None Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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Looking back over the linguistic events of 2015, I wondered whether this column should offer an award for the Most Asinine Remark of the Year. The major difficulty was that there were too many candidates. Another problem was that to ensure fairness, the columnist would need to wade systematically through the reported utterances of the current presidential contenders, an adventure that would result in the columnist’s suicide.

Almost all these people talk like maniacs — and I mean that literally. Who but a maniac would say, as Jeb Bush said to Wolf Blitzer the other day, that Donald Trump disparages him, Jeb Bush, because Trump is afraid of him? Afraid of somebody who for months hasn’t achieved more than 5% in the polls, despite the heaviest possible backing from the Republican establishment, and nearly everyone’s former assumption that he was the inevitable nominee? No, that’s crazy.

What could be crazier than the things that Hillary Clinton says? Who but a crazy person would respond to the question, “Did you wipe your server?” by saying, “What, like with a cloth or something?”, and think that was funny. But then, who except a crazy person would have decided, when she was a college student, that she had to become president, and that she must therefore marry Bill Clinton (admittedly, another person with more than a few screws loose, hence a pretty good match), so that she could make him president, so that he could then make her president? It’s crazy, but that’s what seems to have happened.

Afraid of somebody who for months hasn’t achieved more than 5% in the polls, despite the heaviest possible backing from the Republican establishment? No, that’s crazy.

A less fundamental but nonetheless striking symptom of craziness is Donald Trump’s inability to construct anything like a normally coherent statement on any subject. Crazy people often shout out sentence fragments, expecting their listeners to understand what they mean; and that’s pretty much what Trump does. Like some crazy people, he then becomes upset when he’s “misinterpreted.” I have to admit, however, that the 20-minute rant in which Sarah Palin endorsed Trump for the presidency sounded much crazier than anything Trump himself has come up with. I listened to it for two or three minutes before I looked at the television and saw who was speaking; before then, I thought it was a badly acted, less-funny-than-scary comedy skit. Trump, standing beside her, looked embarrassed, as well he might.

But at least Palin isn’t running for public office. Bernie Sanders is, and he makes Palin look like the straight man in the act — supposing that it’s funny to see an angry old goat hunched over a microphone, spewing hatred of the God-damned rich God-damned bastards that are running the God-damned country. When we were kids, most of us heard that kind of oration from the crazy old bores in the neighborhood, and if you’re like me, you found that their fearless individuality seemed a lot less fearless — not to mention a lot less individual — when you noticed how obsessional it was.

Hundreds of times a day, political contenders such as all of the above compete enthusiastically in the Ass of the Year Pageant. By this time, one of them would have won the crown, if the judges — we, the people — hadn’t kept mandating higher and higher standards of performance. Put it this way: six decades ago, no one had broken the four-minute mile. Then somebody did. Now every professional runner is expected to do it. In the mid-1950s, no one, not even a politician, was required to spend his life violently asserting that the real world is utterly different from the world that other people see. That’s not easy. But today, every person in public life is expected to run up and down telling his neighbors that the planet is about to burn, that America has yet to begin a conversation about race, that guns cause crime, that capitalism creates poverty, that taxation creates wealth, and that government is the people’s only friend. If politicians don’t say such things, they have to find some way of proving that they are not insane.

Under these conditions, it’s rare that a public figure says anything that actually makes people — real people, not political hall monitors, turn and stare. No matter what he says, Donald Trump no longer excites surprise. No one marvels anymore at anything that Hillary Clinton comes out with, despite the fact that much of it is cheap, stupid, obvious lies. But even with such flamboyant competitors in the race, there’s always the possibility that someone will emerge from nowhere and make the voters gape again.

That’s what happened on January 8, when James Francis (“Jim”) Kenney, mayor of Philadelphia, stepped to the microphone and delivered a wakeup call to the national consciousness. The call was not what he intended, which was, “Listen to me! I am the voice of liberty, equality, and fraternity!” No; when it hit the eardrum it sounded more like, “What kind of idiots are we electing to public office?”

Who except a crazy person would have decided, when she was a college student, that she had to become president, and that she must therefore marry Bill Clinton?

It happened at a press conference of police and city officials that followed the attempted murder of a Philadelphia policeman by a man dressed in Islamo-clerical garb who proudly confessed that he had fired 13 shots at a randomly chosen cop because the police were deficient in enforcing sharia law. The city’s police commissioner, Richard Ross — a man with a gift, highly unusual among “police spokesmen,” for clear, perspicuous, and coherent speech — described the event as I just did. Other people associated with the police did the same. But out of the blue, the mayor stepped forward and said, with passionate intensity:

In no way shape or form does anyone in this room believe that Islam or the teaching of Islam has anything to do with what you’ve seen on that screen [presumably a reference to the videocam of the attempted killing]. That is abhorrent, it’s just, it’s terrible, and it does not represent the religion in any way shape or form or any of its teachings. This is a criminal with a stolen gun who tried to kill one of our officers. It has nothing to do with being a Muslim or following the Islamic faith.

After the mayor said that, the policemen went on discussing the culprit’s religious motivation. It was as if Kenney’s weird outburst had never occurred. But his remarks were so goofy that people all over the country sat up, took notice, and howled with laughter.

Ridicule occasioned yet another outburst from Kenney (January 14). After claiming that the motives of the would-be assassin were mere objects of speculation, which would be shrouded in mystery until investigations were concluded, he launched into a defense of Philadelphia’s Muslim population against otherwise invisible attempts to blame them all for the crime. “He [the shooter] is a criminal and they are not criminals,” the mayor declared. Well, yes; who said anything else? But when people lose their grip, they often start to hear other people saying things they actually didn’t say. Then, if the grip-losers notice that others think they‘re acting sort of crazy, they decide that those people are just projecting their own craziness onto them. Accordingly, Kenney said that the real problem wasn’t his weird remarks; it was the Republicans. Offering another answer to a question no one appears to have asked, Kenney declaimed:

Was I misinterpreted by Republicans? Yes, I think it’s pretty easy for them to do. They misinterpret a lot of things. The FBI and police have not concluded that this is an act of terrorism. They are investigating it as it could be, but I think our FBI and police know more than Rush Limbaugh.

This statement suggests that Kenney isn’t a standout after all. He hasn’t really pulled ahead of the pack; his weirdness is simply one part of the larger weirdness of our political era. Nothing is more common than for Democratic politicians (Kenney is a Democrat) to refer almost any question to the nefarious schemes of the other party. In the president’s imagination, the failures of Obamacare resulted from the Republicans’ reluctance to endorse it. In Mrs. Clinton’s imagination, the email scandal — every scandal — is the fault of Republicans’ inopportune inquiries. If they would stop asking questions and let her be president, as is her right, the problem would go away.

Kenney said that the real problem wasn’t his weird remarks; it was the Republicans.

The perpetually ruling party also has the idea that any embarrassing question can be deflected by a reference to some ongoing investigation. But no investigation is required to make every politician in the country, left, right, or center, an expert on the history and teachings of Islam. These authorities know everything they need to know about the subject, right now. Like President Obama, that renowned Quranic scholar, Mayor Kenney is absolutely certain that Islam has nothing to do with people or organizations (such as the Islamic State) that somehow, for no reason at all, say they are acting to promote Islam.

I am not so expert on the subject. I merely suggest, without the benefit of any comprehensive investigation, that there are qualities in all the great religions, and all the great political and intellectual movements, that are capable of corrupting personalities and inspiring wicked acts. Don’t tell me that if Christianity had never existed, people would have been burned alive for denying the existence of the Trinity. Don’t tell me that atheism had nothing to do with the cruelties of Stalin. And now that I think of it, don’t tell me that a lot of our friends would be so insufferably cocksure and self-righteous if there were no such thing as libertarianism.

William Blake said that the caterpillar lays its eggs on the fairest leaves, and that saying is applicable to every aspect of life. Some people get divorces — some people murder their spouses, for God’s sake — because they cherish high ideals of marriage and find that their companions in marriage lack those ideals. Marriage may be a good thing, but if somebody says that he killed his wife because she didn’t live up to her marriage vows, I’m not going to hurry out and proclaim that her death had nothing to do with marriage itself.

You see what I’m saying, and I doubt there are many Muslims in the world who would disagree with it. I doubt there were many Muslims in Philadelphia who rushed to thank Mr. Kenney for giving them help they did not need. And I doubt there are many people in America who aren’t tired of his kind of obscurantism and the regime of political correctness in which it is embedded.

But the problem isn’t just obscurantism, or the American political circus (which can never have too many clowns); it’s the dominance of a Western official culture that is so wrapped up in obscurantism as to accept it as a fact of nature.

