A Libido for Lying


What is the most ridiculous statement you’ve ever read?

I don’t mean the silliest or the goofiest or the most inaccurate. I mean the statement you can least imagine anyone making, to anyone, at any time, for any reason. If you want, you can let me know what it is — even if it’s some comment that I made.

But I believe the most ridiculous statement I’ve ever encountered was uttered by (you probably guessed it) Joe Biden, on February 13, in a conversation on The View. Discussing his son Hunter, Biden said, “Nobody has said he’s done anything wrong.”

Nobody has said he’s done anything wrong.

The article is as confused as the Bidens, and aims to justify them, but the central picture could not be clearer.

The only reason Hunter’s existence is known by the public and is therefore eligible for comment on television is years of reports about things he’s done wrong. He was booted out of the Navy for drug use. He returned a rental car with a crack pipe still inside it. Soon after his brother died, he had an affair with his brother’s wife (he also seems to have appropriated and used his dead brother’s identification). He then married a woman he’d known for about a week. He fathered a child by another woman and denied having done it; DNA showed that he had, and he was sued for support, reaching a temporary settlement only after it appeared that his financial records might become public evidence. He was paid something like a million dollars a year by a more than shady Ukrainian energy company, as a reward for duties that have not been specified, except for the occasional conference at Monte Carlo or similar destination. While “working” for that company, he spent significant amounts of time in rehab and in cadging drugs around homeless encampments. His father bragged about threatening to have a large chunk of US aid withheld from Ukraine unless a prosecutor who might have been targeting the energy company was fired. President Trump was impeached for suggesting that the Ukrainian government investigate the Bidens, and the Bidens’ dealings with Ukraine became major elements of the president’s defense.

Nobody said anything? In fact, many of the details I just recited were published last July in an article in The New Yorker, a house organ of the Bidens’ own party. Its account was supported by interviews with Hunter himself. The article is as confused as the Bidens, and aims to justify them, but the central picture could not be clearer.

As you know, I’ve discussed the Bidens before, and readers have a right to be tired of these discussions. But when you find the Platonic form of something — in this case, pigheaded, arrogant, self-righteous stupidity — it’s hard not to talk about it. If Father Biden drops out of the presidential race by the time this column appears, what I say here won’t matter much to the national discourse. But his statement should continue to be noted — remembered — wondered at — approached with primitive awe:

Nobody has said he’s done anything wrong.

He might have given out with some exculpatory information. But he didn’t. He preferred to attack the accusers of his son by denying that they exist.

What other parent in the history of the world has introduced a conversation about his son by saying, “Nobody has said he’s done anything wrong”?

A little later in that conversation Biden came up with a slightly different line of defense. He followed the lead of President Trump, who defended his conversation with the Ukrainian president by claiming it was “a perfect phone call.” Joe Biden said of Hunter Biden, “This is a guy who has done nothing but good things his whole life, my son” — thus combining the claim of perfection with a more ordinary demand to go easy on a child, my child. How well this works for a 50-year-old child is questionable.

Biden might, conceivably, have stretched his defense into an actual refutation of the Ukrainian accusations. He might have given out with some exculpatory information. But he didn’t. He preferred to attack the accusers of his son by denying that they exist. And this was no sudden mental lapse, no product of senility. Biden has been “senile” for years; he may be no more senile now than he was three decades ago, when he memorized the autobiographical ramblings of Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock and represented them as his own impassioned declaration of heritage and identity. Kinnock’s statements were preposterous. Meditating on his family’s experience during the Cro Magnon era, he asked the pregnant question, "Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?” Biden’s choice of this stuff was sufficient answer to his own question, “Is it because I’m the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?”

And, amazing as this may seem, the absurd claim I’m discussing — “Nobody has said he’s done anything wrong” — was consciously and deliberately chosen by Biden and his advisors as the argument they wanted to lead with. It has become chronic with them.

This last notion comes under the head of normal political lies, the kind of lies in which even Libertarian Party nominees perpetually indulge by insisting that they are too going to win an election.

Chronic, and aggressive. On February 10, Biden said of his son,“No one has said he’s done anything wrong except the thug [and former mayor of New York] Rudy Giuliani. Come on. Rudy Giuliani, a character witness?” On January 31, Biden spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield was asked by Fox News personality Ed Henry: "What kind of character did the vice president show when Barack Obama had him overseeing Ukrainian policy and yet one of the vice president's sons was making over $83,000 a month from a Ukrainian gas company? What kind of character was that?"

Bedingfield responded that Biden showed "unassailable character" and "not a single person" has suggested during the impeachment proceeding that Biden did anything other than carry out the foreign policy interests of the United States by trying to "root out corruption" in Ukraine.

Equally quaint was the spokeswoman’s idea of where the notion of Biden family wrongdoing came from:

This is an attempt, pure and simple, by Donald Trump to smear Joe Biden, suggest there is some sort of ethical issue here when there isn't, to do everything in his power to try and prevent Joe Biden from being the nominee. Because he knows if Joe Biden is the nominee, he's going to beat him.

Pure and simple. As if anyone in the world ever thought, seriously thought, that Joe Biden would beat Donald Trump.

This last notion comes under the head of normal political lies, the kind of lies in which even Libertarian Party nominees perpetually indulge by insisting that they are, they are so, going to win an election. But wait a minute! Consider what this means. Normal political lies are almost as obsessive and uncanny as Joe Biden’s astonishing lie. Because they are normal, these chronic lies can only be explained as the result of a libido for lying, a love of lying, a continual choice of bizarre lies over any form of truth.

Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Donald Trump, and many, many other people have spent years just saying things, over and over again, that everyone with an adult brain knows are totally false. According to Sanders and Warren, nationalizing healthcare and paying for it with taxes won’t raise taxes “on the middle class”; according to Trump, all of Trump’s policies are dramatically successful; and so forth. Sometimes these lies are accompanied by charts and graphs and white-paper “plans,” à la the schoolmarmish Warren; sometimes by deep rumblings that “I know what I’m talking about; I wrote the God damned bill,” à la the irascible Sanders; sometimes by endless reiteration, à la the bombastic Trump. No one but a child could believe these things, but there are many children. I’ve just mentioned three of them.

In Sanders Speak, wealth is a filthy object, owned only by greedy capitalists; it’s never anything possessed by a 39-year officeholder living high on the public hog.

So Biden might have found many normal ways of disgracing himself. He might have resorted, for instance, to radical redefinitions of ordinary terms. Sanders does this all the time. “Wealth” is a favorite subject of redefinition. In Sanders Speak, wealth is a filthy object, owned only by greedy capitalists; it’s never anything possessed by a 39-year officeholder living high on the public hog. “Pay” is another one; people are made to pay by corporations, never by the government. “Work” is never done by entrepreneurs but always by the sweated working class. A “monopoly” is any “giant corporation”; its antidote and opposite is giant government, exercising control of everything. Sanders can dance flatfooted with any word he chooses. He once said, “I am not sure whether my position on Nicaragua is conservative or radical.” Sanders doesn’t consider himself a “politician,” but he’s sure that Donald Trump is a “demagogue.”

And what is a demagogue? Here’s standard Sanders, admirably represented in a speech from June 12 of last year:

Today, we have a demagogue in the White House who, for cheap political gain, is attempting to deflect the attention of the American people away from the real crises that we face and, instead, is doing what demagogues always do — and that is divide people up and legislate hatred. This is a president who supports brutal family separations, border walls, Muslim bans, anti-LGBT policies, deportations and voter suppression.

It is my very strong belief that the United States must reject that path of hatred and divisiveness and instead find the moral conviction to choose a different path, a higher path, a path of compassion, justice and love.

And that is the path that I call democratic socialism.

Socialism = compassion, justice, and love. That is the path that I call BS. And that is what I call a lie.

Without exploring Sanders’ hysterical but nonspecific charges — although I feel I should note that “voter suppression” appears to be what happens when not enough people voted for candidates whom Sanders likes, and “anti-LGBT policies” must be something other than high-level appointments for people such as Rick Grenell — I’d like to observe that a real demagogue is a “leader of the people,” and as such ordinarily does not try to “divide people up.” A demagogue is characteristically, and infernally, a uniter of the people. I don’t know what you’d call a fanatical old man perpetually bellowing hateful words and calling it “love,” but I do know this is a guy who’s great at dividing people, and a guy who promises, if elected, to legislate his hatreds into an enormous prison of restrictions and confiscations.

Biden's departure from politics will be like the demise of whoever designed the Great Pyramid of Giza.

But I’m supposed to be talking about Biden. If he didn’t want to follow Sanders down Redefinition Road, he might have followed Nancy Pelosi along the same track. At midmonth, she was interviewed by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, a woman mainly remarkable for grim devotion to the modern liberal establishment — hardly an antagonistic questioner. But somehow Amanpour happened to mention the fact that President Trump was “acquitted” in his impeachment trial. That was a mistake. Pelosi spluttered back:

He was not . . . there was no . . . You can’t have an acquittal unless you have a trial, and you can’t have a trial unless you have witnesses and documents. So he can say he’s acquitted, and the headlines can say “acquitted,” but he’s impeached forever, branded with that, and not vindicated.

Anyone could perform this kind of redefinition. Let’s try it on Pelosi.

You say you’re a congresswoman? You’re not a congresswoman. To be a congresswoman you have to be elected, and how can you have an election unless your side can lose? And your side can’t lose. There hasn’t been a Republican “elected” in your constituency since 1949. You yourself have won every congressional “election” since 1987. So you can say you were elected, but that’s not an election.

How’s that for lying? Pretty good, eh?

Even Biden could have done the same thing: “Nobody — nobody I’ve talked to, and I know everybody — has said, in a sworn deposition, that my son did anything — anything important, anything vital — that is wrong, under the Code of Hammurabi.” This kind of lie has worked for others — hasn’t it? How foolish for him not to have used it himself!

This, of course, speaks to Biden’s uniqueness. His departure from politics will be like the demise of whoever designed the Great Pyramid of Giza. His name may be forgotten, but his verbal accomplishments will endure forever, as a standard by which the absurd is measured. His achievement is unique — but I must continue to acknowledge other recent and daring forays into interplanetary lingos that no earthling can fully comprehend.

Buttigieg seems to have thought that his inane statement was a message that ought to be carved above courthouse doors.

Here’s one that will be remembered. I’m indebted to Drew Ferguson for discovering it and letting me know about it before anyone else had noticed it. It’s a weird, existential utterance by Peter (“Pete”) Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, who said on February 6: “The shape of our democracy is the issue that affects every other issue.”

What? How did he possibly come to say that? I’ll tell you how. A public school teacher had embarrassed him by asking, at a CNN “Town Hall” (“town hall”: a place where politicians hand out lies), that he reveal the one thing he most wanted to accomplish as president. Well, that was a stumper. Only one thing! The Napoleon of South Bend has as many plans as Scheherazade had stories. So Mayor Pete looked bashful for a while, and then he dredged up the just quoted talking point: “The shape of our democracy . . .” It took a lot of aimless rambling around before he thought of something specific to connect this with, but he finally recalled one of the Democrats’ proposals to “take the money out of politics”; i.e., to take their opponents’ money out of politics.

This was a flop, but Buttigieg thought so well of his “shape” remark that he put it up on his Twitter account. He seems to have thought that his inane statement — inane and, as Drew commented, completely unvisualizable — was a message that ought to be carved above courthouse doors.

In these circumstances, we must be grateful to anyone, anywhere, who states a plain truth.

Buttigieg, like Biden, is a self-confident absurdist. He cannot imagine that his august sayings can ever be subject to question. He has them stored up; they’re ready; he’s memorized them — what could be the problem? That’s how we get such intended quotables as this one, delivered on the night of the Iowa Caucus, before any votes were counted:

What a night. Because tonight, an improbable hope became an undeniable reality.

If “undeniable reality” means anything, it means Buttigieg’s victory in Iowa and beyond. But his ultimate victory remained supremely deniable, and his immediate victory was so far from being undeniable as to remain, weeks later, the subject of strong debate and informed mockery. Skeptical observers wondered how he could have been so confident that he would emerge at least neck and neck with Sanders (each at about a quarter of the vote — big whoop). But if he knew something, how did he know it? Sanders supporters know something about the corruptions of our democracy, and they suspect more. But for Buttigieg, if you have a noun introduced by an im- adjective, and another noun, introduced by an un- adjective, then your statement must be true and great and wonderful, and useful as well. No matter that it isn’t true.

The book of Revelation (22:15) mentions “whosoever loveth and maketh a lie.” Loveth a lie. You gotta love it, or you won’t be able to make it. Our politicians have no problem with that. They’re the ones who possess the luv.

In these circumstances, we must be grateful to anyone, anywhere, who states a plain truth. My heart leaped up, the other day, when I read a headline in the Elite Herald, a clickbait site: “The British Royal Family Tree Reveals Some Members Are Related to One Another.” How true, how true. And how reassuring, after all.

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Un-Gifted Storytellers


I have some liking for mysteries that will probably never be solved. What, if anything, is buried on Oak Island? What happened to the glorious Amber Room? What happened to Judge Crater? What happened to Peking Man? I have less liking for them when they’re verbal mysteries, particularly the type that Dr. Johnson had in mind when he mentioned words of which “the true meaning is so uncertain and remote, that it is never sought, because it cannot be known when it is found.”

