Progress and Poverty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do scholarly journals still have editors?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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O Tempora! O Bama!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Shutdown Finishes; Wreckage Remains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The War of Words

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I am writing this during a long road trip. You know what happens when you’ve driven a few thousand miles and you’ve been through all your CDs and you’re off in the middle of farm country where there’s nothing between you and the stratosphere except NPR (which is everywhere), the daily hog reports, and Sean Hannity. So you listen to Sean Hannity. At least I do. Despite the fact that I dislike him intensely.

Well, not him. His shows. This side of the White House, there’s no purer example of partisan talking points. Every week Hannity has one thing to say, and he says it all week. During the week of September 16, his talking point was how terrible it was that President Obama gave a speech that day in which he made “noble” statements about the shootings at the Navy yard in Washington, then proceeded to give his scheduled speech about the economy in which he dissed Republicans and the former Republican administration. On Sept. 17, Hannity said, “I can’t think of anything more despicable” than Obama’s going on with that scheduled speech. Hannity said that for the rest of the week, in every context and on all occasions.

If you’re looking for overkill, look no further. Indeed, if you’re looking for irrationality, look no further. Obama’s remarks about the economy and about Republicans were nonsense; they always are. They were also obnoxious. But they were not obnoxious because a madman happened to conduct a shooting spree on the same day.

If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.

What offended me was the fact that the president canceled a performance of Latin music that was supposed to be staged at the White House that evening. Why should he do that? People in Amarillo didn’t cancel music events that night. So what if the shooting took place in Washington, within miles, in the constantly reiterated media phrase, of the White House? Is life, such as it is in Washington, supposed to come to a stop because of a minor event (yes, I said minor event) like that? Was the Latin music troupe supposed to spend the night meditating about violence in our society? Or initiating a national conversation about our treatment of the mentally impaired? Were the rest of us supposed to do that? If Obama had any kind of leadership, he would have issued a brief statement and continued as usual, despising the criticism of people like Hannity, who was blue with anger for no reason at all.

Since I’ve said this much, I may as well say more. None of the shootings about which the country has paused, prayed, lowered the flag to half-staff, engaged in a national conversation, mourned the victims of tragedy, kept the families in our hearts and prayers, etc., etc., has been anything but a festival of hypocrisy. If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.

Many of the deep mourners over the shooting victims are simply gun-control fanatics, happy enough to discover victims (of guns, not the lack of guns, which is a somewhat greater problem). Many of the others are chasers of thrills, ecstatically snuffing the air of crisis. Many of the rest are slaves of the eye, not followers of the brain: they mourn the deaths of anyone killed on national TV, but when they find out that someone they actually know has died from a car accident (or cancer, or a heart attack, or suicide), their reaction is to move on with their lives, in the same way they were five minutes before. Their reaction to violent news on television is sensationalism: the quest for sensations. But sensations aren’t moral feelings.

I am happy that in September the American populace staged a revolt against sensationalism, when they rejected the president’s plan to punish Syria for its government’s alleged gassing of some of its people. The point was clear: there are people who feel real concern about human life, and then there are people who merely think they do, or act as if they did, because they are interested in the latest media sensation; and that the latter group should not be allowed to set policy for the former.

Multitudes of people have died, in Africa and other places, because environmentalists succeeded in restricting the use of DDT, thus allowing insect-borne diseases to thrive, with devastating effects. Christians, gay people, and members of other minority groups are martyred daily in both “friendly” and “unfriendly” Islamic countries. Uncounted thousands of people have died in Syria, butchered by the government and its foes. Fifteen hundred of those people are thought to have died of a gas attack. Why is the conscience of the world aroused by the latest event and not by the earlier ones?

And what is the response of those whose consciences are so highly exercised? The response is that we should bomb the Syrians — not to remove the government, not even to cripple the government, but just to show ’em. Or, if you’re John McCain, the response is that we should send guns and ammo to antigovernment fighters (curiously, they’re never soldiers; I guess that would make them look bad, somehow), many of whom stand ready to become the jihadist foes of the United States. Do you think that more than 1500 lives might be lost in that way?

But now comes the Obama administration, with a hypocrisy even greater than that of the strict interventionists. And here I need no help from Hannity in discerning the debased quality of our leaders’ rhetoric.

On August 20, 2012, President Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation." It was typical of Obama, that weird combination of faux folksiness (“a whole bunch”) and faux acadamese (“calculus,” “equation”).

The weirdness continued on Sept. 4 of this year. You remember the president’s remarks on that day. “First of all, I didn’t set a red line,” he said, with the high-school-principal petulance that expresses his dislike of criticism. “The world set a red line.” He continued, with equal testiness: “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.” He also mentioned America’s credibility, and that of Congress. There he went beyond hypocrisy. He told a set of flat-out lies.

Isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies?

Of course, the weirdest thing about the Syria affair was John Kerry, the dove turned screaming eagle. First Kerry ranted like a maniac about the gas attacks, which he insisted, because of evidence he would not reveal, were both real and the responsibility of the Syrian government, not that of its equally nasty opponents. About this, he said, in the bullying voice with which the global warming nuts announce their findings, there were “no dissenters.” (Whenever someone says that, you know they’re trying to fool you.) According to him, all good people must unite in hitting Syria so hard that it would never dream of gas again. Then, after he was criticized for being a warmonger, which he visibly was, he insisted that the airstrikes he advocated would be (dramatic drum roll) “unbelievably small.”

Tell me: can someone with such wild mood swings be believed about anything?

It’s curiously appropriate, isn’t it, that Kerry should come to roost on the word “unbelievably.” And isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies? Can it be, can it be, that they have never actually read a book?

Consider President Obama’s comments about Syria on Sept. 6:

"When there's a breach this brazen of a norm this important, and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn't act, then that norm begins to unravel. And if that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling, and that makes for a more dangerous world, and that then requires even more difficult choices and more difficult responses in the future."

Can you think of a good author who has ever tried to foist an image as bad as an unraveling norm? Jane Austen would slit her wrists before doing something like that. Jane Austen, hell; Harry Truman would slit his wrists. Not only did Obama evoke that unvisualizable image: he insisted on it; he used it three times in a row. It’s the kind of image that only the most childish of bureaucrats would use. You can picture them, hunched over the computers, proudly crafting their next public utterance. So, they’re thinking, there’s this really cool word, that word we hear all the time on NPR . . . norm, normed, normative, norming . . . And there’s this other hip, cool word, which is unravel. Like, uh, our initiative unraveled, our funding unraveled . . . . So yeah! It would be really really cool if we put them together and said, like, our norm, our norm unraveled.

James Rosen, the Fox News correspondent who probably dislikes Obama as much as Obama dislikes him, which is plenty, opined on August 31 that “this president, so attuned to literature,” would put a lot of effort into preparing his next speech on Syria. Obama would be all worked up about the judgment of history and so forth. But what’s the evidence that Obama is thus “attuned”? Name one author whom Obama reads and quotes. You can’t — and that’s enough to make my case. No one ever charged Obama with fleeing the responsibilities of office in order to curl up with a book. He is charged, instead, with fleeing his responsibilities to play golf or watch basketball on TV.

Obama is not only unattuned to literature; he’s unattuned to grammar. Try this passage, selected virtually at random from his recent (Sept. 6) verbal interventions:

"For the American people, who have been through over a decade of war now with enormous sacrifice in blood and treasure, any hint of further military entanglements in the Middle East are going to be viewed with suspicion." Obama is a great orator. He just can’t make his subjects match his verbs.

 And Kerry is worse, much worse. As if to emphasize his total lack of literary education or sensitivity, Kerry (or one of his assistants, deputed to the hard task of fishing through the internet for jazzy quotes) discovered a cliché that has been kicking around for about 250 years. It started as one of Samuel Johnson’s witty remarks. According to Boswell’s Johnson, it went like this: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." 

That’s still quotable, I suppose. But when something, even a cliché, gets into Kerry’s maw, it ends up horribly mangled. “A lot of people,” he intoned on Sept. 10, à propos his threats to Syria, “say that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.”

I would like to find some cunning here. I would like to think that Kerry didn’t credit Dr. Johnson because he didn’t want to ruffle the rubes by implying that he could actually quote an actual author, and had therefore, at some desperate hour, managed to read a book. I would like to think he wondered about the possibility that someone would think, “Strange — I never heard anyone say that ‘nothing focuses the mind,’ etc.,” but concluded that the possibility was remote: no one would check his memory on that point. And I would like to think he substituted “focuses” for “concentrates” because he knew that “concentrates” would take the rubes as much as two seconds to figure out. But there’s no evidence that Kerry himself is anything but a rube. And that goes for the rest of our statesmen, too.

the judgment of historyJohnson




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Who, Me? Phony?

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“The president is focused on what we can do for the middle class in this country” — Jay Carney, White House spokesman, explaining why President Obama hadn’t commented on offenses against women when perpetrated by prominent members of the Democratic Party.

"Now is not the time to go backwards — back to the time middle-class jobs and neighborhood infrastructure were sacrificed to downtown special interests. We need to continue to move forward." — Robert Filner (Democrat), mayor of San Diego, explaining why he was going to resist a move to recall him, prompted by allegations of sexual and financial improprieties.

For many years “It’s for the Children!” was the card thrown on the table of rhetoric whenever America’s rulers and managers wanted more money to do something foolish. Now another trump has been designated: “It’s for the Middle Class.”

As a member of the middle class, I find this ironic. The intended beneficiaries are invariably people who want to tax and regulate the middle class. They are ordinarily rich people, or people who are about to become rich, in money or power, from the aforementioned taxes and regulations. Robert (“Bob”) Filner, who on August 23 resigned as mayor of my town, San Diego, is an example. He apparently doesn’t have a big bank account, although he is suspected of tapping the city treasury to provide himself with certain luxuries and accommodations. But he loves the power to tax and spend. I well remember the scene in Congress when Clinton’s tax raise squeaked through the House. Filner, then a member of that illustrious body, pushed his way to the front of the chamber and did a little dance, jumping up and down with joy because of this new squeeze on the middle class.

