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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Dishonorable Mentions

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Last month, this column gave out awards for the ten greatest linguistic monstrosities of 2011. It was not required that the winners be born in that year — only that they had been prominently, glossily, and grossly overused in it.

I thought I'd made my decisions wisely, but evidently I was wrong. Word Watch has an intelligent and discerning audience, and there was a great outcry against my choices.

No one asserted that the ten expressions were innocent and charming victims of Cox's vindictive spleen. After all, who could defend “dead on arrival” (used for every piece of legislation one doesn’t like), “icon” (used for everything except religious pictures), or “epic” (used for everything whatever)? The objection in each case was to my omission of other candidates, expressions just as worthy of hatred and fear as the ones I mentioned.

There was merit — much merit — in the protests I received. It is therefore my duty, and my pleasure, to publicize some of the strongest additional candidates for inclusion among the Most Gruesome Expressions of the Year Just Past. Again, there’s no requirement that a contender should have originated in 2011. The distinguishing characteristic is disgusting overuse.

I’ll arrange this new set of linguistic freaks under four headings.

1. The labor theory of value

When the January Word Watch was published, an anonymous correspondent wrote immediately to ask, “What about the awful term ‘worker,’ which apparently we've all now become?” To which a reader named Rusty replied, “I would add 'working families' to the list.”

They're both right. The labor theory of value continues to spawn all kinds of smarmy words. The current use of “worker” (which I'm always tempted to pronounce as "woikuh," in the old Daily Woikuh style) is one of the most insidious items in our political vocabulary. It has no meaning of its own; it’s just a code for other things. Stupid other things.

Obama's moral or financial distinction between workers and — what? non-workers? — isn't worth a damn.

My anonymous reader was getting at that when he noticed that we are all "workers" now. Yet because the word is used only to signify good things, certain parties are necessarily, though illogically, excluded. When President Obama uses the term, he plainly doesn’t mean “everyone who works.” He doesn’t mean people who work on “Wall Street” (however many thousands of those people he also has working in his own administration). He doesn’t mean employers. He doesn’t mean doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs. He means something like “manual or subordinate laborers.” He means the people whom he frequently pictures as “living from paycheck to paycheck.”

I don't know any Indian chiefs who live from paycheck to paycheck, but maybe that's because I don't know any Indian chiefs. I do know plenty of doctors and lawyers who live that way, just as I know plenty of people who work with their hands but have no problem meeting their mortgages. So Obama's moral or financial distinction between workers and — what? non-workers? — isn't worth a damn. Let me tell you, my doctor does a lot of work when he has to deal with me.

The core reference of this coded language of work is “union labor.” That type of labor is, understandably, a central concern of Obama's administration, since unions were crucial to making him president. Yet from the intellectual point of view (and Obama is supposed to be an intellectual), it’s too bad that he and his friends want to wipe the literal meaning of "work" completely off the map. If the unionized denizens of the DMV do “work,” and lifesaving medicos do not, then what happens to the concept of, well, work? What happens to "effort expended for a productive purpose"? It vanishes, that’s what.

I haven’t mentioned the odor of self-righteousness that now attaches to “worker,” the word. All so-called workers, such as our friends at the DMV, are assumed to be more deserving, more useful — in short, better than everyone else. This is simply, directly, and stupidly offensive. It’s worse when the reference spreads to people who don’t even pretend to work, as in “working families.” Now the two-year-old child of the DMV desk-holder is included among the Woikuhs of duh Woiurld, and the medical scientist remains in the outer darkness.

2. The awesomeness of awesomeness

Willard Brickey wrote to say, “Maybe you've mentioned it before, but ‘awesome’ is a word abused so often that it's practically impossible to use it in its original, legitimate sense.”

True. The current plague of “awesome” resulted from some mutation in the brains of skateboarders and other such people. For more than two decades, “awesome” has been employed as a universal adjective, the anointed successor to such words as “cool” and “incredible.” At first it was boards, waves, and dudes that were awesome; but soon it was everything — caps, tatts, high ‘n’ tights — that was in any way associated with maleness. (“Awesome” is a male-coded word.)

This disease had ugly precedents at the other end of the social spectrum from gamers and thrashers. Historically, “awesome” has been most strongly associated with religion. But at some point in the 20th century, people, even religious people, stopped being interested in traditional religious language. They were no longer sure what “awe” might mean, and they didn’t care. They recognized that the word itself must have some power, since it appeared in prayers and stuff like that, but they were confused by the “some” that often got attached to it. Unwilling to resort to a dictionary, they assumed that “awesome,” the adjective, was some kind of general intensifier that could be used on anything.

Here’s an example — with a fairly long preamble.

Virtually all Christian songs that are widely known today were introduced before the mid-twentieth century. One reason is that around that time — the time when the Baby Boom first went to school — many otherwise verbal people stopped being interested in traditional literary language. They suddenly didn’t know what “hither” meant, let alone “thither” — or “sustain,” “solace,” “deplore,” or “chide.” They stopped having enough language to write enduring songs. They stopped understanding songs that had been universally popular only a few years before. They couldn’t understand what the hymn writer meant when he said, in the moving last stanza of a song that used to be standard in Christian congregations:

God be with you till we meet again:
Keep love’s banner floating o’er you,
Smite death’s threatening wave before you;
God be with you till we meet again.

What, they wondered, could "smite" possibly mean? And how does a banner "float"?

So songs like that began to vanish.

“Amazing Grace” is a Christian song that everyone still “knows.” It was written in the 18th century and popularized by its use in a movie (The Onion Field) in 1979. Despite its present popularity, which is generally based on a serious misunderstanding of its meaning, no one could write that kind of song today. It has too many of those, like, weird old expressions in it. It even refers to “snares.”

The only other universally recognized Christian song that was popularized after the mid-20th century is “How Great Thou Art.” To my ears, this song is the pale, bewildered ghost of a great tradition. One proof is that it begins in this way:

O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made . . .
Then sings my soul, my savior, God, to thee.
How great thou art! How great thou art!

When I hear those lines, my own soul says, “How dumb this is! How dumb this is!” Awesome doesn’t belong in there. The singer means that God is “awesome.” Fine. But what he says is that his own “wonder” is “awesome.” Which is dumb.

But why the hell shouldn’t he say it? Can’t awesome be applied to everything?

O Lord my God, it can be. But when you hear that anything-goes awesome, you are hearing the “ave atque vale” of our linguistic heritage.

If you don’t know what “ave atque vale” means, go look it up. That will be an awesome experience for you.

Snobbish? I don’t care. Would you rather know something, or not know it?

3. We hear he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was

Let’s proceed from the falsely sublime to the truly ridiculous. One reader insisted that I must have been paid not to mention the scandalous misuse of “General” and other honorifics. I wasn’t, unfortunately — but here’s what she meant.

The Attorney General of the United States is not a military officer. Neither is the Surgeon General of the United States. They are not generals. They never lead troops into battle. They are attorneys or surgeons ingeneral service to the nation. Yet when Eric Holder, the current Attorney General, came before Congress to testify about his role in the gunrunning operation known as Fast and Furious, he was repeatedly asked such questions as, “You’re not suggesting, are you, General Holder, that it wasn’t your responsibility to have known about this problem?” The questioning congressmen didn’t understand what Holder’s title meant — any more than congressmen, commentators, and other potentates understand that the Surgeon General should not be addressed as General or appear in the Ruritarian, supposedly military, uniforms in which, beginning with the Reagan administration, they have obtruded themselves on the public attention.

Why is Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, solemnly addressed as “Speaker Gingrich,” 13 years after he stopped being speaker?

Worries about the Attorney General turned my reader’s attention to worries about political titles ingeneral, and their persistence in particular. “When,” she wondered, “do people stop being this or that which they have been in the past?”

Good question. Receiving it, I had fond memories of R.W. Bradford, founder of Liberty, who often lodged the same complaint.

At the House committee hearing called to investigate Jon Corzine’s behavior as head of the IMF investment outfit, Corzine revealed that he had no idea what had become of $1.2 billion invested with him. That was startling enough; almost as startling to me was the fact that Corzine sat behind a committee-provided sign that read, in big black letters, “The Honorable Jon S. Corzine.” Corzine is “honorable” because he used to be a senator and a state governor. Used to be (thank God).

The poet Wordsworth wrote insightfully of spiritual states that do not cease — that “having been, must ever be.” Apparently it’s the same with Corzine’s “honor.” No matter what happens, he keeps his titles, and even his moral additives, forever. He even keeps his middle initial, as if there were some other Jon Corzine, equally involved in both scandals and congressional investigations, who might otherwise be confused with him.

For God’s sake, isn’t there any statute of limitations for these political functionaries? When Gertrude Smith retires from the DMV, even she (one of the “woiking class”) isn’t addressed as Counter Clerk Smith for the rest of her life. So why is Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, solemnly addressed as “Speaker Gingrich,” 13 years after he stopped being speaker? Is he likely to be mistaken for some other Gingrich, currently running for president?

4. How to grow your identity

So far I’ve considered individual readers’ additions to my limited list of linguistic follies. Two expressions, however, produced a general chorus of “Why didn’t you mention this?”

The first is “grow,” as in “grow the economy.” A number of readers pointed out that “the economy is not a plant.” Others observed that “if the politicians, Democrat or Republican, keep saying, over and over, that ‘we need to grow the economy,’” they, my readers, will be forced to uproot their party affiliations, chop down their vote-bearing trees, and send all political literature to the compost heap.

Those are cogent remarks. “Grow,” the organic metaphor, is absurd when it’s applied to such palpably inorganic things as “the economy,” “my bank account,” “your sales campaign,” or “your marital happiness and engagement.” (My spam box is full of offers to “grow” that last entity.) But I have something more against “grow.”

Think of the explanations it replaces. Precisely who is to grow the economy? President Obama? President Romney? The man in the moon?

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were known as “the baker and the baker’s wife,” on the assumption that they provided bread for the people of France. Now our president is pictured as the chief grower of our economic destinies. It’s hard to say which expression is sillier.

And precisely what is to be grown? Explain that to me. Investments? OK, how? How are they grown? Or are revenues the crop? Or jobs? What’s the seed? What are the tools? But don’t worry; we need to elect someone who can grow the economy.

So much for grow. The second type of “why didn’t you mention this?” referred to those demon twins, the political pronouns “we” and “our” — monsters now appearing everywhere in the discourse of presidential candidates.

Originally the political function of these words was to deflect personal responsibility, as in the president’s frequent comments about how “we, uh, we never, uh, said that this process of, uh, economic healing wouldn’t be, uh, hard or that it, uh, wouldn’t take a, uh, uh, long time to, uh, provide what we, uh, want to provide.”

The deflection function persists. But for Obama’s Republican opponents, “we” and “our” have an aggrandizement function also. The pronouns are the Republican candidates’ way of inflating their magnitude, of multiplying their insignificant personalities.

“From the start of our campaign our intention has always been to,” oh, whatever. How many times have you heard that one? More ominously: “Tomorrow we take our campaign to Arizona.” If I were an Arizonan, I’d tell all of you to stay away. It’s just too weird when somebody checks into a hotel as “Newt Gingrich” (singular) but tells everyone outside that he’s actually a whole mob of candidates.

Michele Bachmann, whose continued presence “on the campaign trail” will be missed by five or six of her “fellow Americans,” has always had difficulty fitting the start of her sentences to the ends thereof. So naturally, she told Fox News that “no other candidate [singular] is doing a 99-county tour of Iowa, but we [plural] are.” That would have been easy, if there had been plural Bachmanns, but I’m happy to say there weren’t.

Bachmann was such an irresistibly representative American illiterate that I number myself among the few who will miss her (or them). She provided constant instruction in how the English language should not be used. She was even more helpful in this regard than Sarah Palin. You could always trust Bachmann to say something pompous and foolish.

