The Anatomy of Drivel

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“How long does this drivel go on?”

That’s what Edward Everett Horton, impersonating an angel, says about the romantic conversation between Robert Montgomery and Evelyn Keyes that he is forced to overhear in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941). It’s a good way of letting at least half the audience know that the moviemakers share their feelings, and won’t let the drivel go on much longer.

During the past year, as I dutifully followed the linguistic adventures of my fellow Americans, that line kept coming back to me: “How long does this drivel go on?” Unfortunately, no angels appeared to keep the story moving. The drivel never stopped.

“Drivel” isn’t a random term of abuse. It is almost scientifically accurate. A dictionary defines it as “(1) saliva flowing from the mouth, or mucus from the nose; slaver; (2) childish, silly, or meaningless talk or thinking; nonsense; twaddle.” Drivel is language that flows out naturally, no matter how ugly and stupid it is. The difference between verbal drivel and biological drivel is that people usually wipe the second kind off; the first kind they publish to the world, without a hint of self-criticism — and sometimes with more than a hint of pride.

If Jackson had any sense, wouldn’t she know that “make a difference” includes the possibility of “make things worse”?

We saw this in the president’s second inaugural speech. What can you say about “affirm the promise of our democracy,” “bridge the meaning of [old] words with the realities of our time,” “never-ending journey,” “America's possibilities are limitless,” “the love we commit to one another must be equal,” and “awesome joy”? That’s all drivel. Drivel on stilts, perhaps — although “awesome” is nothing more than surfer babble — but drivel nonetheless.

Now what can you say about EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who resigned her post, saying that she was leaving for "new challenges, time with my family, and new opportunities to make a difference"? You can say:

  1. It appears that she was fired. If she wasn’t fired, and she left for new challenges and opportunities, why wouldn’t she give us even a hint about what they were?
  2. Whether she was or wasn’t fired, shouldn’t she know that officials who claim they are quitting to spend time with their families have been the butt of jokes for the past 20 years?
  3. If she had any sense, wouldn’t she know that “make a difference” includes the possibility of “make things worse”?

Clearly, these thoughts, though obvious, are too much to expect from high-placed government officials. Jackson’s statement was drivel, pure drivel.

But drivel isn’t confined to government. What can you say about an ad for a concert that promises “a legendary night of music”? Many such pre-legendary ads appeared during 2012 — and this despite the fact that Americans already possessed, by their own account, the largest legendary in the world. By 2012, every celebrity, past celebrity, and would-be celebrity whom anybody could remember (admittedly, American historical thought has its limits) had been proclaimed a “legend.” Every second banana from a ’60s sitcom had become Hercules or Hiawatha, or at least Elvis Presley. That was bad enough. But to treat a one-night show, a show that hadn’t even occurred, as if it were a living legend in its own time — that’s drivel. As I write, news arrives of John Travolta’s receiving an award at the 10th Annual Living Legends of Aviation festivities in Beverly Hills, California. Congratulations, John! I’m sure you deserve every bit of it.

Anyone who uses such terms is either a fool or a political swindler.

More drivel — but perhaps not really important drivel. More serious is the drivel that is used to “argue” for political positions and public expenditures. Notice: I’m not referring to wrong ideas — that’s a whole ’nother category. I’m referring to childish, silly, or meaningless talk. One example is the sounds we hear about “the environment.”

First there was “global warming.” This “warming” may or may not be happening; if it’s happening, it may or may not be bad; and if it’s bad, it may or may not be caused by human beings. I suspect that it isn’t happening, and if it is, it isn’t caused by us. But whether I’m right or wrong, “global warming” isn’t exactly drivel. It means something. Something vague and maybe silly, but you can still detect a meaning.

“Warming,” however, wasn’t the end of the line. Far from it. Its successor was “climate change.” Whether this phrase originated as drivel is a subject for debate. It didn’t flow spontaneously out of somebody’s mouth or nose; it originated as a conscious cover-up of perceived flaws in the “warming” theory. You may not be able to show that the whole planet is heating up, but you know that climate is always changing, locally, in one way or another. But whatever its origin, the phrase itself is drivel. It is “meaningless talk,” in the sense that the words have no specific meaning. They are used as a synonym for “global warming, with bad effects, caused by man,” but that is a long, long way from “climate change,” which could just as easily signify “temporary changes in the weather of Boston, with good effects, and attributable to the sunspot cycle.”

One interesting thing about “climate change,” which is used to imply the necessity of resisting change, is that it is a platitudinous reversal of other platitudes. I refer to those nasty stews of syllables that authority figures start dishing up whenever they decide to do something you don’t like. “Life is change,” they tell us; “change is a constant,” “we all [i.e., you all] must adapt to change,” et cetera. But whether it’s feel-good drivel or feel-bad drivel, pro-change drivel or anti-change drivel, it’s drivel, that’s for sure. You can bet that anyone who uses such terms is either a fool or a political swindler. “We have always understood that when times change, so must we” (Barack Obama, second inaugural address). Question: How is it that our understanding is “always” the same, despite the fact that “times” are always changing? Has there never been a “change” that convinced us not to change?

But to return. During 2012, we witnessed the third float in the grand parade of environmental claptrap. Just as “global warming” once engendered “climate change,” so “climate change” now engendered “sustainability.” The word had appeared long before 2012, of course, and for all I know it once possessed a meaning. In 2012, however, it started flowing from every public orifice, on every possible occasion; and its meaning, if any, could no longer be established. Yet billions were expended in its name. Buildings became sustainable. Foods became sustainable. Septic tanks became sustainable. Any absence of plastic qualified for admission to the Sustainability Hall of Fame. Energy itself became sustainable — or was denounced as wicked, abominable, and subject to outlawry.

I can see, in a way, why fossil fuels might be regarded as nonsustainable. Someday, under some circumstances, those fossils may run out. I’m sorry to say, however, that by this standard our lives are much less sustainable than fossil fuels. In one hundred years, we will all be dead, unless we die even sooner, perhaps from attempting to eat only sustainable foods. Yet enormous resources of coal and oil will still exist. They will long survive us. Depressing, isn’t it?

But you see the true idiocy of “sustainability” when you notice that wood products have become “nonsustainable.” Wood products. Now, what is more sustainable, renewable, all those things, than trees? Trees, unlike coal or oil, grow back. And they grow back right away, unless you spend a lot of money keeping them off the property. Thinking in this way, however, is not ultimately sustainable.

It’s true that children are often exploited for emotional effect, but when else have you seen children’s funerals exploited in this way?

Are you still with me? I think you are. Now will you follow me into the world of “gun control” (that is, abolition of all guns not owned by government)? This, I believe, was the number 1 source of drivel during 2012, and in December of that year this drivel nearly drowned the nation.

By December 17, three days after what it called the “unthinkable massacre” at Newtown, Connecticut, USA Today was already proclaiming in a banner headline: “Gun Debate at Tipping Point.” In case the people who were allegedly “tipping” the debate didn’t know which way to tip it, the paper told them, in a subtitle: “Newtown Victims’ Age May Be Key.” “Victims’ age”: cool! That will whip up the mob. Meanwhile, “may” will establish journalistic fairness.

Next day, the big headline was “Calls for Change; NRA Mum.” We know that change is good, unless it’s climate change; but “mum” is such an old, oldword, so that must be bad. Above the headline: a picture of “young mourners” going to “the funeral of their friend”; above that, a headline reading, “Tiny Coffin Rendered Me Speechless.’” Do you detect a political bias here?

Would that USA Today had rendered itself speechless. It’s true that children are often exploited for emotional effect, but when else have you seen children’s funerals exploited in this way? When an airplane crashes, when a schoolbus goes off the road, when 500 people, many of them children, are murdered in Chicago in a single year, do tiny coffins appear above a banner headline? No, they don’t; because there is no political purpose for the exploitation. And in the absence of a design to manipulate, normal manners, normal standards of respect prevail, even in the media.

But for USA Today (and many other media outlets) normal standards aren’t moral enough. The paper was morally disappointed, morally frustrated, morally aggrieved, morally enraged that four whole days after the Newtown maniac used his gun, guns had still not been outlawed. Perversely, the debate refused to tip. Clearly, more talking points had to be provided. And they were. The banner headline on December 19 read: “Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Aurora, Sandy Hook . . . Names Only Hint at Mass Killing Crisis. One Every Two Weeks.”

This isn’t pure and refined drivel — it’s still too calculated — but it’s an outline for drivel. It’s the passage from which drivel is supposed to flow. “Mass Killing Crisis?” Might this be a crisis even larger than the “crisis of obesity” — another gift of 2012? But “Mass Killing Crisis” isn’t just another hysterical politicization of a chronic human problem. Falsehoods about dead people aren’t the same as falsehoods about the overuse of French fries. They’re a hundred times more disgusting. In this case, they’re also more flagrant. Anybody who stopped to think would realize that if “mass killings” took place that often, they wouldn’t be news. But that’s not the point; it was never the point. The anti-gun propaganda wasn’t news; it was intellectual, or at least verbal, marching orders for people who never stop to think or realize.

The stuff provided almost irresistible. One knew, as surely as one knows that someone at an open-casket funeral will have to say “Doesn’t he look natural?”, that the emerging “debate” would involve a constant outflow of the question, “If it could save only one life, wouldn’t you be for gun control?” This is literal nonsense. More than one life would be saved by banning red meat, chocolates, staircases, swimming pools, snow shovels, films about sex, and automobiles of any kind. Yet this was the mighty question insistently posed by the egregious David Gregory in his famous interview with Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association. Gregory ordered LaPierre to answer the question, answer the question, just answer my question: if it could save only one life, wouldn’t you be for gun control? To his shame, LaPierre didn’t mention the fact that the question was drivel. Nobody ever does. But every thinking person should.

When I watch Fox News, regarded by the White House and my academic friends as an outlet for insane rightwing propaganda, I am startled by its ability to emit the same drivel as the modern liberal outlets If it weren’t for John Stossel and Greg Gutfeld, Fox would be in serious intellectual trouble. Here’s Karl Rove, commenting about the Newtown disaster on Fox News’ “Special Report” (Christmas Eve): “This is a horrific event. It has torn at the soul of America, that so many innocent lives were snuffed out.”

Public and effusive “mourning” is the pastime of politicians, newsmongers, and sadists, who have no real feelings about death at all.

Define “torn at.” Define “soul of America.” One would think that Nazis had invaded the country. I don’t demand that Rove say the simple truth, which is that many, many innocent lives are snuffed out every day, and that every innocent death merits mourning and reflection. And I certainly don’t demand that Rove, or anyone else on TV, say the more complicated truth, that whether we should or not, we ordinarily do not care about deaths that do not personally involve us; that the deaths at Newtown are truly mourned only by some extraordinarily empathic people; that public and effusive “mourning” is the pastime of politicians, newsmongers, and sadists, who have no real feelings about death at all; and that if these “mourners” were sincere, they would give the murders of the 500 people in Chicago (median family income $52,000) at least as much thought as the 26 victims at the school in Newtown, Connecticut (median family income $120,000).

As I say, no one should be required to enunciate these truths. But why go out of your way to avoid them? Why insist on discussing “the soul of America”? This sort of thing is drivel. Actually, it is worse than drivel. It is false and indecent.

It is false because it wantonly denies the essential terms of human life, which include the fact that some people become unbalanced and as a result do horrible things. In 1927, in the insignificant community of Bath, Michigan, a man burdened with some grievance, or set of grievances, or Satanic inspiration, or whatever, laboriously planted explosives under his home, his farm buildings, and the local school. When he had planted enough of them, he murdered his wife, blew up his house and farm (he had hobbled his horses to make sure they would be burned to death), and, by means of timed explosives, blew up the school. After that, grinning, he drove his truck to the ruins of the school, observed the behavior of the anguished crowd, called the school superintendent over to the truck, shot into it, and detonated the explosives he had put inside. He and the superintendent were killed. A total of 42 other people were killed, and 58 were injured. Most of the victims were young children.

A horrible, sickening event. But it did not tear at the soul of the nation. To say so would be drivel. As long as human beings are human beings, some of them will find ways to do such things. To be startled about this fact is false and futile.

But indecent — why?

It is one thing to assert that you have feelings when you do not have them; it is another to exploit the deaths of innocent people in order to advance some argument of your own, or (as in the case of Mr. Rove) to avert the arguments of other people.

What do I mean by “exploit”? Good question. If I believe that my fellow citizens should surrender their guns, because guns sometimes kill innocent people, and these deaths can be prevented by laws, there is surely nothing immoral about stating how many innocent people are killed by guns in a given year. And it is not exploitation to emphasize any new gun deaths that are reported. Exploitation happens when deaths occur and you are willing to say anything, no matter how ridiculous, to display your supposed regret and sympathy, your “thoughts and prayers,” and make other people look hardhearted if they refuse to follow suit.

Is it possible that such exploitation is engineered without pleasure and satisfaction? “Aha! More corpses! Now they will listen.” No, it is not possible.

This, I hold, is indecency — the behavior of moral vultures, hovering over the countryside, waiting for deaths on the highway. Vultures, I hear, are often seen to drivel.