Take Angela Merkel (please!). What leader in history ever responded as she has to a civil war in a distant country — a country whose folkways and social attitudes are radically different from those of the modern industrial West, a country occupying a central position in the region from which anti-Western and anti-Christian terrorism has spread throughout the world? Merkel’s response was to invite unlimited numbers of people, without regard to educational attainment, occupational skills, familial ties, social status, social attitudes, degree of suffering from war, or even citizenship in a war-torn country, to come to Germany — after forcing their way through half a dozen other countries considered less desirable because less replete with welfare — there to be supported by tax money extorted from her constituents, none of whom were consulted about any of this, until such time as the migrants succeed in becoming fully assimilated into and integrated within the society she purports to lead, the society to which they are, notwithstanding their proposed assimilation, expected to contribute their own healthy cultural diversity.

There are many ways of baffling your constituents. Information control is one of them.

What kind of leader would do this, equipped, as she was, with nothing more than a vague plan to muscle neighboring countries into accepting their “fair share” of the migrants (which they refused to do), but with no plan to keep track of who came in, where they came from, where they went, or what their fate might be? What kind of leader would refuse, over and over, even to consider setting any limit on the burdens her countrymen must bear in “welcoming” the increasingly unwelcome visitors?

The answer is: a leader who has lost all contact with reality.

Of course, when you have a job, any kind of job, even that of Chancellor of Germany, you can’t stay out of contact forever, unless something or someone gives protection to your craziness. That’s the function of your “aides,” “supporters,” “spokesmen,” and other flunkies — the Valerie Jarretts of this world, who are smarter than you, and know it, and who also know how to shape an official ideology (political correctness and the other pseudo-moral attitudes emitted by people in power) that maintains an impenetrable barrier between the exalted leadership and everybody else.

There are many ways of baffling your constituents. Information control is one of them. Stall, delay, slow walk the facts; use words with secret definitions (“comprehensive immigration reform”); summon paid employees (crony capitalists, scientists on government payrolls, consultants to commissions appointed by yourself) to vouch for your way of doing things; and, when you feel like it, lie — just outright lie. You can also follow the example of Rahm Emanuel’s regime in Chicago, in its response to the police slaying of Laquan McDonald: bury the incident so deep in bureaucratic processes that nobody will know enough about it to demand the facts. That’s what the politically correct regime of Germany did with the migrant outrages in Cologne: the police blandly declined to report the fact that hundreds of sex offenses had taken place, and the news media blandly declined to publish what they knew. Any woman interested in demanding that something be done would think she was the only one, and go away.

Perhaps the strongest barrier between the people at large and their maniacal rulers is the attitude, now growing like kudzu everywhere in the West, that all of this is normal. Hillary Clinton: sure, she lies. What of it? Barack Obama, a little man with a nasty temper: sure, what do you expect from him? Angela Merkel, sole author of an enormous political blunder: gosh, I wonder what she’ll do next?

A Reuters report from January 19 shows how bad the situation is. After detailing the critiques finally being launched at Merkel from all directions, the author concludes in this way:

There are signs that Merkel, traditionally known for her pragmatic approach, is hearing at least some of the criticism but she has remained firm in resisting a cap [on immigration].

“There are signs,” but no one can be sure about whether Merkel “is hearing at least some of the criticism.” If so, she’s “resisting.” And that’s it. You can shout and scream all you want; maybe something will get through. But the leader gets to decide about what she hears. And it seems that she doesn’t hear much.

Not since the Neanderthals have human systems of communication been so lacking in the ability to communicate. What do we need — semaphores? Esperanto? Bonfires on the mountains? Drums along the Mohawk?

Obviously, the lunatics have taken over the asylum, and they’re not giving it back.




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Winter Housekeeping

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It’s an old idea: at the end of the year you’re supposed to put things in order, take care of pending business, settle your accounts. But since I’m too lazy to settle my own accounts, I’ll do something easier. I’ll settle the nation’s accounts, at least its verbal ones.

Let’s start at the top of the pile.

President Obama, always good for a pratfall. In his climate change rant in Paris on November 30, Obama said, among other risible things, “I come here personally, as leader of the world’s largest economy.” That one sentence has at least three problems.

  1. How else could he come, except personally?
  2. “Leader” is not a title. Not in this country. Not yet. The noun therefore needs an “a” before it. I’m not making a petty distinction here.
  3. But what does it mean to be a leader of an economy? You can picture an individual leading a company, but you can’t picture him leading a whole economic system. What, with a leash? With fife and drum for accompaniment? Even the delusional Andrew Carnegie didn’t picture himself in that way. Of course, if Obama imagines that the economy of the United States is equivalent to the political organization of the executive branch, it won’t be hard for him to put himself in that picture. And I guess that’s what he does.

At long last, have you no history? These days, you don’t need to read a book to discover the elementary facts of history; you can just Google them. But why bother? Why not just say, as many news authorities said, and kept on saying, on the occasion of the Paris terrorist attacks, “This is the worst night in the City of Light.” No, it wasn’t. For one thing, there were centuries of ravages by the French kings. Then there was the violence of the French Revolution. Including the Reign of Terror. And more revolutions later. How about the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, accompanied by the violence of the Paris Commune, during which communards did their best to destroy the city, only to be executed en masse by their opponents? As if that weren’t enough, there was the Nazi conquest and occupation . . . need I continue?

After the terrorist attacks we were also lectured by smart, university-trained people about our age-old connections with France. CBS, to cite but one example, asserted that “since 1776, America has been allied with France.” No, it hasn’t. Look it up. Check out the XYZ Affair. Or the intervention of Napoleon III in Mexico. Or the Vichy regime. Or about a hundred other passages in the flippin’ history of effin’ France.

Many news authorities said, and kept on saying, on the occasion of the Paris terrorist attacks, “This is the worst night in the City of Light.” No, it wasn’t.

But things have gotten really bad when one of the smartest, and certainly one of the most self-possessed, of TV newsfolk allows herself to begin a discussion of a papal tour to the Central African Republic by saying, “Pope Francis, becoming the first pope to visit an active combat zone. . . .” (Harris Faulkner, Fox News, November 29, 2015). Visit? Popes used to lead their armies in battle. And Pius IX and Pius XII would have been happy if they could simply have visited a combat zone, instead of being besieged in the Vatican and deprived of secular rule, as was Pius IX, or living in a city occupied by Nazis, as did Pius XII. Perhaps I should mention Napoleon’s almost successful attempt to destroy the papacy by kidnaping the pope, etc.

December’s resurgence of the Bowe Bergdahl case reminded me that European history isn’t the only kind that the self-appointed experts don’t know. Has anyone in the media questioned the idea, promulgated by the current administration but seemingly accepted even by its critics, that the United States has “never left a soldier behind on the battlefield”? But it’s obviously untrue. Something like 30,000 Northern prisoners died in Civil War camps, partly because the North eventually decided not to do prisoner exchanges with the Confederates (unlike President Obama, who exchanged five Gitmo prisoners for the idiot Bergdahl). There are Americans still living who were “left behind” in enemy custody in other wars. Anyone who asks himself a simple question about “no man left behind” can find this stuff in a minute.

Yes, language changes, but not that fast. A play was recently performed in my vicinity. The play was good, and it was well performed. But this is the way in which the advertisement characterized the play: “Heartsick love slings like mud, the drink pours strong, and music hides everywhere as the party just. keeps. trying. to. storm.” Gosh, Nellie, imagine that! But what play do you think the ad was trying to describe? It was Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t guess. It could just as easily have been Macbeth.

Has anyone in the media questioned the idea, promulgated by the current administration but seemingly accepted even by its critics, that the United States has “never left a soldier behind on the battlefield”?

The absence of the presence. If someone blocks the street in front of my home, screaming and threatening and preventing me from coming and going, or blocks access to my store, with the intention of stopping my business, I won’t regard that as a peaceful act. Neither would you. But whenever there’s a leftist demonstration that doesn’t proceed to mayhem and murder, it is acclaimed as peaceful, even by the rightwing media. Thus, on November 27, Brit Hume and Chris Wallace, two of the most estimable news people in the nation, conducted a long conversation on Fox about how great it was that recent protests in Chicago had been peaceful.

Wallace: What was most interesting about the protest was that they were clearly heartfelt and they clogged the Magnificent Mile, the downtown shopping area of Chicago, as you can see. They were also peaceful.

Hume: They were peaceful, and in addition to that, they had a point. . . .

Indeed they did, and I agree with that point, wholeheartedly. Police shouldn’t shoot and kill people when they don’t need to, and mayors shouldn’t cover it up when that happens. But it was not a peaceful protest.

Don’t lay to me. I don’t want to pick on Fox News. I’m not accusing Fox of anything that others aren’t guilty of doing. But when the best people at Fox lose their standards, what will happen with all the rest of them? Fox’s Juan Williams is a fine writer, and I’m not saying that because I usually agree with him, because I don’t. So it is especially disappointing to see that even he is losing his grip on English verbs. On Thanksgiving he was on the air discussing (guess what?) Thanksgiving, and he said that after eating a Thanksgiving meal, you have to go and “lay down.” My reaction was what I would expect to have if I found that a dear friend had contracted bubonic plague: you too, Juan? “I’ll lay on the bed; I laid on the bed; I’ve laid on the bed” is the current national plague, and when it gets to Williams, you know it’s hit almost everyone. Any reading of purported news and commentary confirms this awful truth, and it’s enough to make you want to lay right down and die.