I should have taken that passage from Johnson’s Life of Milton as a warning, before I tried to figure out what Hunter Biden did in the Navy (until he got kicked out). The Washington Times reported on this. It quoted documents saying, apparently as plainly as the Navy can say things, what his job was.

Under a heading “Primary/Collateral/Watchstanding Duties,” the file states Mr. Biden is a “deployable public affairs officer” who “provides public affairs/strategic communications support” to, among other officers, the chief of information at the Pentagon, the Navy’s public affairs headquarters at the Pentagon.

Mr. Biden’s duties included providing support to 6th and 5th Fleets and “regional commanders.”

So he was, maybe, probably, a PR hack? But just when you think you’ve got the answer, and that’s it, the Navy hits you with a slash. “Public affairs/strategic communications support” — is that two things or one? And what, I hesitate to ask, is strategic about public affairs? Is there a strategy to fool the public? If so, then it’s been successfully exerted on me, because you could give me almost any interpretation of those words, and I would entertain it.

There isn’t a single phrase in the sentence just quoted whose meaning or connection with the adjacent phrases can be identified and understood.

Heedless of Johnson’s hint not to bother seeking meanings in words like these, I turned to the Navy’s first “periodic fitness report” on the heir to the House of Biden, and found a statement of his “command achievements,” which were as follows:

Provides expeditionary public affairs forces supporting the fleet and component commanders with scalable and immediately deployable force packages trained and equipped to support current and emerging public affairs and visual information requirements.

Steering around a wreck on the edge of the highway, you’ve probably been astonished by the fact that the vehicle was so badly damaged that you couldn’t tell what was the trunk and what was the hood, and whatever could have happened to the roof. That’s what we’re seeing here. There isn’t a single phrase in the sentence just quoted whose meaning or connection with the adjacent phrases can be identified and understood. If you’re a fool like me, you keep asking, “What are expeditionary public affairs forces?”; “What’s a force package, and how are such things trained?”; “What’s scalable about these force packages?”; “How do you support a requirement?” You’re welcome to keep asking. You’re not going to find out.

Perhaps there’s a Navy Department dictionary that reduces the infinite range of possible meanings to only a few, no matter how dopey: “Visual information requirement: (1) a rule for the use of gestures; (2) a rule for stenciling words on windows; (3) a stop light.” Perhaps there’s a Navy style sheet that tells Deployable Public Affairs Officers how to navigate this vocabulary and syntax. But if there is, the mystery remains: how on earth can human beings come up with this stuff? Is it something you learn, or is it the spontaneous expression of a mental disorder, like coprolalia?

Trump meant nothing in particular, and he could be very certain that Ingraham wouldn’t ask him what he meant.

I’m talking about true mysteries, which I need to distinguish from such phenomena as President Trump’s curious form of discourse, which consists largely of disconnected sentences, parts of which he repeats several times, as if obsessed. There’s nothing amazing about this: he just isn’t interested in organizing his thoughts or considering other ways of emphasizing them. Any child can, and many children do, talk like the president, and any child can understand what’s going on with that.

Nor is there any mystery about why politicians say amazingly childish things about history. On January 10, President Trump told Laura Ingraham that “Nancy Pelosi will probably go down in history as the least effective speaker of the House of Representatives.” Oh, what did he mean? Less effective than James Lawrence Orr? Less effective than Galusha A. Grow? Less effective even than Theodore Medad Pomeroy? No, that’s not what he meant; he never heard of any of them. He just wanted to say something bad. He meant nothing in particular, and he could be very certain that Ingraham wouldn’t ask him what he meant.

Neither is there any deep mystery about Hillary Clinton criticizing Bernie Sanders for being “a career politician,” as if anybody thought that she was anything other than that. She isn’t interested in what other people think. If she had any interest, she would have won the election.

How on earth can human beings come up with this stuff? Is it something you learn, or is it the spontaneous expression of a mental disorder, like coprolalia?

There isn’t much mystery behind the New York Times’ endorsement of Elizabeth Warren for president — along with the hapless Amy Klobuchar. There were oddities, of course, including the spectacle of the Times’ complimenting Warren, who is best known for retailing absurd lies about herself, as “a gifted storyteller.” Who would even think of saying such a thing, knowing that everyone else would laugh it to scorn? The answer is that the NYT cannot conceive of being laughed to scorn. It endorsed Warren because it has always loved her to death; it endorsed Klobuchar as a nod to the millions of heartland voters that it imagines are out there, clamoring for the election of this favorite daughter. The Times doesn’t want to be out of touch! But who’s on the staff of the NYT?The Times wouldn’t have a staff if it weren’t for (A) descendants of Eastern wealth and (B) people who couldn’t wait to leave the Midwest because they hated it and saw that it ignored their hatred. For generations, this has been The New York Times. So, from its point of view, Amy Klobuchar is a preeminent statesman and Elizabeth Warren is a gifted storyteller.

There is also very little true mystery about the announcement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex that they are bugging out of the royal responsibilities that have given their sorry lives whatever dignity they possess:

We intend to step back as “senior” members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen. It is with your encouragement, particularly over the last few years, that we feel prepared to make this adjustment.

We now plan to balance our time between the United Kingdom and North America, continuing to honour our duty to The Queen, the Commonwealth, and our patronages.

This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity.

Queen Elizabeth certainly isn’t wrinkling her brow, trying to figure just how much “support” she’s going to get from the likes of them, and I doubt that anyone they may be addressing as “you” is thinking, “Hmmm . . . That’s strange. I can’t recall ever encouraging them to do anything. But if they say so, then I guess I did.” I also doubt that anyone will miss the unconscious joke in the first and last sentences of that passage from the royal missive: these people are going to work to become financially independent, and the work they have in mind is paying themselves out of the proceeds of some cockamamie charity they’re cooking up.

It's true, there are some mysteries around the edges, such as what the Duke of Sussex could possibly have meant when he gave a speech in which said that he and his wife hoped “to continue serving the queen . . . without public funding” but found it “wasn’t possible.” I’m sure that doesn’t mean they’d always wanted to give the poor old dear a few quid but just didn’t have it, y’know. But if it doesn’t mean that, I can’t guess what it means. Neither do I know why, after having been given the best education that money and social origin could buy, the Duke never learned his pronoun cases: “The decision that I have made for my wife and I to step back . . .” But . . . well, after all . . . who cares what he says?

These people are going to work to become financially independent, and the "work" they have in mind is paying themselves out of the proceeds of some cockamamie charity they’re cooking up.

Yet fascinatingly repellent mysteries still abound — and I’m glad the aforesaid Nancy Pelosi is here to provide them, because lately, I’ve lost some of my most important sources of mystery: Beto O’Rourke (what made him think he should be president?), Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker (maybe it was “racism” that kept them from getting enough money to stay in the presidential tournament, but who would give them any money to start with?). True, there remains the mystery of Tom Steyer: what could he mean when he says in his omnipresent ads that Congress will never authorize action against climate change, so he, President Steyer, will have to do it on his own? Well, how? Could he be proclaiming a coup? Could he be inspired by Oliver Cromwell: “I say you are no Parliament”? Probably not, and there aren’t enough Cromwellians to get out the vote, anyway. A man of mystery . . . but face it, he’s not much fun. (If you want picturesque details about the Cromwell episode, a wiki page does a good job; see and look for the account of Thomas Salmon.)

So right now, Pelosi is my favorite weaver of mysteries. Here’s what she said in one of her constant press conferences about why she delayed sending the impeachment documents to the Senate. It’s her attempt to explain the unexplainable. I’m sorry, you need to see it in extenso:

This is a very important day for us. As you know I referenced temporal markers that our founders and our poets and others have used over time to place us in time, to emphasize the importance of time, because everything is about time.

Because everything is about time — how we use it, how we mark it. And today is an important day because today is the day that we name the managers, we go to the floor to pass the resolution to transmit the articles of impeachment to the Senate, and later in the day, when we have our engrossment, that we march those articles of impeachment to the United States Senate.

As I've said, it's always been our founders, when they started, “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary” — when.

Abraham Lincoln – “Four score and seven years ago.”

Thomas Paine, “These are the times that try men's souls.”

Again and again, even our poets, Longfellow — "Listen, my children and you will hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere. / On the 18th of April 1775 / Hardly a man is now alive /That remembers that famous day and year."

It's always about marking history, using time. On December 18th, the House of Representatives impeached the president of the United States. An impeachment that will last forever.

Since December 18th, there have been comments about when are we going to send the articles over. Well, we had hoped that the courtesy would be extended that we would have seen what the process would be in the Senate.

Short of that, the time has revealed many things since then. Time has been our friend in all of this because it has yielded incriminating evidence, more truth into the public domain.

There’s something wrong about the transcription of Pelosi’s remarks. She didn’t say “1775”; she said, “’75,” which is what the Longfellow poem says. Otherwise it wouldn’t scan. So she got that right. The rest — did you ever see such a mess?

It would be useless to be a smartass. It would be useless to ask Pelosi, “If time is your friend, why don’t you wait till next New Years to start the ceremonies? Then maybe you’ll have even more ‘incriminating evidence.’” It would be useless to ask, “Did you mean it when you said that everything is about time? And if you meant that, what does it mean? Does it mean that I should or shouldn’t get my air conditioner fixed this week?” “You’re always bragging about your Catholic education. Weren’t you taught that there’s a difference between things that exist in time and things that exist forever? They’re actually opposed, and impeachment is on the ‘time’ rather than the ‘forever’ side.” “Do you really grasp the fact that the dispute you are supposedly addressing is not about whether time exists or whether time is important or whether time should be used; it’s about how the hell you’ve been using it?”

Could he be inspired by Oliver Cromwell: “I say you are no Parliament”? Probably not, and there aren’t enough Cromwellians to get out the vote, anyway.

There are many additional smartass, I mean obvious, questions with which one could probe the mystery of what she thinks she’s talking about. But suppose she tried to answer them, or even one of them. Do you imagine that anything she said would make more sense than anything she said the first time? And that was supposed to be an explanation!

Earlier, I used the image of a car wreck. Now another image comes to mind. You’re waiting in an airport, and an elderly person sits down next to you and starts talking about the word “when.” She says things like, “As I've said, it's always been our founders, when they started, ‘When in the course of human events it becomes necessary’ — when.” She goes on and on. At first you struggle to appear respectful. Then you start gathering your things and looking for another chair. As you make your escape, she’s still babbling uncontrollably.

That’s her all right — with just one difference. There’s no escape from Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful woman in the United States.

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Things that Make Me Laugh


I confess: I have a taste for self-refuting discourse. The other day, I complained to one of my friends about the incomprehensibility of some of the “Settings” on my cell phone. “Oh,” he said, “it’s actually very simple.” And he began to explain them. When he reached the third minute of his explanation, we both started laughing. Obviously, something that requires a long explanation — by a person who, by the way, happens to be a genius about technology — cannot be “simple.”

But my favorite self-refuting words are those of the “No, I am not ANGRY with you!!!” variety. The funniest I’ve ever heard were recently emitted by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. James Rosen, a reporter, asked her a question about whether hatred could possibly have something to do with her drive to impeach Donald Trump. Her response was hilarious:

"I don't hate anybody. I was raised in a Catholic house, we don't hate anybody — not anybody in the world,” said Pelosi. She had been asked by a journalist during her weekly press briefing if she “hates President Trump.”

Pelosi had earlier announced the House Democrats would begin drafting the articles of impeachment.

"As a Catholic I resent you using the word 'hate' in a sentence that addresses me," a visibly angered Pelosi said, point[ing] her finger at the journalist. She went on to claim that she prays for Trump “all the time.”

“So don't mess with me when it comes to words like that," she added.

Pelosi is fond of making up stuff and claiming that she found it in the Bible, so perhaps she thought she was quoting some episode in the gospels in which Jesus wags his finger at a hapless questioner and screeches, “Don’t mess with me!”

Absurd generalizations are the mother’s milk of politics, and they’re usually a total crackup.

There are other things that delight me here, besides the self-confutation. People always laugh when they recall the remark that Richard (“Tricky Dick”) Nixon supposedly made: “We can do that, but it would be wrong.” Pelosi is even funnier: she thinks the fact that something is wrong is proof that she isn’t doing it. She even thinks you can’t be accused of doing something wrong if your parents taught you it was wrong.

And what about Pelosi’s grand generalization: “We don't hate anybody — not anybody in the world” — with the silent but obvious addition, “not even that bastard Trump”? Absurd generalizations are the mother’s milk of politics, and they’re usually a total crackup. This one certainly is. If the aforesaid Jesus was a Catholic (itself rather a large assumption), he seems not to have gotten the message. In the book of Revelation (2:6), the same Jesus compliments the church of Ephesus because “thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaitanes, which I also hate.” There are no qualifications about hating the sin but loving the Nicolaitanes. In the gospel of Luke (14:26) he says, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” This is a long way from Pelosi family values. A hyperbolic statement? Yes, OK. But it doesn’t give much cover for Pelosi’s impersonation of Heidi.

