s the rare monstrosity that’s not from the New York Times. It’s from the CNN website. (Shouts of “Stop! We can’t stand it!” Sorry. You’ll have to.) Here it is (May 8): “Tonight’s primaries could prove the Trump takeover of the GOP is totally complete.” Not partially complete, you understand, but totally complete. As I write this, about a month later, the online headline has not been changed. Nobody noticed the problem.

Picture someone taking the Mueller investigation, placing it on the floor, and squashing it like a pumpkin.

Remember that people are paid to write headlines. As a profession. Now, suppose you call a plumber and ask him to fix your drain. He does so, but he also installs an identical drain, next to the first one, thus making the job totally complete. Would you be stupid enough to pay him? I think not.

Investigative reporter Sara Carter is not that stupid, but she apparently finds it easier to think through the FBI’s web of intrigue than to ponder her own words. On May 17 she published the following weighty sentences:

The Department of Justice Inspector General has sent what is described as an “extremely long and thorough draft” of the much anticipated report on the FBI and DOJ’s investigation and handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe, this reporter has learned. The detailed report on the FBI’s decision making process into the Clinton investigation could lead to possible criminal referrals for some of the officials involved in the case.

Well, that was dull, wasn’t it? Surely she could have cut to the chase. Along the way, she could have asked herself whether she could visualize a “decision making process into an investigation.” I can’t. To me, a process isn’t something that goes into anything. And I’m aware, as Carter is, that the FBI owned the investigation; it didn’t need any process to break into it.

Now let’s look at whether the Inspector General’s report “could lead to possible criminal referrals.” I hope not, because I don’t want a possible referral (nor can I visualize one); I want a real referral. So, I believe, does Carter. Yet even with this personal motive and moral imperative, she can’t get her sentence straight. Try “could possibly lead,” Sara.

Well, that was dull, wasn’t it? Surely she could have cut to the chase.

Falling like a rock from the (comparative) intellectual eminence of Sara Carter, I come, at last, to the level playing field of Wikipedia, where anyone can say absolutely anything. You know those obnoxious TV ads for Sandals, the ads that promise that your sex life will be miraculously restored — and not just restored, perfected! — if you book a trip to one of Sandals’ resorts? The ads provoked me to find out more about this life-changing organization. So I went to Wiki, and here, among other things, is what I found:

In January 2013, the government of Turks and Caicos Islands and Sandals agreed to a settlement of US $12 million around local corruption allegations, without admission of any liability.

If you’re thinking that this is simply routine American discourse, you are right. The proof is that word around. About 20 years ago, baby boomers reverted to their days of hash and roses and started using around as an all-purpose pronoun, just as they used like as their all-purpose sentence-larder. Immediately, every discussion was around an issue, not about it. I believe the indeterminacy of around made the word sound spiritual to them. There were also comforting echoes of illiterate leftist speeches around problems of racism and, uh, poverty. So comforting, and yet portentous, was around that it began to resemble the boll weevil in the old song.

First time I saw him, he was sittin’ on the square.
Next time I saw him, he was sittin’ everywhere.

In Wiki’s part of everywhere, a $12-million settlement is presumed to exist around allegations. Restless and amorphous, the settlement hunches and slops around until it finds a big, embarrassing allegation (right next to a big, embarrassed bank account), and sticks to it.

Around is an ominous symptom of a contagious verbal paralysis, by which I mean an inability to move words into places where they make some sense. A crucial stage of this sickness is loss of the power to visualize what words mean. No one who had the power of visualization would slap around into every slot available for a preposition. And no one who had that power would say the words I’ve been hearing for the past few months as I’ve listened, unwillingly, to a local TV station’s attempts to make itself sound intellectual. The station’s ads convey deep thoughts about the problems of San Diego, one of which is high real estate prices. The fruits of Channel 10’s meditations on this mysterious problem are presented in the words of a news personality who says: “The cost of living here? comes with a price.”

There is no price to a cost. There just isn’t.

The question mark is not a typo. It indicates how the sentence sounds. It represents the dumb, Valley-girl uptalk that makes a hilarious contrast to all the brow-wrinkling over San Diego’s challenges. But just look at that sentence. “The cost comes with a price.” What, in the name of Noah Webster, does that mean? There is no price to a cost. There just isn’t. The sentence can be pronounced with deep seriousness, as if it actually said what the author meant, or should have meant: “If you want to live here, you’ll have to pay a lot.” But that’s not what it says. It says nothing. It is a set of words with no visualizable meaning, and none of the 15 or 20 people who must have been involved in the production and dissemination of the sentence noticed that. In fact, they considered it so successful that they doubled down on it. They recently added a second version: “Cost of living! Is pricey.”

I have to admit, however, that if you don’t care whether your words mean what you want them to mean, or whether they mean anything at all, you may end up being funnier than Samantha Bee, Donald Trump, or even Sir Galahad. The effect may be unconscious, and a little morbid, but hey! Why should you care about that, either? If you notice it.

On May 19 a cougar killed a mountain biker in the woods 30 miles east of Seattle. A widely, and approvingly, circulated statement about this event was given to the world by one Rich Beausoleil (nice name), who is “the state’s official bear and cougar specialist” (enviable position). Notice the redundant, and therefore emphatic and unquestionable, marks of legitimacy: he’s a specialist, he’s designated by a state, and he’s official. I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed.

Anyway, Mr. Beausoleil (who, I have no doubt, is as good as his name) was reported to have said that

The death was only the second caused by cougars in Washington in the last 94 years.

“But it's one too many,” he added.

One too many? What about the first one? Not too many — just about right?




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Comments

Geezer

totally complete

"And she's not only merely dead, she's really most sincerely dead."

Stephen Cox

Thanks for bringing that one up! I'm glad the Munchkins didn't follow the rules. As Pope said, "there's a happiness as well as care."

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