Phony? Oh yeah.

This summer, President Obama suddenly developed an aversion to phoniness, though not to the phoniness of his own supporters — only to the alleged phoniness of people who accuse his supporters of phoniness. Phoniness about Benghazi. Phoniness about “national security” spying. Phoniness about IRS corruption. Those are the three big current scandals of Obama’s administration, and he himself had previously treated at least one of them as a distressing scandal. In every case, however, his administration has done everything that coverups and lies could do to make itself even more scandalous.

Filner pushed his way to the front of the chamber and did a little dance, jumping up and down with joy because of this new squeeze on the middle class.

Things were getting so bad, and so obvious, that sometime in the midst of a long July, the gilded flunkies in the White House decided that the catchword of the season would be “phony scandals.” From the president on down, everyone would use that phrase on every possible occasion. And for a solid month they did so.

It was a dotty attempt to end the administration’s credibility problem, and it was conspicuously counterproductive. After three weeks, polls showed that something like 70% of respondents believed that the scandals weren’t phony at all, that the phoniness was entirely that of the deniers. The campaign continued, despite the fact that only people paid to be Democrats took the message seriously, and then only in public. Do you think that even professional supporters of all things Obama sat and brooded to themselves, “All these scandals . . . all this evidence about incompetence and lies and stonewalling. . . . It all seemed so real. But now . . . now that the president has examined everything so thoroughly, I can see that . . . hard as it may be to believe . . . all of it is just, well . . . phony”? Do you think they said that to themselves? Or do you think they said, “Well, maybe somebody will believe what we’re saying. Anyway, it’s a living.”

But the message, however stupid and self-defeating, caused real concern among reflective people. Had the administration, they wondered, lost its last ties with reality? These people were right, but they were over-reflective. They couldn’t see how funny the whole thing was.

I’m glad I saw it, because for me it stripped some of the last remnants of scariness from Obama’s demagoguery. I was behind the curve, of course; all the surveys showed that with most people he had lost his credibility within the first six months of his first term. That’s one reason why he barely beat Mitt Romney, who was nobody’s idea of a strong, compelling candidate. But now I could see exactly how phony the president’s mindless repetition and affected intonation — characteristic of his whole rhetorical career — can make him look. It was irresistibly comic to see him pause and marvel, in speech after speech, about how Washington had been so distracted by all its made-up causes of concern, its phony scandals, that it couldn’t do its work (i.e., do what he told it).

Like a lot of other politicians, the man still hadn’t adapted to the age of video. He actually appeared to believe that no one could access any more than one version of what he said, or that anyone who somehow figured out how to do so would naturally forget all the other versions as soon as the next mesmerizing performance appeared on the TV screen.

The president offered a virtuoso impersonation of a poor, deranged individual who is continually surprised by what he himself is saying. First the little hesitation, the fake attempt to discover the right phrase, the twisting of the countenance as if the whole face were saying, “This can’t be true! But it is! And it’s my duty to warn my fellow citizens!” — classic signs of bewilderment. Then, at last, he found the phrase! And it was . . . wait for it . . . “All these phony scandals”! Sometimes, reaching for the ultimate dramatic effect, he added, “and the Lord knows what.”

Well, you have to admire a president who at least pretends to believe in God. His real trust, however, was in his audience’s total ignorance — or something worse, its cynicism. Because, as I said, his performance was universally recognized as what it was, a performance. The fact that professional Democrats and party bigots were actually pleased by it, though they knew it was a lie, says a great deal about a large segment of our so-called political life.

The president offered a virtuoso impersonation of a poor, deranged individual who is continually surprised by what he himself is saying.

Now then. Speaking of phonies, I don’t need to remind you of former Congressmen Anthony Weiner and soon-to-be-former Mayor Robert Filner, who, like the patron demon of “progressive” politics, Teddy Kennedy, were completely correct — politically correct — about Women, except when they met an actual woman. Their responses to the revelation of their sexual idiocies were predictably phony: “I need help.” “I need more help.” “I need yet more help.” “And I’m getting it. But what the people really want me to talk about is what I can do for the middle class. Meanwhile, pity and sympathize. With me. And if you don’t, you’re a lousy rightwinger.”

I am happy to join with my fellow Americans in saying that I do not pity and sympathize. Like most of them, I’ve enjoyed the humiliation of Filner and Weiner (as I always enjoyed the humiliation of Kennedy). For three reasons.

First, I was happy that these mountebanks, whose political nostrums, once consumed, would give the government even more tyrannical power over our lives, had been interrupted in their sordid careers. Weiner’s sexual antics (and attempted coverups, evasions, and so on, delightful in themselves) denied him any possibility of being elected mayor of New York. Filner’s sexual antics, and his plucky refusal to resign his office, paralyzed the “progressive” forces that he claimed to represent in San Diego. The extent of “progressivism” was revealed by his crazed resignation speech. After repeatedly asserting that he was the victim of a “lynch mob” organized by the enemies of progress, bent on conducting a “coup” to throw a good man out of office, he provided a list of goals that, he suggested, were the priorities of his political faction: municipal planning by a crew of “world-class urban thinkers” already ensconced in City Hall, the bikification and solarization of the city, the placement of San Diego on the front lines of the war against “climate change,” an “efficient borders” meld of San Diego with Mexico. (Many of the people who spoke to the City Council in defense of Filner had relied on a translator when they threatened political action against anyone who voted to can him.) He gave lengthy tribute to “union leaders” who, he revealed to no one’s surprise, had been his most faithful and consistent guides. He ended with an inspirational quotation from (guess who?) Teddy Kennedy.

So, my second reason for wanting Filner and Weiner to hang in there was simply the educational value of their performance. I admit, however, that Filner’s leave-taking provided its own education in the way in which cities are run. He negotiated an agreement to resign (signed on August 23 but effective August 30, which gives him a few days to do as much damage as he can) in exchange for the city’s paying lots or all of his legal bills. Among the negotiators, be it noted, was the public official who will become interim mayor and at least one other public official who, like the first, may run for his office. Filner’s lawyers will be paid by the city, and he will be defended by the city against a lawsuit filed by Gloria Allred on behalf of a former city employee. The reason for this absurd bailout? According to the soon-to-be interim mayor, “This settlement is an end to our civic nightmare and allows this city to begin to heal."Why is it that the medical metaphor sounds phony? It’s because the city isn’t sick; its political leaders are. The Filner affair continued to dramatize and explain that sickness.

My third reason for relishing the humiliation of Filner and Weiner is that I have long regarded those two as virtually the most obnoxious people in politics (since the demise of Uncle Ted). I can’t forget watching Filner’s little dance in the chamber of the House. I can’t forget all the nasty things I’ve noticed about him — and here I’m not talking about sexual things or even illegal things but all those qualities that have made him loathed, as a person, by the people who encounter him. This was one of the most notorious facts about San Diego politics, and it is a measure of “progressive” integrity that the same set of people who initiated the campaign to remove him had, a few months before, pushed him vigorously as their candidate for mayor. They craved a leftwing Democrat and thought he was the only one with the organization to win. At the same time, they despised him. Weiner, when in Congress, was the “progressive” guy who was always leaping in front of the camera to rant against all criticism of his party. He specialized in low insults, and when asked to return to the question the interviewer had asked him, would hum little tunes to himself and smirk and walk in circles and say, “Are you ready? Are you ready now? Are you ready to let me speak now?”

Imagine a more libertarian society, in which virtually all current politicians would sink to the social level dictated by their intellectual competence.

It’s interesting to ask oneself what roles various people would occupy if our political system were different from what it is. The philosophical answer may be, It’s a meaningless question, because in a different system those people would have developed in different ways. Perhaps. I have my doubts about environmental theories of character formation. But the question is fun, at least.

I like to imagine a more libertarian society, in which virtually all current politicians would sink to the social level dictated by their intellectual competence. The two Presidents Bush would be CEOs of unimportant firms, prevented by abler people on their staffs from facing any realities requiring them to do more than decide what color of paint should be applied to the men’s restroom. Several members of the Supreme Court would be justices of the peace in small towns in the Florida panhandle. Many members of Congress would be good guys running small local businesses; many others would be the people who show up at PTA meetings determined to advance Their Own Agenda; a significant proportion of them would be in jail.

Then I think about a less libertarian society — a dictatorship. What role would our contemporaries play in that? It would take an extreme case of American exceptionalism to dream that they all, as good Americans, would be fighting the Power. They wouldn’t. The Bushes would be doing what I just suggested. So would most judges and legislators. A few would actually be fighting the Power, either because they had an ideology (I picture Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas) or because they knew that a dictatorship just isn’t right. I believe that a small but significant number of legislators, Democratic and Republican, would feel like that.

But can there be any question about where the Clintons would be? Or where Obama would be? They would be the Power. They would be fighting one another to remain the Power, but that’s where they would belong, because on the evidence of what they do right now, they have no compunctions about gathering and using power. To them, the exercise of power presents no moral issues, and they are convinced of their inherent right to wield it. This is the dictatorial personality, in its several versions.

True, they would wield dictatorial power in various ways. I can imagine Hillary Clinton staging a military putsch; I can only imagine Obama getting someone else to do it for him. But you see what I mean. And Filner and Weiner are psychologically fitted for the role of dictator as few other people are. Arrogant, domineering, with no sense of limits, utterly convinced of their right to rule, they would seize the throne or die trying. It’s not for nothing that Weiner and his insufferable wife — whose prepared statement in defense of him resembled the commencement address of a high school student commenting on her Best Friends Forever, and was read in a tone appropriate to its content — are slaves of the Clintons.

Speculation, mere speculation. And none of this has anything to do with sex. Let’s think now about the sex part — or, more sensibly, about the language in which it has been discussed.

