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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Why Won't You Apologize?

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Apologize! Apologize! Partake in America’s national pastime.

The other day I went on Google News and got 13,803 hits for “apology” and 11,696 for “apologize.”

Apologizing has become the nation’s leading means of social therapy. Are you a professional athlete who, wonder of wonders, used a racist or sexist word? You must apologize. Are you a politician who “betrayed” his mate? You must apologize. Are you a businessman who made a silly personnel decision? Hurry up and apologize.

It’s become a social ritual. There are even websites — many of them — devoted to telling you how to apologize, offering letters you can use to make yourself sound original and sincere.

Apologizing has become another one of those secular occupations that have taken the place of religious rituals. My local greeting card dispenser devotes as much space to apology cards as it does to thank-you and I-miss-you cards, and much more than it gives to Easter, Thanksgiving, confirmation, bar mitzvah, first communion, and sympathy cards, combined.

Apologizing is not a feature of my own religion. My idea is this: If you want to apologize, you should do it as Bette Davis does in Old Acquaintance (1943). She’s finally had enough of her old friend Miriam Hopkins, so she turns, strides across the room, and grabs Hopkins by the neck. She shakes her and throws her down. Then she smiles and says, “Sorry.” Now that’s an apology.

Confession, the proverb says, is good for the soul. But modern American apology is different. It’s not about the harm that the culprit did to his soul, or to any specific other person’s soul; it’s about the grievous harm he is thought to have inflicted on the soulless body politic. The assumption is that when Arnold Schwarzenegger had a child out of wedlock (at least one child), he somehow hurt me, not to mention 300 million other Americans, and the inhabitants of any distant planets who can monitor news broadcasts from the earth.

I deny that assumption. Arnold was the governor of my state, but his sex conduct had no moral or emotional effect on me, and my forgiveness, or lack of forgiveness, will have no effect on him, either.

Well, but what about his ludicrous performance as governor? That did indeed affect me. Nevertheless, I have no interest in his apology for that form of bad conduct, even if he were inclined to give it, which he isn’t. If he feels bad about his political career — which I’m sure he doesn’t, but suppose he suddenly read a book and discovered how wrong his ideas about government actually were — I’d appreciate his saying that his course was incorrect, and other politicians shouldn’t follow it. But again, that’s something different from an apology.

The assumption is that when Arnold Schwarzenegger had a child out of wedlock, he somehow hurt me, not to mention 300 million other Americans.

An apology is a personal matter. It solicits a personal response. Individual people can accept an apology or reject it. In either case, it’s an attempt to restore a one-on-one relationship. But that’s not what the current swarm of media apologies attempts to do. These statements try to preserve contracts, jobs, political positions, media respect — all things that I, as an individual, am unable to offer a repentant sinner.

One of the bad characteristics I had as a child was the tendency to demand apologies when I felt aggrieved. I remember an episode — in second grade, perhaps — in which another kid (Mike Thomson) borrowed my pencil and broke it, and I kept trying to make him apologize. Reflecting on my childhood conduct on such occasions gives me irresistible reasons for believing in original sin. In adulthood, however, I did my best to reform. Yes, I’ve had relapses, because self-righteousness never sleeps, but I’ve come to associate demands for apology with childishness of the most annoying kind.

And public apologies are usually even more annoying than the demands that produced them. They are most annoying to me when it is I myself who is alleged to be apologizing. I refer to the increasingly numerous episodes of national and other big-group apologies for historical wrongs. If you are a spokesman for a government or an ethnic group or some religious consortium and feel like apologizing for what the group you claim to represent allegedly did to harm some other group . . . I beg you, do it in your own name solely — and see how you sound. Go tell the American Indians that you apologize because you took their land. Say, “I am sorry. I took your land.” You’ll look pretty funny when they make the obvious response, “So then, give it back.”

Just don’t imagine that you’re apologizing on my behalf, or that of the millions of other people with whom you have illegitimately associated yourself — “Americans” or “Christians” or “white people” or whomever. If you’re apologizing for everyone in such a group . . . well, I suppose you’re apologizing for everyone in the group. But although you may want to include me in the mix, forget it; I wasn’t around. I didn’t take anybody’s land, and I have no intention of apologizing as if I had. Neither do I have any intention of lobbying any group of American Indians to apologize for massacring my family in the Wyoming Valley in the 18th century. The idea of requesting anyone in the 21st century to do such a thing is almost literally insane.

There’s another angle to this. Oliver Wendell Holmes is credited with saying, “Apology is only egotism wrong side out.” Demands for apology let the supposed culprit know that you really care what he says, that you are pining to hear his golden words of self-reproach, that your own spiritual well-being depends upon his repentance or announced repentance. When Jimmy Swaggart wowed his television audience by shrieking hysterically, “I have sinned! I have sinned against thee, my God!”, don’t you suppose that the showman in Swaggart was more gratified than abashed?

Public apologies are usually even more annoying than the demands that produced them.

In one respect at least, modern Americans are like 19th-century gentlemen: they have a code duello, and a self-dramatizing one. The slightest public slip, insignificant in itself, is thought to demand an apology, which must be instantly delivered to the (non?)injured parties. If an apology is not immediately forthcoming, the offender — now spotlighted in the national media — must fight it out with public opinion. In this combat, he has no more than a 50-50 chance of success. Yet to people whose lives are empty of drama, this too can be a gratifying experience, especially if the accused first delays, then finally succumbs to the warm flow of blather and issues an apology. The more cynical among the accused understand that if you first decline comment, then agree to meet the public at dawn (in some kind of press conference, undoubtedly), you can still fire your pistol apologetically into the air. Then the public will do the same, and you will emerge with your income and reputation not only intact but also, quite possibly, enhanced. In the sub-immortal words of Bill O’Reilly, you will have “stepped up to the plate,” and been richly rewarded for it.

