The Anatomy of Drivel
by Stephen Cox | Posted January 25, 2013
“How long does this drivel go on?”
That’s what Edward Everett Horton, impersonating an angel, says about the romantic conversation between Robert Montgomery and Evelyn Keyes that he is forced to overhear in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). It’s a good way of letting at least half the audience know that the moviemakers share their feelings, and won’t let the drivel go on much longer.
During the past year, as I dutifully followed the linguistic adventures of my fellow Americans, that line kept coming back to me: “How long does this drivel go on?” Unfortunately, no angels appeared to keep the story moving. The drivel never stopped.
“Drivel” isn’t a random term of abuse. It is almost scientifically accurate. A dictionary defines it as “(1) saliva flowing from the mouth, or mucus from the nose; slaver; (2) childish, silly, or meaningless talk or thinking; nonsense; twaddle.” Drivel is language that flows out naturally, no matter how ugly and stupid it is. The difference between verbal drivel and biological drivel is that people usually wipe the second kind off; the first kind they publish to the world, without a hint of self-criticism — and sometimes with more than a hint of pride.
If Jackson had any sense, wouldn’t she know that “make a difference” includes the possibility of “make things worse”?
We saw this in the president’s second inaugural speech. What can you say about “affirm the promise of our democracy,” “bridge the meaning of [old] words with the realities of our time,” “never-ending journey,” “America's possibilities are limitless,” “the love we commit to one another must be equal,” and “awesome joy”? That’s all drivel. Drivel on stilts, perhaps — although “awesome” is nothing more than surfer babble — but drivel nonetheless.
Now what can you say about EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who resigned her post, saying that she was leaving for "new challenges, time with my family, and new opportunities to make a difference"? You can say:
- It appears that she was fired. If she wasn’t fired, and she left for new challenges and opportunities, why wouldn’t she give us even a hint about what they were?
- Whether she was or wasn’t fired, shouldn’t she know that officials who claim they are quitting to spend time with their families have been the butt of jokes for the past 20 years?
- If she had any sense, wouldn’t she know that “make a difference” includes the possibility of “make things worse”?
Clearly, these thoughts, though obvious, are too much to expect from high-placed government officials. Jackson’s statement was drivel, pure drivel.
But drivel isn’t confined to government. What can you say about an ad for a concert that promises “a legendary night of music”? Many such pre-legendary ads appeared during 2012 — and this despite the fact that Americans already possessed, by their own account, the largest legendary in the world. By 2012, every celebrity, past celebrity, and would-be celebrity whom anybody could remember (admittedly, American historical thought has its limits) had been proclaimed a “legend.” Every second banana from a ’60s sitcom had become Hercules or Hiawatha, or at least Elvis Presley. That was bad enough. But to treat a one-night show, a show that hadn’t even occurred, as if it were a living legend in its own time — that’s drivel. As I write, news arrives of John Travolta’s receiving an award at the 10th Annual Living Legends of Aviation festivities in Beverly Hills, California. Congratulations, John! I’m sure you deserve every bit of it.
Anyone who uses such terms is either a fool or a political swindler.
More drivel — but perhaps not really important drivel. More serious is the drivel that is used to “argue” for political positions and public expenditures. Notice: I’m not referring to wrong ideas — that’s a whole ’nother category. I’m referring to childish, silly, or meaningless talk. One example is the sounds we hear about “the environment.”
First there was “global warming.” This “warming” may or may not be happening; if it’s happening, it may or may not be bad; and if it’s bad, it may or may not be caused by human beings. I suspect that it isn’t happening, and if it is, it isn’t caused by us. But whether I’m right or wrong, “global warming” isn’t exactly drivel. It means something. Something vague and maybe silly, but you can still detect a meaning.
“Warming,” however, wasn’t the end of the line. Far from it. Its successor was “climate change.” Whether this phrase originated as drivel is a subject for debate. It didn’t flow spontaneously out of somebody’s mouth or nose; it originated as a conscious cover-up of perceived flaws in the “warming” theory. You may not be able to show that the whole planet is heating up, but you know that climate is always changing, locally, in one way or another. But whatever its origin, the phrase itself is drivel. It is “meaningless talk,” in the sense that the words have no specific meaning. They are used as a synonym for “global warming, with bad effects, caused by man,” but that is a long, long way from “climate change,” which could just as easily signify “temporary changes in the weather of Boston, with good effects, and attributable to the sunspot cycle.”