I do not wish to be misunderstood. Weiner’s sexting was gross and stupid. Filner’s (alleged) custom of cornering women and demanding a date was reprehensible. But that’s as far as I’m willing to go. You can consider sexting immoral if you want; I don’t, so long as it’s among consenting adults. I see nothing morally wrong with pornography, and although Weiner is not my idea of a pornographic object, each to his own taste. And he wasn’t exactly committing adultery. Filner’s (alleged) conduct — grabbing women, kissing or trying to kiss them, touching their posteriors, pressing them for a date — was obviously wrong; it was a way of manipulating other people in an area of their life that should be sacred to their own choice. It implied that he had a right to rule any woman he met, and that is immoral by any principles of individualism. If it’s shown that he was trying to coerce women into having sex with him in order to keep their jobs or get some favor from the government, then we don’t have to rely on principles of individualism in order to convict him; he’s a creep by any standard.

Nevertheless, this is still pretty low-level stuff. It isn’t rape, much less the rape of the Sabines. In my younger, much younger, days, I, though male, encountered similar conduct, from both men and women. I didn’t like it; I resisted it; I continue to resent it. Yet in those days I was also the victim of an attempted mugging; an attempted physical attack by a gang of other college students who should not have been drunk on the streets at midnight; the theft and destruction of my car . . . . Quite a few things, none of them out of the ordinary, as this world goes. Today, like other ordinary, middle-class Americans, I am constantly robbed by the government of a large part of my income and freedom, and this has gotten worse as I have gotten older, thanks to people like Filner and Weiner.

Meanwhile, the mayor was accused of not showing up at a meeting at which, had he voted, he could have saved the city $25 million. Oops.

But the language that is used of Filner and Weiner is about a hundred times worse than the language commonly used about a mugging, a gang attack, the theft of a car from an impoverished young person, the theft of livelihood from tens of millions of ordinary people. You would think that Filner and Weiner had committed some Hitlerlike atrocity. But they didn’t.

In Filner’s case, we have heard much about the atrocious nature of his being 70 years old and allegedly “preying on” women as old as . . . 67! What a “dirty old man,” to pick on a “great grandma”! The leader of the anti-Filner forces, Donna Frye, a former member of the city council, former candidate for mayor, and perpetual “progressive” politico who insisted that Filner be elected last year, and got her way, now proclaimed, “Bob Filner is tragically unsafe for any woman to approach.” (I’m leaving out all the tears and self-applause about how hard it was for her to say these words, but duty impelled her, etc.) The salient image is the mayor as King Kong — but worse, because the mighty Kong was interested only in Fay Wray.

Here’s a story about a retired master sergeant in the Air Force, an accuser of Filner:

"He looks at my [business] card. He looks at me. He says, 'Fernandez. Are you married? Do you have a husband?' Very quick, very direct. I said, 'No, I'm divorced,'" she told CNN. "'Well, you're beautiful, and I can't take my eyes off you, and I want to take you to dinner.' I was really shocked and I was like, 'Uh, OK,'" Fernandez said. Then came a phone call and voice mail, which Fernandez never returned.

Oh the humanity! As one of the comedians on “Red Eye” said, the first few complaints seemed serious; the later ones made you think, “What next — ‘The jerk wanted to hold the door open for me’?”

Yes, Filner’s alleged sexual behavior was stupid, and wrong. Meanwhile, the mayor was accused of not showing up at a meeting at which, had he voted, he could have saved the city $25 million. Oops. Duly noted. But that’s not a reason to get upset. It’s the sex thing that really gets us.

Why is this, in a society that long ago assimilated the virtually incredible grossness of the Kennedys’ sexual regime? In a society that regards Bill Clinton as an elder statesman? In a society that honors with profits and sanctifies with awards the grossness of hip-hop “culture”? In a society in which no stand-up comedian can succeed without sex talk that would make a street girl blush? In a society in which the most popular kind of joke about unworthy businessmen or public servants involves their being raped in prison?

Phoniness? Yes, there is a phoniness even deeper than Obama’s.




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Isn’t It Time to Land?

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This is why some people regard Word Watch as a theater of cruelty. I am about to attack the verbal antics of a spokesman for the San Francisco fire department, which was responsible for rescuing many of the people who survived the wreck of the Korean airliner at San Francisco on July 6.

People often say that catastrophes bring out the best in people. I say that they bring out the worst, verbally. The lead bureaucrat in the government investigation of the plane crash, Deborah Hersman, immediately emerged as one of the biggest blowhards in the nation, jumping into interviews and news conferences in which she announced, at length, that she had no conclusions to offer. This did not prevent her from delivering lectures about the wondrous complexity and significance of the impending inquiry, about the tremendous workload of her agency . . . you get the picture.

What can such an expression mean? Has an army of goons been deployed in this country to maim or kill any advocate of safety?

She filled out some of the borders when she commented, a few days later, on the idiotic decision of the flight crew not to allow an evacuation of the plane until they were assured by an upstart flight attendant that the thing was actually, positively on fire. (And what else do you expect planes to be, after they’ve crashed?)

When asked if it was unusual that the crew wouldn’t announce the order to evacuate, Hersman said the pilots might not have been aware of the damage in the cabin.

"We don't know what the pilots were thinking, but I can tell you, in previous accidents there have been crews that don't evacuate," she said. "They wait for other vehicles to come to get the passengers out safely. Certainly if there's an awareness that there's a fire aboard the aircraft, that is a very serious issue. There was a fire, and then the evacuation began."

"Hindsight is 20/20," she continued. "We all have a perspective that's different than the people involved in this. We need to understand what they were thinking, what their procedures are, whether they complied with these, whether that evacuation proceeded in a timely manner" (Los Angeles Times,July 10).

Blah, blah, blah. Here’s a person who can fill any number of columns, yapping about what she doesn’t know. And by the way, Ms. Hersman, if you don’t know what the pilots were thinking, go ask them. You’re the “National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman.” But also by the way, the plane had crashed. Its landing gear had been ripped off. Its tail was missing. Miraculously, it had come to rest on a dry, flat piece of land. Who cares what the pilots “were thinking”? They should have been evacuating the passengers. Right away.

In some circles, the bloviating Ms. Hersman is known as “a fearless advocate of safety.” Tell me: what can such an expression mean? Has an army of goons been deployed in this country to maim or kill any advocate of safety? If so, I also bid the goons defiance. Fearlessly I declare: I advocate safety!

Now we return to the scene of the accident, maybe three minutes after the crash. Flames are spurting from the airplane; fire engines are arriving; passengers, thank God, have taken it into their heads to evacuate. And, very unfortunately, one of them, a teenage girl, has been killed, apparently by a fire engine on its way to the wreck. Certainly, no one was trying to run her over. All was confusion: a giant machine, smashed to the ground, leaking fuel and shooting flames; hundreds of passengers, still alive but in desperate need of medical assistance; rescue vehicles racing from every direction. I feel sorry for whatever would-be rescuer ran down the young woman, if the coroner’s office is right in thinking that’s what occurred. But I hope that he or she feels no guilt. The driver was not responsible. The woman died. It was no one’s fault.

But about 36 hours later, along comes Dale Carnes, the aforementioned spokesman for the San Francisco fire department, to explain what happened:

Approximately half to two-thirds of the way through the incident as we were transitioning from the fire attack and rescue phase into both overhauling the fire in the aircraft and starting to concentrate on the three-minute transport of patients it became aware to one of our fire attack battalion chiefs that there was a possibility that one of their two fatalities might have been contacted by one of our apparatus at an unknown point during the incident.

Could anyone have constructed a more gruesome pile of words? And the guy wasn’t stumbling along; he was proceeding calmly and confidently, as if he had rehearsed those very phrases. That’s the horrible thing. People learn — they are trained — to communicate in that way.

Suppose that you didn’t know, more or less, what had happened. Would you ever have guessed what that 79-word sentence was about?

Let’s take it in order.

  • “Approximately.” One rule of bad wording is never to use a short word (“about”) when you can use a long one (“approximately”).
  • “Incident” (note that this word is repeated). Disasters become incidents when someone with an official position changes the focus from something that went wrong to something that just, you know, happened.
  • “Transitioning,” used instead of the common “going from” or “changing from.” Always be long; always be Latinate; always be pseudo-technical.
  • “Fire attack and rescue phase,” used instead of “fighting the fire and rescuing people.” An assertion of professionalism is always more important than saying what happened so that other people can understand it.
  • “The three-minute transport of patients.” You don’t know what that is? Too bad for you. Does it mean they’re supposed to be picked up in three minutes, or delivered somewhere in three minutes? And where are they being delivered? To a hospital, or to some memory hole where they can lie in peace, next to the English language?
  • “It became aware.” Did the spokesman ever read a word of English? I mean, actual writing in English? Did he ever notice that, in written English, things (“it”) cannot become aware? But actually, they can’t become aware in spoken English, either. Because they’re things, that’s all. Nevertheless, “it became aware” is growing on us. Watch for it. Try to avert it.
  • “There was a possibility.” Observe how the distant past is creeping up on us here. There may possibly have been another incident at some “unknown point during the incident,” but the only way it’s becoming aware to us is that, we are told, some unnamed official detected the “possibility” at some other point, after the incident within the incident.
  • “One of their two fatalities might have been contacted by one of our apparatus.” In published redactions of these remarks, “their” is often rendered as “the.” In video versions, it’s “their.” So the speaker lost control of his referent. But he remained very much in control of his theme, which was that nothinghappened. Well, nothing much. It was an incident. With some other incidents attached. There were two fatalities. (Nobody died; that would be going too far.) “Contacted,” of course, means run over. If you’re like me, you would rather be contacted by an apparatus than run over by a fire engine. I dunno; maybe it’s just a subjective preference, but that’s the way I feel. I’ve been contacted by many apparatuses in my time, and suffered no harm. But now the fire department informs me that a fatality might have been contacted by an apparatus. Picture that, if you can. Evidently, however, that is what the fire department does not want you to do. Otherwise its spokesman would say that “a person who had escaped from the burning airplane may accidentally have been killed by a fire engine.”