So, in an act of supreme inclusivity, tolerance, and diversity, he had to exclude those judges — even the ones appointed by other presidents.

Attempting to compete with Pelosi in the self-refutation derby, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed, shortly before Christmas, a bill intended to allow federal judges to marry people in his state. His reason? Some judges were appointed by Trump, and Cuomo cannot “in good conscience” let them perform the sacred rite.

“President Trump does not embody who we are as New Yorkers,’’ the Democratic governor said. “The cornerstones that built [cornerstones build?]our great state are diversity, tolerance, and inclusion. Based on these reasons, I must veto this bill.”

So, in an act of supreme inclusivity, tolerance, and diversity, he had to exclude those judges — even the ones appointed by other presidents. That’s a pretty good self-refutation. Cuomo, who is said to be a Catholic, may also be competing for best “conscience” with Pelosi, although he needs to get up pretty early in the morning to beat her at that.

Can you picture a series of murders flyin’ around and hittin’ them civic values smack in the face?

Suddenly I’m reminded of a message that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted back in October, about what is described as “the savage slaying of four vagrants” in his city:

We’re stunned and horrified [but not too stunned to tweet] by this senseless act of violence against the most vulnerable members of our community. It flies in the face of the values of our city. We’re keeping the victims and their loved ones in our hearts.

“Flies in the face of the values of our city,” eh? We learned from Governor Cuomo that states have values, (otherwise known as cornerstones) but cities now have them too? If so, can you picture a series of murders flyin’ around and hittin’ them civic values smack in the face? Probably De Blasio just turned to one of the many online templates of talking points — go ahead, google them — and found the formula for student council resolutions condemning hate on campus or some such thing. Yet flying in the face of values is easy to picture, compared to the notion of Mayor Bill holding the victims (people he never heard of before) and their loved ones (God bless mommy, and daddy, and teacher, and that lady on the bus, and her husband, if any) in his heart. Do you think they’re still in there? If so, exactly where?

But to return to Pelosi’s hate-filled attack on hate: it’s entertaining to witness psychological symptoms so weird that only Freud’s weird theories can account for them. Other people Dr. Freud would have liked to get his hands on are the media analysts and commentators who have accepted Pelosi as their Amazon queen. While laughing at her bizarre self-revelation as a fanatical hater, I somehow imagined that the media would (in the spirit of Whittier’s “Ichabod”) walk backward with averted gaze, and hide the shame. But no! Her outburst was greeted with nearly universal celebration. Google this one too; you’ll see: it’s the Joan of Arc treatment. If, once again, you’re wondering whether these people are quite in their right minds, wonder no more.

Legions of talking heads, even at Fox News, continue to be puzzled by how such things could be done by this "very smart operator." Really?

Pelosi’s daft comments about religion presaged her daft behavior after the impeachment vote. Having maintained her party’s position that Trump must be impeached right now, not a minute to lose, and don’t wait for Christmas, she refused to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate, at least until the House reconvenes in January. She babbled about ensuring fairness, and refused to answer questions. Wha—?! Legions of talking heads, even at Fox News, continue to be puzzled by how such things could be done by this very smart operator. Really?

Another brainy fella is Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Evan Horowitz, a man who spent many months minutely examining the behavior of a group of bumbling secret policemen who hounded Trump’s campaign — people who omitted no opportunity to evince their hatred of the people they were investigating — and concluded that he couldn’t say whether they were biased or not. If he can’t settle that point, why don’t we hire someone who can? Someone who won’t make an ass of himself in the manner illustrated by the inspector general’s congressional testimony on December 11:

In response to questioning by Sen. [Mazie] Hirono, Horowitz says they use the term "surveillance" rather than "spying" because the latter has such negative connotations, and he did not use it in the report. Hirono asks if he is bothered by [Attorney General William] Barr's comments that spying occurred on the campaign. Horowitz says he doesn't want to get into people's motives or thinking on matters.

Heaven forbid that an investigator should use words with negative connotations or concern himself with motives. What next, “I don’t know what he could have been thinking, but I was forced to consider arresting the gentleman for conveying Mrs. Grundy’s purse to another location”?

Our ability to laugh is the sign of our ability to transcend whatever we’re laughing at, and in this case the things transcended are decay and death.

Even people who have never been mistaken for smart operatorscan make themselves very funny. My last column began with a consideration of remarks made by His Royal Highness Prince Andrew, Duke of York, concerning his relationship with legendary sex demon Jeffrey Epstein. There are doubtless reasons to be concerned about the fool Prince Andrew continues to make of himself. But according to Fox News, the big issue is something I would never have suspected. Nor you, either. Fox cited reports that Prince Charles, the heir apparent,

is “furious” that his 12-day tour of the South Pacific, which aimed to raise awareness on environmental issues such as climate change and how it's rising [sic] ocean levels, has been completely overshadowed by [Andrew’s] scandal impacting the British royal family.

That’s sort of a selfish approach, isn’t it? Worrying that your brother’s problems might impact your publicity tour? And after all, how much would it take to overshadow Prince Charles’s expedition? A butterfly wing? A blade of grass? Thank God, it’s not as if environmental issues had escaped all public awareness.

I have a soft spot for Charles’ mom and will feel sorry when she’s gone — although I confess that I can no longer tell the difference, if there is any difference, between Elizabeth II Regina and the woman Helen Mirren played in that magnificent film, The Queen. But now that monarchs lack the ability to create world wars, there’s generally something funny and engaging about them. I’m thinking about the comment made by Farouk, the ill-fated king of Egypt, to the effect that in the future there would be five kings left in the world: the king of hearts, the king of diamonds, the king of clubs, the king of spades, and the king of England. Funny, and curiously reassuring. Our ability to laugh is the sign of our ability to transcend whatever we’re laughing at, and in this case the thing transcended isn’t just the monarchical system of government; it’s decay and death.

Even if it did rave, that would be nothing special for The New York Times, would it?

A more ordinary object of transcendence — drearier and more ordinary than death — is the dull, constant pressure of our present would-be authorities: Pelosi, Horowitz, the geniuses that CNN, Fox, and MSNBC pay to lecture us, the teachers, spiritual leaders, and priests of sensitivity who patrol our moral lives, the strange organisms that cling like muck to every spade that tries to drain a swamp, even the trivial headlines that purport to tell us what we need to know. The goofiness of headlines, which are supposed to be so impressive to us common folk, is a dependable source of merriment to me. Where would respectable news sites be without headlines saying that so and so had just ripped, torched, or blasted someone? It’s like those movie trailers that inevitably cite the New York Times as raving about the product. Even if it did rave, that would be nothing special for the Times, would it? That paper has been raving mad since Reagan.

Occasionally, a headline can make me laugh out loud because it’s actually true, and the truth is terrifically funny. Here’s one from CNBC (December 20):

Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren releases a $10.7 trillion plan to create 10.6 million green jobs

Evidently this headline writer knew that “creating” jobs at the rate of a mere million dollars per job is an idea that only an idiot would come up with, and that the math need only be cited for the idiocy to be shown. Years ago, The Onion ran a headline that’s my all-time favorite:

Miracle Of Birth Occurs For 83 Billionth Time

Like the Warren headline, this one assumes an audience intelligent enough to see the joke.

But let’s think about some wordings that are not tributes to the human intelligence. Call this, if you wish, a letdown from the high discourse of King Farouk and Elizabeth Warren, but I think it’s time to notice that there is a class of expressions that consist of two individual words; examples: Turn on. Push back. Take over. Sometimes the two words can be joined to make a single noun, often with a hyphen between them — "Britain’s pushback against Europe’s attempted take-over was a big turn-on for me.” But you can’t do that with the verb form, because the two parts are separable from each other: “I was turned completely on when I saw Britain push strongly back against Europe’s attempt to take the country over.” Once almost everybody who was able to write, or even type, knew this. But now we constantly behold our well educated (or perhaps just expensively credentialed) neighbors and colleagues making fools of themselves by writing, “Use blue button to turnon lights in conference room”; “Let’s pushback against this plan”; and “I am happy to inform you that Marjorie has agreed to takeover our customer relations office.” Sad to say, this is not entirely or even chiefly an American illiteracy. Witness a headline in a British paper:

Your CAR could be at risk of cyberattacks: Scientists reveal 'holes' in systems that let hackers steal data or even takeover your smart vehicle

My own CAR is smart enough to sneer at the possibility that it will be takenover. It has always pushedback against all attacks and attempts to surveille, turn green, or otherwisepusharound its passengers. Perhaps the Model 2020 Republic will prove to be smart enough to do the same.

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What do you think the funniest verbal event of November was?

I thought it might be Prince Andrew’s assertion that he made a special visit to alleged sex demon Jeffrey Epstein just to tell him that he couldn’t see him anymore. When asked why he had lived in Epstein’s house for several days after delivering that message, the prince replied, “It was a convenient place to stay.” I’m sure it was.

On reflection, though, I believe I’ve had the most laughs over the episode that I call the Entitlement of Mr. Vindman.

Alexander Vindman is one of several rightfully obscure Washington bureaucrats who aired their gripes against President Trump during the impeachment inquiry. He happens to be a colonel in the Army, and although his testimony had nothing to do with military service, he showed up in military uniform. This was no doubt intended to remind everyone of the deference that all true Americans should show to our servicemen and women, a deference at least equal to that demanded by the First World War laws mandating prison terms for insults to the uniform. But one congressman was so insensitive, or so unpatriotic, as to address Mr. Vindman as “Mr. Vindman” — whereupon Mr. Vindman said, “It’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please.”

When asked why he had lived in Epstein’s house for several days after delivering that message, the prince replied, “It was a convenient place to stay.” I’m sure it was.

This struck me, and millions, as hilariously, almost hysterically, funny. But let’s get some historical perspective.

It was funny, some years ago, when virtually everyone who ever held a government job started being addressed by his latest or showiest title. People who had paid to become ambassadors to Ruritania 30 years before were always to be addressed as Ambassador Whatever. Andrew Napolitano, once a judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey (1987–1995), was always to be addressed as Judge Napolitano. Not to mention Judge Judy.

That was funny; “prestige” is usually funny. Even funnier were the numerous, ridiculously ignorant, forms of address expected by some of these people. Joycelyn Elders, a goodhearted but bizarre old lady whom President Clinton made Surgeon General of the United States, not only wore a silly uniform (like her predecessor, C. Everett Koop, who looked exactly like his name) but was consistently addressed on television as General Elders. It’s possible that even she didn’t fully grok that she wasn’t in the army, and that “surgeon general” just means “general administrator of surgery, i.e. medicine, for the US Public Health Service.” Soon the attorneys general of the United States and of the 50 great sovereign states were being publicly addressed as “general,” and I didn’t hear any of these legal wizards objecting.

Some years ago, virtually everyone who ever held a government job started being addressed by his latest or showiest title.

Now along comes Mr. Vindman, for whom “Colonel” isn’t a sufficiently sonorous title; he must be called “Lieutenant Colonel.” Look, I am not just the editor of this journal; I am also a doctor (Ph.D.: don’t ask me to prescribe anything except daily doses of a grammar book). If I told people on the phone or the ladies at the DMV or other total strangers that, excuse me, I want to be addressed as Professor Cox or Doctor Cox, how do you think that would be received? To paraphrase Alexander Pope, the reaction would be:

Who would not weep if such a man there be?
Who would not laugh if Doctor Cox were he?

But how would it be if I insisted on being called not just Professor Cox but Full Professor Cox or Distinguished Professor Cox — which is actually, literally, and not a little absurdly my academic title? And Vindman isn’t exactly an — ahem! — colonel, or as they say, full bird colonel. He is only a lieutenant colonel, which is less. So, in his pride, he insists on everyone mentioning his not being promoted.

When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, my informal advisor, Frank Livingstone Huntley, an elderly, old-fashioned man of letters, who was by no means close to “Mr. Cox” emotionally, nor attempted to be so, and was frequently and stupidly misunderstood by the same Mr. Cox, still gave me warm encouragement in notes on my papers and recommendations to graduate schools, despite what he must have seen as my foolish, hippie-like hair and my goofy manners. He also took time to give me his view of academic titles. I’d probably asked him how I should address some professor I had to write a letter to. I can see him now, seated in his little office with books and microfilms all around him (he was a student of 17th-century manuscripts, so he had a lot of microfilms). He leaned forward slightly, heavily, in his chair, and said, with his thick, scowling lips, “Humph! They all want to be called Doctor or Professor. It used to be that we were all called Mister. Just Mister. That’s the word that I still use.” Professor Huntley was a good American.

Vindman isn’t exactly an — ahem! — colonel, or as they say, full bird colonel. He is only a lieutenant colonel, which is less.

But to return to Mr. Vindman’s demand for entitlement: A few minutes, or hours, or decades later in his strangely deadpan testimony — time stops during these things, and the fogs of eternity roll in — an examiner told Vindman that the congressman who had called him “Mister” hadn’t really meant any disrespect; and he asked him the interesting question, “Do you always insist on civilians calling you by your rank?” Vindman explained that well, he was wearing a uniform, and besides, he was sensitive about such matters, because he had recently been dissed on Twitter: “The attacks that I’ve had in the press, in Twitter have either marginalized me as a military officer or—” He broke off there.

