What’s in the Bag?


Recently, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the monthly offerings of this column have been tightly organized around a central theme or cluster of ideas. Well, maybe you haven’t noticed that. I’ve tried, anyway. But, as we libertarians are fond of saying, TANSTAAFL: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. You always have to pay for what you get. In the case of Word Watch, tight organization — or a pretense of it — is purchased at the price of ignoring a lot of things that somebody ought to mention.

I’ll put it in another way. Everyone who writes a column like this has something that we call, in our professional language, the Grab Bag. We collect samples of things that we may want to mention, and when it comes time to get serious and write the column, we go to the Grab Bag and pull stuff out. Sometimes we’re frustrated because the great thing that absolutely must be discussed this month is somehow not in the Bag after all, and since we can’t seem to remember what it was, we have no idea of where else to look for it. Occasionally we’re relieved to find that all the items we pulled out of the Bag seem to fit together like a watch. More often we’re disgusted to see that in trying to make it all fit, we failed to exploit our most interesting material.

So this month I’m going to grab items out of the bag with no concern for whether they fit together or not. At the end, we’ll see whether any sense of order has emerged.

As we libertarians are fond of saying, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Item 1. The acute becomes chronic. There’s a common, and plausible, idea that high-speed mass communication renders language unstable. In the age of the internet, words, phrases, and, bless my soul, memes are born, become known, become popular, become tyrannical, and just as rapidly wither and die, depriving all who had adopted them of the ability to communicate. Expressions that might have measured their lives by generations of human beings now measure it by generations of fruit flies.

Regrettably, this notion is true only of clever and useful expressions, the ones that provoke and enable thought. Nobody remembers those. But words that destroy both thought and the tools of thought — these have remarkable staying power. They not only remain; if they die, they are resurrected. Witness cool and dude, all-purpose signifiers of some kind of goodness and personhood, which were chewed to death by Boomers but miraculously revived by Millennials.

Meanwhile — oh, a mere 25 or 30 years ago — the first generation of computer geeks gave us input as the replacement term for advice, suggestions, responses, dialogue– real words with real meanings, meanings that prompt one to think, “What do I want from her? Her analysis? Her ideas? Her corrections? Her critique? What, exactly, do I want?” But it’s so much easier, dude, just to ask for her input. At the same time, somebody — perhaps a student of meteor trajectories — gave us impact as a way of killing all distinctions among affect, influence, damage, ruin, destroy, annihilate. And the bureaucrats gave us the Universal Slash, the little mark of punctuation that proclaims to us, “I don’t care enough about what I’m writing to choose the words I mean; I’ll just plop down a bunch of possibilities and put slashes between them.” And these means of avoiding thought have (to paraphrase William Faulkner’s comment about man himself) not only endured but prevailed. On the road from here to eternity, they are approaching the goal.

Words that destroy both thought and the tools of thought — these have remarkable staying power.

I feel that more needs to be said about the slash. Here are two examples from a single source (in the comments to which you will see many, many more examples):

That’s why the FBI, and later the Mueller team, were/are so strongly committed to, and defending, the formation of the Steele Dossier and its dubious content.

The CURRENT FBI wants to hide Ms. Kavalec’s warning/notification that Steele was delivering false information about Cohen traveling to Prague.

Tell me, great author, you who have so much to tell: was it a warning, or was it a notification? There’s a difference. Maybe it was both. Decide, and let me know. And were those investigators committed, or are they committed, or have they always been committed? This also makes a difference. So fill me in. Don’t pretend that you’re too busy, or that your keyboard won’t do or and and.

The US (Universal Slash) started as a little ignorant/dippy/sometimes-pretentious fad — but it remained. And multiplied. If you work for an organization, any organization, you’ll get it in your inbox a hundred times a day. But when you talk to people about it, they just look back at you.

2. Are we trying to be ugly, or not to be ugly? In other words, why do people insist on saying passed away and the still more cloying passed, when all they mean is died — yet they make no effort to avoid the desperately ugly nitpick, pick your brain, brown-nose, and suck?

If you work for an organization, any organization, you’ll get the Universal Slash in your inbox a hundred times a day.

3. Horton hears a where. The word where refers to places and spaces. Then why is it constantly used for things that are not places or spaces? “In the argument where she shows . . . ” “It was in the century where . . .” On October 19 I read: “Seats where in years prior the Republicans did not even bother fielding a candidate are being flipped, while Democratic gains in the suburbs are mostly in traditionally competitive swing seats. Historically, the midterm elections typically favor the party that is not in the White House, yet this was trumpeted as a historic turnaround.” By the way, what is the referent of this?

4. Nope, nobody said a word. “No allegations of impropriety have been made.” “There have been no accusations of misconduct.” “No charges have ever been lodged.” To cite Gilbert and Sullivan:

What, never?
No, never!

What, never?
Well, hardly ever!

These no, never phrases are now used in exact proportion to the prevalence of allegations, accusations, charges, opinions, and convictions that something grossly improper or illegal has in fact been done. I’ve been meaning to comment on this singular phenomenon since I noticed that it was routinely being reported that no accusations had ever been made against Jussie Smollett, at a time when everyone in the country was thinking, and many brave souls were writing, that he had faked a racist and anti-gay attack on himself. Long before that, “Hillary Clinton has never been accused of a crime” had become a permanent part of the media mantra, despite the existence of a long shelf of books and about a million news articles accusing her of a wide variety of crimes.

There have always been plenty of American businesses that would give Hunter Biden a job he isn’t qualified for.