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Words and Things

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What the common people do,
The things that simple men believe,
I too believe and do.

Thus one of the old gentlemen in Euripides’ Bacchae. As often as honesty allows, I like to say that myself.

I think that even libertarianism is basically common sense, with an edge on it. Another commonsensical idea, which has always been a special concern of Word Watch, is the correspondence theory of truth — the idea that our words and concepts are true when they correspond with things that actually exist.

I know that much of modern philosophy is against this idea (as are such purported philosophies as deconstruction, postmodernism, and so forth). And I know that many interesting questions can be asked about the nature of the alleged correspondence. How is it that certain products of my neural fibers correspond to or represent a dog or a cat, or conceptualize the existence of dogs and cats? The fibers and their electrical charges aren’t the least bit like the animals. Neither are the words for dogs and cats. But if I say, “The cat is on the mat,” and you turn to the mat and see no cat upon it, I have not said the truth. You know it and I know it, and that settles the question, so far as I’m concerned.

If you aren’t interested in cats, perhaps you may be interested in the Japanese snow macaque recently found wandering in an Ikea parking lot in Toronto, dressed in a winter coat. The monkey’s name is Darwin (well, what else would you name a Japanese snow macaque?). Explaining why she left Darwin in her car (whence he escaped), the owner said that on an earlier visit, Ikea had thrown him out, claiming that he was a pet animal. “I said he was not a pet,” the owner reported; “he was my child.”

That argument didn’t work, and it hasn’t helped the owner get her monkey back from the wild animal refuge, Story Book Farm(!), to which an outraged government has now consigned him. A spokes-woman — or, perhaps, spokes-elf — for Story Book Farm has stated, “He’s just going to be who he is now and that’s a monkey.”

I’m uneasy about the state getting involved with Darwinism, one way or another, but I have to admit she’s right. The first thing I look for in words is a correspondence with reality, or at least somebody’s well-supported notion of reality. Darwin’s “mother” is known to have other children — two sons, 12 and 16. I wonder how they construe their mom’s remarks. Is she trying to make a monkey out of them?

The correspondence that I am seeking between words and things doesn’t have to be as obvious as Darwin’s monkeyhood. I have no ideological objection to obscurity in prose or verse. I can enjoy pursuing its meanings. After all, I wrote a book on William Blake. But I am disgusted with poets when their words persistently refuse to let me picture what they have in mind. The words don’t correspond with anything. Neither does saying that a monkey is your child.

By the same token, I am intensely pleased when I find an exact correspondence between word and thing, especially in places where I didn’t expect to find it. The political journalism of 1845 is not my favorite reading, but I clap my hands when I find in it the phrase “manifest destiny,” applied to America’s expansion to the Pacific. It seems to me an exact correspondence of phenomenon and phrase. I am troubled when people denounce or satirize this phrase, making light of the supposedly quaint or repellent idea that “it was somehow America’s ‘manifest destiny’ to expand its frontiers.”

Now, stand with me on a peak of the Sierra and behold California as she was in 1845. Its total population was about 100,000. The non-Indian population was about 10,000. About half of all adult, non-Indian males — the warrior class — had migrated to California from the United States. Mexico claimed the place but did nothing much about it. Several times the Spanish-speaking population, greatly given to civil disputes, had revolted against governors sent by Mexico City. The military resources and skills of the native Californians were rudimentary; nevertheless, they whiled away their idle hours by warring fecklessly with one another, attempting to avenge themselves on rebel Indians, and griping about the hegemony of Mexico.

Even libertarianism is basically common sense, with an edge on it.

Now turn for a moment and look back toward the Atlantic. There you will see a nation of 20 million people, expanding its population by over 30% a decade, and richer per capita than any other country, with an industrial network already reaching more than halfway across the continent, and a commercial empire reaching around the world. Ships leave New England and stop at Hawaii to pick up a crew for whale hunting, or proceed directly to San Diego to take on hides, the only considerable product of California. Meanwhile, during the past 30 years, the area of European settlement of the United States has advanced from a few hundred miles west of the Atlantic to a few hundred miles west of the Mississippi.

Are you going to tell me that it wasn’t the destiny of the United States to take California, and everything in the territory between — which was, with the exception of a tiny part of New Mexico, even less populated and less developed than California? Are you going to tell me that this destiny was not manifest?

Maybe you think the destiny was morally wrong. Maybe you think the United States had no right to take California, New Mexico, and so forth. If you do, good: you have something real to argue about. But if you’re going to argue that the destiny wasn’t manifest, then your words don’t correspond with reality, and why should anyone debate with you?

This word manifest is interesting. It means patent, evident, obvious. It has many uses. Its best use appears in number 78 of the Federalist papers, where Alexander Hamilton defends the principle of judicial review. Limited government, he says,

can be preserved in practice no other way than through the medium of courts of justice, whose duty it must be to declare all acts contrary to the manifest tenor of the Constitution void.

“Manifest tenor” — isn’t that a good way of putting it? Hamilton doesn’t just indicate that the Court has the power to “interpret” the Constitution: interpretation is a useful concept, but the word is likely to be misleading. It might suggest that the Constitution is a weird oracle whose meaning can be divined only by priests who visit it in the dark of night, there to discover what no one else could possibly have guessed. In other words, it might suggest what the Constitution has become, under the past eight decades of priestly divination.

“Manifest tenor” provides a firmer connection between judicial opinions and the document they are supposed to be about. Do you really think that when Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the power “to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes,” it means that Congress can force you to buy health insurance, or tax you to preserve snail darters, or keep you from draining mud puddles (“vernal pools”) out of your back yard? Do you really think that is the manifest tenor of the commerce clause?

If you do, may Madison and Hamilton have mercy on you. You are either (A) too stupid to meddle with words, (B) too ignorant to know what words mean, (C) too cowed by authority to object to the teachings of the legal scribes and Pharisees, (D) too ambitious for your own political ideals to observe the ethics of words and things.

Some libertarians (not to mention armies of modern liberals and conservatives) persuade themselves that the words of the Constitution correspond to anything that we ourselves want them to correspond to, whether manifest to anyone else or not.

I am sorry to say this, but some libertarians (not to mention armies of modern liberals and conservatives) fall into one or more of those four categories. They persuade themselves that the words of the Constitution correspond to anything that we ourselves want them to correspond to, whether manifest to anyone else or not. For instance, they find a universal right to privacy in the first amendment, though it contains no words to correspond with such a right, and much of the rest of the Constitution conflicts with it. They believe that the general principles on which the Bill of Rights was based include all kinds of ideas about self-ownership, as we libertarians construe it, and consequently about privacy, as we also construe that mysterious object of discussion.

This is the same logic that every political faction currently pursues in its approach to the Constitution, but that doesn’t make it legitimate. One might as well argue that when Moses outlawed adultery, he was really upholding the value of love, so the meaning of the seventh commandment, when properly interpreted, is that you can have sex with anyone you really like. Probably no one would say that about Moses, because (thank God) the American state is not governed by the Ten Commandments; but if it were, people would indeed say that, and having said it, view themselves not as political propagandists but as wise interpreters of the law.

Before you write in to complain, let me assure you that I have very warm feelings toward privacy and none at all toward sexual repression. But I am a lowly literary scholar, and I would be kicked out of my guild if I took one-tenth the liberties of interpretation with Treasure Island that constitutional scholars take with the Constitution — which is, after all, a work of literature, in which words were originally thought to correspond with things, and specific things, too, or there would have been no purpose in writing a Constitution.

Well. Now that I’ve tempted many of my friends into becoming my embittered enemies, I will proceed to another bone of political contention: the word mandate, as in “the president has a mandate.”

What is a mandate? It is a grant of power. In modern democratic usage it means a power granted, by a large majority of the electorate, to the winner of an election, giving him or her legitimacy to do whatever he or she promised to do during the election campaign. It goes beyond happening to win; it means winning big, winning so big that one’s policies have been unquestionably approved.

Since President Obama’s victory, we have heard much talk of mandates. Let’s see whether that word might possibly correspond with any thing now manifest in the political world.

Certainly the Republicans didn’t get a mandate; that we know. Did the president?

In the election of 2012, he achieved a majority of 51% — a figure that notably lacks the compelling force one associates with mandates. Fifty-one percent suggests words like barely, hum-drum, and by the skin of his teeth. An interesting fact is that in 2008, Obama reached a majority of 53% — not a mandate either, but 2% closer to one. But let’s put this in a wider context. In 2004, George Bush got 50.7%, up from 48% in 2000, and not very different from Obama’s achievement this year.

Here are the reelection scores of the other presidents who have sought a second full term since 1950 (significantly omitting Presidents Ford, Carter, and George H.W. Bush, who sought reelection but lost): Eisenhower, 57.4%; Nixon, 60.7%; Reagan, 59%; Clinton, 49.2%. Clinton is obviously the outlier (or low lier), but all these people, including Clinton, greatly improved their performance from the first to the second election. They all advanced by more than 6% — all except Eisenhower (2.2%). But Eisenhower started high, with a 55.2% majority in his first election.

So Obama started low, went lower. No mandate there, and no correspondence between event and polemical description.

Yet in political discourse, there is such a thing as sliding completely off the bridge between word and fact. I don’t mean lying; there’s a sort of correspondence even in that. Congressman X takes money to pass a bill; Congressman X, accused of doing so, replies, “I never took money to pass that bill.” We know what he’s denying. He’s lying, and he’s guilty; nevertheless, we’re all speaking the same language. Sometimes, however, there’s simply no connection between language and anything that’s real.

President Obama is becoming so proficient at sliding off the bridge and swimming to some other shore that most political writers have lost track of him completely. He and several less able henchmen have attempted this feat about Benghazi. Some of them have had to swim for their lives. But Obama has always managed to turn up in the next county, without either friends or critics being able to see just how he got there.

His best stunt so far has been to commission an investigation of what he and his friends did on the night of September 11, 2012, when our consular facilities in Benghazi were being attacked, and to refuse all comment on what he himself did, until his investigation figures out what it was. Is that elusive, or what? But so far, only Liberty’s Steve Murphy has commented on it. Steve did so on November 24:

When asked . . . what he had done to protect American lives in Benghazi, Obama had no answer, referencing investigations and muttering, "We will provide all the information that is available about what happened on that day." Evidently, the president needs investigations to determine whether or not he gave an order on September 11, 2012.

You would expect every media writer to exclaim, “Mr. President! What are you talking about?” But few media writers are as observant as Steve Murphy.

Often, indeed, and not just with Obama coverage, a lack of correspondence between word and thing seems inescapable; it’s right there in the reporters’ own words, but it escapes their notice.

Carl Isackson advises Word Watch of one such instance. “The Feds,” he says,

. . . have decided to shut down the last oyster cannery in California to make a marine wilderness area at Drake's Bay. The oyster farm has been in biz over 80 years.

This is the line I like from the newspaper article: "The estuary is home to tens of thousands of endangered birds . . ."

Next time you’re in Northern California, watch out. You may be smothered by endangered species. Then you’ll see who’s endangered, all right.

Unlike some conservatives, I don’t consider Christmas an endangered species. If it is, there are still tens of millions of places where it roosts. But I am disheartened by the many years that have passed since government and corporate officials started insisting that people stop saying “Merry Christmas,” putting up “Christmas trees,” or whistling “Joy to the World,” and confine themselves to “Season’s Greetings,” “holiday trees,” “winter celebrations,” and “Jingle Bells.”

This is bogus, and manifestly so. December 25 is a holiday in honor of the birth of Christ. That is the holiday in question. The concept (holiday) corresponds to the day, Christmas, not to winter or some anonymous season that happens to be winter (who the hell would celebrate sludge and snow?). Nothing could be clearer. If you don’t want to celebrate Christmas, don’t. And if you want to redefine it as a celebration of the winter or the “season,” knock yourself out. But why insist that other people conform to your struggle against the correspondence theory of language? The word Christmas means the thing Christmas. That doesn’t mean you have to go to church.

And in that spirit, faithful readers, I wish you a very merry Christmas, however you celebrate or do not celebrate that day. For many years, you’ve followed this column — endured it, contributed to it, reproved it, and, by your reproofs, educated its author in ways he never could have predicted. Everything you’ve done has been encouraging. More than that, it has been fun. No one could want a better gift than intelligent attention, agreement, and dissent. So, thankful for having the best readers in the world, I wish, as always, every good gift for you — and good times for all of us, as we continue our friendship in 2013.




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The Debates: An Autopsy

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In the last version of this column, promises were made that the presidential debates would be noticed at some time in the future. These promises will be fulfilled.

Indeed, the fulfillment is already on its way: the debates were noticed in my very last sentence. So there. If I were running for public office, I could now inform you that the issue has been addressed, and it is time to move on. The American people are no longer interested in debates. They are interested in jobs.

So that is what I came to talk to you about today. Word Watch has a ten-point program to grow the economy.

Point One: Reduce the size of government.
Point Two: Reduce the size of government.
Point Three: Reduce the size of government.
Point Four . . . .

How’s that? If Word Watch were running for public office, that is what Word Watch would say.