I too must break off. I can’t write any more about Vindman; I’m laughing too hard. I’ll proceed to some other risible personalities. These infest, not the halls of Congress, but the offices of the government of Baltimore.

There was a woman named Catherine Pugh, who after serving herself in various government offices, including majority leader of the Maryland Senate, became mayor of the city of H.L. Mencken and of Francis Scott Key. Strangely, she was not rich. Well, how do you become rich? You write a book. Anyone can do it. You just type a bunch of words and publish it yourself. Then you’re rich.

You may think that’s unrealistic, but your title is not Mayor of Baltimore. You are not a person who, as mayor, has much to say about lucrative government contracts and favors — for example, in the healthcare field. For particular example, in the university hospital healthcare field. The people who run healthcare orgs are great patrons of literary art, and if you show them you have talent, they will buy your books by the thousands of copies and distribute them to schools and sickrooms and . . . things like that. In fact, you don’t need to sell them a book, in the sense of actually letting them see it and possess it. You can keep the damned thing, for all they care. They just want to give you money.

Vindman explained that he was sensitive about such matters, because he had recently been dissed on Twitter.

Cool, huh? Dante never had such an appreciative audience. Ms., or Mayor (or is it Lieutenant Colonel Dame Catherine) Pugh self-published some inane books about how little girls can take care of their health — by, like, exercising. These books were “bought,” at remarkable prices, and “distributed” by orgs that wanted to have this great author as their friend. It’s not clear that any little girl in Baltimore ever read the Healthy Holly books. But Ms. Pugh read her checks, very carefully.

When other people read of this, however, Mayor Pugh was bounced from her job and indicted for a variety of crimes, to which she has now confessed. One hopes that her accomplices in the oh-so-smarmy and respectable world of government-sponsored “nonprofits” will also be indicted and sent to jail.

The man who took over Pugh’s job as mayor is one Bernard C. (“Jack”) Young. I have no evidence that he’s a crook, but there’s good verbal evidence that he is the Platonic form of political hack. And in that capacity he’s very funny. Here is what Mayor Young said about his predecessor’s indictment:

Anything that puts a black eye on the city makes us all angry. We are all heartbroken and disappointed at today's news. I pray for former Mayor Pugh. I'm focused on helping our city to heal.

That’s 36 words and six clichés: black eye, makes us all, heartbroken, pray for, focused on, heal. Pretty damn good. One of the six, black eye, is historically conscious — coming, as it does, from the Joe Palooka school of journalism, c. 1930. The rest come from psychobabble and fake religiosity (school of Nancy Pelosi). The collectivist premise rules: we are all angry, heartbroken, disappointed; we must all come together, pray, heal, blah blah.

You may think that’s unrealistic, but your title is not Mayor of Baltimore.

How many citizens of Baltimore actually feel those emotions? My guess is none, except for people who are about to be indicted. And can you possibly, conceivably, picture Mayor Young kneeling in prayer for Former Mayor Pugh? No, you can’t.

Thank God, a rawer, less sensitive, and therefore even funnier side of Mayor Bernard C. (“Jack”) Young surfaced at about the same time. It had to do with Baltimore’s almost unbelievably high rates of murder and other violent crimes. This was not, apparently, “anything that puts a black eye on the city” and “makes us all angry." Oh no. Asked about the annual slaughter of hundreds of citizens of Baltimore, the mayor of the city said:

There is not a lack of any leadership on my part. I have been moving this city forward … you know, because I’m not committing the murders and that’s what people need to understand. I’m not committing the murders, the police commissioner is not committing it, the council is not committing it. So, how can you fault leadership?

This is funny — not as funny as the heartbreaking testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Alexander Vindman, but pretty funny. Jesus said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” Now we know whom Jesus had in mind — the mayor of Baltimore. He didn’t kill anyone.

How many citizens of Baltimore actually feel those emotions? My guess is none, except for people who are about to be indicted.

Well, who did? It was (guess who?) Donald Trump. Four months ago, Mayor Young eagerly stoned the president for portraying Baltimore as what it is, a mess. He excoriated Trump for “racially dividing us” (the mayor happens to be black) and attributed Baltimore’s misfortunes to (guess what?) Trump’s purported failure to give Baltimore money.

We have our challenges just like any major city in America, and it’s because of the constant reduction in funding for cities like Baltimore.

Maybe Trump has “constantly” reduced assistance to “cities like Baltimore” (such as which cities?). But I doubt it. Federal assistance to Baltimore itself totaled $5.44 billion in 2018, about $9,000 for every man, woman, and child in the place. Has the lack of additional assistance caused a homicide rate that is about ten times higher than the national average? Were hundreds slain by a sudden dearth of Benjamins? (Not that ordinary citizens of Baltimore were much advantaged by the sums lavished on their city.)

I have a theory. My theory is that verbal absurdities are closely correlated with state subsidies paid to such officeholders as Mayor Bernard C. (“Jack”) Young and the Honorable Lieutenant Colonel Lord Alexander Vindman. There are many thousands of these people, and they have nothing better to do with their time than conducting experiments with the English language. And that’s the best thing they do, because at least it can be entertaining.

None of the statements I have quoted in this column, by Vindman or anyone else, was made with the least appearance of irony, shame, hesitancy, self-questioning, or reflection.

I thought I was through with Vindman, but I’m not. Consider what, officially, he does with his time. A writer with a more-than-Arthurian name, Tristan Justice, has reported on Vindman’s administrative title and what it signifies. He says that Vindman

claimed in his opening statement to be the “principal advisor to the National Security Advisor and the president on Ukraine and the other countries in my portfolio.”

When asked about the claim however by Republican Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio, Vindman admitted to having never met, spoken with, or advised the president on anything.

“You’ve never spoken to the president and told him advice on Ukraine,” Turner said.

“That is correct,” Vindman said.

Notice that none of the statements I have quoted in this column, by Vindman or anyone else, was made with the least appearance of irony, shame, hesitancy, self-questioning, or reflection. They’re just out there, among the millions of utterances of self-entitled government officials whose “advice” and “work” destroys cities, drags nations into wars, promotes public ignorance, and demoralizes the young.

That part’s not funny.

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What’s in the Bag?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, never?
No, never!

What, never?
Well, hardly ever!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Enough is enough; goodbye for October.

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Thought Leaders and Living Legends


“Conservative strategist Chris Barron told Fox News that The Times ‘has abandoned any pretext of journalistic integrity,’ and the revised Kavanaugh story is the latest example.” So says a Fox News report (September 16) on the New York Times’ publication of a scandalous claim about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual behavior in college.

That phrase — “sexual behavior in college” — may be sufficient to illustrate the puerility of the allegation and of its eager retailing by America’s “newspaper of record.” I don’t care much for Justice Kavanaugh, but since I left college myself I haven’t been able to work up much concern about anybody’s college nonsense. If this is one of the great issues of our time . . . But look at that phrase from critic of the Times, the conservative strategist (is that a real job?): “abandoned any pretext of journalistic integrity.” Pretext? It would be fun to think that Mr. Outraged consciously chose that word, which means a false account of one’s reasons for doing something, because then we’d be witnessing the spectacle of a newspaper being criticized for abandoning its falsehoods. But alas, the guy must have failed to distinguish pretext from pretense, intending to say that the Times no longer pretends to integrity.

When you see a smarmy title like that, you sense right away that you’re dealing with a boatload of obscurantism.

And there’s a problem even with this charitable interpretation of his remark. In fact, the New York Times continues to pretend. Here’s what happened. On September 14, the Times published the story in question, an account of Kavanaugh dangling his naked penis around at a party. Immediately conservative journalist Mollie Hemingway compared the Times account with the version that its authors simultaneously published in a book, and discovered that something crucial was missing from the newspaper story. On September 15, a suddenly embarrassed Times appended a humiliating note to it:

An earlier version of this article, which was adapted from a forthcoming book, did not include one element of the book's account regarding an assertion by a Yale classmate that friends of Brett Kavanaugh pushed his penis into the hand of a female student at a drunken dorm party. The book reports that the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say that she does not recall the incident. That information has been added to the article.

That’s certainly a pretense to integrity, isn’t?

In the Fox News story we encountered two boon companions of modern journalism, ignorance and exaggeration (“abandoned any pretext”). We’ll meet them again. But let’s say howdy to a couple other good buddies who frequent the news saloon: pomposity and obscurantism.

The person behind the apparently false allegation was one Max Stier, whom the Times reporters call in their book a “respected thought leader.” “Oh!” you may be thinking, “I wish I could get that job!” But who is this respected leader of thought? He is one of the multitude of people, as numberless as the stars of heaven, who have labored in the vineyard of William Jefferson and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Stier worked as a lawyer for Bill when he (Bill) got into one of his adult sex scrapes. Nowadays, however, Stier is ritually identified in news stories as the head of a nonprofit organization. How nice that sounds! No profits! Nothing to deflect him from the pursuit of truth, justice, and the American way. The name of his org is The Partnership for Public Service.

Pompous? Oh, yes. And when you see a smarmy title like that, you sense right away that you’re dealing with a boatload of obscurantism. According to Wiki, the Partnership’s “mission is to inspire a new generation of civil servants and transform the way government works.” I gather that what this means is lobbying for higher pay and greater prestige for government employees, but you can struggle with the Wiki thing yourself.

Buttinskis, the most appropriate name for clerics involved in politics, is far too erudite to be known to journalists.

If you want a fuller experience of gobbledygook, you can go to the Partnership’s website. You can also visit another site, where you will find that someone — probably Stier — wants you to believe that “under his leadership, the Partnership has been widely praised as a first-class nonprofit organization and thought leader on federal government management issues.” Thought leader! A first-class thought leader! A widely praised first-class thought leader!

Stier was the first thought leader I’d ever heard of, but I soon discovered that I was behind the curve. The bizarre locution had been planting itself in our language for several years. As early as 2017 it was being analyzed and rejected, from several points of view. But let’s consider the basic issue: In what way could thought leader not be applied, with equal accuracy, to Martha Stewart, Joseph Stalin, Kamala Harris, Lisa Simpson, Smokey Bear, the Witch of the West? Everyone — well, everyone except journalists — has thoughts or influences thoughts. “But oh! That’s not what it means!” OK. Then what does it mean?

Surely it means even less than its repulsive first cousin, faith leader, the history of which I reviewed in the December 2018 edition of this column. Faith leader is what atheist journalists call ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams, on occasions when they’re doing something that atheists like. (When they’re not doing it, they’re rightwing preachers.) To call them religious leaders — supposing that they actually lead anybody — would be just too creepy, too religious, to appear in a news puff. Buttinskis, the most appropriate name for clerics involved in politics, is far too erudite to be known to journalists.

There are, however, expressions that mean still less than thought leader. The death of TV personality Cokie Roberts brought one up. The nation — or at least I — was astonished to learn that Roberts had been one of several people whom the Library of Congress assumed the authority to consecrate as living legends.

For many years Joe Biden has been a leading figure in the movement to create an illiterate America.

Do other countries have such beings? In America, of course, the precedent had been set by Elvis Presley. According to the inscription on his tomb, Elvis was “a living legend in his own time.” Omitting the redundancy (“in his own time”) still doesn’t make this sensible. A legend isn’t a person; a legend is a story, a mythic story. There are no myths of Cokie Roberts — a fact seemingly unknown to that embodiment of learning, that incubator of thought leaders, the Library of Congress.

Whether we have reason to demand literacy from the Presley family, or from Donald Trump, is another question. Surely we cannot expect it from former vice presidents now aspiring to the presidency. For many years Joe Biden has been a leading figure — if you will, a living legend — in the movement to create an illiterate America; and he is still capable of topping his earlier performances. Few illiterates could outdo his response, on or about September 13, to the question of how Americans can “repair the legacy of slavery.” Enslavement is not a legacy that anyone would want to see restored, refurbished, or repaired, but never mind; the illiterate question received an illiterate answer. “Well,” Biden said,

they have to deal with the . . . Look, there is institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure that we are in a position where—

Look, we talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title 1 schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise to the equal of . . . A raise of getting out of the $60,000 level.

No. 2, make sure that we bring in to the help with the stud— the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need . . . We have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy. The teachers are required — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. [Where, in heaven?] They have every problem coming to them.

Make sure that every single child does, in fact, have three, four, and five-year-olds go to school. School! Not day care, school. We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t know what — They don’t know what quite what to do. Play the radio. Make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night. The phone — make sure the kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — er, a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.

He said more, but I’ll leave it at that. I used to think that Trump’s sentences were gruesome, but he’s James Madison compared to Biden.

Now that I’m making allusions to a glorious, perhaps legendary, past, I’ll take up another issue. In case you haven’t noticed it, this is a great age of verbal abuse. No one writes about presidential politics without abusing either Trump or his opponents. Sometimes I think that nobody writes about anybody without abusing somebody. But this is not the first age of abuse — far from it. The difference is that abuse was formerly a lot more literate. The genre is capable of much refinement, and during the course of history it had been improved so much by cultured users that it could be read with profit and delight by intelligent men and women, even when they disagreed with what they read.

I used to think that Trump’s sentences were gruesome, but he’s James Madison compared to Biden.