More ominously: “Tomorrow we take our campaign to Arizona.” If I were an Arizonan, I’d tell all of you to stay away.

By “illiterate,” incidentally, I don’t mean “folksy” or “colloquial.” I wish that political candidates would speak good colloquial English, rather than the speech-from-the-throne lingo they prefer. Unfortunately, they have nothing compelling or colorful to say in any dialect. The fact that they resort for emphasis to the official “we” demonstrates just how far down the linguistic totem pole they are.

On January 19, Gingrich reported, “Callista [his wife] and I were really honored today when Gov. Rick Perry endorsed us.” If you want ickiness, this is almost as good as “working families.” It seems that when I’m voting for a candidate, I’m also endorsing the candidate’s spouse. And maybe the kids and the dog. Today, all candidates are Kennedys.

Even Donald Trump, who brought ego to the Republican Party and now brings ego to the so-called independents, has started talking like this. Asked, before the Iowa caucus, whether he was going to support Mitt Romney, if Romney won, Trump repeatedly resorted to the plural pronoun: “We’re watching, to see what develops.” Someone of my age can’t help remembering the

two-headed dragon once impersonated by Fred and Ethel Mertz in the old I Love Lucy show. The monster wandered across the television scenery, eyes rolling, tail switching, pretending to growl. But it was still Fred and Ethel Mertz. And that’s one more character than Donald Trump can manage to impersonate.

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Words of Auld Lang Syne

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I don’t enjoy the start of a new year. With the exception of one occasion, when I was 12 years old and discovered that if I borrowed my brother’s shortwave set I could listen to January 1 arrive at one place after another around the globe, until it got all the way to Michigan, I have greeted the great event with surly cheer. The appearance of a new year simply makes me aware of all the things that went wrong during the last year, and that still aren’t going right.

This is particularly evident in the case of words. Every year is pregnant with a host of locutions that no intelligent person could ever have engendered, unless disgustingly drunk. But the ugly brats are born, and many of them grow up into big, ugly, popular clichés, monsters that continue stalking the landscape even as the next twelvemonth begins.

One way of hastening their end is to adopt the tactic of the aboriginal tribesman, who recites the names of his gods in order to get rid of them. Another tactic, similar to the first, is that of the modern corporation, which celebrates someone as Manager of the Year in hopes that he will retire.

Inspired by such examples, I now present my list of the Ten Most Gruesome Expressions of 2011, the ten phrases that have most clearly outlived their usefulness, if any. All these terms have lately displayed their full nastiness, though none of them actually originated in 2011 — a year oddly barren of brand-new tripe. Several of them, indeed, are already well stricken with dementia. But let’s not be clinical. Let’s just try to imagine what the world would be like without them, and pray God that they will soon be taken from us.

I’ve ranked our gruesome friends from 1 to 10, according to the danger I think they pose to the republic’s mental health — in other words, according to their tendency to make me sick. To preserve suspense, I’ll save the most sickening expression for last. Don’t peek. The worst is coming.

So here goes, starting with Number . . .

10. “Sweet” — as in the following conversation.

“Hello, Mrs. Smith. This is Dr. Jones. Your tests are back, and they show that your cancer may not be terminal.”

“Sweet!”

Preposterous. But hardly impossible. The Saccharine Salute now appears in conversations everywhere. It started with 16-year-old thrashers and druggies, but it has spread inexorably to older, more sensible types. Remember that I said “er” and “more,” and that we’re dealing with baby boomers here. As you know, we boomers were never as bright as Newsweek thought we were, and our mental age has not advanced as rapidly as our physical age.

9. “Epic.” Another thrasher term, as in “Dude! That is a seriously, seriously epic board,” as in “skateboard.” Since few publicly educated people know what an epic is, the word has easily passed from boarders to radio hosts to TV hosts to half the other people in the known universe. What next? Will “sonnet” become the universal contrastive term? “Dude! I got this gross little sonnet thing stuck on my sneaks, dude!” Ask yourself, what would Milton say?

8. “Due diligence.” This is a legalism, with an actual meaning. Please look it up, the next time you’re tempted to tell your son that you hope he’ll do his due diligence in school today. Until recently, the phrase was confined to legal circles. Then it got into politics, as Republicans and Democrats tried to blame each other for the depression (sorry! I mean the “downturn”) of 2008 and following. The other party had caused the mess by its failure to exercise due diligence. Well, to use the Valley Girl lingo of 30 years ago, “Duh! Yeah! Maybe some people, like all of you, might’ve screwed up. Yuh think?” Notwithstanding this obvious reflection, “due diligence” proved useful for scoring points in the great game of “which political party is better at running the country” (another nasty expression, toward which I will exercise due diligence in another Word Watch). The ultimate winner of this game is the person who can show that nobody in his party ever smokes weed, watches porn, or texts during office hours. “Due diligence” is an intensely conservative phrase, but its conservatism isn’t a philosophy, or anything that makes sense; it’s just a high-church way of covering your ass.

7. “Got your back.” I don’t know where this started, or who kicked it into popularity. It means, of course, that while you run out and try to shoot the enemy, I’ll stay here and discourage people from shooting you in the ass. I wonder: Which of us has the tougher job? The real purpose of “got your back” is to glorify the speaker, not to improve life for the listener. It’s a militant upgrade of the useless “I’m here for you.” I suppose the next upgrade will be “If you go down, believe me, buddy, I’ll give you the coup de grace.”

6. “Icon.” OK, I’ll admit it. In 2009 I published a book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison, which is part of a line of books offered by Yale University Press (and available for sale on amazon.com), and this line of books is called the Icons of America Series. So now I’ve advertised my book, and also prevented you from using the “icon” thing against me, since I already brought it up. But what “icon” means, in the context of that series of books, is “something that everyone can picture, and everyone thinks he understands, except that he doesn’t.” That’s a useful concept. There’s another meaning, which is even more useful: “a literal or literary picture that represents concepts of fundamental importance to the people who make and view it.” Thus, the lilies that adorn a picture of Mary and the Christ child illustrate her purity; the baby’s trusting look reveals his innocence; the cruciform gesture with which he stretches forth his arms foretells his redemptive death. There’s a scene in Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus arrives at Ithaca and is greeted by his patroness Athena. They sit under the sacred olive tree and plot the ruin of the suitors. This scene is also an icon. It presents a vision of the ideal god and hero — similar in character, equal in virtue, and equally disposed to plotting and enjoying their plots. But notice: none of this adds up to “Kate Voted 2011’s Top Beauty Icon,” “Patti Smith at 65: From Rebel to Icon,” or “Hotel an Icon in Red Hook for 164 Years.” If “icon” means “celebrity,” call Kate a celebrity. If to be “an icon” means to be famous, say that Red Hook has a famous hotel. I don’t know what you do with the Patti Smith headline. Find some other meaningless word, I guess.

5. “Double down.” This phrase first became popular in an innocent way. It conveyed the stubborn fecklessness of President Obama, a bad gambler who somehow considers himself a good one. Then it became a synonym for “continuing one’s course” or simply “being consistent.” And that is wrong, very wrong. Obama is not doubling down every time he repeats the same campaign speech he’s been using for the past three years. He’s not a risky, heroic figure. He’s not Bret Maverick. Let’s ban this particular chip from the casino.

4. “Dead on arrival.” Here is the Democrats’ new favorite, and they would die without it. Of course, they still have trademark rights to “our children,” “the folks on disability,” “American workers that are out of jobs,” “people that are most in need,” and the all-purpose suffix “in this country” (as in “we need to do better for our children, the folks on disability, workers that are out of jobs, and people that are most in need, in this country”). All these terms have been useful in maintaining the Democratic base in its chronic condition of insanity. But what the Democratic politicians needed was a phrase that would gratify the base while menacing the opposition. Ideally it would be a phrase that expressed both their habitual arrogance and their frustrated spite about their massive losses in November 2010. So they picked up “dead on arrival.” Harry Reid is its biggest fan. When he finds the Republicans in their usual state of legislative dithering, he taunts them by asking where is their bill? When he finds that they may actually have a bill, he announces that the bill will be “dead on arrival.” It doesn’t occur to him that a man who looks like an undertaker shouldn’t be pushing images of dead bodies. It doesn’t occur to the mainstream media either. That’s why this repulsive expression is now appearing everywhere there.

3. “Kitchen table.” Here’s a homey phrase that is useful whenever a “news correspondent” accidentally asks a politician to comment on an important issue. Thus: “Do you think it’s a problem that in a time when other people have less and less money, the salaries and benefits of government employees keep going up?” That’s a real question, for a change. The real answer is simple: “Yes.” The phony answer takes more work. “Well, Marcie, I just think that when the American people sit down at the kitchen table to work out their family budgets, I just don’t think when they’re sitting there at the table, they’re really wondering what other people take home in their paychecks, or what benefits their public servants may have earned. I think what the American people are thinking about when they sit down there at the kitchen table to really think things out, they’re thinking about the really important issues. Will we have economic justice in this country? Will our public workers be getting a living wage? Will we take care of our seniors on Social Security and our young people in our public schools? Is there life on other planets?” “Kitchen table” is this year’s substitute for the first half of the favorite cliché of 2008, “Main Street versus Wall Street.” It’s a slimy attempt to convince you that Pennsylvania Avenue is not the problem. It’s an attempt to fool you into thinking that when you sit there at the kitchen table and stack up your pathetic statements of profit and loss (mostly loss) and try to figure out how you’re going to pay your ridiculous federal income tax, you are feeling exactly what some politician feels when he reclines in his limousine and tries to figure out how to make you pay still more. I’m surprised that I ranked this one as only No. 3.

2. “Up for grabs,” as in “the Iowa caucus is now up for grabs.” Nothing unusual about this one — just the awful certainty that for the next 11 months we’ll be told that “South Carolina is up for grabs,” “Florida is really up for grabs right now,” “there are over 400 House seats, and they’re all up for grabs,” and yes, “the White House itself is up for grabs.” I suggest that this metaphor be replaced by something similar but more explicit. Let’s try “the Senate is up for sale,” “the House is up for sale,” and “the White House is up for sale.” Those expressions would acknowledge the fact that if you tell the voters you are not going to pay them off, you are not going to increase Social Security benefits, increase veterans’ benefits, increase students’ benefits, increase almost everyone’s benefits, while decreasing almost everyone’s taxes, you will not be elected. Or so we are told.

Now bring the drums and trumpets! The end of the procession is in sight.

As Pogo said, we have met the enemy, and he is us. We are what our president calls the

1. “Folks.” All right, this is just another Obama-ism. But does that make it innocent? Certainly not. Yet its origins are sad. The f-word first gained control of Obama’s mind when the polls showed conclusively that he had lost the “folks.” So he obsessively created stories about various kinds of “folks” — “folks sittin’ around the kitchen table” (see no. 3, above), “folks that are just tryin’ to balance their checkbooks,” “folks that are hurtin’,” “folks that we’re helpin’” — an enormous crowd of folks to surround and comfort him. I reckon I’m one a them folks, cause I’m really hurtin’ when I hear crap like this. It worked for Huey Long, but, sorry, it doesn’t work for a guy who ran for president on his credentials as a Harvard grad. It there are folks in this world, President Obama is a non-folk. Like most partisan words, however, “folks” has wanderlust. It doesn’t care which side of the aisle it’s on. And why shouldn’t the Republicans have their crack at it, too? I’m sorry, very sorry to say this, but 2012 is likely to be the Year of the Folks. That’s what makes No. 1 so dangerous.

Now, that’s sort of a downer, isn’t it? You see what I meant about New Year’s. We’ve come to the end. The awards have been given. Nobody’s happy. It’s time to leave the auditorium.

