Satanic Discourse

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R.W. Bradford once told me that he read an article that had been written by Alger Hiss, the communist spy, when Hiss was president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “I wanted to find out how a communist would write,” Bill said. “What I found was that he wrote exactly like a modern liberal.” Of course, Hiss was pretending not to be a communist, but there was no reason to believe that he was using language that was not his own.

I had similar feelings when I read a statement written by the now-famous Rachel Dolezal. It’s her resignation letter (published June 15) as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. Dolezal, as you know, is the woman who was born to white parents but pretended she was black. She is also the woman who claimed in an interview with a highly credulous reporter that she was born in a teepee; that she and her family lived by hunting with bows and arrows; that her mother and (alleged) stepfather then transported their children to South Africa, where they abused her darker-skinned siblings by punishing them with a “baboon whip”; that her ex-husband, who is black, abused her and their young child; that a wealthy mentor victimized her with a “date rape drug”; that in adult life she was continually victimized by hate mail and racist threats; and other claims unlikely to be true.

If Dolezal lived in my neighborhood, or yours, and it became known that she was “born white” but said she was black, everyone would shrug her off as a harmless crank.

“Rather than becoming bitter,” the interviewer said, “Dolezal chooses to empower others.” She then quotes Dolezal as saying, “It’s really painful from my mom and, you know, everybody that’s pretty much said they loved me at some point or were there for me, has betrayed me in a pretty significant way.” That’s what you say when you’re empowering others.

I’m not the least bit interested in Dolezal’s lie about being black. Probably nobody is, except for extreme racists on either side of the spectrum, and a few college professors who don’t have anything better to “publish” about. If Dolezal lived in my neighborhood, or yours, and it became known that she was “born white” but said she was black, everyone would shrug her off as a harmless crank. The problem for me is her other declarations, declarations that have had the consistent object of exalting herself and maligning other people.

While she was still white, Dolezal attended Howard University, the venerable African American college, which she proceeded to sue for discrimination, because it neglected to give her, a white woman, the jobs she wanted. (Howard had actually erred on the side of generosity by giving her a scholarship.) When she discovered that she was black, she went deeper into the grievance industry, procuring such roles as chair of the Spokane Police Ombudsman Commission (a law enforcement oversight agency), positions from which she could agitate more authoritatively against the imaginary sins of other people. The word “Satan” means “adversary” and, in its biblical contexts, “accuser.” Dolezal became a professional Satan.

So it’s interesting to see how a professional Satan writes while pretending to be a professional angel of light. Let’s consider the resignation Dolezal submitted to the Spokane NAACP.

The epistle starts with a sickeningly familiar tactic, much used by politicians and other people who live by manufacturing enemies. It suggests that Dolezal’s own failings, the ones that motivated the letter, are in fact unimportant; what’s important is the failings of the Other Side:

Many issues face us now that drive at the theme of urgency. [I know, I know; what does that mean? But proceed to the next sentence, please.] Police brutality, biased curriculum in schools, economic disenfranchisement, health inequities, and a lack of pro-justice political representation are among the concerns at the forefront of the current administration of the Spokane NAACP. And yet, the dialogue has unexpectedly shifted internationally to my personal identity in the context of defining race and ethnicity.

The language is “academic” — that is, preposterously complicated and elitist. It requires decoding. Readers familiar enough with pseudo-intellectual jargon to perform that operation will discover that the “current administration of the Spokane NAACP” is actually (guess who?) Rachel Dolezal, doughty warrior for truth, “enfranchisement,” and “pro-justice political representation.” That last phrase also appears to signify herself, Rachel Dolezal, the same woman whose “personal identity” has unfortunately come to overshadow her distinguished leadership of a righteous cause.

Dolezal attended Howard University, the venerable African American college, which she proceeded to sue for discrimination, because it neglected to give her, a white woman, the jobs she wanted.

But why has that happened? No reason is given, but responsibility clearly rests with the forces of the enemy: “police brutality, biased curriculum, economic disenfranchisement, health inequities.” The author is careful not to blame the many members of the NAACP and the African American community who wanted desperately never to hear her name again. To them she extends condescending recognition:

I have waited in deference while others expressed their feelings, beliefs, confusions and even conclusions — absent the full story. I am consistently committed to empowering marginalized voices and believe that many individuals have been heard in the last hours and days that would not otherwise have had a platform to weigh in on this important discussion.

The cliché is appropriate: truly, it’s all about her, even though she remembers to stipulate, later in the document, “This is not about me. It's about justice.” But when you think about it, it has to be about her; it couldn’t be about the Other, the great Accused. How could she possibly have lost her job with the NAACP because she opposed a biased curriculum (where, by the way?), police brutality (again, where? in Spokane, or some other place?), economic disenfranchisement (meaning what, exactly?), or health inequities (is she upset that some people are healthy and others are not?). If she was so concerned about these things, why couldn’t she define her terms, point to examples, clarify her solutions? But again, why bother? It is indeed all about her.

The reason she lost her job was that she told ridiculous and embarrassing lies about herself. Her own phrase for being caught telling lies is a “shift” of “dialogue” to her “personal identity in the context of defining race and ethnicity.” Virtually all human language means something, but this language is an exception to the rule. It is a perfect example of the kind of academic jargon that starts off meaning almost nothing and soon arrives at total emptiness. Dolezal, the part-time teacher of Africana Studies at Eastern Washington University, turned, in her hour of need, to the inane phrases of the faculty of Harvard. Where could better obfuscations be found?

The epistle starts with a sickeningly familiar tactic, much used by politicians and other people who live by manufacturing enemies.

In an essay in the New York Times, Charles M. Blowmakesa cogent observation about the second-handedness of Dolezal’s words. He quotes a remark she made about herself in a television interview: “This is not some freak ‘Birth of a Nation’ mockery blackface performance. This is on a very real, connected level.” Then he comments:

Full stop. Let’s just marvel at the efficient catchphrase saturation in those sentences. She takes the whole universe of possible attacks and issues them in her own tongue as a method of neutralizing them. It is a clever, if calculated, bit of argumentation, the kind that one might practice in a mirror.

I disagree only with the adjective “clever.” Dolezal’s words are not clever. They’re stupid. They’re nonsense. But they’re educated nonsense — educated in the sense that they have been learned and repeated from a purportedly higher source.

You see this in Dolezal’s aforementioned list of enemies. Certainly, police brutality is real. It exists. It isn’t just a bunch of meaningless syllables. I give her a pass on that. But the rest of it is what we commonly hear in what passes for political or “cultural” news — just so many talking points, spoken by politicians, written by consultants, concocted by pressure groups from ingredients assembled by academic “researchers” determined to prove what their stakeholders already assumed. In their world, and it is a very small one, economic disenfranchisement is established simply by the failure of some people to get paid as much as others; the researchers feel no need to consider such things as cartelized union wages, income and property taxes, a regressive Social Security tax, or the “health and safety” regulations that prevent any ordinary man or woman from opening a business in an inner-city neighborhood. They don’t feel the need, and neither do such activists as Madame Dolezal, who apparently assume, like their mentors, that it is more important to sound as if you were doing good than actually to find out how to do it.

The funny thing about terms that are accepted rather than analyzed is that they are much more likely to be used by bad people, to do bad things, than they are to be used by good people, to do good things. Satan himself is a second-hander, always latching onto phrases that are supposed to mean something, even when they don’t. He once offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them” — meaning what, exactly? Power and empire? Or abject service to Satan, the granter of subsidies and special entitlements? Today, by the grace of unanalyzed terms, conscientious parents are denounced for “child abuse,” because they spank their kids. Gun-rights advocates are accused of murder, because someone, somewhere, has used a legal or illegal gun to kill another person. Pastors are picketed for “bigotry” because they fail to approve of gay marriage. Journalists are accused of racism and covert membership in the Know Nothing Party because they oppose unrestricted immigration. The list is endless, but you get the point.

The reason she lost her job was that she told ridiculous and embarrassing lies about herself.

(For the record [what a cliché!], I fully approve of homosexuality; I am bored by guns but fully support the Second Amendment; I believe that a few pats on the butt are an appropriate punishment for delinquent five-year-olds; and I vigorously oppose unrestricted immigration. If this be treason, go ahead: arraign me in the court of public opinion. But please don’t try to begin a dialogue around my personal identity in the context of defining libertarianism. That would be too much to take.)

Dolezal rounds out her resignation letter in the way in which politicians normally round out their confessions of sin — by not confessing to any sins. She resigns with a list of supposed achievements. All of them are bureaucratic placeholders for actual accomplishments:

It is my hope that by securing a beautiful office for the [NAACP] organization in the heart of downtown, bringing the local branch into financial compliance, catalyzing committees to do strategic work in the five Game Changer issues, launching community forums, putting the membership on a fast climb, and helping many individuals find the legal, financial and practical support needed to fight race-based discrimination, I have positioned the Spokane NAACP to buttress this transition.

. . . the transition, which thoughtful members of the NAACP doubtless welcome warmly, from her administration to the next.

As I have noticed before in these pages, there is a big difference between being intelligent and being verbal. Rachel Dolezal is a perfect example. She’s as dumb as a stone. Yet she can read. By reading, she has gained access to a couple of hundred expressions that are accepted as meaningful by certain figures in academic or official positions (most of whom are no brighter than she is). By parroting these sounds, even when they are literally meaningless (“catalyzing committees,” “strategic work,” “positioned to buttress”), she can, like the college professors who first emitted them, appear to be intelligent, significant, and worth being paid.

I return to Bill Bradford’s comment about Alger Hiss. The words Hiss used — and he used a lot of them; he was highly verbal — were so lacking in substance as to be suitable both for communists and for anti-communist modern liberals, so long as the latter weren’t actually thinking but were just repeating words. When you consider how many other people operate in the same way, you can acquire some sympathy for the much-maligned conspiracy theories of American politics. When you listen to a speech by President Obama, can you tell whether he means to maintain the republic or is determined to establish a Huey Long-style autocracy? The same essentially meaningless words could be used for either purpose. Or, to choose a homelier example, when you listen to a speech by any of the Republicans now campaigning for the presidency, can you tell whether the candidate believes in individual liberty or is merely a wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Satan himself is a second-hander, always latching onto phrases that are supposed to mean something, even when they don’t.

But here’s the really Satanic thing, the thing that goes far beyond momentary political conflicts. In most generations of American history, the kind of discourse I’m considering — wordy but not intelligent, personal but not original, moralistic but in no way respectful of the truth, overtly humanitarian but covertly cruel, irresponsible but implacably self-righteous — in most generations, this kind of discourse has been a potent weapon of accusation and official persecution.

  • Having inherited a stock of religious phrases, a coven of girls in Salem, Massachusetts accused their neighbors of bewitching them, and had 20 of them executed.
  • During the Civil War, people accused of being Copperheads (Northern men with Southern sympathies) and Abolitionists (Southern men with Christian sympathies) suffered a similarly unjust fate, though usually not such drastic punishment. Some brave talker had discovered that, in today’s language, they fitted the profile of the opposition group.
  • During World War I, being German was often enough to incite the leading talkers of a town to run you out of it, and pseudo-intellectual language about Americanism, sedition, and consorting with the enemy was never far to seek.
  • From the 1970s on, false accusations of child abuse have been used to ruin many lives, often on evidence kept secret because of its “horrific” nature. False evidence can always be supported by expert testimony to the effect, for instance, that children don’t lie about such things.

Virtually throughout American history, Satanic allegations of homosexuality were sufficient to disgrace inoffensive men and women, destroy their means of livelihood, and send them to jail. After all, didn’t the experts say that homosexuality was an epidemic that must not be allowed to spread to our children? The same expert language, and the same pattern of accusations, characterized the anti-drug hysterias of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The language of unanalyzed guilt and hysterical accusation continues in the current diatribes against climate change deniers, homophobes, maintainers of white privilege, and other perverts.

There has always been a Satanic cohort in American society, a set of people who find it impossible to be happy except when they are accusing others, and diligent in finding things to accuse them of. The impulse is the same; only the targets differ (although the frequent presence of sexually connected targets remains to be explained). These people — the Rachel Dolezals among us — never go away. The most serious problem is the rest of us, the people who are at least momentarily convinced that there must be something in the accusations, because otherwise no one would be able to put them into words so confidently.

In the book of Job, God points out the difference between being verbal and being intelligent. “Who is this,” he asks, “that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” And he asks a more troubling question, “Have the gates of death been opened unto thee? or hast thou seen the doors of the shadow of death?” Unfortunately, we in America need not look very far to see the gates of death. They are right there, right behind the perky little smiles of Rachel Dolezal and the many others who resemble her.




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The Age of Plaster

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Last month’s Word Watch characterized the current era as the Age of Small Minds. A comment was made about that column, an interesting comment too. It was a critique of efforts to distinguish one “age” from another. I responded as best I could, but the truth is, it’s hard to resist naming Ages — as hard as it was for H.L. Mencken to resist naming Belts: you know, the Bible Belt, the Infant Damnation Belt, and so on.

My current idea about the current age is that it should be called, at least in its literary dimension, the Age of Plaster. By “plaster” I mean the kind of stuff that people slather onto a sentence, just any old way, so that the sentence will sort of warm the heart, convey an impression, avert criticism, earn a paycheck, earn a doctorate, or, as the plasterers say, whatever.

