How the Other Half Speaks

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There’s an old expression: “seeing how the other half lives.” It means looking at people who are different from you, ordinarily people who are richer, and enjoying the spectacle — cynically, perhaps, or just with a sense of humor. One of the rewards of writing this column is seeing how the other half lives in its world of words. Occasionally I get to revel in the great things once spoken or written by people who had a real mastery of language. Those people were rich in words, rich in ways of using words, and often rich in wisdom too. I’m feeling guilty, right now, that I haven’t run a column about them in quite a while. But there are other ways of being rich. One can be rich in wisdom, but one can also be rich in ignorance; and, as a good poet said, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

What place did Thomas Gray have in mind when he wrote the word “where”? He may have been thinking simply of 18th-century England, where he lived, in the literal way of living; or he may have been thinking of the universal human condition, in which we all have to live. Probably both. But I like to believe that he was a true prophet and saw, far in the future, a place called 21st-century America. Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can shed all the traditional guilts and compunctions under which the ignorant long have labored, and simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby. These are the truly wealthy. The place they inhabit is like the heaven of Christ, where neither moth nor rust corrupts, nor thieves break in and steal.

One very wealthy person — not just a member of the Other Half but a member of its One Percent — is President Obama. It used to be said, even by his opponents, that Obama was a fine public speaker. Today, few of his proponents dare to make that claim. Always happy to hear his own words, Obama constantly emits them; and this compulsion has forced people to notice, not only that he is lost without his teleprompter, but also that his utterances have no memorable components. The great thing, for him, is that he doesn’t realize any of this. He hasn’t a clue. When it comes to himself, ignorance is profoundly blissful; he has no critical faculty or even the ability to recognize that other people do.

Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby.

I’m not saying this because I oppose his politics. I feel the same about the politics of President Roosevelt (both of them), President Truman, President Johnson, President Nixon, President Ford, and the two Presidents Bush — to name a few. But there was something redeeming, if only in a minor way, about their verbal exercises. Anyone can think of interesting, though sometimes very strange, things said by the Roosevelts: “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord” (TR, on his presidential campaign in 1912). Truman, in my opinion, was a terrible president, and Lyndon Johnson was worse; but their private or informal remarks were often witty and sometimes wise, if only in a cynical way. When Johnson said that he didn’t want to fire J. Edgar Hoover because he’d “rather have that s.o.b. inside, pissing out, instead of outside, pissing in,” he said something significant in an unforgettable way. Nixon had neither wit nor humor, but he did have wide interests and was capable of saying things that were actually informative. Ford and the Bushes had no literary ability at all, and their expressed intellectual interests could fit on a postage stamp, but they didn’t think they were literary geniuses. They didn’t think they were anything in that department. Their best hope was not to offend, and they seldom did.

By contrast, Obama’s only bad feeling about himself is a lingering resentment that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as the Nobel Prize for Peace. It is impossible to think simultaneously of “Obama” and “self-doubt.” To say that Obama is self-satisfied is to judge him with insensate prejudice. Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it. His tone and body language express the continuous certainty that whatever falls out of his mouth is both momentous in its influence and fascinating in its nature. He has the naïve and wonderful self-confidence of the pampered child, because that is what he is.

A recent article by Terence Jeffrey reviewed one of Obama’s speeches and found that he used first-person pronouns 199 times. To be fair, the speech was 5,500 words long. Also to be fair, 5,500 words is a mighty long speech, unless you have something to say. So what did the president have to say?

He said, “I’m just telling the truth now. I don't have to run for office again, so I can just let her rip.” You see what I mean. He has no idea that “let her rip” is a subpresidential expression, or that even people who work in the 7-11 recognize it as such, and recognize it as a cliché. They also recognize — and the other day, while buying my two-dollar coffee, I heard some of them discussing — the idiocy of saying “I’m telling the truth now,” because it implies that you haven’t been telling the truth before. Obama is cognizant of none of this. Bless his heart, he’s happy with himself.

Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it.

Another thing he said was, “You look at our history, and we had great Republican presidents who — like Teddy Roosevelt started the National Park System, and Dwight Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System, and Richard Nixon started the EPA.” It’s quaint, and kind of entertaining, to picture old President Eisenhower out there buildin’ highways, or President Nixon thinking hard and coming up with the EPA. But what struck me, outside of Barry’s childish reference to the first Roosevelt as “Teddy,” was his strange idea of grammar. As I have said before in these pages, Obama has never mastered the use of “like,” but now we see him using it in a way so ignorant that I can’t remember hearing it before, even in junior high school: “Like Teddy Roosevelt started . . .” By the way, the national parks had existed for generations before Roosevelt “started” them. But what the hell. If you don’t know that you don’t know grammar or history, you’re a happy man.

A third thing he said was, “It is lonely, me just doing stuff.” Sad, isn’t it? But no, you have to picture him saying this to a crowd of listeners at a rally. Sad, and ironic. Intelligence is often manifested not only in a knowledge of history and a familiarity with grammar but also in a sense of irony. That’s three strikes, right there. Yet he’ll never know that he struck out. Much of the fun of seeing how the Other Half lives is enjoying the complete self-assurance they show when they are saying patently ridiculous things.

And they never run out of those things. Consider a few samples from the past few weeks.

Start with lovable old Harry Reid. Spurting outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, Reid noted with disgust that it was decided by “five white men.” None of the anointed news media seems to have observed that Reid himself is (gasp!) a white man; and none was willing to mention that one of the five white men in the Court’s majority was . . . Clarence Thomas. Perhaps this indicates why Reid is able to talk with absolute self-assurance on any topic he addresses — no one to the left of the Daily Caller and National Review is willing to correct him.

Not that the rightwing media suffer from an excess of self-criticism. For me, a particularly interesting illustration was something that Michael Warren, staff writer for the Weekly Standard, said on Fox News a couple of months ago (May 11). This isn’t Sean Hannity, mind you; Hannity says bizarre things every day, and nobody on Fox seems to notice. But Warren wasn’t a popular daily offering, so you would think someone would dare to question his senseless statement that congressmen investigating the administration’s scandals shouldn’t be allowed to “go off on any conspiracy theories” but just “stick to the facts.” Now look. The scandals are about the alleged joint actions — conspiracies — of many people. What if “the facts” show that there has been a conspiracy? Oh, leave that alone! Don’t go off on that!

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about the subject.

Warren’s remark was senseless in the way in which virtually all references to “conspiracy theories” are senseless. I certainly don’t believe that Clay Shaw conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President Kennedy, but I do believe that conspiracy has a meaning and may be useful if you know that meaning. You can say the same about a lot of words that authoritative people wouldn’t dream of looking up. Why bother finding out what decimate means when you can just go ahead and use the word — as did Fox News on July 5, when reporting on pictures of “a decimated Shiite holy site.” Terrible! Someone removed one-tenth of the holiness! But it’s wonderful that Fox can quantify things in this way.

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about religion. If ignorance is ever funny, it certainly was on May 24, when Fox reported that “the Pope visited the Jordan River, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized.” This message was repeated throughout the day — no correction. So I assume that nobody on active duty at Fox perceived the idiocy of the statement. It was like referring, very instructively, to Mecca as the place where many Muslims believe that Muhammed lived, or the state of Washington as the place that many Americans believe was named after a general of the Revolutionary War. Not everyone believes that Jesus was resurrected, but there’s no dispute that he was baptized, and baptized in the Jordan River. Why would there be? Where does Fox think that manyother Christiansbelieve he was baptized — the Chattahoochee?

(Please don’t write to tell me that in your opinion, Jesus never existed, and that therefore many Christians do believe he was baptized someplace besides the Jordan. That makes no sense.)

OK, enough picking on Fox (for now). Among the people most likely to be comfortable while spouting meaninglessly emphatic words are military officers, not all of whom have the literary insight of Wellington or Grant. Transcripts of officers commenting to congressional investigators about their (the officers’) role in the Benghazi affair have now been released (though redacted). These remarksare designed to show that, although commanders did little to rescue the Americans under attack at Benghazi, and told others to do less, no one was ordered to “stand down.”

This is a tough line to elucidate, but one must assume that the officers did their best. Here’s what came out. We are told that when one officer and his group were ready to proceed to Benghazi, where there was bad trouble, they were told to stay in Tripoli, “in case trouble started there.” The officer, one Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, explained that this was not a “stand down”:

“It was not a stand-down order," Gibson said. "It was not, 'Hey, time for everybody to go to bed.' It was, you know, 'Don't go. Don't get on that plane. Remain in place.'"

Thanks for clearing that one up.

And thanks to the aforesaid Harry Reid, senator from Nevada, majority leader of the Senate, for clearing up something of even greater importance, the question of whether the United States has a southern border. Currently, it appears that it does not, unless you mean by “border” a place where you go to be admitted to the United States and given free food, clothing, and shelter — at a government-estimated price of $250 to $1,000 a day — until such time as you are allowed to walk away free, with a promise to attend a deportation hearing at some time in the distant future. Strangely, few people keep such appointments — few except those whose lives are made miserable by the insanely complicated steps that are necessary to abide by the immigration laws.

Unable to think or look for themselves, they kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree.

According to Reid, however, these appearances are deceiving. Why? Because he says so. On July 16, with the border crisis at its height (for now), Reid found a microphone and announced, “The border is secure. I can tell you without any equivocation, the border is secure.” That’s it. That’s what he said. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of irony.

I can’t resist — let’s go back to Fox News. When the Malaysian airliner was shot down on July 17, in a region of the world where borders are taken all too seriously, Fox immediately concluded that the Russians had to be involved. Not a far-fetched conclusion. But the map on which the first two hours of the Fox analysis were based showed the plane barely penetrating the northwest border of Ukraine, hundreds of miles away from Russia or anything that thinks it’s Russia. The Foxcasters, presumably led down this path by their producers and alleged researchers, and unable to think or look for themselves, kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of its own ignorance.

On July 17, unmistakable evidence of this fact was provided by MSNBC and its researchers, producers, and anchorwoman Krystal Ball (sic). Apparently under the conviction that they know how to spot a truthteller when they hear one (consider the outfit’s affection for Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, etc.), the people at MSNBC jumped at a caller’s claim to be a US military man attached to the embassy in Kiev, who had seen, from Kiev — that is, from about 500 miles away — the missile that shot down the Malaysian plane. Amazingly, this man turned out to be a prankster.

That was bad enough. Worse was Ms. Ball’s response. Her caller said, “Well, I was looking out the window and I saw a projectile flying through the sky and it would appear that the plane was shot down by a blast of wind from Howard Stern’s ass.” To which Ball replied, “So it would appear that the plane was shot down. Can you tell us anything more from your military training of what sort of missile system that may have been coming from?”

The prankster paused, apparently in stupefaction, then said what we have all been wanting to say to the Other Half:

Well, you’re a dumbass, aren’t you?

But that wasn’t all. She still couldn’t quite understand what was going on. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “All right, we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be back with all the latest next.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” Sorry for what — being a dumbass? No, that couldn’t be.

Yet speaking of people who miss the point: the author of the story I’ve been quoting and linking about this MSNBC stuff, Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, never fully grokked the problem he reported on. As I keep saying, Kiev is hundreds of miles away from the place where the plane went down. That’s what anyone giving the news should figure out, right away. It would take about 20 seconds. And that’s why the prankster should have been detected, right away. But what does Wemple say about it? He turns for his opinion to the citadel of the Other Half: “As the New York Times has reported, the plane came down in an area with few structures in the vicinity, meaning that anyone claiming to have viewed all this from a window needs to be greeted with skepticism.” So if you can’t see Detroit from the Adirondacks, that’s because you don’t have a window to look out from. But by the way, there are actually windows, and buildings too, both in the Adirondacks and in the eastern Ukraine.

In conclusion: that’s how the Other Half thinks — the Other Half that is responsible for reporting and interpreting the news.

* * *

At the start of this column, I regretted not spending more time with the good things that people say or write. While completing it, I learned of the death of James Garner, an actor of great charm who appeared in many charming and witty movies and TV shows. The first of them was Maverick, an essentially comic and satiric TV western that was my delight when I was a kid. Many a Sunday night I have spent in the heights and depths of pleasure, eating my mother’s wonderful salmon cakes and watching James Garner make fools of everyone else on the little black and white TV screen. He (or his character Bret Maverick, who I like to imagine was a lot like Garner) gave me a saying that I commend to everyone who wants to understand the world, especially the world of American politics: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, and those are pretty good odds.

James Garner, rest in peace.




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That Instructive Tone

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Many years ago, when I was a kid libertarian emerging from the swamps of the New Left, one of my friends, a student of sociology, told me something he had learned in class: among its other functions, government is a means of supplying information.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “like when they put up a traffic light. It tells you when to stop and go.”