So that’s what the media flacks now advise every prominent sinner to do: whether you think you did anything wrong or not, apologize, and all will be well. That’s why Arnold Schwarzenegger, who assuredly never thought he did anything wrong in his life, promptly issued a public apology for anything and everything having to do with his separation from his wife. That’s why an even dopier egotist, MSNBC’s “political commentator” Ed Schultz, couldn’t rest until he’d told everyone who would listen how wrong he was for calling Laura Ingraham a “rightwing slut”:

"I am deeply sorry, and I apologize. It was wrong, uncalled for and I recognize the severity of what I said. I apologize to you, Laura, and ask for your forgiveness."

Finally Ingraham “accepted his apology,” whatever the metaphysical status of that concept may be. And so? So nothing. Yes, the remark was outrageous. Yes, it was stupid. Yes, it reflected all sorts of double standards and invidious stereotypes, political and sexual. But really, who cares? The only result of the episode was to provide Ed Schultz, a miserable nonentity, with a slender proof of his existence. Previously, he was unknown to fame. Now he has been noticed. If his appearance in this column prolongs his name recognition in any way, perhaps I should apologize as well.

Nevertheless, I won’t deny that apologies can be entertaining. Everyone has his favorite smarmy, hypocritical apologer. My favorite over the past few months, which have been rich in apologetical remarks, is Chicago congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr.

Jackson — a chronic publicity hog, always being nominated by himself for high political office — spent 2010 hiding out. Why? The first problem was accusations of an extra-marital affair. The second problem was the Rod Blagojevich scandal. As an Associated Press story put it – delicately, delicately, as the Wicked Witch used to say – “he [Jackson] has repeatedly denied interview requests since 2008, when Blagojevich was charged with trying to auction off President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat to the highest bidder.” During the last election campaign, Jackson hardly appeared in his district. Alone among politicians, he didn’t stage an election-night party.

Why? His attempt at apology hadn’t done the job with his media constituents. And why should it? As reported by the Chicago Sun-Times (Sept. 21, 2010), the apology ran as follows:

“I know I have disappointed some supporters and for that I am deeply sorry. But I remain committed to serving my constituents and fighting on their behalf.”

These remarks Jackson combined with statements appearing to deny any political misconduct, labeling all the political charges “not new,” and asking for “privacy” in regard to his relations with his wife and “a social acquaintance.”

But that wasn’t a real apology, so Jackson was more or less booed off the stage. Then, on Christmas Day (when else?), he staged Apology, Part 2. He tried to creep back into the limelight by making an appearance (a double bill with his mountebank father, also in disgrace but still the top bill in the family carnival) at an appropriate location, a prison boot camp. Here JJJ gave what was called a “charismatic” address.

To St. Paul, falling short was a cause of shame. To Jesse Jackson, Jr., it was a reason why you should vote for him.

He spoke (down to) the boot camp convicts on the topic of how “everybody's falling short of the glory of God.” St. Paul said that, or something like that, though to less “charismatic” effect. To the great apostle, falling short was a cause of shame. To Triple J, it was a reason why you should vote for him. The congressman has an habitual inclination, common among our politicians, to use his debts as collateral for new mortgages on power.

"Every one of us,” he said, “has erred in their [sic] personal lives and while I don't claim to be a perfect servant, I'm a public servant. Often times we carry with us the burdens of our personal shortcomings even as we struggle to articulate and clarify a message that helps other people. That [is] what I dedicated my life to."

Ya gotta luv this stuff. Jackson never specified any of his errors. But he roped the rest of us into them: “Everybody’s falling short . . . Every one of us has erred.”

I can’t deny it. But my errors don’t justify my election to Congress. They have precisely nothing to do with any attempt I might make to “articulate and clarify a message.” And the fact that I might have dedicated my life to something (which, by the way, I haven’t, but let’s give the congressman the benefit of the doubt concerning that night, sometime in the distant past, when, according to the picture we are supposed to form in our minds, he knelt in prayer, consecrating his life to the service of various unspecified but assuredly noble aspirations) means absolutely nothing about my success or failure in “serving” that cause.

It’s hard to get more repulsive than Jesse Jackson, Jr.

But look. If you’re caught sinning, you should behave in the old-fashioned way. Either lay it out or brazen it out. Be like Pericles, who when questioned about how he’d spent the people’s money, haughtily replied, “Expended as required.” Or be like John Bunyan (the greatest master of the colloquial English language) who won people’s hearts by writing a confessional entitled Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Meaning himself. But don’t simultaneously apologize and deny. If Bunyan and Pericles are the mountains, Triple J is the swamp, the perfect representative of the Creepy Style in modern American politics.

But now I must revert to the inevitable topic of this month’s column — the apology demanded of “Bible teacher” Harold Camping for his failed prediction that the Judgment and the Rapture would happen on May 21. Liberty readers know that I have been following the Camping story for a long time, so naturally I was interested to see what would happen when the prophecy failed. I was expecting the failure to get some media attention, but I was not prepared for it to become one of the largest news stories of the year. Nor was I fully prepared to see the media’s intense interest in whether Mr. Camping would apologize. “Will he die of shame?” seemed to me a normal question, but that was rarely heard. What we did hear was, “Will he apologize?” — quickly succeeded, as such questions usually are, by, “When will he apologize?”