The idea is to cover the sentence with the stickiest, gooeyist phrases you’ve heard in the past 24 hours, preferably phrases you’ve heard 24 times during that time. This shows that the plaster will wear well. A good plasterer can get through a whole day — seven days, 365 days, 10,000 days — without having to think about what he’s doing. It’s all routine, and it’s all the same.

A search of Google News returns 16,900,000 citations for legendary. Now there’s a hunk of plaster that will stick to anything.

Instead of stating, simply and clearly, that you called Helen to ask for her advice, you can dredge your wet bucket of words and say that you reached out to Helen to get her input. You don’t need to worry about the fact that getting input is a generic term for what happens with computers, a term not applicable to human beings and not capable of distinguishing between begging for advice, asking for an opinion, drumming your fingers while you pretend to listen, and demanding a complete report by Monday. But why bother to figure out the difference, when input will get you through the sentence?

And why worry about that jarring noise one hears when a banal computer term is coupled with an expression that, until 2014, suggested intense emotional need? Until then, people who were crossed in love reached out to their friends for solace. Communities devastated by natural disasters reached out in desperation for the assistance of others. People who had lost their jobs reached out to their families and friends. You can almost see those hands reaching out. So is that how you reached out for Helen’s input?

A few years ago, I toured the Michigan state capitol. The guide pointed to the beautiful copper chandeliers, elaborate constructions with their lights hanging from effigies of the state’s heraldic animals, the elk and moose. “See those things?” she said. “When they restored the building, they discovered that basically, the chandeliers were hanging from nothing. It was all just lathe and plaster.”

Many a rhetorical elk and moose depends from the plaster ceilings of 2015. Probably there isn’t a day in the Michigan capitol when bureaucrats fail to inform the public that their newly invented infringements on liberty are motivated by an abundance of caution; that without the latest rules and regulations, who knows how many families in this state might have been put in harm’s way?And if these coats of plaster aren’t enough to cover the lathe and support the copper fauna, the bureaucrats will undoubtedly add, If we can save just one life . . . ?

Are there military weapons that are not lethal? No, there are not.

Or we can save just one job — the speechwriter’s. Or the news writer’s. It sounds impossible, but people are actually paid to write newspaper stories about the legacy of Michael Brown. Or about that closely related subject, the many legendary aspects of our world. A search of Google News returns 16,900,000 citations for legendary. Now there’s a hunk of plaster that will stick to anything. High school volleyball seasons are legendary; local sheriffs are legendary, with legendary careers; a retiring chemistry prof is legendary; an obscure 18th-century doctor is legendary. I like Joan Rivers as well as the next person, maybe better; but tell me, what legends are actually told about that legendary performer?

Here’s another kind of news story (AFP, May 14): “Kiev — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has appointed John McCain, a hawkish US senator who has pressed Washington to send lethal weapons to war-torn Ukraine, as his advisor, his administration said.” As Han Solo once exclaimed, “You said a mouthful, Chewie.” Senator McCain is a hawk, and Ukraine has something like a war going on, and I don’t like either of those things; in fact, I detest Senator McCain. But that’s not a promising way for a news story to begin. The key is “lethal weapons.” Are there military weapons that are not lethal? No, there are not. Lethal weapons is verbal plaster, a way of tarting up a news story until it can double as a partisan attack.

To accomplish the purpose, the words don’t have to make sense. War-torn: what does it mean? Was America “war-torn” from 1861 to 1865? Certainly, if you lived in Virginia. If you lived in Maine, maybe not. But war-torn sounds so definite, doesn’t it? So much like settled science. Being torn is bad; being war-torn must be twice as bad, indeed evil. And imagine the evil of sending lethal weapons to a place that is already war-torn! Horrible to contemplate.

Well, there are plaster saints — of the which McCain is one — and there are plaster arguments. I hope I’m not required to choose between the two.

Most of the verbal plaster that’s now being slung comes out of the political bucket. It’s politics that creates presidential speeches that contain not a single memorable line, just lumps of flattery flung at every demographic group and lobby the speechwriter can think of. It’s politics that creates press conferences so clogged with plaster that nobody cares what was said; everybody just discusses the means that were used not to say anything. This doesn’t mean that words were finally dispensed with. One wishes that they were, and that the press agents resorted to mere gestures. That would be more than enough. Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s film director, was asked how she cut the Nazis’ long-winded speeches down to only a few seconds. “Oh,“ she said, “there’s nothing hard about that. With a political speech, all you need is the beginning and the end, and just something in between.”

But politics isn’t the only source of verbal plaster. The ultimate source is the social assumption, no doubt inspired by our non-educational system, that words — their meanings, their histories, their emotional associations, their logical implications — are of no importance when compared to something, almost anything, else.

You can tell when people think that words are important: it’s when they try to use them accurately, even when accuracy isn’t required.

What does it mean to say that your thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the latest victim of senseless violence? Are the people who say this actually praying? Are they actually thinking? And according to what definition is a murder or riot actually senseless? There wasn’t any motive? There was, but no one can understand it? What? What do these people mean? Do they even know whether the victim had a family? Or cared about it? If they themselves really cared about any of this, they wouldn’t be using these hackneyed phrases.

To cite another example: what does it mean to say that the outcome was negative, or I had a positive reaction to her proposal, or he had a really negative attitude? If the people who use such words cared about conveying a specific meaning, wouldn’t they think for a tenth of a second about the words available to express it? A positive reaction: is thata good reaction, or a favorable one, or a pleasant one, or an enthusiastic one, or a mildly approving one, or what, exactly? If they cared about words and their meanings, why would they let negative take the place of bad, unfavorable, damaging, disastrous, fatal, slightly unfortunate . . . again, every word that’s available to convey a thought? Such people are not trying to cover up their true feelings (as opposed, I guess, to false feelings). They don’t regard their feelings as important enough to define. They want to talk, but without disrupting their intellectual snooze.

You can tell when people think that words are important: it’s when they try to use them accurately, even when accuracy isn’t required. Chelsea Clinton is unlikely to lose her job at the Clinton Foundation, no matter what she says. So, on purely financial principles, why shouldn’t she tell the world, as she did on April 23, that the Foundation is hard at work on many issues, “whether that’s around women and girls”? Huh? What is that, and how is it around? And Andy Levy isn’t likely to lose his job on Red Eye because he, like most other people in the media, said squash when he should have said quash. The difference is that Levy immediately corrected himself, thus demonstrating that he cares more about the meaning of words than about the sound of his own voice, even though it’s the voice that earns the paycheck. Let this event, Levy’s Self-Correction, be recorded, together with its date: April 24, 2015. It was a victory of mind over plaster.

Not all of Levy’s friends at Fox deserve to be seen in this positive light. Jenna Lee, one of the many blonde young ladies who give the network its distinctive tang, was burbling on May 8 about the Kennedy family when she strove for a supreme verbal effect and emitted, “These figures are so icon.” She got her effect, but it seems kind of negative to me. How much do you care about words if you use icon as an adjective?

It was another Foxite, Andrea Tantaros, who fell to discussing a female sports referee (April 9) and observed, “She’s knows how to ref, which she does know how to ref.” It has long been common, among people who are not paid for the words they use — in fact, among illiterate people — to employ which as a universal substitute for and, but, although, because, and any other connective you can think of. But Tantaros is paid — apparently to apply such verbal plaster. Rand Paul, noted for his large quantity of words, is also a pretty good plasterer. On April 7, he told Sean Hannity — he who introduces every other sentence with the word now, with no interest in discovering any other way of plastering over his own lapses of continuity — “If you raise defense spending, which I think we do need defense spending . . . .” Bill Clinton was puzzled by the meaning of is; Rand Paul is unclear about the meaning of which. I prefer Paul, but hell, he’s making it hard.

Political blather . . . how about religious blather? Yes, the clergy have been master plasterers for a long time. But now the Bible is filling up with the gray sticky stuff.

The New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press) is the Bible translation mercilessly pushed by modernist clergy. The damned thing is everywhere — in the liturgy, in Bible studies, in college courses, and I assume (gruesome thought) in deathbed devotions. The NRSV is a terrible translation, flat, pretentious, and sometimes remarkably inaccurate. I was recently reminded of that while I was looking up the Bible episode in which a man is consumed by worms because he took God’s glory to himself.

These are as nothing, compared with a political correctness so asinine that even a male cannot be called a man, even when the Bible calls him that.

He’s Herod Agrippa, and it happens in the twelfth chapter of Acts. Herod says something in public and the admiring crowd exclaims, as at some utterance of a US president, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” That’s how Acts 12:22 has been translated in the past, and the meaning is perfectly clear in the original. If you’re wondering about the original of “man,” it’s “anthropou,” the genitive of “anthropos.” The word means “man,” plainly and simply. It’s impossible to find a passage in the Bible that is easier to translate.

Unluckily, the translation I seized from the bookcase was the NRSV. And how does this much lauded work of scholarship translate the passage? It manages to render it as, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!”

To repeat: “Anthropos” means “man.” It does not mean “male.” It does not mean anything about mortality, one way or another. But let’s get to the most important question: what crowd would say a thing like that? What person would say a thing like that?

Not Thomas Jefferson, who did not hold it self-evident that all mortals are created equal. Not Abraham Lincoln, who did not say that the field of Gettysburg had been consecrated by the blood of brave mortals. Not Edna St. Vincent Millay, who did not write a sequence of poems called Epitaph for the Race of Mortals. They didn’t say it that way, and they wouldn’t have said it that way, because saying it that way would have made them look as if they didn’t give a damn about the words they used.

But to the august Bible translators, the meanings of words, their emotional associations, their dramatic proprieties and plausibilities — these are as nothing, compared with a political correctness so asinine that even a male cannot be called a man, even when the Bible calls him that. The assumption is that once political correctness is secured, any kind of verbal plaster will be good enough to cover the gap between Acts 12:21 and Acts 12:23.

This the kind of thing that makes real liberals shudder. And what can be next? Mortal and Supermortal? “A mortal’s reach should exceed his/her grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” “Ecce homo: behold the mortal”? Very probably. They’re all just words. Just something you spread on a wall.




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Going Vexed to the Sea

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One of this column’s persistent themes is President Obama’s unwillingness to read a book. If he read any books, he would mention them, but he almost never does. When he tries, he gets the citations wrong.

He did it again, on April 11, when he invoked Ralph Waldo Emerson during some self-defensive chatter about Iran. “Consistency,” he said, “is the hobgoblin of narrow minds.” What Emerson actually wrote was, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Well, who cares? At least the president quoted Emerson. Right — though he quoted without attribution, presumably because the staff kid who gave him the words didn’t know where they came from, either. Otherwise, vain spirit that Obama is, he would have displayed his professorial erudition by saying something like, “As the late Ralph Waldo Emerson so wisely advised us all . . .” But whether he knew the source or not, there’s a big difference between “consistency” and “a foolish consistency.” Reproving the latter makes sense; reproving the former does not.

More revealing, I think, although I cannot prove it, is the change from “little” — as in crass, unspiritual, incurious, imperceptive, conceptually limited — to “narrow.” Obama has spent his whole career battling “bigotry”: narrow-mindedness about race, particularly. He appears to think that everyone who criticizes him manifests this vice. But of the distinction between little minds and great ones, he has no awareness. No little-minded person does. And that’s exactly what he is: crass, unspiritual, incurious, imperceptive, just plain little.

Littleness itself can be neither limited nor confined. It is everywhere around us, even in the regions adjacent to Deep Creek Hot Springs, California. On April 9, in that locale, a mob of cops arrested a man who had stolen a horse. The man had been thrown from the horse and had cast himself on the ground in surrender, but the cops beat and kicked him. For a long time. Some cops who weren’t in the original group of beaters came over and joined the fun. Members of the law-enforcement mob have now been suspended from their jobs, pending an investigation. San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon commented on the posse’s use of force by saying, “It does not appear to be in line with our policies and procedures, at least a portion of it. . . .At the end of the day, it appears to be excessive.”

Of the distinction between little minds and great ones, he has no awareness. No little-minded person does.

Yes, it does. And from an aesthetic point of view, at the end of the day seems almost as bad. The prevalence of that pompous phrase is the measure of how greatly little minds prevail with us. At the end of the day is a small-minded attempt to seem large-minded, above the fray, calm and distanced in perspective, up in the midnight sky. . . . The phrase constantly appears in the pettiest acts of press agentry.

Small minds are, by definition, incapable of understanding how their words affect their listeners. They are also incapable of understanding that the issues of the day haven’t ended simply because they themselves have enunciated a pompous cliché. Obama, with his prattle of “hope and change,” has yet to see that the slogan was not, in itself, constitutive of hope and change.