But Word Watch is not running for office, so it will take the politically unprecedented step of fulfilling its promise. It will dissect the presidential and vice presidential debates.

The debates were chiefly significant for showing that Obama wasn’t the great speaker that people had always been told he was, and that maybe they had thought he was — while hitting the channel changer as soon as he reached the third sentence on his teleprompter. The debates also showed that Romney wasn’t a particularly bad speaker or a particularly bad person. As Michael Barone commented on October 27, they even demonstrated that Romney was more articulate than Obama.

To borrow a Randian way of looking at things, both candidates showed themselves curiously selfless. They weren’t interested enough in their own ideas even to represent them clearly.

I’m not putting Romney’s skills too high; as you know, this column has never considered it hard to beat Obama at the word game. After all, even Joe the Plumber did it. Compared to old-time politicians, Obama is basically nothing. He doesn’t know any more words than they did, and his grammar isn’t any better. His range of allusions is much more limited than theirs (they could quote Shakespeare and the Bible, while he appears to live in a world without any books at all); and he doesn’t know any good stories. He is as stiff as a high school principal who has attended Toastmasters on two separate and distinct Thursday evenings, and his self-importance is untiring. It doesn’t take much to overtake Obama in the oratory department.

Nevertheless, Romney did it. Don’t ask me to cite examples of his verbal brilliance; there weren’t any. But given the competition, they weren’t needed. When, in the second and third presidential debates, Obama “revived,” “woke up,” or “agreed to participate” — however you want to put it — he did even more to show what he is: snarky, snippy, evasive, demagogic, unwarrantably superior, bored or angry with everyone except his slavish adorers.

Both candidates spoke in ways that reveal their refusal to think about words in any except the most brutally instrumental manner — by which I mean considering words only as tools for turning out the vote. Beyond that goal, there was no attempt to enlighten or even to entertain, no attempt to show who one is or what, exactly, one thinks. In that sense, to borrow a Randian way of looking at things, both candidates showed themselves curiously selfless. They weren’t interested enough in their own ideas even to represent them clearly.

For instance, neither of them had any suspicion that “we need to grow the economy” or “I have a plan to grow the economy” might be an empty substitute for some real meaning. They swathed their vast, vague plans in a grossly inappropriate image of the economy as a natural object like a radish or a squash, some little object that you can grow. No reflective person uses language like that; only lazy minds choose the default setting, assuming that other lazy minds will relate to whatever clichés happen to waft their way.

Obama, of course, prides himself on his ability to communicate with the rubes. So he mentioned folks and workin’ people as often as he could, and he recited such phrases as “educating our workers” and “retraining our workers.” “Goodness,” said Jed Leland, responding to Citizen Kane’s campaign speeches about the downtrodden working people, “you talk as if you owned them.” If Obama knew the impression his words really create, he wouldn’t use them. But he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t even know that. And his self-knowledge is even feebler than his knowledge of the world. Again, it is the hollow man who lusts for power.

Of course, the candidates’ words were hardly news. They were so familiar that Charles Krauthammer characterized the last debate as the “national soporific,” the national “Ambien.” He’s a doctor, and he ought to know. I would say the same thing about the other debates, too, including the vice presidential one. That was interesting if you enjoy sitting in a bar and listening while an ancient blowhard recycles all his familiar comments about himself, the workin’ people, and the greatness of Harry S. Truman. The only thing that interested me about Biden’s uncouth performance was his pretended embodiment of the “blue-collar America” I grew up with. Some working man — the guy was a senator for 36years! But he does a great imitation of the sneering, ass-scratching, proud-to-be-ignorant loudmouth who makes life miserable for the other guys on the assembly line. This was a type that was never very popular among real working people, and its popularity with the Democratic Party elite, none of whom ever worked a day in their lives, shows you something bad about American political culture.

So much for the nauseating debates. Their salient feature was the cynicism they manifested, and aroused. Everyone who talked about them focused solely on their (for want of a lower word) rhetorical effects, having completely discounted the idea that anything of substance might actually emerge. The talk was always about how Obama will deflect criticism or how favorably Romney will be perceived, never for so much as ten seconds about any thoughts that either candidate might convey. After the last debate, all the conservatives who had insisted that Romney could succeed only if he went for Obama’s throat, especially about Libya, went on television to praise his statesmanlike restraint. They thought it had a positive impact on the audience.

Maybe they were right. But they magnified the already overwhelming cynicism that surrounded these events. The commentators all (rightly) assumed that the debates were a publicity stunt, and were apparently content with that. Dick Morris, holding forth on the “O’Reilly Show,” admitted to squirming as he watched one of the affairs, but his conclusion was: “The important thing in this debate was that women did not think he [Romney] was a warmonger. . . . It was a skillful debate on Romney’s part.” That may be true — but only because neither candidate was expected to provide as much real instruction as you get from your senile uncle, discussing his adventures as a young man, delivering auto parts in and around Cincinnati.

Biden does a great imitation of the sneering, ass-scratching, proud-to-be-ignorant loudmouth who makes life miserable for the other guys on the assembly line.

There’s a certain comfort in discovering that it wasn’t just the politicos who refused to take the debates seriously. As far as I could tell, nobody did. Since the debates weren’t serious, that’s a good thing. What I regret, even more than the lack of intellectual seriousness, is the lack of words — real words, interesting words, memorable words, words that could actually engage a normal person’s mind, rather than prompting that person to speculate about the impression they would make on someone of abnormally low intelligence.

It was not always thus. I’ve been reading Robert Douthat Meade’s old biography of Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate statesman. Meade was a competent writer, and Benjamin was a colorful character, so the book is always fun. But in the present context, what’s remarkable is how interesting words used to be, even when they emerged without a hint of preparation or intention to wow the mentally deficient. I’ll share one sample with you.

When Benjamin was a US senator from Louisiana, he got into an angry debate with Jefferson Davis, then a senator from Mississippi, over the details of a military appropriation. It was an impromptu quarrel that began when Davis, in a bad mood, answered an inquiry from Benjamin in a flippant way. This exchange followed:

Benjamin: It is very easy for the Senator from Mississippi to give a sneering reply to what was certainly a very respectful inquiry.

Davis: I consider it is an attempt to misrepresent a very plain remark.

Benjamin: The Senator is mistaken, and has no right to state any such thing. His manner is not agreeable at all.

Davis: If the Senator happens to find it disagreeable, I hope he will keep it to himself.

Benjamin: When directed to me, I will not keep it to myself; I will repel it instanter.

Davis: You have got it, sir.

Benjamin: That is enough, sir.

If you’re like me, you care nothing about the subject of this dispute, but you enjoy the language. You even want to know what happened next.

So here it is: Benjamin sent Davis a letter challenging him to a duel — a gesture at once more serious and more interesting than any of the silly grimaces, chats with friendly folks, and public visits to fast-food joints that we got from this year’s political antagonists. And Davis responded in an interesting way: he tore up Benjamin’s challenge, telling the messenger, “I will make this all right at once. I have been wholly wrong.” He publicly apologized, and Benjamin handsomely accepted his apology. Three years later, Davis appointed Benjamin to his cabinet, and he became the second most important personality in the Confederate government.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a revival of the Confederacy. I am advocating a revival of the English language.




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The Non-Political Side of Life

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At times like this, we all need to be reminded that there is a world outside of politics — a world of wonders that has nothing to do with Mitt Romney or Barack Obama. I was recently reminded of that when I spent a few days on Isle Royale.

If you’re like all of my friends but one, you have never heard of Isle Royale. So think of Lake Superior, the way it looks on the map. It looks like a wolf’s head, pointing west. The eye of the wolf is Isle Royale. It’s 50 miles long and 10 miles wide, and as Grace Lee Nute wrote in her book about the greatest of all lakes, “It is not really an island at all, but a miniature continent, surrounded by its own islands.” Isle Royale is part of Michigan, the land of shibboleths, so its name is naturally pronounced differently from what you would expect. It isn’t “roy-ALL”; it’s “ROY-ull.” (In Michigan, Charlotte is “shar-LOT,” Lake Orion is “Lake OH-ree-on,” Mackinac is “MACK-in-aw,” and Sault Ste. Marie is “the Soo.”)

Nobody lives all year long on Isle Royale; it’s a national park with a lodge and places to camp and a lot of not-very-well-frequented trails into forest, steep, and swamp. There are moose, and I saw their tracks. There are fox, and I saw their spoors. There is a tribe of wolves, and I didn’t see any part of them. The Lake is perfectly clear, and at dawn the planet Venus shines not like a star but like a silver door left open in the sky.

Very little has ever happened on Isle Royale. Starting 5,000 years ago, Indians mined copper there, and it’s a big thrill to see the little pits where they did that. The stuff traded all over North America, and perhaps beyond. But they didn’t live there, either. In the 19th century white people tried large-scale mining, and failed; the ores weren’t good enough. Independent souls established outposts where they fished and sold their catch to ships that called at the island. The biggest excitement was the occasional ship that managed to wreck itself, running into Isle Royale. In the 1930s, do-gooders decided to protect the island from the nondevelopment that was taking place, and the national park was established.

Nobody I encountered, even the loudmouths in the bar and grill, showed the slightest interest in politics.

Why am I telling you all this? Because there’s no television on the island; there’s no cell phone service; and there’s only one hot spot for the internet — which I saw nobody using except me. I didn’t even know it existed until my last day on the island. And nobody I encountered, even the loudmouths in the bar and grill, showed the slightest interest in politics, or curiosity about what was happening in the desperate electoral war being waged in The Battleground States.

This attitude continued in evidence when I took the boat back to Houghton, Michigan (80 miles away). Nobody there — even, again, the loudmouths, and they’ve got a few of them in Houghton, too — had anything to say about politics. In Houghton’s twin city, Hancock, I saw a huge Ron Paul sign hanging from someone’s porch, but that was it. This indifference to civic virtue didn’t seem to have any harmful effect on people’s moral stature. During the long boat ride, I noticed that everyone, ultimately including me, left all valuable articles — computers, purses, cameras, small but expensive gear — just lying around on the seats: no crime was anticipated. In Hancock, I attended one of the local churches, which like everything else in Upper Michigan is seriously down on its luck but in which the tiny congregation frankly and cheerfully discussed its history, prospects, and current business with the chance visitor from Southern California. After a long conversation over coffee in the basement social hall, the last person left (I had exhausted all the others) asked whether I’d had a chance to study the century-old carvings around the altar, upstairs. “No,” I said. “Do you have a couple of minutes to show me?” “Oh,” she replied, gripping her walker and swiveling herself up from the table, “my ride is here, and I have to go. Just look around, and close the door behind you when you go.” No problem; I probably wouldn’t hurt anything. So for the next two hours I had the opportunity to enjoy some of the most remarkable works of art I’ve ever seen. No advertising words had been used. Nobody talked about “Houghton’s iconic church” or claimed that its décor was “legendary,” “famous,” or (heaven forfend) “infamous.” It was just there, if you wanted to see it. Take a look.

Wonders of the nonpolitical world.

Unfortunately, however, I need to be fair. I am not one of those libertarians who think that all would be well if the state would just wither. The world of nonpolitics has its heavens, but it also has its hells. Liberty’s observant managing editor, Drew Ferguson, located two of them the other day. They are visions from which even Dante Alighieri would turn in horror.

Of course I’m exaggerating, at least about the first one. But it does involve dying. It’s the headline that TV station WBTV (wherever that is) gave to one of its stories: “MAN KILLED TO DEATH.” It’s possible, barely possible, that whoever wrote that headline had in mind the words of the Revelation of St. John the Divine (2:23), in which Jesus says of an ideological enemy, “I will kill her children with death.” But probably not.

Drew’s other find was much worse, and much more elaborate.

Georgia Tech, I am sorry to report, has been going through a spiritual crisis. It has felt the need to “reenergize its look, while staying connected with its past.” It is, therefore, doing what other collective souls in crisis have done. It is “showcasing” new football uniforms.

To me (but what do I know?) these new football suits look exactly like all the others. But the ramblin’ wrecks from Georgia Tech know better. Among the “Jersey Highlights” are the following (and I quote):

• New custom Georgia Tech sublimation pattern on the neck front, sleeves and back insert
• New custom stretch twill numbers that reduce jersey weight and provide a leaner fit as compared to standard fabric numbers
• New custom sublimation number pattern and font featuring "GT navy" honeycomb
• New "GT gold" banded edge offsets sublimation pattern for sharper contrast at stitch borders
• Extreme Compression tight fit fabric minimizes grab capabilities by opponents
• Lower mesh insert on front and back for ultimate breathability

“I’m sold!” was Drew’s remark.

But what, you may ask, is a “sublimation pattern”?

I would remind you that every art has its lingo, and that technical words, which look like nonsense to the uninitiated, must often be used by professionals. “Sublimation pattern” is a perfect example. I haven’t the faintest idea what that could mean. If you know, please contact Liberty. I do know, however, because the manufacturers have divulged this information, that the outfit as a whole “catalyze[s] a spirit of enthusiasm for the season ahead.”

Of course, this stuff is benign, compared to political oratory.