I was too young to be paying any perceptible amount of money in taxes, so I didn’t think, “So this is why we need a government that spends as much every year as Europe did between AD 100 and AD 1960 — so it can throw that little switch on the traffic light?” But I did think, “Gosh, that’s banal.”

They are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide.

Since that time, unfortunately, government has become ever more intent on fulfilling the vital function of supplying information. Its attempts to do so are not limited to “merge,” “no left turn,” “pay your taxes by April 15 (or we are sending you to prison).” In my state, you can hardly eat a meal without being informed, someplace on the menu, that eggs and chickens need to be cooked at such and such a temperature. You can hardly pick up a package of anything without seeing a sign that says:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

You can hardly enter an apartment house without seeing an even more disturbing sign:

WARNING: This Area Contains a Chemical Known to the State of California to Cause Birth Defects or Other Reproductive Harm.

A second or two after grabbing their genitals, most Californians recall that this information is without any merit or interest. Every property in the world includes some substance, some chemical, that might conceivably prevent you from reproducing. Eat enough dirt, and you will never reproduce again.

But lately the “information” conveyed by government has assumed a somewhat more lethal form — lethal to mental health, at any rate. President Obama’s comments are almost all of this nature; and the problem has gotten worse as Obama has moved from Partisan Manipulation and Just Plain Lies to the still deadlier genre of Words for the Ages. Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

As for the people who thought those speeches had information to supply, they are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide. I’m sure we can agree, however, on the idea that with such encouragement from the top, Obama’s subordinates are very likely to optimize their own potential for banality.

Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

Governmental banality manifested itself in virtually Platonic form in remarks delivered on June 11 by Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, former senator, former banker, former head of a cellphone company, former organizer for the Reagan campaign, former official of the Veterans Administration, former lobbyist for a tire company, and current Secretary of Defense. The occasion of his remarks was an investigation conducted by the House Armed Services Committee into the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who walked away from his post in a combat zone in Afghanistan, was captured by the enemy, and was ransomed at considerable expense by the Obama administration.

Hagel said:

Wars are messy, and they’re full of imperfect choices. . . .You know there’s always suffering through war. There’s no glory in war. War is always about human beings. It’s not about machines. War is a dirty business. And we don’t like to deal with those realities. But realities, they are. And we must deal with them. . . . . . War, every part of war, like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise. The hard choices and options don’t fit neatly into clearly defined instructions in how-to manuals. All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.

Now, would anybody ever guess that this man had come to Congress to talk about Bowe Bergdahl?

Of course, it’s hard to talk about something you know absolutely nothing about. Hagel’s comments, on this and other occasions, indicated that he had no idea whether Bergdahl was a deserter or if other soldiers had lost their lives looking for him or if the five Taliban honchos who were released in exchange for him were really important or not. But as Secretary of Defense, he had to talk about something, so he talked about the eternal truths. If someone produces The Wit and Wisdom of Chuck Hagel, these wise observations will need to be included:

Wars are messy.

There’s always suffering through [sic] war.

War is not some abstraction.

War is always about human beings.

War is a dirty business.

And just to keep the troops happy:

There’s no glory in war.

What is the listener supposed to deduce from this string of truisms? Don’t go to war? If you go to war, make sure to obliterate your enemies? All’s fair in a dirty game? What goes around comes around? War is an existential tragedy, best understood by curling up with a Camus novel? War isn’t half so pleasant as a successful career in Washington? Pass me the gin bottle?

Here we have a traffic light that’s blinking red, green, and yellow, all at once. But Hagel’s demeanor insisted that you had to respect any information he supplied. When anyone expressed a hint of skepticism, the Secretary of Defense was miffed.

Watching Hagel’s testimony, I was reminded that Leland Yeager had alerted me to the existence of another exponent of government as information, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. And Yeager was right, although McCarthy turns out to have a very different style from Hagel’s. Hagel (age 67) plays the part of the wise but grumpy old grandfather; he reacts to criticism by twisting around with an expression on his face that suggests his hearing aid is missing and he knows that the questioner has stolen it. By contrast, McCarthy (age 60) is young and hip. At least she thinks she is.

In a long, long speech delivered on June 2, McCarthy puffed something called the Clean Power Plan. In case you hadn’t guessed, this monstrosity has to do with governmental “shaping” and “crafting” of large but impenetrably vague “solutions” to such nonproblems as global warming.

Remember global warming? The idea that people are heating up the globe, or planet? Yes, that’s what we used to hear. But since the expected warming doesn’t seem to be going on, people concerned with the purported emergency have changed their name for it. What government is now supposed to prevent is climate change, climate inaction, or, if you’re really hip, just climate. Those are the words that McCarthy uses in her speech; never once does anything so frank as warming appear. But she is hip, or cunning, enough to realize that some people in her audience know, or have heard somewhere, that there’s been a lot of actual cooling going on. How can she handle that? She handles it by indicating she’s so far ahead of the game that she’s plumb tired of watching it. After all, her sole purpose is to win. So whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we? I mean, sometimes the electricity goes off!

If anything, what threatens reliability and causes blackouts is devastating extreme weather fueled by climate change. I’m tired of people pointing to the Polar Vortex as a reason not to act on climate. It’s exactly the opposite. Climate change heightens risks from extreme cold that freezes power grids, superstorms that drown power plants, and heat waves that stress power supplies. And it turns out, efficiency upgrades that slow climate change actually help cities insulate against blackouts.

The solution, of course, is a set of nationwide government interventions, entailing many billions in losses for companies and consumers.

But what strikes me is the tone. It’s the tone of a tenured sage who is tired of people with their petty questions and objections. If that’s the way they are, they’re not worth talking to — even though they’re paying her salary.

Remember, this woman hasn’t even been elected to her exalted position. And she isn’t a person who has won repute by offering the public some goods that it wants to buy. She’s just a government employee. But here she is, talking to people who have either been elected by the public or whose business has been favored in some kind of marketplace, and acting as if it’s her role to give awards at the kindergarten graduation:

I want to give a shout out to all the local officials, rural co-ops, public power operators, and investor owned utilities leading on climate change: It’s clear that you act not just because it’s reasonable, but because it's the right thing to do for the people you serve. Governors and mayors of all stripes are leaning into climate action. They see it not as a partisan obstacle, but as a powerful opportunity. And we know that success breeds success. Those of us who’ve worked in state and local government have seen healthy competition push states to share ideas and expertise. That’s when everybody wins.

If McCarthy actually were a teacher, I would advise her, first, to drop the attempt at pretending to be hip and cool. If you’re not young, you ought to know enough not to do that. But this is a teacher so unwise as to think that somebody’s going to like her to death because she uses expressions like shout out, lean into, and, elsewhere in her rambling, boring, repetitive speech, all about (“This plan is all about flexibility”), a win (“efficiency is a win”), think about it like this, calling our number (“Now, climate change is calling our number”), etc. It must be admitted that there are some signs of authenticity in McCarthy’s youthful patter: she resembles many young people in never having mastered English grammar and syntax. In company with her boss, President Obama, she has not yet learned the “like-as” distinction — and that’s just one example of a grammatical notion she’s never leaned into.

Whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we?

Second, I would advise her that one establishes one’s credentials to instruct others by recognizing and avoiding clichés, and not by running after them as if they were one’s heart’s desire. How else could she give us the right thing to do, of all stripes, success breeds success, and everybody wins within the space of five lines? In other passages we get in the driver’s seat, shifts the conversation, proven path,skeptics who will cry the sky is falling (actually, a skeptic would doubt that the sky is falling, but if you’ve collected a lot of clichés, you may as well butcher some), competitive edge, think of our children, cried wolf, bottom line, doomsday predictions that never came true (another odd choice for a person who spends her time warning about apocalyptic climate stuff),and my favorite pair of bromides, “Corporate climate action is not bells and whistles — it’s all hands on deck.”

That, like the earlier list, is selective. In the space available to me, I can’t do justice to McCarthy’s clichés. But go ahead — read the speech. I dare you. I gave you the link.

In the meantime, I ask you: Is she truly exercising the function of government to supply information? What she supplies is attitude, and a very bad attitude indeed. Bad ’tude, dude. No adult should talk to other adults in this way. In fact, no one should talk to anyone in this way. Although both the tone and the total absence of thought will be familiar to all who remember their high school assemblies, that precedent doesn’t make any of this a good, or even a decent, model for discourse of any kind, including high school assemblies.

But here, as bad speakers like to say, I’m reminded of a joke. Once there were two people who were very religious. They went to church all the time; they gave money; they never missed a vigil or a potluck dinner; with them it was all hands on deck. I’ll call this couple Adam and Steve. One Sunday Adam was sick, but he wanted to find out what the new priest had to say that morning, so he sent Steve along to church with instructions to report back to him. So Steve went and returned, and on his return he said, “Do you want the bad news first, or the good news?”

Adam gulped. “I guess,” he replied, “I’d better hear the bad news first.”

So Steve said, “Well, the priest got into the pulpit, and he preached nothing but heresy!”

“Oh my God!” Adam exclaimed. “After that, what could the good news be?”

“The good news,” Steve said, “is that nobody was listening.”

I would place bets on how many people, if any, read that speech by Ms. McCarthy, or, if present, listened to it. I fear that Leland Yeager and I may be her only attentive audience. And Obama’s sermons are just as eagerly followed.




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Come On — Did They Really Say Those Things?

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Normally, I don’t find much entertainment in news reports of off-year congressional primaries in states where I don’t live. But look what fell into my lap while I was reading election reports on May 20. The author is Fox News reporter Chris Stirewalt; the subject is Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia:

When asked if she would have voted for President Obama’s signature health law, Nunn was gobsmacked in a MSNBC interview. “So, at the time that the Affordable Health Care Act [sic] was passed, I was working for Points of Light,” Nunn says. “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation . . . I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” She’s going to have plenty of chances to reconsider over the course of the campaign.

Now that’s entertainment. Just picture Stirewalt scratching his head and wearing out his eraser, hunting for le mot juste, and coming up with “gobsmacked.” What does that mean? And where does it come from? And what’s it for?

A dictionary informs me that it means “astounded,” and that its origin is “smacked” (I know what that means) plus “gob” (oh yes, now I remember: that’s a Britishism for “mouth”). But that doesn’t help very much. As an immediate descendant of one of America’s famous political families (as they are called; I call them parasites), Nunn could not have been astounded by a question about Obamacare. I’m guessing, but I think that Stirewalt means she was badly hurt, hit in the gob, or mouth, by an interview that went badly, from her point of view. He’s using this strange expression to make fun of her.

I must say, I have no reason to like Michelle Nunn, but I don’t relish the image of people being smacked in the mouth. It doesn’t seem, well, exactly right for news reporting. Or even for satire. And the effort to sound folksy by importing British folksiness seems counterproductive.

So there are several ways in which Stirewalt goofed. Now let’s consider the target of his humor, Michelle Nunn. I’m not concerned with the error noted by Fox News’s “sic”: so what if the real name of the Obamacare legislation is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? But passing beyond all that, the next thing out of her gob was something called Points of Light. She seemed to believe that everyone would know what that means, but I didn’t, until I looked it up. Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Points of Light is an international nonprofit, nonpartisan organization headquartered in the United States dedicated to engaging more people and resources in solving serious social problems through voluntary service.” I guess if you’re professionally employed in figuring that one out, you can’t pay much attention to anything else that’s going on, such as Obamacare.

The dog had been transitioned. Picture that.

So Michelle Nunn, leading light and great political thinker, knew nothing about it.But does she now know what it is, andwhether she would have voted for it? That’s an easy question, too easy for a politician to answer. Politicians want to take on the hard questions, the challenging questions, the questions inspired by their gargantuan hopes and dreams. So instead of saying whether she would have voted for (i.e., now favors) the bitterly unpopular program ruthlessly jammed through Congress by the leader of her party, she entertains a harder question: what kind of people do you wish to inhabit America?

You’ll agree that this is a very hard question. But she found an answer: “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation.”

It is possible that, like many abstruse philosophers — Kant, say, or Heidegger — Nunn has thoughts too profound to be expressed in normal language. Therefore she must use “architect” as a verb and “legislation” as the kind of noun that admits the indefinite article, as in such uncommon phrases as “I will introduce a legislation” and “according to a legislation passed in 1958 . . .” Yet on closer inspection, these peculiar words appear not to differ in meaning from the words that any normally literate person would choose instead — words such as “tried to create, shape, invent, agree upon, etc., a bipartisan bill, act, law, scheme, plan, etc.” Can it be that Ms. Nunn, graduate of the University of Virginia and the Kennedy School of Government, is not a normally literate person, that her odd use of words merely signifies her membership in the ignorant tribe that hunts for food and shelter in political boardrooms and committee meetings, aborigines so innocent of books that they derive their patter entirely from the primitive verbiage of “agendas” and “executive summaries”?