I’m sure you’ve noted, however, that most of phrases on this year’s roll of shame are political. I put it at six out of ten. This is not an accident or product of my own whim. There is a law at work here, a law of linguistic devolution: the larger the government, the more it talks, and the more influence it has on everyone else’s discourse. That can’t be good.

But just remember: Liberty’s got your back.




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The Impact of It All

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So many Niagaras of words have flowed from the Penn State sex scandal that, unpleasant though the task may be — and it is plenty unpleasant — Word Watch needs to comment on them.

There’s no good place to start, so let’s just dive into the notorious email that Penn State Athletic Flunky Mike McQueary sent to a friend, denying that he had failed to take action when he (allegedly) saw Very Important Coach Jerry Sandusky having sex with a young boy in the showers at the football building:

“I did stop it, not physically . . . but made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room . . . I did have discussions with police and with the official at the university in charge of police . . . no one can imagine my thoughts or wants to be in my shoes for those 30–45 seconds . . . trust me.”

Surely Mike McQueary deserves a promotion. The language of this note is much more appropriate to a university administrator than to a low-level munchkin. First, there’s the strong assertion (“I did stop it”); then there’s the telling admission (“not physically”); then there’s that curious kind of statement that makes one pause, read it again, and speculate about what it really means, without ever knowing how one could tell if one had actually found the meaning.

“Made sure it was stopped when I left that locker room.” Does that mean you really, personally stopped it? If so, how? But maybe you mean that you let it go on, but when you went back and checked, you found it had stopped, possibly because of whatever it was you did, or didn’t do, before. Is that it? Should we ask for the floor plans, so we can see where the locker room was, in relation to the showers? Was the interval between the time when you saw something happening in the shower and the time when you left the locker room the same as “those 30–45 seconds”? Or what?

But the thing that really puts McQueary in the higher administrative or political realm is his chain of self-references: “No one can imagine my thoughts or wants to be in my shoes . . . . trust me.”

On this one matter, I do trust him. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. But I can well imagine his thoughtswhen he was confronted with the need to protect a child from sexual abuse by a high-ranking operative of the “educational” institution he worked for. I believe he was thinking, “Damn! This is gonna get me fired!”

How does a bunch of college kids marching around with candles make anyone feel better about having been molested?

That thick vein of self-regard, and the obfuscating style that is its inseparable companion, runs into McQueary’s next remarks: “I am getting hammered for handling this the right way . . . or what I thought at the time was right . . .” Silly me. I thought this mindless jock was “getting hammered” for doing something wrong. Now I have to consider the possibility that he thought he was right. Gosh. What about that? I guess if he thought he was right, I’ll have to feel sorry for him. Won’t I? Won’t you?

Uh, maybe not, but it was a good try, planting that logic tree: either he’s right — or he’s wrong, but in that case he’s right anyway, because he thought he was right. . . .

The McQueary statement that galls me most, however, is the following: “I had to make tough impacting quick decisions.” Fascinating — what were those decisions? I would like to know. Once more, either he did something right, or he did something he thought was right — but what was it? Whatever it may have been, it was “quick” (45 seconds? In 45 seconds you can get halfway through the Gettysburg Address), “tough” (on whom?), and “impacting” (again, on whom?). Apparently it wasn’t especially impacting on Coach Sandusky, or on Penn State University, or on its head football coach, or on its president, or on McQueary himself, or on anyone else involved in this mess. All of them went on their merry way, for the next nine years. One imagines that McQueary’s decision might at least have been impacting on McQueary. But what was the impact? No one knows. Nonetheless, McQueary wants everyone to care and sympathize.

Sadly, impact is not just a flunkeyism. Itis the word of choice for all those high-class people who specialize in, well, impacting public opinion. First marketed to congressmen and corporate CEOs, it soon passed to all other professionals, including professional educators such as McQueary and his associates. The Penn State scandal alone has registered as many impacts as the surface of the moon.

We are all impacted now, and no one more than The Second Mile, the organization for disadvantaged kids that Sandusky founded, and which he reputedly used as a means of identifying his sexual targets. On Nov. 6, soon after the scandal broke, Second Mile canceled a fundraising event, explaining, “While we are providing our children’s programming as scheduled, The Second Mile has decided, out of respect and compassion for all impacted by the allegations from the Attorney General’s office, to postpone The Second Mile’s Reverse Drawing . . .” If you push your way through this thicket of words, you will discover that what has made an “impact” on the unspecified “all” isn’t any actions of Sandusky himself but simply the force of the Attorney General’s “allegations” about such actions.

Coupled with this announcement was a carefully worded narrative intended to exculpate The Second Mile. It started with the all and impact boilerplate: “Our prayers, care and compassion go out to all impacted.” I suppose that includes the leadership of Second Mile, people who have certainly been impacted, if not deprived of their jobs, by the events in question. But in their case, prayer has been unavailing. Eight days after the message just quoted, the organization’s CEO resigned, modestly stipulating that any further statement on his part would take “the focus from where it should be — on the children, young adults and families who have been impacted. Their pain and their healing is the greatest priority, and my thoughts and prayers have been and will continue to be with them.”

In other words, he’s not talking. But this word impacted . . . it’s a curious expression. It used to mean that something had smashed into something else, and the latter had been seriously damaged, perhaps destroyed. Now, under the influence of obfuscating politicians, officious or embarrassed educators, and illiterate journalists, impacted can mean anything within the range of “affected in some way.” Dude! Your beagle is impacting my front lawn. Dude.

Surely, kids who have been seduced or molested by sex-greedy adults have been seriously impacted, but the more you use that word, the less it means. The image of a crater, or a tooth in trouble, seems less significant, and less humane, the more you hear it applied to humans. It’s an easy word, isn’t it? No one can claim that you aren’t caring enough, if you use such an emphatic term. Especially when you couple it with a standard reference to thoughts and prayers.

I don’t want to sound self-righteous, but when I tell someone that he is in my thoughts and prayers, I mean that I am actually thinking about him and praying for him. That’s simple enough. But what do you think is happening when the normal public figure says that people are in his thoughts and prayers? Do you believe that presidents respond to earthquakes, plane crashes, droughts, floods, and deaths in battle by actually thinking and praying about those who have been impacted? They say they do, but I don’t think they’re telling the truth.

He was patiently bemused by the stupidity of the young.

Listening to this jargon, I picture the president abruptly leaving his golf games, lobbyist shakedowns, and reelection strategy sessions to rush up to the family quarters and kneel in prayer on behalf of every person endangered by all those floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and military defeats about which he has publicly extended his thoughts and prayers during the past 24 hours. That’s what we’re supposed to imagine, isn’t it?

I don’t deny that even a president may sometimes pray, and pray for someone other than himself. Many presidents have done that. Until recently, however, they haven’t made so many confessions that they are always busy thinking and praying about people in the news. Every religious person should oppose such pretense at piety, instead of leaving it for the atheists to ridicule. One reason why this is especially important to debunk is that the hypocrisy of the official class has a way of seeping down, like fluids escaping from a corpse, into the language of everyone else. In other words, as President Obama would put it, official smarm impacts us all in a negative manner.

On November 11, on Fox News, Juan Williams — a journalist who knows and respects the English language — had the unenviable task of reporting on events at Penn State, where students rioted because the trustees overthrew the local god, Joe Paterno, the head coach who failed to act in the Sandusky case. The insurrection happened just when the university was most vulnerable, facing, as it did, an invasion from Nebraska on the coming Saturday. So after the first night of orgiastic grief, the Penn State patriots decided that smarm was better than violence. Without relinquishing their support for JoPa, they decided to take strong moral action — by holding a candlelight vigil. Huh? Yet this is exactly what you would expect from the disciples of an ersatz religion, such as college football. Light some candles, and everyone will know you’re devout. They may even confuse your worship of fuhbawl with the ceremonies of one of the higher religions.

But let’s see . . . there had to be a vigil, but what would be the point of it? What would it ostensibly be for? Of course, it was “to show support for the children who were allegedly abused” — an interesting use of the word support. One supports a football team by screaming slogans in a stadium. These verbal oblations are assumed to have a magical effect on the prowess of the team. But how does a bunch of college kids marching around with candles make anyone feel better about having been molested?

This question must have occurred to someone besides me, because the vigil organizers got more specific. They said that their show of support was aimed at “raising money for victims of sexual abuse.” That sounds good — but of course, the actual victims weren’t going to receive any of that money. Oh no. Contributions would go to “groups fighting child abuse.” Again, it sounds good. But how do you use money for something like that? Is this how we deal with other crimes? Do we give money to groups fighting burglaries? How about murder — do you think we should donate money to groups fighting that?

Please don’t accuse me of being insensitive to victims of burglary, murder, or any other actual crime. But guess what? We already have an organization that’s designed to fight such crimes, including child abuse; and it is very well funded. We all contribute to its maintenance. That organization is called the police.

Now back to Juan Williams. He had to interview two young women, students at Penn State, who were involved in the mighty candlelight vigil. These young people loved Penn State. They pitied its sorry plight. They viewed it as an innocent lamb, deprived of its shepherd (Joe Paterno). But this religious devotion to alma mater seems to have made them especially vulnerable to leakages of pomposity from the upper administrative levels. When Williams asked one of them a softball starter question, she declined to answer before she had pounded all the rivets into the official boilerplate. “First,” she intoned, “I just want to take a moment to extend my thoughts and prayers to the victims and their families on behalf of myself and all the Penn State family.”

Now President Spanier adds one more to the list of perfect objects. His statement is the ne plus ultra of administrative arrogance.

Williams reacted to this extraordinary statement in the only way in which a courteous gentleman could react: he tried to make sense of what the young woman was saying; then, failing that, he contented himself with a few pacific, grandfatherly remarks, which neither of the students appeared to understand. He was patiently bemused by the stupidity of the young. But for God’s sake, what kind of culture is it that inspires a 20-year-old with the notion that a university is a “family,” that she is empowered, by her proffered feelings, to speak for that “family,” and that she has thereby achieved the sacramental role of thinking and praying over other people, personally unknown to her — on television, yet? Her effortless assumption of the official attitude was bizarre, and unsettling, though hardly unprecedented.

Is this what universities teach? I’m afraid they do.

I should add that Penn State students were advised, at the candlelight vigil, to go to the Nebraska game wearing blue, which for some reason has been identified by someone as the color of “child abuse awareness.” Awareness? Does that word have a meaning? Is there a non-trivial sense in which my awareness of child abuse does something for its victims? In any event, the slogan of the day was, "Stop Child Abuse, Blue Out Nebraska." A strangely assorted pair of sentiments! But yes, the stadium was full of blue on Saturday, though Nebraska was not blued out. Nebraska won.

Winners and losers . . . one sadly revealing episode of the Penn State scandal was college president Graham Spanier’s official statement (Nov. 7) about the arrest of two of his fellow administrators: “The protection of children is of paramount importance. The university will take a number of actions moving forward to increase the safety and security within our facilities and make everyone aware of the protocols in place for handling these issues."

From time to time, it is given to mortals to view a work of human artifice so perfect, in its way, as to lie beyond all analytic criticism. The Taj Mahal. Andrea del Sarto’s “Madonna of the Harpies.”The final movements of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony. Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” poems. Now President Spanier adds one more to the list of perfect objects. His statement is the ne plus ultra of administrative arrogance. One stands in awe of it: it is a perfectly pompous, perfectly empty statement. It is perfect in that way, not because it says nothing at all — it says a lot of things — but because it claims to mean something, and simultaneously withdraws all its purported meanings, thus arriving, in this most challenging of contexts, at the nothingness it pretends to reject.

The university will take actions. What actions? A number of them.

The university will increase safety and security. How? Somehow.