On May 24, Camping held a peculiar on-air press conference. He began by reciting, at vast and lugubrious length, his peculiar theological conceptions, ideas that very few reporters could make head or tail of. Indeed, it takes some study to do so, but see my article in the December Liberty. But so what? When Camping finally allowed interruptions, the simple demand was, “Will you apologize?” His response was cheerful. “If people want me to apologize, I can apologize. Yes, I didn’t have all that as accurately worked out as I could have. . . . I’m not a genius. . . . Yes, I was wrong; I’ve said that several times tonight. It’s to be understood spiritually, not physically. . . . The world is now under judgment as it wasn’t before May 21. . . . There’s a big difference, though you can’t see it.”

In other words, sure, I’ll play your silly game, so long as you don’t expect me to believe that it matters. I’m tempted to sympathize with Camping on the apology business — though so far I haven’t given in to the temptation.

But having written the above, I need to mention something that you may think I should apologize for. On May 23, I wrote the following: “My own prediction is that Mr. Camping will be ousted from leadership during the coming week by irresistible forces of change in the organization he founded. But this prediction is disconfirmable. Stay tuned.”

That prophecy of mine was disconfirmed. Despite plentiful evidence that most people at Camping’s org, Family Radio, wish that he would go away, its board of directors has, so far, declined to make him do so. The FR website has been purged of almost all his end-time materials, but he is still on the air, Monday through Friday, proclaiming that what he predicted would happen on May 21 will actually happen on October 21. There is more to this story, which I will explore in detail, as it unfolds. But the fact is, I was wrong.

Do not, however, regard this as an apology. I don’t feel bad at all.




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The End Is Nigh

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In an article in the December 2010 issue of Liberty, I alerted readers to the fact that a leading network of Christian radio stations was predicting that the end of the world was absolutely, positively going to happen in 2011. According to Family Radio, which broadcasts in many countries, and which probably has a station near you, Judgment Day will begin on May 21 with the Rapture of the true believers and will conclude on October 21 with the total destruction of the physical universe. In the process, almost all the inhabitants of the earth will perish.

This is the message of Family Radio’s “Bible teacher,” a retired businessman named Harold Camping. His interpretations of Scripture are explained — as well as I, or probably anyone else, could explain them — in the article just mentioned, “An Experiment in Apocalypse.” You can download it here. For a less critical perspective, see Family Radio’s own website, which offers a list of stations where you can hear the apocalyptic message for yourself.

For students of human nature, especially American human nature, this particular religious prediction is a matter of great importance, interest, and (let’s face it) fun. It is, for them, what a transit of Venus is to astronomers, what the sighting of an ivory-billed woodpecker is to ornithologists, what an eruption on the scale of Mt. Saint Helens is to volcanologists. It’s the kind of thing that happens much less than once in a generation.

Of course, experts, religious and secular, make predictions all the time, and other people believe them. Generals predict that if they are given appropriate resources, they will be able to accomplish their mission. Scientists predict that if their policy advice goes unheeded, the environment will be subject to further degradation. Politicians predict that if you vote for them, they will initiate a new age of prosperity for the American people, and if you don’t, you will be visited by spiraling unemployment and a continuing decline in the American standard of living. Preachers say they are confident that the signs of the times point to an early return of our Lord Jesus Christ. Economists assure us that if trends continue, we can expect to see whatever they themselves have been trained to expect.

According to Family Radio, Judgment Day will begin on May 21 with the Rapture of the true believers and will conclude on October 21 with the total destruction of the physical universe.

All these modes of prophecy are potent. They have effects. They get people’s attention. They lead some people to do things that otherwise they would not do — vote, go to war, buy a house, pledge more money to the church. But they are all escapable and forgettable. They never include a date on which something definitewill happen. What you see, when you look at the words and figure out what they really mean, is just a suggestion that something that is capable of almost any definition (“prosperity,” “job creation,” “depression,” “desertification,” “a world in which our children will have more (or less) opportunity than we do,” “the fulfillment of God’s plan”) will manifest itself at some time that is really not a time: “very soon,” “in our generation,” “by the end of the century,” “earlier than predicted,” “much earlier than anyone would have thought,” “with a speed that is startling even the experts,” “at the end of the day,” “eventually”).

Of course, the less definite a prediction is, the less meaning it has; but the more definite it is, the less likely it is to come true. Real economists and real theologians can tell you why. A real economist will show you that human events result from individual human choices, their motives unresolvable into quantifiable data, their possible sequences multiplying from the original motives in fantastic variety. Real theologians will tell you, in the words of the old hymn, that the Deity is not a writer of op-ed forecasts: “God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform; / He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.”

Nevertheless, it is impossible that someone’s announcement that “California is more vulnerable than ever to a catastrophic earthquake,” or that “this administration will meet the problem of the deficit, and solve it” could ever be completely disconfirmed. If the big one doesn’t destroy San Francisco during your lifetime, as you thought had been predicted, don’t use your dying breath to complain. You’ll just be told that California is even more vulnerable “today” than it was “before,” because more years have passed since the last prediction. If the politician you helped elect disappoints you by not having “solved the problem,” whatever the problem is, you’ll be told that “our plan for the new America ensures that appropriate solutions will be implemented, as soon as Congress enacts them into law.”