Small minds typically try to make the surrounding world seem smaller; they fit better that way. One of their methods is the deployment of a severely limited stock of words to cover widely divergent situations. They assume that if their words don’t vary, the situations won’t either, and they will therefore be on top of them. Thus, segregation can be used to refer both to the legalized racism of the former South and to any population pattern in which one ethnic group happens to predominate. The same moral outrage can then be expressed toward both. A similar trick can be seen withincome disparity — a term that, unlike segregation, had no moral meaning to begin with. No moral lesson can be deduced merely from the fact that some people make more money than others.Yet the notion of an income gap has been used — first by outright demagogues, then by small-minded and incurious folk — as if it were prima facie evidence of a shocking wrong. The result is a morally agreeable simplification of a world that is often difficult for primitive moralists to feel at home in. They are relieved of any need to consider the obvious truth that some people with large incomes got them by crony capitalism or plain crookedness but others achieved them by benefiting large numbers of willing customers. Climate change is an even clearer example of a slogan employed to deceive, yet it evokes genuine hysteria among people whose view of science is so limited as to accept such a term as meaningful.

The present period of our political history might be called the Age of Small Minds. Its character is established by the tendency of small minds to turn, not to the cultivation of their own gardens, but to the ruin of others’. A startling example of small-mindedness appeared in the “fraternity rape” scandal at the University of Virginia. The episode, as you recall, began with Rolling Stone’s ready acceptance of allegations made by a woman pseudonymously known as “Jackie.” The story was full of holes, holes that could easily be discovered by anyone who had any perspective on human experience; but many people publicly known as intellectuals welcomed it as proof that universities need to reassert their parental powers and exterminate all forms of social life repugnant to those who think about nothing but sex and gender. That, of course, is one of the most nauseating things about both fraternities and gender fanatics, but few people noticed the parallel.

Obama, with his prattle of “hope and change,” has yet to see that the slogan was not, in itself, constitutive of hope and change.

Jackie’s story, and Rolling Stone’s way of handling it, aroused so much controversy that the affair was investigated by a distinguished team of journalism teachers. Their conclusions about Rolling Stone and the credibility of Jackie’s story were headlined as scathing. They weren’t; the report was as mild as lambs. And at a press conference afterward, one of its authors refused — as did almost all media reporting on the case — to blame Jackie for anything that had happened. She remained the “victim.”

The facts suggested that the real victims were those who had accepted the Rolling Stone story. Well — to revise an old expression — you can’t cheat a large-minded man. But even after the nature of the story was fully exposed, only a few brave souls challenged the bizarrely unjustified extension of victim to anyone who claims, however, preposterously, to be a victim. To the small-minded, we are all victims — we, as opposed to they, the people we don’t like. Those people are the victimizers. So much for the complexity of this world.

The language of small minds is reductive. It is also inflationary. That isn’t a paradox. If you have nothing much to say, no clear conceptions to communicate, you can always make a big noise to cover the nothing in your mind. You can use big words, stilted words, official words. And official words (such as victim) multiply with the multiplication of official jobs, official “duties,” official powers. They grow with the growth of government and the pressure groups that use government as their weapon of choice. Indeed, they precede it. Before any expansion of the nanny state, empty phrases (sustainability, an epidemic of rape on college campuses, the obesity crisis) rain down to confuse the weak and paralyze the skeptical, while clouds of nerve-destroying gas (we are outraged!) are emitted to make a safe zone for the next enlargement of official jurisdiction. The argot of climate change, with its loud but simple-minded equation of change with evil, scientists with grant recipients, doubters with deniers, green with good, has proven especially effective as a weapon of war on independent thinking. Small minds can accommodate only a few big “ideas”; as soon as those are in place, no antagonistic notions can get in. Almost any kind of hooey will be accepted as settled science; any petty nonsense will become a moral compass.

An amusing example appears in an email created by Cylvia Hayes and recovered, with some difficulty, by a nosey newspaper. Who, you may ask, is Cylvia Hayes? You know the answer if you live in Oregon. Hayes is the romantic partner of (former) Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was forced to resign his office because of scandals attendant on their relationship. Not sexual scandals — nobody, emphatically including me, appears to care who is in bed with either of them — but scandals about the influence on state government of an un-official of the state (Cylvia Hayes). This is no place to give details about the collusion of tiny minds that enabled Hayes, a promoter of Green causes, to dominate the politics of Oregon; you can enjoy the story elsewhere. It’s enough to mention that “Kitz” pompously decreed that his girlfriend was the “First Lady” of Oregon, with the unstated but fully intended corollary that she was entitled to be obeyed in all matters, foreign and domestic. A similar pomposity emerged in my town, San Diego, when our now deposed mayor, Robert (“Bob”) Filner, decided that his girlfriend was a “First Lady,” thus adapting to new and very local uses an old piece of silly presidential jargon.

To the small-minded, we are all victims — we, as opposed to they, the people we don’t like. Those people are the victimizers. So much for the complexity of this world.

Anyway, even without the title, Hayes was pompous enough to fill almost any political role, especially when there were issues about her favorite topic, the environment. If you say that phrase in a normal tone of voice, all it means is “whatever happens to be around us.” If you say it with superstitious awe, it means God. Hayes said it with superstitious awe. Any offense to the environment was clearly sacrilege. So we come to the email I promised to discuss.

It’s a snarky missive from Hayes to someone in the government of Oregon. In it she demands, with sarcasm worthy of the confessional, “Is there a reason we have regressed to single-sided copies?” Anyone who was so unconcerned with sustainability as to use only one side of a piece of paper had obviously regressed on the evolutionary scale.

Was Hayes making a mountain out of a molehill, a Hindenburg out of a toy balloon? Oh yes. And aren’t trees the most sustainable of our natural resources? Don’t they grow again? And isn’t Oregon, of all places, the land of trees? But that’s the thing about little minds: they see neither the forests nor the trees. More important: they are outraged when other people fail to share their view.

I am not arguing that to be large-minded, you have to possess the right ideas about politics, or economics, or the environment, or photocopying, or the state of Oregon. Or that you have to read books and continually cite them. Probably Cylvia Hayes has read some books, maybe more than President Obama. But there are other considerations. I doubt that John Bunyan read a lot of books, besides the Bible. I suppose he read a lot of bad sermons too. But he had an enormous vision of the world, and of the human soul, and he had the literary integrity that comes from large-mindedness. There isn’t an expression in Pilgrim’s Progress that is cheap or tawdry or inflated or pompously self-defensive. The same can be said of those works of art that are still technically known as Negro spirituals. No book learning there — but no petty concerns or petty expressions, either.

I am no political partisan of either Abraham Lincoln or my namesake, Stephen Douglas. In their works you see a great deal of logic-chopping, prevarication, false charges, faulty extrapolation, and other tricks of the professional political wrestler. It’s the same with Webster, Clay, Calhoun, and the other famous orators of that age — and also, I am sorry to say, with Jefferson, Madison, and other great men of an earlier generation. I am not an admirer of William Jennings Bryan, the late-19th-century purveyor of crackpot Progressivism. But you would need a heart of stone to say that the public utterances of these men, even of Bryan, consisted of big words composed by little minds. No; all the world, the world of great America, is in their words, together with that large and vital and often crazy thing, a notion of how it fits together. Like them or not, their thoughts were big, and their bigness wasn’t the bigness of grandiosity and condescension (“I want to be a champion of the middle class”). It was the bigness of real people, people with intellectual curiosity, with an actual interest in ideas and in the crown of ideas, which is language.

There isn’t an expression in Pilgrim’s Progress that is cheap or tawdry or inflated or pompously self-defensive.

In July 1863, President Lincoln greeted the conquest of Confederate fortresses on the Mississippi by writing, “The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea.” It’s a magnificent saying, a saying like the voice of a distant planet, yet the voice of someone who knows what the Father of Waters looks and feels and sounds like, who knows his laziness and his dislike of vexation and yet his need to reach the encircling sea. It’s the saying of a person who knows and cares what a river is, and what its history and its associations have been (“Father of Waters”); a person who thinks it worthy of his job as politician to try to express such things.

What would President Obama have said on that occasion? What would John Boehner’s response have been? What words would Hillary Clinton have found? I could never have invented Lincoln’s words, but I can easily invent the words of his successors on the political stage: “First, I want to say that our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the brave men and women who have been engaged in this conflict with which all of us as Americans have been struggling. We are committed, as a nation, to providing all Americans with the means to live rich, full lives in this great country of ours. The opening of the Mississippi River makes us think and reflect about everything that is truly great about America, which is family and freedom and the hope of a better life for all. I welcome this new opportunity to sit down with the folks in Alabama, and in Georgia, and in South Carolina, and in all the other places where events have happened, recently, that have caused pain to so many of us, and restart our long national dialogue about the values that we share. Together, I think we can work on the root causes of violence, and hunger, and sickness, and disease, and bigotry, and prejudice, and find ways to provide meaningful work, at a living wage, for all Americans. God bless the United States of America.”

Isn’t that right? Isn’t it? And do you ever expect to hear anything better from these people?




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The Cult of Cynicism

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From time to time, this column has good news to report.

From time to time. Occasionally. All right — rarely. We’re not living in the golden age of literacy, you know.

But there is, occasionally, news that’s not so bad. If it’s true. The current version of buenas noticias comes to us, possibly, from the father of Mohammed Emwazi, allegedly the real person behind the mask of Jihadi John. JJ is the British subject who runs about the Middle East butchering people who don’t accept his religious notions. That’s the bad news. The good news is that his father may not have adopted the old, hackneyed ways of responding to the reported misdemeanors of family members.

There are at least two versions of this story. One is that the father is defending his son, saying there’s no proof that he did those things. The otheris the one I want to believe.

It goes like this. Confronted by questions about young Mohammed’s alleged crimes, he didn’t say, “My son is a good boy.” He didn’t say, “My son was an honor student who was planning to attend a community college.” He didn’t say, “This is all a plot of the Zionist Christian infidel crusaders.” He didn’t accuse anyone of racism. He said, “My son is a dog, he is an animal, a terrorist.” He said, “To hell with my son."

Mohammed called his father and said “I'm going to Syria to fight jihad, please release me and forgive me for everything." [His father] said, "F*** you. I hope you die before you arrive in Syria."

While other parents of miscreants initiate lawsuits, shriek into microphones, and solicit contributions for their pain and suffering, Emwazi’s father (in this version of the story) showed what the Declaration of Independence calls “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”:

"He said he cannot come back to work because he felt so shy of other people," said [his friend] Mr. Meshaal. "He is sitting home and cannot even go to the mosque to pray because he is ashamed of his son. He doesn't want people to see him, so he is praying at home."

Dignity and truth are so closely related that one seldom appears without the other. It is a sign of our world’s cheapness and cynicism that the reported remarks of Emwazi père, so honest, so worthy of respect, should also be so unusual as to shock the headline writers into noticing them. If the story isn’t true, our world is the poorer for it.

But what shocks me is the cult of cynicism that has swept our own country like a thousand gangs of jihadis. It’s a cult in which the central ritual is lying. The faithful gather; the priest tells a blatant, whopping lie; then the congregation breathes “Amen!”, congratulating itself on being clever enough to know that the words are lies, and that the speaker knows they’re lies, and that the speaker knows that the faithful know that the speaker knows they’re lies. I could go further with that sentence, but you get the point. The grand lie, the most pious of all lies, is that nobody knows any of this.

Dignity and truth are so closely related that one seldom appears without the other.

Our era’s most fitting representation of a priest is President Barack Obama. He has all the stereotypical qualities: he’s pompous, he’s unctuous, he’s obscurantist, he’s self-righteous — and he lies all the time. That’s not hyperbole. Given a choice between truth and lie, he chooses the lie. Lying is his religion.

This month, Obama’s former secretary of state, an ambitious under-priest named Hillary Clinton, carried the lying ritual far enough to disgust everyone. She called a press conference to claim, on the authority of nothing but her own word (a word that during the past two decades has been repeatedly exposed as worthless), that she is not concealing information from the American people regarding her communications while secretary of state.

Brazenness comes naturally to Hillary Clinton; she is well qualified to be a priestess in the house of Baal. What she lied about this time was her use of a private email account to cover her deeds as a public servant, including misdeeds that no person of normal intelligence, even among her fervent supporters, doubts that she committed. But in the cult of cynicism, a lie means nothing if it isn’t so obvious that partisans say to themselves, “Christ, what a flumpin’ lie! But she’ll get away with it.”

Nevertheless, Mrs. Clinton’s obvious lies about her weirdly obvious coverups were nothing when compared to the reaction of Obama, her former boss. During her long, long years as secretary of state, she undoubtedly corresponded with Obama many, many times, and in her correspondence undoubtedly analyzed many state secrets (“classified information”) that it is death and hell to harbor on one’s private email. Which of course she did. So. Whenever Obama got a message from Clinton, he had an opportunity to observe the address from which she sent it, which was a private address, not a government address. He must have noticed that. He certainly noticed that. So what does he have to say about it? He says that he learned about her putting government emails on her private server at “the same time everybody else learned it, through news reports.”

A cult of cynicism has swept our own country like a thousand gangs of jihadis. It’s a cult in which the central ritual is lying.

Again, it’s a religious duty: given a fair choice between truth and lie, you lie. And if you don’t have a choice, you make one. Witness Mrs. Clinton’s out of the blue stories about being shot at in the Balkans and being named after Sir Edmund Hillary. Nobody cared where her name came from, but it represented an abstract chance to lie, and she tried to cash in on it. The fact that a lie is preposterous — as preposterous as Mrs. Clinton’s claim that she used a private email system instead of the government’s system because she didn’t want to carry both a private phone and a public phone — just adds to the priest’s perception that she or he is showing bold leadership. Boldness seems still bolder and, indeed, more truly presidential, the more closely it is linked to an obvious lie.