Whoever characterized the Middle West as “a vast parking lot for human Fords” was a literate person who knew what to do with his literacy. H.L. Mencken’s obituary of William Jennings Bryan was often unfair but always literate — and incomparably vivid. Speaking of Bryan’s last days, he wrote:

It was plain to everyone that the old Berseker Bryan was gone — that all that remained of him was a pair of glaring and horrible eyes.

But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment's notice.

That was written almost a hundred years ago. Now I come to now.

Unlike many other people, I do not regard “social media” as portents of a new Dark Age. The ability to express oneself spontaneously and seek one’s own audience has allowed millions of people, many of them obscure and uneducated, to develop real though previously latent literary skills. I wrote about this when the internet was relatively new (“The Truth vs. the Truth,” Liberty, September-October 2003), and I’d say the same thing today. But electronic media have also made it easy for would-be thought leaders to display their sheer contempt for skill, reflection, freshness, humor, pathos, real intensity — any literary virtue. This is particularly notable when one considers the once-stimulating genre of political abuse.

Everyone can think of instances; they never stop. Some were recently discovered in the online oeuvre of Gordon (“Max”) Heyworth, former aide to freshman Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.). Heyworth apparently helped Spanberger craft the kind of moderate image that might get a Democrat elected in what has been called a Republican district. Among his duties were writing her speeches and “developing communications,” whatever that means. But then the Richmond Times-Dispatch revealed some of Heyworth’s own communications, and Spanberger (a follower of Heyworth’s Twitter account) had to issue a statement bearing the dreaded “d” word: disappointed. She said she was “deeply disappointed to learn about [his] tweets.” Poor lady! You feel sorry for her, don’t you?

Even libertarians engage in stuff like this, imagining that it turns them into H.L. Mencken. But they are not H.L. Mencken.

But the tweets show that Heyworth himself was disappointed, and chronically so. He was especially saddened by Republicans who called for productive work across party lines. And he gave voice to his disappointment. He called one of those discouraging people "a mindless cretin without any sense of service to [his] country. the worst type of American, a sniveling, brain-dead propagandist and a f--- dullard. . . . A guy who publicly fellates a mean-spirited brute like Trump . . . can take his pleas for kindness and shove them all the way up his tiny little a-- ." Another such person, a college kid, got shorter shrift. He was “a f--- p--." As for "all remaining Trump supporters,” they were “racist white supremacists. Every last one of them. No exceptions."

Nothing is easier, or more illiterate, than to memorize a list of insults and drop them into your sentences, pretty much at random. Anyone can do that, all day long. The odd thing is that so many of these people are, like Mr. Heyworth, thought leaders. Even libertarian thought leaders engage in stuff like this, imagining that it turns them into H.L. Mencken. But they are not H.L. Mencken. Mencken didn’t write under another name and then delete his courageous utterances, once his identity was discovered (that’s what Heyworth did), and he didn’t respond to criticism by lashing out even more self-righteously at his critics (which is often the so-called libertarian way). When Mencken was attacked, he published a book — Menckeniana: A Schimpflexikon — reprinting the attacks; he wanted readers to have a convenient collection of the clumsy, mean-spirited words that had been flung at him.

I picked up mean-spirited from Heyworth’s list of insults, and it’s another key to the difference between ignorant insulters and writers who, like Mencken, make insults into art. Mencken had many faults, but they were not the faults of which he accused other people. He was not a job-seeker, a bawler, or a time-server. And he was not dull. But today’s verbal abusers project themselves — infallibly, as if they were the bearers of a gypsy curse — as precisely the mean-spirited dullards, mindless cretins, and brain-dead propagandists they deplore. Although I refuse to employ their own favorite word and call them racists, they are at least race-obsessed; and although they are not white supremacists, they are usually white, and their tone insistently proclaims their assumption of supremacy: “no exceptions.”

For the benefit of future generations I need to stipulate that the two people mentioned in this headline are presently candidates for the presidency.

One exception to the misuse-of-abuse syndrome was presented this month by an unexpected source: President Trump. His tweeted critique of the-world-is-ending climate-change fanatic Greta Thunberg departed from his ordinary manner, and from the manner of the like-minded people who accused Miss Thunberg’s minders of “child abuse” for letting her or inducing her to go on in the way she does. Trump tweeted: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”

But let’s abandon thought leaders to their supreme thoughts, and have a really healthy laugh. This month there was a funny headline on Fox News; lots of them are funny, but I found one of them particularly so. For the benefit of future generations I need to stipulate that the two people mentioned in this headline are presently candidates for the presidency. So here it is: “Buttigieg, Klobuchar seated behind each other on plane ahead of Dem presidential debate.” Picture that, willya?

This headline was published on September 10. It took Fox News two days to change it to its current form: “Buttigieg, Klobuchar seated near each other on plane ahead of Dem presidential debate.” Somebody finally read the thing.

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From Facts to Frenzies


I’m familiar with the philosophical — or perhaps anti-philosophical — idea that the words we use cannot be judged by their relationship to the realities they try to represent, that we all have our own “language,” that language is not representational but expressive, and that the deployment of words creates reality rather than mirroring it. I find this a depressing idea. I would not want to live in one of those incompatible language “worlds.” And I do not believe that I live in one. Except right now.

On August 13, Shepard Smith, one of the ickiest people in the Fox News lineup, “reported” on the sit-in at the Hong Kong airport, and on the minor acts of violence that occurred between protestors and police. “It was an unimaginable occurrence, that police should come into this place at this time,” Smith said. Here is a private language, if there ever was one. In the Smithian tongue, August 13 was a sacred day, a day on which the cosmos prohibited violence; and the Hong Kong airport was the place where, above all other places, violence could never occur. That it did was therefore unimaginable. To me, on the contrary, it was so far from being unimaginable that . . . Look! He was talking about something that we were both watching on the Fox feed from Hong Kong!

You might argue, and you would be right, that the cause of such weird ripples in existence is anything but philosophical; it is, instead, merely rhetorical — an hysterical impulse, chronic in our era, to inflate rhetoric beyond the confines of reality. But you would be wrong to argue that it isn’t important, and isn’t troubling.

Here is a private language, if there ever was one.

People who want to blame President Trump for legitimizing this impulse have some reason to do so. This month, he reached a rhetorical zenith with a series of tweets (August 23) about the trade war with China:

Our Country has lost, stupidly, Trillions of Dollars with China over many years. They have stolen our Intellectual Property at a rate of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year, & they want to continue. I won’t let that happen! We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far … better off without them. The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP.

I’m not an expert on trade, so I don’t know whether we have a level playing field with China. I do know that the way to lower tariffs on both sides is usually to raise or threaten to raise your own. I know that the Chinese appropriate other people’s patents without paying for them. (Whether patents are, on balance, a good idea is another matter.) But I’ve noticed that when people talk about trillions of dollars and vast amounts of money and year after year, for decades, and when they join such terms as made with such terms as stolen so as to shift discussion from the first term to the second, without defining either, they are generally talking through their hats. If you don’t believe me, listen to any speech by Bernie Sanders.

In the next particle of tweet, however, Trump sent the rhetorical escalator through the roof:

Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.

No one, probably not even Trump, believes that he has the power to order anyone to look for new business locations, even if he puts a hereby on the order. The pumped up rhetoric was useless as well as stupid, unless it was intended to wreck the home economy. Trump’s tirade sent the stock market down 623 points.

People who want to blame President Trump for legitimizing this impulse have some reason to do so.

The president’s mad identification with King Canute, who reputedly ordered the tides to halt, had good precedent. Let us return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Barack Obama was the nation’s inspirer in chief. Let us return specifically to June 3, 2008, when Obama celebrated the primary victory that ensured his nomination for the presidency. He told a cheering throng:

Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.

It’s hard to get more inflated than that, short of the millennium. Many people have noticed Obama’s pomposity about extending the life of our planet, but notice that he also proposed to extend our own lives. How else could he foresee that “generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children”?

But let’s look back to Trump. The day on which his rhetoric so dismayed the stock market was just a normal day for other people’s rhetorical attempts to destroy him. That was a day on which his former staffer Anthony Scaramucci likened him to murderous cult leader Jim Jones; Obama honcho David Axelrod tweeted that if Justice Ginsburg leaves the Supreme Court and the administration tries to replace her before the next election, which Trump would surely do, “it will tear this country apart”; and media activist Frederick Joseph observed the death of libertarian philanthropist David Koch by tweeting: “David Koch is gone. It’s a celebration. But imagine the turn up when orange satan is taken back to hell.” He added a video clip of basketball fans madly cheering.

It’s hard to get more inflated than that, short of the millennium.

It’s difficult to get more hateful, or more childish, than this, and a measure of the childishness is that the practitioners of that kind of abuse seem incapable of entertaining the obvious reflection that they themselves may be tearing the country apart, acting like cult demagogues, spitting like storybook Satans, and so forth.

While their volume increases, the scope of their invectives expands, as if they knew that superheated rhetoric quickly eats up its fuel, and more supplies need to be located. New targets must be found, and new ways to abuse them. And so they are. It’s not just Trump who’s fair game; it’s Trump’s supporters. Three years ago they were discovered to be deplorables; then it was noticed that they were abhorrent working-class white males (note how far the Left has moved from its authentic social-democratic roots), white women without college degrees (same comment), and of course racists. And not just racists but (invoking the language of the old Alabama Democratic Party) white supremacists.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much new fuel in that forest. Racism is hard to pin on anyone, even the most deserving objects, when you try to pin it on everyone; and people who want to think they’re smart have been deriding the working class as long as there’s been one. To vary my already mixed metaphors, this is like 18th-century tobacco farming, which involved planting the same crop over and over, until there was nothing left of the land. But people kept trying, and so does . . . Beto O’Rourke.

Practitioners of that kind of abuse seem incapable of entertaining the obvious reflection that they themselves may be tearing the country apart.

O’Rourke lately caused as much of a sensation as is possible for him to cause anymore by suggesting that he didn’t really want to say it (especially when he’s out cadging votes), but yeah, all the people who voted for Trump are racists. On August 11, CNN host Jake Tapper got him on the subject:

“Almost 63 million Americans voted for [Trump]. Do you think it is racist to vote for President Trump in 2020?”

There was a long pause from O’Rourke before he said, “I think it’s really hard.”

But actually, as Walter Williams, who is black, conservative, and funny, remarked, “Being a racist is easy today.” Formerly you had to say or do racist things. The responsibility was on you. Now you can just sit back and let people like Beto confer racism upon you, like an honorary degree.

Be that as it may, I’m going to miss Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke when he shuffles off the mortal coil of his presidential campaign and no longer appears on television, unless by accident, in the crowd watching a frisbee competition. He’s a dependable benchmark for the height of frenzy and the depth of illiteracy that is tolerated in today’s putatively serious discourse. Here’s an example. In another appearance before Jake Tapper (August 4), he affirmed that Trump is not only a “white nationalist” but an “open, avowed racist.” I realize that Beto may have trouble with the meaning of avowed, but I thought that open was not a difficult term. Just for frosting, O’Rourke said that Trump’s ideas, or words, or take your pick, “are reminiscent of something you might hear in the Third Reich.” He instanced Trump’s alleged conviction that people are “inherently defective or dangerous” “based on” several things, including “their sexual orientation.” Right. That’s the Donald Trump who appointed Rick Grenell ambassador to Germany. Grenell has been named, by that august authority, Wikipedia, “the highest ranking openly gay American official ever.”

Let’s move from Betoland to a higher (ahem!) intellectual plateau. On August 25, a professor from Duke University, one Allen Frances, joined the choir of CNN Trump denouncers and showed what happens when professors try to reason. Trump, he said, “needs to be contained, but he needs to be contained by attacking his policies, not his person” — a reasonable reflection, but somewhat odd when it comes immediately after: "Trump is as destructive a person in this century, as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were in the last century. He may be responsible for many more million deaths than they were.” Frances did have compunctions about calling Trump crazy, I think because he wanted to say something very funny and clever about him: "Lumping the mentally ill with Trump is a terrible insult to the mentally ill and they have enough problems." But that didn’t keep Frances from claiming that all the voters are nuts: "Calling Trump crazy hides the fact that we’re crazy, for having elected him and even crazier for allowing his crazy policies to persist."

I realize that Beto may have trouble with the meaning of "avowed," but I thought that "open" was not a difficult term.

Nota bene: This is one of those “we’s” that really mean “you.” You need algebra to get at these high professorial significations, but when you finally grok one of ‘em, wow! What a zinger!

Since Frances is a professor of psychiatry, one may be interested in seeing how he diagnoses mental illness. How can he tell whether you or I or the whole American electorate is “crazy”? It’s simpler than you might have thought. You just look at the policies that people endorse:

"It’s crazy for us to be destroying the climate our children will live in. It’s crazy to be giving tax cuts to the rich that will add trillions of dollars to the debt," Frances added. "It’s crazy to be destroying our democracy by claiming that the press and the courts are the enemy of the people."

I hate to think what he would say if somebody alleged that there may be something goofy about psychiatrists.