The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

Every language, every system of discourse, even the most primitive, has its symbols, and it’s pretty clear what Ms. Nunn’s words were intended to symbolize. She wanted to say, without saying it, that she had nothing to do with Obamacare and wishes that it had turned out differently, but the blame lies with the Republicans, rather than her own party (which just happened to have passed the bill), because the Republicans refused to cooperate and make the thing bipartisan. Tribal priests sometime speak in this way, so that only their fellow priests will understand their message and know what to do to any rival priests. Priestly concerns have undoubtedly influenced Nunn’s sentence.

Yet there’s yet another sentence, and in it the impression of illiteracy is overwhelming. “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively,” she begins, “and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?”

But as you know, it’s possible to use big words and still not be literate. Children do it all the time. Unfortunately, they are often rewarded for the trick, and many turn out like Nunn, who can’t resist throwing a big word in, despite not knowing what it means. If she knew what “retrospectively” means, why would she pair it with “back,” thus creating the kind of gross redundancy that embarrasses literate men and women?

But let’s not take things out of context; let’s look at her whole sentence: “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” Here we have passed beyond the world of words; we are treading the marble floors of metaphysics.The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

This is the logic, simple though conclusive, that eludes Ms. Dunn. She thinks it is not possible — the reason is evident. She supported Obamacare. She must have supported it. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be twisting herself into knots, denying that it’s possible for anyone to say what she “would” have done in some mysterious past that neither memory nor imagination can recover. But if she thinks she’s fooling anybody, she isn’t.

Her verbal methods, alas, are not original. Making pretentious verbs out of common nouns (i.e., “architect”) — that’s what bureaucrats and news people do all day. This month we were informed that a dog employed to do some dirty work by the Department of Homeland Security had been “transitioned” out of service. The dog had been transitioned. Picture that. As for pretentious redundancies, the news is always full of those. On May 3, Fox reported that “pro-government supporters” were active in Ukraine. There was no news of anti-government supporters.

Even more insensate language appeared this month. On May 9, there was an awful accident in Virginia; a balloon hit an electric wire, scattering flaming wreckage and human bodies across the landscape. Three people were eventually found and pronounced dead. While rescue workers still searched for them, a spokesman for the balloon-festival sponsors conveyed this sentiment: “The Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival regrets that there was a safety incident involving one of the balloons participating on the evening of May 9.”

Safety incident? A balloon hit an electric wire, and three people died. It was an incident all right, but a safety incident?

This is the kind of language that 21st-century Americans have grown to expect from public sources. Like Ms. Nunn’s remarks, it’s the product of the public relations school of English, which isn’t English at all. No writer of normal English would refer to a deadly accident as a “safety incident,” or even say that balloons — not people — “participated” in something. But for PR people, and those who learn their ABCs from them, this sort of thing is automatic.

Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you.

Of course, the PR disaster of the month has been the response, or non-response, of the Veterans Administration (aka Department of Veterans Affairs) and its head, Gen. Eric Shinseki, to allegations that many people have died at VA hospitals in Phoenix and elsewhere while waiting for a medical appointment. CNN has done a good job of following up on these allegations. For over six months the network has sought an interview with or statement from Shinseki, but its efforts have not succeeded. It did discover that he employs 54 (fifty-four!) press agents, none of whom responded to CNN’s attempts to get them to do their job. Finally, when the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called for the boss’s resignation, the VA issued a statement:

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously. If the VA Office of Inspector General's investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken. Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care.

Under the leadership of Secretary Shinseki and his team, VA has made strong progress in recent years to better serve veterans both now and in the future. The secretary knows there is more work to do.

Tell me, how many people does it take to reach that level of banality? Answer: 54.

Note the sidelong plea for “faith,” even if, in some cases, this faith must be posthumously awarded. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney, the man America loves to hate, indicated that for some unknown reason Obama himself had succumbed to this plea: "The President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the department and take appropriate action." Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you. But the trick of invoking faith and confidence was worn out generations ago. In 1933, Isabel Paterson wrote, “When any one asks us to have confidence we are glad to inform him that the request of itself would shatter any remaining confidence in our mind.”

But what said Shinseki himself? Here are his words, from the CNN report (Friday, May 23) that I’ve been quoting:

Shinseki said Tuesday that [he] is "very sensitive to the allegations" coming from the Phoenix probe.

“I need to let the independent IG (inspector general) complete his investigation," he told the [Wall Street] Journal.

Paterson died (without the help of the VA) some years before the popularity of two press agent ploys that are as bad as demanding “confidence”: (1) claiming that one is “sensitive,” with the accompanying, implicit demand for sensitivity from one’s hapless audience; (2) insisting on the supposed necessity of doing nothing until an investigation is completed.

If you were really sensitive, wouldn’t you be too sensitive to say you were — in an interview that you finally had to give, as a bare-minimum response to deadly accusations? And, regardless of anybody else’s inquiries, wouldn’t you take the first plane to Phoenix and stand by the door of the hospital, asking patients how long it took them to get an appointment? If you could find a plane that was large enough, you could take all your press agents with you and let them turn you into a national hero. And if you didn’t do it, maybe your super-sensitive president could do it himself. After all, it would take less work than flying to Afghanistan, or figuring out how to flim-flam the VA issue.

But maybe it isn’t “sensitivity” we need. Maybe it’s normal words and normal actions.




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Lessening the Language

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A friend of this column, Carl Isackson, has a beautiful dog named Lassen. But, to paraphrase the old rock ‘n’ roll song, Carl is bothered by “just one thing”: “Why can’t anybody get the name of my dog right?”

Carl, who lives in northern California, points out that his dog has the same name as a great natural monument of northern California, Lassen Peak. And the name is spelled phonetically. It’s one of the easiest names in the world. So why, when Carl takes Lassen to the vet or a hound-dog Hilton or some other place where his name needs to be registered, can’t people get it right?

“Oh, what a pretty dog!” they say. “What’s her name?”

“His name is Lassen,” Carl replies.

“What’s that again?”

“Lassen. Like the mountain.”

“Oh, Laysen. What an original name.”

(Growl.) “No, it’s Lassen L-A-S-S-E-N.”

“Right. Laysen.”

(Carl looks at the registration form. It says “Laysen.”)

“It’s LASSen. Like LASSie.”

“Huh?”

These attempts at instruction have never gone well. But then, the other day, Lassen checked into a pet hotel, and when he came out, the name on his Pawgress Report Card was “Lessen.”

Lessen.

From Lassen Peak to, just, uh, y’know, Lessen — that’s the progress of our language.

I assume that the people who think “Lassen” is a strange new name would react with outrage if they heard that Lassen Peak was being devastated by development. But they wouldn’t know what it was, or where, or be able to pronounce it if they saw it in writing, any more than those millions who went crazy about Bush’s scheme to drill oil in Alaska could pronounce or locate the minute part of the frozen north where Bush wanted to allow environmental devastation.

Picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and “squash” an indictment.

That was false consciousness, similar to the false consciousness of people who oppose the Keystone Pipeline on the ground that it would have some mystical effect on “the environment” — what effect, they don’t know.

But I want to discuss something more basic.

In my neighborhood there is, or was, a classy, early 20th-century stretch of boulevard that for the past nine months the city has maintained as a ruin. City workers blocked off two of the four lanes, tore up the median strip, dug a hole in what used to be pavement, and are now, very slowly, pouring concrete for what looks like an anti-tank emplacement. This, we are told, is supposed to become a “high-speed bus corridor.” How it will work, I don’t know; but it’s obvious that whatever speed a bus will be able to work up in those few blocks (two, to be exact) will never compensate for the time and gasoline that drivers are spending and will have to spend on the delays inevitably produced by eliminating two lanes of traffic. This, as I say, is obvious; but although everyone in the neighborhood complains about the city’s atrocious conduct, virtually no one comments on the fact that the whole giant waste of energy is motivated by an attempt to save energy. No one recognizes this irony, just as no one recognizes the fact that a dog named Lassen is named after, and spelled after, a mountain peak, not a word for diminishing returns.

Another instance! Consider the word quash. When is the last time you heard it? Yet it’s a standard term, one that until recently was used whenever people wanted to talk about the repression or suppression of something. Judges quashed indictments. Congressional committees quashed proposed legislation. Tyrants quashed rebellions. To use the word quash, you didn’t need to know all its uses. You just needed to know that there was such a word, and it might fit what you wanted to say.

But sometime during the past 20 years, people stopped recognizing the existence of quash. They stopped being able to hear or read it. When they encountered it, they saw and heard something more familiar, less daunting to their ignorance. They heard the word squash. And, like the goofy dog handlers, they didn’t care to puzzle (i.e., spell) out a less familiar word or to test the applicability of the easier word they wanted to substitute. Lassen became Lessen, and quash became squash.

Now proposals are squashed, rebellions are squashed, student protests are squashed, and even, God have mercy, wars and diseases are squashed. Conservatives don’t recognize the difference, any more than liberals. Poor Andrew C. McCarthy — he had to see his article about militant Islamics come out on National Review Online under the headline “DOJ Source: Obama Political Appointees Squashed Indictment of CAIR Leader and Other Islamist Groups” (April 14). And the British are as bad as we are. Here’s the author himself, someone named Con Coughlin, who is defence editor of the Telegraph, reporting on one of those convoluted British political things: “Mr Hammond no doubt believes these arguments are merely a political game and that, with a general election and the chance of further promotion in prospect, all he needs to do is squash criticism from the military by dismissing their claims as nonsense” (March 31).

Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and “impact” is the club of choice.

Whole lotta squashin’ goin’ on. You can picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and squash an indictment. Now let’s see you take that indictment to court! Or something named Philip Hammond (British writers no longer consider it their job to identify anyone, so why should I?) seizing a fat lump of criticism and squashing it into irrelevance.

These picturesque effects are not, of course, intended. They are the products of a lack of intention, and a lack of attention, too. They happen when words lose their history, their integrity, and their appropriate imagery and become mere flyover territory, uninteresting in detail — a landscape you just have to cross, preferably while sleeping, on your way to the big payoff — your meaning. Except that your meaning can only be expressed in words.

This is how people who want to say that someone is uninterested in his job assert that “he’s definitely disinterested,” not realizing that they’re paying the guy a compliment. This is how people who want to emphasize someone’s fame say that he’s “infamous.” They’ve heard the words uninterested and disinterested, and they’ve heard the words famous and infamous, but they never recognized a distinction. Everything just passed in a blur.

Sometimes the result is comic; more often it too is only a blur, a graying of meanings in a shadow world where nothing distinct, or distinctive, ever emerges. Well, it’s easier that way. That’s why impact is currently such a hit (pun intended) with everyone who wants to say something without going to the trouble of saying anything. What would a political speech be without impact? Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and impact is the club of choice. Context never matters. Here’s a tweet sent out by the White House, as part of President Obama’s attempt to end poverty by raising the minimum wage: “If we #RaiseTheWage here's how many workers would be impacted in your state . . .” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/live, April 19).The real, though unintended, message is: “For God’s sake, don’t raise the minimum wage! Don’t clobber those low-paid workers!” Because impact suggests a blow being struck, a planet hurtling into another planet, a car smashing into an orphanage . . . anything except the beneficial influence, assistance, or help that the tweeter had in mind.

I don’t know whether this is the chicken or the egg, but I do know that our daily speech is greatly impacted by the words used on talk shows; and here’s a sample of what you’ll find in the page of online news summary that professional talkers scan before they start their programs: “President Obama met with six faith leaders Tuesday to discuss immigration. The leaders told the president stories about how immigration policies had impacted members of their congregations” (Talk Radio News Service, April 16). “Faith leaders” are of course religious leaders, but let’s keep religion out of politics, shall we? Apparently these spokesmen for faith-in-politics spend their time picking through the debris left by their congregants’ (sorry, constituents’) collisions with immigration policies, searching for stories about how the poor folk have been impacted. This time, at least, I’m sure that the meaning is negative, but maybe the same people can come back tomorrow and tell the president stories about how their constituents were positively impacted by Obamacare.

Speaking of impacts, wouldn’t you be positively impacted if somebody used a word that could be distinguished from just any other word? I mean, think of all the synonyms for positive, as in positive impact: favorable, beautiful, helpful, wonderful, splendid, slightly encouraging . . . . And the synonyms for negative are much more fun. Why lessen the impact of what you want to say by using the most nondescript term available? Maybe because you’re lazy?

But it’s not just impact that’s at stake; it’s also knowledge. You might like to know precisely what kind of impact those policies had. Or, to use another example (I have plenty), if you’re concerned, as maybe you ought to be, with the chronic mystery of how many of Franklin Roosevelt’s advisors were communist agents, intentional or unintentional, and you happen to look up the name of his intimate friend Harry Hopkins, this is what you’ll find in a defensive but fairly well informed Wikipedia article:

Hopkins was the top American official charged with dealing with Soviet officials during World War II. He interfaced with many Soviets, from middle ranks to the very highest — apart from Marshal Stalin, most notably Anastas Mikoyan, Hopkins's counterpart with responsibility for Lend-Lease. He often explained Roosevelt's plans to Stalin and other top Soviets in order to enlist Soviet support for American objectives, and in turn explained Stalin's goals and needs to Roosevelt.