Going Hillary just one step further. In case you didn’t know it, North Korea has a state-sponsored “girl band,” which was supposed to put on its act, which must be awful, at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. On December 12, however, the performance was canceled. The reason, according to the NCPA, was: “for a reason.”

Government, it seems, is not the only offender. Government undoubtedly provided the models, standards, touchstones, and paradigms for the job title that Walmart gave its employee, Enrique Marquez, before the dopey young man was revealed as an accomplice of terrorism in San Bernardino, but that doesn’t excuse Walmart. According to the company, Marquez was employed as “an asset protection and customer specialist.” It’s generally believed that this means Enrique was a security guard.

The back to nature movement. If you were going to list the most self-righteous movements in America today, what would appear at the top of your list? Ah, there are so many to choose from! But Mehmet Karayel has provided evidence that the California Water Curtailment Movement may win the prize.

Tennyson referred to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Not an attractive portrait of the old gal, but I prefer it to “Nature, dry, brown and weedy.”

In case you haven’t noticed — and there’s not much reason why you should — California is suffering from one of its cyclical droughts. Shrill voices insist that everyone conserve, and yet again, conserve! The owners of these voices — mostly governmental — are in a somewhat difficult position, because while ordinary citizens are flushing their toilets only once a day, the state is dumping billions of gallons of water into the Pacific to create optimal conditions for the Delta smelt, a useless species of fish.

This is the background for the item Mehmet mentioned. It’s a journalistic effort to shame the human hogs who slurp and guzzle more water than their neighbors (though much less water than any single Delta smelt). It might be remembered that the hogs are also paying for the water they use, but I guess that’s beside the point. The article’s nicest touch is this:

Slurp central appeared to be a place in Danville called Saddleback at Blackhawk, an unnaturally lush, gated community full of sprawling multimillion-dollar mansions. The enormous green lawns, tropical plants and exotic trees surrounding the homes are in stark contrast to the adjacent hills, which are dry, brown and weedy.

Tennyson referred to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Not an attractive portrait of the old gal, but I prefer it to “Nature, dry, brown and weedy.”

Let me be very specific with you. On December 15, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest but perhaps the worst district in the nation, suddenly shut down all 1,100 of its schools because of a terror hoax that everyone else, including the New York City School District, recognized as a hoax. A press conference attended by countless government officials produced not even an attempt to notify parents about what had been done with their kids when the schools shut down, but it did produce repeated assurances that every official was acting out of an abundance of caution regarding a very specific threat. It was specific because it didn’t just say that “weapons” would be used; it specifically mentioned bombs and guns. Even more compelling was the fact that it didn’t just say that “schools” would be attacked; it specified the 1,100 schools of the Los Angeles district.

It’s my duty to predict that specific will be the next word you hear a thousand times a day. It can be contained only by equally frequent references to an overabundance of caution.

* * *

Well, so much for 2015’s abuses of language. Let them go. I have two important things to say at this December’s end.

For 14 years, the readers of Liberty have tolerated, indulged, and, often against their better judgment, encouraged this column. For their generosity I am more grateful than I have words to say, and I will do my best to merit their continued indulgence.

The end of 2015 also marks ten years since the death of the original encourager of Word Watch — R.W. Bradford, founder, publisher, and editor of Liberty, who died on December 8, 2005. (See “A Life in Liberty.”) But for me, Bill has never died, nor will he.

Bill Bradford was a great man — brave and independent, generous and kind, and as much fun as 20 other people. What he didn’t knew about American history and politics wasn’t worth knowing, and his knowledge of the American libertarian movement cannot ever be surpassed. Bill understood what freedom meant; he knew it, he lived it, and he granted it joyously to others. He also knew, very well, what is meant by quality of language. He wanted Liberty to be a journal that sought both freedom and excellence. What worthier goal could there be?




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Do You Speak Political?

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In Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, several members of the British aristocracy — back when it was an aristocracy — argue about the amorous theft of a lock of hair. A peer of the realm has captured the lock. Sir Plume, another aristocrat, demands that it be returned:

With earnest Eyes, and round unthinking Face,
He first the Snuff-box open'd, then the Case,
And thus broke out — "My Lord, why, what the Devil?
Zounds! — damn the Lock! 'fore Gad, you must be civil!
Plague on't! 'tis past a Jest — nay prithee, Pox!
Give her the Hair” — he spoke, and rapp'd his Box.

“It grieves me much” (reply'd the Peer again)
“Who speaks so well shou'd ever speak in vain.”

I thought of that passage when Drew Ferguson, Liberty’s managing editor, alerted me to the following statement by Timothy M. Wolfe, then president of the University of Missouri, responding to demonstrations about alleged mistreatment of blacks on his campus:

My administration has been meeting around the clock and has been doing a tremendous amount of reflection on how to address these complex matters. We want to find the best way to get everyone around the table and create the safe space for a meaningful conversation that promotes change.

The next day, Wolfe was forced to resign. He had spoken every bit as well as hapless Sir Plume, and yet he spake in vain.

You can see why. If there was ever a meaningless assemblage of bureaucratic buzzwords, Wolfe’s statement was it. “Address complex matters . . . get everyone around the table [query: does that include people like you and me?] . . . safe space . . . meaningful conversation . . . promote change.” It makes you long for just one academic politician to say, “I want a meaningless conversation, so I can get back to my golf game.” That would be honest, at least.

Anyone who speaks this way is either incapable of critical thought or believes that everyone else is. Who among us advocates change without saying what kind of change he means? Who among us wants to have conversations all day, with total strangers, or with people who don’t like us? And who thinks that what university students need is a safe space, as if they were surrounded by ravening wolves, or panzer battalions?

If there was ever a meaningless assemblage of bureaucratic buzzwords, Wolfe’s statement was it.

The answer is, I suppose, “the typical college administrator,” supposing that these people can be taken at their word, which on this showing is very hard to do. If you had something sincere and meaningful to say, would you say it like that?

My suggestion is that everyone who speaks that lingo should be forced to resign, no matter what his job and no matter what the occasion. I’ve had it with stuff like that. You’ve had it with stuff like that. I suspect that normal people all over the world have had it with stuff like that. Even members of the official class now faintly sense this fact, and they’re trying to turn the incipient rebellion against meaningless buzzwords into their own new set of meaningless buzzwords.

Before I give an example, I want to say something about the official class or, in the somewhat more common phrase, political class.

For many decades, libertarian intellectuals have engaged in what I call a two-class analysis. Instead of analyzing people’s behavior primarily in terms of economic classes, they think in terms of a political class and a class of everyone else. So, for instance, Bernie Sanders claims to represent the working class, and Hillary Clinton claims to dote on the middle class, but what they really are is people who crave official power and expect to get it from their class affiliation with other such people — politicians of all sorts, czars of labor unions, ethnic demagogues, environmental poohbahs, denizens of partisan thinktanks, lobbyists for the interests of women who attended Yale Law School, people who share their wisdom with Public Radio, and the like.

Who thinks that what university students need is a "safe space," as if they were surrounded by ravening wolves, or panzer battalions?

The two-class analysis works pretty well at explaining American political culture. But it wasn’t until this year that the phrase political class got into the political mainstream. It happened because the supposed outliers among Republican conservatives started using it. And when such people as Ben Carson used it, it wasn’t a buzzword. It meant something.

But now it has penetrated far enough to produce this:

I’m not gonna be part of the political class in DC. (Jeb Bush to Sean Hannity, October 29, 2015)

Message to the Chamber of Commerce: “Beware! Jeb’s gonna betray you on the immigration issue.” But of course he wouldn’t. He’d just lie about it, as his brother did. The good thing is that for once nobody believed what one of these icons of the official class had to say. The statement was scorned and ignored. Jeb spake in vain.

I suppose he thinks that nobody really understood him. If so, maybe he’s right. He’s used to speaking the language of the political class, and if you do that long enough, you start behaving like people who are trying to speak Spanish and don’t understand that when they think they’re asking where to catch the bus, they’re actually shouting obscenities. They wonder why the audience turns away.

Naturally, the linguistic divide functions in the other way, too. People who speak Political eventually think in Political too, and they can’t comprehend what people who speak a normal human language say or think.

Everyone who speaks that lingo should be forced to resign, no matter what his job and no matter what the occasion.

The process of linguistic self-crippling usually starts early. People learn Political in high school or college and soon are astonishing their friends with strange chatter about advocating for change around issues of social justice, or demanding that their college create a safe space for them, or else they’ll shut the m***** f***** down. To understand such comments, people who speak English must laboriously translate them into their own language, a boring process that they seldom complete. The Political speakers then complain that they are not being acknowledged, that they are not, in fact, being listened to. And indeed, they’re not — because they’re not speaking the same language as their audience, or hearing it.