Like much bureaucratic talk, the language I’ve been analyzing is not only absurd and arrogant, and offensive to normal human feeling; it is also false to the conditions of normal human life. The horror of a young person who escaped from one disaster only to be overwhelmed by another — that is matter for profound reflection, because it exemplifies conditions that are, regrettably, not abnormal at all. The horror of a driver who, with the best intentions, is speeding to the scene of an accident and who accidentally destroys the life of another person on the way — if that’s what happened, it’s a matter for the deepest human sympathy. The bureaucratic “language” panders to whatever inclination the audience may have to ignore the facts and the problems and proceed as if all of it had, in fact, been explained, or at least officially encapsulated. Move along; there’s nothing to see here.

Another bad thing — I was going to say the worst thing — about this kind of talk is that it’s not even naturally produced. No one just pops out with “overhauling” as a synonym for “putting down,” or “apparatus” as a synonym for “fire engine,” or “at an unknown point during the incident” as a synonym for “at some time.” Granted, “it became aware” is simple ignorance, but why should people ignorant of words be chosen to speak for official agencies? Presumably because they can be trained in jargon. I wonder how much tax money is spent on this enterprise alone.

Disasters become incidents when someone with an official position changes the focus from something that went wrong to something that just, you know, happened.

You might, however, bring up another sense of the word natural. You might suggest that bureaucracies naturally resort to obfuscation, because they want to protect themselves. You might suggest that because they are collective and usually collectivist organizations, they often try to protect themselves in silly ways. There can be no check on silliness when no one in the org wants to stand out against the mob of “colleagues” and say, “This makes no sense.” If you reasoned in that way, I think you would be right. You would have identified one reason why nonsensical language is flooding our bureaucratized society.

But now for something completely different. Here’s what was posted on the Facebook page of Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, just before the army conducted its coup: "We swear to God that we will sacrifice even our blood for Egypt and its people, to defend them against any terrorist, radical or fool.”

I’m stating no view about the coup itself. It’s really none of my business. But I like the statement. It’s short; it’s serious; and it uses words that actually mean something. It doesn’t call terrorism “workplace violence.” And it ends with the word fool. This is an expression that is seriously underused in American society and especially in American formal language. The Bible doesn’t mind calling people fools; the word appears, with its various derivations, about 100 times in the King James Version. “Fool” runs back through Old French and Latin into the original Indo-European, which apparently used it in the sense of “windbag.” In English, it eventually came to be used for people with more serious impairments, although it’s hard for me to think of any impairment that is worse than being a windbag — if only because, in our bureaucratized society, people are actually rewarded for being that way. And now, the curtain of psychological correctness has descended. “Idiot,” “moron,” and “imbecile” are out, not just as pseudo-clinical terms, but also as terms of social analysis. And so is “fool.”

I think it needs to be restored — as a term of analysis, not just of abuse. Some people are mistaken. Fine. Other people are fools. It’s a distinct species, requiring identification and understanding. Words are the tools of understanding. As the Egyptian generals maintain, someone’s folly, once identified and understood, can become a reason for taking action, in a way that someone’s mere mistakenness may not be. It is a sad day when America’s terms of analysis are less useful than Egypt’s.




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Jesuits, and Failed Jesuits

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Don’t you hate it when people say, “Let me be clear on one thing . . . Let me make this perfectly clear”? Don’t you think, “So, you’ve been unclear about all those other things, and you knew it, but you went on being unclear anyway?” Don’t you immediately conclude that these people are about to tell you some enormous lie?

President Nixon was always talking in the “clear” mode. He was always “making one thing perfectly clear.” Now, President Obama has become an addict to the same approach.

“So, I wanta be very clear,” he announced on June 7, “nobody’s listening to the content of people’s phone calls.” Please define “nobody,” “listening,” “content,” “people,” and “phone calls.” Surely, the government is listening to somebody’s phone calls. May we simply conclude, from Obama’s clarifying remarks, that the government is listening to your calls, and mine? Or that it would if it could, and it probably can?

This administration began with the famous self-advertisement that it would be the most “transparent” in history. Obama reiterated the claim on February 14 of this year: “This is the most transparent administration in history.” That should have been a clue to several things.

1. Anybody who uses such a cliché as “transparent” hasn’t been giving a whole lot of thought to whatever he says.

2. For Obama and company, “history” is everything they don’t know, and have no intention of looking up. That covers a lot of territory. Do you think the claim of transparency issued from a careful, or even a superficial, investigation of the forty-some presidential administrations in American history? Do you think that Obama asked someone to research the matter and find out what degree of transparency prevailed in the Buchanan administration? On what basis, do you think, can Obama assert that he is more transparent than Jefferson? Or Truman, who was always blurting things out? Or all those 19th-century presidents who walked freely around Washington, meeting strangers and talking with them, and sometimes being pelted with oranges when the conversation didn’t go so well? So much for “history.”

In the preceding paragraph I noted a number of historical facts that Obama has undoubtedly never heard of: the mouthiness of President Truman, the orange attack on President Pierce, the existence of President Buchanan. Maybe I should add the existence of strangers — persons who are neither enemies nor part of one’s official circle. I don’t think Obama has any knowledge of strangers, although they (i.e., we) are the people he is supposed to be transparent to.

It’s an expression, supposed to be interpreted as sincerity, that most closely resembles the facial contortions of a person about to have a bowel movement, and wondering what this strange phenomenon might be.

But speaking of history: impartiality impels me to deplore the absence of even the vaguest historical sense among the Republican leadership. Consider the remarks of Rep. Steve King (R-IA) at the Tea Party rally in Washington on June 19. Referring to the current spying scandals, he intoned: “This big brother has gotten a lotta creepier than George Orwell ever thought it would get.” No, Orwell thought a lot of things. Read a book, Mr. King.

3. Eventually, the most transparent administration in history would have to spend virtually all its time trying to clear things up after its constant, hilariously comic attempts to fool people.

One of the most notorious clarifiers is Attorney General Eric Holder. He has spent many moons clarifying what went on with Fast and Furious, and look at the damned thing now. And I’m sure you will recall the statement he made on May 15 in response to congressional questions about whether journalists can be prosecuted for divulging or attempting to divulge classified information: "Well, I would say this. With regard to the potential prosecution of the press for the disclosure of material, that is not something that I've ever been involved in, heard of or would think would be a wise policy. In fact, my view is quite the opposite."

Attorney General Holder, though a total moron, is a fairly accomplished liar. It’s not to his credit, of course.

This remark was emitted with a look that has become nearly universal among clarifiers in the Obama administration, from the chief clarifier on down, but is perhaps most vividly manifested by the attorney general. It’s an expression, supposed to be interpreted as sincerity, that most closely resembles the facial contortions of a person about to have a bowel movement, and wondering what this strange phenomenon might be. It’s the expression of a self-righteousness too pure to be acquainted with self-doubt, a self-righteousness now shocked to discover these strong and painful rumblings, deep inside. Can it be that the truth is coming out? If so, how can this be prevented?

Lately, truth has been coming out more quickly than usual. Only a few days were required for Holder’s May 15 testimony to be publicly falsified. Yet the truth about Fast and Furious and most of the other matters about which Holder has been questioned is still to emerge. Holder, though a total moron, is a fairly accomplished liar. It’s not to his credit, of course: he does it by being a Washington insider, known and feared by the rest of them; and by being capable of looking blank on virtually all occasions. I guess that’s easy for him.

Anyway, he is certainly a more accomplished liar than James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence. On March 12 Clapper was testifying before a committee that included Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), a prominent opponent of secret investigations of US citizens. Clapper had been given a copy of Wyden’s questions in advance. He wasn’t blindsided or bushwhacked by the senator. But look what happened.

Sen. Wyden: So what I wanted to see is if you could give me a yes or no answer to the question: Does the NSA [National Security Agency] collect any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans?

Clapper: No, sir.

Wyden: It does not.

Clapper, massaging his forehead and trying to look profound, like a professor being pushed to the farthest corner of speculation in the field of his most abstruse research: Not wittingly. There are cases where they could inadvertently perhaps collect, but not wittingly.

Wyden: All right. Thank you. I'll have additional questions to give you in writing on that point, but I thank you for the answer.

On June 9, after an obscure employee of a government contractor informed the world of the wholly predictable truth, that the NSA collects telephone data on tens of millions of Americans, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News pressed Clapper on the exchange with Wyden. Clapper suggested that the senator's question was unfair:

First as I said, I have great respect for Senator Wyden. I thought, though in retrospect, I was asked “When are you going to start — stop beating your wife” kind of question, which is meaning not answerable necessarily by a simple yes or no. So I responded in what I thought was the most truthful, or least untruthful manner by saying no.

Clapper indicated that he didn’t think "collection" of phone data was taking place unless government officials were actually reviewing the contents of the (billions of) conversations that they have records on.

Most people, even college professors, know that “when are you going to stop beating your wife?” questions — ordinarily known as “when did you stop beating your wife?” questions — are entirely different from the kind of question Clapper was asked. But this is just one of those things that the Director of National Intelligence doesn’t know. I think that most people — all we strangers and little people out here in the dark — know more about life and human communication than Mr. Clapper does.

One thing that few people know is the word “equivocation.” It means a type of lying, as when somebody asks, “Did you go to the liquor store today?” and you answer, “No, I didn’t, and if I did, it was only unwittingly” — because the place isn’t called The Liquor Store; it’s called Ye Olde Liquor Shoppe. Equivocation isn’t just lying; it’s an especially nasty form of lying. It’s a favorite with self-righteous elitists, who think that any lie they tell is sanctioned by their cause or their position. The Jesuit order was famous for its crafty equivocations; hence the term “Jesuitical.”