Sounds pretty suspicious to me. And it all turns on that word “interfaced.” The word originates, not in the Roosevelt White House (which was much more literate than the White House of today) but in the kingdom of the computer. Its tendency, if you take it seriously, is to deny human agency. You don’t blame one computer for interfacing with another. But what went on? Did Hopkins just download his memory and upload his hosts’, or did he talk, negotiate, party, parry, gossip, conspire, or idly chat with the Soviets? Our author saith not. Then why is he writing? Surely not to give us knowledge. Maybe it’s just his way of interfacing with the ethereal blur.

It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year.

I’m not asking for more words. I’m not arguing that more is always more. Oh no. I think that President Obama has communicated all the knowledge he has in about the first 30 seconds of a speech, the part in which he thanks his introducers. He knows enough for that. If, as the Book of Common Prayer would have it, you read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the rest of what he says, you’ll end up knowing a lot less than you knew when he was thanking Senator Foghorn.

But now we have the peculiar, yet somehow representative, case of José Fernandez, superintendent of the Centinela Valley Union High School District in Southern California. It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year. No, it was more; it’s just been discovered that the board also gave him two life insurance policies that he can cash in at any time, and their annual payments on these policies bring the total to around $750,000 a year. All this for someone who went bankrupt twice in his life and, according to a recent report, had been fired from his job as assistant superintendent.

The explanation, as alleged by Fernandez’ foes, is that a large construction company financed a school board election, and the resultant school board hired Fernandez, and Fernandez pushed through some large construction programs. This accusation may be relevant to the approach Fernandez adopted when his takings became public knowledge and angry constituents showed up at a school board meeting (February 25):

Fernandez declined to address any of the complaints about his compensation package, choosing instead to express his appreciation to the board for its support and touting his accomplishments.

“I want to thank the board for their support,” he said, over catcalls coming from a few members of the audience. “I want to thank residents in the area who voted for the bonds that funded new buildings, new science labs.

“I do hear you. I’ve listened very carefully and I will sit and work with the board on your concerns. I want to thank you all for coming here and expressing your concerns. I want to thank you all again. Good evening.”

The public wanted more, and got some of it: on April 9, Fernandez was placed on “administrative leave” (you guessed it — a paid leave). The surprising thing is this: Fernandez didn’t get away with his lessened approach to public controversy. How many politicians — and political CEOs, and other figures of supposed authority — have you heard mouthing syllables like “I hear you”; “I’ve listened very carefully”; “I will work on your concerns”; “thank you for expressing your concerns”; “thank you again”; “good evening,” and then shutting up, hoping that if nothing is uttered except a handful of subcommunicative syllables, nobody will recognize the difference between that and real public discourse?

The answer is, almost all of them — and almost all of them are getting away with it, despite Pawgress Reports that correctly name them Lessen.




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My Hero

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It’s good to have heroes. One of mine is John Kerry.

My love is a selfish one: a column like this depends on buffoons like him. I was devastated when Al Gore retired from politics to maximize his “climate” business. Gore could always be depended on to say something delightfully absurd. Of course, he couldn’t give up the habit, any more than he could give up eating to excess, but after exiting politics, stage left, he no longer had such a range of opportunities to show how hard it is to make sense when you never reflect on anything you’re saying.

Fortunately for me, Barack Obama came along, towing Kerry behind him. When Kerry was just a rich guy squatting in the Senate (for 28 years!), nobody paid much attention to what he said. Nobody paid much attention when he was running for president, either, but some people assumed they had a duty to report on him. That stopped, until Obama anointed him as secretary of state. Since then, his life has been an unbroken sequence of crises and assumed crises. Syria. “Warming.” Crimea. And Kerry is not one to nurse a crisis in silence. Oh no. On any given day, one can google “Kerry” and find a display of verbal paraplegia. It’s only a nagging sense of fairness that keeps me from filling every column with Kerry-isms; I want to give other people their chance in the Special Olympics. But whether I use his material or not, Kerry gives me a sense of confidence. I know that even if everyone else reforms, even if Harry Reid finally seeks a connection between words and things and President Obama finally opens the books he was supposed to read in college, John Kerry will always be words in the bank for me, an inexhaustible supply of malaprop.

Lately we’ve been hearing so much from him that I can’t resist displaying a few of his gems. Take, for instance, this one. A news source recently informed us that “Secretary of State John Kerry said he has consulted with other world leaders, and ‘every single one of them are prepared to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia with respect to this invasion’ of Crimea."

On any given day, one can google “Kerry” and find a display of verbal paraplegia.

One of the many bad things about Kerry’s statements is their petulance. He is always the little boy who’s miffed that the other little boys aren’t listening respectfully to him. He anticipates (rightly enough) that they don’t believe what he says. So he raises his voice. “Oh yeah? Well, I’ve been talking to world leaders! I have so!” Observe that according to him, he hasn’t just been hobnobbing with officials from here and there; he’s been consulting with other world leaders, as if he were a world leader, too, and all of them liked him and agreed with him. To the hilt. Every single one of them are prepared to go to the hilt. Note the grammatical error (“one of them are”), the kind of error people make when they haven’t the faintest idea of how to analyze a sentence. Note the grandiose cliché (“go to the hilt”). Note the obvious lie: no “world leader,” not even Kerry, was ever prepared to “go to the hilt” over Crimea. Note the secondhandedness: I’ve been talking with them, and they are all agreed. Lastly, note the vagueness, so characteristic of Kerry’s bombast. “Isolate Russia” — meaning what? Even that wiggly little “with respect to” — a vaguer, yet more pompous, way of saying “about.”

Gosh, what a mess. Now try this, which is fully characteristic of our secretary of state and can certainly be attributed to him: “’(The Ukraine incursion) is a show of weakness,’ a senior administration official said. ‘They have lost the government they backed in Kiev, now they're resorting to the type of intervention that will severely distance them from the international community.’" Pretend you’re Russia. You’re annoyed by the overthrow of a friendly government in Ukraine, which you had been heavily subsidizing. But you realize how weak you are. So out of your weakness you seize the best part of Ukraine, the part you had always wanted, and there’s nothing that “world leaders” can do about it, because you’re so weak. Makes perfect sense, right? It seemed so sensible to President Obama that he was soon making the same diagnosis of Russia’s weakness; he reasserted it vigorously in his press conference at The Hague on March 25. Weakness, I assume, is the reason Putin controls the situation in Crimea, and Obama does not (the Obama who is down to 40% approval by voters in his own country). Putin is weak. But never fear. Russia will be horribly punished by its distance from the international community.

Pompous? Vague? Petulant? Empty? Yes. That’s the Kerry style.

Back to weakness. Kerry and his fellow perpetuators of the 1960s have long resorted to pseudo-psychological, deep-insight explanations of phenomena that other people explain quite directly, in accordance with the “surface” (i.e., obvious) evidence. Liberals of the ’60s generation apparently find it inconceivable that some people should lash out at homosexuals because they simply don’t like homosexuality. They know, these friends of aged pop psychology, that such people are actually afraid of homosexuals, or of their own homosexual tendencies, known only to far distant observers. They are, in fact, homophobes. In the same way, conservatives explain Putin and Putin’s Russia by evoking the specter of the playground bully, who will back down if you just stand up to him, because bullies are afraid of you. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a bully who was afraid of me; I’ve looked largely in vain for bullies who would consent to back down when people stood up to them. I’ll bet that’s your experience, too.

But what do you think of adults who treat other adults as children, coddling them, placating them, condescending to them, lecturing them about their psychological issues, and otherwise infantilizing them? Do you think these adults may be relating to others out of their own childish fears? Maybe that’s what Kerry was doing on March 18, when he intoned (he always intones): “Russia has an enormous historical connection to Ukraine. We know this, but that doesn’t legitimize just taking what you want because you want it or because you’re angry about the end of the Cold War or the end of the Soviet Union.”

That “enormous” sticks in my craw. An enormous connection? Is it a railroad coupling? A 20-ton anchor? I’m familiar with connections that are strong, intimate, lasting, firm . . . but enormous? That’s absurd — but Kerry has a way of emphasizing the absurd parts of his statements. The overwhelmingly absurd thing, though, is the parental attitude: “Listen, little boy, you can’t just take what you want because you want it.” Does he actually expect anyone to listen to stuff like this? Does he expect Putin to hang his head and shuffle his feet and say, “Ah, you’re right, Uncle John. I guess I’ll hafta give it back”? Does he expect Putin to be stunned by his grand psychological insight that he, Putin, didn’t take the Crimea because it’s a valuable piece of real estate and any adult could see that there wasn’t a chance in the world that anyone would successfully oppose the action; no, he took the Crimea because he was angry?

Kerry doesn’t like shy little dewdrop clichés; he likes big, manly clichés, the kind that every serious student must take, well, seriously.

The anger that’s most visible is Kerry’s anger. When has he made a speech in which he wasn’t angry — angry with some foreign power, angry with global-warming skeptics, angry with anyone he suspected of not listening to him. And if you want to see weakness, look to the same source.

Oh, but there are still so many jewels to exhibit. One more example. This is a big one, because Kerry is always saying big, long, deep, important things — such as his remarks at the World Economic Forum (what is that, anyway?) on January 18. From this mass of vital importance I will select two paragraphs about whether, heaven forbid, the United States has become less of a buttinsky than it was before Kerry arrived on the scene:

I must say I am perplexed by claims that I occasionally hear that somehow America is disengaging from the world, this myth that we are pulling back or giving up or standing down. In fact, I want to make it clear today that nothing could be further from the truth. This misperception, and in some case, a driven narrative, appears to be based on the simplistic assumption that our only tool of influence is our military, and that if we don’t have a huge troop presence somewhere or we aren’t brandishing an immediate threat of force, we are somehow absent from the arena. I think the only person more surprised than I am by the myth of this disengagement is the Air Force pilot who flies the Secretary of State’s plane.

Obviously, our engagement isn’t measured in frequent flier miles — though it would be pretty nice if I got a few, as a matter of fact — but it is really measured — and I think serious students of foreign policy understand this — it is measured by the breadth of our global commitments, their depth, especially our commitments to our allies in every corner of the world. It is measured by the degree of difficulty of the crises and the conflicts that we choose to confront, and it is measured ultimately by the results that we are able to achieve.

Here’s a guy who’s a phony even when he’s “joking.” Frequent flier miles indeed — Kerry is married to the widow of an heir to one of the nation’s great fortunes. The funny thing is that he doesn’t expect us to know how rich he is, even after it became an important issue in his presidential campaign. Another mark of phoniness is that word “somehow,” appearing twice in one paragraph. This is the dismissive somehow that people — usually leftists — employ when they have the following problem rumbling around in their heads: “The idea I am rebutting is obviously true, and the only way I have of rebutting it is to express bafflement that anyone could harbor such a silly idea.”

Why did I say that it’s usually leftists who talk this way? Just the empirical evidence: listen, and you’ll hear. But why would it be leftists, any more than rightists? I’m not sure, but I think it’s because articulate leftists were often educated in pricey schools, schools where they weren’t taught how to listen to those strange little people who disagree with them, but they were taught how to sneer at them. Anyway, the dismissive or sneering somehow wasn’t invented by John Kerry. Distinguished preceding uses include

  • The idea that somehow most people will be better off if we allow a few people to make all the money they can . . .
  • The idea that somehow there are new oil resources, just waiting to be discovered . . .
  • The idea that somehow guns can reduce crime . . .
  • The idea that somehow there is mass starvation in the Soviet Union . . .

Let us return to what Kerry is trying to argue. He’s insisting that America is just as “engaged” with “the world” as it used to be, before he stumbled into office. The difficulty is that he wouldn’t be making this speech if he weren’t aware of the evidence that leads people to believe that America is not as “engaged,” and that the evidence is persuasive. I happen to believe that America is still far too “engaged,” but never mind: Kerry thinks the opposite, because he would like it to be more “engaged”: that’s why he’s talking. So he sneers at the very reason he’s giving his speech. You see what a double dealer he is. And notice: he thinks that nobody will detect his double dealing — or, again, he wouldn’t be giving this speech. You see how dumb he is.

One sign of a dumb person is the use of words like engaged, which practically everyone knows mean practically nothing. If you don’t know that, you’re either 17 years old, or you’re dumb. Kerry is considerably older than 17. Another sign of dumbness is childish metaphors such as “the arena,” an image popularized by Theodore Roosevelt (1910):

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Someone who sees international relations as an “arena” of this kind should not be involved with international relations.