A couple of weeks ago, Neil Cavuto, the business guy on Fox News, interviewed a college student representing the cause currently being advocated for by a nationwide coalition of students who have been speaking out on campuses throughout the country. Their program calls for a $15 an hour minimum wage for all campus workers, free education at all public colleges and universities, and forgiveness of all student loans.

“Who’s going to pay for this?” Cavuto asked.

There was a long silence. The advocate had apparently never heard those words before. Finally she struggled to answer, in her own language. She said that the hoarders would pay.

Now it was Cavuto’s turn to be surprised. He couldn’t understand what she meant by this strange, apparently foreign, word. When English speakers use those two syllables, hoard-ers, they’re referring to people who pile up supplies of some commodity — whether uselessly, out of obsession, or prudentially, to preserve life or comfort in case of emergency. It turned out, however, that in the young woman’s lexicon hoarder meant “the 1% who own 99% of the country’s wealth.” I know, that was somewhat like saying, “The unicorns will pay for it,” but I want to emphasize the linguistic, not the metaphysical, problem. She had obviously come to exist in a monolingual environment in which hoarders means something quite different from what it means to, let’s say, 99% of the population.

No one gets offended by a foreigner’s struggles with the language of a new country. Native speakers may, however, become upset by people who grew up speaking the common language and then suddenly decide to speak something else, to the bafflement of everyone they’re talking to. Or shouting at. Or lecturing, as if from a position of intellectual superiority. And that, I think, is what’s happening now, all over the Western world.

It turned out, however, that in the young woman’s lexicon "hoarder" meant “the 1% who own 99% of the country’s wealth.”

If you want to see the Platonic form and house mother of the political class, try Angela Merkel. It’s not surprising that her constituents are disgusted by her commitment to lecturing them in a foreign language. Responding to criticism that she has precipitated an uncontrolled flood of immigrants into her country, where taxpayers will be expected to support them, Merkel said it is “not in our power how many come to Germany.” This from a woman who runs a welfare society based on the idea of, basically, controlling everything. To make confusion more confusing, she also said that she and her government “have a grip on the situation.” Like other members of the political class, she left it to her listeners to divine the secret meanings of such terms as “power” and “have a grip,” and to discover when certain arrays of sound mean “I’m just kidding you” and when they mean “No, really, I’m telling the truth this time.”

When you’re trying to decipher a foreign language, you’re not just challenged by the vocabulary. You’re also challenged by those sentences in which you think you understand all the individual words, but there’s still just something about them — something about their logic or their assumptions or . . . something — that continues to elude your understanding. (This is especially true of French.) Sigmar Gabriel, Merkel’s Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister, provided a good example when he reproved people who might be alarmed by the terrorist attacks in Paris, in which at least one participant was carrying Syrian asylum-seeker documents. "We should not,” he said, “make them [Syrian migrants] suffer for coming from regions from which the terror is being carried to us."He appeared to be arguing that because a country generates terrorists we should welcome more people from that country. But that would be ridiculous; he must have meant something else.

Of course, in any language one finds expressions that, one thinks, must be symbolic of broad social attitudes, concepts that are deeply meaningful but that only a native speaker can understand. The difficulty is that there are no native speakers of Political. So when Merkel talks about keeping true to her “vision” and defines that vision by saying, as she said (unluckily) on the day of the Paris attacks, "I am in favor of our showing a friendly face in Germany," her thought remained elusive, even to Germans. What was she talking about? Was she simply babbling to herself?

President Obama’s use of language has long inspired such questions. You know the kind of tourists who inflict themselves on a foreign land, refusing to learn its language, and then get angry at the natives for not understanding them? That’s Obama, and he’s getting worse and worse. On November 21, he visited children in a refugee center in Malaysia and took the occasion to act out his incomprehension of the vast majority of the American populace — the people whom he often, in his own language, denounces as Republicans.

“They [the kids] were indistinguishable from any child in America,” Mr. Obama said after kneeling to look at their drawings and math homework. “And the notion that somehow we would be fearful of them, that our politics would somehow leave us to turn our sights away from their plight, is not representative of the best of who we are.”

More strange Obama statements can be read at the same place in the New York Times.

The repeated somehow (a word to which the president is becoming addicted) signals a profound linguistic divide. Obama marvels at the ordinary language of ordinary Americans. How can they say the things they do? How can they even think them? When they express their fears of such asylum seekers as the Tsarnaev family; when they comment on the many news reports, written in plain English, showing that the vast majority of people now seeking asylum in the West are not little kids from Muslim South Asian families enjoying the hospitality of the officially Muslim South Asian state of Malaysia but young men from the hotbed of Islamic fanaticism, bound for non-Islamic countries; when they reflect that these young men are destined to spend years living on the resentful charity of neighbors who have been forced by their governments to support them — when people speak of these things, Obama interprets all objections, fears, and caveats as the product of a hideous moral deficiency that has somehow insinuated itself into the body politic. Even supposing he’s right on the policy issue — which I don’t think he is — the word somehow is enough to convince most people that he’s no longer speaking their language.

This dawning realization, not just about Obama but about the entire political class, is good news. It means that people are finally thinking about the private language of the political elite. And here’s some more good news, though from an unlikely source.

Obama marvels at the ordinary language of ordinary Americans. How can they say the things they do? How can they even think them?

Last week, I saw an announcement that fellowships are being offered by something called the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. The Center is inviting academics to come and be supported for eight months of research and “conversations” about the “societal” implications of “astrobiology.” The program appears to be supported, at least in part, by those friendly old astrobiologists, NASA.

The announcement begins in this way: “Societal understanding of life on earth has always developed in dialogue with scientific investigations of its origin and evolution.” That’s an assumption that may be questioned. It recalls the typical first sentence of a freshman essay: “Since the beginning of time, humanity has always been troubled by the problem of indoor plumbing.” But the “Societal understanding” sentence goes beyond that — although it’s hard to tell where it’s going, unless one pictures Neanderthals holding scientific seminars about the validity of Darwinism before deciding whether hunting and gathering is a good idea.

Yet the next sentence clearly has a hopeful tendency: “Today, the new science of astrobiology extends these investigations to include the possibility of life in the universe.”

True, the syntax is bad. Investigations don’t include possibilities. But you have to agree with the last part of the sentence: there is some possibility of life in the universe. And I believe that’s a good thing.




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The Great Debaters

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I feel that I should say something about the presidential debates. I don’t want to do it. Probably you don’t want to read it. But it’s as inevitable as someone going to a wake and saying, “Doesn’t he look natural?”

“Natural,” of course, would not be the right word for our current debaters. Most of them look deranged, and their talk confirms the impression. I think one sample will suffice. It’s the now-famous outburst from Bernie Sanders, standing next to his alleged opponent, Hillary Clinton, and screaming, “"The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails. . . . Enough of the emails. Let's talk about the real issues facing America.”

Can’t you just hear the Witch of the West cackling, “Helping the little lady along, are you, my fine gentleman?” In this case, the cackling was supplied by the little lady herself, who shrieked a series of those demented sounds that pass with her for laughter. But why would anybody say what Sanders said? It’s not the kind of thing you say if you actually want to beat your opponent.

Media speculation holds that Bernie wants a high position in a Clinton administration, and one can imagine many posts for which he would be qualified. As someone who doesn’t realize that the arguments for socialism were completely discredited over a hundred years ago, he’s suited to be Undersecretary for Historic Preservation. Maybe he could rise as far as Executive Director of the Steam Locomotive Bureau.

In this case, the cackling was supplied by the little lady herself, who shrieked a series of those demented sounds that pass with her for laughter.

My own speculation is that Sanders simply hates Republicans so much that he is willing to do anything to express contempt for them. Because that’s what his statement was — a mere declaration of contempt. No reasoning about the evidence, no consideration of the many problems that Clinton’s “damn emails” have brought up, and of course no interest in the, after all, very interesting question of why he thinks he can speak for “the American people.” The same populace that he pictures as alternately vomiting over the email scandal and trying to sleep it off (“sick and tired”) is depicted by the polls as actively concerned with the issue and actively engaged in revising its opinion of Hillary Clinton — downward. Why wouldn’t Sanders use this as a campaign talking point, or at least leave it lay, unless he was mastered by his vindictive spirit? The reason his campaign got traction is that even Democrats consider Clinton a hateful, dishonest person. But with his carefully plotted debate outburst, Sanders showed that for him, nothing is worth so much as reviling the Republicans. This is ordinary for Democrats. The family that reviles together, stays together.

But to do Sanders the justice he is never willing to do other people, we need to consider his own explanation of his motive — his belief that discussion of Hillary’s “damn emails” crowds out discussion of “the real issues facing America.”

(I like quoting “damn emails,” because it’s such a dumb thing to say. “Damn” is the default term of abuse. It’s what people say when they can’t think of anything else. It’s exactly what a dumb, befuddled, obnoxious old coot would say about any problem in daily life. “Damn junk mail! Why do they send me the damn stuff? Damn toaster! Burns the bread every damn time! Damn kids! I’m sick of the damn kids in this neighborhood!”)