Following the Clapper interview, President Obama’s press secretary told inquiring minds that Obama regarded Clapper’s answer to Sen. Wyden as “straight and direct.” This wasn’t a Jesuitical response; it was a blatant, impudent, aggressive, in yo’ face, down home stupid lie, a lie so flamboyant that no one could be expected to regard it as anything other than what I just said it was.

Obama is just such a silly guy with words. He’s always using them in a sneaky though obvious way, like a teenager who thinks that his Eddie Haskell smarm is coming across as sincerity and respect.

Now what? What are we to conclude from this? Is Obama stupider than everyone else? I wouldn’t go that far. His lie prompts the question (no, it does not beg the question — that’s something different): what hold does the intelligence community have on the president?

That is not a conspiracy-theory question. That is a political and personal question.

Ever willing to criticize myself, I am happy to say that there are two reasons for questioning the assumptions from which my question proceeds. One is the possibility that Obama is simply a leftwing proponent of government in all its forms. In his speech to the graduates of Ohio State University on May 5, he took on critics of government:

Unfortunately [he said], you’ve grown up hearing voices that incessantly warn of government as nothing more than some separate, sinister entity that’s at the root of all our problems; some of these same voices also doing their best to gum up the works. They’ll warn that tyranny is always lurking just around the corner. You should reject these voices. Because what they suggest is that our brave and creative and unique experiment in self-rule is somehow just a sham with which we can’t be trusted.

The “we,” of course, is he. But the contempt appears to be directed against all the foes of “government” — as opposed to his usual targets, such as “special interests,” non-Democratic “politicians,” Republican voters, global warming skeptics, people who cling to God and guns, etc. So maybe he believes that as soon as someone is associated with a government that is legitimate in his terms, that person can do no ill, say nothing other than what is straight and direct. If true, this would explain a lot.

The other problem with the question I asked is that Obama is just such a silly guy with words. He’s always using them in a sneaky though obvious way, like a teenager who thinks that his Eddie Haskell smarm is coming across as sincerity and respect. I picture Obama and his staff staying up late, writing his stuff out, and sharing high fives because this time they’ve really put the horsemeat in the hotdogs, and nobody else will notice.

An example. On June 17, on the Charlie Rose Show, on PBS (where else?), Obama assured every American citizen, “What I can say [pause pause pause] unequivocally [pause pause pause] is that if you are a US person, the NSA cannot listen [jabbing the air] “to your telephone calls.” In other words, you won’t be electronically raped by the federal government. Rose, of course, was hibernating too deeply to ask The President what the hell he meant by “US person.” But Obama didn’t want to say “citizen.” Why? The only explanation I can think of (and one that does not exclude nearly complete rhetorical incompetence) is that he wants all the illegal immigrants (US persons, persons present in the United States at any given millisecond of recorded time) to vote for the Democratic Party. Meanwhile, they can be spied on just the same as the rest of us; that’s democracy.

I think that almost everyone who is sentient, and aware of what Obama said, got the point, and the point is that Obama and his crew cannot be trusted with the English language. Almost everyone concluded that Obama, and whoever writes these things for him, was really talking about immigration, and that when he said that the NSA wasn’t listening to your phone calls, he meant that of course the NSA is listening to your phone calls, but the important thing is that the illegal immigrants be legalized so they can vote for all the Obamas of the future.

So when Obama says that the chief of national intelligence is straight and direct, why should I make a mystery out of it? It’s all nonsense anyway.

Postscript: Yahoo! News has finally done something good: it has tabulated White House spokesman Jay Carney’s verbal techniques for escaping public scrutiny: “Over the course of 444 briefings since taking the job, the White House press secretary has dodged a question at least 9,486 times.” This is a classic.




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The Threat of Impact

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I’m delighted by the news about the Benghazi memos. It seems that the CIA, the State Department, and the White House subjected those brief statements to more than a dozen revisions. Thank God — someone has finally learned the secret of good writing: revise, revise, revise.

That was sarcasm, what I just said.

But seriously, folks: people can do too much revising. In the words of Alexander Pope, “There’s a happiness, as well as care.” President Obama was not in the happiest vein when, on May 16, he entertained a question about when the White House found out about the persecution of rightwing groups by the Internal Revenue Service. He delivered an answer that probably took a battalion of White House counselors all night to produce: “I can assure you that I certainly did not know anything about the I.G. [Inspector General’s] report before the I.G. report had been leaked through the press."So he didn’t know about the report? I assume, from this answer, that he knew about the thing. After all, Republicans had been complaining about it for years.

Anyway, this is more good news for Word Watch. If the president and his friends keep making statements like that, there’s going to be a lot more hilarity ahead. I just wish that Steven Miller, interim grand sachem of the IRS, had stayed in office a bit longer. Seldom have petulance and stupidity been so lovingly joined as they were in his congressional testimony. If Miller speaks, I will listen.

But Word Watch itself can bear some watching. The last column had issues. . . . And I guess that’s all you need to know.

Just kidding. If I were a government official or a corporate “spokesman” (an odd word — most appropriate, perhaps, for a potentate of the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy), issues would be the word I’d use to tell you, “Move along; there’s nothing to see here.”

Issues, as I mentioned last time, is the universal word. It can mean anything, and nothing. Usually nothing. It’s a word that shuts off debate. Arguments, controversies, contentions, dissensions, everything but a burial at sea — issues will obscure them all.

When it comes to specific words, how can one tell the difference between things to keep and things to throw away?

But let’s move on. Let’s get beyond that . . . I usually don’t respond to readers who have issues with what I write. I figure that after I’ve had my own say, which is plenty, they deserve to have theirs. And God bless them for noticing what I say. But Paul Bartlett was kind enough to respond at length to the last version of this column, and to respond in a way that strongly invites my own response http://libertyunbound.com/node/1045. He picks up on the fact that I condoned the use of “tweet” but “castigate[d]” the use of “snuck.” So, he asks,

Why is the former acceptable, but the latter not? Language changes. Yes, as a child in the stereotyped little red brick semi-rural schoolhouse in the 1950s, I learned intensely prescribed usage, and there are many morphological, syntactic, and orthographic errors today which still give me the willies. Nevertheless, I acknowledge that whether the good professor and I like it or not, language changes. Chaucer is dead, however delightsome his poems.

Historically, undoubtedly, in English far more strong verbs became weak than vice versa, but I cannot discern that there is Some Law Writ Large In The Nature Of The Cosmos which prohibits a hitherto weak verb to become strong. Yet again, language changes. To me, "snuck" is an entirely valid, useful, and acceptable verb form. I now encounter it far more often than "sneaked." Shall we now say that one may never use "impact" as a verb?

Controversial words! Thanks, Paul.

Sure, language changes. So does the weather, but I’d rather have a cloudless sky and 70 degrees Fahrenheit than a blizzard bearing down on me. And the fact that Chaucer is dead (he died in 1400, which is helpful in remembering what’s what in literary history) doesn’t signify. Vice President Biden is alive — do you want to talk like him? As opposed to John Dryden (who died in 1700)? Or Oscar Wilde (1900)? You see what I mean.

But those are easy examples. Chaucer, Dryden, and Wilde were among the greatest wits who ever graced our language; the current vice president is a mere buffoon. When it comes to specific words, how can one tell the difference between things to keep and things to throw away?

One consideration is the connotations of a word. If you want to sound like a backwoods character, sure, use “snuck,” because that’s its ethos and connotation, the bowl in which it swam (not swum) until quite recently. It’s never really left that bowl. It can’t leave, because whenever it tries to do so, it blunders into “sneaked,” which means the same thing, except that it’s associated with a more educated group of speakers and listeners. “Sneaked” is not arcane; it’s not like “sware” as the past tense of “swore,” or “bare” as the past tense of “bear.” But it was universally employed in formal writing and speaking until approximately 2008. There is no reason to replace it.

“Impact” is a semantic exterminator, a linguistic Polynesian pig, destined to destroy the diversity of living terms that existed before its unhappy introduction.

Thomas Jefferson, no mean judge of words, said that “necessity obliges us [Americans] to neologize.” He also said, “Certainly so great [and] growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects.”

Tell me, what variety of climates, of productions, or of arts, what new circumstances impel us to say “snuck” instead of “sneaked”? Or “impact,” instead of all the things that would be better in its place?

And that is another consideration — not just the existence of a traditional word with established and appropriate connotations, but the existence of a variety of words that are obliterated by some new and brutal imposition.

Your boss sends you a memo. It says that your company is being impacted by something. It could be anything: the annual test of the fire alarm, the arrival of federal investigators, the news of China’s ability to market a 50-dollar widget for 50 cents (notice: I said “market,” not “sell”; “sell” is the older verb, but it has slightly different connotations). The “impact”could be serious or trivial. So why the hell doesn’t he say what he thinks it is?

Impact connotes violence. It’s a word appropriate to the sad results of a sudden lane change, or the landing of an asteroid on downtown Dayton. But here is a partial list of words for which impacted is regularly forced to substitute:

  • affected
  • influenced
  • attracted
  • allured
  • motivated
  • inspired
  • helped
  • hindered
  • shaped
  • ruined
  • devastated
  • destroyed

Impacted covers and obscures the individual meanings of all those words, and more. Often it’s intended to do so, by people who don’t want to specify their meanings, by people who have contempt for their readers’ intelligence or curiosity. But when that’s not the intention, impacted still prevents your audience from understanding what you mean to say — if you mean to say anything, instead of simply emitting some syllables that will relieve you of thought. Like issues, impact is a semantic exterminator, a linguistic Polynesian pig, destined to destroy the diversity of living terms that existed before its unhappy introduction. As such, it is to be rigorously opposed and mercilessly eradicated by all people friendly to language in its true and vital forms.

So much for pseudo- and degenerate neology. Unfortunately, I have other business left over from the preceding Word Watch — the peculiar affairs of the very peculiar Tsarnaev family, and what is turning out to be the very peculiar business of reporting on them.