Acolytes, such as presidential press secretary Joshua Ryan Henry (“Josh”) Earnest, naturally compete to emulate the bold adventures of their saints. For them, shamelessness is next to godliness, and their bosses graciously give them the open shot at shamelessness. Even President Obama must have realized that no one could possibly believe his lie about learning of Mrs. Clinton’s nongovernmental email “through news reports.” Not only is “learned it from the news” preposterous, but he’s used that line about virtually every scandal in his administration. On a charitable interpretation, he must have known that he was being ridiculous, and he was being that way to give Josh his chance to tell a landmark lie of his own.

The chance came when the media hacks had finally scratched their heads and stared at their cellphones long enough to say to themselves, “Well, golly. If I know where my emails are coming from, why wouldn’t the president know where his were coming from?”

So out came Josh, to explain it all. Which he did, in this way:

Earnest said that while Obama likely recognized the e-mail address that he was responding to was not a government account, the president was referring to the fact that he didn’t know Clinton was using a personal e-mail server that was kept at her house or that she was using that exclusively for government business.

In private life, such statements would send you flying out the door. In public life, they beget learned analyses of how cleverly your camp has distanced itselffrom the offender. That’s another dimension of cynicism — the cynicism of the media, the cynicism of the learned experts.

Brazenness comes naturally to Hillary Clinton; she is well qualified to be a priestess in the house of Baal.

But for those of us who value religious faith, it’s sad to observe that President Obama doesn’t always adhere to his. I’m not referring to his flagging relationship to Christianity; I’m referring to his vital faith in cynicism. Even from this faith he is capable of backsliding. The high priest of cynicism sometimes blathers nonsense that he actually believes. At those dark moments, climate change (formerly known as global warming) is piously considered the biggest threat to civilization. Hiphop is welcomed as a form of art. The Islamic State is denied to be Islamic. Taxes and regulations are prescribed as cure-alls for the middle class.

Most recently, the president has taken to prattling about the idea that if voting were mandatory, it would become a kind of religious experience:

It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract [campaign] money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country.

Well, of course it would. No one would have to pay a dime to guide political illiterates to the polls. They would find the polls themselves! And no one would need to show them how to vote. They would do it by inspiration! It would be a miracle.

One of Obama’s weirdest intervals of devout belief occurred this month, when he prompted a State Department minion to announce that the religious fanaticism of, say, Jihadi John is prompted, not of course by religion, but by the need for economic development. I mean, if you wonder why some people treat women as slaves, hang gay men for being gay, hack off the heads of hostages, and burn fellow Muslims in iron cages, it’s because there aren’t enough jobs for young jihadis.

The high priest of cynicism sometimes blathers nonsense that he actually believes.

Obama never runs out of temple servants, but the one bearing these revelations happened to be Marie Harf, a State Department spokesman and reputed expert on something, who delivered — or rather, like her boss, intoned — a series of remarks that made even progressive Democrats convulse with laughter. Harf maintained that if we are to win the war against terrorism, its “root causes” must be addressed — not such causes as morbid religiosity, abusive ideas of sex, or opportunities to practice sadism in real life, but such causes as a “lack of opportunity for jobs.”

P.J. O’Rourke once defined a modern liberal as a person who believes there are some people who are just too poor to clean up their front yards. Now there are people who are just too poor to keep from burning other people alive.

When she realized that the nation was laughing at her, Harf went back on television to insist on the “root causes” cliché, and add lack of “good governance” to the list of reasons — never, apparently, including religion — why people spend thousands of dollars traveling across the globe to torture and kill other people. She then blamed her audience for failing to appreciate her “nuanced” argument.

Nuanced raised even more laughs. It became clear to all, even to John Kerry, the reductio ad absurdum of Ivy League elitism, that to everyone this side of Harvard Yard, nuanced is a funny word, not a deeply seriousone. He told congressmen not to laugh at the miserable Ms. Harf. But they did. Everybody did.

But what had she done? She had given honest (though ridiculous) voice to the honest (though ridiculous) ideas of her boss.

It’s better to stick to cynicism.




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If Ever, Oh Ever, a Wiz There Was

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Entering his capital in triumph after a desperately hard campaign, Frederick the Great rode with his eyes forward, refusing to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. An aide said, “Sire, the people are applauding you.” Frederick, eyes still resolutely on the road, replied, “If you put a monkey on this horse, the people would applaud him.”

That is my idea about news “anchors” such as Brian Williams.

It’s not everybody’s idea. On Feb. 8, in one of the last columns he wrote before his untimely death, David Carr said:

For some time now, there have been two versions of Brian Williams. One is an Emmy-winning, sober, talented anchor on the “NBC Nightly News” and the other is a funny, urbane celebrity who hosts “Saturday Night Live,” slow-jams the news with Jimmy Fallon and crushes it in every speech and public appearance he makes.

Each of those personas benefited the other, and his fame and appeal grew accordingly, past the anchor chair he occupied every weeknight and into a realm of celebrity that reaches all demographics and platforms. Even young people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching the evening news know who Mr. Williams is.

I’m citing this as a good example of the strange idea that there was a before and after to the Williams story — a before in which Williams was not just a celebrity but a funny, urbane, talented, appealing celebrity, and an after in which he was a dope and a blowhard, always telling ridiculous stories about himself.

As witnessed by the add-on adjectives, one can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time, but it’s still interesting to know. Unfortunately, it’s also evident that one doesn’t need to do much in order to be regarded as funny, urbane, talented, and appealing. To me, and to hundreds of millions of other people, there was never anything remarkable about Brian Williams. I don’t regard slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon as something that requires a lot of talent. Williams never crushed it with me.

Williams’ talent, such as it was, consisted merely of being a news anchor who did things that are usually not associated with being a news anchor. Lots of people are celebrities for reasons like that. Preachers and politicians get loud laughs when they tell a joke, but only because people think it’s amusing that someone with such a dull job can tell any joke at all. The animals on YouTube are considered amusing for doing things that any dull, ordinary person does every day; their talent is merely being animals that are trying to do those things. But if you found out that the dog wasn’t really a dog, or the cat wasn’t really a cat, or the news anchor wasn’t anchoring much of anything, no one would want to watch any of the supposedly amusing antics. And being a news anchor requires a lot less than being a dog or cat.

One can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time.

I am old enough to have been a victim of the Age of Cronkite, an age now deeply venerated by a lot of people who believe that at some time in the past there really was a Wizard of Oz. I say “victim” because in those days there was no national electronic news except the offerings of the three government-licensed networks. Cable TV — always called, suspiciously, “pay TV” — did not exist. Basically, it was illegal. So, for lack of competition, a complacent man of modern-liberal ideas who was capable of reading a few minutes of typecript, crying when Democrats were hurt or killed, and, essentially, reprocessing news releases from the White House (or, in times of Republican administrations, from opponents of the White House) was worshiped as a god. At the time, however, he was worshiped by nobody except people whose own intellectual equipment was so faulty that their fondest hope was to be like him.

I know of one “news anchor” who was smart and knowledgeable and a good writer of his own books. That was David Brinkley. There used to be a cable anchor who was even better than Brinkley, Brit Hume of Fox News. But Brinkley is dead, and Hume is retired. Compared with these respectable figures, Walter Cronkite was the little mouse you see in the diorama of North American mammals, nibbling seeds at a fearful distance from the lordly elk. Brian Williams is down the hall, in the insect diorama.

This kind of comparison is actually too good to waste on such a lowly subject as Williams. It would be more appropriate for creatures with real significance — dictators, kings, and presidents. In the presidential diorama, the elk herd would feature such important fauna as Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Cleveland (who commanded his aides to “tell the truth,” and meant it); the mice would be Monroe, Benjamin Harrison, Hoover, and so on; and the insects would be Tyler, Carter, Clinton, Bush (the second), and Obama. Yes, I know, we may need to bring more animals into the metaphor. But the curious — or curiously predictable — thing is that Williams actually aspired to be one of the celebrity insects, who in our times are happiest scurrying about in their hard little bodies, irritating everybody else into noticing them.

Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

In a documentary filmed in 2006 about Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 flooded low-lying parts of New Orleans, and which with a lot of help from Williams enraged the nation at the inability of Republican administrations to overrule acts of God, Williams boasted: “People say we found our voice on this story, after some long, cold years of one Bush term and some change.” What? What did he mean by that?

He provided part of an explanation in a speech at Temple University last October. He was there, as Tim Graham put it in News Busters on Feb. 10, to pick up “an award for ‘excellence.’” They give each other awards, these excellent people. And if they have to lie, well what the hell? "I have seen thousands of dead people in different places," Williams claimed, erroneously. Then he demanded the reward of sympathy for his own imaginary suffering. Speaking of himself, he said, "You have to find a place to put that [his erroneous memories] or else you can't get up in the morning." Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

After that outburst, he turned to his reason for hearing a mighty significance in the “voice” he “found” in New Orleans — in the tale he told (with suitable adjustments, over the years, such as seeing dead bodies floating around the streets, or nearly dying, himself, of dysentery, or being threatened by gangs that busted into his hotel) about the New Orleans hurricane. I apologize for the syntax of the following quotation from Williams. You have to realize that this is how talented network news anchors (pay rate: $10 million a year) talk when they’re off-script:

For what it meant to our society. For what it still means. The issues. Race. The environment. Energy. Justice. The lack of it. It's all still there.

Now really, what can you make of that? Beneath the total incoherence appears to lurk some claim that by reporting (falsely) on a flood, Williams was somehow addressing issues of race (granted, most of the people who were flooded out by Katrina were African-Americans), energy (huh?), justice (it’s unjust to be flooded by a hurricane?), and “the environment.” The only way in which that last phrase makes sense is to assume that Williams is indicting Mother Nature for being, as Tennyson called her, “red in tooth and claw.” But I’m sure that’s not what he meant.

Whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap.

When something is really bad, it’s impossible to parody. Its literary effect cannot be enhanced, no matter what you do. But the political and social interest of Williams’ bizarre statements has not been fully developed. The big question is, why didn’t somebody at NBC stop him from saying all this crap? Everybody knew he was saying it, over and over again, for years. And I’m not just depending on anonymous sources to make that allegation. Given the nature of television broadcasting, it has to be true.

To me, one of the most amazing things in the world is that people give some kind of credence to the word “reality” in connection with what they see on television. Consider the term “reality TV.” Twenty feet away from those morons who face the camera and pour out their hearts about how lonely and helpless they’re feeling is a crowd of photographers, directors, producers, make-up artists, best boys, gophers, and people whose jobs cannot be described. In the same way, whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap. When he dribbled out his life story to interviewers on other media, hundreds of people back at NBC were following the publicity it gave him, and them. They knew, all right. The social and political question is, why did they let it go on, for more than a decade?

One answer is that they were lazy. But that’s the wrong answer. People who have responsible positions with TV networks aren’t sleepy little puppies; they’re sleepless sharks, required to compete with other sleepless sharks. OK, try this: nothing was done about Williams because he was being paid ten million dollars a year, and you don’t mess with that kind of investment. If you do, the investment will make like a shark and mess with you. That’s a better answer. And maybe it’s a sufficient one, although it doesn’t account for the behavior of the top predators, the ones who were doling out the money and should have been more risk-averse.

A third answer, which may be true, or partially true, is that Williams was protected by his dopey, inarticulate, yet constant political correctness. Here is the guy who interviewed the last President Bush, long after he had left office, and expressed astonishment that his recent reading matter could actually have included a Camus novel and three of Shakespeare’s plays. Astonishment. To the man’s face. Anyone not a dopey leftist would have said, “Oh, Mr. President, what impressed you most about those works?” But Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda. He believed that Bush was dumb, and he didn’t know how to deal with the counter-evidence. (Or, probably, with the literary conversation that might have ensued.)

I hope you won’t write in to accuse me of being a partisan of George Bush, either one of them. Don’t worry about that. But everybody with the least curiosity has always known that Bush (regnal years 2001–2009) is a huge reader of books. Whether they do him any good — that’s another question. But what books has Williams ever read? Certainly none that would reveal to him the individuality of human life, its constant war with social stereotypes (e.g., “Republicans have no culture”). So naturally he aspired to become a stereotype — in just the best and brightest way. He cast himself as a thoughtful advocate for such stereotyped issues as, oh, “the environment,” “justice,” and the like. No one could possibly fear that he would ever harbor a critical thought about such things.

Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda.

And that, I believe, is why “liberal” commentators have been so anxious to defend him, regretting that he quit, being confident that his offenses didn’t rise to the level of lying, bringing in psychiatry to remind us that people easily and innocently confuse their memories, and doing all the other stuff they’re paid big bucks to do. I guess they don’t want to lose their own license to lie.

NBC’s official approach is different. Network pooh-bahs are taking the line that presidential spokesman Josh Earnest recently took, in response to questions about Obama’s decision not to join the Charlie Hebdo protest against terrorism, or to send anyone important to sub for him. The basic policy is that responsible officialsaccept responsibility only for successes. Failures are no one’s responsibility. They happened. Well, sort of. But now we can move on.