Not quite so benign, but similar in effect to the football-uniform puffery, is the allegedly technical language of social scientists. A grad student at Princeton, who wishes to remain anonymous, obliged this column by reporting the following sample, taken from an academic disquisition of some kind. The mighty problem that engages its author is the old issue of whether people can be attracted to each other, despite their differences. He concludes that they are attracted, until they aren’t. In other words, you may think I’m fun because I’m different, but you’ll tell me to get lost if my difference gets too large. Here’s the great social scientist’s way of putting it:

Consider “Like attracts like” versus “Opposites attract each other.” . . . [I]f attractiveness is an inversely U-shaped function of novelty or similarity, each of the two opposing mechanisms might simply describe different parts of the curve. . . . [U]ltimately, some optimal level is reached, whereafter increases in the independent variable are held to give rise to reductions in liking.

 

Ya gotta love it.

I’m told that the paper from which this sample is drawn gets handed out frequently in classes at famous colleges like Princeton, and that students think it’s hilariously funny. I hope that’s why the professors hand it out. Where would we be if they actually thought it meant something?

Among the entirely nongovernmental institutions I cherish is the peculiarly American phenomenon of the fortune cookie. (No, they don’t come from China; they are as American as you and I, whoever we are.) But have you noticed that their quality has been declining? This decline is, in fact, disastrous; it represents a total misunderstanding of the genre.

A fortune cookie is supposed to give you a fortune. Picture yourself going to a fortuneteller. She (almost all of them are she’s) looks into your hand and says, “I foresee there will be problems in your life from the young ambitious one, and also from the lady with gray eyes.” She blathers on like that for a few minutes, then indicates that this is the point where you’re supposed to leave, or give her another 20 bucks and get your other palm read too. So you give her the other 20, and she starts in about how the man from southern parts will bless you with his business, but there will be much danger from accidents with cars.

No, this isn’t specific enough to ruin your day, but at least you feel that she’s given you some of your money’s worth.

Apparently, however, the fortune cookie people figure that by the time their product arrives at your table, you’ve already eaten the meal and have to pay the check, so why should they bother to come up with a fortune? So they give you something else.

This is what passed for a “fortune” on one of my recent visits to Chinese cuisine:

Your future looks bright.

What? That’s a fortune? No, it’s not.

My friend Mehmet, who was with me on that expedition and therefore had to put up with my rant, made this suggestion: “Maybe it should say, ‘Your October 12 looks bright.’” Well, yes. That would be an improvement.

On another recent occasion, Mehmet and I were both handed that most pathetic of all substitutes for a fortune — good advice.

Let’s think for a moment. Suppose there’s something wrong with you. You keep having these blinding headaches. So you go to a doctor. Or maybe you go to a “spiritual counselor” of some kind. No difference. You want to know what’s going on, and what’slikely to result. In short, you want your fortune told. And suppose the person whom you’re consulting looks you in the eye and says, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”

“Huh?” you ask.

“A stitch in time saves nine,” he continues. “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.”

You would, I am sure, be tempted to commit assault and battery, not to mention stiffing the jerk when he presented the bill.

So you can imagine my feelings when, on that other recent occasion, I looked at my fortune and saw:

A good beginning is only half done.

What the . . . ? What kind of human being would write crap like that, and put it in an innocent lump of dough?

As I looked at the squirrely little slip of paper, my whole life flashed before my eyes. I vividly remembered the summer when my parents, who were very averse to travel, actually took me on a trip to New York City. In the restaurants along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, which were then very nice, and fascinating to little kids from Michigan, there were scales into which you could insert a quarter and receive, along with your weight, a long, narrow, tightly rolled piece of paper that contained your fortune, reckoned according to your astrological sign. The thing was vastly specific; it must have had 2000 words in it, with all sorts of numbers and figures and days of the week and months of the year and forecasts about what would happen to you on every day of the next month. It was wonderful. I cherished it, and hid it in my hands in the back seat of the car, because if my parents saw it they would not only scoff but probably take it away from me, as a warning against superstition. I have no faith in divination whatsoever, but I wish I had that fascinating object now. It was a work of art.

I do know, however, because the manufacturers have divulged this information, that the outfit as a whole “catalyzes a spirit of enthusiasm for the season ahead.”

Soon after that, The Old Farmer’s Almanac swam into my childish field of vision. In those days, it wasn’t a bland modern-liberal throwaway, as it is now. It not only presented wonderful astronomical data, full of weird symbols and funny expressions (“ecliptic,” “the moon rides low”); it had Features that were real Features, by God. My first acquaintance with The Rime of the Ancient Mariner came from its reprinting in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, which also ran the Doré illustrations — mysterious, tantalizing, unforgettable. In those times, the OFA still asserted that it had a secret algorithm for predicting the weather, and it gave out its meteorological forecasts in rhymed poetry. Oh my! What a wonderful thing.

But here, sitting on the table, amid the ruins of the cookie I destroyed to free the verbal genie from its bottle, is a “fortune” that says:

A good beginning is only half done.

That doesn’t even make sense. What would it mean to “do” a “beginning”? And how would a beginning be “good” if there was only “half” of it?

As always, Mehmet came out with a cogent comment. “It’s like the Donner Party,” he said. “This isn’t so bad; it’s only begun.” At first, the people in the Donner Party may have thought that a couple more inches of snow wouldn’t really mean very much . . .

Come to think of it, that comment — “it’s like the Donner Party” — is a pretty good summary of political discourse. It tempts me to drift back to what might, with too much generosity, be called the rhetoric of the present campaign. So I’ll quit while I’m ahead — or, in fortune cookie language, leave while my good beginning is still half done.




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No Armistice in Sight

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Recently in this journal Robert Miller made the apt observation that Stalin’s Soviet Union was the only country that had to fight on just one front in World War II. All the others had to battle at least two forces simultaneously. Pity Word Watch, which is always fighting on a dozen fronts.

Some of these are characterized by chronic trench warfare. Last month, I noted that Karl Rove is too polite to speak the word “hell.” He says “heck” instead. This month, I have been informed by Brit Hume, in an interview he gave to Fox News, that Mitt Romney won’t even come that close to hell. Romney says something like “h, e, toothpicks.” I’m not kidding. Just when you think the forces of freedom have broken through the prudery line, you find them repelled, once again, by Republicans.

Meanwhile, President Obama, former recreational drug user, goes on the Jimmy Fallon show, stylishly and smirkingly calls marijuana “weed,” and claims of his administration: “What we are trying to do when it comes to drugs is treating it [sic — there’s another battlefront: the president’s wretched grammar] as a public health problem. When we provide prevention and education to folks, that can make a huge difference." Barack Obama, chief law enforcement agent of the United States, the man who is currently persecuting medical marijuana dispensaries (thus "providing prevention and education to folks"), is capable of saying things like this.

So that’s four fronts, right there. Bad grammar, scrambled syntax (in normal life, do we ever hear phrases like "provide prevention"?), condescension ("folks"), and sheer hypocrisy. The war continues.

Here’s another battle that the Rebel Alliance has been fighting for years, against the united forces of the Empire — though victory may now be in sight, because Brit Hume has joined the rebel cause. On July 30, the eponymous host of the "O’Reilly Show" asked Hume whether Sarah Palin, a person whom neither of them seems to like, was “prepared to run the country.” Instead of responding in the normal, softball way, or even going after the question directly, Hume said, “I don’t think the president runs the country, but the government, perhaps, or the executive branch.“

Just when you think the forces of freedom have broken through the prudery line, you find them repelled, once again, by Republicans.

This column has been harping on that “runs the country,” “runs the state,” “runs the city” locution for years. It’s one of the main bastions of statism. It insinuates — nay, preaches — the idea that we elect politicians to run things — to run our nation, our homes, ourexistence, us. Things are bad enough as they are, but just imagine Barack Obama actually running the United States, as people run hardware stores or their children’s lives. I’m not risking much by speculating that within a month we would all be starving. And in place of Barry Obama, insert any political functionary you please, with an option to replace “United States” with California, Oklahoma, Peoria, or Rives Junction.

Speaking of California, there’s a linguistic battlefront if ever there was one. Last month, I called particular attention to Gov. Jerry Brown’s relentless assaults on the English language. Since then, he’s reiterated his attacks with a phrase that he apparently thinks is invincible, because it declares invincibility. It’s an odd phrase, hubristic — the kind of phrase that isn’t supposed to be used in a democratic society. It is “crush the opposition.”

In talking, for instance, about “clean” energy (nobody ever talks about dirty energy; if it’s dirty, it’s not energetic, I guess), he recites a Satanic mantra, in which hypocrisy and brutality are conceived as virtues. First, he says, you need to "talk a little bit” to people. This is apparently supposed to neutralize their opposition. Then, he says, “at the end of the day you have to move forward.” So much for talk; you had no intention of listening. Now what you do is something he claims to have learned “in Oakland” — as if Oakland, where he once was mayor, were a school of civic conduct, like Philadelphia in the days of Washington and Madison. But what did he learn? “I learned that some kind of opposition you have to crush.” By that he means opposition to his plans to save the environment by imposing ever more restrictive regulations, and also opposition to his plans to ruin the environment by slashing a 200-billion-dollar railroad across 500 miles of outraged landscape.

There’s more. Brown avers, "We need a centralized base of arbitrary intervention to overcome the distributed political power that is blocking forward progress.” James Madison couldn’t have said it any better — that’s exactly what republican government , with its distributed political powers, exists to frustrate: the centralized bases of arbitrary intervention. To the classical American, classical liberal way of thinking, the clearest sign of illegitimate government is a reliance on or boasting aboutarbitrary power. Nothing could be clearer. Yet virtually no one in my besotted state has called attention to Brown’s absurdly authoritarian rants.

Maybe people have accepted the mindset of the political ad men, for whom the meanings of words are the last things to be taken seriously. And look out — here’s another incoming from that quarter. Did you know that what most of us call attack ads are commonly called, by the people who produce them, contrasting ads? This came out when the two presidential campaigns allegedly suspended their contrasting ads because of the Colorado theater shootings. “Contrasting”? Well, yes, those ads present a steady contrast to truth and decency.

Just imagine Barack Obama actually running the United States, as people run hardware stores or their children’s lives. I’m not risking much by speculating that within a month we would all be starving.

Such ads are also called negative campaigning — which reminds me of yet another front. This column is a frequent complainer against the word negative, when used as a synonym for unfavorable, slanderous, vicious, Hitlerian, or any of the thousand other meaningful adjectives for which unfavorable can be an ignorant stand-in. I don’t care about the 99% of the populace that uses negative because it can’t think of any other word. It’s incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial what 99% of the populace thinks about certain subjects, and this is one of them. Negative is appropriate only to mathematics and old-fashioned film processing. Otherwise, it’s just a cover-up for what you really mean. Don’t get me started on that. I mean, don’t get me restarted.

I’m moving on, now, to the Jay Carney front. Jay Carney is that little guy who looks like he’s 16 years old, and actually talks like the 16-year-old know it all, the little brat in your sophomore class who kept talking and talking, confidently reciting every cliché he’d ever heard, despite being as dumb as an ox? Yeah, that one. So here’s Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary, as quoted on Real Clear Politics, July 26. Carney was asked what does the administration regard as the capital of Israel.

Jay Carney: Um... I haven't had that question in a while. Our position has not changed. Can we, uh...

Reporter: What is the capital [of Israel]?

Jay Carney: You know our position.

Reporter: I don't.

Lester Kinsolving, World Net Daily: No, no. She doesn't know, that's why she asked.

Carney: She does know.

Reporter: I don't.

Kinsolving: She does not know. She just said that she does not know. I don't know.

Carney: We have long, let's not call on...

Kinsolving: Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?

Carney: You know the answer to that.

Kinsolving: I don't know the answer. We don't know the answer. Could you just give us an answer? What do you recognize? What does the administration recognize?

Carney: Our position has not changed.

Kinsolving: What position?

Carney then moved on to another question.

Now, I know, and you know, that anything having to do with the Middle East is Fraught with Political Terror and, for all I know, Peril. But Carney's line is that the administration has a position, that everyone knows it, and that he refuses to state it. This can be a little bit frustrating, if you want to find something out. I must say, however, that Carney's babble contributes a good deal to my self-satisfaction, as it should to yours. There isn't a reader of Liberty, anywhere in the world, who would ever go on as he does.

One function of Liberty, however, is to show that life does not consist of politics alone. That’s the libertarian idea, is it not? Freedom from politics? And it’s the right idea. It encourages us to enjoy all those parts of life that (thank God!) remain private and nonpolitical.

Unfortunately, it also obliges us to observe those bloody assassinations of language that occur even outside the political arena.

Here’s one. It’s a news article (http://updatednews.ca/2012/07/27/1100-pounds-white-sturgeon-caught-in-canada/) about somebody who caught and, I am happy to say, released a sturgeon weighing 1,100 pounds. I like to eat fish, but when fish get that big, they’re old, and eld has an aura of romance. I love to think about animals that long survive their owners — so long as the owners aren’t me.

The article says, “Incredibly, this massive sturgeon, a prehistoric species, might have been hatched the year the Titanic sank.”

Here's a little platoon of words that is vulnerable from so many angles, I hardly know where to start.