There are protocols in place for handling these issues. What protocols? What issues? What does “issues” mean, anyhow? Never mind; we will make everyone aware.

Meanwhile, we are all moving forward. Does that mean . . . just possibly . . . that there was something wrong in the past, which we are now moving away from? That’s a possibility. Exploring it, however, would ruin the effect.

But here’s the good part. The statement didn’t work. Graham Spanier and Joe Paterno were fired. Of the fallen Dr. Spanier, said to have been the most highly paid university administrator in America, the governor of the state opined: “People lost confidence in [his] ability to lead.”

The word wasn’t “talk.” The word was “lead.” There’s a difference. And no heap of words can cover it up.




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Did You Build Grand Central Station?

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On Sept. 29, President Obama gave a TV interview in which he said, “The way I think about it is, you know, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and, you know, we didn't have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track."

Notice that when the president said that “we need to get back on track,” he didn’t mean that “you and I” need to do so. He didn’t mean that he had lost his competitive edge during the past 20 years and needed to reform himself. He meant that you had lost your edge. The I he reserves for such statements as “I’m going to be signing an executive order today,” or “I urge Congress to move forward,” or “I need to win elections so I can become my own father.” (That last statement is something that he’s never actually said but that he has probably, poor man, always felt.)

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh published a book about his solo flight across the Atlantic. The book was called We. The reference was to Lindbergh and his airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis. Those two were “we.”

Please imagine the effect if he had called the book I. Even Ayn Rand changed the name of her second novel from Ego to Anthem. If you want to call a book I, it had better be your autobiography. (And it had better be good.) But Lindbergh’s book was the story of his exploit, not the story of himself. Without the plane, he wouldn’t have had the exploit. His title showed appropriate courtesy to the plane.

Now imagine the effect if he had gone in the other way and called the book We, the American People. That wouldn’t have been discourteous. That would have been preposterous. It wasn’t the People who crossed the Atlantic. It was Lindbergh and his plane.

I’m not talking about metaphysical issues. I’m talking about literary effects. But there are certain large areas of American life in which neither metaphysics nor aesthetics are understood. The chief of these areas is politics. In this field, we is now one of the most common terms, and it is almost always misplaced — misplaced in a way that is shocking both to fact and to intellect.

As usual, President Obama provides the reductio ad absurdum. Here is what he said during his “give me money and I will create jobs” tour, on Sept. 22, in Cincinnati:

Now, we used to have the best infrastructure in the world here in America. We’re the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad, the Interstate Highway System. We built the Hoover Dam. We built the Grand Central Station.

So how can we now sit back and let China build the best railroads? And let Europe build the best highways? And have Singapore build a nicer airport?

Andrew Malcolm, reporting on the president’s speech (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 23), asked a “quick question”: “Has anyone ever heard any American express jealousy over Singapore's sweet airport?” That’s a good question, but it’s not the important one. The important question is, Who is this we, anyhow?

I don’t remember having built any dams or train stations, and I’ll bet you don’t either. Obama’s we is simply a way of inciting people’s emotions by confusing their ideas about how things get done. We the people don’t raise capital, draw up plans, and pour cement. We may pay taxes or buy train tickets, but we can’t take the credit if a train station turns out to be a work of art, or take the blame if an airline terminal looks like a prison, but without the charm.

It should be noted that “we” is not a term of agitation simply on the Left. It is also a weapon of the Corporate Power — you know, that “1% of the country that owns 99% of it.” This putative 1% appears to consist mainly of oil companies, and they are fighting back, in their feckless way, with commercials in which simulacra of ordinary people say obnoxious, accusatory things — things like, “The oil companies are making a lot of money. Where does it go?” — and then are answered by the unsurprising news that the companies invest the money they make, thereby creating jobs. But many of the obnoxious statements refer to the alleged energy shortage. These take the form of hysterical outbursts such as, “We have to do something about this!” or “We gotta get on this now!

But there are certain large areas of American life in which neither metaphysics nor aesthetics are understood. The chief of these areas is politics.

None of the average citizens whom Chevron depicts as looking up from their busy lives to demand that something be done is portrayed as having any professional qualification to do something himself. We the people aren’t up to that. So the greasy oil company spokesman is free to step in and proclaim that certain other we’s, we the energy experts, are indeed doing something with those invested profits, something to better the lives of everyone, etc. It’s a contest between one we and another, which puts it on a very high intellectual level indeed.

I find it painful even to notice nonsense like this, so I’ll be content with one more example. A big, thumping, classic example. A confused person named Julianne Malveaux (who used to be visible pretty frequently on television, when television was an entirely leftwing venue), once posted a favorable review of a popular book about religion and morality, in which she made these comments: “Still, I could not read the book without wondering how [the author] or anyone else would expect morality in a nation of thieves. How could we expect our political leaders to be honest when we stole from the Indians, enslaved the Africans, interred [sic] the Japanese, disenfranchised the Chinese, conscripted labor from the Mexicans and so on and so on and so on.”

Clearly, Dr. Malveaux does not consider herself a part of this nation of thieves, or she wouldn’t trust herself to discuss its morality. Yet somehow she can’t avoid using we and our, thereby confessing herself to be a dastardly American after all. Having seen this nice lady on TV, I can hardly picture her forcing Chinese (presumably Chinese Americans) away from the polls, persecuting Mexicans by “conscripting” their labor (huh? when did that happen?), or enslaving Africans — much less burying the Japanese. By her account, however, she has done all these things, and is also several hundreds of years old.

Silly as it is, this kind of rhetoric is increasing. It is growing even faster than the national debt — although formerly, even the worst orators tried to avoid its worst excesses. But whenever I say things like that, I try to check them against Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural address (1965), which I regard as a standard by which bad writing can be measured. Bad, worse, worst: this speech is one of the worst things ever written. (I’ve discussed a few of its features before, in "The Great Man Speaks," Liberty, April 2009. I haven’t talked about any of its good features, because there aren’t any. ) So how is we handled in Johnson’s speech?

Johnson makes some borderline uses of the first person plural — innocuous generalizations about “we” as “we” are today: “Under this [the exact referent isn’t clear, but it’s meant to be something that happened, or maybe didn’t happen, sometime in American history] covenant of justice, liberty, and union we have become a nation — prosperous, great, and mighty. And we have kept our freedom. But we have no promise from God that our greatness will endure. We have been allowed by Him to seek greatness with the sweat of our hands and the strength of our spirit.” Blah, blah, blah. Yes, we don’t know what God has in store for us. This is perfectly true and fully supported by fact. Most of Johnson’s other we statements, however fallible or flaky, are also observations about current reality, about what we supposedly see now:

For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say “Farewell.” Is a new world coming? We welcome it — and we will bend it to the hopes of man.

To this we can only respond, “When was it that we said farewell to our world?” I, for one, can’t recall any worlds disappearing. And I know I never contemplated bending a new world to the hopes of man. Sorry, can’t picture that. But even baloney like this isn’t as bad as the oil company ads, which insist that we actually start doing something to bend the world, or the Malveaux review, which insists that we (you and I!) once actuallydid something like that, but it didn’t turn out very well.

Nevertheless, there is a disturbing parallel between Johnson’s speech and the more modern remarks I’ve been analyzing. It comes in the following paragraph, where Johnson says:

No longer need capitalist and worker, farmer and clerk, city and countryside, struggle to divide our bounty. By working shoulder to shoulder, together we can increase the bounty of all. We have discovered that every child who learns, every man who finds work, every sick body that is made whole — like a candle added to an altar — brightens the hope of all the faithful.

The Simpsons has the First Church of Springfield. America at large has the First Church of All. One of its dogmas is that all of usare always learning helpful things about all of us. For example, we learned to work shoulder to shoulder (now there’s a fresh expression), because we discovered that competition (the “struggle to divide”) doesn’t “increase the bounty of all.”

This notion goes a long way toward explaining America’s melancholy political history from the 1960s until now. No politician ever opens his mouth to say that we were once taught to believe that we should work shoulder to shoulder, but that now we know we were wrong, because competition increases the bounty of all. But that’s the plain, though unutterable, truth.

Somehow Malveaux can’t avoid using “we” and “our,” thereby confessing herself to be a dastardly American after all.

One thing we plainly did not discover, because it is patently absurd, is that everyone benefits from everything good that happens to everyone else. If this is what every child who learns is learning (and I’m afraid it is), then we are in serious trouble. But in case you haven’t noticed, we are in serious trouble, and it’s because some people actually accept the ridiculous assumptions behind these ridiculous uses of every, all, and we.

I hate to say it, because it seems so fundamentalist, so retro-libertarian, but this also is true: what I’ve been discussing here is collectivism, pure and simple, and collectivism is a very bad thing. Not only is it economically harmful; it’s destructive of thought, and today it is more prominent than ever in America. There is nothing more common than the linguistic collectivism that was planted in President Johnson’s idiotic remarks about “the hope of all the faithful” and now blossoms in President Obama’s amazing idea that we (of course including he) somehow constructed the Hoover Dam and summoned Grand Central Station out of the primordial ooze. Yet on this false conception, this linguistic folly, has been erected the vast framework of modern socialism, the system of thought and action that is now imperiling the future of us all.




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Obama, the Soaring Sofa

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Clichés are an inexhaustible subject. I’ll always have more to say about them. It’s interesting to watch them come and go — preferably go.

Take “soaring rhetoric.” (Please!) I don’t know who started that, but once somebody did, it became the phrase almost universally employed in speaking of Candidate Obama’s speeches. I could never understand this phenomenon. His speeches sounded to me like nothing but a tissue of . . . well, clichés. And not very good clichés. If you don’t share that view, please quote a memorable passage from any one of Obama’s utterances. You can’t do it, can you? But, for better or worse, you can quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” You can recall “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” You can remember “This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” The difference is that those passages became clichés, whereas Obama’s remarks were clichés to begin with.

But the popularity of his words was something to behold. Immediately they were observed to soar. Maybe that’s why no one could remember them — they flew away too fast. The very description of Obama’s clichés became a cliché. Every time he said anything whatever, his rhetoric soared. But then a bad thing happened. Soaring appeared more and more in adversative expressions, such as, “Despite the president’s soaring rhetoric, listeners commented on the apparent lack of substance in his address on Tuesday”; and in embarrassing questions, such as, “Can soaring rhetoric pull the president out of his political difficulties?”

Gradually it dawned on people that the only salient phrase (all right, the only cliché) that Obama actually generated, the only one he didn’t just adopt from others, was “hope and change.” And that wasn’t a saying that started out good or useful and got tired from over-use. It was bad in itself. It was empty, imageless. It pictured nothing; it evoked nothing concrete, or even symbolic. It was an abstraction chasing some other abstraction. In that respect, it was the image of its author’s mind. But it was the best cliché that Obama (or, to be fair, the Obama forces) could come up with. All his other clichés were quotations from sources known but to God.

Immediately his words were observed to soar. Maybe that’s why no one could remember them — they flew away too fast.

Today I went to Google and typed in “obama speech text,” prepared to discuss whatever came up first. It turned out to be his congressional “jobs” speech on Sept. 8. Here are some passages from that speech, which were also selected virtually at random. I’ve put most of the president’s blank, anonymous, deadening clichés in italics.

American “men and women,” the president said, “grew up with faith in an America where hard work and responsibility paid off. They believed in a country where everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share — where if you stepped up, did your job, and were loyal to your company, that loyalty would be rewarded with a decent salary and good benefits; maybe a raise once in a while. If you did the right thing, you could make it. Anybody could make it in America.

“For decades now, Americans have watched that compact erode. They have seen the decks too often stacked against them. And they know that Washington has not always put their interests first.

“The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities. The question tonight is whether we’ll meet ours. The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy. (Applause.) The question is — the question is whether we can restore some of the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.