As Julie Pace of the AP informed her readers, Earnest explained his boss’s absence from the Paris demonstration in this way:

Earnest said the White House took the blame but that Obama himself was not personally involved in the decision. Earnest would not say who was responsible for deciding the administration's participation in the event.

In other words, it is now possible to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, or not to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, and still have nothing whatever to do with the decision, personally. It wasn’t the decision of anyone who lives in the White House; the White House itself made the decision, or at least took the blame. Personal now means impersonal, and responsibility means freedom from responsibility.

Good. Very good.




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The Age of Redefinition

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On the evening of January 20, when President Obama started the delivery of his state of the union address, Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg rapidly, and very appropriately, fell asleep. Some of the other justices looked as if they were ready to drop off too. I’m sure that most of the television audience, unburdened by protocol, went all the way to dreamland.

The irritating thing was that stories about Ginsburg’s snooze— which was the only important event of the evening — were headlined and teased with words like these: “81-Year-Old Justice Caught Nodding Off.” If you still need to be convinced about liberal bias in journalism, ask yourself how many stories on Ginsburg’s far-left opinions have been headlined with a reference to her age. “81-Year-Old Justice Opines Again”? No, no chance of that. Write a bizarre legal document? An act of courage. Fall asleep during a boring, pointless speech? Senility.

We are living in a time when even common news stories make it virtually impossible to pin down the simplest facts, such as where, exactly, something happened.

But since we’re talking about journalists who hit the wrong target, consider an article published by FoxBusiness on January 15. It’s not important in itself, but it presents a fair sample of the things that make American journalism so horrible to read, or even to think about.

The article, written by Larry Shover, is ostensibly a news story about a decision made somewhere in the constipated bowels of Swiss banking. In reality, it’s an advertisement for the author’s skills in Writing. In an earlier life, Mr. Shover must have been a sports reporter. He shows the typical sports guy’s zest for in-group chatter, incomprehensible to everyone outside the dugout. This is part of a larger problem, characteristic of journalists in every field. They want to do something with their material, something glitzy and clever, no matter what the effects on communication.

According to Shover, Jan. 15 (or maybe it was Jan. 14, or Jan. 13; he never says) was no common day:

It was shaping up to be a sleepy morning until the Swiss National Bank — in a surprise move — decided to lift its minimum exchange rate, put in place in 2011, of 1.20 euro for every Swiss franc.

One point twenty euro[s], eh? But if the rate was “lifted,” what was it before? Like all those “journalists” who report on schoolteachers striking for “higher” wages, this author doesn’t specify the point at which the lift began. But wait! Perhaps, just perhaps, he means that the limit was removed entirely!

Unless you’re inside the dugout, it’s hard to tell what he means. We are living in a time when even common news stories make it virtually impossible to pin down the simplest facts, such as where, exactly, something happened.

To continue with the words (and punctuation) of Mr. Shover’s article:

We are not yet far enough removed from the rear-view mirror to see clearly however this SNB surprise action can today, be likened to a steam locomotive’s piston valve or blood pressure medication.

The only thing that’s clear about Shover’s story is his assumption that every reader he is laboring to inform knows as much about the subject as he does. Like the guys who write the sports headlines — “M’ville Nine to Mr. C: Drop Dead” — he’s not going to let anybody else in on the secret.

Do I need to mention that this is also the pattern in political reporting? Am I the only one who had to check 20 news reports about the Republicans “increasing” their majority in the House (or “maintaining” their majority, as Democrat journalists expressed it) before I discovered an article that told me how many seats they’d won?

And, of course, metaphors. Shover’s article goes on:

This “Swiss-central bank Shocker” . . .

But wait. . . . That’s in quotes, but who said it? Anybody? Well, who cares? No one wants to report on a non-shocker.

I resume:

This “Swiss-central bank Shocker” quickly unsettled a fragile layer in the economic mountainside causing plates of snow to tumble from the Matterhorn — traders and citizens alike have filled the morning selling Swiss stocks — causing one of the largest one-day drops in 30 years.

Notice that the fall of a metaphorical “layer” caused actual “snow” to “tumble” from an actual “Matterhorn.” Odd.

Mere amateurs in meteorology would expect the author to say, in plain terms, what he’s talking about. But a jazzy, hip, contemporary writer wouldn’t get any fun from doing that, compared with the fun of writing jargon and metaphor:

In addition, the SNB, weary of its precarious position of being everyone’s chaperone, cut its deposit rates (now -0.75%) along with its target range for three-month Libor (now between -1.25% and -0.25%).

Before you can ask, “What’s a Libor?”, Shover moves on to the ethics and the personal meaning of the whole thing:

Central bank “snap decisions” ought to be reserved for econometric case studies or faraway countries with delicate balance sheets. Many a trader rebooted a computer, phoned a colleague when the Swiss Franc jumped 30% in the wee hours of this morning.

Pity the poor trader, having to reboot like that. Were transfusions necessary? And what a fresh phrase, wee hours of this morning!

Shover provides other fresh phrases and cute metaphors (besides chaperone, snap decisions, and rear-view mirror): immediate fall-out, surprise divorce, standard fare, stave off, claws its way back, seen the elephant, its ultimate entrails are indiscernible (huh?), panties in a bunch . . . Whose panties? Those of “corporations and countries,” of course! But I’ll bet you didn’t even know they had underwear.

I can’t resist mentioning that when I first saw it, the page that offered Shover’s article had a teaser to another piece, which concerned the release of Yemenis from the prison at Guantanamo. The teaser was illustrated with a photo of a chain gang at an Arizona jail.

Hence the word "reign," and hence the appropriate and formerly general impression that government is the master and wizard of terror.

Well, peace to the Swiss and whatever they did with, to, under, over, or around the euro. The big news in January was the terrorism in France. It’s interesting that when you slay a handful of journalists in a Western country, you attract the kind of attention you don’t attract when you rape, torture, and kill large populations elsewhere. Yes, the Charlie Hebdo events were news and deserved to be. But I wouldn’t plaster them with the kind of metaphors the media uses for nearly every violent event. Particularly notable was the glee with which Megyn Kelly, pundit-reporter for Fox News, discussed the events on her Jan. 9 TV show. “A three-day reign of terror,” she said, was “coming to a head."

A general protest needs to be lodged against coming to a head. Its literal reference is to a pimple getting ready to pop — and if that’s not the image it conjures up, what exactly is that image? But however that might be, you’d think that anyone would have sense enough not to combine coming to a head with reign of terror. It’s dumb. It’s also wrong: there was no reign of terror in Paris in January 2015; there was a gang of murderous fanatics. And it’s misleading: reigns of terror (the first of which occurred in France in the 1790s, when a regime of radical democrats set out to exterminate all possible opposition) are the effects of government, not of volunteer terrorists. Hence the word reign, and hence the appropriate and formerly general impression that government is the master and wizard of terror.

The common phrase war on terror amplifies the misunderstanding. How do you declare war on an international gang of bigots and morons? One might, of course, try the smaller expedient of keeping them out of the country and removing any who managed to get in. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make snappy headlines, and it might offend the sensibilities of people who think that if you stop anybody at a border, you’re a racist.

No, I didn’t consider the Charlie Hebdo attack an insignificant event. Not at all. I just didn’t consider it a reign of terror. But this is an age of arguing by redefinition, of saying that X is Y and then believing it. Such beliefs are, disappointingly, sincere. As Swift wrote, “When a man's fancy gets astride on his reason, when imagination is at cuffs with the senses, and common understanding as well as common sense is kicked out of doors, the first proselyte he makes is himself.” Anyone who makes the experiment of calling a tweak in Swiss banking an avalanche, or a terror attack a reign of terror, will soon believe that idea himself.

You saw redefinition in action, and on a broad front, in the aftermath of the big, self-congratulatory anti-terrorist march in Paris. It was supposed to be a demonstration in support of free speech. Within a week, however, European governments had resumed arresting people for saying bad things;and presidents, prime ministers, and the Pope o’ Rome had resumed their habitual redefinition of free speech as appropriate speech and responsible speech and legal speech — in short, as anything other than free speech. There was a large-scale reinstitution of that favorite word of communist and other dictators, provocation.

It’s interesting that when you slay a handful of journalists in a Western country, you attract the kind of attention you don’t attract when you rape, torture, and kill large populations elsewhere.

The Pope was especially lively on this topic. His asinine comments about free speech can be found at this place. Sure, he allowed, everyone has free speech. It’s a “right.” But curiously, it’s a right with limits. Free speech must be distinguished from speech that provokes those who don’t like your free speech. The Pope’s example was saying bad things about somebody’s mother. All right, shall we stipulate that free speech means “every kind of speech that does not say bad things about somebody’s mother”? No. The Pope intended some larger stipulation and restriction, some grand but vague set of responsibilities that he had the power to define but did not fully communicate at the moment. Otherwise, perhaps, he would have been licensing every atheist, Muslim, evangelical Christian, and devout Catholic to attack him for so provokingly lecturing them about their duties. We know this: “You cannot make fun of the faith of others.” That is completely out.

Am I being provocative? Will the Pope have me arrested?

The Pope is in the religion business. If he were in the business of selling antiques, I assume he would be threatening people who laughed about used furniture. But that’s what he is: a salesman for old, trite, useless intellectual objects. I don’t mean Christian ideas; I myself am a Christian. I mean the old, trite, useless, egregiously false, totally baseless and debasing, grotesquely unwarranted notion that you have a right to control what I say, especially if you’re insecure and stupid enough to believe that what I say threatens your own beliefs.

To leave one sad subject for another: there is fresh evidence that the practice of defining things to suit yourself has become far too popular in American universities — fresh evidence that the head offices at these institutions are havens for people who have never progressed beyond the stage of childhood at which saying makes it so. During the past few months, the University of Virginia has made itself a case study in arrested development. A popular magazine said that an anonymous woman had been gang-raped at a UVA frat. The published words made the story true. Administrators and faculty members immediately concluded, and announced, that rape was a desperately serious problem at Virginia and, very likely, every other institution of higher education. This also was accepted as true, because they said it. Greek activities were forbidden on campus; the frat house was vandalized; important Eastern newspapers made mighty utterances. When the story proved (to put it delicately) incapable of corroboration, university administrators welcomed the frat to resume its activities, as if making that statement would restore amends. All very simple: reality is what you say it is.

The Pope is in the religion business. If he were in the business of selling antiques, I assume he would be threatening people who laughed about used furniture.

A more recent example is the attempt by Duke University to convert the tower of its chapel — which is, pace all media reports that I have read, a Christian church — into a minaret for the use of Muslim students. No one — at least no one who gets his words in print — appears to have asked why the Muslim students needed a minaret, or if they did, why they couldn’t pay for one themselves. Paying for things oneself seems never to be considered. I doubt, however, that the minaret idea was cooked up by Muslims. It appears to have been the inspiration of people deeply cubicled in the administrative complex. One of them, it seems, was a certain Christy Lohr Sapp, associate dean for religious life, who triumphantly (triumphalistically?) announced, “The use of it [the church] as a minaret allows for the interreligious reimagining of a university icon.”

How many begged questions do you discern in that comment? It assumes (A) that “reimagining” is always good; (B) that “interreligious” is always good; (C) that “interreligious” has a meaning; (D) that if some action is “allowed,” one must do it . . . Four is enough for me; you may find others. Lohr Sapp must have assumed that saying these things would make them true. Alas for her, within 48 hours of her statement, reality intervened. Donors (for once!) protested, and the “interreligious” activity was canceled — for the time being. Despite all that, I think it’s remarkable that Lohr Sapp, who as associate dean of religious life is presumably acquainted with basic religious terminology, reimagined the chapel as a “cathedral” and then as a “minaret,” and reimagined an icon as something like a tall building that is supposed to attract the eyes of donors but is currently being underused by a politically correct administration that can therefore convert it to any purpose it wants.

When he wrote The New Class, Milovan Djilas had no idea how large the class of ideological managers could be, or how many philistines it would contain. Christianity? Islam? Judaism? Hinduism? All the same — from the bureaucratic and interreligious point of view. Yet there are some things in life — most of them, in fact — that cannot achieve any value apart from their individuality. Christianity is not deism. Judaism is not Eleanor Roosevelt. And Islam is not an ersatz form of do-goodism. None of the cultural and intellectual contributions of these faiths could have been made on the basis of interreligion. And none of their salient defects — about which devout people, at their best, are scrupulously self-critical — could ever have been identified from an “I’m OK-you’re OK-but especially I’m OK” perspective, the perspective that makes it appear that every religion is at all times and in all ways a religion of niceness, togetherness, and especially peace.

This is the kind of reimagination that Islam is now suffering. America, the first nation in the world to separate church from state, now abounds in state-authorized definitions of religion. Not since Pontius Pilate have so many theological decisions been attempted by politicians. And not just American politicians. On Jan. 9, French President Hollande, that great religious authority, declared that the Charlie Hebdo “terrorists and fanatics have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.” The next day, French Prime Minister Valls declared that France was at war “against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity." That takes in a lot of territory. The prime minister will have to do a good deal of fighting if he wants to win that war. Looks like jihad to me. Maybe he could begin by trying to convert his president to his ideas about Islam.