How can you disconfirm the ineffably smarmy language of the exhibits in the California Academy of Sciences? Once an intellectually respectable museum, it now adorns its walls with oracles like this: “If we don’t change our actions, we could condemn half of all species of life on earth to extinction in a hundred years. That adds up to almost a million types of plants and animals that could disappear.” Should you decide to argue, you can’t say much more than, “If you don’t stop purveying nonsense like that, your museum has seen the last of me, and my $29.95 admission fees, too.”

Thirty years ago there was a considerable emphasis among mainstream evangelical Christians on the prospect of Christ’s imminent return. There was a popular religious song, urging people to keep their “eyes upon the eastern skies.” Less mainstream religionists said that all indications point to the probability that the present system of things will end in 1975. Meanwhile, a very popular book, Famine 1975! America’s Decision: Who Will Survive? (1967), predicted that the world would soon run out of food; and scientists worried the world with predictions that “global cooling” would soon be upon us.

For students of human nature, especially American human nature, this particular religious prediction is a matter of great importance, interest, and (let’s face it) fun.

Among these predictions were a few that, wonder of wonders, actually could be disconfirmed, and were. Though no one said that the Egyptians (often thought to be especially “vulnerable”) would begin starving to death precisely on May 21, 1975, some people came close enough to saying that; and events showed they were wrong. Yet there are escape routes available for all predictors, even those proven to be wrong. Two escape routes, really: memory and interest.

Jesus knew about this. He told his followers that no man knows the day or the hour of his Return, but that people would always be running around predicting it (Mark 13:32, Luke 21:8–9). The failed predictions, which seemed so snazzy before they failed, wouldn’t really be perceived as failures, because the failures wouldn’t be remembered, or considered interesting enough to be remembered. Watch out for predictions, he said.

There are two things going on here. One is that people die, and their enthusiasms die with them — often to be revived by the next generation, before being forgotten again. Quack medical treatments, as someone has pointed out, have a generational life, and so do quack economic and religious treatments. The Bates Eye Method, a way of using exercise to improve your eyesight, doesn’t work, and when people find that it doesn’t, they abandon it. They eventually die, and another group of people “discovers” the great idea, wants to believe it, and makes a big deal out of it, temporarily. The phony (and I mean “phony” not in the sense of “mistaken” but in the sense of “created to make money and impress people”) religious ideas of the I Am Movement have had a similar life cycle among New Age types. And when it comes to economics, where would we be without such recurrent notions as the idea that unions are responsible for “the prosperity of the middle class,” the idea that the minimum wage lifts people out of poverty, and the idea that general wellbeing can be created by forcing the price of commodities up by means of tariff regulations?

The gullible people who endorse such ideas often die with their convictions intact, although they may not succeed in passing them along to others, at least right away. In April we witnessed the death of the oldest man in the world, a gentleman named Walter Breuning. Before his death at the age of 114, Mr. Breuning gave the nation the benefit of his more than a century of experience and learning — his belief that America’s greatest achievement was . . . Social Security! Yes, if you retire at 66, as Mr. Breuning did, and collect benefits for the next 48 years, I suppose you might say that. But it’s an idea that’s likely to be ignored by people who are 30 years old and actually understand what Social Security is.

And that’s the additional factor: lack of interest. Failed ideas, and failed predictions, aren’t always forgotten — many of them have a second, third, or fourth advent. But they may be ignored. They may not be interesting, even as objects of ridicule. I suspect that most young people would say that Social Security is “good,” but it’s not as important to them as it was to Mr. Breuning. The same can be said of mainstream Christians, who agree that Christ will return, but pay little or no attention to any current predictions.

Right or wrong, as soon as an idea reveals even a vulnerability to disconfirmation, it often starts to dwindle in the public’s mind. Global cooling is a perfect example. Once, cooling was fairly big in the nation’s consciousness; then it didn’t seem to be happening, right now anyway; then it began to seem unimportant; then it disappeared, without anyone really noticing its absence.

This is what tends to happen with political and economic predictions. The smart people, and the political fanatics (such as me), go back to what Roosevelt said or Kennedy said or Obama said, and notice how wildly their promises and predictions varied from the accomplished facts; but the people in the street go their way, unshocked and unaffected. They may not have expected specific accuracy from their leaders’ forecasts, but if they did, they forgot about it. Initially, they were foolish enough to be inspired, or frightened, but they were canny enough to realize that other forecasts — equally inspiring, frightening, and vulnerable to failure — would succeed the present ones.

The subject changes; the language does not. It’s always apocalypse on the installment plan.

It’s like Jurassic Park, where the dinosaurs seem certain to devour the heroes, and almost manage to do so — about 1100 times. After the first few hundred near-death experiences, you realize that the only logical reason this won’t go on forever is that the theater has to be cleared for another showing of Jurassic Park. Expectation diminishes, long before the show is over — although you may be willing to see it again, in a few years, once the specific memory wears off. That’s the way the language of prediction often works, or fails to work.

As long as the idea of socialism has existed, its priests have predicted the downfall of the capitalist system. When each seemingly fatal contingency proved not to be fatal, another contingency was identified; when that failed to produce the climax, a third came into view . . . and so on. Some people were willing to return for Downfall of Capitalism 2, 3, and4; but others sensed that the plot had no logical ending, after all, and sought something different.