“Those of us here tonight can’t solve all our nation’s woes. Ultimately, our recovery will be driven not by Washington, but by our businesses and our workers. But we can help. We can make a difference.”

You could write a book about the sheer ignorance of these remarks. The president actually believes that “fairness and security . . . defined” America since its “beginning.” If they had, isn’t it odd that neither “fairness” nor “fair” nor “security” nor “secure,” in any economic sense of those words, appears in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution? “Secure” and “security” are there, but only in such contexts as the second amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This is one source that Obama certainly didn’t intend to allude to.

Gradually it dawned on people that the only salient phrase that Obama actually generated, the only one he didn’t just adopt from others, was “hope and change.”

But look at what he did intend, and reflect on it. What personal security had the early settlers of this continent, who died like flies on the Atlantic shore? What economic fairness had the slaves languishing in the southern states? What fairness or security had the builders of new industries, new financial institutions, and new methods of communication, whose investments might at any time be swept away by American governments trying to provide economic security for other people?

What aspect of fairness was entailed by the bribes that businessmen had to pay to get their railroads through some of our more rapacious western states? What fairness was evinced by southern laws stipulating that slaves could not be freed, even by their owners, or by southern and northern laws prohibiting free persons of color from living in certain states?

Whoever believed that “anybody could make it in America”? Whoever believed that there was a “compact” guaranteeing him “a decent salary and good benefits”? Who wrote that compact? Who signed it? Where can it be read?

Yet these words were spoken, not only by the president of the United States, but by a lawyer and instructor of law.

Obama’s ignorance of history is extraordinary, even among politicians. His ignorance of grammar and diction is more representative of the tribe. The president believes that “our nation’s woes” can be “solved,” as if woe were a problem, rather than a response to problems. “Oh baby, lemme solve your woes.” He thinks that “everyone” — “everyone” — is plural: “everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share.” He thinks that “recovery” can be “driven,” like a goose or an SUV. He pictures contracts — “compacts” — as things that “erode,” like farmland or, metaphorically, like confidence in our current president. I can picture confidence slowly diminishing, eroding away; I cannot picture a contract undergoing the same experience. Can Obama picture these things, or is he merely speaking word after word, sentence after sentence, without anything in his brain at all?

But perhaps the worst thing, if there could be anything worse than that hokum about fairness and security, is the enormous trust that Obama places in his words, never realizing how dull they are. As usual with him, the clichés in this speech are a dusty collection of game and sports metaphors (“stepped up” [to the plate], “decks too often stacked”), movie memorabilia (“did the right thing,” as in the 1989 film by Spike Lee), and Rotarian and labor union filler (“make it in America”). People who are a hundred years old have been hearing this kind of thing all their lives. If you’re going to borrow a cliché, you might at least borrow it from Lincoln or Jefferson or the Bible or Citizen Kane, not from some source that long ago drowned in the marshes of Lethe.

What about the Republicans, the wretched Republicans? It isn’t just Obama’s remarks that make one leap for the remote control.

And if you’re going to use a cliché, you might at least use one that makes sense. Consider “We can make a difference.” I’m not a big admirer of President Kennedy, but can you imagine him trying to work some kind of climax out of “We can make a difference”? The same can be said of President Reagan. His rhetoric was ordinarily not as good as Kennedy’s, but would he ever have intoned, “Mr. Gorbachev, we can make a difference”? No, no more than Kennedy would have considered saying, “Ask not how your country can make a difference for you; ask how you can make a difference for your country.” Nothing, not even the biggest bottle of Scotch or the most urgent ongoing national crisis, could have induced either of those gentlemen to put that phrase in a position of prominence.

Well, why not? Because anybody with sense, upon hearing “We can make a difference,” would ask the obvious questions: What kind of difference? How much of a difference? Can I get by with making just a little difference? Is it OK if I make a difference, but it makes things worse? It’s usually easier to make things worse — would that be all right with you?

Pause.

When I reached this point in the column, my conscience began to bother me. All this attention paid to Obama . . . . What about the Republicans, the wretched Republicans? It isn’t just Obama’s remarks that make one leap for the remote control. Why not give his opponents some attention, also?

It’s true, Republicans are just as addicted as Obama to saying that we need togrow “the economy,” or “jobs,” or anything else that can’t actually be grown. It’s as if they had never heard those common and useful words develop, increase, expand, improve. They are just as willing as Obama to tell you that they won’t sit idly by while this or that goes on. And they are just as willing to beat a phrase to death — a tendency that is especially regrettable when they accidentally find a good phrase, such as “class warfare.”

So, remembering the manifold and grievous sins of the Republicans, and mindful also of the fairness that defines this nation, I decided to see what House Speaker John Boehner had to say about Obama’s jobs proposal, and take a few swipes at Boehner’s soaring rhetoric. Unfortunately, however, when I pulled up the long “jobs” speech that Boehner gave before the Economic Club of Washington on Sept. 15, I found little that was worth satirizing. It wasn’t a bad speech.

Admittedly, there were a few syntactical problems. And the speech showed that Republicans as well as Democrats can fall back on socialist clichés, derived from the labor theory of value (conclusively disproven a mere 140 years ago). "Our economy,” Boehner said, “has always been built on opportunity . . . on entrepreneurs, innovators and risk-takers willing to take a chance — because they're confident if they work hard, they can succeed.” If hard work guarantees success, then what “chance” are the “risk-takers” taking? And hard work means nothing if people aren’t willing to buy the products of your work. Isabel Paterson, the author of many books, said the final word on this subject: “You could put a great deal of energy into producing something nobody wants very much. This disconcerting fact is peculiarly noticeable in the production of books.” Well, maybe the final word should have been “speeches.”

In the moments when people attend more closely to the president, the emptiness of his words allows them to derive almost any meaning that they want to find.

But the “work hard” passage was the worst feature of Boehner’s talk. If you want soaring rhetoricat least rhetoric that isn’t the verbal equivalent of some extinct, flightless bird — you’d do better reading Boehner than Obama. That’s a terrible thing to say about anyone, but it’s true. Our president, so famous for words, is really, really bad with them. He’s pretentious and humorless; his vocabulary is severely restricted; his rhetorical techniques can be numbered on a horse’s fingers; he cannot tell a story; his range of serious allusion is virtually nonexistent; his sentences are mere parking lots for cheap clichés. He is dull, dull, dull. So why do people think he’s a good speaker?

The first reason is that they happen to agree with him. The second reason is that they happen to agree with him. The third reason is that they happen to agree with him.

But there are other reasons. He’s not bad looking. He’s a mechanical speaker, but he speaks with confidence, and that is a guaranteed grab for at least a third of any audience. He also speaks rather rapidly; unlike most other politicians, he doesn’t remind you of a cow systematically chewing its cud. His speeches are usually far too long, but that doesn’t matter on TV; studies show that people are almost always multi-tasking when they watch the tube. Obama has nothing to say that would interfere with checking the curtains or heating up the microwave or regretting that Junior tracked in some more of that mud. In the moments when people attend more closely to the president, the emptiness of his words allows them to derive almost any meaning that they want to find. His clichés — so insipid, so repetitive, so predictable, so soporific . . .

Pardon me; I just dozed off.

Soaring rhetoric? Obama is the oratorical equivalent of a sofa. But there’s something about a sofa — it always gets worn out a lot sooner than you think it will.




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Whom Is Destroying the Language?

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Mankind’s zest for the inaccurate knows no bounds. It's not surprising that it constantly manifests itself in errors of diction and grammar. Sometimes, though, you wonder how people who are ostensibly educated and intelligent — and who, in many cases, have achieved the power to rule over others — can actually say the things they do.

A good example appeared on July 18. The culprit was British Home Secretary Theresa May. She was discussing the possibility of “police corruption” in the scandal that enveloped News of the World. She told fellow members of Parliament that "it is natural to ask whom polices the police."

Michael Schein, a longtime friend of this column, immediately sounded the alarm: “Shouldn’t that be who polices the police?”

Right! The reason is that the case of a pronoun is governed by its grammatical function within its clause. May was using “whom” as the subject of a clause in which “polices” is the verb. Subjects always take the nominative case. Therefore, the correct word is “who,” which is nominative. The clause in question happens to be embedded in a larger clause, of which the subject is “it,” the verb is “is” (never mind what Bill Clinton would do with this), and the complement is “natural to ask,” followed by the direct object of “ask,” which is the clause “who[m] polices the police.” (“What did you ask?” “I asked, ‘Who polices the police?’”)

That explanation was a little complicated. Indeed, the grammatical rule that the home secretary violated is said to be the hardest to explain in the English language. Yet this merely indicates how easy English grammar really is. English word choice can involve extraordinary difficulties, because English has many more commonly used words than any other language, but English grammar just ain’t that hard.

Well, it must have been the embeddedness of the clause that misled — indeed, addled — the home secretary. But you don’t need to be able to diagram her sentence to see that something went wrong. You just need to be aware that someone is pictured as asking a question, and the question is, “Who[m] polices the police?” After that, your ability to read and listen should guide you in the right path. You already know how to form a question in the English language. Did you ever hear anybody ask, “Whom hit the ball?” or “Whom killed Cock Robin?” No, and you never will, unless you hang out with the British home secretary.

There was a time when British politicians were far above this sort of thing. Some of them, in fact, were among the greatest masters of English prose. Still, you would expect that anyone, anyone at all . . .

But let’s return to Michael’s astonished protest. “According to a non-Tea Partied version of Wikipedia,” he says, “this woman graduated from Oxford University!” He’s right again — although Oxford may be able to avoid some of the blame. May’s father was an Anglican priest. Such people, though sometimes daft in other ways (notice their frequency in mystery novels), are supposed to be fluent in English. But perhaps this one wasn’t. After being born, May worked at the Bank of England, where proper English used to be spoken with great naturalness. Perhaps it isn’t now. She even became “a senior advisor in international affairs.” Perhaps English isn’t necessary in such a job; perhaps her associates discouraged its use. At one time, when the Conservatives were out of power, she was their Shadow Education and Employment Secretary. Education! Now we’re really getting someplace. “Education” is where you can expect the worst influences to be exerted.

So we can understand the social forces that may have led Theresa May to illiteracy. But when she questions whom polices the police, the rest of us must still ask, with Michael Schein, “Where are the grammar police?”

When those police show up, May will be arrested — not for simple ignorance, but for ignorance in one of its most aggravated forms: snobbery. She is evidently one of those people who believe that “who” is a low, mean, common word, used only by the voters who keep you in power, while “whom” is a high-class word, reserved for the loftiest bureaucrats. Similarly, people like May — and people like President Obama, graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School — always say “just between you and I,” never dreaming that the working-class “me” is actually the correct form.

When the grammar police show up, May will be arrested — not for simple ignorance, but for ignorance in one of its most aggravated forms: snobbery.

It’s striking, the extent to which the British language has decayed. Its decadence is usually attributed to the influence of street slang, and this plays a part. But the ignorance of snobs is almost as influential as the stupidity of yobs. I’ve just finished reading a book called The Winter War (2008), by a Brit named Robert Edwards. It’s a history of the Russo-Finnish conflict of 1939–40. Its analysis is intelligent, and its perspective is firmly anticommunist, so I learned from it and sympathized with it, too. But its language is smarty, rather than smart, and its approach is unrelentingly arch. The writer always acts as if he were above his subject — despite the fact that he is often far below the common rules of sense and grammar.