A third infallible sign that a speaker is just plain dumb is a reliance on the stuff that eighth-grade English teachers once called “flowery language,” and put red X’s through. (Good teachers still do that; the others are just too dumb.) By “flowery language” they mean “nothing but language.” What do you learn from the second paragraph I quoted from Kerry’s speech? You’re supposed to learn that the United States is stuck to the world like Krazy Glue. But Kerry can’t manage to say that, or anything like that. He can’t even manage to say, “The United States is still very interested in the world outside its borders; it will honor its promises to other nations, and it will get results.” Oh no. He needs “flowers,” otherwise known as clichés, which he plucks by the handful: serious students, global commitments, every corner of the world, choose to confront. Kerry doesn’t like shy little dewdrop clichés; he likes big, manly clichés, the kind that every serious student must take, well, seriously.

And the whole thing is meaningless. Obviously, our commitments aren’t literally global; they don’t extend to every corner of the world. At least, I hope we have no commitment to Eritrea, Uruguay, or Wrangel Island. The measure of Kerry’s phoniness is the fact that the words he emphasizes are precisely the ones that are not true, that are obviously untrue, that if taken seriously would lead any sensible listener to scorn and reject his speech.

I just used measure intentionally, so you could see what you had to do to figure it out. You had to stop and try to picture what it meant. You wondered whether it made sense to measure “phoniness” by a “fact.” Maybe you thought, ultimately, that it did make sense; maybe you didn’t. But consider Kerry’s use of measure. He wants you to believe that engagement must be measured by breadth and depth of commitments. That’s a puzzler. Picture that, will ya? Engagement must be measured by our commitments to our allies in every corner of the world. Write that out in a simple sentence: “Our engagement must be measured by our commitments.” Is that saying the same thing twice, or is it saying nothing at all? Kerry’s sentences often provoke this question.

The measure of Kerry’s phoniness is the fact that the words he emphasizes are precisely the ones that are obviously untrue.

Despite all that, Kerry somehow keeps coming out with astonishing assertions. There’s one at the end of the passage we’re examining. There he claims that “engagement” grows better, or realer, or something like that, as it grows more difficult — in Kerryese, “It is measured by the degree of difficulty of the crises and the conflicts that we choose to confront.” So, the more difficult something is, the more you’re engaged with it? Physicists aren’t really engaged with their work unless they’re trying to invent a perpetual motion machine? Women aren’t really engaged with romance unless they’re seeking the most repulsive and abusive boyfriends? Well, they may be engaged, but not in any healthy way. Yet Kerry also claims that the ultimate measure of “engagement” is the “results” it achieves. This seems reasonable, until you take maybe a second to reflect on it. Then you see that the crook who succeeds in getting you to purchase a stolen car is much more engaged with you than the friend who fails to sell you on giving up smoking. Not only are Kerry’s ideas expressed in the least attractive and least accessible way, but they aren’t even true. Any of them.

All right, here’s the scary thing: you can spot a Kerry sentence a mile off. You can’t mistake it for anybody else’s sentence. He’s like Shakespeare, in that way. And the sentences he speaks spontaneously are very close to the sentences he reads from a script. You see the horrifying truth: this guy actually writes his own speeches. I can’t say worse.




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Peripheral Vision

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Does it seem to you that people are losing their peripheral vision? It seems that way to me.

I halt at a stop sign, look to the left, look to the right — and then, just when I start to move, observe with horror that people are jumping off the curb and walking in front of me. I’m looking in their direction, but they’re not looking in mine. Oh no. They’re looking straight ahead, with no indication that they see my car, hear my brakes, or feel the heat of my engine as I screech to a stop three feet away from them. They parade in front of me with the gait of peacocks solemnly treading the Queen’s lawn.

(She does have peacocks, doesn’t she? In the summer? Or is it swans? Very well, with the gait of swans solemnly treading, etc. Swans always seem about as stupid as peacocks, except in Tchaikovsky ballets. And even then, they’re more beautiful than smart.)

There’s a general opinion that this kind of behavior is restricted (A) to persons under 25, and (B) to persons with electronic instruments jammed in their ear sockets. But no, it’s not. It has spread to every demographic group.

They don’t see anything. They just continue. Like those children of all ages, waltzing merrily in front of the oncoming traffic.

Have you ever been in a Whole Foods store? I ask that because Whole Foods is somewhat more expensive than your ordinary supermarket, and notoriously attracts a Better Sort of People — mainly NPR clones and trust-fund babies with tattoos, but lots of libertarians as well. (Like me.) These are sensitive souls, if anybody is. That’s why the baby seal advocates line up outside to get their signatures in support of sensitive causes. But you can’t walk through the aisles without constant attempts to avoid injury from NFL-class shoppers jumping in your way, then stopping dead in front of you, blocking the aisle. When you try to dive around them, boom! There they are again. If you make it to the dairy products, you can expect two or three of them to smash into you while you’re reading the labels, innocently attempting not to buy soy milk. They didn’t see you. They never see you. They have no peripheral vision.

Something of the same effect is achieved by all those people who make your life miserable in restaurants, movie theaters, and other places of public resort — the blithe spirits who yell, shriek, chatter, debate, and conduct lengthy reviews of their private lives for the benefit of everyone within a five-block radius. When you give them the meaningful look that, when your grandparents used it, would shush everyone but the most hardened conversational criminals, they just face you with a glassy stare. They’re not staring at you. They don’t see you. They don’t see anything. They just continue. Like those children of all ages, waltzing merrily in front of the oncoming traffic. Like their fellow hazards to health, the parents who chat idly with each other while their children run about the airport, the parking lot, or the edge of the nearest volcano, endangering their lives and the lives of others. Their parents literally do not see them. They have no peripheral vision.

This is the kind of behavior that was formerly common among those whom our grandparents rudely classified as trash. Only now is it manifesting itself as a mass phenomenon. Its counterpart is the recent, very large increase in loss of peripheral vision about what people are saying while they insist so much on saying it. No one seems to care that it might be embarrassing to tell a roomful of strangers all about one’s effing conversation with one’s effing bedmates, because said effing bedmates are getting fatter than effing hogs, not to mention being bad about their toilet manners. It must be stipulated, however, that loss of peripheral vision is especially pronounced among the self-important classes, who ought, one might think, to take more care about saying things that will disgrace them.

Strangely, this loss has coincided with an enormous increase in the retrievability of verbal gaffes. Nowadays, if you don’t have enough peripheral vision — once known as foresight — to notice that your words may possibly come back and bite you on the ass, it’s much more likely that they will come back and do just that. Digitally embodied, they will wait beside you, visible to all but you, until such time as they are ready to spring upon and permanently discredit you.

Suppose, to take a purely hypothetical example, a racial or sexual epithet should be scrawled on someone’s wall. These are the days of forensic science; it gets easier and easier to determine who did such things. If the action is in fact a fraud — an expression not of racial or sexual hatred but of a sick desire to advertise some cause or issue of the person who scrawled the epithet in order to make accusations about somebody else — chances are large that the fraud will be exposed. During the past few years, scores of these moral disasters have occurred, and have been well publicized. Now why are such fraudulent charges always attended by instant, loud, fanatical declarations of their unquestionable truth, delivered by every school principal, public official, church leader, and college professor in the neighborhood? These people practically crawl over one another to get to the microphone and announce their support for even the most ridiculous accusations. Then, when their charges, the charges they have made their own, prove false, they apparently think all memory of their words will be erased. Things don’t happen that way, but they still can’t see it. They have no peripheral vision. They don’t see the car that’s going to hit them.

Listening to friends of the current administration, one would think the attempt to “end poverty in our lifetime” had been a grand success. Apparently they never heard of Detroit.

To put this in a broader context: were you as astonished as I was when intellectual friends of the current administration began making loud noises about the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty? Their intention was not to mourn the devastation that the War (apt name) had visited on the poor in America. Their intention was to celebrate the War. Listening to them, one would think the attempt to “end poverty in our lifetime” had been a grand success — and also, curiously, that we need even more of it. Apparently they never heard of Detroit. Apparently they can’t see the neighborhoods that lie directly adjacent to the government zone in Washington or to 50 of those proud universities from which celebratory noises issued. Everyone else can see — so why can’t they?

Like the people at the intersection, they don’t see because they don’t bother to look; and they don’t bother to look because they feel entitled not to look, not to see, not to get hit by the onrushing vehicles — of failure, and of public exposure. They see themselves, of course, but only as the heroes of their inward vision. They haven’t a clue about how they look or sound to others.

And now we come to Secretary of State John Kerry. On Feb. 16, in, of all places, Indonesia, he delivered a speech about “climate change.” By now, almost everyone has observed that climate change is a term used by people who don’t want to admit that their wild predictions of global warming have been falsified. They don’t want to see the falsification, any more than the guy stepping off the curb wants tosee the car approaching. Truths are indeed inconvenient. To admit the existence of the car might require one to change one’s course — and who wants to do that? But the climate change people are in a worse position than the guy in the street. They actually believe that other people don’t see them either, see and rememberthat they predicted a lot of hurricanes, but now there are very few; that they predicted wet days for California, but California is in drought; that they predicted warm winters, but look at the country now. Well, as a satirical friend remarked last night, “the most devastating thing about climate change is its unpredictability.”

Kerry, being an old man and a failure in his real job, now wants another job. He wants the job of prophet. He declared to the Indonesians that “this city, this country, this region, is really on the front lines of climate change. It's not an exaggeration to say that your entire way of life here is at risk." "In a sense,” he said, “climate change can now be considered the world's largest weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even, the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction." “The science,” he said, “is unequivocal, and those who refuse to believe it are simply burying their heads in the sand." Like his boss, President Obama, Kerry has a real zest for clichés. And like his boss, he carries the clichés as far as they will go. He believes that climate change, whatever that is, must be regarded as settled science.

Now, Senator, I hate to tell you, but you’re strolling across a busy street. I’d be a little more careful if I were you. Most of the people on this street don’t think that what you’re talking about is settled science at all. Some suspect it’s an unsettled science. Some suspect it’s a pseudo-science. Some suspect it’s a real science that is disgracing itself by its cheap propaganda. Some, including many scientists who are close to the grant-getting game, know that it would look a lot less settled if so much weren’t being done to prop it up. Overwhelmingly, grants go to people who investigate the assumed effects of climate change, not people who set out to examine the process critically (if it is a process, and one process, and a process not competing with other natural processes). Schools and colleges deluge students and faculty with propaganda about the danger of climate change, with no hint of interest in the multitude of debates that attend this issue. Whole communities are mobilized to promote the kind of sustainability and climate friendliness that could be rationally defensible if (A) the theory had been proved, (B) the theory hadn’t changed so, well, unpredictably that right now it’s hard to tell exactly what is being proved or disproved, and (C) doing without paper bags could have the slightest effect on the global climate, no matter what condition it’s in.

Kerry doesn’t see the millions of eyes watching him, and noticing that he’s made a fool of himself.

A theory that you are not allowed to doubt is a theory that has proved its doubtfulness. A scientific theory that needs the support of sermons by such renowned scientists as a former vice president and a former senator from Massachusetts is a theory that confesses it is in serious trouble. Theories that appear to need this kind of assistance merely invite public ridicule. If they turn out to be true, which is always possible in a regime of true science, they have already damaged their own credibility, and the damage may be fatal. I think it is safe to say that only a tiny minority of the American population believes the party-linestatements that Kerry was making in his big, pompous speech, and the majority is even less likely to believe the theory, now that he has spoken.

Kerry doesn’t see the millions of eyes watching him, and noticing that he’s made a fool of himself. His way of avoiding the oncoming cars is by insulting their drivers, braying about “shoddy scientists” and “extreme ideologues” and comparing anyone who disagrees with him to members of “the Flat Earth Society.” And because there is no one this side of North Korea who is more arrogant, humorless, and condescending than John Kerry, no one who is fitter to be called the embodiment of social entitlement, he has done more to harm his cause than an army of deniers could possibly do.

He doesn’t see it. He’ll never see it. But what I saw, next to the news story about Kerry’s speech, was a series of teasers for other news stories:

Another Ice Storm Causes Havoc Across the South

New England Hit with Another Winter Blast

Another Messy Morning in Winter-Weary Northeast

Is this proof that Kerry is wrong about whatever theory of change he has in his head right now? No, probably not; one winter doesn’t make a case (although Kerry claimed individual meteorological incidents as conclusive evidence of change). Is it proof that Kerry is a fool? Oh yes. How hard is it not to look both ways before you cross the street?




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The High and the Mighty

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Two thousand thirteen was a hard year for this column. As soon as things seemed to be settling down, another threat or evil tendency always intruded itself. You know what happens when you finally get the floor washed and waxed: along comes your neighbor, or the guy who’s replacing the sink, or your friend who just happened to be driving past, and suddenly the place is filthy again. Word Watch is still trying to clean up the mess of 2013, and now 2014 is making its own kinds of mess.

