If Ever, Oh Ever, a Wiz There Was

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good. Very good.




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The Age of Redefinition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This “Swiss-central bank Shocker” . . .

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

I resume:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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What’s in a Cliché?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The Good Side of Jonathan Gruber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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When You Wish Upon a Czar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Aping the English Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Moving Forward, Clichés Remain

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On August 8, Fox News reported on the Obamacare-avoidance strategy of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Since Shaheen is running for reelection, she never mentions the great legislative achievement of the supreme leader of her party; Obamacare is just too unpopular to be named. Accordingly, in an interview played by Fox, Shaheen answered questions about the program by noting that she didn’t write the Obamacare law. She didn’t say whether this was because she opposed its provisions (although she voted for them) or because she can’t write. She did observe that “hindsight is always 20/20.”

She said this with great satisfaction, as if she were proud of her creative use of words.

Odd. But come to think of it, everyone who uses this cliché projects the same morbid pride. A similar cock-eyed vanity accompanies the use of “wake-up call,” “deck chairs on the Titanic,” “it’s a case of he said, she said,” “last time I checked,” “abundance of caution,” “shocks the conscience,” “got your back,” and, of course, “tone-deaf.” I don’t know why people who obviously care so deeply about the words they choose can’t see that their prize expressions have been in everyone’s mouth (ugly thought, isn’t it?) for many, many years. Maybe that’s a lack of hindsight.

It’s funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge.

But what about foresight? On the same day on which Fox was ventilating Sen. Shaheen’s inanities, the network’s B-list anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle said this about Iraq: “Questions remain about President Obama’s strategy, moving forward.” She said this as if it meant something. Well, I have some questions too, as I move forward in my own life. Don’t questions always remain, about anything? Then why bother to say so? If, however, she meant “doubt” or “skepticism,” why didn’t she say that? And isn’t strategy always about what you’re going to do in the future? If so, what is moving forward doing in that sentence? And what’s the grammar of the sentence, anyway? What is it that’s “moving”? Is it “strategy”? Is the president’s strategy moving? Or is it “questions” that are executing a peculiar forward motion? Yet the questions are supposed to remain. Tell me, Ms. Guilfoyle. But maybe someone else can tell me why moving forward has become such a popular cliché? Is it, like many other redundant expressions, just a way for insecure speakers to nail down their meaning — in this instance, to nail down the idea that, yes, I am talking about the future, OK, not the past? Y’know?

There are clichés, and then there are mistakes — continually repeated mistakes. The mistake of writing whacko when you mean wacko. The mistake of calling in the calvary. The mistake of using disinterested to mean uninterested. And, as I’ve told you before, there is the rising tide of squash.

I mean the confusion of that word, which normally evokes absurd images of fat things being flattened, with quash, which is naturally attached to no particular image but does mean something specific: to stop or repress. The judge quashed the indictment. The teacher quashed the question. The dictator quashed all debate. Try to picture indictments, questions, and debates being squashed. You can’t, and the harder you try, the sillier the incipient images become.

I would expect conservatives to conserve the quash-squash distinction. But they have become almost as good at moving forward as the progressives. In the conservative Daily Caller, July 21, we find this headline: “Top Kerry Aide Tries to Squash Claim of Anti-Fox News Bias by Lying to the Daily Caller.” The story is interesting, but the headline is bad by any standard except that of “Dog Bites Man.” One is supposed to picture a “Kerry aide” — an aide of the secretary of state, John Kerry — rushing over to a claim of bias, stomping on it, jumping on it, sitting on it, and finally lying about it, in a futile attempt to squash the thing. Yet the Daily Caller did not intend to be satirical. Or self-satirical.

Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase.

Neither did Attorney General Holder, in solemn remarks (he is always solemn) that announced his insertion of the federal government into the matter of a young man shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Evidently this is the kind of thing that can be handled only by the intrepid intellect of the attorney general, and of the 40 FBI agents he dispatched to a little Midwestern town. But here is the LA Times report (August 11) on the terms in which Holder announced his intervention:

U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement that he believed the shooting in Ferguson “deserves fulsome review,” and he wanted the federal inquiry to “supplement, not supplant” the investigation by police in Missouri.

“Supplement, not supplant”: nothing wrong with that verbiage. “Review” is a little funky — funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge. Citizens were meant to understand that what Holder had in mind wasn’t an investigation, a legal proceeding, a crackdown, an inquisition, a Court of Star Chamber. No, it was merely a review, albeit a “fulsome” one. We’re used to this kind of guff. But where did fulsome come from? The only possible source is the attorney general’s feeling that a full review would be lacking somehow in fullness. Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase. So, as pompous people extend use into utilize, road into roadway, and famous into infamous, Holder put a new deck on the back of the house, and full was transformed into fulsome.

The problem is that fulsome does not mean full (any more than infamous means famous). Fulsome sometimes means “large” (as opposed to “full”), but its ordinary meaning is less predictable by people who want to use big words they don’t understand. One dictionary lists the synonyms of fulsome as “excessive, extravagant, overdone, immoderate, inordinate, unctuous, cloying . . . ” Granted, we can expect an investigation commissioned by the attorney general to be worthy of all these adjectives, because he himself is worthy. But that’s not what he meant to say. Critical self-examination is not his forte.

Nobody thought it was. Yet there is always a rumor that modern liberals, such as the people who write speeches for Holder and checks for Obama campaigns, are highly educated. From Plato’s Republic to this day, specialized education has been considered the qualification and justification for rulers in dirigiste systems of government — all of them instituted, of course, by allegedly intelligent and well-educated (as opposed to actually intelligent and well educated) people. The linguistic spoors left by President Obama and his crew make the credentials of the ruling class look less genuine than ever before.

Almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Moral fulsomeness is sometimes hard to distinguish from mere demagoguery. I don’t think I can make that distinction in the case of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. He it was who followed Holder’s lead by making a television address in which he repeatedly demanded vigorous “prosecution” of the cop involved in the Ferguson affair, a cop who hasn’t been charged with any offense. Nixon’s office later explained that by “prosecution” he really meant “investigation” (a distinction without a difference, from the demagogue or the tyrant’s point of view) but maintained that Nixon had no reason to retract anything in his statements.

I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,
Said cunning old Fury:
I’ll try the whole cause
And condemn you to death.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But speaking of public morals: I’m not one of those people who are addicted to the notion that “our country’s moral fabric is being eroded” — if only because that’s a mixed metaphor as well as a cliché. But I did get a kick out of the videos of Travis County Texas District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg (and that’s a mouthful right there) experiencing the aftermath of an arrest for driving with her blood alcohol considerably over the legal limit. . . If nothing else, the videos give new life to the old expression “drunk as the lord.” (Drunk as the lord of the manor, you understand, not drunk as the Lord God, despite the fact that Judges 9:13 refers to wine as something that “cheereth God and man.”) All right, all right: I admit it: I’m not in favor of laws against drunk driving, unless it results in damage. And I know I’m in a small minority on that. But almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Even Gov. Rick Perry — he of the slack jaw and wandery eye — was acute enough to reflect on the fact that Lehmberg was the person charged with administering an agency concerned with ethics. So Perry threatened to veto the agency’s appropriation unless she resigned; when she didn’t, he carried out his threat and vetoed the bill. His reward was to be indicted by a grand jury for “abuse of office.” Believe me, I hate to defend Rick Perry, but the prosecutor seems challenged by the rudimentary distinction between use of office and abuse of office.

Nor is grotesque abuse of words simply a Texas problem. No one in the national administration appears capable of finding the right phrase. Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (“Chuck”) Hagel has been reprimanded by this column before, but he has not learned his lesson. This month, he babbled about the attempt to rescue martyred journalist Jim Foley from his crazed jihadi captors, calling it a “flawless operation” that had only one problem: it failed. When the rescuers came, Foley was in some other place. Hagel’s exact words were: “This operation, by the way, was a flawless operation but the hostages were not there. We will do everything we need to do, that the American people would expect from their leaders, to continue to do everything we can to get our hostages back.”

But “everything” must not mean everything — in light of the administration’s stout refusal, in respect to the Foley case, to negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom to terrorists. That is what unanimous administration spokesmen declined to endorse. But tell me, if you can, where is Bowe Bergdahl today, and where are the five jihadis with whose freedom Bergdahl was not-ransomed on May 31? And tell me, while you’re at it, is Hagel still conducting an investigation about whether Bergdahl left his post or deserted it? Once more, there’s a problem of words, the distinctions between words, the meanings of words . . . Perhaps it’s a conceptual problem. Perhaps it’s important!

Oh, here’s an item. Bergdahl’s attorney has now told Reuters that Bergdahl “is ready to move on to the next chapter of his life.” Maybe the president should make another speech congratulating Bergdahl on moving forward. Certainly it’s nice to hear that the young man is making plans for his life, not merely wandering around battle zones in Afghanistan. Somehow, though, I just can’t repress my feeling that it should be Jim Foley who’s moving on to the next chapter of his life. He was entitled to, if anyone was.

It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around.

But perhaps Mr. Hagel was having trouble coming to grips, linguistically, with his own emotions. Many people at the apex of power suffer in this way. There is, for example, the president’s confusion of the word heartbroken with such words as having fun figuring out how to bat little white balls into little tin cups. “We are all heartbroken,” Obama said on August 20, in a tense little speech about Foley’s murder. But those words must not have been quite right. Eight minutes later the broken hearted chief executive was giggling with his buddies on the golf course. You have to admire his powers of recuperation. I would giggle myself, at the absurdity of it all, if I could get the scene of Foley’s beheading out of my mind. The president must have greater strength of character than I have.

The most absurd episode of the month — again, linguistically — was a series of events in Montana, in which sitting Senator John Walsh (Dem.) was found to have plagiarized a 14-page so-called paper submitted as part of a credentialing process in a two-bit graduate program. Walsh and his friends justified his stupidity in many ways: by claiming that he had done nothing wrong (he had used 96 footnotes!); by noting that he wasn’t, by nature, an academic; by claiming that his “mistake” was “unintentional”; by saying that he had served in Iraq, that one of his colleagues in Iraq had killed himself, that he (Walsh) had not killed himself but had been the victim of hundreds of enemy attacks (later reduced to one attack); by suggesting that he had post-traumatic stress disorder, though whatever he had was never diagnosed in exactly that way . . . While at school, Walsh, like his president, was known for his devotion to golf.

Finally the senator surrendered his candidacy, and the Democrats came up with another nominee, one Amanda Curtis, probably their worst possible choice. I felt comfortable analyzing Walsh, a lantern-jawed jock who drifted from one official position to another. His mishaps with words practically analyzed themselves. Curtis is different. It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around. Walsh’s supposed thesis paper was a tissue of mild, mainstream clichés, many of them plagiarized. Curtis’s genuine video blog is an exhibit of left-“liberal” thought, unfiltered and unembarrassed. But what is its cause or referent in the real world? That remains unknown. She might as well be reacting to the climate on Mars.

To return to the subject of the educated classes: Can you guess this candidate’s occupation? You’ve got it: she’s a teacher.




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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.

rsquo;s affection for Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, etc.), the people at MSNBC jumped at a caller




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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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