Watch this passage as it struts across the stage. It’s about the Soviets’ prewar attempts to intimidate Finland, and their effects on Britain:

“The Soviet desiderata . . . included issues [‘issues,’ meaning things contested, is taken as synonymous with ‘desiderata,’ meaning things desired] that went against the very warp and weft [every cliché requires a ‘very’] of British policy. Implicit in the price to be paid for an eastern anti-Nazi bulwark would be free rein over the territories previously controlled by the man who had happened to be [as if he had won his title in a lottery] the last Grand Duke of Finland [who was he? tell us who!], Nicholas II [thank God! now we know who the last Grand Duke of Finland was; what we don’t know is why that was the climax of the sentence]. Further, the freedom to do so hinged around the concept of . . . .”

All right; that’s enough of that. I can picture plenty of things hinging on something, but I can’t picture anything hinging around anything. Meanwhile, I’m wondering how “to do so” functions in this pretentious maze of words. To do . . . what? The intended reference must be to “free rein,” but that’s not a verb. “Free rein” isn’t something you do.

Oh well. A writer who’s convinced of his superiority shouldn’t be required to reflect on what he’s written. But by the way, do writers still have editors?

There is something much worse, however, than the modern British “literary” style. It is the jargon of politics in modern America. One of its worst practitioners is a congresswoman from Florida named Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who happens to be the chair of the Democratic National Committee. This is the person who, on July 19, incurred the wrath of Republican Congressman Allen West by standing on the floor of the House and uttering the following words about a plan to do something about the US budget: “Incredulously, the gentleman from Florida [Allen West], who represents thousands of Medicare beneficiaries, as do I, is supportive of this plan that would increase costs for Medicare beneficiaries.”

DWS’s personal attack elicited an overly personal response from West, a response that was denounced by many. But at least West’s remarks weren’t so stupid that you could hardly bear to read them. He didn’t portray himself as astonished that anyone who represented “thousands of Medicare beneficiaries,” as every US congressman does, could possibly consider making them pay anything more for their benefits, ever. He didn’t express the snob’s moral outrage, the outrage of someone whose unexamined views are finally being challenged. And he didn’t take the snob’s typical course of reaching for a big word, only to grab the wrong one — as Wasserman Schultz did.

What she literally said was that West was incredulously supportive of a wicked plan — which makes no sense at all, except to show that she doesn’t know what her big words mean. “Incredulously” doesn’t mean “incredibly.” No, truly it doesn’t. It means something very different: “unbelievingly.” The wicked people were unbelievingly supportive.

Hmmm. But suppose she had changed the word to “incredibly,” and cleaned up her grammar by eliminating the dangling modifier (because that’s what “incredulously” is). Then she might have said, “It is incredible that the gentleman from Florida, who blah blah blah, is supportive of blah blah blah.” But that still wouldn’t be literate. “Incredible” means “not worthy of credence,” “unbelievable.” Had she chosen that word, the congresswoman would have been denouncing West for doing something she couldn’t believe he did.

Wasserman Schultz’s personal attack elicited an overly personal response from West, but at least his remarks weren’t so stupid that you could hardly bear to read them.

So on July 19 she was wrong six ways from Sunday. But try her on June 5. Here also she appeared to cherish the snobbish illusion that her audience would buy anything she said, no matter how preposterous it might be. Asked for her views on attempts to prevent voter fraud, attempts that she wanted to show are anti-black, she said this:

“Now, you have the Republicans, who want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and literally — and very transparently — block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates. And it’s nothing short of that blatant.”

Donning her vatic robes, DWS divines a sinister movement: Republicans (including, I suppose, Allen West, who is black) are struggling to institute legal apartheid (“Jim Crow”). This movement — this plot — has so far existed in such depths of secrecy that only she has noticed it. Nevertheless, it is “blatant,” “literally and very transparently” “blatant.” In short, it’s perfectly obvious.

Why does she say things like this? Probably she’s never spent a moment of thought on the meanings of any of the words she uses. It’s also possible that she’s never considered that words have meanings.

Ah, but they do. Her words say that Republicans are trying to “block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.” That means that the Republicans want to block access to about 50% of American voters. I wonder how they plan to pull this off. Only Debbie Wasserman Schultz knows that.

Now consider what she says about the racist idea of having to prove who you are, before you vote: “I mean you look — just look at African-American voters as a snapshot. About 25 percent of African-American voters don’t have a valid photo I.D.”

Notice the literal, the blatant meaning of this slam on African Americans: she’s saying that 25% of adult black people can neither drive a car nor board an airplane nor cash a check nor take a job that requires identification — because they, unlike you or me, have never bothered to get a valid ID. In my entire life I have never encountered an African American adult who was disadvantaged in this way, yet the congresswoman insists that one in four African American voters are.

But perhaps she intended to emphasize the word “valid” — in other words, to insist that although virtually all black people are able to present a photo ID, a huge number of them have to fake it. That’s an even bigger slam. Is that what she meant? Or does she know what she meant?

Likely she doesn’t, because the next thing she says is this: “We already have very legitimate voter verification processes, signature checks that are already in place; and there is so little voter fraud, which is the professed reason the Republicans are advancing these — these laws. There’s so little vo- — voter fraud, and I mean you’re more likely to get hit by lightning than you are to see an instance of voter fraud in this country, but Republicans are imposing laws all over the country, acting like it’s not — voter fraud is rampant, and it’s ridiculous.”

Why does she say things like this? Probably she’s never spent a moment of thought on the meanings of any of the words she uses.

The syntax alone says a lot about the current chair of the Democratic National Committee. But the words . . . On a generous interpretation, her words mean that when I walk over to my polling place at the Pentecostal church, sign the official logbook, and cast my vote (supposing that I don’t vote an absentee ballot, as perhaps 40% of our countrymen, or their spouses, or their 6-year-old children, do), I am as unlikely to be committing fraud as I am to be hit by lightning. Clearly, she who knows everything about everything else has never heard of ACORN.

Rep. West — who, according to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has a 25% likelihood of not possessing a valid photo ID — denounced DWS as “vile” and “despicable.” Well, his heart’s in the right place. But maybe he should have traced the problem not to defective character but to defective education. Wasserman Schultz — a woman lauded in 2004 by the National Organization for Women as an “exciting new feminist legislator to watch” and a fighter for increased funding for “education” (as well as for “equal gender representation on state boards and price parity for dry cleaning women's and men's clothing”) — is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she presumably learned something. But maybe it wasn’t the right thing. According to Wikipedia, she credits the University, where she was deeply involved in what is idiotically called student government, with developing her “love for politics and the political process."

Some college students develop a love for science, or Shakespeare, or Chinese history. This one developed a love for government.

Since then, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, B.A., has returned to academia whenever possible, becoming an adjunct professor of political philosophy at Broward Community College, as well as something called “a public policy curriculum specialist” at something called “Nova Southeastern University.” It isn’t Oxford, but so what? It’s literally, transparently, blatantly, incredulously “education.” And whom am I to criticize?




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The Cliché Crisis

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I don’t know about you, but for me the worst thing about this year’s budget “crisis” was the gross overspending of clichés.

No, I’m not crying wolf. I am not holding America hostage. Neither am I rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Nor am I gleefully informing my close friends and colleagues that their favorite proposals will be dead on arrival when they hit my desk. Hopefully, I am acting more responsibly than anyone in the nation’s capital. I hold no brief for revenue enhancements (i.e., taxes), or for throwing grandma under the bus. I consider myself the adult in the room.

Nevertheless, I can’t claim that I cared very much about the budget emergency. I knew that I wouldn’t get what I wanted — even a small attempt to reform the federal government’s fiscal racket — so I couldn’t be disappointed by the spectacle that took place during the last week of July.

You can’t feel very bad because some Nigerian spam artist didn’t send you the $15 million he promised “in the name of God.” In the same way, you can’t feel very bad about the two political parties for failing to fulfill their promise and impart economic health to the country. But you can feel bad about how everyone with a microphone kept insisting, night and day, that we cannot keep kicking the can down the road.

An older cliché informs us that actions speak louder than words. I deny it. Often words speak much louder than actions. We all do a lot of impulsive things that don’t say much about who we usually are. But the words we carefully marshal to impress people in argument: those words are us. If not, what are they?

Here’s a way to measure a mind. Does it invent interesting means of saying things, or does it just repeat what others have been saying, thousands of times over? Does it use words, or do words use it? Is it working with words, or is it just . . . kicking the can down the road?

By this standard, nobody in Washington turned out to be very smart during the great budget embarrassment. Nobody said anything original or interesting. It was too much trouble. Take the cliché I just mentioned. The political geniuses thought about it for a while, then decided to picture themselves standing like idle boys on a country road, gazing balefully at a can that was begging to be kicked — and refusing, in an access of self-righteousness, to kick it. Dennis the Democrat was itching to give it a boot. So was Randy the Republican. But they controlled themselves. They did nothing — a very complicated nothing, but nothing nonetheless. Unfortunately, the can had a life of its own. It vaulted down the road and lodged in weeds from which it will be very hard to extract it.

Well, so much for that cliché. It didn’t work. But the horrible thing was that all these people thought they were being extraordinarily clever when they talked about the can.

This shows you what is so awful about clichés. They stay with us because people keep thinking that these are the words that make them clever. President Obama smiled at his cleverness when he urged Americans to sacrifice some never-specified largesse of the federal government. “Eat your peas,” he said, and smiled. He was being clever, he thought.

An older cliché informs us that actions speak louder than words. I deny it. Often words speak much louder than actions.

Today, it is considered very clever, when responding to some request for a serious opinion, to say, “It is what it is.” That’s what one of the Casey Anthony jurors said, when asked about the possibility that, although he voted “not guilty,” in the legal sense, Anthony might not have been “innocent,” in the moral sense. He wasn’t interested in reflecting on the question. “It is what it is,” he replied. Is that what John Galt meant to say when he suggested that A equals A? Or was the juror paraphrasing some dictum of Jean-Paul Sartre? In any case, I’ve heard that expression four times today, and it’s barely past noon. Last night, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-LA), said in support of the budget compromise, the provisions of which she had not yet read, “it is what it is.”

Daring souls who venture beyond it is what it is have many other choices of clichés. One of them is to emphasize the idea that, no matter what idiotic decisions they make, they have done their due diligence, just by showing up. A whiff of legalese makes any choice legitimate. Sheer laziness, as we know, can always be justified as an abundance of caution, or a pious respect for what will emerge at the end of the day. At the end of the day the jury may reject the obvious and irrefutable evidence. At the end of the day the Republicans may (and probably will) sell out their voters. At the end of the day we’re all dead. Such things are, apparently, good, because they happen at the end of the day.

That’s a lax, supine, virtually inert locution. Somewhere toward the opposite end of the spectrum is a cliché as old, and as batty, as the House of Ussher. The expression is raves, as in “The New York Times raves.” Have you ever seen a movie trailer that didn’t use that cliché? It’s possible that the thing has become a self-reflexive joke among the producers of these silly ads — a reflection of their knowing superiority over the audience they are hired to manipulate. That’s us, the boobs in the theater — the mindless herd that is supposed to be taken in by the image of the newspaper of record screaming and frothing at the mouth. Of course, that’s what the Times actually does, every day, on almost every page; but why imply that there’s something special about its movie notices?

Speaking of clichéd images, how about the face of? This is another advertising cliché, closely related to poster boy for. Every time I turn to a cable news channel, I see the same old codger in the same ad for the same ambulance-chasing law firm, proclaiming, as if in answer to outraged objections, “I am not an actor. I am the face of mesothelioma.” Who could doubt it? And who could doubt that Casey Anthony is the face of jury imbecility? So what? I am the face of Word Watch. So, again, what? Advertising is intended to convince you to feel something extra about the obvious (or the nonexistent). That doesn’t mean that it’s clever.

Well, let’s escape. Let’s refuse to cast ourselves as the faces of anything other than ourselves. Let’s be individuals. But even then, clichés will pursue us. If we’re successful, we will probably be regarded as a breath of fresh air. And that’s not a good thing. The prevalence of this expression shows how easy it is to turn individualism into something quite the opposite.

