Do You Believe in Magic?

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If you wonder whether something bad always has something good about it, consider the remarks that a Santa Barbara (California) City Councilman made this summer, regarding the council’s banning of plastic straws.

The attack on straws is the environmentalist fad of 2018, and virtually everyone regards it as an affront to common sense. The councilman, Jesse Dominguez, apparently realized that they do. He remarked, in anticipation of protests from citizens, "Unfortunately, common sense is just not common. We have to regulate every aspect of people's lives."

So that’s a bad thing — two bad things, in fact. First there was petty tyrant Dominguez’s atrocious assertion of his power to regulate everyone else’s life. Second was his atrocious cliché: “common sense is not common.” Come now, Mr. Dominguez, what makes you think that you have the common sense to regulate anyone’s life, when you’re silly enough to think that anyone will fall for the old uncommon common sense routine?

Like the fruit of the deranged trees in The Wizard of Oz, this utterance wasn’t what it ought to be.

But then a good thing happened. There was indeed a public outcry, against both the enactment and Dominguez’s asinine remark, and he acknowledged it at the next meeting of the City Council. "I just wanted to apologize," he said. "A few weeks ago I made a string of words in a rhetorical fashion about regulation and they were not taken as rhetorical and that's my fault so I want to apologize."

What do you know — an apology! But in this world, neither good nor bad comes pure and single. Like the fruit of the deranged trees in The Wizard of Oz, and like virtually all apologies of Important Public Figures, this utterance wasn’t what it ought to be. It labeled itself an apology but justified the action for which it apologized, suggesting that the real problem was a misunderstanding on the part of the people to whom it was addressed, people who “took” a “rhetorical” statement and childishly misinterpreted it. And that business about “rhetoric” — that’s just a gnostic way for a speaker to justify anything that falls from his lips. One can always say of anything: “That wasn’t my real statement; that’s just rhetoric. My real statement is all those deeply spiritual things I actually meant.”

Dominguez isn’t the first to claim he was merely emitting a “string of words,” and it’s your fault that you got his meaning wrong. Other public figures do the same thing all the time. But what is “rhetoric” — what does it mean?

Rhetoric is a way of organizing words to express a meaning. When people analyze the words of a preacher or a politician or a salesman and conclude that “it’s all just rhetoric,” they mean that something has gone wrong with his string of words, that the mechanisms of meaning have been substituted for meaning itself. If someone says, “Every enterprise associate of Acme Widgets is committed to the highest level of personal respect and productive interfacing with the public,” you know that he or she is being rhetorical in the bad sense. None of those words except “Acme Widgets” has a discernible reference to anything; they are simply good wordsenterprise, associate (not employee, never employee), committed, highest, personal, respect, productive, public, interfacing (you’re right; that doesn’t sound like a good word to me, either, but it is thought to be one).

One can always say of anything: “That wasn’t my real statement; that’s just rhetoric. My real statement is all those deeply spiritual things I actually meant.”

Nevertheless, every writer uses rhetoric. If you write a love note, you may say to the target of your endearments, “Who wouldn’t love you?”, thus employing a rhetorical question, a means of breaking up the normal flow of declarative sentences and creating a slight surprise and intensification. You might add some such expression as, “You are the wind beneath my wings,” although I hope the metaphor you choose is not that trite.

Still, trite or not, the expression has a clear meaning. But what did Mr. Dominguez’s rhetoric mean? Was it just a string of words, with no meaning at all? Then why did he say it? If it did have a meaning, what was that meaning? Was he trying to say, “The voters who elected me have common sense and know what they want to do; therefore, I oppose all attempts to second-guess them by means of regulation”?

I doubt that this was what he had in mind. In fact, I can’t think of any meaning concealed beneath his rhetoric. What would that meaning be? The only one I can imagine is the hidden-in-plain-sight idea that “we have to regulate every aspect of people’s lives.” But seeing Dominguez assert that the real meaning is not the plain meaning is irresistibly funny; it’s like watching a magician claim that there’s an invisible rabbit in his hat. So that’s another good thing about his otherwise absurd and threatening statement.

Less funny rabbit-hat routines were on stage last month in the obsequies of John McCain. The ceremonies attending his death were so protracted as to suggest an irrational number, a house of mirrors, a sermon in an evangelical church, or anything else that makes one scream, “Where will all this end?” It was bad with Barbara Bush; it was worse with McCain — and who has not thought with horror about the coming funeral of Jimmy Carter? At some point, mourners had said all they could say about honor, patriotism, Abraham Lincoln, and this great country of ours. At some point, even the most self-centered person had said all he could say about himself. But what remained to be said, day after day, about John McCain? And what could one say that was true?

You might add some such expression as, “You are the wind beneath my wings,” although I hope the metaphor you choose is not that trite.

One could remind the audience that McCain had been a war hero, a genuine war hero. Captured by enemies in Vietnam, he was imprisoned for more than five years and tortured, horribly, for many months. At one point, fairly early, he could have been released, but he refused to cooperate unless comrades who had been captured before him were also released. His record is as admirable as attempts to question his military courage are despicable.