By this standard, no one who hasn’t been formally arraigned in a US court has ever been accused of anything. And now Biden’s doing it. In his whole life he’s never been accused of wrongdoing — unlike Trump!

5. And you were silly enough to think the media were unbiased! CNN “anchor” (and never has there been an anchor more weighted with his own importance) Anderson Cooper was the host of the Democratic presidential candidates’ October 15 debate. In that capacity, he put the following question to Joseph (“Honest Joe”) Biden:

The impeachment inquiry is centered on President Trump's attempts to get political dirt from Ukraine on Vice President Biden and his son, Hunter. Mr. Vice President, President Trump has falsely accused your son of doing something wrong while serving on a company board in Ukraine. I want to point out there's no evidence of wrongdoing by either one of you.

Having said that, on Sunday, you announced that if you're president, no one in your family or associated with you will be involved in any foreign businesses. My question is, if it's not okay for a president's family to be involved in foreign businesses, why was it okay for your son when you were vice president?

Well thank you, Anderson. You’re right, of course. There have always been plenty of American businesses that would give Hunter a job he isn’t qualified for.

People like Cooper have apparently decided that they can say anything, anything at all, to their hapless victims in the nursing homes and airport waiting rooms, and still maintain their self-respect.

I don’t need to gloss Cooper’s wiffleball “question” (you can tell it’s a question because he says, “My question is”), which was obviously wafted at Biden as an excuse for proclaiming him and his son innocent and their antagonist guilty, prior to all questions. Political dirt. Falsely accused. No evidence of wrongdoing. Try about a million dollars a year of evidence about that Ukrainian company. But the question proves that Anderson’s still speakin’ truth to power.

In a rational world, the more CNN’s numbers dropped, the more it would strive to look nonpartisan. Exactly the opposite has taken place. People like Cooper have apparently decided that they can say anything, anything at all, to their hapless victims in the nursing homes and airport waiting rooms, and still maintain their self-respect. There’s no evidence that they’re doing something wrong.

6. Do you actually know what you’re saying? There’s lots of Mrs. Clinton stuff in the Grab Bag. Here is a recent utterance. She’s speaking, as usual, about how everyone let her down in 2016:

There was nothing. I had nothing. So from my perspective, I think we’ll be a little better off [in 2020] than we were back then. But we’re gonna be outgunned, outspent, out-lied.

I mean, we’re gonna have a lot of problems.

Literally, then, what “we” need is bigger guns, bigger spending, and bigger lies.

7. For the millionth time, what are teachers getting paid to teach? It isn’t words. If it were, we wouldn’t constantly be encountering authors, themselves fairly well paid, who write things such as “he needed to lay down” and “she was one of the most well informed persons in Washington” and “’Go west, young person,’ as Horatio Alger infamously said.” All right, I made that last one up, but it didn’t surprise you, did it? How about the wondrous literacy of this newsicle. “He then gets on top of a yellow Ford Thunderbird and laying on his side, posing on the car.” Period. That’s the end of the “sentence,” complete with laying. Almost everyone in my building has a college education, but I regularly get notices that “water will be shut-off at 8:00 a.m.” I also read in headlines that “Senator Rand Paul Calls-Out Chairman Lindsay Graham.” Somebody needs to turn-off these hyphens. Somebody also needs to turn-off the sex and gender education and turn-on the English class.

8. Real rhetoric: the absence and the presence. By real rhetoric I mean words intelligently organized for the greatest possible effect on intelligent people. How much of that do you hear or read? How much of it do you get from the biggest spouters of rhetoric, the politicians? Answer: little, and none. But just when I was arranging some rhetorical flowers for the funeral of rhetoric, Democratic presidential contestant Tulsi Gabbard stayed my hand and joyed my heart.

Even if you can separate the value of courage from the value of words (which you should), you can certainly admire Gabbard’s choice of words.

Gabbard was responding to a podcast produced by the aforesaid Hillary Clinton in which Clinton claimed that Gabbard, who questions military interventions abroad, was being “groomed” for the presidency by Russians. She was a Russian asset. Gabbard responded almost instantly:

Great! Thank you @HillaryClinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain. From the day I announced my candidacy, there has been a concerted campaign [in leading newspapers and elsewhere] to destroy my reputation. We wondered who was behind it and why. Now we know — it was always you, through your proxies and powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine, afraid of the threat I pose. It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me. Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.

One thing that’s real about those words is that they’re all true, and obviously true. But even if you’re so oblivious as to think that they aren’t obvious, you have to admire Gabbard’s courage in addressing them to the wealthiest and most influential and most terrifying person in her party. And even if you can separate the value of courage from the value of words (which you should), you can certainly admire Gabbard’s choice of words. Her words have cadence and emphasis; they are educated, yet accessible; the pictures they paint are immediately visible, yet she wastes not a word in painting them. She doesn’t pussyfoot up to her prey and try to nibble it to death; she doesn’t pretend to admire any imaginary good qualities of her victim; she doesn’t try to find a de-“gendered” term for “queen.” She is completely successful. It’s startling to realize that this is what, for three decades, has needed to be said, but wasn’t said by anyone on Gabbard’s side of the aisle, or said with compelling words by anyone on the other side. I think I disagree with almost everything in Gabbard’s own political program, but she sure knows how to write.


Well, this has been fun. And it had a happy ending, too. I’m sure there’s no order to the thing (except for a certain obsession with Hillary Clinton), but why keep sacrificing wholesome fun to some impossible ideal of organization?

Enough is enough; goodbye for October.

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