Our own president may be harder to convince. Last year, he convulsed Americans with laughter by asserting that ISIL is “not Islamic.” “ISIL” stands for “The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” I found that out; why hasn’t he?

And he is not alone in his odd claim to religious expertise. Great Islamic scholars have concerned themselves for more than a millennium with the question of what is Islamic, but they didn’t have the benefit of Howard Dean’s profound investigations:

Former Democratic Party head Howard Dean objected to calling the shooters in the Paris attack "Muslim terrorists," though the attackers were witnessed shouting "Allahu akbar" as they fired.

Dean, speaking Wednesday on MSNBC, argued that they should be treated as "mass murderers" instead.

"I stopped calling these people Muslim terrorists. They're about as Muslim as I am," he said. "I mean, they have no respect for anybody else's life, that's not what the Koran says. And, you know Europe has an enormous radical problem. . . . I think ISIS is a cult. Not an Islamic cult. I think it's a cult."

Back to the practice of journalism: does anyone, on such occasions, ever ask the speaker which part of the Koran he’s talking about? I mean, really. If he stood up and said that “Christianity is a religion of peace,” which is what they all say about Islam, shouldn’t some canny reporter bring up the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition or some of the juicier parts of the Old Testament? Shouldn’t someone recite

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword—
His truth is marching on.

Someone should, but probably no one would. It would cost the journalists too much brain power just to figure out what the song meant.

As for me, I’m beginning to think that Justice Ginsburg’s method of dealing with presidential speeches may have a much wider application. Suppose we all grew too sleepy to find the News pages on our computers, or the Opinion pages (which are often, as we know, the same thing). Suppose we all discovered that we were old enough to take a snooze. What would happen then? What would happen to the pundits and the prophets? What — more to the point — would happen to the ad revenues?




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What’s in a Cliché?

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For a long time this column has been harping on the idea, or fact, that President Obama is a terrible speaker and writer. I have suggested that his style might improve if he tried reading books.

Back when this harper started harping on this harp, as the Bible puts it (Revelation 14:2), these ideas were radically revisionist. Even Obama’s opponents said such things as “Despite the president’s soaring rhetoric,” “Despite Obama’s eloquence,” “Despite President Obama’s gift for language,” “Despite the president’s professorial yet persuasive speeches . . . his programs stink. “ When the source of the smell was sought, no one considered the possibility that this president (as his professional fans often call him, as if he had to be carefully distinguished from the common run of presidents) had little talent and less learning.

Now, however, one seldom hears compliments either to his knowledge or to his literary ability. His best friends don’t speak in those terms. Even the theory that he authored his own books and speeches has evaporated. No one refers to his books as if they were useful in figuring him out, and his statements and attitudes are frequently attributed to “the White House.” And while this evaporation presents his defenders with the opportunity to separate the literary genius in the Oval Office from the literary hacks buried somewhere else in the West Wing, no one seems to be trying that means of excusing him. It seems to have occurred to others besides myself that a literary genius should, after all, be capable of detecting literary errors and absurdities in the words he recites from his teleprompters, and then firing the imbeciles and philistines who wrote that stuff. But Obama neither detects nor dismisses.

The literary problem may, in fact, be getting worse. In an attempt to mobilize liberal Christians in support of his pro-immigration program, the president has been going about citing Scripture, or what he thinks is Scripture. He has compared Mary and Joseph to illegal aliens, crudely half-modernized a familiar gospel verse (Matthew 7:3–5, Luke 6:41–42) by saying we should "make sure we're looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks' eyes," and claimed (folksier still) that "the good book says, don't throw stones in glass houses.” Please don’t ask me what that has to do with immigration. But I do know that “the good book” (now really, who calls it that?) doesn’t mention stones in glass houses.

It’s not a matter of the Bible’s “not exactly” saying that, as the Washington Post labored to show. It doesn’t say it at all. It couldn’t. There was no such thing as plate glass in the first century A.D. Like “cleanliness is next to godliness” and “Social Security is a great idea,” stones and glass houses are nowhere in the Bible.

Are we looking at invincible arrogance, the kind of self-pride that cannot imagine it might ever be wrong about anything? Probably.

Well, you don’t expect presidents to have a photographic memory for books, do you? No, I don’t. But I do expect them to have some memory of books, especially the books they want to quote. And if they don’t remember, they ought to know that they don’t remember, or (in this case) know that they never read those books in the first place. If you’re a literary genius, or a genius of any kind, or just a normal person, you know such things about yourself. And there’s a way of dealing with them. Should you wish to quote a passage, you look the passage up. With the Bible, this is extremely easy. Innumerable websites (try, for instance, this one) offer concordances to the Bible. And if you are a stranger to the word “concordance,” you can still search the Scriptures with some probability of finding what you want. Just google the phrase. This is another thing “the White House” seems incapable of doing.

Are we looking at invincible arrogance, the kind of self-pride that cannot imagine it might ever be wrong about anything? Probably. Try to think of an occasion on which Obama or his employees have betrayed the slightest skepticism about their own knowledge and judgment. Another, complementary, explanation is a total lack of curiosity about anything having to do with words — what words mean, where words come from, what words may suggest.

Consider Obama’s use of clichés. Now, without clichés we would not have politics. The great unwritten book is a study of the role of clichés in instigating, shaping, confusing, and sometimes destroying the political process. Alas, it is a book that may never be written, because anyone with the knowledge and taste to write it would be too disgusted to pursue the project. But if there were such a book, Obama would get one of the longest chapters. His entire career has been devoted to clichés (subspecies, buzzwords): change, community, middle class, race in this country, comprehensive reform, guilty of walking while black, transparency, facing broader challenges, people who want to shut down the government, draw a red line, draw a line in the sand, draw a red line in the sand . . . . They never stop. And without them he would have no career.

But often he can’t even get the clichés right. In the present instance, the cliché he was trying to use was, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” OK. Picture someone living in a glass house. Picture that person throwing a stone. What is the direction of the stone? Outward. He’s throwing the stone at a house inhabited by another person. The cliché implies that he should not do this, because that other person will then feel licensed to throw a stone back into the glass house.Now visualize this scene as Obama represented it when he said, “Don’t throw stones in glass houses.” What the hell does that mean? Don’t throw stones inside your own glass house? Well, no, I wouldn’t do that. But thanks for your advice — whatever it was. This kind of saying could never become a cliché. It isn’t even that good. In fact, it isn’t good for anything.

If you think none of this is significant, that’s your right. If so, however, I hope you weren’t one of those people who laughed themselves silly over the difficulties George Bush experienced with the pronunciation of “nuclear” (“newk-yoo-ler”) and thought that this kind of thing disqualified him from the presidency. Bush was, in my opinion, not a good president, at all; but he did read books. More importantly, he didn’t try to establish his intellectual credentials on the basis of stuff he had (supposedly) written.

The obvious question is: if it’s that “deeply rooted,” why should we care about it? Leave it alone. It’s a nasty, ugly thing.

But Obama’s way with a cliché becomes even more disturbing when he manages to quote a cliché correctly. In an interview released on December 7, he commented on the wave of protests over the deaths of two young black men, allegedly murdered by police, and he asserted that racism is “deeply rooted in our society.” The context made it clear that he was referring to white racism against black people. He was inviting the nation to participate in yet another spasm of soul-searching over “race in America,” with himself as priest and confessor. He was also trying to provide a rationale for people like Eric Holder to create new means of expanding the federal government’s mechanisms of control over thought and action throughout the country. From this point of view, protests are fine and useful, but only to soften up the territory for the federal police. If a problem is “deeply rooted,” then enormous power needs to be amassed to root it out, right? Obama’s cliché was an attempt to give a familiar, domestic tone, a tone of common sense, to new usurpations of power.

Very well. But when one looks at the other implications of the cliché, one soon sees meanings that were not in the president’s control. Why is white racism so “deeply rooted,” after so much effort to root it out? Perhaps because it’s in so deep that it’s hard to find the damn thing.

A story: I grew up a few miles from a small Midwestern industrial city with a sizable African-American population. I can tell you that in those times white racism was not deeply rooted — it was right on the surface. If an interracial couple dared to appear on a main street of town, everyone turned and noticed, and the mood was not friendly. There was a serious chance that violence would occur. The local paper ran wedding pictures of white brides but not of black brides. It called black preachers “reverend” and white preachers “the reverend.” But although I still spend quite a bit of time in small towns back in the Midwest, it has been years since I heard a racist comment of any kind.

A second story: a few years ago, a friend and I were eating ribs in one of those restaurants where the waitresses call you “hon.” This was in Southern California. Sitting in a booth near us was a pair of white guys. They were, I believe, construction guys, and they spoke with the volume and vocabulary appropriate to construction sites. They reviewed, in great, loud, and profane detail, the defects of their boss, their clients, and their associates, not to mention their ex-wives. No holds were barred (how’s that for a cliché?), and certainly there was no hesitation about the use of epithets. Then they turned to the behavior of a fellow worker who was African-American. They didn’t like him. They didn’t like anyone, and that included the black guy. But when they started in on him, they lowered their voices. Their noise dropped so low that my friend and I, suddenly interested, had to strain to listen. We expected to hear something really blistering. But what we heard was this. “I got nothin’ against his race,” one of them said; “I just got no respect for him.” “No,” the other one said, “not if he can’t come to work on time.” There followed a long discussion of punctuality.

You can say that “I got nothin’ against his race” is merely a clichéd cover-up for racism, but these weren’t guys who cared about covering things up. And anyone could see that at the moment there were no black people in the restaurant, so there was no need to conceal anything from them. The two guys might have worried that white people could take offense, but if so, they would just be recognizing the lack of racism among their fellow whites. Suppose, however, that these men were actually concealing something, if only from themselves. Suppose the something was their deeply rooted racism. The obvious question is: if it’s that deeply rooted, why should we care about it? Leave it alone. It’s a nasty, ugly thing. Leave it buried. Yet the president thinks that deeply rooted feelings are exactly what the government should be concerned with.

Government officials are always saying senseless things, but Hagel has the gift of perfect senselessness.

“Words are the tools of the thinker,” a wise woman said. “If you saw a man chopping wood with a hoe and mowing with a shovel, would you hire him as a foreman?” Words are the tools of thought, and there are cases in which incompetence with words reveals an incompetence to hold power. This is one of those cases.

Would you like another example of linguistic and political incompetence in high places? Yes? Then you shall have it.

As I write, the nation is saying a long good-bye to Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, whose moronic use of language has long been a dependable source of entertainment. (Hagel resigned quite a while ago, but he hasn’t yet managed to find the door.) On November 24, Reid Cherlin, who knew Hagel well, published an eloquently mordant farewell in The New Republic. It describes the author’s arduous yet futile attempt to find anything sensible in anything that Hagel ever said. Among the remarks that Cherlin quotes is Hagel’s meditation on the situation in the Middle East:

Well, I just got off the phone with the defense minister of Israel. We have to stay very engaged with all of our allies and partners, specifically in the region. You know— I’ve said, and you know from President Obama and Secretary Kerry and others— we’ve been talking all the time with our allies and partners all over the world, but specifically in the Middle East. Any action carries with it risks and consequences. And as I said, inaction does, too. And so you have to assess all that, based on this scenario, based on this option, what might be a Syrian response or Iranian response or a Hezbollah response. Sure. That’s why allies are key to this. But as I’ve said, whatever action is taken, we feel very confident about that action…

Cherlin accurately characterizes this as “ragged chains of platitudes and caveats.” The Secretary of Defense (i.e., War) talked and talked, but Cherlin found it impossible to locate, in any of this babble, “his own philosophy about the use of force.” Of the proposed US attacks on Syria, Hagel said, “This is not going to war in another country, as defined probably by most wars.”

The more I look at that sentence, the sadder I am that Hagel will be leaving us. Government officials are always saying senseless things, but Hagel has the gift of perfect senselessness.

At this point in our experience as a people (now there’s a cliché that can be used in almost any sentence) I have a sense of anticlimax. We see, at the end of 2014, an apparently endless vista of small, dumpy, incoherent yet fanatically talkative figures, men and women who have never read a book or thought that they needed to, graduates (in the main) of elite schools in which social attitudes were the sole text requiring close attention, beneficiaries of a political process in which literacy carries no premium at all. Bill Clinton, sage of the Democratic Party, who studied memos but never books. His wife, Mrs. Clinton, who hired people to write her “highly personal” accounts of her own life. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, that grossly unworthy successor of Henry Clay, James K. Polk, James G. Blaine, John Carlisle, and Thomas Reed — all highly literate men, whatever you think of their politics, and some of them masters of the English language. Jeb Bush, the intellectual lumpenproletarian, with all the lumps showing. Elizabeth Warren, the brainless social worker, straight out of Sinclair Lewis. Nancy Pelosi, the unworthy successor of Apple Annie. And there are more, many more.

In future editions of this column, their linguistic adventures will be chronicled, as thoroughly as you or I can stand it. But right now — I want to thank all readers of Word Watch for their warm and continuous interest in its attempts to turn farce into comedy. I hope that this year ends happily for you, and that the next year renews and multiplies your happiness, so that there is neither climax nor anticlimax, but only the continuous joy of free people.