Let me put it this way: have you ever met a breath of fresh air who wasn’t either a lunatic or a bore of Jurassic proportions? Or both? And no wonder, because the people who look for breaths of air are usually the stuffiest people around — the biggest conformists, dominators, and fools, in whatever group or institution you encounter them. In my experience, they tend to be people who think that Marxism is the newest idea in town. They are always people who welcome change because they’ve got theirs and know they will keep it, whatever damage their radical protégés may inflict on others. (Recall the late Senator Edward Moore Kennedy.) With the aid of progressive clichés, establishments maintain their existence.

Let’s escape. Let’s refuse to cast ourselves as the faces of anything other than ourselves. Let’s be individuals.

Here’s another one: “she [or he] is a very private person.” We hear that constantly. I heard it the other day on CNN, in reference to Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s chief aide, and wife of the disgraced Congressman Weiner. The expression evokes the whole range of faux-individualist dogmas about privacy and the right to privacy (a cliché invented by a Supreme Court impatient with the stately and accurate language of individual rights provided by the constitution). The implication is that there’s something good about being “private,” meaning “sheltered,” as opposed to being a real person and not giving a damn what the rest of us think of you, or whether we think enough about you to want to take your picture. A sheltered person is someone who cares very much what you think about him, and what the picture looks like; therefore he becomes very private, until he thinks the camera may offer a flattering angle. The people acclaimed as private are almost always celebrities and politicians — creatures of the media, who then resent (or pretend to resent) the media’s incursions into their affairs. Private person is a particularly dangerous cliché, a cliché that distorts reality, a cliché that turns American values upside down.

Someone out there is counseling straightforward thieves and murderers to portray themselves as the compassionate Buddha. But why would you want to be the Buddha’s penpal?

The same kind of expression, though one that generally appeals to a different social group, is compassionate. A couple of years ago, when I was writing The Big House, my book about prisons, I looked at a lot of convict penpal sites. Almost without exception, the prisoners seeking correspondents described themselves as compassionate. Now, I’m not one to shy away from convicts. All the convicts and ex-convicts I interviewed treated me very well. I’m grateful to them. And I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world to have a prison record. But compassionate shows all too clearly that the televised clichés of the middle class are seeping even into the prisons, polluting and corrupting everything they touch. Someone out there is counseling straightforward thieves and murderers to portray themselves as the compassionate Buddha. But why would you want to be the Buddha’s penpal?

One of the worst things about clichés is that they establish themselves as immortal statements of values. No matter how skewed the values are, the antiquity of the clichés attached to them implies that they are worthy of grave respect. This is a major problem with the insufferable clichés of the 1960s, which now, half a century years later, are reverently prescribed to hapless youth, as if they were the cadences of the Latin Vulgate. Hence the young denounce apathy, long to speak truth to power, idolize movements, embrace social justice, declare themselves for peace and global cooperation, commit themselves to the environment, the balance of nature, and (something quite different) change, and haven’t a clue that they are using the cunning vocabulary of the Old Left, c. 1935, and the birdbrain lingo of spirituality, c. 1900. Like a breath of fresh air, long-discredited phrases were transmitted by the Old Left to the New Left of the 1960s, to people (of the whom I am one of which) who had no idea that the words in their mouths had been put there by generations of silly old fuds. They (we) had no idea that even empty clichés can be repulsive and dangerous.

The other night I finally got a chance to see The Spanish Earth (1937), a famous movie that almost nobody who talks about it has ever seen. It was cowritten by the crypto-communist Lillian Hellman; Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos also participated (before they learned better). The film is a “documentary” about the Spanish Civil War, presented from the communist point of view, and it has about as much to do with the truth about that war as Triumph of the Will, from which it freely borrows, has to do with the truth about Hitler. I got a special kick out of the movie and its communist heroes constantly denouncing their enemies as rebels. Take that, you ring-in-the-nose college Marxist! You never realized it before, but the mission of the working class is to quell the rebels.

The most wonderful thing was the survival of so many wretchedly misleading political clichés, the kind of phrases that have soldiered on from Marx to Hellman to Rigoberta Menchú to the presidential aspirations of John Edwards and Barack Obama.

“Why do they fight?” the narrator asks about the Spanish people. Most of them didn’t fight, of course; and those who did took many sides, from Stalinist to anarcho-syndicalist. But never mind; a clichéd question deserves a clichéd answer: “They fight to be allowed to live as human beings.”

Human beings. How many times have we heard that, since? It’s an “argument” for every political program you can imagine.

“How ya doin’ today, Mr. Voter?”

“Uh, I dunno. Not so good, I guess. I think I’d feel more, like, more human if I owned a house. I’d feel more like I was living the American dream. Too bad I come from a working family.

“But that’s good for you — very good indeed! Working families are the meaning of America. So how much do you make?”

“Well . . . nothin’, right now. I been on disability these past few years. Ya know, this acne’s really actin’ up . . .”

“No problem! That’s why there’s a government! No reason why you can’t get a loan. As a working man, it’s your right.

“Damn! Really? Thanks, Congressman!”

“So, anything else I can do for you?”

“Well, uh, I guess I’d feel more human if I could retire at 60 . . .”

Most clichés aren’t deployed to answer questions; they’re meant to anesthetize them. So, if you say, in regard to The Spanish Earth, “Wait — I’m confused. Exactly who are these people who fight to be allowed to live as human beings?”, the film will tell you that they are “the men who were not trained in arms, who only wanted work and food.” These are the people who, we are told, “fight on.”

So at the end of the day, it’s the pacifists who inherit the earth — the pacifists who take up arms. Are you confused? I am. I’d like to know more about these people who are fighters because they don’t want to fight. But what I’m given is another cliché. I’m told that they are people who only want work and food.

Most clichés aren’t deployed to answer questions; they’re meant to anesthetize them.

It sounds good. Modesty is becoming. But one thinks of succeeding clichés, logically deduced from wanting only work and food: “It’s the economy, stupid.” “This election isabout one thing: putting America back to work.” “They work all day long, many of them scraping by, just to put food on the table. And . . . they see leaders who can't seem to come together and do what it takes to make lifejust a little bit better for ordinary Americans. They are offended by that. And they should be.”

That last remark is President Obama’s. The first remark is James Carville’s, back in the election of 1992. The one in the middle is sadly common at all times and everywhere, left, right, and center. Each remark suggests that ordinary Americans want only one thing — work and food. And that is why they vote the way they do.

Consider this the received wisdom, the grand cliché.

I’m offended by that. And ordinary Americans should be too.




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Weiner Words

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I admit it: I doted on Anthony Weiner. I followed all the news about him; I was horrified when he resigned; and I miss him terribly, even now. He was wonderful entertainment.

But like certain other kinds of entertainment, which Weiner himself would probably enjoy, this was not something you could discuss at every opportunity. On hearing me prate ecstatically about the latest Weiner news, most of my friends muttered things like, “Oh, you mean that congressman who sent out pictures of his crotch?” Yeah, well, that’s the one I mean. The congressman who did that, then told lies about it — gross, elaborate, stupid lies — and tried to get others to lie for him, too.

The truth is, I loved the spectacle of a pompous windbag falling on his face, then prying himself back onto the rostrum, then falling on his face again, and every time slipping and falling because he had tied his own shoelaces together. The sex part didn’t matter to me; I liked the sheer humiliation.

Of course, I had to find good, moral reasons for being interested in this, and I did. And they actually happen to be good, moral reasons. One of them has to do with the appropriate punishment (humiliation) for the kind of person that Anthony Weiner is — a parasite, a bigot, and an aggressive fool.

Let’s take those in order.

Parasite: According to the uncontested findings of Wikipedia, as soon as Weiner left college he went into politics. Since then he has been continuously supported by his “work” as a partisan political activist. In his entire adult life, he has never had a wealth-creating or even a wealth-maintaining job. To everyone’s surprise, he turned out not even to be a lawyer.

Bigot: Before the scandal, Weiner was famous for one thing: relentlessly slamming people who disagreed with his “progressive” legislative agenda (e.g., fully socialized medicine). His constant rhetorical preference was to accuse those people of sinister motives and interests. When his scandal started, he assured political donors that the whole thing was the creation of “a vast rightwing conspiracy.” Yes, hackneyed and derided as that bigoted phrase has become, that’s what he said.

Aggressive fool: Don’t bother looking again at the press conference where he lied about his sexual transmissions. Consider his congressional website, where he offered, by actual count, 275 videos of speeches given by (can you guess?) himself. How much of a fool do you have to be . . . ?

So, that’s one high-minded excuse for my delight in Weiner Agonistes: he deserved to be humiliated, and he was. Here’s another: his scandal allowed us to study the bad qualities, not only of Congressman Weiner, but of many other people who are currently being paid to abuse the English language.

Let’s take, for example, people whose default language is the vocabulary of sickness. Where would they be without it? They can excuse their friends for anything they do: they are merely sick. And they can damn their enemies for anything they do: they are really sick.

On June 11, at the height of the scandal, a spokeswoman for Weiner announced that he had left Washington for an undisclosed location, “to seek professional treatment to focus on becoming a better husband and healthier person.” Note the lack of parallelism: She didn’t say a "better person"; she said a "healthier person." Weiner, the real Weiner,was fine; he just needed to have more wellness.

But Weiner’s silly “health” claim tended to confirm the silly statements of his critics. He said he was sick; they said he was a “sicko.” From thousands of instances, I’ll select just one: the conversation of Sean Hannity with Karl Rove on Hannity’s TV show, June 8.

Hannity referred to the “perverted transcript” of Weiner’s conversation with one of his inamorata. This illustrates Hannity’s peculiar way with words: no matter how “perverted” the conversation may have been, the transcript itself wasn’t perverted; but that’s the way Hannity pictured it. On a more conceptual level, I fail to see why it was “perverted” for Weiner to write little notes to people about getting aroused by them, or even about his fantasies of having sex with them. It might be tasteless; it might be stupid (and oh Lord, it was); but perverted? Talking about sex? By that standard, only Shirley Temple comes out clean.

On hearing me prate ecstatically about the latest Weiner news, most of my friends muttered things like, “Oh, you mean that congressman who sent out pictures of his crotch?”

There’s more. Referring to Weiner’s picture of his virile member, Hannity insisted, again and again, that it was a “pornographic picture.” “He’s sick,” Hannity said. “He’s sick and needs help,” Rove agreed. Then Rove made some priggish remark about how Weiner could have been conversing about sex with underage women and wouldn’t even have known that he was.

All right. Let’s look at these words of Rove and Hannity. Was the picture pornographic? To me, it was about as pornographic as the Mona Lisa, and I suspect that my view is shared by hundreds of millions of people around the world. To some, I know, any picture of a naked sex organ is pornographic, in the sense that it arouses their sexual desire. (Why arousal is supposed to be bad in itself, I have no idea.) Nevertheless, you might as well say that a medical text is sick and pornographic, because somebody might get off on one of the diagrams. And I’m told that some people do, just as my eighth-grade friends got off on the pictures of naked natives in our school’s collection of National Geographic. But maybe the “sickness” lies in the beholder of these “perverted” (as opposed to crass, dumb, or tasteless) situations. Don’t you think that may be possible?

Now let’s consider the “underage” issue. There’s no indication that Weiner was trying to seduce 17-year-olds. The notion that everyone has to govern his or her communications according to the rule that nothing must be said or shown that could have an unhealthy effect on an underage person, whether underage persons are present or not . . . what kind of notion is that? If an underage person sneaks a look at an erotic movie, that isn’t the responsibility of the producers. Period. And if Weiner conversed with some underage person, and didn’t know that he did, how would that be evidence of a perverted sex interest in Weiner?