First, I’d like to observe that we’re looking at a normal sentence, as “normal” is understood in the nuthouse of the contemporary media.

Second, I want to say that I am the author of a book about the Titanic (The Titanic Storygo buy it on Amazon), but even I have tired of seeing 1912 represented as the linchpin, the benchmark, the a quo and ad quem of universal history. So what if a fish was hatched in the year the Titanic sank?

Third, there’s this idea — or unfocused interjection — about things that are incredible or unbelievable.The existence of a hundred-year old fish is something I am very capable of crediting. I am very well prepared to believe that there are entities in this world that have existed since 1912. I worship in a church that — believe it or not! — was built in 1912, the year the Titanic sank. The sidewalk in front of my house was laid some years earlier. I have actually known people who were alive, even before 1912and many people who were hatched in the year itself. When you get to the age of Adwaitya the Tortoise (“Adwaitya, R.I.P.,” Liberty, June 2006, pp. 9–11), then I’ll start paying attention.

Fourth, one fish (“this massive sturgeon”) is not a species.

But, thinking of that, the fifth and truly awful thing is the oohing and ahhing about the “prehistoric species.” All species are prehistoric. Do you think the Lord waited around till somebody was able to write history, before he started evolving sturgeons? Or pandas, or jackals, or smelt? Or us?

Are we really fighting it out on this line? Well, all right, I’ll go on fighting, even if it takes all summer.

But speaking of us (look out, this is going to be an amazing transition), you may have noticed that people sometimes write comments to Liberty accusing us of being weak libertarians, insufficient libertarians, quasi-libertarians, non-libertarians, anti-libertarians, and even worse forms of libertarians. (The phrases are synonymous, their different forms resulting merely from which side of the bed the author woke up on.) The sad truth is that, despite what anybody thinks, we are libertarianssimply, thoroughly, and intrinsically.The nice thing is that libertarians can actually disagree with one another, and violently too, without reading one another out of the family.

So what if a fish was hatched in the year the Titanic sank?

Another nice thing, which I’d like to notice, has to do with the readers who periodically write in to say that Liberty repeats the Republicans’ “talking points.” When I read that, I start laughing. But I hope it comes true. I hope I live to see the day when either the Republicans or the Democrats, or both, actually agree, in their talking points, with the principles of individual freedom advocated by Liberty’s authors (each proceeding in his or her own way, mind you), and agree so fully that Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and libertarians can scarcely be distinguished.

I am sorry to say, however, that if Karl Rove ever becomes a libertarian, he will probably still be saying “heck.”

Therefore the fight continues.




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Dangerous Mood Swings

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On June 27, appearing on the Hannity show, Karl Rove responded to a question about what would have happened if President Bush had set aside laws in the way in which President Obama set aside the immigration law. “All heck would have broken loose,” Rove replied.

Karl Rove is 61 years old. He was talking on the network that runs the “Red Eye” show (which, unlike the Hannity show, is pretty good once you get used to it). But he wouldn’t say the word “hell.” He said “heck” instead. And “hell” isn’t a coarse expletive. It isn’t even an expletive, really. It is rumored to be a place. Yet Rove was behaving like the clergyman whom Alexander Pope satirized 300 years ago — the “soft dean” who “never mentions hell to ears polite.”

Ordinarily, as you know, this column collects examples of verbal ineptitude, comments upon them, and weaves the commentary subtly into one thematic whole. This month, that can’t be done. There are just too many discrete (in the sense of separate) bits of wreckage flying past us. One can only gaze and marvel as they cross the eerie sky that we call modern discourse.

Look, there’s another one! Have you noticed that every single “public figure” you encounter now says “we” when he or she can’t possibly mean anything more than “I”? People of all parties do this. Ron Paul does it. Barack Obama does it. Mitt Romney does it all the time. Scott Walker, who relieved some of my worries about the future of the republic by winning his recall election in Wisconsin, does it so often and so confusedly that I can hardly stand to listen to the poor guy. It used to be that politicians were laughable because they said “I” all the time. Now they say “I” in a much more nauseating way. They use a “we” that means, simultaneously, “I am too humble to say ‘I,’” and “I am too mighty to say ‘I’ — observe the hosts that follow me.” Actually, of course, the person saying “we” is just that one strange-looking guy, standing at the bottom of the swimming pool, talking incessantly to himself.

On to the next disaster. San Francisco has just experienced a mass landing of verbal flying saucers. There exists in that city a man named Larry Brinkin. Thirty years ago, this man sued his employer, the Southern Pacific Railway, for allegedly refusing to give him three days off to mourn the death of his male lover, the same three days the company allegedly gave straight people to mourn the deaths of their spouses. Because Brinkin kept doing things like that, he was given a job as an enforcer for something called the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which uses tax money to procure the votes of modern liberals by hunting down private individuals who allegedly treat gay people, “transgendered people,” foreign people, fat people, short people, and probably many other people in “discriminatory” ways. One of Brinkin’s accomplishments, I believe, was spending years worrying a gay bar for its alleged racial discrimination in admitting customers. A larger accomplishment is alleged to have been (sorry, I need to use “allegedly” a lot in a column like this) the invention of a phrase, “domestic partner.” Some accomplishment. Sounds more like a poodle to me.

Let me be clear. If the railway refused to give him three days off, it did an indecent thing. Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so, in my opinion, is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.

Anyway. Two years ago, for the inestimable work he had done for human rights, and for retiring from his $135,000 a year city salary, Brinkin received a great public honor. The city declared a “Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week” (one day was just not enough), in recognition, it was said, of his “advocacy.” The retired civil servant, about whom you now know 100 times more than almost anyone who lived in San Francisco at the time, was pronounced by all available media a “gay icon,” a “beloved icon,” and every other kind of “icon” that can puff up a lazy text. But after June 22, San Franciscans learned, or thought they learned, a great deal more than they had known before, because on that day Brinkin was arrested for (once more allegedly — and this time the word really does deserve the emphasis), having had something to do with child pornography. He had also, allegedly, made racist remarks pertaining to the subject, although that is not illegal, even in San Francisco.

Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.

The charges, I am happy to say, are not the business of this column. I have no idea what really happened, or what he really did, if anything. Perhaps I will have a better idea, once the police department’s “forensic” experts complete what has turned out to be a very longterm “study” of Brinkin’s computers. And perhaps I won’t. But the verbal reactions to the matter — those are things within the interest and competence of us all. And they don’t reflect very well on the City by the Bay, which is allegedly so well supplied with intelligence and sophistication.

Icon was in every headline, as if Larry Brinkin’s picture, rendered in a Byzantine style, encrusted with jewels, and lit by votive candles, was a fixture of every church and civil-servant cubicle in Northern California. One of Brinkin’s organizational associates got media attention by saying that she was surprised by the charges, because . . . Guess why. Because he was a “consummate professional.” In the religion of the state, the corporations, and all those occupations in which people must conform to the rules of some “peer” association, professional is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.” Coupled with such terms as “consummate,” it offers prima facie grounds for sainthood, for membership in that exclusive order of men and women who have been selected by their peers for the highest forms of recognition they can imagine and bestow: a picture on the coffee room wall, a place in the Civil Servants’ Hall of Fame and Museum of Professionalism, and at last a funeral in the Executive Conference Room, where colleagues will be invited to step forward and voice their memories of how well Old So and So took care of the paperwork when SB 11-353 was working through committee.

Here’s a politician — one Bevan Duffy, a busy bee about San Francisco, and the caring soul who sponsored the Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week — responding to Brinkin’s arrest: "I have admired and respected his work for the LGBT community. . . . I respect and am confident that there will be due process." Grammar flees where professionalism reigns. Mr. Duffy respects that there will be due process.

Here’s another colleague — the “executive director” (how does that differ from “director”? — but I guess that’s a professional mystery) of the Human Rights Commission, as quoted in a report by Erin Sherbert of the SF Weekly:

We put in a call to Theresa Sparks, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, [who] told us this allegation is "beyond hard to believe."

"It's almost incredulous, there's no way I could believe such a thing," Sparks told us. "He's always been one of my heroes, and he's the epitome of human rights activist — this is [the] man who coined phrases we use in our daily language. I support Larry 100 percent, hopefully it will all come out in the investigation."

It’s not surprising that someone who can’t tell the difference between “incredulous” and “incredible” would regard Larry Brinkin as a hero of the English language. But to be a true professional, especially in a governmental or community context, one must have a grasp of all the inanities with which government workers are equipped. And what a parade of them we see here — beyond hard, one of my heroes (of whom there are, no doubt, countless thousands who are yet unsung), epitome, activist, I support, 100 percent, and that indispensable lapse from basic grammar, hopefully. Nothing more could possibly be required. But by the way, what do you think of this apostle of justice declaring that “there’s no way” she’ll believe what the evidence shows, if it doesn’t show what she already believes?

In the religion of the state, “professional” is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.”

There once was a time when a president of the United States, himself an uneducated and, some said, an illiterate man, could respond to legal opposition in a memorable and verbally accurate way. Referring to a decision written by Chief Justice Marshall, President Jackson said, “John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it.”

Contrast our current Attorney General, Eric Holder (you see, now I’ve had to switch to another, unrelated track), responding to the vote by which the House of Representatives charged him with contempt of Congress. “Today’s vote,” he said, “may make good policy feeder in the eyes of some . . .” He then continued with the usual blather. But I had stopped listening. What stopped me was “feeder.” Clearly, the Attorney General has never been around a farm, or wasn’t listening when he was. And clearly, he’s not hip to ablaut, the means by which one type of word becomes another type of word by changing one of its vowels. Farm animals are sometimes fed in feeders, and the feed that some animals are fed is fodder — not feeder. But why worry about ablaut, or exposure to agricultural conditions? Like his boss, President Obama, who got through Harvard Law without discovering that there is any difference between “like” and “as,” Holder just doesn’t seem to read or listen.

But he’s nothing compared to Jerry Brown, California’s version of Joe Biden — except that he’s even worse in the words department. Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government. His obsession right now is California High-Speed Rail, an attempt to “create jobs” for union employees by building the largest public-works project in American history, a rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Two years ago, he convinced a majority of voters to approve the project. Today, even its friends concede that it will cost three times more than mentioned in the bond referendum, that it will not and cannot be high-speed, and that it may not even enter San Francisco or Los Angeles. Nevertheless, on July 6, the California legislature authorized a set of bonds for what many now regard as the Browndoggle. Ignoring the language of the referendum, which stipulated that the money should go for a high-speed train and nothing else, the solons proudly allocated billions of dollars to such things as buying new subway cars for San Francisco.

That’s the background. Here, in the foreground, babbles Jerry Brown, who on one of the many occasions on which he “argued” for “high-speed” rail, intoned: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.” Brown doesn’t even know the difference between “suck it up” (a vulgar term for “endure it”) and “suck it in” (a vulgar term for faking weight loss).

Jerry Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government.

Let’s put this in perspective. President Obama, campaigning among morons, or people he regards as morons, drops hundreds of final “g’s” in every speech he gives, and regularly converts “because” to “cuz.” You’ve heard of the hoodlum priest? This is the hoodlum president. But there are people still more vulgar than he, people who speak on serious public occasions in the language of the drug-lost: “Don’t freak out.” Some of them go so far as to omit the “out,” thereby demonstrating that they’re at least as jivy as the jiviest 65-year-old. Other public figures innocently reveal that they’ve gone through their whole lives without a basic knowledge of English-language idioms. Thus the acclaimed Spike Lee, prattling on Turner Classics (July 5) about the last scenes in On the Waterfront, and describing what happens to the Marlon Brando character: “The thugs beat him an inch within his life.” And of course the rich are always with us, in the form of politicized tycoons who lecture us about being a low-taxed people, compared to the Europeans or the Russians or somebody else. Every day of our lives, we in California hear this kind of thing from professors and pundits, politicians and thinktank fishies, despite the fact that our savage sales tax and still more savage income tax put us in the front ranks of slave labor in the United States.

All right. Let me summarize. We’re used to hillbilly talk, and drug talk, and pressure-group talk, and impudent talk, and just plain ignorant talk. Then Jerry Brown comes along, and runs all the bases: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.”

Is this what wins the ballgame? What happened to the people on the other team? (No, I’m not thinking about the Republican Party. I’m thinking about people with a normal command of the English language.)

Maybe they’re suffering from the demoralizing condition that afflicts Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Some weeks ago, Jackson stopped showing up in Congress. For quite a while, it seems, the absence of the nine-term Congressman wasn’t noted. Then colleagues started theorizing that he was being treated for exhaustion, because of all the hard work that congressmen have to do. Others, including NBC Nightly News, entertained suspicions that Jackson was being treated for something much more serious. Finally, as reported by Rachel Hartman on Yahoo News (July 11), the nation learned the truth:

“The Congressman is receiving intensive medical treatment at a residential treatment facility for a mood disorder," Jackson's physician said in a statement provided to Yahoo News via the congressman's congressional office. "He is responding positively to treatment and is expected to make a full recovery." The statement indicated that Jackson's attending physician and treatment center "will not be disclosed in order to protect his continuing privacy."