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The Good Side of Jonathan Gruber

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News! News as you’ve heard it, 300 times a day, on your favorite radio or TV station: “My Pillow [a kind of, guess what? pillow] is the official pillow of the National Sleep Foundation!” http://www.mypillow.com/

Alas, I am not certain that this announcement achieves its desired effect. Nor am I certain — for similar reasons — that the information one finds in the Wikipedia entry for Jonathan Gruber achieves the effect he wanted.

Gruber, as you already knew, is the man who this month became famous for bragging about the methods by which he and other sponsors of Obamacare fooled the “stupid” American people. We’ve now heard a lot about Jonathan Gruber. In fact, there’s too much Gruber to keep up with — especially in the form of videos that keep surfacing every day, each with its own grinning image of Gruber explaining how he schemed to mislead us all.

What can you say that’s good about a man who considers “rip off” a favorable term?

(By the way, who are the people who hoarded videos of this ugly man and then decided to release them now? Who would want to record a lecture by Jonathan Gruber, a man whose personality most closely resembles a load of wet gravel smacking into your windshield? Maybe he grated so much on the people he thought were laughing along with him that a few of them decided to bide their time and pay him back.)

I could choose many examples of Gruber’s style, but I’ll limit myself to one. It’s from a CBS report (Nov. 21):

“And the only way we could take it on [by “it” he means Obamacare] was first by mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people, when we all know it’s a tax on people who hold those insurance plans,” he explained.

In 2012, Gruber described how former Sen. Ted Kennedy ripped off the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars to craft a universal health bill for Massachusetts.

“The dirty secret in Massachusetts is the feds paid for our bill, okay, in Massachusetts,” Gruber said in the recording obtained by CBS News. “Ted Kennedy and the smart people in Massachusetts basically figured out a way to rip off the feds for about $400 million a year.”

Now, what can you say that’s good about a man who considers rip off a favorable term? Well, if you’re Gruber, you can think of plenty of good things to say about yourself, and some of them have landed on Wikipedia. I assume that Gruber’s Wiki page was written mainly by him, except for the “Controversies” part at the end. That’s the usual way with hacks like Gruber. I picture him hunkering down with a list of his supposed accomplishments and checking each of them off as he feeds it into the Net. This is the result:

In 2006, Gruber received the American Society of Health Economists Inaugural Medal for the best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under. He was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine in 2005. In 2009 he was elected to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association.

In 2011 he was named “One of the Top 25 Most Innovative and Practical Thinkers of Our Time” by Slate Magazine. In both 2006 and 2012 he was rated as one of the top 100 most powerful people in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare Magazine.

It tickles me to imagine a roomful of “professionals” sitting around thinking about whom to name as the “best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under.” Were birth certificates required? Was Gruber’s “medal” supposed to stimulate the other kids in the class to work as hard as he did?

Even funnier is the idea of grown people (or was it interns?) scouring the internet to generate a list of the “most innovative and practical thinkers of our time” (“yes, she’s innovative — but is she practical?”), then devoting all their powers of analysis to knocking the list down to 25. Or did they start with five (of which one was their boss), and work like hell to bring it up to 25? Probably the latter — that’s how Gruber would have gotten in. It’s hard for me to believe that powerful is an appropriate adjective for people in health care, but maybe that’s because I think of healthcare as a field in which you help others, not push them around. An old-fashioned idea, no doubt. But coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence. And feeling proud to be on that list? It’s all rather hard to understand.

But the funniest part of Gruber’s canned biography is a sentence recording the fact that in 2006, “he was named the 19th most powerful person in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare magazine.” It’s one thing to spend your time getting 25practical thinkers or 100 powerful people into the corral; but to rank the cows in the exact order of their potency — that would truly be an absorbing occupation; that would truly be something for the hired hands to puzzle over. “Nope, Chuck — reckon yer wrong. Bossy, thar, she ain’t quite so powuhfull as ol’ Thundercud, though mebbe she’s jest a leetle more powuhfull than Fatty Pie genrully is.”

Coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence.

Must have been hard to decide. But the existence of these bizarre competitions does throw some light on the video performances that made Mr. Gruber famous. When he bragged about fooling the voters, he was behaving as the 19th most powerful person in healthcare, and evidently enjoying the role; but when he explained how to rip the voters off, he was competing strongly to be named the 18th most obnoxious person in healthcare.

Ambition is a good thing. Yet Gruber’s powers as a rhetorician will, I am afraid, never get him even to 500th place in a contest for the most eloquent person in healthcare — over, under, or around the age of 40. When the performances by which he appears to have pleased some, if not all, his fellow experts were witnessed by a more numerous but less impressionable audience, and his act was discovered to be (if I may paraphrase Irving Berlin) a turkey that you’d know would fold, he found no better way to placate outraged viewers than to murmur: “The comments in the video were made at an academic conference. I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately and I regret having made those comments.”

One secret of public speaking is not to shoot yourself in the head. If you intend to avoid doing that, you should know — especially if you are a brainy college professor — that a good way of aiming for your head is to say things that will lead almost any audience to think of devastating questions, such as:

Aren’t academics paid to engage in the objective, disinterested search for truth? So if you’re willing to go before an academic audience and brag about misleading the people, what would you say in front of a political audience? If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious? When you say you were speaking inappropriately, do you mean that what you said was wrong? If so, was it wrong in the sense of not being true, or wrong in the sense of turning out to be embarrassing? What do you mean by inappropriately — inappropriate to what?

Obvious questions, easily anticipated. And to answer most of them would probably get you in even deeper trouble than you were in before. Gruber hasn’t answered them. But he doesn’t need to, because the national audience he must have longed for all his life has already found the answers, without his help.

Such is the ignorance and illiteracy of our leaders that until now, Gruber’s sub-500th-rate rhetorical skills have not limited his political influence. According to Wikipedia,

In 2009–10 Gruber served as a technical consultant to the Obama Administration and worked with both the administration and Congress to help craft the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as the ACA or “Obamacare.” The act was signed into law in March 2010, and Gruber has been described as an “architect”, “writer”, and “consultant” of the legislation. He was widely interviewed and quoted during the roll-out of the legislation.

Both Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi expressed their respect for Gruber’s talents. Today, however, Obama is dismissing Gruber as someone who never worked for him, and Pelosi is commenting in an even more dismissive way:

Mr. Gruber's comments were a year old, and he has backtracked from most of them. You didn't have it in your narrative. That's really important. He is not even advocating the position that he was at some conference and some said. So I don't know who he is. He didn't help write our bill. With all due respect to your question, you have a person who wasn't writing our bill, commenting on what was happening when we were writing our bill, who has withdrawn some of the statements.

If you want to check that quotation, it’s from an article by David Weigel at BloombergPolitics, Nov. 14. No matter how hard it is to understand, those are the words Pelosi used. Her employment of “so” is really a puzzler. Does the House minority leader mean to say that because Gruber allegedly “backtracked,” and because “Gruber’s comments were a year old” (were also presents a difficulty: how old are they now?), and because “some said” (what did they say?), she doesn’t “know who he is”? In 1984, unsuccessful politicians became unpersons. In Pelosi’s universe of discourse, they become “Mr. Gruber,” who is “a person,” which sounds even worse than an unperson, somehow.

If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious?

Fox News sent one of its guys, David Webb, to lie in wait for Gruber and ask him if he had really backtracked on the idea that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. . . . Call it the stupidity of the American people or whatever.” This was their exchange:

David Webb: “Professor, do you think the American people are stupid?”
MIT Professor Gruber: “No comment.”

Gruber has realized that there are certain occasions on which even a genius like him should shut his mouth. If he continues this clever strategy, he has a chance of becoming the 499th most powerful rhetorician among healthcare hacks. And the rest of us will hear less of the word inappropriate.

So much for Professor Gruber. Inspired by the political season of 2014, which has been coextensive with calendar year 2014, I’ve put together a list of terms that, like inappropriate, should take a long vacation from the American vocabulary:

  • Americans are tired of gridlock in Washington: I’m not tired of gridlock, and I bet you aren’t either. If Americans were offered a choice between having Congress and the president agree on new laws, or having them caught in a literal gridlock from which their chauffeured vehicles could not escape, my prediction is that 90 percent would choose the latter.
  • Bucket (“bucket of proposals,” “bucket of states that Hillary might carry in 2016,” to say nothing of “bucket list” — things you want to do before you kick the bucket): How vulgar can you get?
  • Double down: Once is enough.
  • Fighting for the middle class(“We’re going to continue fighting for the middle class” — Harry Reid): Starting with George Soros.
  • Income disparity: A term used by people who want everyone to be paid $15 an hour, and no more.
  • Pivot(“The president pivoted to foreign policy”): What do you think of people who are always changing the subject?
  • Shellacking (“The president took a real shellacking in the November election”): That is to say, the president was varnished with a purified lac dissolved in denatured alcohol. Slang should be more descriptive.
  • The people want us to work together, the people just want us to get things done, etc.: Propaganda slogans used by Democrats to get Republicans to concede to them.
  • Vote suppression: Keeping the other party’s voters from voting twice.
  • We are a nation of immigrants: Is that supposed to be an argument?
  • What this election is really about: Whatever your talking points are.

I am considering additions to this list, and I would appreciate readers’ contributions. One of my own candidates is unacceptable, a useful word but perhaps, like red states and blue states, a little too useful for its own good. This month, the people who run Obamacare discovered — actually, their critics discovered — that they had misestimated, by a mere 400,000, the number of people who signed up for the program. And guess which way they misestimated? Right! They overestimated. According to Reuters, the administration’s flack-catcher on this issue, a haggard person named Sylvia Burwell, responded as follows (on Twitter, naturally): "The mistake we made is unacceptable. I will be communicating that clearly throughout the [department]."

Well! That’s telling ‘em. They’ll never do thatagain. It’s unacceptable.




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When You Wish Upon a Czar

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Two minutes after President Obama gave his political crony Ron Klain the job of Ebola Czar, I got a text message from a friend. He’s a political scientist, so I was expecting him to complain about Klain’s being nothing but a Democratic Party hack, but he didn’t. His comment took an historical turn. What he said was, “If trends continue, America will have more czars than Russia had in its whole history.”

I saw that as a protest, not against the Russian monarchy, but against the current assumption that words prove their worth, not in use, but in overuse. To my friend, a word is valuable because it’s both appropriate and fresh. To many other people, it’s valuable because it’s capable of being used over and over again, in any possible circumstance.

There’s nothing wrong, in itself, about the use of “czar” to mean something like “an official appointed to exercise full power over a designated matter.” Czar is an admirably brief, concrete, imagistically evocative word to express that meaning. But one can be driven to suicide by other people’s overuse of even the finest words. No one wants to hear “I love you” every minute of every day, and certainly no one wants to contemplate an endless sequence of organization charts in which every position is labeled “Czar.”

We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: it would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

Consider: the United States now has two czars in the same realm. The first was Dr. Nicole Lurie, whose existence no one remembered until the president started being urged to appoint an emergency preparedness czar. Then we learned that we already had one, and it was Dr. Lurie, who is Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response for the Department of Health and Human Services. But that made no difference; another monarch was added to America’s ever-growing College of Czars.

In 1908, when Ferdinand I, Prince Regnant of Bulgaria, proclaimed himself Czar of Bulgaria, his action excited much unfavorable comment from other monarchs. There already was a Czar of Russia, and the general opinion was that one was enough. Contemporary Americans are clearly without that kind of taste and discrimination. We want a czar in every pot. We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: they are very hard to get rid of. Even if they’ve finished their job and wiped out Ebola or baseball or whatever else it is they’re supposed to handle, they or their bureaucratic progeny remain in office. It would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

There’s another term that has been spread by the nation’s romance with Ebola — the old but increasingly dangerous abundance of caution. How long those six syllables had, until recently, been incubating deep in our linguistic organs, only the zombies know, but now, suddenly, the contagion is everywhere. Whenever a government official delays some urgent job, it’s out of an abundance of caution. Whenever an American citizen is prevented from exercising his rights, it’s because an abundance of caution led the FDA to deny him a drug, or led the gun suppressors to deny him a permit, or led the cops to arrest him for reminding them of the law, or led the high school principal to tell him not to wear a flag-print t-shirt, thereby offending non-Americans. Once it gets going, abundance of caution can do a lot of damage.

State-friendly terms such as czar, abundance of caution, and of course national crisis have been big winners in this, the Ebola Period of our history. Meanwhile, phrases dear to the hearts of (certain) libertarians have suffered badly — indeed, have virtually disappeared from public use: open borders, freedom to immigrate, right to immigrate, and the like. I confess that such terms have never been favorites of mine. To the disgust of (certain) other libertarians, I have argued at length against the concepts they express (Liberty, October 2006). Those terms will have a difficult time regaining the spotlight now occupied by domestic terrorists, the terrorists’ wacko foreign exemplars, and the Ebola virus. It’s hard to see how a radical immigrationistwould answer the question, “Do you mean that Thomas Eric Duncan had a right to enter America and spread a deadly disease?”, or the obviously succeeding questions, “So you’re saying that the right to immigrate isn’t universal, after all? So why do you think it’s a right?” We’ll see what the friends of open borders do to revive their favorite words. I’m sure they’ll think of something.