Of course, I could go on all day, culling flowers of anti-Trump invective. But even Sleepy Joe Biden, as Trump calls him, is not immune from over-the-top critiques. Every day, his enemies, both Left and Right, are out in the field, hunting for gaffes; and every day, they find them. It would be pleasant for the nation to be permitted to enjoy these things for what they are, the follies of an old fool. But too bad for us: low-decibel chuckling is now impermissible, barely conceivable; moral outrage must always be kicked into life. Thus, when Biden observed, on August 8, that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids," he was widely criticized, as if he himself were a racist. “Look,” he said. “I misspoke,” and that should have been the end of it. Naturally, it wasn’t. And note: when Biden intends to say something mean, it doesn’t just slip out. My favorite example is the charge he leveled against Republicans in a prepared speech on August 14, 2012, before a crowd that included lots of black people. Faking — badly faking — an African American accent, he said, “They gone put y’all back in chains!” Did I indict Trump and Obama for the rise in rhetorical fakery? There’s a lot of responsibility to be shared.

How can he tell whether you or I or the whole American electorate is “crazy”? It’s simpler than you might have thought.

How shall this stuff be contained? Two known correctives for over-stimulated rhetoric are (A) humor and (B) fact. When used, they work. One of this month’s rhetorical events was the ridicule that greeted the remarks of CNN’s Chris Cillizza about the purchase of Alaska (1867). Cillizza, a reliable source of hot air, was reacting to reports of President Trump’s bizarre desire to purchase Greenland. Jazzed by this new opportunity of blaring his opinions — “Donald Trump has a lot of wild ideas as president. Buying Greenland may be one of the most unorthodox. But it's also not one of his worst” (got that?) — Cillizza produced a column adorned with hasty, pointless, wiki-style recaps of history, such as:

One of the last times the United States bought land from a foreign country was in 1867, when Seward orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million. It didn't work out so well — and has gone down as 'Seward's Folly' in the history books.

There were outcries from readers, so CNN — not Cilizza, who had vanished from the scene — issued a revision of the article, annotated in this way:

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly state the history of US land purchases.

The new version says of the Alaska purchase:

It was heavily criticized at the time — and has gone down as “Seward’s Folly” in the history books.

One would like to know what “history book” pronounces this judgment, but never mind. The passage shows how dully conservative, as well as just plain daffy, the notions of “progressive” media can be. Oh horrors, to be joked about in children’s books! And oh horrors, to be heavily criticized at the time — along with medical hygiene, racial equality, women’s right to vote, and other follies.

Nevertheless, the rhetoric had been tempered — a little. Alaska was no longer an unspeakably hopeless case. An island of relative calm had appeared in the sea of verbal frenzy. We’ll see whether an archipelago emerges, and whether anyone is content to live on it.

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The Possession Fallacy


One of America’s most enduring, and at least faintly humorous, historical images is that of Europeans landing someplace on the continent and claiming everything from there to the next ocean as the property of the high and mighty prince, King Such and Such of Somewhere.

On June 14, 1671, Francois Daumont, Sieur de St. Lusson, an agent of that most puissant monarch Louis XIV, stood at “the Soo,” the rapids of the St. Mary’s River, and took possession of the Great Lakes, Manitoulin Island, and “all other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto, as well discovered as to be discovered, which are bounden on the one side by the northern and Western seas and on the other side by the South Sea including all its length and breadth.” “This formula,” says F. Clever Bald, the historian of Michigan, “he repeated three times.”

The ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

There is a verbal equivalent. It is the act of seizing on some word or concept and using it to impose your standards of morality, history, or logic on everything that could possibly be related to it. Let’s call this the Possession Fallacy. It might also be called, colloquially, Blab It and Grab It, after an idea current in American Christianity. Some evangelical Christians have the notion that if you pray for something in the right way, if you name it in your prayers, then you are also making a legitimate claim to it, and God must give it to you. The idea is known by Christians who espouse it as Name It and Claim It; by Christians who are skeptical about it as Blab It and Grab It. In either case, the ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

Ours is the great age of self-righteousness, and therefore of the Possession Fallacy. It’s always absurd, but one of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history, simply by pretending that “Republican” and “Democrat” mean today what they meant, say, 150 years ago. Sean Hannity, who knows less about history than anyone but the inhabitants of the House of Representatives, has been doing this for years. Rather than quoting Hannity, who never says anything in less than 1,000 words, I’ll quote an essay published this month in the Aspen Times. Attacking the “hypocrisy” of present-day Democrats, it says:

It was the Dems who defended slavery against the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln; it was the Dems who were behind racial segregation in the South; it was the Dems who opposed civil rights laws; and it was the Dems who bombed government buildings and attacked policemen during civil unrest in the ’60.

It was the Dems of the Ku Klux Klan who lynched blacks and occasionally Jews, and persecuted Catholics.

Et cetera. Some of this is pure nonsense: it was communists, not Democrats, who bombed government buildings. But the deep nonsense is the idea that because some Democrats did X, Y, or Z, this means something about all Democrats — or Republicans — who have ever lived. Anyone who read a book could write endless numbers of sentences in the same form: “It was the national Republicans who advocated Prohibition, while the national Democrats resisted it. It was the Republicans who victimized working people with high tariffs and a national bank, while the Democrats insisted on low taxes, hard money, and decentralized banking. It was Republicans who represented white Southerners in opposition to Northern Democrats during the conflicts over civil rights.” Et cetera.

Slipping into my perpetual role as Mammy lecturing Miz Scarlett: I done tole you an tole you, the two American political parties are organizations designed to get votes. (See, for instance, Liberty, February 2005, pp. 19–24.) Seeking this prey, they wander across the ideological and historical landscape, vacuuming up ballots wherever they can reach them. There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

One of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history.

How preposterous it is to act as if, by saying the name of a political organization spanning generations of history, you can score points either for or against it. This is almost as preposterous as the Left’s current attempt to get its way by labeling people of the distant past as “racists,” “sexists,” “imperialists,” and what not. In today’s terms, Jefferson was a racist, as was virtually the entire population of the world. What are we to deduce from this? That he should be treated as racists are justifiably treated today? Here the assumption is that some leftist agitator, who like Hannity has never read a real book, has the right to name and claim Jefferson’s reputation, on the basis of his own moral superiority — which is quite an assumption in itself. Or is it the idea that not only Jefferson’s memory but also his principles should be treated as those of a racist? “All other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto . . .”

There’s never been a moment in my lifetime when someone wasn’t discovering that the Declaration of Independence is, in the present vocabulary, racist and sexist: racist, because Jefferson was a slaveholder, and sexist, because the document says that “all men are created equal.” If the Declaration were a cow, this would be a constant attempt to rebrand her. But words have meanings, no matter who wrote them, and these particular words, correctly understood in their obvious meaning, provided the intellectual foundation of the abolition movement. When, 81 years after the Declaration, in the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that they didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone — including slaveholders, who were happy to hear this new interpretation. As for women — if Jefferson had wanted to say “males” he would have said “males.” The default meaning of “men” in almost every period and region of the English language has been “human beings, people.” Those who assert that “men” equals “males,” unless proven innocent, are trying to snatch the common language and claim it as their own.

There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

There has lately been a competition to see who can use the Possession Fallacy in the most egregious way. The game is very aggressively played, but right now, Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke, candidate for president, appears to be ahead. O’Rourke kindly interrupted his demanding campaign schedule for some informational “speaking with immigrants and refugees,” and told them:

Here we are in Nashville, I know this from my home state of Texas, those places that formed the Confederacy, that this country was founded on white supremacy and every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects the legacy of the slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression, even in our democracy.

O’Rourke’s syntax was characteristically muddled, but there’s general agreement that by “this country” he meant the United States of America, not the Confederate States of America — although the latter actually was founded on white supremacy, and the former was not, unless you agree with Chief Justice Taney. So he was talking about the United States when he said that “every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects” racist practices, up to and including slavery.

When people use the Possession Fallacy, they’re ordinarily making a claim to the whole ranch and every cow on it, whether or not they know how many cows there are, or, indeed, have ever seen a cow. If they went the other way and tried to gather all the cows that bore their brand, they might not come up with any. To put this in a different manner: Possession can usually be identified as a fallacy when you ask the possessor to name the specifics, and he can’t come up with any. In most cases, asking that question is a waste of time; the most he’ll do is point at Ol’ Bossy and some theoretical cow on the other side of the hill, and that will be enough for him to keep claiming that he owns the whole county.

When, 81 years after the Declaration, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that its words didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone.

But you can ask yourself some questions. What do you suppose would be on O’Rourke’s list of “every single institution and structure”? Does the Presbyterian Church still reek of racism? How about “Sesame Street”? The NAACP? Planned Parenthood? The Democratic Party, USA? Is that what elected O’Rourke to Congress — a racist system? These are just the first questions that came to my own mind. I could expand the list. So could you. I think it would be fun to include all the big-government programs that Beto voted to fund. Since, by his own declaration, these are all racist, he must be a racist too, and an especially sneaky one, since most of those “institutions and structures” are purported to be anti-racist.

Sorry; I’m just taking his words seriously. And that’s the problem for users of the Possession Fallacy. If they want to possess everything, they’re making themselves responsible for everything.

Jeffrey Epstein certainly has a lot to be responsible for, but former President Clinton once tried to take on even more responsibility: he made a strenuous attempt to possess Jeffrey Epstein. Clinton stepped up to the plate, shouldered the burden, bit the bullet, and went whole hog. In 2002, on one of the four trips that Clinton says he took on Epstein’s private plane, he and some (other) people from the world of entertainment journeyed to Africa to “tour HIV/AIDS project sites.” It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them. How was it possible to explain this lavish expenditure of wealth on the egos of Epstein’s junketing celebrities? The answer seemed easy: just appropriate every concept of technocratic goodness you can think of, and deed the whole thing to Mr. Epstein, who would, by association, deed it back to Mr. Clinton and the other gawkers, making it their lawful property. “Through a spokesman” Clinton described the enormous intellectual ranch on which Epstein’s charitable cows were nurtured:

Jeffrey is both a highly successful financier and a committed philanthropist with a keen sense of global markets and an in-depth knowledge of twenty-first-century science. I especially appreciated his insights and generosity during the recent trip to Africa to work on democratization, empowering the poor, citizen service, and combating HIV/AIDS.

Clinton left out the part about raising the dead. He didn’t want to go too far.

It would have been interesting if anyone had asked Clinton to discuss some specific features of the vast mental property notionally possessed by Jeffrey Epstein, college dropout, high school math teacher, options trader, and consultant for a Ponzi scheme. He might have been asked to say what he meant by the large term citizen service. I don’t have a clue. Neither can I guess what he meant by in-depth, democratization, empowering the poor, or work on (when used of people taking a jaunt on a billionaire’s plane). Clinton, presumably, could have said what he meant, because he had made himself the owner and possessor of these phrases. But he didn’t, and I suspect he never will. He is now at pains to indicate that he barely knew Jeffrey Epstein — although he is not at pains to distance himself from the wonderful work that Epstein once helped to finance. He still wants contributions for that.

It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them.

This is one of the ways in which conceptual mortgages come due. There are others. Let’s return to O’Rourke’s our democracy, a sappy phrase if ever there was one. I remember it from my ninth-grade civics text. Even then, it seemed childish. Like so many other uses of our, it was an obvious attempt to make kids think that they owned something they could not possibly own: our history, our families, our ideals, our cities, our highways, and so forth. The idea seemed to be that it wasn’t enough to praise motherhood and apple pie; one had to speak of our motherhood and our apple pie.

This tactic has now been sickeningly revived by Democrats maddened by the election of Trump. For them, nearly everything in political life involves Trump’s attacks on our democracy. The popularity of our democracy now eclipses that of the equally icky in this country, which the Democrats always used to tack onto the end of their sentences: “We must fix healthcare in this country”; “We must enable everyone to vote in this country”; “We must build more affordable housing in this country.” As you can see, in this country was the kind of phrase that nags use. It was a bitchy reminder that America is not exceptional; it is a country like every other country, no better, no worse, except that it’s worse. The phrase went nicely with only country in the world: “America is the only country in the world that lacks universal healthcare.” Such statements were never likelier to be true than the pious our country phrases, but they had a critical edge. Progressives would die rather than say in our country, but in this country came readily to their lips. Eventually, even the Republicans took it up, reciting it with the zombie-like expression of people who don’t know what they’re saying — which they didn’t.

Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother.

Now our democracy is the obsessive phrase. Inevitably, Republicans have started using this one too, but in any statement made by a Democratic politician you can depend on hearing it four or five times. If you can believe US Representative Elijah Cummings (D, MD), it has spread to the general public. Cummings told ABC: “No matter where I go, what I'm hearing over and over again from my constituents is, ‘Please save our democracy.’"

This is a clear example of the Possession Fallacy. Here is a phrase with no literal meaning, a succession of sounds with as much connection to reality as the incantations of the Sieur de St. Lusson, but intended to lay claim to a continent full of ideas and attitudes. No one says what kind of “democracy” is implied, or what kind of ownership is denoted by “our.” It is merely assumed that the speaker knows the meaning, even as a carpenter knows his tools, and that he is eminently qualified, even as a master carpenter is qualified, to determine this tool’s proper use in shaping the otherwise recalcitrant materials of life. In the present crisis in our democracy, the recalcitrant material is the monster Trump. If there is one thing that is clear about our democracy, it’s that our democracy is anything other than what Trump is about. Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother. To talk of motherhood is to deny the existence of Americans who are not mothers. Let us talk instead of our democracy.