Plenty of stuff has now appeared about how the elder of the Boston bombers was shellshocked (victimized by post-traumatic stress syndrome) because of whatever went on in Chechnya (a place where, by the way, neither of the brothers ever lived), so naturally he had to become anti-American(!) and start blowing people up at the Boston Marathon. Not the Moscow Marathon, mind you, although you might have expected that, given the scunner that Chechens have against Russians. No, it was the Boston Marathon — as if anyone in Boston gave a damn about Chechnya. But I guess that’s where victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome flock, from all over the world — to Boston. They don’t stop on the way, in some Islamic country. No. They’re like all the other victims of American imperialism: they seek shelter in America. I heard an expert on the psychology of people under stress refer to the younger bomber as “this beautiful young man.” I’m not sure he’s as cute as all that, but so what? And this was on Fox News, the world headquarters of patriotic American anti-terrorism.

But let’s get to the intellectual and religious meat of this subject. On April 28 I found online an AP report on the mother of the Boston bombers. http://news.yahoo.com/mother-bomb-suspects-found-deeper-spirituality-224317582.htmlThe title attracted my curiosity: “Mother of bomb suspects found deeper spirituality.” Really! I thought. Is this the same woman, the woman who goes on television, spewing hysterical accusations against the United States? Indeed it was. But what was the evidence of this deeper spirituality, of its “finding,” and of its interesting effects? Was it a new conception of the cosmos, such as the Buddha attained at his moment of enlightenment? Was it a recovery of the Sufis’ bliss? Of the ethical vision of Muhammed? Was it something like St. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ? Or Sojourner Truth’s responsiveness to the call of God? Or the nobility of Jefferson’s oath: “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man"?

Interest increases when one recalls that “deeper” is a comparative term. This spiritual discovery — it was deeper than something else. Deeper than what? Deeper than the spiritualities just mentioned? Doubtful. Then perhaps it was deeper than the subject’s former spirituality? So what was that?

Well, forget it. It was nothing but a bunch of syllables in a press report. (And, you may ask, why is that any different from anything else the AP hands out?) It seems that Mrs. Tsarnaev was just a woman who “went to beauty school and did facials at a suburban day spa.” Nothing wrong with that, nothing wrong with that — many followers of Martin Luther King were people of humble occupations, though of deep religious conviction, when they risked their lives and livelihoods in his campaign for a moral ideal. But in the case of Mrs. Tsarnaev, that was it. That was all. There wasn’t any more. That was the end. Period. You now know everything. There was no spirituality whatever in Mrs. Tsarnaev’s past.

Well, all right, never mind the comparative. At some point, she was hit by a deeper spirituality. You might say it impacted her. And what was that point? According to the article, it was the point at which she “began wearing a hijab and cited conspiracy theories about 9/11 being a plot against Muslims.” Again, that’s it. That’s the deeper spirituality. She changed her clothes and started babbling nonsense.

Increasingly, our society is one in which people don’t do things, much less read things; they merely provide information, of no particular value.

Nevertheless, Mrs. Tsarnaev says she found a deeper spirituality: “Tsarnaeva insists there is no mystery. She's no terrorist, just someone who found a deeper spirituality. She insists her sons — Tamerlan, who was killed in a gunfight with police, and Dzhokhar, who was wounded and captured — are innocent. ‘It's all lies and hypocrisy,’ she told The Associated Press in Dagestan. ‘I'm sick and tired of all this nonsense that they make up about me and my children.’”

St. Francis couldn’t have said it better.

As far as I’m concerned, Mrs. T can say anything she wants. There are plenty of crazy people in this world, and several of them on my street at any given moment. But for a news organization to project this particular crazy person’s claims as valid — that’s another matter. It’s not just a question of fact; it’s a question of values. Calling her ideas “spiritual,” because she asserts they are, suggests an attitude toward spirituality that is roughly equivalent to a rural pastor’s concept of sex among the ancient Romans — it’s just as ignorant, only more contemptuous about the topic under discussion.

And worse, at least from a journalistic point of view — ignorant and contemptuous about the audience. If you publish a news report in which you examine the philosophical thought of Mickey Mouse and speculate about how he would have married Minnie, years ago, if he hadn’t been a victim of Hollywood’s traumatic impact on young stars, you are showing contempt for your audience. But even that would show less contempt than publicizing the notion of Mrs. Tsarnaev’s spirituality, or entertaining the idea that terrorism comes from stress, or — to recall another recent instance — taking seriously the claim that when the Internal Revenue Service selected hundreds of nonprofit orgs for administrative torture because their names included such terms as “Patriot” and “Tea Party,” this was simply a rogue, low-level, unauthorized training experiment and attempt at efficiency.

We meet this on every side: the assumption that we can be fooled. Political discourse is routinely motivated by that assumption. But the phenomenon isn’t limited to politics. Just try to have your computer fixed. Eventually, the fixers will call you with incomprehensible news about what went wrong and what they need to do about it, something that is invariably expensive, inconvenient, and mystifying. If you ask what they mean by the terms they use, they become offended. If you ask for an explanation, they tell you, “I just gave you one.”

But keep asking questions. Keep track of how long it takes the people on the phone to say they need to talk to their Chief Technician and get back to you. Then keep track of how many questions you need to ask the Chief Technician before he or she reveals a need to read the diagnostics. (What? Is this the Mayo Clinic?) “Oh,” you say, “you haven’t had a chance to read them yet?” Now observe the reluctance with which your collocutor responds. There was nothing behind that curtain of words.

Increasingly, our society is one in which people don’t do things, much less read things; they merely provide information, of no particular value. This isn’t true of my carpenter, who tells me that he “just likes to fix stuff.” But it’s true of the millions who are employed to communicate. Some are hired by government, others by private organizations that seem, almost inevitably, to ape the style of government. But these millions can’t actually communicate much of anything, because they don’t know anything, and they assume that everybody else is as dumb as they are. Dumb — or dumber.




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From the Ridiculous to the Ridiculous

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If you care about language, that distinctively human enterprise, I don’t imagine that your duty is to preserve every expression and form of speech you inherited from the past, rejecting all innovations. Why would you do that?

No reason. That’s why I welcome such expressions as “tweet,” “message” (used as a verb), “embedded” (as in “a journalist embedded in the military”), and even “homie” (“homeboy”). They are expressive of situations, and concepts, that older words could not express. As a writer about prisons and criminology, I have no objection to “perp” and “cellie,” punchy variations on earlier words, and in actual use by large and informed communities (cops and convicts). As an academic bureaucrat, I have no principled objection to “silo” (used as a verb, meaning “cause to be isolated in one’s own bureaucratic zone”): it’s an apt metaphorical description of a real phenomenon. It’s also a fad word, and to be regretted on that score; and I don’t particularly enjoy the association with cows and fodder — although nonbureaucrats are welcome to enjoy it. But as Dr. Johnson said, the expression is sound at bottom. There’s an alternative expression, “stove-pipe,” which is used on television because (A) most TV people never saw a farm, but they may have seen a ski lodge with a decorative stove; and (B) the other TV people don’t want to insult, or seem to insult, the farmers, those sterling exemplars of heartland values. Me, I prefer “silo,” because that word brings the reality closer to the metaphor. People can work in silos, but they can’t work in stove pipes.

But lookit. We have no need for “issue,” one of our most common locutions, whenever this is employed as an inept euphemism for “problem.” My objection goes double for naked uses of the word, uses without an adjective or other explanatory signal. To say that a teenager “has issues” is no better than to say that he or she “has problems,” although it removes all conceptual punch from the noun. It “means” anything from “the kid is sometimes unhappy” to “the kid is a homicidal maniac.” Away with it.

Then we come to the medicinal use of “issues.” An omnipresent radio ad in my part of the world touts the services of a doctor who will deal with both “erectile issues” and “premature issues.” In other words, he will deal with anything that ails you, from your inability to come to your tendency to come like a fire hydrant before the fire even starts. These are “issues”? I think not. They may be problems, vexations, disgraces, even pleasures. But they are not “issues.” “Issues” means “things that are subject to debate.” Maybe coming right away is an issue, whose effects can be debated. If so, debate them. If not, say what you mean by “issues,” and why you insist on bringing them up.

To say that a teenager “has issues” means anything from “the kid is sometimes unhappy” to “the kid is a homicidal maniac.” Away with it.

The transition from “problems” to “issues” is an ominous sign for our civilization — in two ways. The first has to do with the anesthetization of real difficulties. To turn a problem, which is or ought to be a call to serious thought and action, into a mere issue, which is something to be contemplated or mused upon or dealt with by taking a pill . . . that is a terrible thing. Hitler was not an issue; he was a problem. Cancer is not an issue; it is a problem that people need to confront. A weird teenage kid isn’t an issue that you should sit around and jaw about; he or she is a problem that needs to be solved, if you can.

The other way in which issue is a problem involves the politicization of discourse, a process that proceeds apace in our chronically post-1960s society. “Issue” is a word appropriate to public debate; “problem” may include that sort of thing, but it also embraces the vastly larger area of difficulties and challenges in human (not merely political) life. “Issue” dissolves the distinction; it is, therefore, in the truest sense of the word, an evil locution.

Going on to lesser, though related, forms of evil . . . . I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, one of the worst innovations ever made in the world of writing is the slash. I mean the thing that comes between the two words in such expressions as

social/economic
men/women
novels/poetry
directors/administrators
climate/warming
and any other expression/phrase in which a slash could possibly be used/inserted.

A slash is a sign that a writer cannot or will not decide whether to use one word or another (which means one concept or another), or to use them both — which usually means that he or she is averse to conceptual thought. He or she can’t devote precious time to deciding whether to say “philosophy and ideology,” or “philosophy or ideology,” or “philosophy or ideology, or both,” or just “philosophy” or “ideology,” and therefore decides to let the reader slop along as well as possible with “philosophy/ideology,” required to make his or her own speculative decisions about what the author might possibly mean.