Privacy? Jesse Jackson, Jr.? That’s funny. Continuing privacy? That’s beyond funny.

Speaker Boehner, always the man with le mot juste, may be right in taking a cautious and distant approach to Jackson’s illness: “This is an issue between he and his constituents.” And it’s good to know that President Obama isn’t the only one who has this curious way with pronouns that follow prepositions. But if you’re laughing about Jackson’s mood disorder, I’m here to tell you that the condition is real, and serious. By the time I’ve finished one of these columns, I too am ready for a residential treatment facility.




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And May the Better Blur Win

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The old Reader’s Digest used to run a lot of one-page features, each with nine or ten little paragraphs of something vaguely related to a central theme. (If that reminds you of Word Watch, please think again.) There was “Humor in Uniform” — funny anecdotes about soldiers and sailors. There was “Life in These United States” — funny anecdotes about virtually anything. And there was something called “Toward More Picturesque Speech” — examples of colorful ways of saying things.

I thought about that feature at the end of last month, when Turner Classics ran Wells Fargo (1937), an historical-fiction movie. Captivated by the opening shot of an early railroad train jolting along toward a station full of excited people, I watched till the end. The movie was a sympathetic exposition of capitalist investment and innovation, though it offered few things as good as the train. But one thing was better. It was a scene in which an old mountain man lamented his failure to find gold in California. “I ain’t had no more luck,” he said, “than a duck with a doorknob.”

Now that, I thought, is picturesque speech.

Unfortunately, the humor in recent examples of the verbal picturesque is mostly unintended.

Such examples can be arranged in any order, so why not start with the Yahoo News report on the French election? There one learned that “François Hollande won the French presidential election on Sunday, capturing more than 51 percent of the vote.” Or, to put that in another way, “Sarkozy, who has held the French presidency since 2007, grabbed 48.1 percent.” Quite a picture. Sarkozy, we see, didn’t spend the past few years just being president; he spent them grimly holding the presidency. But Hollande found a way to break his hold, and captured a majority of the vote. Now, apparently, he’s waiting for an exchange of prisoners, because at the same time Sarkozy reached out his hairy hand and grabbed almost half the voters for himself!

Picturesque speech — and it isn’t a pretty picture. Be warned, however: this is the kind of picture that is going to be painted from now until November 6, election day in America. We’re going to hear a lot about how Nevada is up for grabs, Romney is scoring big in the Kentucky polls, Obama may deal Romney a punishing defeat in Missouri, Biden has doubled down on his anti-Romney rhetoric, and come next Tuesday the two campaigns will be gearing up for their moment of truth. “Come” is such a poetic substitute for “on,” isn’t it? And if you see a chance to combine a reference to gears with a bullfighting metaphor, well, chase after it, tiger. After all, this election is going down to the wire, and we’re all going down with it.

“Public servants” exist only in metaphor. No one actually goes around dressed in a maid’s or butler’s costume, serving the public.

Everyone understands the plight of the daily sportswriter, who constantly has to come up with new synonyms for “beat.” You know, “Last night, East Overshoe crushed, blinkered, snowed, spooked, buried, sliced and diced West Overshoe, 12 to 8.” The sports guy’s life is a game with no winners (sorry — conquering heroes): nobody receives any particular reward or recognition (claims the laurels) for finding odd ways of not using the same word twice. That’s just part of the job, in the same way that saying “Doesn’t he look natural?” is part of everyone’s job at open-casket funerals. No one knows why the tradition is maintained — although everyone should read the section of Fowler’sModern English Usage called “Elegant Variation” and consider the logic of the thing. Fowler’s point was that you might as well repeat a word, if the word is appropriate in the first place, rather than resorting to a supposedly elegant variation and making your readers waste their time deducing the fact that women representatives are the same as female delegates.

Reading the sportswriter’s elegant variations doesn’t blow out many brain cells; it’s just annoying. But the political reporter’s verbal gymnastics are both annoying and misleading. When they depict political disputes as mildly comic games, as the kind of warfare that takes place on the Scrabble board, where someone grabs points and captures the lead by putting “adze” in the right place, the artists of picturesque speech transform the serious into the trivial.

Or the trivial into the serious. The latest fad is for politicians to picture themselves, not as people who started out running for student council, then majored in poli sci because they liked the idea of government, then became interns for various hacks in the state legislature, then ran for the legislature themselves, and so on and so forth, through all the stages of a humdrum existence, culminating in a government pension, a dacha in Florida, and an occasional invitation to address their granddaughter’s third-grade class — the latest fad, I say, is for politicians to depict themselves not as people like that, but as public servants. There hasn’t been a day in the past month when I haven’t heard some politician pompously describe himself in that way, usually because somebody dared to lob a protest or an ethics investigation in his direction. Da noive!

Public servant is an odd phrase. It isn’t like calling yourself the chief cook and bottle washer. Cooks and bottle washers actually exist. Public servants, by contrast, exist only in metaphor. No one actually goes around dressed in a maid’s or butler’s costume, serving the public. No one appears in the slave market with a sign around his neck saying, “For Sale: Faithful Public Servant. Works Hard. Eats Little. Priced to Sell at $500.” No one devotes himself to doing the public’s business, claiming no rewards of money and power. If you wonder what literal public servants look like, too bad for you. You won’t find any.

But you will find people like Kathleen Sebelius, US secretary of health and human services, who on May 17, in the face of protests about her role in the abortion controversy, declared, “I have spent virtually my entire life in public service.” What that has to do with abortion, one way or another, you may well guess. I’m still wondering myself. But what chiefly concerned me was the idea that an innocent young girl had been forced by her parents into public service, and had wound up spending virtually all of her life there. Alarmed, I rushed to Wikipedia and discovered what a virtual life in public service really is.

Sebelius, age 64, is the daughter of a governor of Ohio. She went to an exclusive private prep school, then took a B.A. in (guess what?) political science. To this she added (guess what?) a master’s in public administration. From the age of 29 to the age of 38 she served, as Wikipedia says, “as executive director and chief lobbyist for the Kansas Trial Lawyers Association.” (This Wikipedia article was written, in bulk and by the ton, either by Sebelius or by a fervent admirer who has kept meticulous track of every instant of her service to the public. Why do I think so? The entry says, among other things, that “in January 2006 [she] was tied for 20th most popular governor in the country.” No, really it says that.) After helping the Trial Lawyers, Sebelius was elected to the Kansas House of Representatives and served for eight years there, making laws for other people to obey. Then she was elected state insurance commissioner, then governor of the state.

Few or none of Sebelius’ elections appear to have taken place against her will; it seems, in fact, that she persistently pursued public office. Denied, by one of those pesky term-limits laws, a third chance to capture the governorship, she packed her bags and moved out of Kansas, grabbing her current job in Washington. Immediately, according to Wikipedia, she went from 57th most powerful woman in the world to 23rd most powerful woman in the world (rankings developed, no doubt with scientific accuracy, by Forbes magazine). She hasn’t been quite as successful as Dorothy Gale, who attained even greater power in the land of Oz, but who knows what her future holds? In any event, this is how Kathleen Sebelius came to spend virtually her entire life in public service.

You can decide for yourself if you would rather hear such picturesque speech as Sebelius’ self-descriptions or listen to stuff that tries not to create any picture at all — because that’s the other way in which words are used in our political environment. Among the alternative-media sensations of May 2012 was one of those recordings that seem to surface whenever a public servant imagines that there are no electronic devices in the vicinity. It documents an impromptu classroom debate between a public school teacher in North Carolina and a student who insists that it’s all right, it’s really all right, to criticize President Obama. The teacher refuses to permit such critiques in her classroom, asserting that people can (and presumably should) be arrested for them. Responding to complaints about her ridiculous statements, the relevant education authorities issued their own statement, reported by the Winston-Salem Journal (May 12, 2012):

“The Rowan-Salisbury School System expects all students and employees to be respectful in the school environment and for all teachers to maintain their professionalism in the classroom,” the statement says. “This incident should serve as an education for all teachers to stop and reflect on their interaction with students. Due to personnel and student confidentiality, we cannot discuss the matter publicly.”

You gotta love it. Reading these words, could you possibly picture what might have occasioned them? They not only refuse to describe a single thing that went on; they also refuse to conduct any further discussion of the matter publicly. Don’t bother to write — we’re not writing back. If you don’t think this is funny, you should reflect on the fact that the institution that refuses to discuss the matter publicly is itself a public institution.

But the more I reflect, the more I see in this non-picture. I see that all teachers are in need of reflection and education, which they acquire only when one of them makes a mistake that astonishes the nation. I see that there are things called respect and professionalism, which exist in certain environments, though perhaps not in others; it is impossible to tell whether these things exist in the school district in question, because of two mysterious things — personnel confidentiality and student confidentiality.

I would like to know what those phrases mean. Do they mean that students and “personnel” never say anything about anything, preferring to remain confidential? Or do they mean that no one has the right to say anything about students or “personnel”? Or do they mean . . . ? They could mean almost anything.

This is not what the Reader’s Digest had in mind. It’s not what anyone, not under the immediate control of Satan, has ever had in mind.

But now, turning to the pair of 500-pound whatevers in the room, let’s think for a moment about the picturesque speech of President Obama and former Governor Romney. Take a moment — take a million moments — and try to recall anything interesting, resonant, poignant, piquant, picturesque, or memorable in any good way that either of these men has said during the past several thousand years of the current political campaign. Try to recall . . . well, try simply to recall their campaign slogans. What are they? A new deal! No, that was Roosevelt. Are you better off today? No, Reagan. Let’s see, let’s see . . .

What chiefly concerned me was the idea that an innocent young girl had been forced by her parents into public service, and had wound up spending virtually all of her life there.

Try to remember the speeches they made. Go back as far as you want. “Ah,” you say. “I remember that speech where Obama claimed that because of him, the oceans would stop rising, or drying up, or something like that. Then there was that hopey-changey thing . . . when did he say that? What was it he said? Then he said something about how the Republicans had a car, and they drove it into a ditch, and now they were trying to get their hands on the wheel, so they could drive it out again . . . Something along those lines. I know he said that he looked exactly like Trayvon Martin. Or have I got that wrong? I guess I’m not doing very well here.”

No, you’re not. Now what about Romney? The picturesque speech of Mitt Romney. Recall some instances.

(Silence.)

Thank you for completing the survey.

Here’s what I think is happening — mere speculation, but I could be right. Barack Obama, having written a book that nobody read, was expected to produce picturesque speech. When he did, however, it either sounded weird or just fell flat. His campaign advisors learned to discourage any further attempts at the picturesque. It’s a gamble they can’t afford. Mitt Romney is in less danger, because the only vaguely memorable thing he ever said was that strange story about his dog. But his flacks have adopted the same policy as Obama’s.

Notice that neither of these candidates has disciples, people who learned or even claim to have learned something from them. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, neither Obama nor Romney is Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or Wilson (thank God, in that last case). They don’t have disciples, and they may not even have friends; but they do have flacks and handlers. Flacks and handlers don’t want a picture. They’ll settle for a blur. So that’s what we get.




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Think First, Talk Second

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On April 10, I published in this journal an anguished protest against indiscriminate use of the word “legendary.” The occasion was the lavish application of this term to the dead television personality Mike Wallace. If I had been more assiduous in research, I would have brought up the other 235,000,000 uses of that word, as currently indexed by Google. Few of them, I think, are related to Beowulf or The Golden Legend.

The reward for my strictures on “legendary” was a mailbox full of plaudits — all the libertarian equivalents of “right on, brutha man!” — and execrations. From the latter I learned that I was petty, hypercritical, and without respect for the dead.

My response to both parties is this: “Well, somebody’s got to do it.” But I want to salute everyone who’s willing to debate questions of language. If there were more people like my boosters and detractors, the English language might be saved. Salvation comes not from indifference but from vigorous and candid reflection.

One kind of comment puzzled me. It came from a friend I ran into on the street. This person said, “I liked your comments, but I kept wondering, what words would you use instead of ‘legendary’? I mean, there must be some reason why people keep choosing that word.”

My answer is that people keep choosing that word because they hear other people using it; in other words, because they’re too lazy to think for themselves.

But if you want a list of alternative terms (“what would you use instead?”), no problem: you can generate a list of your own in about 30 seconds — which is about how long it took me to come up with the list below. The terms proceed in rough order from the nicest ones to the ones you never expect to see in an obit, for Mike Wallace or any other media darling:

  • Idolized
  • Beloved
  • Celebrated
  • Acclaimed
  • Esteemed
  • Distinguished
  • Respected
  • Famous
  • Nationally recognized
  • Well known
  • Familiar
  • Once famous
  • Now forgotten
  • Notorious
  • Infamous

(Note the difference between “famous” and “infamous.”)

So, here’s a case in which a minimum of reflection can yield significant results. Most language problems are like that. But let’s proceed to another case — quite different — that exemplifies the same idea, by highlighting the lack of reflection.