The verbal polluters hail from the strangest places. In December, Word Watch was informed, through the majesty of CNN, that someone absurdly styling himself William, Duke of Cambridge, Earl of Strathearn, Baron Carrickfergus, Royal Knight Companion of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, and heir to the throne of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not to mention the British Dominions beyond the Seas, had made himself the centerpiece of a video documentary — a work so repulsive that it has to be noticed, and warned against, despite the strangeness of its apparition.

The thing is called “Prince William’s Passion,” but don’t get the wrong idea. What he’s passionate about is animal conservation in Zimbabwe. Oh fine. But the offspring of his passion — a documentary of unbearable length, whatever time it literally consumes — can be viewed for only a few minutes before one’s sanity is endangered. I stopped watching as soon as I suspected I was going crazy, so I didn’t get to see it all. It seems improbable, however, that the epos includes any reference to the fact that Zimbabwe harbors not only animals but one of the most rapacious tyrannies on earth. Prince William’s passion is conservation of wild life, not of human life.

Well, we all have our passions. Job candidates are tortured to reveal what they are passionate about. The people one meets at parties disconcertingly confess their lifelong passion for rubber baby buggy bumpers. Dead people are praised for having consistently succumbed to — I mean followed — theirpassions (note to file: check the Hitler obits). Angry people call radio advice shows to complain that their spouses are frustrating their passions — and again, sex is not the problem. The passion always turns out to be something like writing children’s books or running a home for ferrets.

Zimbabwe harbors not only animals but one of the most rapacious tyrannies on earth. Prince William’s passion is conservation of wild life, not of human life.

So the prince has passions; so what? What most alarmed this viewer was the documentary’s sad evidence of the deficient education that royal persons now receive. As the grand summary of his weltanschauung — or is it only his gestalt? — His Highness uttered these memorable words:

Conservation is so key.

For years we have observed the ugly progress of key from a normal, though uninteresting, modifier (“That was a key consideration”) to an ungainly predicate adjective (“That consideration is key”). So what’s wrong with that? Two things.

1. Key naturally evokes images of a physical object, an object that exists not for itself but as a means of opening or entering something else. The original setting of key was in sentences such as, “That consideration is the key to our success.”Thrusting key onto the stage alone is contrary to established and useful idiom and associations; it needs, at least, a noun immediately following it (“key consideration”).

2. Used in the new, naked way, key usurps the place of more useful and exact modifiers. There’s a big difference between an important consideration and a crucial consideration,a helpful consideration, and so on. Key obliterates the alternatives and ends the possibility of precision.

Maybe that’s why it has become a cliché — that is, an easy substitute for thought. Much worse, however, is the elevation of key to the status of a metaphysical quality that cannot be qualified but can only be intensified. How key is conservation, Your Highness? Is it really key? Sort of key? Very key? He can’t say. All he can say — with passion — is that it is so key. Dude.

Another dude is Christopher James (“Chris”) Christie, governor of New Jersey. Unlike Prince William, Christie is a dude but not a twit. He earned a lot of praise when, on January 9, he held a long, colloquial, and seemingly frank press conference to deny that he had anything to do with the artificial bottleneck that his aides created at the entrance to the George Washington Bridge, in order to wreak vengeance on political foes. What has been forgotten was Christie’s first response to the bridge news (Jan. 8). Here is the entirety of his statement:

What I've seen today for the first time is unacceptable. I am outraged and deeply saddened to learn that not only was I misled by a member of my staff, but this completely inappropriate and unsanctioned conduct was made without my knowledge. One thing is clear: this type of behavior is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it because the people of New Jersey deserve better. This behavior is not representative of me or my Administration in any way, and people will be held responsible for their actions.

Notice that second sentence. It declares that the governor is outraged that wrong conduct happened without his knowledge — literally meaning that he wouldn’t have been outraged, had he known about it. He came close to a similar blunder in the first sentence, which damns whatever it was that he saw “today for the first time” but leaves open the possibility that he wouldn’t regret any bad behavior he’d seen for the second or third time.

Almost everything about the statement is odd. When have you ever heard of conduct being made? And when, in normal life, have you heard an apology that says nothing whatever about what is being apologized for? Unfortunately, however, such abnormalities have become normal in our political life. Politicians and their highly specialized, highly paid, highly communicative aides are constantly losing control of basic English, and apologies are constantly being wrenched into things like pretzels — all twist and no center.

Obama’s popularity is now at an all-time low, and according to all available polling, a major cause is people’s growing conviction that he is a phony, pure and simple.

Following the practice of his friend, President Obama, Christie originally reacted to criticism by sneering at it. He spent a long time denying that the bridge episode had happened. He ridiculed the very idea. He found nothing exceptional or exceptionable in the long, gross imposition of force that someone perpetrated on the public by restricting rush-hour access to a bridge in order to conduct a “traffic study.” If Christie had any interest in what words mean, he would have said, “What the hell kind of study!” and brought the matter — whether it was a traffic study or an intentional persecution of innocent drivers — to an immediate end. Of course he didn’t. Then, like Obama on the IRS scandal, he became outraged. Aren’t you tired of that word? Aren’t you saddened by it?

One thing that everyone continues to be tired of and saddened by is the president’s folksy fakery. There are millions of examples, but here’s one from an interview he gave on Nov. 14:

I’m just gonna keep workin’ as hard as I can around [he emphasized that word] the priorities the American people have set for me.

If you want proof of how out of touch Obama is, try that remark. Nobody thinksthat by dropping his g’s he’s bein’ anythin’ other than phony, yet he jus’ keeps on doin’ it. As for workin’, it didn’t take very long for people to find out that Obama doesn’t work very hard at anything but golf. After seein’ his popularity fall from very high to very low during the first few months of his presidency, he started playin’ these verbal tricks. Result? Nothin’. His popularity is now at an all-time low, and according to all available polling, a major cause is people’s growing conviction that he is a phony, pure and simple. But he jus’ keeps on pretendin’ that he’s nothin’ but a workin’ man, sweatin’ away on the job site jus’ like ever’body else.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the president’s curious conviction that he lives in the 1970s. I doubt that there’s a political program he’s offered that wasn’t one of the American people’s priorities, as identified by Jimmy Carter — with the sole exception of amnesty for illegal aliens, whom ’70s Democrats generally perceived as inimical to the cause of high union wages. (They still are inimical to union wages, but the unions of today are down so low that their only hope is to assemble enough naïve voters to help them retain their political power and subsidies.)

The tipoff is that word around. Nobody but leftists, embedded in the ideas of the ’70s like rocks in a glacier, uses around in that (frankly) idiotic way. Asked what they’re doing with their lives, kids who have been coopted into what are now old-leftist pressure groups can be depended upon to say, “I’m working around issues of income inequality”; “We’re working around questions of peace”; “I’m interested in working around issues like, uh, climate change.” In the same way, Obama keeps working around priorities.

Just try to picture this working around. Imagine an issue, or a question, or, for God’s sake, a priority. Never mind whether you think that the American people set thatpriority. Just try to picture the thing itself. Now picture somebody working around it. What’s he doing? Is he fencing it off? Laying tile to keep the ground water out? Or is he evading it, as people do when they try to get around an obstacle?

However you picture it, around in ’70s speak has the same rhetorical function that it has in such sentences as, “I think there are around a hundred fallacies in the president’s argument.” Its only use is to impart vagueness. Yet in the stale old “radical” tradition from which Obama has not escaped, people assume that around imparts some kind of solemnity. It doesn’t, and the fact that they think it does is sad evidence of their inability to reflect on what they’re saying.

It wasn’t the grace of God that kept Barack Obama from poverty. It was a banker grandmother, elite private schools, an indulgent Harvard Law School, adoption by a political machine, and fat contributions from wealthy people.

The president’s addiction to folksiness is closely linked to his passion for clichés. Almost anything he says is a cliché, but I was especially impressed by the phoniness of the double cliché he emitted when speaking on January 7 of people’s supposed entitlement to be paid despite the fact that they don’t have a job. He was speaking in favor of the dozenth extension of unemployment benefits since mid-2008. How could anyone be in favor of that? Because it helps people survive until they get back to work? But economic studies, with which Obama is presumably familiar, indicate that people tend strongly to get back to work when their unemployment payments are about to cease.

Obama stated his reasons, and they had more to do with metaphysics than they did with economics: “We’re all in this together,” he opined. “There but for the grace of God go I.”

May I suggest that it wasn’t the grace of God that kept Barack Obama from poverty? It was a banker grandmother, elite private schools, an indulgent Harvard Law School, adoption by a political machine, and fat contributions from wealthy people. In return for these favors, he now spends his days ladling out clichés like we’re all in this together. And he talks of God.

And speaking of God: the deity’s friends and purported friends — holy men and hirelings, true shepherds and false — have performed more service for the English language than anyone but that skeptic, Shakespeare. Consider the King James Version of the Bible. Consider the Book of Common Prayer. Consider the Anglican manner of the KJV and BCP, as echoed by Jefferson and Lincoln — or, if you want libertarians, Paterson and Rand. But that was then; this is now. A news item of January 4 reports that “the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the leader of the world's 80 million Anglicans,” is supporting yet another revision of the Book of Common Prayer, which his cohorts have already revised within an inch of its life. This revision eliminates all mention of sin from the baptismal service, thereby eliminating a good deal of its seriousness and almost all of its purpose. If you’re not a sinner, why do you need to be baptized? Why do you need a church, and a baptismal rite to let you into it?

Well, not to panic. Welby is far from the real leader of the world’s fourth-largest group of Christians. Outside of Britain, which is the only place affected by this latest theological-linguistic plague, he is generally regarded as a fifth wheel. And the anti-intellectual, or at least the anti-theological, tendency of the current mania for revision is sharply opposed by other religious potentates. According to AFP and the Mail:

Former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali said the move, which is being trialed until Easter in around 1,000 parishes, was part of a "constant dumbing down of Christian teaching".

"Instead of explaining what baptism means and what the various parts of the service signify, its solution is to do away with key elements of the service altogether."

Amen. But look at what Britons call this process of dumbing down. The “move,” they say, “is being trialed.” Lord save us — this locution may invade America. Beware the first symptoms:

“Are Jim and Susan living together?” “Yes, they’re trialing their relationship.”

“The administration continues trialing its newest version of what happened at Benghazi.”

“I was once a conservative, but I was only trialing.”

“I trialed writing English, but it was just too tough for me.”




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Progress and Poverty

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I remember R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal, testing a new keyboard by typing out, “Good news — the depression is over, and the banks are filling with money.” Anyone else would have written, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” But Bill liked news, and when he could find it, good news.

So I want to begin with some good news. The year now ending witnessed significant reductions in the rates of certain linguistic crimes. And since “law enforcement agencies” (a.k.a. cops) always take credit for any accidental lowering of a crime rate, this column gladly takes credit for these reductions. Congratulations, Word Watch.

After years of pointing out that “begging the question” doesn’t mean what you might too hastily assume it means (the prompting of an inquiry) — that it means, instead, a species of logical fallacy (arguing in a circle, using a proposition to prove itself) — I am happy to find that many public speakers now realize where the trap door is hidden, and do their best to avoid it. The people on Fox News practically break their necks getting to the other side. They used to put “that begs the question” in every other sentence, and always in the wrong way. No more. Now, just when you see that they’re dying to say it, there’s a pause, a deep breath, and a slow rephrasing: “That . . . uh . . . poses the question”; “That . . . leads to the question”; “That . . . makes me want to ask you . . .” Somebody obviously told them to read Liberty.

After years of hammering away at the ridiculous idea that President Obama is a great, or even a good, writer and speaker (a hammering that could be heard as recently as last month’s Word Watch), I am gratified by some faint signs that conservatives don’t always feel obliged to begin their denunciations of an Obama utterance by saying, “Despite his soaring rhetoric,” or “The president’s actions are not as inspiring as his words.” They should be saying, “Despite his bathetic attempts at rhetoric” and “not as insipid as his words,” but that may come later, when pundits learn the existence of “bathetic” and “insipid” — in short, when they read Word Watch more often.

The great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy.

And after years of insisting that celebrity is not the same as significance, or even fame, I find curious indications that Word Watch may be exerting some influence on the crude but candid (i.e., free) media. I refer, for instance, to the reader comments that appeared on TMZ, following the death of Paul Walker. Walker was an action film star. He liked fast cars. On November 30, he was killed in a speeding car that went out of control and hit a light pole. It was a horrible accident, and the reader comments on TMZ were appropriately sympathetic. But they were more. They were self-dramatizing in a way that has become predictable after every death of anyone who might conceivably be regarded as a public figure. Hundreds of readers proclaimed themselves devastated with grief on behalf of Walker, his family, and his friends — people with whom these readers had no acquaintance whatever. Finally, someone had had enough. “Sorry,” he wrote, “RIP, our prayers are with the family, etc.....who is he?”