But really, what are we talking about? We’re talking about some sex talk and some pictures of a penis. I remember an episode of the early TV series, Our Miss Brooks. The title character, played by the all-time master of dry wit, Eve Arden, was the English teacher at Madison High School. She was in love with the biology teacher, the shy, prudish Mr. Boynton. One day, Mr. Boynton admitted to conducting experiments on the reproductive capacity of lilies. He blushed when he admitted it. “That’s all right,” said Miss Brooks. “I once saw the word ‘lily’ written on a fence down by the railroad tracks.”

In other words, suppose that somebody sends out a picture of his penis. What then? Nothing.

I’m not portraying Anthony Weiner as an apostle of sex education. He evidently had no interest in discussing anything with underage people. And it’s mildly repulsive to me that he had an interest in discussing anything with anyone, or that anyone had an interest in him, sexually or politically. That’s my own aesthetic evaluation. But let’s get some perspective on this. We know that lack of perspective is a leading symptom of mental illness. Bearing that in mind, it’s easy to see that Hannity and Rove (who flew into delirium about Weiner’s perversity) had less perspective on the situation than Weiner (who was merely behaving as a man of nature, an unreconstructed son of the soil), and therefore showed themselves sicker than Weiner. But that doesn’t make them bad people. They’re just not healthy.

As soon as Weiner left college he went into politics. In his entire adult life, he has never had a wealth-creating or even a wealth-maintaining job.

At this point, let’s reflect on what is sacred in our political culture. From time to time there’s a controversy about some disgrace to the flag, or to the pledge of allegiance, or to the national anthem. Yet the true Ark of the Covenant is, apparently, the congressional gymnasium. This is the evidence, from an AFP report of June 2:

“The latest batch of photos, including the fact that he [Weiner] used the House gym as the backdrop for his sexual deviance[!], appeared to be too much for Democratic leaders.

"“This is bizarre, unacceptable behavior,’ said number two House Democrat Steny Hoyer.

"‘It seems to me extraordinarily difficult that he can proceed to represent his constituents in an effective way given the circumstances this bizarre behavior has led to,’ Hoyer told CBS's ‘Face the Nation’ program.”

So, when Weiner demanded that the United States government nationalize the entire healthcare system, or when Weiner, Hoyer, and several hundred other members of their party spent trillions of dollars that weren’t their own to bail out failed economic enterprises and “stimulate” still more failures, that wasn’t “bizarre, unacceptable behavior.” But when Weiner took a picture of his penis in the gymnasium of the House of Representatives, that was bizarre.

Lower down in the report we see:

“Democrats consider the scandal all the more sad because Weiner is married to Huma Abedin, a hugely popular aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.”

Did you ever see that phrase before — “all the more sad”? If you haven’t, I’m not surprised. It’s one of those expressions that today’s journalists use when they need to get around the fact that they don’t know grammar. “More sad” means “sadder,” in your grandmother’s untutored but accurate vocabulary. The difference is that your grandmother knew how to form a common English comparative and therefore didn’t have to invent cumbersome phrases to circumvent the obvious.

So journalists are naïve about grammar — so what? Well, ex ungue leonem: they are also naïve about the rest of the world. Do you believe — does anyone believe — that Democrats went into terminal depression because of their sympathy for Huma Abedin, or that more than ten of them had ever heard of Huma Abedin? “Hugely popular”? Who’s buying this stuff? Hillary Clinton isn’t “hugely popular” — so how should Huma, her assistant, be? And are we supposed to believe that a top aide to one of the Clintons is to be pitied for her association with a sex scandal?

Ah yes, the wronged woman.You can never be out of tune in America, plunking on that string. It’s another sign of our strange attitudes about sex, its nature and its relative importance.

Routine was the sympathy, the warm, intense, sticky, gooey sympathy, that the media showed for Weiner’s presumably distressed wife, Huma. And sympathy is certainly due to a spouse who finds that his or her significant other is making digital love to foreign entities. But I can’t see why learning that one’s husband has been exchanging sex talk with people he met online would be worse than learning that he was a cheap, obnoxious, grandstanding, ignorant, cynical, arrogant grubber for votes, whose every public utterance was enough to make thinking persons consider smashing their TV screens. And the evidence that Huma’s husband fitted that bill was richly available to Huma, long, long before she married him. As an employee and close friend of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, however, Mrs. Weiner had probably gotten used to a lot of things that the rest of us don’t have to put up with.

But now comes Kirsten Powers, a modestly successful journalist, who couldn’t resist the opportunity to stage multiple interviews about the fact that several years before the scandal she had had a romance with Weiner. This should have been enough to disqualify her from any comment on anything, but she was not deterred. A loyal Democrat, she deplored her former boyfriend’s conduct but said that it didn’t o’ershadow the effulgent light of his contributions to the republic. She went on and on about that on television. Then she changed her mind and wrote a long essay calling for Weiner’s resignation. It had finally penetrated her thick skull (she didn’t put it in exactly those words, but that was her meaning) that the man had lied. The man was a liar. But again, was that news to the rest of us?

What was news to me was Powers’ other approach to the problem of Weiner’s moral guilt. The thing that really anguished her, she said, was his “misogynist view of women,” his “predatory” “trolling" of "the Internet for women — some half his age." And the things he said to them! Dearie, you can’t imagine! He actually pictured himself entering themand . . . and filling them until they . . . ! So he was clearly sick, sick, sick.

That’s one high-minded excuse for my delight in Weiner Agonistes: he deserved to be humiliated, and he was.

I’ve seen a lot of amateur sexology, but I concede that this bit floored me. I mean, Powers’ analysis ravaged me. It was too much for me to take. I felt like a victim of her power. I was stunned and may never be able to recover from the awesome force of her enormous statements. I gagged, literally gagged, on this evidence that there are actually people in the world who think that the shopworn sexual fantasies in which men — and, I hear, women too — indulge themselves when they are, shall we say, warming to the subject, are to be taken as literally as fundamentalists take the first chapter of Genesis. No doubt Powers believes that when a man kisses his wife and tells her, “I love ya, babe,” he is infantilizing the poor, helpless creature, and burdening her with his “love.” It’s tantamount to rape, and child rape at that! No doubt she thinks that when man or woman declares, “You’re mine! All mine!”, this constitutes a clear violation of the laws of nature and of nature’s God. What would the Declaration of Independence say about that? And I suppose that if Powers ever visits the theater, she will rush on stage to stop Macbeth from killing the King.

Incidentally, this latter-day Cotton Mather (but that’s a bad comparison; Mather was a pretty good writer) seems never to have heard of the concept of consenting adults, or even of adults. To her, it seems shocking that a 21-year-old woman might do something that a 46-year-old man might do, such as type her sex thoughts into a computer. Half his age, indeed! Clearly, we should have laws prohibiting sex talk between any two adults who are different in age, because the younger will surely be hurt in some way that she (or he) will be unable to avert or even to understand.

The fact that this sort of nonsense isn’t given the ridicule it deserves is yet another proof that there are two cultures — not the two famous, supposedly antagonistic, cultures of science and the humanities, but the two cultures of the adult world and the world of the nursery school.

Living in the adult world are people who have had sex and admitted that they enjoyed (or hated) it; old-fashioned hookers; old-fashioned politicians; raunchy homophiles; any preacher who has actually read the Bible; any person who was ever actually concerned about his soul (as opposed to his “mental health"); any person who has ever actually affirmed or denied traditional values as values, and not as prescriptions for some kind of insipid “well being”; and any person who has ever argued that people should be free, and take the consequences for what they do with their freedom. To this list I will add your grandmother, who knew much more about a lot of things than Kirsten Powers appears to fathom.

As an employee and close friend of Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, however, Mrs. Weiner had probably gotten used to a lot of things that the rest of us don’t have to put up with.

Living in the world of the nursery school are all the disciples of the nanny state, all the apostles of the “appropriate,” all the people who believe that gay people will be fine, so long as the state is willing to bless their unions, all the people who pretend that "politics" is synonymous with “public service,” and all the people who believe that they themselves are entitled, by virtue of their ability to write a series of 800 words and get it published, to decide what is right and healthy for other adults to do. Notice: these people never say, "What the hell! Go ahead and do what you want (you tasteless S.O.B.)! Thank God, it’s none of my business." They always say, "I'm not sure that your behavior is appropriate,” which means, “I would have you arrested if I could.”

Isabel Paterson talked about another bifurcated age, like ours — the early 20th century, in which she came to maturity:

"This country used to be at once rigidly respectable and wide open. Novelists scarcely hinted at reality; and with saloons on every corner, it was very bad form and meant being dropped from invitation lists if a young man became intoxicated at a party" (New York Herald Tribune "Books," June 25, 1933).

Paterson might have mentioned something she knew very well, from her life as a journalist in turn-of-the-century Vancouver and Seattle — the fact that all large North American towns had a lively red-light district a few blocks from the quarters of the nice people, just as, today, cable TV displays the raunchiest kind of comedy shows, one or two clicks from the solemn mainstream media channels whose function is to tell you what is good for you to know. Today’s novelists more than hint at “reality” (meaning sex); but meanwhile, for every person who reads a serious novel there are 100 people learning wellness from Oprah.

So who are the superintendents of the nursery school?

They are people like Kirsten Powers, who apparently believes that you can be any kind of idiot you want to be, so long as you are a member of the right political party and your sex play doesn’t involve telling somebody that you want to do various explicit things.

They are people like Sean Hannity and Karl Rove, who treat tastelessness as if it were prima facie evidence of dementia.

They are the mainstream media, who never questioned Congressman Weiner’s assertion that he was battling for the middle class against the demonic forces of the Republicans and their vile puppet masters, the corporate authorities of America, or his desire to use that crusade to make himself the mayor of New York — until it was shown (by the non-mainstream media) that his principal crusade at the moment was being conducted on behalf of penis-awareness among nubile women. Then: “Oh horrors! This man is a fool. Why didn’t somebody tell us that before?”

Finally, the rulers of the nursery school are such cross-sections of the political class as Weiner himself, who was forced to resign from Congress because he lied, and counseled others to lie, but delivered a resignation speech in which he represented himself as a success, according to the best nursery school values. He thanked his wife (who was conspicuously absent) because “she has stood with me.” He thanked his parents (also absent), “who instilled in me the values that carried me this far.” (Uh, question, please, Mr. Congressman. Uh, I mean, uh, which values? Which values were those? Mr. Congressman? Mr. Congressman?) He also thanked the members of his staff, who worked long hours in his office, thereby “defin[ing] the notion of service.” In the nursery school world, service means working your tail off for a power-sucking congressman, so that maybe you’ll get to be one, too.

No traditional politician would have dreamed of saying things like this, but traditional politicians didn’t grow up in a nursery school. Yet the worst thing is that no one in the mainstream media said what my local talk-show host immediately came out with: “What does this guy think he’s doing — accepting an Academy Award?”

Yes, that’s an obvious remark. But to hundreds of thousands of our well-brought-up fellow citizens, it’s not obvious at all. To them, such comments are the products of envy and “rightwing” hatred. That is because they are living in a different world from the one inhabited by you and me. They are either nannies or the nice children studying to take the nanny’s job.

I’ve saved the best for last. According to the Associated Press (June 10),“U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, said Thursday he wished Weiner would resign ‘to get that story off the front page.’ He said the controversy distracts from pressing economic issues.”

So here is a supposed political enemy, one of the right-wing Republican congressmen whom Weiner routinely reviled, maintaining that the economy is endangered by the public’s distracting interest in Weiner’s sexual embarrassment. Tony! Tony Weiner! Pull your pants up! You’re distracting everyone. It’s time for teacher to tell us about economics!

You can’t get much creepier than that.




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