Whenever you force yourself to read what politicians or public officeholders say, you naturally ask yourself, “What the hell was he thinking?” The answer is usually: “Nothing.” In support of that assertion, I could cite such astonishing recent instances as that of Al Armendariz, who was, until his resignation on April 30, a regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Why did this little warlord leave his perch? Well, a video from 2010 had surfaced, in which a grinning Armendariz lectured a friendly audience about the strategy he used to persecute business people. He indicated that he believed in acting as the Romans allegedly did in “Turkey,” as he called it: when they moved in, they grabbed a bunch of people and crucified them, after which the place was easier to govern.

So when Almendariz laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?

It’s hard to think of a more revolting thing to say. And it’s interesting to note that Big Al was a college professor, so he can’t claim total ignorance of words and meanings. But as if his speech weren’t bad enough, when his sickening remarks — and the even more sickening attitude that accompanied them — were finally revealed, and when he finally resigned, he said, “I regret comments I made several years ago that do not in any way reflect my work as regional administrator." So when he laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?

So much for the self-crucified Al Armendariz. But my main target isn’t the circus of stupidity he was running. It’s the steady, unobtrusive seepage of bland amorality from public officeholders into American public discourse. All without a moment of reflection — as the following case will illustrate.

On the morning of April 2, a fat 43-year-old man with the wonderfully Joycean name of One Goh walked into the offices of tiny (100 students) Oikos University, located in an industrial park near the Oakland, California airport. Goh’s original name appears to have been Su Nam Ko, but sometime after coming to the United States from his native Korea, he changed it, thinking it too girlish. This was one sign that there might be something wrong with One Goh. There were others. He was paranoid and obnoxious; he had welshed on a variety of debts; and at the moment he was intending to kill a school official against whom he had been nursing a grievance. (All right, he was allegedly intending. Please remember that everything I say about Goh is a mere allegation; it has never been proven in court.)

Arriving at Oikos University, and discovering that the official was not in her office, Goh decided to kill other people instead. He went into a classroom, told the students to line up, and shot 10 of them. Seven of them died. Then he went out to the parking lot, stole the car of one of his victims, and fled to a shopping mall, where he surrendered to police.

That is the sad, repulsive story of One Goh. Now let’s see what the head of local law enforcement, Chief of Police Howard Jordan, had to say about it, in interviews on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and other venues.

Jordan said that the police had “learned” a lot: "We've learned that this was a very chaotic, calculated and determined gentleman that came there with a very specific intent to kill people, and that's what his motive was and that's what he carried out."

Well. How interesting. Goh, a man who burst into a classroom and proceeded to shoot 10 people at random, was a gentleman. I wish that Jordan were the only “law enforcement official” who used this term. Prison guards routinely use it for the convicts they’re processing into their domains. “All right, gentlemen, you will now remove your clothing . . .” And no, that isn’t just sarcasm. The next time you hear a cop giving the news-conference version of an arrest, see if he or she doesn’t refer to the alleged suspect as the gentleman that allegedly fired the fatal shot. In the amoral vision of the well-trained public official, even being a mass murderer doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re still a gentleman like everybody else. To put this in another way: like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.

That’s bad enough. But I’m sure you’ve noticed some peculiarities about Mr. Jordan’s expert psychological analysis. Did you mark that weird movement from chaotic to calculated to determined? Of course, this makes no sense. A calculated action may be wicked, but it can hardly be chaotic. So the Chief’s account of events is no different from other expert analyses; it’s a piece of junk. Observe, however, where the sequence ends. It ends in determined. The gentleman was determined.

Like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.

Determined used to be a good word, a word reserved for people who had a purpose and courageously pursued it. No more. Now everybody gets an even break. Entering the ring on one side — Howard Roark! On the other side — One Goh! It’s a fair fight: these contenders are both determined.

One Goh surrendered to the cops without putting up a fight — an action that could be described in a number of ways. One would be to note that he was determined when he slaughtered a bunch of defenseless people, but not so determined when he confronted armed policemen. That would be the moral way of representing it. But another way would be simply to note that he surrendered without putting up a fight. And naturally, that’s the way Jordan put it: “We don't believe he intended on having a confrontation with police.”

Thank God for good intentions.

But why am I picking on a public official who doesn’t happen to have a gift for words? There are a number of ways of replying to that, too. One is to say that if you don’t have a gift for words, you shouldn’t volunteer to go on television. Another is to say that the chief has a gift for words — the wrong words.

He was eloquent in suggesting sympathy-provoking causes for One Goh’s crimes. Referring to Goh’s fellow students, Jordan said the following: "They disrespected him, laughed at him. They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students." This explanation was presumably supplied by Goh who was said by the chief to be not especially remorseful about his crimes (oops, actions).

So this is what you do, if you’re a police chief. Curious about the motives for a mass murder, you accept the mass murderer’s account, never noticing that it blames the victims. Meanwhile, you assume that someone who is crazy enough to shoot up a classroom should not be isolated or disrespected. Odd, isn’t it? By giving such significance to the currently atrocious crime of dissing someone, you end up dissing whoever does the dissing. Gosh, isn’t that a puzzler? What should we say about that? Or about the fact that these people who supposedly made Goh feel isolated were students at a college attended almost entirely by men and women whose first language is not English, a college founded by an Asian pastor to help Asian students feel comfortable in their new environment. But so what? One Goh didn’t feel comfortable. Someone must have made him feel uncomfortable.

That’s where amorality creep always goes. It doesn’t pause before such weighty matters as the good and bad; it slithers around them. At the end, it’s hard to tell the culprits from the victims.

Now consider what Dawinder Kaur, a 19-year-old Army reservist who was shot by One Goh, had to say about the student who was absent from her nursing class for months, then suddenly turned up and started shooting. Her brother reported her remarks: "She told me that a guy went crazy and she got shot. She was running. She was crying; she was bleeding, it was wrong."

Do you have anything to add to that? I don’t. It accounts for everything — including the fact that it was wrong.




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The Three R's: Reading, Reading, and Reading

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“People asked, Should directors also be able to write? I said it was more important that they be able to read.” — Billy Wilder

If you know any teachers, you’ve probably had many opportunities to participate in a certain kind of conversation. It’s the conversation that begins with the teacher saying, “What I can’t understand is . . .” This is followed by one example, then another example, then a long list of examples of incomprehensible things that students do, or fully comprehensible things that they cannot seem to comprehend.

Yesterday I heard from a friend of mine, a teacher, and I made the mistake of asking how her class was going. This is what she wrote in reply: “I like my class. I like my students. In fact, I like them even better than the class. They’re smart; they’re unprejudiced; they’re charming and energetic. What I can’t understand is why, since virtually all of them are native speakers of English and have taken college prep courses, they still think that ‘most’ is the same as ‘almost.’ They think that to ‘service’ someone is the same as to ‘serve’ him. The difference between ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophesy’ is invisible to them, as is the difference between 'lose' and 'loose.'

“And I don’t understand why, since many of them are the children of immigrants and have no difficulty ‘relating to’ at least two languages on the level of daily conversation, much of what they read in English strikes them as an embarrassing foreign language. When they read aloud, they stop and wonder about every ‘foreign’ word, most of which aren’t foreign at all. ‘Interrogate’ turns into ‘introcate’; ‘Jonathan’ is ‘Johnnythan’ (except for their own friends named Jonathan, whose names present no difficulty, because they don’t have to be read). And heaven help you if you’re teaching about Herodotus.

“I teach a senior college prep class, and we have readings from the Bible. One of my paper assignments asks them to discuss a topic in Genesis. The assignments say clearly, ‘Do not underline or italicize the word ‘Bible’ or the names of its various books.’ As a result, their papers start in this way: ‘In The Book of Genesis, which is part of The Holy Bible, god says to Abruham . . . .’

“In short, my students are bright young people who are incapable of reading, in the sense of noticing what they read.”

I’ve quoted my friend’s message at length, because I think it identifies a general problem. This isn’t basically a writing problem or a speaking problem; it’s a reading, or should I say a not-reading, problem. By “reading” I don’t mean “reading messages on the internet, or your telephone.” I mean reading something that makes you comfortable with complex linguistic resources, employed in complex rhetorical contexts. And I mean focusing your attention on it, not just looking at it without noticing any more than its general current and tendency.

If you don’t notice what you read, or if you don’t read anything much, you may not notice what you say, either.

Here’s an example. I happen to be reading a book about American religious beliefs and customs. It’s written by two statistically fascinated social scientists, but in this case, statistical fascination doesn’t imply bad writing. They are perfectly competent. They have a good idea of the linguistic resources at their disposal, including the many means that good readers learn to simplify or complicate the sentences they write.

So, at one point in their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell say the following about the results of their statistical research on marriage and religion: “The propensity for marriage within the faith is much higher among more religious people — not surprisingly. We can’t say for sure whether low religious commitment is a cause or a consequence of intermarriage — or more likely, both cause and consequence — but intermarriage is strongly associated with lower religious observance.”

I’m concerned with that phrase “both cause and consequence.” It’s a shorthand way of saying “each is both a cause and a consequence of the other.” Long ago, writers of English learned from writers of Latin that you don’t need to say all that. As long as you’ve set up a sequence of parallels, “cause . . . consequence,” which are both complements of “is,” you can follow it with another complement, “both cause and consequence,” and that’s it — you’ve cut to the chase.

This is an almost trivial example of linguistic competence. But I would fall off my chair if I found one of my sophomore college students using this technique. It’s not that they’re dumb; they’re very bright indeed. But “both cause and consequence” is the kind of thing you don’t find when you’re listening to television, or reading messages online; and that, I believe, is most of the reading and “serious” hearing that students do.

As the president is always saying, let me be clear about this. I read online messages myself, sometimes all day and all night. Some of the most interesting, individual, and incisive writing I’ve ever read has appeared in online commentary. Several years ago, I paid enthusiastic tribute to writing done in online communities ("The Truth vs. the Truth," Liberty, Sept.-Oct. 2003). But it appears that online reading (except, of course, when enjoyed on Liberty’s website) doesn’t give people adequate experience of what can be done with the sophisticated written language of the normal serious book. The decline of complex verbal experience began with television, which like the internet ordinarily uses a very restricted variety of words and sentence patterns. The internet accelerated the decline by rewarding simplified communication with simplified but usually agreeable and often immediate response.

When people focus on complex sentences and arguments, they learn to pay close attention to verbal cues — closer attention than they need to pay to words that come naturally in conversation. I know a highly intelligent person who cannot remember, and does not care, whether her best friend’s name is “Katherine” or “Catherine.” Apparently the first name doesn’t appear in the person’s email address, or my friend doesn’t pick up on the cue — and why should she? It makes no difference in either email or direct conversation. I know many intelligent people who have everyday fluency in two languages but haven’t the faintest idea of how to construe a really complicated sentence, in either one.

The problem is, if you don’t notice what you read, or if you don’t read anything much, you may not notice what you say, either. While the civilized world, and even the world of television news, is saying, “I saw it yesterday,” you may keep saying, “I seen it yesterday.” One of the brightest people I know keeps saying, “I coulda swore that program woulda worked.” And while everyone who reads words, notices them, and reflects on them tries to avoid trite statements, inaccurate diction, and unintended implications, the nonreader will keep saying, “I was literally blown away by the judge’s disinterest.”

A long time ago, before the internet was fully in use, by everyone, all the time, I was visiting my friends Muriel Hall and Mary Jane Hodges, who lived in a small town in New England. We were going out to eat, and on the way we discussed the bad things that happen in restaurants. I mentioned the repulsive way in which waiters ask, “You still workin’ on that?” while they’re trying to grab your plate. After all, who wants to think of dinner, especially a dinner you pay for, as some kind of work you have to do?

Muriel and MJ looked at me in horror. “My God!” they said. “That’s what they say in California?”

Oh yes.

“Well, let’s hope it never happens here.”

A year later, when I returned to their little town, I found them sunk in gloomy meditations. “It’s here,” they said. “You still workin’ on that?”

Yes, it was there. And here, there, and everywhere, it has remained. “You still workin’ on that?” is now what nonreaders call an integral part (as if there were another kind of part) of the ritual of dining. It’s chanted everywhere — as difficult to avoid as “How Great Thou Art” in a Methodist church. Every waiter I meet is a college student or a college graduate, so we’re not talking about linguistic behavior that is innocently illiterate. No, this is illiteracy practiced as a faith, a faith that, having resulted from a long process of education and social reinforcement, has become second nature to its devotees.

The standards of political correctness have them in awe. But normal linguistic cues, the kind that come from reading, not social suasion — that’s another matter.

Apparently, authors no longer wait tables while they’re trying for their first big break. Or if they’re still doing that, you won’t want to read anything they eventually get published. Like other Americans, they’ve lost their ability to pick up cues — with one exception. They are sensitive to the subtlest possibilities of offending anyone “politically.” The standards of political correctness have them in awe. But normal linguistic cues, the kind that come from reading, not social suasion — that’s another matter.

One cue that most people used to notice was the red light that comes on in your brain just before you say something that’s just naturally offensive. Used to. When “that really sucks” is taken as acceptable in all social circumstances, you know that the alarms have shorted out. Those who know me understand that I have warm respect for profanity, appropriately applied; but otherwise-useful terms are merely disturbing when they’re employed without anyone’s appearing to care what they suggest.