One interesting thing about “climate change,” which is used to imply the necessity of resisting change, is that it is a platitudinous reversal of other platitudes. I refer to those nasty stews of syllables that authority figures start dishing up whenever they decide to do something you don’t like. “Life is change,” they tell us; “change is a constant,” “we all [i.e., you all] must adapt to change,” et cetera. But whether it’s feel-good drivel or feel-bad drivel, pro-change drivel or anti-change drivel, it’s drivel, that’s for sure. You can bet that anyone who uses such terms is either a fool or a political swindler. “We have always understood that when times change, so must we” (Barack Obama, second inaugural address). Question: How is it that our understanding is “always” the same, despite the fact that “times” are always changing? Has there never been a “change” that convinced us not to change?
But to return. During 2012, we witnessed the third float in the grand parade of environmental claptrap. Just as “global warming” once engendered “climate change,” so “climate change” now engendered “sustainability.” The word had appeared long before 2012, of course, and for all I know it once possessed a meaning. In 2012, however, it started flowing from every public orifice, on every possible occasion; and its meaning, if any, could no longer be established. Yet billions were expended in its name. Buildings became sustainable. Foods became sustainable. Septic tanks became sustainable. Any absence of plastic qualified for admission to the Sustainability Hall of Fame. Energy itself became sustainable — or was denounced as wicked, abominable, and subject to outlawry.
I can see, in a way, why fossil fuels might be regarded as nonsustainable. Someday, under some circumstances, those fossils may run out. I’m sorry to say, however, that by this standard our lives are much less sustainable than fossil fuels. In one hundred years, we will all be dead, unless we die even sooner, perhaps from attempting to eat only sustainable foods. Yet enormous resources of coal and oil will still exist. They will long survive us. Depressing, isn’t it?
But you see the true idiocy of “sustainability” when you notice that wood products have become “nonsustainable.” Wood products. Now, what is more sustainable, renewable, all those things, than trees? Trees, unlike coal or oil, grow back. And they grow back right away, unless you spend a lot of money keeping them off the property. Thinking in this way, however, is not ultimately sustainable.
It’s true that children are often exploited for emotional effect, but when else have you seen children’s funerals exploited in this way?
Are you still with me? I think you are. Now will you follow me into the world of “gun control” (that is, abolition of all guns not owned by government)? This, I believe, was the number 1 source of drivel during 2012, and in December of that year this drivel nearly drowned the nation.
By December 17, three days after what it called the “unthinkable massacre” at Newtown, Connecticut, USA Today was already proclaiming in a banner headline: “Gun Debate at Tipping Point.” In case the people who were allegedly “tipping” the debate didn’t know which way to tip it, the paper told them, in a subtitle: “Newtown Victims’ Age May Be Key.” “Victims’ age”: cool! That will whip up the mob. Meanwhile, “may” will establish journalistic fairness.
Next day, the big headline was “Calls for Change; NRA Mum.” We know that change is good, unless it’s climate change; but “mum” is such an old, oldword, so that must be bad. Above the headline: a picture of “young mourners” going to “the funeral of their friend”; above that, a headline reading, “Tiny Coffin Rendered Me Speechless.’” Do you detect a political bias here?
Would that USA Today had rendered itself speechless. It’s true that children are often exploited for emotional effect, but when else have you seen children’s funerals exploited in this way? When an airplane crashes, when a schoolbus goes off the road, when 500 people, many of them children, are murdered in Chicago in a single year, do tiny coffins appear above a banner headline? No, they don’t; because there is no political purpose for the exploitation. And in the absence of a design to manipulate, normal manners, normal standards of respect prevail, even in the media.
But for USA Today (and many other media outlets) normal standards aren’t moral enough. The paper was morally disappointed, morally frustrated, morally aggrieved, morally enraged that four whole days after the Newtown maniac used his gun, guns had still not been outlawed. Perversely, the debate refused to tip. Clearly, more talking points had to be provided. And they were. The banner headline on December 19 read: “Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Sandy Hook . . . Names Only Hint at Mass Killing Crisis. One Every Two Weeks.”
This isn’t pure and refined drivel — it’s still too calculated — but it’s an outline for drivel. It’s the passage from which drivel is supposed to flow. “Mass Killing Crisis?” Might this be a crisis even larger than the “crisis of obesity” — another gift of 2012? But “Mass Killing Crisis” isn’t just another hysterical politicization of a chronic human problem. Falsehoods about dead people aren’t the same as falsehoods about the overuse of French fries. They’re a hundred times more disgusting. In this case, they’re also more flagrant. Anybody who stopped to think would realize that if “mass killings” took place that often, they wouldn’t be news. But that’s not the point; it was never the point. The anti-gun propaganda wasn’t news; it was intellectual, or at least verbal, marching orders for people who never stop to think or realize.