One could also say, with equal relation to the truth, that McCain spent the rest of his life as a politician — 35 years in Congress were required to perform his great public service — and in that role he revealed himself as a pompous, pigheaded, vindictive man. He was the only Republican politician whom I ever heard being thrown off a Republican talk show for being rude and overbearing. And despite his headstrong character, he switched policies and “convictions” so frequently that nobody knew how he was going to vote on any issue on which his vote was courted. Was he tricky, or was he incapable of coherent reasoning? No one could tell, but neither alternative was attractive. His own political party had no reason to trust him. According to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, McCain flirted with becoming his running mate. According to many people, McCain spent a lot of time peddling the scandalous “dossier” about Trump-in-Russia. I never met anyone who liked John McCain — did you?

When McCain died, his memory was claimed by people who had despised him (liberal Democrats) and people who had made the best of him, to further their own ends (establishment Republicans). These people, with hearty cooperation from McCain in his final illness, saw in his death an opportunity to create an anti-Trump, a politician who was a true American, as opposed to the president, who is un-American. (Have you noticed that this adjective, so long denounced by the Left as a vile slander — which it ordinarily is — now routinely features in Democratic diatribes against Republicans? Odd, isn’t it, that the transference should take place with so little self-consciousness.) Anti-Trump sentiment was mobilized in an attempt to create a panic of grief like that staged when dictators of North Korea die.

McCain was the only Republican politician whom I ever heard being thrown off a Republican talk show for being rude and overbearing.

But what, after all, could be said, day after day, about John McCain? What exactly were his sturdy American principles? What lives had he inspired? What thoughts had he brought to rare expression? What exactly had he accomplished? What had he said that anyone else remembered? How, precisely, could he be eulogized, hour after hour, day after day, week after week? At last the cliché was true: there just weren’t enough words to say about him. Words that meant anything, that is.

By August 31, the alleged mourning had used up so many other words that on-air commentators were clearly puzzled. Yet the show must go on, even at Fox News, which had never liked John McCain (or he, it). It was at Fox that I witnessed one of the most amazing magic acts I have ever seen — magical in the sense of claiming that the invisible rabbit actually was in the hat, that nonsense words were actually conveying some deep meaning. The people at Fox began referring to the marvelous coincidence of two mournings for American “icons”: one was the funeral of John McCain, and the other was the funeral of Aretha Franklin.

Now there’s a desperate string of words.

If there is such a thing as an icon, outside of the religious and artistic circles in which the term has definite meaning, Aretha Franklin was an icon. Icon means “symbol,” and Aretha Franklin was directly and intensely symbolic of a type of music and a type of style and attitude that was irresistibly attractive to millions of Americans. I don’t think that anyone who ever saw her perform “Freeway of Love” will ever forget it. But if John McCain was an icon, what was he an icon of, and by whom was he regarded as such? The answer is plain: He was an icon of John McCain, and recognition of his iconicity was confined to himself. Aretha Franklin and John McCain — each of them an icon? That must be a joke.

The people at Fox began referring to the marvelous coincidence of two mournings for American “icons.”

Worse, in respect to iconicity, is the behavior of our linguistic cousins, the British, whose language appears to be growing even more childish than our own. In Britain, soccer is “footie,” people who work with their hands are “workies” or “tradies,” even snobby writers search out chav words for use on serious topics, and the existence of meaningless Americanisms inspires a quest for equally meaningless anglicisms. So it’s no surprise that an icon in America has now become a totem in Great Britain. On September 3 the Express quoted a member of Parliament as saying, of a meeting the prime minister was scheduled to have ten days later (don’t ask me whether she had the meeting; it’s none of my business): “I think it’s going to be totemic, the crucial meeting on the 13th September.”

Totem, originally an Ojibway term, means a symbolic representation of one’s tribe or family, often specifying its descent. Totem poles do that. In an extended meaning, a totem is a symbol of one’s social group, whatever that may be. Neither of these meanings has anything to do with the MP’s topic. He is making a random seizure of a word he doesn’t understand. I hate to think what an Ojibway chief, sculptor, or storyteller would say about the application of totem to a meeting. He would probably have the same reaction as a Christian would have, if informed that the PM’s next political meeting would be eucharistic.

A good rule is not to use a word if you can’t picture what it means and have no idea where it comes from. I realize that this principle — which Mr. Dominguez might regard as a mere figment of common sense — imposes a tremendous burden on people who want to pull invisible rabbits out of verbal hats, and think they have a foolproof method of doing it. I hate to spoil the fun by revealing how the purported magic is accomplished, but the method is actually simple. First, divide words into two groups — those that sound big, and those that sound small. Then, whenever you want to make an impression, just choose a word, any old word, from the Big list, and throw it in anywhere; applause will follow. You want to compliment a dead politician? Call him iconic, beloved, inspiring, legendary, path-breaking, humble, proud, cautious, bold, whatever.