Where would we be without "adults in the room" and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis?

While they’re thinking, we await in horror the coming election. The political results may be bad or good — more or less crippling to our actual rights — but the linguistic phenomena are already gruesome. A friend recently asked whether American political commentary could do without stupid sports metaphors. The answer is, Apparently not. Where would we be if elections weren’t up for grabs, if the trailing candidate didn’t need to hit a home run, if the leading candidate weren’t trying to run the clock out, orif one of the two parties weren’t just playing DE-fense, never managing to get across the goal line?

And where would we be without adults in the room and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis? Protestors, for example, never yell and scream; they vent their frustrations; they act them out. Their actions are signals that our communities need healing, and that healing can come only from a therapeutic national conversation or bipartisan dialogue — both parties on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not.

But here I must apologize. At some point in this column, I went out of bounds. I stopped blaming the victims — blaming phrases that started their lives with hope and promise, only to lose it because of community pressure to be something they’re not — and I started displaying my phobias about expressions that were losers to begin with.So I’ll adopt a more proactive stance and pose the challenging question: what would happen if an American public figure actually tried to ignore all insipid current clichés and restore the greatness of the English language, the language of Shakespeare and Emerson and Jefferson, of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and . . . oh, maybe, of William Butler Yeats?

Well, here is what would happen, and did happen, when, on Oct. 3, Vice President Biden spoke at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Forum, “Harvard’s premier arena for public speech.” “Folks,” said Biden,

Folks, “all’s changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” Those are the words written by an Irish poet William Butler Yeats about the Easter Rising in 1916 in Ireland. They were meant to describe the status of the circumstance in Ireland at that time. But I would argue that in recent years, they better describe the world as we see it today because all has changed. The world has changed.

There’s been an incredible diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability. Emerging economies like India and China have grown stronger, and they seek a great force in the global order and global affairs. . . .

The international order that we painstakingly built after World War II and defended over the past several decades is literally fraying at the seams right now.

Now, let’s see. Yeats did write a poem, called “Easter 1916,” about the Irish nationalist Easter Rebellion. His poem suggests that commonplace people were transformed, at least in imagination, by their participation in that failed revolt:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not. No good poem, and particularly not Yeats’s poem, “describe[s] the status of the circumstance” of something. But does Biden understand his own remarks? Again, clearly not. What terrible beauty could he possibly see in “the status of the circumstance” that he himself describes — “diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability,” an “international order” that is “literally fraying at the seams” (and can ya believe it, “right now,” too)? That’s not beautiful. It’s not even terrible, in the sense that Biden wants to import from Yeats. A person who doesn’t understand that literally means literally, not figuratively, or that something that was “built” doesn’t have “seams” and therefore cannot “fray” . . . this person should stay as far away as possible from other people’s poetry. We’re used to the vice president’s torrent of clichés; must we now be visited with his attempts to be learned and original?

It’s interesting to speculate how many people would say what they say, if they understood it. Here’s a passage that the vice president presumably wouldn’t like; it’s from a political analysis by Jennifer Rubin, issued on Sept. 30 by the Washington Post.It’s about a number of Democratic senators who may not win their elections. I’ll put the most obvious clichés in italics:

They were napping while the Islamic State surged and were asleep during the wheel for other Obama foreign policy flubs. They didn’t raise any objection to zeroing troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. They were unmoved by the atrocious Iran interim deal. They were quite happy to watch the sequestration cuts wreak havoc on military preparedness. Now the bill has come due for circling the wagons around Obama.

The quantity of clichésis bad enough, but does she really mean to say that the senators were happy to watch even when they were asleep? Is she really able to picture a cut, much less such a passive, somnolent thing as a sequestration cut, wreaking havoc? Does she really think that people who circle wagons get a bill for it? And what picture was in her mind when she thought of people sleeping during the wheel?

Enough. I’m tired. I’m going to find some wheel to sleep during.




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Aping the English Language

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Are you annoyed, angered, outraged by our national illiteracy? Or have you come to be amused by it? Do you wake every day grinding your teeth about the ridiculous mistakes you expect to find, not in the spam section of your email, but in the published words of people who are actually paid to write the bizarre things they write? Or do you rise bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to enjoy the latest nonsense?

I am still one of the intellectual Cro-Magnons who belong to the first category, but I’m evolving toward the second one. The American language is becoming too ridiculous not to laugh about. Suppose that a pianist sits down to perform her first recital, and forgets several bars of the sonata she wants to play. That would be sad, perhaps tragic. But suppose that a chimpanzee sits down at a piano and starts running his paws over the keys as if he were a concert pianist. That would be funny. It might even be entertaining. If chimps have charm, this would be a moment when their charm could be appreciated. The fumbling could be understood as a momentarily interesting, perhaps exhilarating, confirmation of what we already knew: we are smarter than chimps. Some of us, anyway.

This month’s examples of idiotic verbal mistakes are presented in that spirit of fun. At least most of them are.

On August 31, Fox News reported on an explosion in a Paris apartment house: “Initial reports are that this was caused by a potential gas leak.” How great is that! An apartment house blows up, and Fox blames it on a potential gas leak. Imagine what an actual gas leak would have done.

The American language is becoming too ridiculous not to laugh about.

On September 4, John Nolte, writing on Breitbart’s site, noted that “USA Todayis Gannett's flagship publication and enjoys the highest circulation of any other American newspaper.” A paradox worthy of Zeno himself: USA Today is both itself and something other.

On September 17, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published an article about the various kinds of incarceration available for T.J. Lane in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Lane, as you may recall, is the young gentleman who in 2012 assassinated several other young people at a high school in Chardon, Ohio, then showed up in court wearing a shirt on which he had written “KILLER,” and delivered bawdy insults to the victims’ families. This month, he escaped from a ludicrously under-secured facility, was recaptured, and was sent to a real prison. After detailing the penitentiary’s super-max provisions, the article notes that “the maximum-security portion houses about 300 slightly less restrictive inmates.” I can understand that some inmates have to be more restricted than others, but what are the inmates restricting? Their guards’ ability to restrict them, perhaps?

The most entertaining result of T.J.’s escape was the bewildered speculation pursued by many channels of public information about the motivation for his latest escapade. CNN’s online headline (September 12) says it all: “Chardon School Killer T J Lane: Tightlipped about Motive, Escape.” T.J., it seems, failed to say why he scaled the fence and left the prison. Readers can only guess why anyone would want to do a thing like that.

This month, even John McCain showed that he still has what it takes to entertain us. On September 11 he had an amusing confrontation with Jay Carney, formerly the president’s chief prevaricator (i.e., press secretary). In this instance, I suppose, McCain’s heart was in the right place. He called Carney a liar, and why should he call him anything else? But what he said was, “You are again, Mr. Carney, saying facts that are patently false.” Paradox again! Only a radical Pyrrhonist could so boldly assert that even facts can be false, and patently false. The biggest paradox, however, is that Sen. McCain, a man who for many years has done nothing but talk, more or less in English, can be so patently ignorant of the meaning of a common English monosyllable. The word facts is foreign to him.

Jonathan Swift claimed that he wouldn’t satirize people who didn’t court his satire with their ridiculous pretensions. He “spared a hump or crooked nose / Whose owners set not up for beaux.” To vary Swift’s metaphor, it isn’t sporting to make fun of lame people who slip and fall in the street, but when lame people advertise themselves as Olympic athletes, then one has a right to be amused.

If you attend to these sickening displays of self-righteousness, you may be amused by how clumsy they are. They’re almost as subtle, or convincing, as an ape in a tuxedo.

You can see how this applies to McCain, who smugly invoked the rare word patently, only to fall headlong over simple facts. It also applies to the headline writer of the Daily Mail. On September 3, the paper published a translation of one of those arrogant messages that ISIS sends to world leaders. The headline over the article was: “This message is addressed to you, oh Putin.” Oh, how literate! Oh, how parodically grandiloquent! The problem is that the headline writer and the headline approver and the headline proofreader, none of them, knew that the signal of the English vocative is O, not oh. It’s hard to parody someone else’s exalted tone when you don’t know the forms of exalted language.

Is this important? Is it a mere slippage from O to oh? A mere confusion between a vocative and an interjection? A mere revelation that someone doesn’t grasp the language of Milton, Shakespeare, or common English hymns? Or is it another ominous sign that these days, most people are more willing to write than they are to read? After all, when you read, you run into all kinds of whacky old words, and who wants to do that?

If you care about words as tools of meaning, you may have a hard time seeing any fun in the continual erosion of the language. But you won’t deny the dark humor of the latest disaster to afflict Malaysia Airlines. It was a verbal disaster, not an aeronautical one; this time, the company didn’t lose any planes. But it was the kind of disaster that is happening wherever English is the standard tongue, and tongues have found that they can operate without any connection to brains.

Devising its current advertising campaign, Malaysia Airlines began by confusing wit with vulgarity. There’s a vulgar expression that unfortunately has some popularity today. That expression is bucket list. A bucket list is an enumeration of the things you want to do before you kick the bucket; i.e., die. Kicking the bucket was funny at the start of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), in the scene where Jimmy Durante kicks it. Bucket list is an attempt — a stupid attempt — to bring back the fun. But just when it was becoming obvious that bucket list had jumped the shark, Malaysia Airlines, famous for its multitude of dead passengers, initiated an ad campaign called “My Ultimate Bucket List.” If you submitted the “best” bucket list — whatever “best” might mean, although I guess it wouldn’t mean smoking less weed or apologizing to the people you’ve wronged — you would get some kind of prize.

Most people’s idea of an appropriate prize from Malaysia Airlines would be survival, but a thought like that would never occur to a company like that. The company was shocked to discover that anyone could possibly have been offended. Nevertheless, it changed the name of the contest to “Win an iPad or Malaysia Airlines Flight to Malaysia.” I’d accept the first gift, after checking it out for possible safety problems, but I’d pass on the second.

The errors I’ve discussed so far are mostly innocent, monkeylike antics; but not every verbal fumble can be described in that way. Oh, no. Consider the verbal wallpaper that goes by the name of “public service announcements.” If you attend to these sickening displays of self-righteousness, you may be amused by how clumsy they are. They’re almost as subtle, or convincing, as an ape in a tuxedo. This month, the PSA campaign that caught my attention was some advice dished out by a group ostensibly concerned with keeping people’s lives from being ruined by arrests for drunk driving — in other words, a group intent on threatening people with having their lives ruined if they don’t follow its advice.

Make no mistake: people’s lives are ruined by pressure groups like this. I have known several people who lost their jobs and therefore their families because they were poor and they got stopped by a cop and were found to be “drunk” and were jailed and fined and lost their license to drive, which meant that they lost their ability to work. Their lives were devastated, not because they did any damage but because the amount of alcohol in their blood was a trifle higher than a politically identified limit fixed by the law and continually lowered in response to the demands of mad mothers, crony capitalist insurance companies, do-good committees and foundations, municipalities cadging fines, and other lovable persons or nonpersons.

When people try to win an argument by redefining words, they are admitting that they’ve lost the argument but insist on winning anyway.

But that isn’t enough. Enough isn’t a word that busybodies ever understand. Their public service announcements now warn us that we will be arrested even if we are not driving drunk. They claim that we will be arrested for simply driving buzzed: “Buzzed driving,” the ads assert, “is drunken driving.” To which any ordinary speaker of English will reply, “No, it isn’t; that’s why they are called by two different words.” To be buzzed or tohave a buzz on or to have a buzz going is very different from chucking empties of Jim Beam out the window as you drive the wrong way on a one-way street. Everybody knows that. The confusion of drunk with buzzed is an intentional attempt to intimidate. It’s similar to all those other means by which contemporary puritans try to confuse normal conduct, or mild misconduct, with actual crime, and prepare to administer appropriate punishment. Thus, smacking a kid’s bottom becomes child abuse. Having sex with someone who is buzzed or who did not specifically say yes becomes rape. Accusing the president of laziness becomes racism, and declining to subsidize young women’s birth control becomes sexism.

It’s a rule with few exceptions: when people try to win an argument by redefining words, they are admitting that they’ve lost the argument but insist on winning anyway. There would be no reason to call spanking child abuse if people who are opposed to all corporal punishment had convinced the majority of the public that they were right. But they didn’t, so now they are trying to get public opinion, and ultimately the law, to punish spanking by jumbling it together with abuse. Their ideological cousins try the same stunt, by jumbling racism together with counting President Obama’s golf games.

Here is a great way of creating confusion: making one expression stand for very different things. A curious example of this method is what has happened to the most popular political expression of 2014, boots on the ground. This phrase was once fresh and vivid, and its purpose was clear. It was meant to identify and exclude a certain kind of military force: “There will be no boots on the ground.” But boots on the ground established itself as a cliché that could be given as many delusive meanings as friends of the most transparent administration in history could come up with. Its ostensible meaning is still no troops on the ground, but its real meaning has become no troops on the ground except advisors on the ground; no combat troops on the ground except those originally intended to be combat troops; and no foot soldiers on the ground — only paratroopers, Navy SEALS, Marines, active military advisors, Boy Scouts . . .

And no, I don’t think that’s entertaining.




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