So new performances began in the Theater of Prognostication. Followers of Malthus demonstrated that civilization would perish through “over-breeding.” Eugenicists showed that it would end by the over-breeding of the “unfit.” For many generations, journalists computed the size of “the world’s proven fuel resources” and demonstrated that unless alternative sources of energy were found, the engines of the world would stop. In 1918, the world was assured that it was about to be made safe for “democracy.” Then it was assured that it was on the brink of unimaginable prosperity, to be produced by “technocracy.” After that, it learned it was about to be completely destroyed by a new world war. When the war came, but did not succeed in destroying the world, optimists prophesied an imminent “era of the common man,” while pessimists prophesied annihilation by the atom bomb. For generations, the “doomsday clock” of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists stood at a few minutes till midnight. It still does — because now it registers not only the purported danger of atomic war, but also the purported likelihood of destruction by “climate change.” In other words, another movie has hit the theater.

The subject changes; the language does not. It’s always apocalypse on the installment plan. You buy it in little doses. First, “evidence seems to show”; then, “all the evidence shows”; after that, “experts are all agreed.” The only thing lacking is clear language about exactly how and exactly when the event will happen.

In the early 20th century, many millions of words were spilled about (A) the world’s inevitable political and social progress; (B) the world’s inevitable destruction in a great war. But when the first great war began, there was nothing of inevitability about it. If Russia, France, Germany, and Austria-Hungary had decided, as they might easily have decided, not to bluff one another, or to call one another’s bluffs, about the insignificant matter of Serbian nationalism, there would have been no World War I. In the 1930s, world war was regarded as inevitable by people terrorized by new types of weapons and by the traditional bogeys of “monopoly capitalism” and “western imperialism.” When war came, it wasn’t ignited by any of those things, but by the least predictable of world historical factors: the paranoid nationalism of the Shinto empire, and the weird appeal of Nazism, embodied in the unlikely figure of Adolf Hitler.

If you refuse to be gulled by apocalyptic lingo, what will happen to you? Here’s what. You’ll be told that you are “in denial.”

There’s nothing much to the predictive power of human intelligence. But if you refuse to be gulled by apocalyptic lingo, what will happen to you? Here’s what. You’ll be told that you are “in denial.” Even more repulsively, you will be told that “denial is not just a river in Egypt.” (Isn’t that clever?) You will be accused of not believing in Science, not respecting the Environment, not caring about History, and so forth. You will be accused of all the characteristics exemplified by the prophets of doom themselves: ignorance, arrogance, and not-listening-to-others.

But let’s see how Harold Camping, Family Radio’s leader and prophet, compares with the other leaders and prophets we’ve considered. In one way he is exactly similar — his use of what Freud called “projection.” In every broadcast Camping warns his audience against arrogance, unloving attitudes toward other people, impulsive and subjective interpretations of the Bible, and submission to the mere authority of so-called Bible teachers. And in every broadcast he denounces members of ordinary churches for failing to heed his prophecies; rejoices in the pain they will suffer on May 21, when they realize that he was right and they were wrong; and suggests that anyone who disagrees with him is denying the authority of the Bible itself. On April 28, his radio Bible talk concerned the dear people in the churches, whom he reluctantly compared with the 450 priests of Baal who were slaughtered by Elijah because they trusted in their own ideas and wouldn’t listen to the true prophet — a prophet who, like Camping, was favored by God because he was absolutely certain that what he said was true.

But — and this is the most important thing — Camping has a dignity and intellectual integrity denied to most other predictors, including those most esteemed in our society. He doesn’t speak in generalities. He predicts that Judgment Day will come, without any doubt or question or problem of definition, on a particular day: May 21, 2011. In all likelihood it will begin with a great earthquake, which will devastate New Zealand and the Fiji Islands, at sundown, local time. After that, the wave of destruction will circle the globe, with the setting sun. By May 22, the Rapture will have been concluded; “it will all be over!”, and everyone will know that it is; the whole thing is “completely locked in.” In making his prophecies, Camping is actually risking something. He is actually saying something, not just uttering fortune cookie oracles.

I use that phrase advisedly. The other night, Mehmet Karayel and I dined at the Mandarin, and as always we were interested in seeing what our fortune cookies had to say. Mehmet’s fortune was a typically New Age, ostensibly precise manipulation of words. It said, “You may attend a party where strange customs prevail.” Yeah, right. Or he may not attend such a party, or the customs may be “strange” only to ignorant people, or the customs may be present but not prevail, etc.

Mehmet is a real intellectual, not a person who plays one on TV, so he was not taken in by this exciting forecast. Then came the unveiling of my fortune. It was, believe it or not, “Your future looks bright.” Can you imagine a feebler thing to bake into a cookie? But Mehmet is aware of Mr. Camping’s prophecies, so he knew how to strengthen the message: “It should say, ‘YourMay 22 looks bright.’”

So Mehmet and Harold Camping, though disagreeing firmly on specifics, stand together in demanding that they be produced. Mehmet is certain that my May 22 can be bright; Camping is certain that it can’t. But they both know that only one of them can be right about a proposition like this, and that we’ll soon find out which one it is. How refreshing.