I hate to think what an Ojibway chief, sculptor, or storyteller would say about the application of "totem" to a meeting.

The same method can be used on some wretched political meeting, or some second-rate storm, such as the recently deceased Florence, which was historic, unique, unprecedented, incredible — until it wasn’t. That’s when people realized there was no rabbit in the hat, despite the Washington Post’s pre-hurricane editorial about President Trump being “complicit” with the rabbit — or wabbit, if you’re a fan of Elmer Fudd, who seems to have written that editorial. Complicit is a big word; it must mean something. Right?

For the Post it all had something to do with the idea that “if the Category 4 hurricane does, indeed, hit the Carolinas this week, it will be the strongest storm on record to land so far north.” Well (to cite a cliché that needs to be revived), if wishes were horses, beggars could ride, and so could the Post, begging for a disaster that proved to be invisible.

Here’s a question. Can you find the supposed rabbit in the following report from the New York Post (July 21)?

“In March, a Tesla driver was killed while test-driving an auto-piloted Model X, the impact fully decimating half the car.” Fairness obliges me to note that at some time after July 21, “fully” was deleted from the story. But that was not the root problem, which was decimating. Liberty editor Jo Ann Skousen was on the case. “’Fully decimated half the car’?” she asked. “Does that mean it was diminished by 20%? 5%? Was half of it untouched and the other half untouched except the front bumper? I’m confused.” But of course she was not confused; she is never confused. She immediately recognized that decimating was simply a word grabbed from the Big list and intended to be accepted as a bunny the size of Harvey. The only difficulty is that words aren’t impressive when they’re ridiculous.

"Complicit" is a big word; it must mean something. Right?

Or when they’re plausible, but false. Tucker Carlson appears to agree with me about the idiocy of McCain worship. He certainly agrees with me about the bad effects of McCain’s constant demands for military intervention in foreign countries. Unfortunately, on his September 4 broadcast Tucker decided to weaponize his criticism by claiming that “he [McCain] was probably the most warlike senator in American history.” What?

True, McCain never saw a military scheme he didn’t like. But for God’s sake, Tucker! What are you talking about? If you add up the senators who wanted to annex Canada in 1812, and the senators who wanted to annex Mexico in 1846, and the senators who wanted to massacre the South in 1861, and the senators who wanted a war with Spain in 1898, and the senators who screamed for war against Germany in 1914, 1915, 1916, and 1917, and . . . should I continue? McCain has some stiff competition in the contest for “most warlike senator in American history.” There is no rabbit in that hat.

Neither is there a rabbit in the hat of Paul Gigot, who runs Fox’s “Wall Street Journal Editorial Report” on weekends (an unjust fate, because the show is usually pretty good). On July 14, Gigot decided to discuss the activities of Peter Strzok. To give decisive emphasis to his feelings, Gigot called him the author of “now infamous” texts. Infamous means “full of infamy,” and in my opinion it’s an appropriate word for the activities of Strzok, the secret policeman who took it upon himself to decide who should be president and left evidence of this high intent and calling among the thousands of stupid texts he sent to his girlfriend. But either something is infamous or it isn’t. It doesn’t become infamous; it isn’t infamous now and not infamous yesterday or tomorrow. What Gigot presumably meant was famous, but he couldn’t stop with that. There’s no magic in saying that something is well known. So, needing a word of greater potency, he reached into his magic hat and pulled out the absurd now infamous.

McCain has some stiff competition in the contest for “most warlike senator in American history.”

When I was studying Latin, I learned from Horace’s Art of Poetry an interesting expression: parturient montes nascetur ridiculus mus: the mountain labors and gives birth to a ridiculous mouse. What’s striking is the labor that some of these people put in, just to get something wrong. You don’t have to talk about infamous texts; just say they’re familiar to everyone. You don’t have to say that McCain was the most warlike senator in history; just say he was mighty warlike. You don’t have to say that even Aretha Franklin was iconic; just call her a good singer, a popular singer, a singer whom millions loved. You don’t have to provide a string of words in a rhetorical fashion — unless, of course, that’s all you’ve got to attract an audience.

It’s remarkable, how many words are wasted in this world. Lives, too.




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Comments

Michael Morrison

Dr. Stephen Cox has been a hero to me since I first read one of his essays, a veritable wind beneath my rhetorical wings.
Yet, despite the number of essays (never mind number of years) of wonder and might, this one above is one of his best.
I am doing what I can to share it with as many people as possible.
Bravo, Dr. Cox. BRAVO!

Chris Nelson

That's what you are to me, sir: a rhetorical cool breeze of logic, meaning and good sense.

Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

When you mentioned John McCain, I thought about that magic word, Maverick. I always thought that it was tantamount to saying that he was a rebel without a cause. Of course he was always pitching it as being for a noble cause. Is it not rhetoric that some words are more emotive than others?

Best Wishes,

Scott

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