As someone who doesn’t realize that the arguments for socialism were completely discredited over a hundred years ago, Sanders is well suited to be Undersecretary for Historic Preservation.

So let’s consider his belief. The essential idea is one he shares with most of the other candidates, Democratic or Republican — the notion that there is a giant pile of issues out there, as tall as Mt. Everest and just as gnarly, and that America has to face those issues,and would be busy doing so if Americans could only see them. The candidate’s mission is to reveal the existence of those issues, now cleverly concealed behind the opponents’ lying contemptible hateful hate-filled propaganda. No one else is willing to undertake this mission.

If this is true, it’s surprising that political candidates almost never initiate a dialogue about the issues that is remotely similar to anything that normal people do when they have a real issue to discuss. Normal people try to find the facts, and if the facts turn out not to be alarming, they are happy not to argue about solving a problem that no one can find. But if there is a problem, and it’s apparent enough to be a subject of debate, they try to sharpen their arguments and communicate them clearly and concisely. They entertain objections and attend to plausible counterarguments. And they present a clear plan of action. They don’t go on and on about how the door needs to be fixed; they say, “Tomorrow morning, I’ll call up Dave the Fixit Guy and see what he’ll charge to take care of that door.”

Political candidates address the issues in a different way. They declare, usually out of the blue, that they have discovered an issue that must be faced. Then they invent facts to support their statements, denounce anyone who takes a more optimistic view of the situation, declare that the problem must be solved instantaneously, and exclude any possibility of solving it except by taking all the money out of other people’s bank accounts. This is not what you or I mean when we urge other people to face an issue. Still stranger is the fact that the political discussion, or national dialogue, never reaches the level of argument. It’s all declarations and demands.

Sanders is a convenient, and hilarious, example. When, during the Democrats’ debate, Anderson Cooper asked him whether he was electable, given his history — he supported the Sandinistas, honeymooned in the Soviet Union, and bills himself as a socialist — Sanders replied by saying that in the last election “63% of the American people didn’t vote, Anderson. 80% of young people didn’t vote.” He implied that these people would vote for him. Some discussion.

As for his positive program, consider this masterpiece of argumentation:

And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1% in this country own almost 90% — almost — own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57% of all new income is going to the top 1%.

That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have — we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.

Sanders has a remarkable ability to make things up — remarkable for a human being, that is, but not for a presidential candidate. Their custom is just to say things, convinced that their audience won’t even take the trouble to check with Wikipedia. Very well. When you do subject yourself to that enormous task and find the Wiki article “Wealth in the United States,” you will not discover that one one-thousandth of the American population owns “almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%.” That’s just something that Sanders goes around saying, or yelling. He yells a lot.

But suppose you don’t care about piddling matters of fact. Suppose you care only about mighty matters of morality. What is the argument that allows Sanders to get from the existence of income inequality to the claim that income inequality is immoral? What is the argument that allows him to go, for instance, from the idea that people who receive $11,000 a year in Social Security benefits should be recompensed by taking 15% of incomes over $118,000 a year and giving it to them?

Moral lectures come strangely to the lips of a speaker who has no moral sense.

There is no argument. He never presents one. He just says things. To go back to the Wiki article, why shouldn’t Sanders demand that families headed by people between 65 and 74 years of age surrender huge amounts of money to households headed by people under 35 years of age? After all, the median net worth of the former is $232,100, and the median net worth of the latter is $10,460. And how about childless couples? They have a median net worth of $213,730, which is more than twice that of couples with children, and about 15 times that of single people with children, or single people under 55 years of age, without children. Shouldn’t these culprits, these viciously immoral childless couples, be compelled to give their wealth to those less fortunate?

Moral lectures come strangely to the lips of a speaker who has no moral sense. If he had any, wouldn’t he hesitate to tell one lie after another? Wouldn’t he hesitate to say, for instance, that “we are gonna have medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth”? Ah, Haiti — famous for its medical and family paid leave. Burma — a paradise for early childcare. Is Sanders so stupid that he doesn’t know what life on earth is like, or is he so cynical that he figures he can say anything at all, and an audience will lap it up?

In either case, he shouldn’t be shouting about morality. Even if he does believe that his visible audience consists of mindless oysters, why should he assume that everyone else is? “When you have a baby, we're not gonna separate you from your newborn baby” — as if mothers with newborns were as unwitting as Sanders’ followers, and simply allowed their offspring to be snatched away from their passive arms.

Most voters have something like free will. So if liberty and prosperity are snatched from them by the likes of Bernie Sanders, it’s their own fault. In the last sentence I originally typed “liberty and responsibility,” but “responsibility” may be the problem — that word is apparently so detestable to some of our fellow citizens that they’d rather hear Bernie Sanders bleating away, like the guy in the restaurant whom you ask not to be seated next to, than take a few moments to fulfill the duty of reflective thought.

Is Sanders so stupid that he doesn’t know what life on earth is like, or is he so cynical that he figures he can say anything at all, and an audience will lap it up?

Nevertheless, I doubt that many voters are as fearful of their own free will as are the media that attempted to fry Ben Carson for his answer to a question about what he would do if he were attacked by a mass murderer. He said he would try to take the guy down. He suggested that the targeted victims should act together to do that. In response, this headline appeared, typical of many:

2016 Contender Ben Carson Defends Remarks Criticizing Victims of Oregon Shooting

The preposterous idea was that Carson had criticized the victims for not having attacked the maniac who was assaulting them. He did no such thing. It seems that the media will settle for nothing short of “Carson Commends All Americans Who Plan to Cower and Be Killed.” Certainly the media were pleased enough when other presidential candidates suggested that the only acceptable options are (A) shivering like a sheep before any lunatic with a gun, and (B) keeping guns out of the hands of sane people.

I hope that if I am ever targeted by a lunatic, I will follow Dr. Carson’s advice. I know that if Carson happens to be with me, I can trust him to lead the charge. But I can never stand up to another Bernie Sanders debate. I’d rather be shot.




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Clintonspeak

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Almost everything about the Clinton email scandal makes me laugh, but two things especially.

One is the claim that Mrs. Clinton never sent or received classified information on her personal email account, which was the only account she used to conduct business. But if, as secretary of state, she wasn’t getting classified information on that account, what kind of information was she getting? The same kind all the rest of us get? Is that because nobody trusted her enough to tell her anything confidential? That would be funny enough, but the irresistibly comic part is that she and her zombies see this as the best story they can tell.

I said “zombies,” and I mean zombies. You remember those scenes in The Manchurian Candidate in which brainwashed people hear the name of a former comrade in arms whom they know to be a cold, twisted, thoroughly unpleasant person (“It isn’t as if Raymond’s hard to like. He’s impossible to like!”), and they declaim, with glazed eyes, “Raymond Shaw is the bravest, kindest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life.” That’s how the Clintonites react when their leader’s name is mentioned. It’s a phenomenon hitherto unknown to American politics. And that part isn’t funny.

If, as secretary of state, Clinton wasn’t getting classified information on that account, what kind of information was she getting?

The second thing I find amusing — even more amusing than the first — was the interview in which Mrs. Clinton finally “took responsibility” for something. Her remarks were generally headlined as an “apology.” This might lead you to believe that she was actually accepting responsibility for her dangerous breach of security, for the foreign hacking that undoubtedly occurred because she hid her communications as secretary of state in a makeshift server operating, first, out of her house, and second, out of somebody’s bathroom in Colorado. But here’s what happened in the interview:

“In retrospect, as I look back at it now, even though it was allowed, I should have used two accounts — one for personal, one for work-related emails. That was a mistake. I’m sorry about that. I take responsibility,” Mrs. Clinton said in the TV interview.

Pressed to clarify whether she made a mistake in setting up a private email account and private server to conduct official business, Mrs. Clinton responded: “I did. I did.”

“As I said, it was allowed, and there was no hiding it. It was totally above board. Everybody in the government I communicated [with] — and that was a lot of people — knew I was using a personal email,” she said. “But I’m sorry that it has, you know, raised all of these questions. I do take responsibility for having made what is clearly not the best decision.”

Please transcend normal indignation at Mrs. Clinton’s impudence, at her cynical assumption that people who care enough to watch her interviews are dumb enough to be impressed by this kind of talk. Move beyond normal amazement that anyone who talks like this could possibly think that normal people would see her as one of them, and like her. The literary question is: how does she put this stuff together?

The short answer is, she has a great deal of help. Hers is not the ordinary rat’s nest of political verbiage. It’s not like a statement I read in the Detroit Free Press on September 9, in which Josh Cline, a staffer for scandal-stalked Republican State Representative Todd Courser, declared his resignation from that high office: “After tolerating months of e-mails that were disrespectful, unprofessional and demeaning, the e-mail sent to me and the entire staff on March 27th, with the subject of 82-issues to deal with, was offensive, ungrateful and beyond reproach.” The literal meaning of that statement is that the email of March 27 tolerated months of disrespect, etc., before deciding that the treatment accorded it on that date was something nobody should complain about (“beyond reproach”). That’s not what Mr. Cline intended to say, but that’s what he wrote.