As I write, a man is wandering down the street outside, discussing in a loud voice (why not?) his intimate problems with his girlfriend. There are two possibilities. (1) He is using a hands-free cellphone. (2) He is insane. The salient fact is that these days, you can’t tell the difference. In the ranter’s head, no warning bells can ever ring. He might avoid the path of a passing car, but language presents no risks. Not in his perception, and not in reality, either. How often will anyone accost him and explain how unfavorably he affects the neighborhood? And if anyone did, he probably wouldn’t pay any attention. He wouldn’t pick up the cue. He’d think that the other person was crazy. Or he’d just ignore the whole thing.

That’s what happens when you make some instructive response to “You still workin’ on that?” I used to try, “Yes, I’m still eating.” Then I tried, “Yes, I’m still eating.” Then, “Do you mean, am I still eating?” On and on. The answer was always, “Right — I see you’re still workin’.” You see what I mean about missing cues.

So far, I’ve been picking on waiters, nameless persons in the street, commonplace users of the internet, normal victims of high-school education, and so on. Now I’m going to pick on the president.

We can’t blame President Obama’s linguistic failures on the internet, although we might go after his high school, or the doting folks who brought him up to think that whatever he said or did would establish some new standard of excellence. But whatever the cause, his verbal warning system never got turned on. I suspect that he would be ten points higher in the polls if he’d had the sense not to say that his nomination for the presidency would stop the oceans from rising, or that people who weren’t inclined to vote for him were clinging pathetically to their guns and their religion, or that his grandmother made racist comments, or any of a hundred other offensive things he’s said, which he simply had no clue were offensive.

There was a new one, just the other day. It was the president’s statement — no doubt carefully planned, but certainly not well meditated — about the killing of Trayvon Martin, a young man who happened, like the president, to be of African descent. Obama expressed his sympathy by saying, “You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.” In other words, all black men look alike to President Obama — because the only thing that made Trayvon Martin look like him was his race and gender. This is patently offensive, but the president didn’t have a clue that it was.

Only a person who doesn’t read many words — real words, written by real writers, not reports from campaign agents or White House officials — or think about the meanings and implications of words, could possibly have made such an offensive and silly statement.

Why did he make it? Because “someone who looks like me” is a cliché used to elicit votes from people who share your ethnicity. Its cheapness and foolishness never dawned on President Obama.

Oh, but the president is an author himself! He must know language, and be thinking deep thoughts about it! Of course, it doesn’t take much reading to write a book, as any casual perusal of an airport “bookstore” will inform you. But let’s consider the possibility. Maybe playing golf and watching basketball aren’t really the president’s favorite pursuits. Maybe that’s just a lie, put out to cover his real though unmanly interest in reading good books. Maybe, during his speeches, what he’s really thinking is, “I wish I could get back to Tolstoy.” Maybe in his private restroom there’s a copy of Montaigne sitting on the toilet. Maybe he goes to bed early so he can curl up reading Shakespeare in the original Klingon.

Whatever the cause, President Obama’s verbal warning system never got turned on.

Barack Obama wrote two books about himself and his opinions. But tell me, how many authors does he quote or mention in his speeches (which are long and frequent) or his interviews and known conversations? To which good authors does he allude? Madison? Voltaire? Thucydides? Elbert Hubbard? Mother Goose? Tell me, that I may be instructed.

None? Can’t think of any? The president’s intellectual context is television talk, stray bits of college texts, the oracles of dead “progressives” . . . even his legal education (witness his recent comments about the Supreme Court) didn’t seem to command his full attention. But context is all. If the context of your intellectual life wasn’t formed by reading books — serious, complex books — your signal system just isn’t going to work. Sorry. And the only thing you can do to fix it is (horrifying thought) to read a book.




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Love's Language

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If you’re reading this, you survived Valentine’s Day. I almost didn’t. I made the mistake of shopping for Valentine’s cards.

I love those cards. I’ve loved them ever since I was in second grade and we were encouraged to make them out of construction paper and exchange them anonymously with fellow students. I discovered that under the right circumstances you can learn, or at least imagine, that some unknown, mysterious person actually loves you. I still like getting Valentines, and sending them. I even sign my name.

The problem is that over the years, the cards themselves have been going downhill. Steeply. I now have to shop in four or five places before buying my annual quota of four or five. This year was the worst so far. In fact, I can hardly imagine a year that could be worse, unless Valentines start saying “I hate you and I want to kill you.”

The contemporary language of love is almost always treacly, sloppy, and sappy, with more than a tinge of creepiness.

The current problem isn’t the threat of violence. It’s the threat of serious illness, induced by the contemporary language of love. It’s almost always treacly, sloppy, and sappy, with more than a tinge of creepiness. And often (let’s face it) it’s just plain insulting.

Love used to be a personal emotion. Now it often comes at you in its most generic form. Here’s an example — a Valentine’s card that first announces that February 14 is, indeed, Valentine’s Day, then explains what you’re supposed to do about it: “Treat yourself to your very favorite things [whatever those may be], and celebrate all the happiness and love you have in your life.” Thanks, sweetheart, for telling me that someone, somewhere, probably loves me. That gives me “happiness.” And thanks for inviting me to spend Valentine’s Day by myself, “celebrating” my own life.

Actually, I plan to spend the next Valentine’s Day doing one of my very favorite things — tearing up cards like that.

But now I’m looking at another card, one that gets personal, but not in a good way. “Okay,” it starts, “so here’s the truth about us. Our relationship is not perfect.”

Please! On Valentine’s Day, couldn’t you permit me my illusions? Nevertheless, the truth must be told: “We drive each other crazy.” I guess that’s so. Anybody who sends me a card about how imperfect “we” are must be telling the truth. Of course, the “we” means me, but never mind.

But wait! Open the card, and you’ll find “the other truth” about “us”: “I love us — just the way we are.” Aw! Now that really warms my heart. We have a mediocre relationship, but at least we are the mediocre people who enjoy it that way. Wouldn’t change a thing!

Shortly, I’ll return to this inspiring theme of “just the way we are.” Right now, it occurs to me to specify that none of my friends was tasteless enough to send me the cards I’m discussing; I bought them myself, so I could put them in this column. That’s the way I am.

Here’s a third card. It’s various shades of pink, with flowers all over it. Yet its subject isn’t hearts and flowers; it’s ethical teaching, of a peculiarly earnest kind: “You’ve taught me so much . . . about relationships – the importance of respect, compromise, and . . . what a true, deep, unconditional connection feels like.”

In the words of old Ben Jonson’s love song,

The thirst that from the soul doth rise
Doth ask a drink divine . . . .

Yes! And the vintage is . . . Respect! Compromise! A connection to someone whose standards are non-existent (unconditional)!

H.L. Mencken, reporting on a political convention, described one of the delegates as “the kind of woman who makes you want to burn every bed in the world.” I feel that way about these Valentine’s cards.

The closest thing to the anaphrodisiac Valentine genre is, of course, the genre of wedding vows. I mean write-your-own vows, the public oaths that are always supposed to be such unique and thrilling invocations of love. They have been with us for a long time. They first became popular at the end of (guess what?) the 1960s, when every one of America’s unique personalities (including me) was busy coming up with new and special things in which everyone could participate. Like all the other inventions of the 1960s, they now have a tattered, dog-eared quality, yet they retain their power to stun.

Everyone who reads these words has witnessed the agonizing scene: a man and woman standing at the altar, or under the palm tree, or at the beach, or at the zoo, muttering, giggling, and weeping through the recitation of their profoundest feelings — private “vows,” publicly delivered. Well, the feelings are allegedly profound. And allegedly their own — because these self-concocted acts of self-display have become exactly as routine and predictable as any traditional vows. They’re just not as literate.

Like all the other inventions of the 1960s, write-your-own wedding vows now have a tattered, dog-eared quality, yet they retain their power to stun.

The inspiration behind traditional wedding vows was the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I quote from the 1928 book: “I Mary take thee John to my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance; and thereto I give thee my troth.”

That’s only 53 words, but it carries wedding promises about as far as any sane person would want them to go. And note: no odd stories are proffered; no private jokes are told; no incense is wafted toward the loved one, as if the whole thing would fall apart if he or she weren’t assured that “you are everything that’s good and pure and true and I worship you with my mind, body and soul.”

Those are the needy words of a sample wedding vow I found on the web today. There are hundreds of sites that offer such samples. Evidently there are many people here among us who cannot rest until they hear someone stand up in public and say, “May our hearts and very breath become one as we unite this day.”

“Our very breath”: that’s putting a lot of pressure on a relationship. But some people aren’t content with that. They’ve got to bring a lot of other things into it too. They’ve got to make the loving couple swear to solve all the political, ethnic, and “cultural” problems they can think of:

We will honor each other's cultures as we join customs to form a trusting relationship. We will protect, support, and encourage each other through life's joys and sorrows as we create a loving future. [Question: Does this mean you don’t have a loving present? Well, never mind. None of these words actually means anything.] We promise to establish a home for ourselves and our children shaped by our respective heritages; a loving environment dedicated to peace, hope, and respect for all people.

Imagine, if you will, growing up in a household where that promise was fulfilled. “Johnny, I’m sorry to say that by failing to eat your broccoli you are showing that you have not been shaped by the respective heritages of your parents, and that you have respect for neither the Estonians nor their neighbors, the Finns, nor any of the other diverse peoples who make up this world. I hope you will become more loving in the future. Peace out, Johnny.”

Even when international relations are not at stake, it’s quite a struggle, this quest for love and happiness — and contemporary brides and grooms are duty-bound to tell us all about it:

We have been together since the first day we met. We were so shy and scared back then, who knew our love could grow this strong. Freshman year i [sic] met you, you took my breath away. When your hand touched mine my heart fell to the ground.

You can almost hear the thud. Yet every up-to-date wedding-vow site assumes that no one will be happy unless a wedding ceremony includes enough good stories to stupefy the audience:

Write 2-3 of your favorite times together - the times when you laughed so hard you cried, or when s/he was there for you, or an inside joke, or something that happened long ago that you haven't thought about it in a long time.

That’s good. You’ve almost forgotten it, but it will be good enough for your wedding vows. And no joke can be too “inside,” if other people are being forced to overhear it.

You might also tell a dirty joke — sort of dirty, and sort of a joke. For instance: “May all our ups and downs come only in the bedroom.” While this is more amusing than “I promise to wipe away your tears with my laughter and your pain with my caring and compassion,” it’s sad to think that so many wedding speeches require standup comedy for their justification.

Sadder is the fact that so many brides and grooms find it necessary to spend their “vow” time complimenting each other. Sadder still, what they find to compliment.

“Compassion” is a favorite virtue. The general impression is that these people are mating with a therapist, not a partner, and that they badly need a therapist, if only to ensure that someone will always be around to feel sorry for (have “compassion” on) them. Another favorite quality is our old friend “unconditional” acceptance — a quality that therapists are paid to show, but that spouses often find difficult to work up, the third time the other person comes home drunk at 4 a.m.

The general impression is that these people are mating with a therapist, not a partner.

It’s interesting that this wedding psychobabble, which has been around a lot longer than most brides and grooms, should seem fresh and individual, special and personal, moving and inspiring, to anyone; that brides should wear away their evenings on the computer, looking for just the right sample jargon, and that grooms should then recite it with trembling lips and watering eyes.

One of my favorite wedding sites observes that you can either “rely on the traditional wedding vows, which by the way are cliche, or you can write your own wedding vows!” But in case you can’t find your very own words to express your very own, wholly unclichéd, emotions, the site offers such “romantic” formulas as this — a masterpiece of modest expectations:

I promise to give you the best of myself and to ask of you no more than you can give. I promise to accept you the way you are. I fell in love with you for the qualities, abilities, and outlook on life that you have, and won't try to reshape you in a different image.

People whose hearts are warmed by contemporary Valentines will find this heartwarming too. It must be easy for two mediocre people to vow to be mediocre together. That’s the “best” of themselves.

Mediocre is next door to generic. It is characteristic of our time that serious psychological difficulties are regarded as normal: predictable, common, even healthy — generic in the best sense of that word. Try this sample vow, which addresses problems that, though obviously severe, must also be normal, since they can easily be reduced to a fill-in-the-blanks format:

I used to be afraid of falling in love, of giving my heart away. How could I trust a (man/woman) to love me, to give to me all that I wanted to give to (him/her)? (Name), when I met you, I realized how much we could share together. You have renewed my life.

Life renewal? Window 2A. Fill in Form C.

But that’s an idea that Hallmark can use in next year’s Valentine’s cards. Why not this:

I used to be anxious/afraid/terrified about love/closeness/compassionate relationship (choose one from each list). But (Name), when I met you, I realized I would have a sweetheart/wife/husband/sex buddy for the rest of my life/this afternoon/as long as it all remains unconditional. So happy Valentine’s Day, you beautiful/adorable/sexy/hunky/trusting woman/man/friend/panda bear/whoever. I love you!

This edition of Word Watch, however, offers no such multiple options. It isn’t even equipped with plastic hearts. It is a belated Valentine, to boot — if you’ll accept it. But I hope you will. It’s very simple:

Dear Reader, I love you.




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