I must admit that not everybody in Camping’s outfit is up to his high intellectual standard. On April 26 I received a plea for contributions to Family Radio (which, by the way, has a good deal of wealth and doesn’t really need many contributions — but why not ask?). The plea came in two parts. One was a brief letter from Camping, requesting my “continued involvement” in FR’s ministry, because “Time is running out! The end is so very near, with May 21, 2011, rapidly approaching.” The second was a pledge card, where I could check the amount of money I planned to give “each month.” As I said in my December article, there is evidence that some people at FR are biding their time, trying to keep the organization together so it can continue — under their leadership — after the failure of May 21. My speculation is that the pledge card is their product, and they don’t mind contradicting Camping’s message in the letter. They may even be alerting “supporters” like me to keep the faith: my May 22 does indeed look bright.

But that’s a digression. Harold Camping is not a politician or a professor of environmentalism, whose prophecies can never be proven wrong because they’re ridiculously non-specific. No, he has said exactly what he means by the end of the world, and he has said exactly when the end of the world will happen. You can check it. I hope you do. Go to Family Radio’s website, find out where its nearest radio station is, and tune in during the evening of May 20 (US time), when, Camping believes, Judgment Day will begin in the Fiji Islands. Then listen through the next few days, as Family Radio responds to the disconfirmation of its prophecies. Or does not respond — until it figures out how to do so (and that should be interesting also).

As I’ve said before, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. It will be much more interesting than listening to the constant din of the secular prophets — politicians, historians, economists, and environmentalists — whose intellectual stature, compared to that of Harold Camping, addlepated prophet of the End Time, is as nothing, a drop in a bucket, and the small dust that is wiped from the balance.




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Losing the Battle, Spinning the War

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March was a time of judgment on the American official language — the language spoken by the people considered most qualified to sling words around: politicians, media operatives, public educators of all kinds. The official language was weighed in the balance, and found wanting. It proved grossly unequal to the challenge of such mighty events as the Japanese earthquake, labor unrest in Wisconsin, and the political embarrassments of government radio. And then along came Libya.

As usual, the commander in chief led the nation into linguistic battle on most of the fronts available; and as usual, he was beaten in every skirmish. About Wisconsin he did what he ordinarily does; he tried to get into the fight, while also trying to stay out of it. A violent proponent of unions, and an eager recipient of union funds, he still hopes to win the electoral votes of all those states that are in financial turmoil because of the demands of public employee unions. So he acknowledged the states’ budget problems, and then he said, “It is wrong to use those budget cuts to vilify workers.” A little later, when asked to state Obama’s position on the continuing turmoil in Wisconsin, his press agent repeated that inane remark.

Of course, nobody was vilifying workers, even if you are crazy enough to equate workers with government employees. What some people were doing — and suddenly, such a lot of people — was trying to keep the unions that represent people employed by state and local governments from bankrupting their employers. Obama’s feckless verbal feint would have turned into a factual rout if some White House correspondent had asked the obvious question: “What vilification are you referring to?” But nobody seemed able to do that.

The commander in chief led the nation into linguistic battle on most of the fronts available; and as usual, he was beaten in every skirmish.

Meanwhile, union shock troops were occupying the capitol of Wisconsin, trying to prevent its legislature from voting. These vilified workers caused over seven million dollars of damage. Yet even Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, a rightwing personality on a rightwing channel, was willing to call the Wisconsin actions “peaceful.” You see what I mean about the official language not being adequate to the crisis? Suppose I came over to your house with a few thousand friends chanting obscene slogans against you, and we camped in your living room for weeks, attempting to force you to do what we wanted you to do — would you call that peaceful? Of course not, but only one person in the media, a volunteer bloggist whom Yahoo! News, in a fit of common sense, allowed on its site, made a point like that. Congratulations, bloggist. You have linguistic qualifications that none of the media professionals can equal. But they’re the ones who are getting paid.

Among this country’s most influential purveyors of the American official language is National Public Radio. I’m calling it that because it is currently attempting to deny its identity as government radio by calling itself by a set of non-referential initials: it just wants to be known as good ‘ol “NPR.” Well, sorry, alphabetical agency: we all know the smell of a government medium. It comes from the money it tries to cadge from the taxpayers.

In early March a highly paid government-radio official was caught on video telling some “Muslim” potential donors that “NPR” would actually be better off without government help, presumably because it would no longer have to pay any attention to the majority of the American people, whom he suggested were ignorant and stupid and susceptible to the racist propaganda of people who actually, believe it or not, would like a smaller government. He identified the tragedy of America as the fact that its educated elite (clearly typified by himself) was so small and uninfluential. Those were the views that Mr. Ron Schiller, senior vice president of National Public Radio, expressed concerning the citizens of the United States, who (perhaps tragically) put the “N” in “NPR.”

Suppose I came over to your house with a few thousand friends chanting obscene slogans against you, and we camped in your living room for weeks, attempting to force you to do what we wanted you to do — would you call that peaceful?

Schiller was forced to resign immediately. His brief public statement assesses his behavior in this way: “While the meeting I participated in turned out to be a ruse, I made statements during the course of the meeting that are counter to NPR’s values and also not reflective of my own beliefs. I offer my sincere apology to those I offended.”

Again we see the limitations of the official language, which proved utterly incapable of specifying what went wrong with Mr. Schiller, who might be offended by his remarks, or why anybody might be offended. In short, the official language was incapable of answering any question that anyone who read his statement would probably ask. And it created new and damaging questions: Why did you make statements that were not reflective of your own beliefs — that is, lie? By the way, what are your beliefs? Do you actually believe that other Americans are smart but you are dumb, yet for some reason you keep maintaining the opposite? If so, how does that happen?What were you thinking, anyway? But no one in the high-class media found the words to ask such simple questions.