The distasteful thing — well, there are a lot of distasteful things, but one distasteful thing — about our democracy is that it’s a double trick of possession. The first is the implicit but dogmatic assertion that the speaker knows what it means and, without any pretense of defining it, can make it the basis of argument. The second is that while pointedly excluding some people from membership in the mystical social union (Trump, or whomever) it suggests that you, whoever you are, actually own the thing. “Our” means “mine and yours."

From "my" to "our" to "your," the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

Perhaps you think that Robert Francis O’Rourke isn’t smart enough to play tricks on anybody, but you must remember that he didn’t invent this little act; he’s just copying others’ performance. But there’s a third trick going on — did you notice it? It’s the owning-not owning trick. “Our” is first a way of appropriating a concept for private use; then it’s a way of coopting the audience into feeling as if it owned the thing too; and then (the third trick) it’s a way of leaving the audience holding the bag. Beto isn’t saying that he is responsible for the racism of our democracy. How could he be?

He wants you to vote for him. He’s saying that you are responsible. From my to our to your, the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

And that’s how the Possession Fallacy works. It’s a means of forcing responsibility on other people for one’s own acts of ownership. I make something up, and you’re supposed to believe it. If you do, you’ll be the one who pays.

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Untruths Unlimited


In his autobiography, The Prince of Darkness (2007), Robert Novak, a “Washington journalist” who could actually write, describes his weird encounters with former President Jimmy Carter. Early in Carter’s campaign for the presidency (1976), Novak caught him in several lies about his experiences and associates, and published a short column describing Carter’s “fibs.” Carter’s organization produced a refutation, and his press secretary told Novak that according to Carter, he was the liar.

The next time Novak talked with Carter, the sanctimonious politician — “who at every campaign stop said, ‘I’ll never lie to you,’” — told him, “Bob, you have done me a grave injustice and you may well have damaged my candidacy. But that’s not what bothers me. I’m just sorry that you have such a low opinion of me. That really hurts me.” Novak replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way” — only to be told that by the end of the day, Carter had been telling another reporter, “Bob Novak apologized to me. He said he was sorry he wrote the column.”

“After the Iowa incident,” Novak writes, “I became convinced I was too soft in my column by talking about ‘fibbing.’ Jimmy Carter was a habitual liar who modified the truth to suit his purposes” (pp. 285–87).

By the end of the day, Carter was telling another reporter, “Bob Novak apologized to me. He said he was sorry he wrote the column.”

“So what?” you may say. “Politics is full of untruth.” But it’s fascinating to see how many forms untruth can take — and do it with perfect innocence. I don’t mean that the people who create the lies — remember, truth just exists; untruth has to be created — aren’t aware of what they’re saying. They often spend hours and days and polls and counselors and, as the song says, “pretty maids all in a row,” laboriously concocting their nonsense. Yet they may still retain a Jimmy Carter air of naiveté. No one could have lied more, or more ridiculously, than Hillary Clinton in the matter of her illicit emails. Who can forget her riposte to the question about whether she had wiped her server? “What?” she laughed. “Like with a cloth or something?” She uttered this idiocy in the childlike enjoyment of saying something smart. Perhaps with her, as with Carter, the best thing about lying is the feeling of liberation that comes from knowing that, no matter what nonsense one foists on one’s friends and fellow countrymen, one is still pure and right and innocent and wise and clever, after all, and all at the same time. Ain’t I cute?

An old saying — a saying conjecturally attributed by Mark Twain to Benjamin Disraeli — holds that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But there are more, countless more. In the incident just cited, Jimmy Carter created what can be called a five-dimensional lie: first he lied, then he branded as a liar the person who discovered his lies, then he lied about his attitude toward the discoverer, then he falsely claimed that the discoverer had acknowledged his lie — and he did so in a way that would send this latest lie back to the person he was lying about.

Joseph Robinette (“Joe”) Biden, Jr. is a one-dimensional liar. He just tells one lie after another, apparently unable to control himself. He has never filtered his statements for truth, except, apparently, to keep it out. In 1987 he was run out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination after it was discovered (easily) that he had plagiarized his statements about his personal history from some (odd) remarks of a leader of the British Labour Party about his own history. This disaster did not diminish Biden’s taste for lies. That taste continues, as shown in a report from June 12:

"Know what I was most proud of?" he said, in reference to former president Barack Obama's presidency. "For eight years, there wasn't one single hint of a scandal or a lie," he told a cheering crowd.

It’s not clear whether the crowd consisted entirely of mental defectives or of the kind of people who cheer a magician for falsely claiming to have sawed a lady in half. Maybe it was both kinds — because only a dimwit could mistake Biden for a magician.

Joe Biden just tells one lie after another, apparently unable to control himself.

Still more dramatic evidence of his aversion to truth appeared on June 11, when he told a crowd in Ottumwa, Iowa:

I promise you if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America, we’re gonna cure cancer.

“The statement,” we are told, “drew applause from the [demented?] audience.”

This type of lie deserves its own special name. Let’s call it a promissory lie, a lie that would get you sued or even sent to jail if it appeared on a legal document. It’s not the kind of statement that can be interpreted in virtually any way and is therefore too meaningless to qualify as a lie. Donald Trump’s “We’ll make America great again” can mean almost anything except “We’ll make America not-great again.” “We’re gonna cure cancer” has a more restrictive and actionable meaning.

A striking characteristic of today’s Fair Field of Falsehoods is the fact that many of its obvious untruths go unnoticed, because most people assume it is immoral to see them for what they are. These are virtue falsehoods. Public schools, we are told, are failing because they aren’t given enough money. People live on the streets, we learn, because they can’t find affordable housing. Healthcare, we hear, as we receive our routine hip replacements and cataract surgeries, is broken.

This type of lie deserves its own special name. Let’s call it a promissory lie, a lie that would get you sued or even sent to jail if it appeared on a legal document.

In my town, a supermarket chain runs an ad for food donations, or some such thing, alleging: “One in six San Diego kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from.” A website provides the mess of “statistics” from which this alarming statement appears to come: it mixes “food insecure” with “at risk of hunger,” and both with “do not know where their next meal comes from,” meanwhile proclaiming rather than admitting that “36% of children at risk of hunger in San Diego County are not eligible for federal nutrition programs (free or reduced-price school lunch or breakfast).” So 64% are eligible, eh? Now, I’m sure there are some hungry children, somewhere in town. There are such things as neglectful parents — and tax-funded agencies to deal with them. But I don’t know what it means to say that “the estimated annual meal gap for Feeding San Diego’s service area is 61,524,500 meals.” I am sure that hungry people do not constitute one-sixth or one-sixtieth of the “kid” population. Where are these hordes of (potentially) starving children? No one sees them. Perhaps no one really, concretely, imagines that they exist. Yet virtuous people are supposed to ignore the evidence of their experience and piously go with the program.

Evasion of the truth need not be conscious. The unconscious mind works busily at the task. It has plenty of techniques for performing it. No professional writer has to focus very hard on the problem of getting through a story without stating a truth that may result in accusations of thought crime. You don’t have to lie; you just have to say things that will license a lie. Hence those saving clichés of journalism — only time will tell, some observers suggest, opinion is divided. “Some observers suggest that communist governments impoverish their countries, but opinion is divided; only time will tell whether this will happen in Venezuela.” Even when the time comes, it usually stays mum. Why be brutally honest?

How to write about this in a "serious" manner, without offending any unserious people?

Consider the clichés of evasion in a recent report on the Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett case. You will remember Smollett as the actor on the TV show Empire who falsely claimed to have been the victim of a racist attack on the streets of Chicago. You will also remember that the nation dissolved in laughter at the ridiculous nature of his story, the absurd manner in which prosecutors got him off the hook, and the baffled outrage of Chicago’s liberal establishment about this offense to the city’s amour propre.

But the problem arose: how to write about this in a serious manner, without offending any unserious people? Well, you can do it in this way (I quote from The Hollywood Reporter, June 3):

[Newly released court] documents have raised more questions than they’ve answered about the spectacle surrounding the Empire actor. . . . Whereas Smollett had garnered a loud and vocal base of support after the initial charges against him were dropped, those voices had started to dim even before the latest dumps, as the murkiness around his story continued to deepen.

Incidentally, how do you garner a base? Be that as it may; the murkiness didn’t deepen. There wasn’t any murkiness. But if some people want to believe, contrary to the facts narrated by the Reporter itself, that “the documents have raised more questions than they’ve answered,” these phrases may keep them from voicing their outrage with the hapless writer.

The degree to which social anxieties can license untruth is shown by the confession of a social media “influencer.” Cora Smith is a travel journalist on Instagram. She is called an influencer because that is how someone sees her role in society. Yet she is the one who was disastrously influenced to suggest that her stay in the Dominican Republic was a beautiful experience — omitting certain experiences that, she says, left her in constant fear of violence. She says that she was assaulted and nearly kidnaped, but she wanted to make nice with the Dominicans, or at least about them, for fear of her audience. She was “very worried about bashing anyone or anything. In all honesty, influencers are too scared to tell the truth and feel they need to show the beautiful side. Most people only want to hear the positive things. . . . You feel this obligation to be honest, but a fear of rejection if you are.”

Observers of the trial even suggested that Oberlin despaired of being acquitted and was simply trying to limit the amount of money it would have to pay.

Worse, much worse, are the unctuous untruths of the licensed, accredited, endowed, and established influencers, especially those of the academic tribe. Examples are legion; some new ones appear in the annals of the Oberlin College case, in which a jury awarded tens of millions of dollars of damages against the college for its role in injuring the reputation and business of a local bakery that was accused, on no evidence at all, of racism. Oberlin officials maintained that they were just trying to help.

Throughout the affair, the 2,800-student college-of-third resort projected as much arrogance as if it were the last redoubt of the Romanovs. Yet the college knew it was in trouble, lots of trouble. Observers of the trial even suggested that Oberlin despaired of being acquitted and was simply trying to limit the amount of money it would have to pay. Then the jury awarded $11 million for actual damage done to the bakery — and a second phase of the trial began, the phase to determine if there would be punitive damages as well. At this point, Oberlin tried to jolly the jurors with false suggestions of a change of heart:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you have spoken,” Oberlin College attorney Rachelle Zidar told the jury Thursday before the larger award was announced, according to the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. “You have sent a profound message. We have heard you. Believe me when I say, ‘Colleges across the country have heard you.’”

The jury thereupon decided to fine Oberlin $33 million more. Perhaps it regarded the “we” in “we have heard you” as just as likely to be truthful as any other institutional use of the first-person plural. If you tried to make Ms. Zidar herself pay the bill for what Oberlin did, the “we” would immediately change to “they.”

But it was hard to stick “we have heard you” on anybody, because just a few days before, the college’s general counsel had passed out a statement disagreeing with the jury’s guilty verdict. Then, the “message” seemed anything but “profound.” The great academic institution deemed the verdict proof that the jury was paying no attention to “the clear evidence our team presented.” At this writing, Oberlin has yet to communicate the profundity that the jury spake unto its soul. The college has reverted to the idea of vindicating itself — presumably in a higher court. Eventually, it hopes, chin uplifted to the rising dawn, it will find the intelligent audience it deserves.

Here is an element common to many varieties of falsehood — the idea that what counts is not what you say, but whom you say it to. If you can find an audience that’s willing to put up with what you say — because you are a college, or a “statesman,” or an “activist,” or . . . whatever — then go ahead; say anything you want! Never mind that nobody with a brain actually believes you. That just means that opinion is divided.

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Six Degrees of Separation


For many years there has been an idea that everyone in the world exists in only about six degrees of separation— or fewer— from everyone else. This may be true.

I believe there are only six degrees of separation between me and the 17th-century person who brought my DNA to this continent. (In my family, generations seem to last a long time.)

I know there are three degrees of separation between me and Adolf Hitler. Ditto me and Franklin Roosevelt.

I don’t think you’re pining to learn more about my family history. But since I mentioned Hitler and Roosevelt, I assume you’d like to know whether my three degrees have enabled me to find out something interesting about them.

The artist in question wound up in Sweden, where he enjoyed his wealth and particularly enjoyed staging large parties that were free to turn into orgies.

First about Roosevelt. A brother of my friend Muriel Hall, friend and executrix of Isabel Paterson, the great libertarian author, was the priest of an Episcopal church in Virginia when Franklin Roosevelt came to worship there. At the time, Roosevelt’s physical handicap was understood by few people, even sophisticated members of an Episcopal parish across the river from Washington. Muriel’s story was that the congregation was admitted only after Roosevelt was seated, and that after the service it stayed in place to allow him to leave without interference— only to be astonished by his agonizingly slow progress up the aisle, struggling with the crippling effects of his poliomyelitis.

Now about Hitler. My connection with him is a German Marxist academic who told me, years ago, that he had met a man who had known Hitler before World War I, when they both lived in a home for down-and-outs in Vienna. This man was a painter, like Hitler, but unlike Hitler an ultimately successful one. He became wealthy by painting pictures that my Marxist friend described as “the kind of thing you can buy at a dime store.” This was a while ago, so I need to say that dime stores were early varieties of Target.