There is never a legitimate use for a slash. Say what you mean — if you mean anything.

“Climate/warming” raises an especially weighty issue/problem. The transition, or hesitation, between the two terms is emblematic of the concept creep that often, and illegitimately, establishes the terms of contemporary political debate. Consider “segregation.” In the 1950s and 1960s, “segregation” meant separation of races by law or governmental action. In the 1970s “segregation” came illicitly to mean “any situation in which blacks were not represented proportionately to whites.” Thus, I suppose, whites were segregated from black gospel music. It was a literally insane migration of meaning, but it exercised immense political and judicial influence, during a whole generation. A finding of statistical “segregation” might result in judicial mandates to alter fundamental patterns of life across a city or even a whole metropolitan area. Such findings, and the verbal confusions on which they were based, were significantly responsible for the “white flight” that rendered inner city neighborhoods more “segregated,” and more “impoverished,” than they had ever been before.

The cry of “segregation” is still, sometimes, heard today. In general, however, “diversity” has taken its place. The advantage of “diversity” is that no one can say what it means, although it means, at least, everything that “desegregation” used to mean, or not mean.

And speaking of the politicization of discourse . . . This month’s Boston bombing was too barbaric, and too ridiculous, to be politicized in an overt manner, among people not predisposed to see any bad event as an American conspiracy. But it was socialized in ways that illustrate how far politicized perceptions have seeped into the language of otherwise normal people.

In other words, he will deal with anything that ails you, from your inability to come to your tendency to come like a fire hydrant before the fire even starts.

A mysterious statement! Here’s what I mean. The two alleged culprits, the Tsarnaev brothers, were universally described by their acquaintances as quiet, too quiet to leave any specific insights or memory traces. Yet they were also universally described as nice boys of whom nothing evil could be believed.

This, I submit, is an unusual take on reality. Not only are such statements obviously self-confuting — how can you testify to someone’s niceness when you also testify that you don’t know anything much about him? — but they also turn the speakers into the kind of joke that everybody can recognize. “Yeah, I lived down the street from the guy . . . Real nice guy. Didn’t see much of him. He kept to himself. But I just can’t believe he’d do a thing like this.” For how many years has everyone been laughing about junk commentary like that? Yet it continues to be made, and communicated to the nation, after every fresh act of violence. One can only conclude that many people believe they have a duty to utter and purvey such absurd observations. Someone has taught them that duty.

I think the “someone” is the schools and the media, which continually preach that everyone is equal and equally good at heart — even such people as the Tsarnaev brothers. “He was one of the nicest kids,” said a college “friend” of the younger alleged murderer. “Every time I saw him, he made sure to say hi.” Yes, a very nice guy. The kind of guy who allegedly spent the weekend blowing legs off kids and the next few days working out in the college gym and partying with his chance acquaintances. “A fully assimilated American,” pronounced many of the TV news reporters.

The media are the principal enforcers of this bizarre social programming (I won’t call it education). “Possible bombing suspect cornered on boat,” said the CNN onscreen headline, even as Dzokhar Tsarnaev was being taken away under arrest, following a final blowout with the cops. Yes, a possible suspect. Not perhaps a real suspect, but maybe, just maybe, a possible one. The network was even more ignorant of words than it was slow with news, but it was careful to communicate its own niceness. “Possible suspect” indeed.

Widely and trustingly reported was the testimony of Dzokhar’s assistant high school wrestling coach (and who better to discern the inner truth about this sweet young man?). “A smart kid,” he said. And not just smart but a real American, according to the New York Times. “Boy at Home in U.S.,” it prattled. Evidence of smartness? Maybe the fact that Dzokhar managed to run over his brother with a stolen SUV, probably causing his death. Evidence of being at home in America? People on Fox News continually specified what they regarded as evidence in this category: Dzokhar smoked weed all the time and liked hip-hop music. Who says that Fox is the conservative network?

Petty grammarian that I am, I’m almost as discouraged by signs of creeping illiteracy as I am by proof of galloping nonsense. Reporting the giddy adventures of the Tsarnaev family — poster children for open immigration, who planted themselves in America by claiming political persecution from Russia, collected all the benefits they could in this country, then kept drifting back to Russia — the established media talked about one or another of them “starting school in America” or heroically “graduating high school in America.” This is the kind of locution one hears in supermarket ads, which encourage us to “Shop Bingo’s!” — Bingo’s being the place at which one is incited to shop. So “shop” is something one does to Bingo’s, just as “graduate” or “start” is something one does to a school. “Tell me, Dzokhar, what did you do to your high school?” “I graduated it.” Maybe, given enough time in the “adopted country” to which he was so well “assimilated,” he would have gone farther and blown it up.

As I admitted, I’m petty. But in the long run, literacy may be even more important than the Boston Marathon. True literacy requires the ability to recognize and reproduce basic patterns of language — to know, for example, when to use a transitive verb and when to use an intransitive one.

Or to know how to deal with strong verbs. There aren’t very many; you should be able to master them. But no. On Good Friday, the Fox News Jerusalem correspondent noted that “Christians sung hymns.” When I was in grade school, the grand example of strong verbs, the one that we were made to study, presumably because it was the easiest, was “sing-sang-sung.” Today, it seems, you can become a foreign correspondent without havinggraduated grade school.

It was a literally insane migration of meaning, but it exercised immense political and judicial influence, during a whole generation.

One thing I wasn’t taught at the Henrietta Township Rural Agricultural School was the progression “spit-spat-spat.” The reason was that everybody knew it. When you told the teacher on a fellow third-grader, there was no indecision about how to phrase your accusation. You said, “Teacher, teacher! Tommy Johnson spat on the playground!” Maybe that’s because backwoods people still read the Bible, actually sat and read the thing, and therefore knew about stuff like this. But when, in 2013, Justin Bieber, heartthrob of millions, or at least thousands, was accused of dealing unfairly with a neighbor, the headlines took this form, “Man Claims Bieber Spit on Him.” Hardly a “spat” in a carload, although the Los Angeles Times ran a story with “spat” in the body but “spit” in the headline. And, to remember other bodily functions, when was the last time you heard somebody say that he “shat” this morning? He (or she) may be too insecure about language to dare saying “shitted” (which is good); but if so, he’s bound to take the long way about and say “took a shit.”

This is not a good sign. It’s a sign that the rich sonic resources of the English language are being wantonly pissed away.

Worse is the steady progress of “snuck,” that strange folk attempt to create a new strong verb. Talk about backwoods language, and the language of children! Until recently, “snuck” was recognized by all, even its habitual users, as a colorful low-level colloquialism, ordinarily used for comic effect, and never to be used in formal writing. Then, a few years ago, it started showing up in presidential press conferences, news reports written by the weekend staff, and other low-end outlets. And now, here it is! It’s arrived! Snuck has made it to the headlines. Chronicling the behavior of an Ohio murderer who behaved badly at his sentencing, respectable news agencies offered headlines of this kind: “How TJ Lane Snuck in a Shirt with ‘Killer’ on it.” They weren’t trying to be entertaining; they were just being ignorant. And not one of them headlined “sneaked.”

Here’s a headline I’d like to see: “How Illiteracy Snuck in Everywhere.”




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Words on Trial

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For me, the biggest entertainment event of this month has been the Jodi Arias murder trial.

I confess: I am not one of those happy, productive citizens who are too immersed in real life to follow the latest trashy court case. I am one of those trivial people who have nothing better to do than rush home and watch the evening replays of endlessly repetitive testimony delivered by amateur actors in an Arizona courtroom. I don’t really mind admitting this, but I feel impelled to note that silly people like me outnumber the sober, industrious folk by about 100 to 1. People who tell you that they never heard of Jodi Arias are almost undoubtedly trying to fool you.

But why do we like this stuff? The answer would be more obvious if there were some great mystery in the case. But there isn’t, unless it’s the mystery of how it could possibly have dragged on so long. On June 4, 2008, in Mesa, Arizona, Jodi Arias killed her boyfriend, Travis Alexander. Of course, she started out denying it. Her first claim was that she was nowhere near the site. Her second claim was that the crime was committed by a gang of home invaders who surprised her and her boyfriend, injuring her and killing him. Nevertheless, her current claim is that, yes, she killed him, but she did it in self-defense.

To put this in another way, Jodi Arias drove several hundred miles to have sex with Travis Alexander, did so, then took pictures of him naked in the shower, then stabbed him 29 times, cut his throat from ear to ear, shot him in the head, and went off to visit another boyfriend, leaving Travis Alexander’s body to be found, days later, by friends who were wondering what had happened to him. Jodi Arias claims that she acted in self-defense against Travis Alexander’s domestic violence; that much, she’s sure of. But most of what happened after she started acting in self-defense . . . she cannot remember. At that point, she claims, she had entered a mental “fog.”

The words of a vicious murderer, without evident sympathy or empathy for other people, turn out to be almost indistinguishable from the buzzwords and clichés of the Great Society.

But this brings us to the reason why the Arias case is so interesting. It offers the fascination of watching someone tell lies, thousands of lies, one lie after another, for days and weeks on end, without convincing, perhaps, even a single person that these lies are truths, but just going on and on telling lies.

You may say, “I can watch politicians do that, any old time; why should I turn to Headline News and watch Jodi Arias do it?” You’re right, there’s not much difference between Jodi Arias’ approach and that of our national leaders, except that our leaders’ performance is impossible to appreciate on a purely verbal level. You keep thinking, “Wait! You’re ruining the country!”, and “Wait! I can’t believe that people voted for you,” and “Good Lord! Half the people in the country actually think you’re motivated by high moral ends!”

With Jodi Arias, there are no such distractions. You can sit back and enjoy the performance — and be instructed by it, too. Jodi — it’s impossible not to be on a first-name basis with someone who is always in your home — provides an index and review of the kind of lies considered (and not without reason) most likely to succeed with 12 jurors culled at random from the ranks of American voters and possessors of a license to drive. Ridiculous, but true: the words of a vicious murderer, without evident sympathy or empathy for other people, turn out to be almost indistinguishable from the buzzwords and clichés of the Great Society.