Now we come to the terrible events in Japan. Again, Obama was in the vanguard of our linguistic forces. And again . . . Here’s what he said about the earthquake and tsunami, on March 11 — in prepared remarks, presumably edited by numerous White House word wizards, who were struggling to get exactly the right tone. “This,” Obama said, “is a potentially catastrophic disaster.”

Gosh, this thing is so bad, something really bad may happen.

When the president is attacked and captured by his own language, what can we expect of his assistant priests, the writers and readers of the “news” media? The answer is, Even worse. And we got it.

Particularly impressive was the horror-movie approach, with the Japanese cast as Godzilla: “Operators at the Fukushima Daiichi plant's Unit 1 scrambled ferociously to tamp down heat and pressure inside the reactor” (AP report, March 11). I have trouble picturing anyone tamping down heat orpressure, but it’s even harder for me to picture someone doing it ferociously, unless that someone is a monster trying to rescue its offspring from the accursed humans’ nuclear experiments.

But maybe the ferocious beings were actually the talking heads of American TV. On the selfsame day, March 11, Fox News’ late-night guy was calling the earthquake and tsunami “one of the worst natural disasters in the history of mankind.” Fox News’ Rick Folbaum called it “the fifth worst earthquake in the history of earthquakes, folks.” Yet again, the official language just isn’t up to the task. It ought to be able to distinguish between “the hundred years since earthquake records have been scientifically kept” and “the history of earthquakes” or “the history of mankind,” but evidently it can’t. Under communism, hundreds of thousands of people in China lost their lives in natural disasters — but we have no words to speak of them, do we? Or maybe, just maybe, we never read a book, so we don’t know nothin’ ‘bout things like that. In either case, the problem lies with words. We can’t use them, and we can’t read them either.

After Folbaum made his immortal declaration, his colleague, Marianne Rafferty, consoled the audience by promising, “We will keep everyone up-to-dated.” Would anyone who had ever read a book—I mean a real book, with real words—say a thing like that? What would you have to be paid to make such a statement before an audience of educated people, or even just people?

The worst thing is that words are related, in certain ways, to thoughts; so if you don’t have thoughts . . . Some examples:

“Is Japan getting the assistance it needs?” That’s the question that Wolf Blitzer asked the Japanese ambassador to the United States (March 12, CNN). I thought it was a little strange that Japan, one of the richest and most technologically advanced nations on the planet, should be the object of that question. But never mind. In reply, the ambassador noted, somewhat vaguely, that his prime minister had ordered one-fourth of the nation’s armed forces to help the people currently starving a moderate distance north of Tokyo. That apparently satisfied Blitzer. He didn’t say what you would have said: “What! Why isn’t he mobilizing the entire army?” He didn’t say what you would have expected him to say: “Wait a minute! What’s your God damned army for, anyhow? We can get our correspondents into the disaster zone — why can’t you get your army in? And if you can’t, why don’t you air-drop supplies? In short, Mr. Ambassador, what the hell are you talking about?” But I guess Blitzer couldn’t think of those questions. After all, he’s merely one of America’s most famous interviewers.

Marianne Rafferty consoled the audience by promising, “We will keep everyone up-to-dated.” Would anyone who had ever read a book—I mean a real book, with real words—say a thing like that?

“There’s the sense that they’re in this together, and they’re just trying to get along as best they can.” That’s what CNN’s Anderson Cooper said on March 14, describing Japanese people waiting hours for government water, only to have an official tell them that the government had run out of water and they would have to wait an undetermined number of additional hours in line. He liked the way the victims remained stolidly in that line. He thought it was good that they didn’t complain. Yes, in subsequent days of reporting, he did begin doing what any normal information-processor would have done right away: he criticized the Japanese government for its lies and incompetence, at least about the lurking threat that we all fear, nuclear reactors. But he never questioned his favorable view of the people’s passivity (the media word was “calm”). It just wasn’t in him to make the connection between the people’s passivity and the government’s incompetence. Again, he didn’t have the words. I assume that he didn’t have the thoughts, either.

Here’s another instance. “You wonder how any government could deal with such a thing,” intoned Shepard Smith, a Fox News figure momentarily stationed in Japan, on the evening of March 15. He was referring to the combination of the nuclear issue and the disaster relief issue, both of which the Japanese government was supposed to “deal with.” Personally, I didn’t “wonder” about that. I suspect that you didn’t either. Any responsible government could find out how to deal with such problems. There are known procedures for addressing dangers in nuclear power plants, and disaster relief is not an unknown science. This wasn’t World War II. But maybe the Japanese official class is like our own — so tied up in its own linguistic incapacities that it can’t formulate an efficient thought.

Now to Libya. I’ve recently written two reflections about Libya for this journal, so I can hit the ground running. What everyone with a brain is still laughing about is President Obama’s address to the nation on March 28. Generally, watchers identified the most risible part of the speech as Obama’s denial that he intended to get rid of Qaddafi. Admittedly, he wanted Qaddafi gone; yet, he said, “broadening our mission to include regime change would be a mistake.” He couldn’t find the words to say “ousting Qaddafi,” so he said “regime change.” If you’ve got the magic decoder, you’ll understand this. But you still may not understand his policy.