Let’s move along. The artist in question wound up in Sweden, where he enjoyed his wealth and particularly enjoyed staging large parties that were free to turn into orgies. Visiting one night, my friend chatted with him while “stepping among the Swedish bodies spread out on the floor.” The man who knew Hitler had this comment: “Hitler? I knew him. His political ideas— they did not work out. But as an artist, he had real potential.”

“My love is a red, red rose”: picture a rose; picture my love; how many steps do you need to get from one to the other?

Good stories, and I’m sure they’re true. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with the world of words, which is the subject of this column. Here’s what I want to do with “degrees of separation.”

Every time you or I make a verbal reference to something, there is a degree of separation between that something and the words we use. “My love is a red, red rose”: picture a rose; picture my love; how many steps do you need to get from one to the other? Because most people know what a rose is, I think there’s only one degree of separation. Maybe two, if recognition of something as a metaphor counts as a conceptual step.

It’s a pretty easy journey from “love” to “rose.” But in any situation, it’s the business of a good writer or speaker to provide relationships between X and Y that are distant enough to be interesting, charming, unexpected, unusual, dramatic, picturesque, or provocative, while close enough to be understood without perplexity. The business of a bad writer or speaker is to keep you guessing— to put so many stones in the stream, and to make them so distant and obscure, that you have an unduly challenging time hopping across it. Either that, or to make you jump onto some rock that you can’t get off of.

The shape of one’s neck has nothing to do with one’s political worth, and everybody knows that.

I must concede— and this is a significant concession— that chumminess between words and things isn’t always desirable. No religion would get very far if its holy book said, “You want to know who God is? No worries— he’s exactly like this.” Outside the demanding precincts of poetry and theology, however, there are vast territories that are natural habitats for plain speech. And most people seem to like plain speech. That’s one reason why so many of them like President Trump. They realize that half the things he says are false, but they knew that about President Obama, too. At least they don’t have to do a genealogical trace to find out where Trump’s meanings are coming from.

At his recent rally in Grand Rapids, Trump called a certain congressman with whom dislike is mutual “pencil-neck Adam Schiff.” It’s a low, ugly insult, and everybody knows it. The shape of one’s neck has nothing to do with one’s political worth, and everybody knows that too. Everybody also knows that Adam Schiff isn’t important to anyone except Adam Schiff. But the remark immediately caught fire. Why? I suspect it’s because Schiff has spent the past two years telling the world that Donald Trump is a traitor, or something like a traitor, and that he (Schiff) has evidence, or something just as good as evidence, that convinces him, and will convince you too, once you get a chance to see it, or hear it, or learn more about it from Adam Schiff. . . . You see the problem. There are so many steps between what Schiff says and what you’re supposed to make of it that you’d have to take out your . . . pencil . . . . and diagram it all. But you hear Trump say “pencil-neck Adam Schiff,” and with one merry jump, like the 12-year-old you used to be, and probably still are, inside, you understand him perfectly, and agree.

As for “interpretation,” that’s what you’re trying to do, if Royce would only let you.

Let me say more about the depraved art of keeping people from understanding you. If you visit the campus of UCLA you will find, carved over one of the portals of Royce Hall, a quotation from its namesake, alleged philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916): “The world is a progressively realized community of interpretation.” This is not like other remarks by alleged philosophers, such as Albert Einstein, who emitted the famous saying, “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” No difficulty with that idea. It isn’t true, but it’s perfectly clear. The oracles of Royce are not like that. If you’re trying to follow them, you’re in for something worse than a pinball’s trip from the top of the machine to the bottom. You bounce off the concept of “progress,” only to get smacked by the question of “what is ‘realized’ supposed to mean?”; then, before you know it, you’re slapped down by the lever of “community.” As for “interpretation,” that’s what you’re trying to do, if Royce would only let you.

The current political equivalent of dear old Josiah Royce is John Owen Brennan, former head of the CIA, former United States homeland security advisor, former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center— in short, one of the nation’s leading secret policemen. In this role, he was a major engineer of the attempt to remove President Trump from office by means of preposterous accusations about Trump’s supposed collusion with the Russian government. Brennan made a fourth career for himself as denouncer of Trump, tweeting such things as this in response to Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018:

Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???

Do you remember the non-event that was Helsinki? No? Then you’ll have quite a few steps to take before you’re able to connect Brennan’s idea of a treasonous performance with anything in the real and historical world. Yet some people assumed that, since Brennan had been a top cop and everything, he must have had something definite in mind; they just couldn’t quite get to it, that’s all.

Then came the Mueller report, or its summary, and it was clear that whatever Brennan had in his mind probably didn’t exist in the outside world, and never had existed. On March 25 he was asked about this, and he said, in words that should be engraved above some kind of door, maybe the door to the latrine at CIA headquarters, or to the New York Times: “I don’t know if I received bad information, but I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.”

Let’s try to figure this out, and consider how many steps we must take to do it.

So Brennan was in search of bad information? I don’t think he means to say that. But what does he mean to say?

First there’s the problem of whether Brennan received what he calls bad information or not. “Two roads,” says the poem by Robert Frost, “diverged in a wood.” Either Brennan’s information was bad or it wasn’t. Either we can follow the road of bad information and try to understand what that was and how it misled him so badly, or we can follow the road of good information and try to understand how that could possibly have misled him. But we can’t tell which road to take. Brennan— who is so positive about everything else— says that he doesn’t know; so how should we? And wait a minute: is bad information actually information at all? I’m not sure. Yet Brennan’s meaning seems to hinge on the idea that information may be bad or good.

At this point, however, Brennan appears to imagine that we are rushing to his meaning with heedless speed. He holds up his hand and halts us: “But I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.”

There’s a lot to ponder in that sentence. Literally he is saying that he may have suspected (though he isn’t sure; he just thinks he suspected) that there was more information— bad or good— than actually existed. Again we see the problem of the two roads. It’s easy to understand that he might have suspected there was more good information than there was, but it’s also possible that he suspected there was more bad information than there was. So Brennan was in search of bad information? I don’t think he means to say that. But what does he mean to say?

If Brennan wanted to bring us closer to his meaning, he had every means of clarifying all these things. He speaks English, doesn’t he?

I think he means to say, “So what? Who cares?” Yet I doubt that this is the meaning on which he wants his audience to land. It’s just that with all those steps we have to take . . . . We can land almost anywhere. The degrees of separation are uncountable.

Brennan, of course, is far from the only public figure to present this difficulty, or the only one to present it on purpose. After all, if he wanted to bring us closer to his meaning, he had every means of clarifying all these things. He speaks English, doesn’t he? Well, sort of. But now let’s consider something even more challenging.

There are places along the Mississippi River where, at certain seasons of certain years, one can cross by jumping from stone to stone. This is not true of the Pacific Ocean, at any time of any year. Yet politicians and bureaucrats are often seen attempting such feats. Consider Nancy Pelosi, who keeps trying to cross that great ocean of ideas, the Bible, with nothing but some fragments of concepts and pebbles of conjecture.

It’s hard to see how someone who doggedly searches the Scriptures wouldn’t eventually realize that the passage reflects neither the verbal nor the intellectual style of any book in the Bible.

For a long time, Pelosi has been looking in Scripture for something— anything— that could mandate her political program. Usually she comes up with nothing more than a claim that the golden rule constrains her to insist on enormous expenditures of tax money for her favorite projects. But sometimes she just makes the whole thing up. There’s a “biblical” adage that she’s been reciting for many years. Eleven years ago she was told that it wasn’t in the Bible, but she’s still using it.

Now consider the way she packaged it in a speech to “Christian educators” in January:

“I can’t find it in the Bible but I quote it all the time, and I keep reading and reading the Bible. I know it is there someplace," Pelosi told the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities conference last Wednesday. “It’s supposed to be in Isaiah, but I heard a bishop say to minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.”

“It’s in there somewhere in some words or another, but certainly the spirit of it is there,” Pelosi said. “And that we all have a responsibility to act upon our beliefs and the dignity and worth of every person.”

Curiously, Mrs. Pelosi, who knows everything about running the country, doesn’t know that there are such things as Bible concordances, which would in seconds relieve her of all anxieties about where that passage is located. Again, the answer is: not in the Bible. It’s hard to see how someone who doggedly searches the Scriptures wouldn’t eventually realize that the passage reflects neither the verbal nor the intellectual style of any book in the Bible, as rendered by any translation. Nevertheless, she goes skipping into the ocean on the stepping stones of:

  • I know it’s there
  • A bishop (which bishop, pray?) said it
  • It’s in some words or [an]other
  • It’s there in spirit
  • I can’t find it
  • So I quote it

If you had trouble following Finnegans Wake, try following Nancy Pelosi.

But maybe the opposite approach is better. Maybe people should invite their readers or listeners to find their own stepping stones of meaning, and see where they end up. My example here has to do with Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., better known as “Joe” Biden, and the current accusations that he has been too handsy with women. I need to state at once that there are few living persons for whom I have more contempt than Biden. He’s a liar and a fool and a credibly accused corruptionist, but one of the worst things that can be said of him is that, before becoming vice president— a good job for someone with no visible talents— he had served six terms as US senator. Further, I don’t think it’s right to sneak up behind someone and snuggle and snuffle her hair, or whatever he’s accused of doing.

On the other hand, I don’t think this peculiar conduct is anything worthy of national concern, or of plaints of victimhood, particularly when the alleged victims of his predatory actions waited years to publicize their pain and anger— waiting, it seems, until there was a political reason to show their courage as survivors. The attacks on Biden commenced when Lucy Flores, a minor-league “progressive” politician, anticipated the announcement of his (ludicrous) candidacy for president by accusing him of having done something with her hair, back in 2014.

There are few living persons for whom I have more contempt than Joe Biden.

Biden made a number of predictable replies; then he went to a union convention and made a joke about asking permission to hug one of the participants. At this, outrage swept the nation, and Ms. Flores issued a victorious tweet:

It’s clear @JoeBiden hasn’t reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable. To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have.

Reading this, one’s first reaction is bound to be, “You’re surprised? When did @JoeBiden ever reflect on anything?” But that’s not her point, nor is that the way in which such language works. It’s meant to give you a verbal rope and tell you to go hang yourself, intellectually.

Unsolicited touching can mean anything from smacking you on the face to surprising you with the unexpected embrace that first introduced you to romance. And when you reflect for a moment, you can see that most touching is and has to be unsolicited. It’s not something that, under the best of circumstances, people are ordinarily asked to do. In fact, most touching in this world is merely accidental.

Our author provides no bridge between unsolicited and inappropriate or, in plain terms, wrong. That’s something you’re supposed to build yourself, however you want to do it. If you want to spread all the horror of inappropriate onto unsolicited, well, go ahead. But what does inappropriate mean? It could mean what Donald Trump said on the Billy Bush tape. It could mean something you said about Baptists when you were drunk at a party. It could mean those personal questions that old Aunt Rosa asks when she meets your friends. Because our author is so upset and so indignant, many people will assume that the inappropriate behavior was something terminally gross and disgusting. Yet note: the author never said that; she left it to you to infer.

"Unsolicited touching" can mean anything from smacking you on the face to surprising you with the unexpected embrace that first introduced you to romance.

The second sentence is the masterpiece. Never mind the patent falsehood of “women everywhere.” Consider the conversation. Which conversation? Can you guess? Of course you can. You can fill in the missing step and conclude that the author means her conversation, the conversation she’s having right now. No, she never said that; she left it up to you, convinced that you would find the appropriate interpretation.

And what is that conversation about? It’s about the issue of consent. But again, the operative term is wholly undefined. It could mean the implicit, Lockean consent by which all societies operate. It could mean the explicit consent that is properly required to make a will, enact a law, conclude a contract, or engage in sex. This too is of fundamental importance in a decent society, and many readers will think that this is what is meant in so serious a tweet.

But the reflective reader will see that these meanings cannot be the right ones. Biden is not accused of having engaged in sex without his partner’s consent. Nor do “progressive” politicians consider consent a matter of much significance when it comes to the enforcement of their political program, the whole of which depends on doing things to people without the consent of anyone except politicians like Ms. Flores. Yet if you, as a reflective reader, notice these things, you are not the intended audience. The intended audience will make tracks directly to the unexpressed concept of sex, equating whatever stupid old Joe may have done with all the nonconsensual erotic and otherwise evil things he could possibly be imagined to have done. Indeed, there will be no “tracks”; there will be only a single jump.

Which conversation? Can you guess? Of course you can.

You can say pretty much the same thing about virtually the entire politically correct vocabulary, which consists of words thrown in front of you so you can jump on them with whatever personal, presumably fanatical, meanings you happen to be carrying with you. It’s an attempt to annul all restraining and reflective degrees of separation between words and emotions.

From emotions thus produced I, for one, would like some separation, although the alternative extreme— that of many weird and murky degrees of conceptual distance— is equally unattractive. Today’s political discourse reminds me of one of those parties where most of the guests appear to be friends of a former coworker’s sister-in-law by her first marriage, or something else that’s too tiresome to figure out, and the rest are people you know very well, because they keep yelling in your face. I just hope there’s another party, and that someone will invite me there.

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