The stuff provided almost irresistible. One knew, as surely as one knows that someone at an open-casket funeral will have to say “Doesn’t he look natural?”, that the emerging “debate” would involve a constant outflow of the question, “If it could save only one life, wouldn’t you be for gun control?” This is literal nonsense. More than one life would be saved by banning red meat, chocolates, staircases, swimming pools, snow shovels, films about sex, and automobiles of any kind. Yet this was the mighty question insistently posed by the egregious David Gregory in his famous interview with Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association. Gregory ordered LaPierre to answer the question, answer the question, just answer my question: if it could save only one life, wouldn’t you be for gun control? To his shame, LaPierre didn’t mention the fact that the question was drivel. Nobody ever does. But every thinking person should.
When I watch Fox News, regarded by the White House and my academic friends as an outlet for insane rightwing propaganda, I am startled by its ability to emit the same drivel as the modern liberal outlets If it weren’t for John Stossel and Greg Gutfeld, Fox would be in serious intellectual trouble. Here’s Karl Rove, commenting about the Newtown disaster on Fox News’ “Special Report” (Christmas Eve): “This is a horrific event. It has torn at the soul of America, that so many innocent lives were snuffed out.”
Public and effusive “mourning” is the pastime of politicians, newsmongers, and sadists, who have no real feelings about death at all.
Define “torn at.” Define “soul of America.” One would think that Nazis had invaded the country. I don’t demand that Rove say the simple truth, which is that many, many innocent lives are snuffed out every day, and that every innocent death merits mourning and reflection. And I certainly don’t demand that Rove, or anyone else on TV, say the more complicated truth, that whether we should or not, we ordinarily do not care about deaths that do not personally involve us; that the deaths at Newtown are truly mourned only by some extraordinarily empathic people; that public and effusive “mourning” is the pastime of politicians, newsmongers, and sadists, who have no real feelings about death at all; and that if these “mourners” were sincere, they would give the murders of the 500 people in Chicago (median family income $52,000) at least as much thought as the 26 victims at the school in Newtown, Connecticut (median family income $120,000).
As I say, no one should be required to enunciate these truths. But why go out of your way to avoid them? Why insist on discussing “the soul of America”? This sort of thing is drivel. Actually, it is worse than drivel. It is false and indecent.
It is false because it wantonly denies the essential terms of human life, which include the fact that some people become unbalanced and as a result do horrible things. In 1927, in the insignificant community of Bath, Michigan, a man burdened with some grievance, or set of grievances, or Satanic inspiration, or whatever, laboriously planted explosives under his home, his farm buildings, and the local school. When he had planted enough of them, he murdered his wife, blew up his house and farm (he had hobbled his horses to make sure they would be burned to death), and, by means of timed explosives, blew up the school. After that, grinning, he drove his truck to the ruins of the school, observed the behavior of the anguished crowd, called the school superintendent over to the truck, shot into it, and detonated the explosives he had put inside. He and the superintendent were killed. A total of 42 other people were killed, and 58 were injured. Most of the victims were young children.
A horrible, sickening event. But it did not tear at the soul of the nation. To say so would be drivel. As long as human beings are human beings, some of them will find ways to do such things. To be startled about this fact is false and futile.
But indecent — why?
It is one thing to assert that you have feelings when you do not have them; it is another to exploit the deaths of innocent people in order to advance some argument of your own, or (as in the case of Mr. Rove) to avert the arguments of other people.
What do I mean by “exploit”? Good question. If I believe that my fellow citizens should surrender their guns, because guns sometimes kill innocent people, and these deaths can be prevented by laws, there is surely nothing immoral about stating how many innocent people are killed by guns in a given year. And it is not exploitation to emphasize any new gun deaths that are reported. Exploitation happens when deaths occur and you are willing to say anything, no matter how ridiculous, to display your supposed regret and sympathy, your “thoughts and prayers,” and make other people look hardhearted if they refuse to follow suit.
Is it possible that such exploitation is engineered without pleasure and satisfaction? “Aha! More corpses! Now they will listen.” No, it is not possible.
This, I hold, is indecency — the behavior of moral vultures, hovering over the countryside, waiting for deaths on the highway. Vultures, I hear, are often seen to drivel.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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