Clinton’s statements were more carefully, less candidly, and (thank God) less effectively constructed, by a multitude of hands.

Picture an office full of political hacks, painstakingly assembling the famous formula by which Al Gore maintained, concerning certain actions he had taken, “There was no controlling legal authority that says this was in violation of law.” (Also picture these words being delivered in Gore’s arrogant, peevish, foghorn drone.) Can you imagine how many alternative expressions his assistants had proposed for every part of speech in that miserable little sentence?

Please transcend normal indignation at Mrs. Clinton’s impudence, at her cynical assumption that people who care enough to watch her interviews are dumb enough to be impressed by this kind of talk.

“There was no law . . . ?” “No, no. Too blunt.” “Well then, let’s start with a big set of adjectives. How about duly enforceable?” “No, sounds too governmental.” “Binding?” “You mean he wouldn’t be bound by the law?” “Then what about controlling? Maybe there was a law; maybe there wasn’t. The issue wasn’t whether he was bound to do something; it was whether somebody, or something — some authority — could control him.” “Say! That’s right! Nobody likes to be controlled.” “No. Nobody does. So call it a controlling legal authority.” “Sounds good! But we’re still talking about the law, aren’t we?” “Sure, sure. Tuck that in at the end of the sentence. By that time, nobody will be listening. They’ll still be trying to figure out what a controlling legal authority is.” “What is it, anyway?” “I don’t know — who cares? But if they start thinking about that, they’ll see that it can’t be a law, or he’d be in violation of it. Which, yeah, he was. But that’s the problem; that’s not the solution.”

So much for Gore. Back to Clinton. Imagine a conference of politicos, filling a space somewhat larger than the Royal Albert Hall. (Note: allusion to a Beatles song.) These people are assembled to craft some statement that will get Hillary Clinton out of her current jam. (Don’t you love that verb craft? It makes every dumb political dodge look like a fine piece of furniture.) The resulting words are the product of many kinds of verbal manipulation. It’s fun to try counting them. I’ll list the first few that come to my mind; you’ll find more.

1. The “Mistake.” Consider the words sin, crime, offense, violation, blunder, screw-up, error, mistake: Which is the weakest word? Mistake. Normal people say they made a mistake about what they put in the salad, or about the first name of their cousin’s second husband. These are mere mistakes, things you wouldn’t bother to apologize for. True, criminals often say they made a mistake when they robbed the liquor store, but that’s an attempt to minimize serious and obvious guilt. When sharply interrogated, they say they made a bad choice. But Mrs. Clinton didn’t even say that. Mistake was as far as she would go.

2. The Exculpatory Prologue. “In retrospect, as I look back at it now, even though it was allowed . . . “ By the time we swim through Clinton’s introduction and lie gasping on the barren beach of her mistake, the mistakenness is shrinking fast.

3. The Old Shell Game. If Hillary did make a mistake, where, exactly, was it? It wasn’t at the point where she did something that wasn’t “allowed.” She says that it was allowed. So where did she make the mistake? Maybe it was when she decided not to “us[e] two accounts.” But that doesn’t sound like much of a mistake, does it? Chris Cillizza, who dogs Mrs. Clinton’s heels for the Washington Post, is more of a Pekinese than a pit bull. But although he shows no teeth, he keeps on gumming his prey. Thus, while describing the ridiculousness of the Clinton campaign, he says that “last week Clinton decided to offer an unequivocal apology for her decision to set up a private e-mail server after months of insisting no apology was necessary.”

These are people who are intimately acquainted with their boss’ ruthless ambition, towering arrogance, and sickening greed.

4. The Aggressive Passive. Not that Mrs. C is ever passive, in the psychological meaning of that term; she’s always as aggressive as situations (and interviewers) permit her to be. Which is plenty. But should you ask, “By whom or what was it allowed?”,you won’t find an answer. The passive construction obviates the need for one. In fact, it aggressively denies any standing-room for such a question.

5. The Mysterious “It.” The more one reflects on Clinton’s “it was allowed,” the more one wonders what she means by it. When the interviewer “press[es her] to clarify” her meaning, she agrees to an innocuous-sounding phrase (“setting up a private email account and private server to conduct official business”), then shifts back to the shifty passive, “As I said, it was allowed.” Tell me, does that it include the things that other people really worry about: the exclusive use of the private server, the presence of classified information on the server, the hiding of the server, the (reported) deletion of half the messages on the server, the use of the server by other government employees and sort-of employees . . . .

6. Spread the Guilt. “There was no hiding it,” Mrs. Clinton says. Everybody, she says, knew about it, whatever exactly it was, and, by inference, approved of it. If you’re so worried, go blame all those people. But the guilt spreads farther. Proceed to No. 7.

7. You’re the Problem. “I’m sorry that it has, you know, raised all of these questions.” Have you ever had a conflict with someone who told you, as a means of “settling” the matter, “I’m sorry that you feel that way”? Did you take that as an apology? I doubt it. But what did you feel — respect or contempt? The second, surely. The contempt was directed at the speaker’s effort to make you feel guilty for his mistake. But such real-life responses have never occurred to the all-wise elite of the Hillary circle.

And that’s what’s really wrong, and really funny, in both senses of that word, about Clinton and her clones, about all those people who sat in that enormous room — actual or virtual — and figured out what she was supposed to say this time. These are people who are intimately acquainted with their boss’ ruthless ambition, towering arrogance, and sickening greed. Yet they are wholly unacquainted with normal human responses to such characteristics. They assume that everyone who matters speaks Clone, believes Clone, is a Clone, and that everyone else will simply scratch his head and utter a bemused “whatever” when smacked with the latest helping of Clonespeak.

There are media gurus still trying to save cuddly socialist Hillary from rapacious Wall Street Hillary — as if Wall Street and socialism hadn’t been working together for a hundred years or so.

Why else would they have her say what they have her say, and even brag about the nonsense she is about to say? Whenever their war elephant takes a detour into the swamp, which is all the time, they inform the Clinton-friendly media about the tricks they’re going to use to pull her out. Formerly, the media greeted these “confidential” insights with relief. Now they’re beginning to notice something about them that seems just a tad peculiar.

Dana Millbank of the Washington Post is one of the media gurus who are still trying to save cuddly socialist Hillary from rapacious Wall Street Hillary — as if Wall Street and socialism hadn’t been working together for a hundred years or so. Never mind; Millbank makes a good point about the smell that wafts from Hillary’s army. His article is entitled “The Clinton campaign puts the ‘moron’ into oxymoron.” He’s referring to Clinton’s scripted displays of “spontaneity.” In one passage he says:

We knew Clinton was going to be funny and warm because her aides told the New York Times she was going to be funny and warm.“Hillary Clinton to Show More Humor and Heart, Aides Say,” was the headline on Amy Chozick’s piece this week.

But to me, the most valuable article about Clinton’s absurd behavior is Guy Benson’s piece in the not-mainstream Townhall (September 14). Benson provides a crisp, clean review of the email scandal, emphasizing the bizarre isolation of Mrs. Clinton and her gang:

Amid sliding poll numbers, a growing credibility gap, intense media scrutiny, and a federal investigation, the Clinton campaign was caught off guard by challenging questions? That crosses the line from counter-productive insularity into shocking ineptitude.

Several of the Republican candidates, led by Carly Fiorina, have started talking about the incompetence of “the political class.” Liberty has used that term for years, so it’s gratifying to see it spread. There’s a need for it, because there is a distinct, and distinctly repellent, political class in this country. It never wants to admit it’s a class; like other classes, however, it declares itself plainly by its peculiar ways of communicating or not communicating with the rest of the populace. What has aptly been called “the Clinton world” is the clearest representation so far of the ways in which the American political class isolates itself within its own rhetoric. May the isolation continue, and become complete.




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The Bears and the Bugs

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James Bowman is a good writer, and he wrote a very good article about the recent British elections for the June issue of The New Criterion, which is a good magazine. In that article there are a number of memorable observations, such as the idea that politics is usually and traditionally a matter of “the orderly management of the hatred between social factions.” I’m not sure that’s strictly true, but it’s certainly relevant to the current state of American political affairs. It’s also well phrased. I like reading Bowman’s stuff.

So it’s a sad indication of the state of our language that even such a good writer as James Bowman should refer, in the same article, to “the problem that eventually sunk the [British] Labour campaign.” Sunk? The past tense of “sink” is “sank.” “Sunk” is the past participle. Bowman doesn’t know that?

But oh, what a small thing! Why pick on that?