Home invaders! Those words sell “security devices” and “security protection” contracts by the tens of millions. Remember, home invasioncan happen to anyone, at any hour of the day or night. We are all in danger. Not being a drug dealer or a gang kingpin, nor having outstanding debts to gamblers or usurers, I naively assume that gangs of armed men are unlikely to burst into my home. Apparently, however, I am one of the few people who feel this way. Jodi must have felt that she had a hell of a compelling story when she thought of home invasion.

"Impact" means nothing. That’s why people use it. It’s the end of the story: he, she, or it was impacted, all right? You can stop asking questions.

Her only problem was that the murder scene presented no actual evidence of home invasion, but it did present evidence of murder — by her. So obviously, her best bet was a claim that she was forced to defend herself from her sex partner, her abusive sex partner. Was your boyfriend ever abusive to you before? Arias was asked. Oh yes, she answered, he had been abusive, but not as abusive as he was when he suddenly flew into a rage and charged at me, lunging out of the shower like a linebacker, just before I killed him.

Travis Alexander wasn’t built like a linebacker. Travis Alexander was one of those smiley, sort of pudgy, momentarily good-looking guys who are about to become fat. But if you could get people to picture him as a linebacker, and remember how men like that have wild mood swings and are given to roid rage, then they might be able to see why the victim of his domestic abuse would have to shoot, stab, and virtually decapitate him. Just to stop him, you know.

This disinformation might have been conveyed in a hysterical tone — and at certain times Jodi has, as the media say, broken down in tears. That’s expected, even required, of people in court cases. But our society has become an intensely bureaucratic one, and Jodi often prefers the kind of language that people who sit in cubicles spend their days typing into computers. What do you mean, she was asked, by “lunging at you like a linebacker”? Well, she said, “He got down low and he impacted my torso.”

Impacted. The universal word, the word for anything. It means “smashed, slashed, hit, touched, influenced, had some kind of unspecifiable influence upon, made a difference in some way to.” “The president’s speech,” we are told, “impacted the public debate.” So what exactly was that impact? You will never know. “Her action,” someone says, “impacted my life.” Was that a good thing, or should we take you to a hospital? Either way; whatever. “John Smith is one of our firm’s most impactful executives.” Gosh, I hope the insurance company will reimburse us for the damage. Meanwhile, we’ll give him a promotion.

Impact means nothing. That’s why people use it. It’s the end of the story: he, she, or it was impacted, all right? You can stop asking questions. If you demand to know more, if you want to know what kind and degree of impact somebody thinks has occurred, you are likely to get the answer that Jodi Arias kept giving to the prosecutor’s demands for more specific information: “You’re scrambling my brain.”

Her brain was not too scrambled, however, to remember that abuse can include sexual abuse, and that accusations of sexual abuse can have a very major impact, sometimes to the extent of scrambling the brains of everyone who hears them. It was inevitable that Jodi’s testimony would eventually go there, and it did.

A brief interjection. Somewhere it needs to be said that Jodi Arias’ circus of lies could not have been staged without the assistance of a judge who was obviously prepared to admit anything and everything in evidence, and to license the prosecutor, the defense attorneys, Jodi Arias, and members of the jury — who in Arizona are allowed to put their own questions to a witness, and did put questions, hundreds of them — to use as many millions of words as they felt like using. So they have used millions of words.

Several days of the trial was consumed in the consideration of a recorded conversation, 45 minutes long, in which Jodi and Travis explored with gusto all the things that adult heterosexuals might want to do with each other’s bodies. More days, or was it years?, were consumed in discussions of their actual sex practices. Despite all this adult, triple-X fare, Jodi guessed that accusations of pedophilia — that kind of abuse, or potential abuse — might have an impact. So she claimed that one day she had surprised Travis enjoying pictures of young boys. She thus tried the same trick that the Menendez brothers tried when they suggested (1993) that they had killed their father (and, by the way, their mother too, but who’s counting?) because the father had abused one of them when he was young. No objective evidence was presented, in either case; in our society, nevertheless, it’s worth a try.

But speaking of remembering things, that was the other big prong of Jodi’s defense. She killed Travis; yes, she conceded that; she recalled that happening, sort of; but simultaneously she remembered that she suffered a crucial loss of memory, right after killing him. Of course, an expert in psychology came forward — and stayed there, for over a week — to testify that what Jodi suffered was actually (guess what?) “post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD),” and there were “tests” to prove it.

The trial hasn’t merely exposed the thought patterns of Jodi Arias; it has exposed the correspondingly hideous flatness of the social environment in which she lived.

Question: are those the kind of teststhat doctors use to find out whether you have cancer, or are those the kind of tests that psychiatric professionals use to find a name for what you claim you suffer from? The prosecution asked that question in approximately 100,000 ways, and the answers were not impressive. Other topics of discussion, at this point, were “dissociative amnesia,” “temporally circumscribed amnesia,” and “transient global amnesia,” which, we were told, between three and eight out of 100,000 people have been shown to suffer from, at some time in their lives. You can add that to all the other things you may suffer from, at some time in your life. If one of those things doesn’t get you, some other one undoubtedly will.

The Arias trial has been a festival of lies, but unlike most such festivals, it has been a benefit to society. It has provided a satire — unintentional, of course — of the multitude of ways in which discourse is twisted and debased by the clichés that modern Americans resort to when they try to think. The trial hasn’t merely exposed the thought patterns of Jodi Arias; it has exposed the correspondingly hideous flatness of the social environment in which she lived.

It was nothing out of the ordinary; it was an environment of vaguely aspiring, vaguely enterprising 20- and 30-somethings, the environment of guys who party, and take girls to Cancún, and like doin’ things in the outdoors — “outdoors” being a place where they go to get their pictures taken, smiling broadly or mugging raffishly or flashing fake gang signs at the camera. This is a pretty laid back world, a world in which Travis Alexander (and even, briefly, Jodi Arias) could be mistaken for a devout Mormon. It’s a world in which Jodi — who is obviously one hell of a nutty woman, the kind of woman who can be locked in a police interrogation room and start doing handstands, or sit on the floor in handcuffs and burst into “O Holy Night,” or grin when her mugshots are taken, because she thinks to herself, “What would Travis do if he was in this situation?”, and concludes that “he would smile . . . he would flash that grin” — could be regarded by Travis’s friends as a bit strange. Just a little bit strange. Maybe not exactly right for Travis.

What tipped them off? Maybe it was her starey eyes. Maybe it was her way of pushing her face into any available camera (but Travis did that too). Maybe it was the rumor that she once slashed Travis’s tires. But surely it wasn’t her words. There is nothing unusual about Jodi’s mode of discourse. Even her most solemn utterances are clichés in use by millions of people, every day:

“If I’m convicted, that’s because of my own bad choices.

“I believed that it was not OK to take someone’s life.”

“I trusted him . . . I just wondered about his agenda, I guess.”

“When [after killing Travis] I finally came out of the fog, I realized, ‘Oh crap, something bad has happened.’”

Apparently none of Travis’s friends got much farther in analyzing Jodi than she got in analyzing Travis, when (as she claims) she wrote in her diary, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something is just off with that boy.” When asked for specifics — “What do you mean by that?” — she replied, “My kind of indirect way of referring to his issues that in my mind I couldn’t look past and accept.”

She couldn’t put her finger on it. There wereissues.

But Travis was also part of that weird, flat landscape. So who was Travis Alexander?

This is a cruel thing to say, but Travis was a motivational speaker. In today’s America, this is a respected occupation. But what does it mean?

Travis Alexander (T-Dogg to his friends), worked for something called Pre-Paid Legal Services, an outfit selling legal “insurance” by “multi-level marketing.” In other words, it has a marketing scheme in which higher-level salesmen sell the idea of selling to lower-level salesmen, who then try to sell something to you and me. Usually, the new guys don’t sell anything (in 2005, the company admitted that less than 25% of its salesmen sold more than one insurance contract during the year). Given the unattractiveness of their occupation, these people need something to keep their enthusiasm up, at least until a new crew can be cycled in. That’s how Travis Alexander made money — enough money to buy the home in which he was murdered. He appeared at the séances held for Pre-Paid Legal salesmen, told lame jokes, and puffed the company. Judging from surviving videos, the audience response was second in enthusiasm only to the characters in The Bacchae. The participants laughed continuously; they shrieked like banshees; they greeted poor Travis Alexander as the best thing since Joan Rivers, if they’d ever heard of her. In the world of American discourse, there are many Travis Alexanders, practicing their trade. Well, it was a living. But Travis’s old friends all testify to his sterling qualities: “he was a great man,” “he always wanted to help people.” It doesn’t take much to be a standout in that world.

What kind of life can you lead when you classify evil acts as bad choices, like mistakes in tennis?

All right. I apologize for being insensitive. I find nothing likable about Travis Alexander — and nothing particularly unlikable, either. But I’m sorry that he is dead. He didn’t deserve to die. And nobody deserves to die the way he did. I’m happy to think that his murderer’s lies will be rejected by the jury, as they have been rejected by everyone else who has observed the trial. The whole affair has been an encyclopedic exposition of popular thought and language, and I actually think it will do some good, if only by showing the emptiness of the words now popularly used to conceptualize moral problems.

But did I say moral problems? I should have said life problems. What kind of life can you lead when you regard all challenges and conflicts, all moral difficulties and psychological disabilities, as issues, like revisions of the copyright law or the regulation of sugary soft drinks? What kind of life can you lead when you regard your desires and plans, your passions and obsessions, as items on an agenda? What kind of life can you lead when you classify evil acts as bad choices, like mistakes in tennis?

It isn’t a wonderful life. It’s barely a human life. But you can’t detect what you’re missing until you have some real words to use when you go to look for it.




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