It’s a good thing that TMZ, like Word Watch, exists in cyberspace, or there would have been mob violence. But somebody had to point out that heartfelt feelings are often nothing but words.

Celebrity is fleeting, and even authentic feelings pass away, but some things never leave us. Word Watch can’t do anything about them. For God’s sake, even the second George Bush is back. He is daily proclaimed “more popular than President Obama.” When you think of it, this isn’t saying much. But now he is being cited as a film authority — and in the most gruesomely authoritative way. In late November, ads appeared for a movie called The Book Thief, and these ads said, “The critics are raving . . . . And President George Bush raves, ‘It’s a truly wonderful movie.’” He certainly put a lot of energy into that one. Not only wonderful but truly wonderful. But what truly conveys the feeling of the perpetual, the eternal, the Egyptian pyramidal, is that word “raves.” Raves. The expression has screamed at me from every film ad I have ever had to sit through. The critics are raving. Even a former president is raving. And as always, the New York Times raves. They’ve all gone crazy together.

Well, let them. We’re used to it. But must we get used to the steady seep of ignorance into the foundations and concrete basements of our language? I know you have your own examples; here are three of mine:

1. The effort to make “which” a universal connective: “I bought a new place in Vista Hills, which I didn’t realize the taxes were so high.”

2. The loss or mangling of strong verbs, and the creation of dumb replacements for them. It’s bad enough to hear that “the suspect spit,” not spat, “at the arresting officer”; but must we hear “spitted at him”? And why can’t people realize that the past tense of “fit” is “fitted,” but the past tense of “shit” is “shat”?

3. The growing movement to ignore the rules about comparatives and superlatives, whenever their use requires a split second of thought. Example: a journalist on Greta van Susteren’s show, commenting (December 10) on the latest Quinnipiac poll about Obama: “It’s on healthcare that people are ranking him the most low.” Most low? The superlative of “low” is ”lowest.” Is that too hard? Yes, if you can’t figure out what to do when an adjective gets two words away from its noun.

“Most low” exemplifies a general problem — people’s increasingly evident inability to keep track of their sentences. Leland Yeager, a friend and expert advisor of this column, has collected many instances of the problem, including offerings by such respectable journals as The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Try these exhibits from the Yeager museum of unnatural history:

“A key benefit to [sic] offshore wind power is the lower rate of wind turbulence at sea vs. on land” (WSJ, June 19, 2008). As Yeager suggests, why not just write, “A key advantage of offshore wind power is less wind turbulence at sea than on land”? But here is early documentation of an illiteracy that continues to spread: the use of “versus” (“vs.”) to mean “than.” What next — “My kid is smarter vs. your kid”?

Commentators “take great pride in emphasising how much more sophisticated civilization was in Japan in the 11th century compared with Europe at that time” (Economist, Dec. 20, 2008). It doesn’t take much to compete with the medieval West. But what exactly is being “compared” — “the 11th century” and “Europe”? No, it’s supposed to be . . . let’s see . . . it must be levels of sophistication in Japanese and European civilizations in the 11th century. Commentators apparently like to emphasize the idea that in the 11th century Japan was more sophisticated than Europe.

That’s one way of reforming the sentence, and you can easily think of many others — none of which occurred to the writer. But there are sentences that just make you want to give up and head for the bar. If you have any interest in economics, you’ve seen too many sentences like this one, which Yeager recovered from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review (Sept.-Oct. 2008):

But the embedded leverage in these products meant that end-investors were often buying assets with much greater risk characteristics compared with the underlying pool of mortgages, credit card debts, or loans than they might suppose.

Do scholarly journals still have editors?

Still, the great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy: always ignorant, always talking, always striving to influence, always striving, simultaneously, to obscure the truth. The Obamacare fiasco has born teeming litter after teeming litter of repulsive words. Any example will do, but let’s look at a little missive by the irrepressible Julie Bataille, director of communications, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (November 22, 2013). Remember, as you read, that she is a director of communications.

“Today,” she begins, “Jeff Zients [the wizard that Obama appointed to clean up the mess he had made of the merry old land of Oz] offered an update on our efforts to improve HealthCare.gov; data on key metrics on site performance, the progress made this week and the view looking forward.”

Already you know you’re in trouble. You know that Bataille has no intention of rushing forward with any facts. If she did, she would say up front what’s wrong with the site, instead of tucking “site performance” into a box called “metrics,” tucking that box into one called “data,” and tucking that one into an “update” that was “offered” by somebody else. How about just giving us the data? We know that an update on “progress” assumes that progress has been made — but that’s the topic of debate, isn’t it? Could Bataille be begging the question? Clearly, she is a very bad writer. She’s going to give us nothing but happy talk, and the happy talk will consist of slick-sounding clichés, such as the progressive “view looking forward.” Turning worse into worst, she will mangle those clichés. To her, a “view” looks.

As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time?

“In late October,” she continues, “we appointed QSSI as the general contractor to deploy their expertise in technology and program management to lead this project forward.”

So. Since late October, when the nation, as distinguished from Ms. Bataille, realized that Obamacare was a hideous disaster, something called QSSI has been leading the project forward. (There’s that word again.) But how is that leading accomplished? What’s been happening? Oh, it’s all very technical. Let’s just say that the company (singular), here regarded as they (plural), deploy their expertise. Expertise, one gathers, is like an army. Division 1: Attack that defective code! Division 2: You’re in reserve; wait behind the hill. Division 3: Lift the siege of Fort Obama!

“The team from QSSI continues to work with people from CMS [can’t have enough acronyms] and other contractors around the clock [can’t have enough clichés, either] to troubleshoot the system, prioritize fixes, and provide real-time management decision making.”

So you can “troubleshoot” a “system,” can you? I suppose, then, you can “troubleshoot” almost anything. “Hey, honey, I just wanta troubleshoot ya.” OK. But I draw the line at prioritizing fixes. It just sounds so gruesome. As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time? Maybe that’s what went wrong with Obama . . .

We haven’t reached the end of Bataille’s memo — that’s a very long way off — but we have reached the climax, which she has cleverly deployed in the middle. And this is it:

“Thanks to this team effort, we have made measurable progress.”

Measurable progress.Let’s consider how such phrases might work in real time.

Automobile passenger: “Hey, what’s the speed limit, anyway? Seems like we’re going awful slow.”
Automobile driver: “No, we are making measurable progress.

Airline seat holder: “How long before we get to Cleveland?”
Airline attendant: “We are making measurable progress, sir.”

Employer: “When do you expect to get that project done?”
Employee: “I am making measurable progress.”
Employer: “You’re fired.”

Bataille’s communication, horrible as it seems, is a fair sample of the words oozing out of Washington. If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered: do people who write this kind of prose actually think the way they write? Are they just prowling across their keyboard, trying to find enough words to bamboozle everybody else, or does it all come spontaneously and sincerely to them? When their car breaks down, do they look for expertise that can be deployed? When the guy from Triple A arrives, do they reflect that measurable progress is now being made? Which alternative is more terrible to contemplate — that kind of cunning or that kind of sincerity?




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O Tempora! O Bama!

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For anyone who enjoys linguistic spectacle, who savors both the triumphs and the flops of the American language, there is just too much to savor in the political carnival now going on. You’re reduced to picking a few favorites — but there are so many to pick from.

For a while my favorite performance was the testimony, if you want to call it that, of Kathleen Sebelius, God’s gift to satirists, who on October 30 told a congressional committee investigating the zany antics of the Obamacare website, “Today, more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans. We are pleased with these quick improvements, but we know there is still significant, additional work to be done. We continue to conduct regular maintenance nearly every night to improve the consumer experience.”

That was her way of describing the worst disaster in the history of computation. Unluckily for her, the website crashed (for the thousandth time) during the hour of her testimony, a testimony in which she said, “The website has never crashed. It is functional but at a very slow speed and very low reliability.”

 I thought that was hard to beat, but then I discovered Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of something called the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (Everything is a “center” these days, and every center has as many “services” as confidence men have “angles.” Pretty much the same angles, too.) On November 5, Tavenner let Congress know what her center is doing about people whose insurance plans have been swept away by Obamacare: “This is actually a conversation we're having today. . . . Is there a way we can actively engage to reach out to people who have been canceled?" 

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage.

 Rome burned while Nero conversed. “Conversations,” thoughts of “engagement,” and questions about whether there are ways to “reach out” (“actively,” not passively) are good means of wasting time if you’re chairman of the country club greens committee, or if you’re a highly paid bureaucrat who finds that she has nothing to say for herself when the public finally discovers her existence. I’m not sure they do much for “people who have been canceled.” As the Beatles might have sung, “Oh, look at all the canceled people.” 

 Tavenner looked like a winner — until I encountered US Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC). On November 12, Hagan panicked and called a press conference to rescue herself from the Obamacare wreckage (she’s up for reelection next year). Someone asked her to comment on the miserably small number of people signing up for Obamacare. According to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, this is what ensued: 

“You know,” she replied. “I know the — I believe this coming Friday, those numbers are going to be published and uh, you know, as soon as I see them, you know, obviously it’s, it’s m-much fewer than the administration expected.”

A reporter from the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record asked why Hagan, like President Obama, had told people that if they liked their health plans they’d be able to keep their health plans.

There was a long pause before Hagan responded, then a deep intake of breath. “You know, Doug,” she responded, “the, um” — here she exhaled and paused again — “the way these, the — the regulations and the law, uh” — pause — “came forward recently, I think people were surprised that the, uh, the — the actual original plans would be, um, would be canceled.”

You may say that all politicians would sound like that, if the statements they made were accurately reproduced; and if so, you’d be close to right. Deprived of his teleprompters, President Obama says “uh” about 20 times a minute, up to 40 when he’s agitated (these subverbal attempts to communicate are tactfully omitted from the reported versions). And of course President Obama, and Rep. Boehner, and former Gov. Palin (shall I go on?) often have no more meaning in their utterances than poor Sen. Hagan.

But we mustn’t judge rhetorical effectiveness simply by the content of a politician’s remarks, or noise. It’s charm that counts, and our politicians have little or none of that quality. The “uhs” contribute to the effect, but even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff. Nor would it turn President Obama into a charming character.

Whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure.

For some, certainly, Obama has “charisma,” but of charm he is completely destitute. He comes across as a phony and a blowhard, and it’s hard not to see a wide vein of meanness and chronic anger beneath the high-school-principal intonations. When he’s not looking at his teleprompter — when he’s supposed to be conversing with an actual human being — he’s usually gazing fixedly at a point about 12 inches in front of his chest, as if he were studying an invisible set of instructions for dealing with the underclass. This is the antithesis of charm. It’s the kind of thing one expects from bank examiners, experts on epistemology, and actors emerging from a heavy course of anger therapy. Sen. Hagan, by contrast, manifests herself as a hapless innocent, as someone so childish that she calls a press conference to display her knowledge — of a subject she knows nothing about. She’s like a little girl who begs to show everyone how well she can play the piano, without ever realizing that you can’t play a tune without learning the notes. But isn’t it cute, the way she’s trying? Less cute is President Obama.

There are four types of rhetoric in which he habitually indulges, and none of them is even mildly amusing, let alone endearing:

1. The “soaring” mode that even his supporters now derisively call “the hopey-changey thing.”

2. The false-plebeian style that he uses in exact proportion to his slippage in the polls. This style, or pretense at style, consists largely of dropping final g’s, saying “a whole buncha” instead of a number, and referring constantly to “folks.” In that speech he gave at Boston, the one in which he tried to save his lie about Obamacare by claiming he had always told people “you can keep your insurance . . . if,” he said of his failed healthcare scheme, “We’re just gonna keep workin’ at it. We’re gonna grind it out.” That might be charming if the accent weren’t so obviously faked, if “grind it out” meant anything under the circumstances, and if he (“we”) were actually doing any work, as opposed to golf.

3. The paranoid style, in which he unmasks the monstrous forces scheming against his official program, the “some people” who “don’t want it to succeed” and therefore, magically, keep it from succeeding. Evidence? Most of them voted against it!

4. The cold, haughty, you’re-so-dumb-you’ll-just-have-to-believe-this, lie-flinging mode. “I was not informed directly that the website would not be working, as [sic] the way it was supposed to,” he said on November 14. Wait. What do you mean? Do you mean that you didn’t know? That nobody ever told you? No, they didn’t. They didn’t tell me directly. Now go away.