I’ll tell you why. Look at it this way. You go to a picnic, and just when everyone is having fun, a troop of bears comes out of the woods and eats ten of the children. It may be the first time it ever happened, but it shows that you have a bear problem. Neglecting all caution, you turn up at the next picnic, and there are no bears. But the mosquitoes drive everybody crazy. That shows you have a mosquito problem. It’s not as bad as a bear problem, but it’s bad nonetheless.

If you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers.

This column is usually occupied with bear problems. This time, let’s think for a moment about mosquito problems, such as the difficulty that many professional writers of English have in getting nouns to agree with verbs. It generally doesn’t keep you from understanding what they mean, but it’s . . . annoying. And unnecessary. Thus, on August 19, CNN finally raised its eyebrows about Mrs. Clinton and reported, “There have been a constant stream of stories about Clinton's emails for the better part of five months.” I’m glad CNN isn’t ignoring those stories (provided by other news organizations), but can’t it make its subjects and verbs agree? “There have been a stream”? There have also been blunders.

Another mosquito problem is the one I started out with — the inability of English speakers to remember what strong verbs are like. A strong verb is any that does not create its past and perfect forms with an -ed ending. Originally, Indo-European verbs were strong. Then the –ed form became influential (“productive,” as the linguists say), partly to assimilate borrowings of verbs from foreign languages. It was easier to use, so it spread to other verbs. But strong verbs still sound, well, stronger, and they are very useful in poetic and generally emotive language. It sounds better to say, “She strove to succeed” than “She strived to succeed.” It would have sounded still better if Tammy Bruce, one of America’s most cogent spokesmen for liberty, hadn’t told Fox News (August 15), “Carly Fiorina has weaved that fact into her presentations . . .” Tammy! I love you! But haven’t you heard of that word woven?

The hitch is, you have to know what you’re doing. Imagine that! You actually have to know that a person not only strove to succeed, but having striven, he sang his heart out. These days, however, he will have strived, and it’s an even chance that he sung his heart out, while the hearts of his enemies sunk. It’s more than an even chance that he had fit himself for his role. Here is an opposite, though not an insuperable, problem. Fit is a normal weak verb; it’s fit-fitted-fitted. Strange but true. This doesn’t mean that last week somebody (in San Francisco, it would be hundreds of people) shit on the doorstep. Shit is still a strong verb; somebody shat on the doorstep last week — and isn’t that a more forceful way of describing it? People spat in the subway, too.

Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Why can’t people keep this in mind? Why can’t professional writers (distinguishing them, for the moment, from actual people) figure it out? Well, if you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers. If your kids are troublemakers, get them to ask the English teacher what the past tense of fit may be. Or shit. Then they can ask the teacher whether he has ever read the King James Bible. And if he hasn’t, they can ask him how he ever got to be an English teacher. Should be interesting.

Moving on from the inevitable after-school detention, oft visited on the overly articulate . . . You can tell that people aren’t reading anything, let alone the King James Bible, when their spelling reproduces what they hear, or think they hear, not what they’ve read. Witness the non-word alright. This has been with us for quite a while (which doesn’t make it good — remember the Dutch Elm Disease). It’s the product of people who have never seen all right in print, or if they have seen it, have never wondered whether those two mysterious words could possibly have the same meaning as the things you see on post-it notes: “Henderson party: parking in Alley alright tonite.” In this never-saw-that, never-noticed-that category you can also file all those people who write things like, “Invitees can signin for the conference now” and “To hookup/test software, turnoff browsers, then turnon.” I’m quoting the kind of communications I get in my academic email. Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Of course, reading is no longer a prerequisite for writing of any kind, even professional writing about professional writing. Consider an article in The Wrap (April 6) about the aftermath of (or “fallout” over) Rolling Stone’s smear story on a University of Virginia fraternity. The article cited an observation by Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren (whose own English is pretty good):

The Fox anchor invoked a former president’s infamous phrase to tie a bow on Rolling Stone’s missteps: “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify,’” she told TheWrap.

If you read books, and you notice what you read, you know that infamous does not mean famous — no, not at all. And if you enjoy reading books, you usually have some interest in noticing how authors get their effects. A person rattling along in conversation may say, “Our first idea went flat, but that’s all water over the dam,” and this may have some effect. But it won’t work in print, because people who read actually have to take a moment to look at what they’re reading. If they’re conscious (which admittedly, many “readers” are not), and they see the word missteps, they probably picture steps, going the wrong way. They won’t worry about the picture of a magazine making missteps; they’ll accept that as a little imagistic oomph. But when you ask them to picture somebody tying a bow on missteps, they won’t do it, because they can’t do it. It isn’t colorful; it’s stupid. The best audience, the audience most likely to appreciate an effective use of language, will move on from trying to picture the bow to the easier task of picturing the author, smiling with self-satisfaction after having, shall we say, tied that metaphoricbow on his misstep.

Anyone familiar with letters written by average Americans a hundred and fifty years ago knows that they tied a lot of those bows. They also wrote alright, very frequently, and worse things, much worse things, all the time. And anyone who has read a typical sermon or political address from the same period can see how many lofty phrases could be expended on practically nothing. The difference between that period and ours is that back then, nobody mistook average, unmeditated English for anything you’d want to use when you really got serious. People expected serious writing to be literate. Literacy was something they not only appreciated but enjoyed. Perhaps they even overenjoyed it.

In 1850, President Zachary Taylor was held in contempt by other politicians for his lapses from standard grammar. Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his refusal to master the like-as distinction, his success at filling sentences with uhs and ums (sometimes 30 to the minute), and his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about folks and dropping his final g’s.

It’s hard to say whether this year’s presidential candidates are better or worse with language than he is: are rotten apples worse than rotten oranges? Some are more literate, but is there one of them, any one of them, whose speeches you want to hear, as opposed to reading the one- or two-sentence news summary? Trump, I suppose — but that’s because it’s fun to hear him abusing the other candidates. The format of his speeches, if you want to call it that, is exactly the same as the others’: he makes a series of 50-word declarations, apparently unconnected with one another, “highlighting” the positions — or, more accurately, the slogans — he wants you to remember. In this sense, there’s not much difference between Trump and those two yammering old coots, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (who are just as abusive, but stupefyingly dull at it).

Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about "folks" and dropping his final g’s.

Nor is this merely a problem of politics. When Clinton and her surrogates claim that Republicans are trying to block healthcare and are waging war on women’s health, when Sanders and his gang of Post Office retirees announce that, because the government takes no action, women are paid only 78% of what men are paid, there’s also a problem of language. If you saw that in a book, you’d be shouting at the page: “What do these words mean? Are Republican mobs blockading hospitals? Are all the statisticians lying? Are women paid $78,000 for the same jobs for which men are paid $100,000?” If the author didn’t explain his statements, you would dismiss the book as incomprehensible. You wouldn’t think, “Ah, that’s interesting — here’s the slogan these people are pushing today. Must be because of that poll about women going Republican.” You wouldn’t think, “Good move! Sanders is playing to the welfare crowd. He’s prying them away from Hillary.” You’d think, “This is a bad book,” and that would be the end of it.

This defines the difference between normal readers and members of the political class. One group is jealous of its intellectual health and safety; the other doesn’t mind going to a picnic and being bitten by mosquitoes or gnawed by bears. In fact, it prefers that kind of picnic.

On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster gave a speech in the United States Senate. It was about an issue of great importance: the attempt to reach a compromise between Northern and Southern claims to power. But although people could have read a summary in the paper next day, and it was at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Senate chamber, the place was packed. Ladies stood for three hours to hear Webster’s remarks — because that was the length of his speech: three hours and 11 minutes. Webster closely reviewed the long history of legal provisions and political negotiations regarding the status of slavery. He analyzed the geography of the western United States, assessing the possibility that slavery might become a paying proposition there. He reviewed his own history of opposition to slavery. He then considered what would happen — indeed, what did happen — in the event of a Southern secession.

Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffing the surface! Who is so foolish, I beg every body's pardon, as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck of the universe. There can be no such thing as peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility. Is the great Constitution under which we live, covering this whole country, is it to be thawed and melted away by secession, as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun, disappear almost unobserved, and run off? No, Sir! No, Sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the Union; but, Sir, I see as plainly as I see the sun in heaven what that disruption itself must produce; I see that it must produce war, and such a war as I will not describe . . .

Many people hated Webster’s speech. It earned him the scorn of powerful voters in his own state, agitators against compromise. Yet its words were continuously informative. They were continuously interesting. They were continuously entertaining. They were, by the end, exciting. They weren’t talking points. They weren’t spin. And they weren’t three hours and 11 minutes of subliterary, unorganized sounds.

The ability to give literary interest to political words wasn’t confined to the greatest orators. Even Warren Harding, who is, perhaps unfairly, regarded as a mere politician, a nothing among statesmen, had that ability. On May 14, 1920, Harding outlined his political program:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. . . .

Out of the supreme tragedy [of the Great War] must come a new order and a higher order, and I gladly acclaim it. But war has not abolished work, has not established the processes of seizure or the rule of physical might. Nor has it provided a governmental panacea for human ills, or the magic touch that makes failure a success. Indeed, it has revealed no new reward for idleness, no substitute for the sweat of a man’s face in the contest for subsistence and acquirement.