Of course, when people insert “directly” into a sentence like that, you know they’re trying to deceive someone. You also know that the someone is not going to be you; almost anybody (most certainly including you) can catch on to the fact that “directly” means “I hope to fool you.” Indeed, the trick is so obvious that only a fool would use it. Obama himself has recognized that people might possibly think he’s a fool — and by recognizing the possibility, he has tried to eliminate it. “You know,” he said on November 14, “I’m accused of a lot of things [there’s that paranoid style again] but I don’t think I’m stupid enough to go around saying this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity a week before the website opens if I thought that it wasn’t going to work.” But either he is stupid enough to keep telling obvious lies or he is stupid enough not to insist on being informed directly about the stuff he seems to be lying about. Take your pick; either way, he’s stupid enough.

The mystery to me is why people ever thought there was any force or meaning in Obama’s verbiage. At its best, it was just the same awful guff that politicians are always dishing out. In his second inaugural address, where he might have been expected to be on his best behavior, he made such sparkling utterances as:

We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. [A fresh thought, that.]

This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. [What happened to changing when the times change?]

My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together. [Damn! And here I was just about to seize it myself. I guess I’ll have to wait for a consensus to emerge.]

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. [Note: not just to some posterity.]

My selection of these idiotic sentiments is as close to random as selection can get; the speech is all like that, although sometimes Obama decides to give you something extra special in the way of metaphor. This attempt always fails. One example may suffice. After quoting the Declaration of Independence, Obama says, “Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” What in the world can those words signify? Picture words, words that have meaning. Now picture bridging that meaning. Huh? Already it makes no sense. But then we’re supposed to picture the bridge as the realities of our time. And this journey to do something with the realities of our time is never-ending? It’s going to last forever? No, it’s all too much for me.

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage. This one is about the great discoveries that “we” have made during “our” history: “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” Gosh, really? Schools and highways? Glad we determined that requirement.

I have little sympathy with the worldview evoked by President Kennedy’s inaugural address, but it is a work of literature — not great literature, but certainly very respectable. Anyone who, having read that speech, turns to Obama’s reinaugural remarks will be struck by the attempted resemblance. But whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure. Indeed, it was written for the same purpose. The only literary excellence that Obama ever showed was his curious refusal to speak at Gettysburg on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s speech. There’s just one way to explain it. Obama thought he could top John F. Kennedy, but he feared he couldn’t top Abraham Lincoln, and for once a kind of humility came over him. It’s too bad, because that speech would have offered a lot of entertainment.

Even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff.

Given the glaring weaknesses of Obama’s prose, it is shocking, almost horrifying, that both his friends and his adversaries keep paying tribute to it. His critics, astonishingly, condemn him for his inability to live up to his rhetoric. Here’s Obama foe Rich Lowry, writing in National Review Online: “The launch of HealthCare.gov should cast a shadow over the stirring passage in the president’s second inaugural address where he spoke of how ‘we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government.’” Pardon me — harnessideas? Technology to remake our government? This stuff is “stirring”? It’s barely intelligible. Before we harness those ideas, do we have to brush them and feed them and make sure they’re well shod? Is that something Obama neglected to do with his healthcare “ideas”?

The biggest contribution that Obama has made to stirring the linguistic pot has been the license he has given to other people who think it’s cool and smart to enact the role of political used-car salesmen. They don’t understand how funny they are. And the comedy leaks from the op-ed page into the news reports. Consider the following from Reuters (Nov. 19):

The rollout of Obama's signature domestic policy has hurt the popularity of the initiative, but the decline has been fairly modest, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Monday.

Forty-one percent of Americans expressed support for Obamacare in a survey conducted from Thursday to Monday. That was down 3 percentage points from a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken from September 27 to October 1.

Opposition to the healthcare law stood at 59 percent in the latest poll, versus 56 percent in the earlier survey.

In other words, once you’ve fallen down the first 56 steps, the next three are only a modest reduction in altitude. After you’ve passed the landing on the 50th step, it’s hard for anything to do much more damage to your unpopularity. But wouldn’t it be funny if you thought you could talk your way upstairs?




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Shutdown Finishes; Wreckage Remains

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Count Stadion, an Austrian diplomat who participated in the Conference of Chatillon (1814), said of those proceedings: “We are playing a comedy which is interesting only because of its platitudes.”

In 1814, even the platitudes of such people as Castlereagh and Caulaincourt (or better, Metternich and Talleyrand) might be interesting. But I hate to think what Stadion would have said about the discourse inspired by our recent governmental “shutdown.” He would have discerned the comedy, but he could hardly have been interested in the platitudes. And he could hardly have been satisfied just to call them that. A platitude is a trite, banal, or insipid expression. (It comes from a French word, “plat,” appropriately meaning “flat.”) Probably he would have added references to language that is obnoxious, ridiculous, and grossly insulting to the thinking mind.

The realm of intelligent discourse is an island of sanity, washed by hot seas of nonsense. During the 20th century, much of this tiny paradise was lost beneath the watery waste. What was once firm ground became swamps of brackish words and sentences, then delusive verbal quicksand, then eerie depths of linguistic degradation. Remaining is a place like a South Pacific atoll, continually endangered not only by the big storms that arise at sea but also by the smallest, silliest gusts of air — such teapot tempests as the “shutdown.” As a geopolitical event, the affair didn’t amount to much, but when the weather calmed, one saw many parts of the territory where common sense and effective communication had been swept away. In their place, the waves had left the kind of refuse that cannot destroy the mind but can certainly make it wish it were not attached to a sense of smell.

Much of the refuse consisted of mean words and cruel. How many times did Harry Reid proclaim, in his undertaker’s voice, that anything the Republicans passed in the House would be dead on arrival in the Senate? How many times did Republicans point to the military veterans who were prevented by a vengeful National Parks establishment from treading the sacred ground of the World War II memorial and refer to them as people who didn’t have a minute to lose — who were, not to put too fine a point on it, just about to die? Their last journey, their final chance, these soldiers we hold in remembrance, the passing of the greatest generation . . .

(By the way, aren’t you tired of hearing that generation stuff? As if senior citizen — with its implication that just because you’re old you’re “senior” in some moral sense — weren’t bad enough, we’re now told that you’re great, indeed the greatest, just because you got to vote for Roosevelt and be drafted into the army. No, I am not expressing ageism: I don’t think that I deserve any respect or recognition, any plaudits for being hip and pioneering, just because I was part of the baby boom.)

Suddenly the faintest of all virtues, the willingness to give up when you’re forced to do so, became the hallmark of leadership.

Many of the hard words were emitted, curiously, by advocates of compromise. Suddenly the faintest of all virtues, the willingness to give up when you’re forced to do so, became the hallmark of leadership. Often, just as curiously, leadership was said to consist of rigorous obedience, mystic devotion, to something called the law of the land. What this appeared to mean was that once some law, such as the Obamacare enactment, gets passed and signed, no one should try to get rid of it, or even delay its implementation. As in the book of Esther, "If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered." The desire to alter a law was pronounced extremism.

That was a big leap. To get there, one needed not only Law and Order but also the New Math. During the shutdown, it pleased the king to ridicule his opponents for acting at the behest of one faction of extreme partisans, in one party, in one part of one branch of government — meaning the Tea Party faction in the House. Immediately, all the king’s servants (otherwise known as partisans) took up the cry. Soon, thanks to a creative use of fractions, the case was made: the vast majority of Americans, all those people who dislike Obamacare, are actually an extreme minority, extreme both in the mathematical and in the ideological sense.

Another interesting use of fractions, or something like them, was the attempt to divide all Americans into extremists and moderates — an easy task, logically, because anything that is not extreme must be not-extreme, or moderate. The fact that “moderate” has no particular meaning, in isolation from such words as “extreme,” might make a thinking person wonder whether the word was particularly useful, even when juxtaposed with other relative terms (e.g., extreme). The fact that people who are paid to talk kept using moderate and extremist day and night, as if they were essential terms of analysis, was further confirmation that talking doesn’t require much thinking.

Americans’ fashionable respect for moderation reminded me of a cartoon that circulated during the Vietnam War. It was a satire of moderate opposition to the war, and it depicted a group of people carrying signs that read “A Little Less Bombing.” In 2013, moderates are people who want, perhaps, a little less government, at some time in the future, but not now, never now. If there’s such a thing as an extremist platitude, it’s the current use of moderate.

And also of extremist. In 2013, extremists, already extreme, became even more so. They (that is, all non-moderates) became domestic enemies or terrorists, people who were pointing a gun at the president’s head.

The meaning of terrorist had obviously wandered pretty far from its origins. It used to be a word for people sneaking around planting bombs, or rushing out of the shadows to throw one at an archduke. This is not a role, I believe, that John Boehner was born to play. I can’t see Mitch McConnell running through a shopping mall hunting for Christians to slaughter. Even Ted Cruz, chief target of the administration’s talk about terrorism, isn’t plotting to destroy all ranks and hierarchies; what he wants is to achieve the highest rank in the current political hierarchy. Yet according to the new definition, terrorist means simply “someone who stands in our way.”

Imagine, if you can, George Washington, considering a crossing of the Delaware. “Man up, general!” some soldier shouts; and Washington mans up, and all is well.

To me, that is a sobering thought. It means that I spend virtually all my waking life among terrorists. Someone is always standing in my way. When I want to use the elevator, someone else is using it. When I want to turn into the exit lane, someone else is already driving there. When I’m on a committee, other members are always advocating different proposals from mine, and they get people to vote for them! From my students’ point of view, I myself must be a terrorist; I am always standing in their way of having fun. And that’s exactly what the extremist Republicans tried to do; they tried to stand in the way of the president’s fun. He wanted them to give him money to do as he pleased with it, and those terrorists just weren’t prepared to do so. Until he got his way with accusations of terrorism.

Well, maybe we should all just man up. Now, there’s an expression one didn’t expect to see as a major part of political discourse, but there it was, taking its place with caucuses and continuing resolutions to sway the destiny of the nation. Tea Party types advised the moderate Republicans to man up. Pundits told the president that he needed to man up and restore his leadership profile by imposing a solution to the budget problem. Why man up is not perceived as a piece of gross sexism is beyond my understanding. What is not beyond my understanding is its gross reductionism, its summary of leadership as nothing more than an intense commitment to some football game of the emotions. Imagine, if you can, George Washington, considering a crossing of the Delaware. “Man up, general!” some soldier shouts; and Washington mans up, and all is well. You can’t imagine that? Maybe that’s because it’s unimaginable. You can’t imagine even Millard Fillmore being told to man up.

One might possibly need to man up if one had already been taken hostage by a gang of terrorist Republicans; one might need to man up if one were actually standing with a gun at one’s head. I may be out of step with the rest of America, but I’m not sure that’s what the shutdown amounted to. Even the most obnoxious metaphor ought to bear some relationship to something that’s real; otherwise, I can’t form the obnoxious picture in my mind. So in this case, what is the gun? A threat not to vote for the president’s schemes? Is that a deadly weapon? If so, why did he consistently refuse to negotiate while someone washolding a gun to his head? And is that what terrorists do — threaten to blow your head off, unless you negotiate with them? Can you then simply refuse to negotiate? Evidently you can, because that’s what the president did. Memo to self: next time someone points a gun at you, just refuse to negotiate. That’ll fix ’em.

Ditto the next time someone takes you hostage. All you need to do is just refuse to pay the ransom. We were constantly told that America or the political process or something like that was being held for ransom — but what was the ransom supposed to be? Ordinarily, a ransom is a sack of money delivered to the kidnapers. In this case, however, what the kidnapers wanted was merely their own right not to pay more money to the kidnaped persons, the hostages — the Obama Party and the government it represents.

It’s all very confusing. This thing called government, this thing that was shut down, held hostage, held for ransom — what was it? It wasn’t the people who pass laws and sign them, some of whom were acting as the terrorists or hostage takers, others as the people at whom the terrorists were aiming their guns. All those people kept working on their separate projects. It wasn’t the vast number of essential government employees, who also continued to work, or “work.” And it certainly wasn’t America, as in the Democrats’ interchangeable use of holding the government hostage and holding America hostage. What was shut down, apparently, was the complacent idea that some people, somewhere in this country, were doing humble but appropriate work for the republic, work that, though nonessential, was still important enough to worry about. Probably no one believes that now. The cliché turned out to be true: all these workers were nonessential. The only essential thing about them was the perceived necessity of paying them even when they didn’t even pretend to work — as Congress unanimously agreed to do, when it decided to reimburse them for their nonwork during the shutdown. Asked whom among them might be dispensed with by a grateful but bankrupt nation, both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner failed to identify a single cuttable employee.

So the government will keep “working,” and you and I will have to keep paying it to work as it does, forever. I, for one, regard that as an extreme situation. I, for one, feel that we have been taken hostage — with not just one but two bands of pirates engaged in looting us. But here the kidnaping analogy breaks down. It’s becoming obvious that no ransom will free us from these brigands. We tried paying them to go away, and they didn’t.




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