For the past 95 years, Harding’s reference to “normalcy” has been panned by the intellectuals. A few dispute his use of that word instead of the normal “normality.” More, alas, sneer at his idea that war, revolution, and the ambitions of the progressive state should not be regarded as normal parts of the American condition. You can judge between Harding and his foes. My point is that Harding, known as one of the weakest of presidents, could deliver a speech that has approximately 100,000 times the word power of any contemporary political communication. He knew that big things come of small — that “dispassionate” is a valuable word, although you see it only in serious books, and that it presents an interesting contrast to “dramatic”; he knew that a sentence containing not one but eight sharp but serious conceptual distinctions can be a contribution to thought and argument, and certainly to literary interest.

You want a good meal? Here it is. Bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado. Ketchup and mustard on the side. Fries, fruit, cottage cheese . . . right there at the end of the table. Rather have the roast beef? We’ve brought that too. This is survival food. No bugs, no bears.

So, how do I get to that picnic? Easy — all you have to do is read.




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Ignoring the Indefinite

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Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag
And smile, smile, smile.

I like that World War I song — the chorus, anyway; the verses are dreadful crap. Maybe it’s the tune that gets me, but there’s also some virtue in the sentiment: you can take all the bad things in your world, pack them away someplace, and forget about them. It just takes a little gumption, and a little common sense:

What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worthwhile.

So let’s see how that idea applies to the worrying problems of words this column addresses. Let’s notice them, list them, and try to pack them away. Maybe they won’t return to afflict us. And if they do, maybe we will still be inspired to smile, smile, smile. No one can list all the atrocious words that assault our ears, but we can at least make a start.

As soon as you say “atrocious,” President Obama pops up, like a genie in a bottle, responding to the magic word. He’s an encyclopedia of verbal atrocities. The one I’m thinking about right now is around. I mean around as it’s used to discuss something considered to possess some decided relationship to something else, but never a relationship that’s decided enough to be definite. As with most of Obama’s words, around is good for the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t approach.

These practices worked their way into high schools, ad agencies, HR departments, and other places where taste is not an issue.

On July 20, the president granted an interview about the Iran treaty (or whatever it is — that isn’t definite). He said: “There is broad international consensus around this issue.” If I wanted to go off on a tangent, I would observe that the lovely, broad-minded word international is an attempt to lead Obama’s listeners off on a tangent, and leave them there. Think about it. Who cares whether Albanians and Algerians are in favor of the treaty, or whether they’ve even heard of it? The question of whether they’ve reached a consensus on this point matters about as much as whether they, or the rest of the world, has reached a consensus about freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, or freedom of religion, or common decency of any sort. (Actually, the world has reached a consensus: it’s ag’in all those things.) The issue is whether America will approve the treaty. Besides, consensus isn’t the same as authority, intellectual or political; it has nothing to do with justice or truth or even the actual will and volition of the people involved.

But I refuse to be led off on such a tangent. Around does not mean about, no matter how many ex-hippies use it in that way. An intellectually responsible person talks about something; a person with cloudy, slippery ideas talks around it, or tries to picture unknown numbers of internationals forming something called a consensus somewhere in its vicinity. Typical Clinton supporters, interviewed on television (why?), confess that they “agree with her around a lot of her major issues.” Hardcore agitators define their profession as “advocating around issues of healthcare and the environment and a living wage,” and usually a lot of other things, equally without a definition. But let’s just stow all their arounds in our old kit bag, and remove them from our memory. If there’s room, we can throw in advocate, whenever it lacks a direct object. We can put up with people who advocate something, even if it’s the reintroduction of wolf packs to the New York suburbs, but we can’t put up with people who just advocate around.

But oh, there’s a clever substitute for the indefinite around. It’s surround. Recently I discussed the violent behavior of some California cops who mercilessly beat and kicked a man they were arresting. Unfortunately for them, their actions were filmed from a news copter, and they got in trouble. An embarrassed sheriff announced that “the video surrounding this arrest is disturbing and I have ordered an internal investigation be conducted immediately.”What can I say? Try to picture a video surrounding an arrest. Disturbing? Oh yes. Positively stomach-churning. Throw that in the bag too.

(But don’t forget the case itself. For further developments, go here. Although the incident happened over three months ago, and the county immediately, immediately paid the victim off, “investigations” have yet to be resolved.)

Another symptom — perhaps the ugliest symptom — of the national demand for the indefinite, is the universality of the slash. I refer to that nasty little mark that unites (or is it separates?) the words in such repulsive combinations of sounds as “economic/political,” “racist/sexist,” “dinner/lunch,” “funeral director/mortician” — need I go on? I’ve brought this up before; I’m sorry to have to bring it up again.

That’s two more expressions you can put in the old kit-bag, and leave it someplace where the cops will blow it up.

There is a social history around that little mark. The slash first took root among us when computers came in. It carried the prestige of the brilliant minds who write code and sometimes, fatally, try to explain the results. Thence it became the language of bureaucrats, who actually plumed themselves on their ability to write, or rather type, stuff that looked like computer code. Soon, with unconscious irony, it became a sign of status among those alleged deadly enemies of the bureaucrats, the professors of humanities. They were infected with French deconstructionist theory, in which the slash was used to show the reversibility of certain words (“life/death”) that, like all words, have no inherent meaning. Then the agitprop profs and their gullible students decided that they too would write slashingly. This was accomplished by putting syllables together like kindergarten blocks and treating them as if they were the commanding heights of political thought — the “deformings/transformings,” “postgenders/transgenders,” and “neoliberalisms/postcolonialisms” of the pseudo-intellectual world. These practices worked their way into high schools, ad agencies, HR departments, and other places where taste is not an issue.

Now, however, the slash may have reached its final reduction to absurdity. I’m looking at an AP report (May 25) about a bomb scare at the US Capitol. The author quotes an email sent by a police spokesman about things that might be bombs: "If we can't determine whether or not an item is safe/dangerous, we'd have to treat it as dangerous until we determine otherwise.” That’s the problem, isn’t it? So many things are safe/dangerous. And consider that phrase “whether or not.” It’s so frustrating to think of all those items that are neither safe nor dangerous.

People use slashes because they don’t know/are too lazy to decide/make up their minds about/around what expressions/words they want to say/write/use. Let’s see . . . is something “racist” or “sexist”? Who cares? Just call it racist/sexist. Let the reader decide what you mean, if anything. One might spend a minute reflecting on the distinction between economics and politics, but why bother? Just say “economic/political.” And now we have “safe/dangerous.”

You guessed it: the same police spokesman mentioned “negative results” and “an abundance of caution.” (“Tell me, lieutenant, how much caution did you use?” “We used an abundance of caution.” “Oh, I see.”) So that’s two more expressions you can put in the old kit-bag, and leave it someplace where the cops will blow it up.

It’s so frustrating to think of all those items that are neither safe nor dangerous.

Am I being insensitive? I hope so, because otherwise I might spend most of my time reaching out. Until very recently, reach out had a definite meaning. It was something you did when you were in serious trouble or you thought someone else might be. “I was desperate, and I reached out for help.” “I’m so grateful she reached out to me.” “I heard he was in trouble, so I reached out.” Now it means anything from rescuing a drowning child to sending random emails. Sensitivity has spread that far.

Here’s a Fox News report (May 19) about the quest for Mrs. Clinton’s emails:“FoxNews.com has reached out to Clinton's office asking if the emails published by The New York Times reflect a similar situation.” You can read the article yourself to see whether you can figure out what it means by “a similar situation.” I couldn’t.

I concede that it’s always been hard to say anything definite about the things the Clintons do, except to say that the Clintons are probably lying about them. Nevertheless, the notion of FoxNews.com desperately reaching out to Clinton, Inc., would be risible, if any irony were intended. But it’s not. At present, reach out means so many things that it means nothing, and the harsh rule of irony is that it cannot function without a definite meaning someplace.

It’s possible that the more fanatically people are trained in the language of sensitivity, the less sensitive, the more cynical, they become. Their emails are constantly reaching out; their lips are always full of heartfelt thoughts and prayers for everyone involved insome terrible tragedy; but their hearts are in tune with that same old song:

Smile, boys — that’s the style.

They were taught to utter meaningless phrases; they utter them. How is that any different from politicians who talk by the hour about their insistence on transparency and their passion for the political process, without the slightest attempt to define their words?

Well, why shouldn’t you and I adopt the same style? What if the professors and the news writers and the police spokesmen and the heads of departments and the president of the United States speak in a language with the expressive power of those scratches on your kitchen floor? If they won’t define their meanings, why should we be so careful to look for them? Why shouldn’t we return a cynical smile? In the words of another good song,

Don’t take it serious—
It’s too mysterious.




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Satanic Discourse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The Age of Plaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Going Vexed to the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

/emem




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