By denying his lust for regime change, he costumed himself as a dove. Unfortunately, that made the hawks wonder whether he really, truly, wanted Qaddafi out. (They’d heard double-talk before.) So on the next day, he back went on TV, to express his satisfaction that the members of Qaddafi’s inner circle supposedly “understand that the noose is tightening.” Ah! Now we are the executioner with the noose. So both the hawks and the doves are happy, right? Well, maybe not.

The vocabulary is missing. The official language has no words for “war,” “making war,” or anything else that Obama was obviously doing.

You can tell when somebody is really dumb, or is really desperate for the attention of people in Washington: that person is eager to go on TV and defend nonsense like this, which nobody else could possibly defend. Thus Bill Richardson, once Clinton’s ambassador to Monica Lewinsky, then governor of New Mexico, now television expert on constitutional law, informing CNN that Obama was acting purely in order “to avert a humanitarian disaster” when he started bombing Libya. Asked whether the president shouldn’t have consulted with someone in Congress before going to war, Richardson said there was no need: “This is not a war powers situation.”

You see! You see! There it is again. The vocabulary is missing. The official language has no words for “war,” “making war,” or anything else that Obama was obviously doing. So we are forced to watch this strange, slow shifting of vehicles around the used car lot, as political salesmen try to find some piece of junk that the suckers will buy: “this is not a war powers situation.

Imagine Libyan planes and rockets bombarding the New Jersey coast. Would that be a war powers situation? Would it turn into one if its goal were regime change? Or would it still be a mission to avert a humanitarian disaster, and therefore immune from legislative review?

But here’s the real stuff. In his address to the nation on March 28, President Obama tried to calculate the scale of the humanitarian disaster he was trying to avert, without the help of long (or even short) consultations with Congress: “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world."

I know, I know — you can’t resist the unintentional humor of “a city nearly the size of Charlotte,” as if anybody knew, or cared, how large Charlotte (North Carolina?) might be. The desired impression was: Whoa! That big, dude? Then I guess we gotta go to war! The real impression was: Not!

But there are so many other things to notice:

The image that simply makes no sense: try to picture a massacre that reverberates.

The modesty that presidents get whenever they know they’re in trouble, and “I” just naturally transforms itself to “we.” (Were YOU waiting? Did YOU know?)

The Victorian prissiness of “suffer a massacre.”

The pathological specificity of “one more day” and “nearly the size.”

The moral stupidity of “stained the conscience of the world,” which literally means that if some bad thing happens, everyone in the world becomes guilty of it. (All right; you think I’m just being sarcastic. Then tell me what the phrase actually means.)

And finally, the breakdown in thought and grammar evident in the goofy progression of verbs: “If we waited . . . Benghazi could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated.” To see what’s happened here, insert some normal words into the various grammatical slots. Like this: “I knew that if I waited, you could write me a check that would have made me rich.” Huh?

Anyone who knew grammar would have fixed that one up, but as we know, Obama, the world-famous author, has no knowledge of grammar, never having mastered even the like-as distinction, let alone verb progression. But examine his inability to distinguish the meanings of “could” and “would.” The president was forced to admit that he had made a decision, that what he did wasn’t inevitable, and that he wasn’t, like Yahweh, absolutely certain about the future. That’s how “could” got into that abominable sentence. Yet at the same time, he wanted to imply that he was certain about the future: why else could, or might, “we” have made the decision we made? So he put in “would.”

And that solved his problem. So far as he could tell.

Don’t blame him. He speaks only the official language.




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Defining Democracy Down

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The subject this time is babies, dictators, and democracy.

Here’s how it fits together. Since the last Word Watch, the Islamic world has been convulsed by revolutions and attempted revolutions. The American media have responded as they usually respond — with the dumbest kind of coverage imaginable, intended for the edification of the dummies, the babies, that they believe the rest of us to be.

Example: on February 22, Fox News anchorman Shepard Smith expressed amazement at the fact that Muammar Qaddafi (the Man of a Thousand Spellings), who has ruled Libya for 42 years and who had, at that point, been besieged by protestors for about two days, had not yet surrendered his power. This, to Smith, was “unprecedented,” shocking, disgusting! What could it mean? When would Qaddafi quit? We’re waiting here!

Smith’s attitude was merely an elongation of attitudes already manifested by his colleagues at CNN and the FCC-regulated networks, not to mention the White House. We’re tapping our fingers . . . still tapping . . . still tapping. Now we're tapping our feet as well. Listen, bub, are you gonna quit in time for the six o’clock news or what?

Well, how dumb can you get? How uninteresting can you get? The passion of revolt, the drama of power, the lessons of history, the contingencies of human emotion, the intricacy of human societies . . . . Forget it. When will he quit? He should’ve quit by now. And the same thing had happened a few days earlier, in the case of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.

In this atmosphere, it was nothing for foreign correspondents to morph themselves into incarnations of “the democracy movement,” wherever they thought they had found it, heedless of their foreign citizenship and their glaring lack of political knowledge. “We are all Egyptians now!” proclaimed many American welcomers of Mubarak’s fall. I don’t mind that Mubarak fell, although I would like to know who will replace him. But I am not an Egyptian, nor do I walk like one.

It was nothing for foreign correspondents to morph themselves into incarnations of “the democracy movement,” heedless of their foreign citizenship and their glaring lack of political knowledge.

David Hume, who had an important, though not a crucial, influence on libertarian thought, observed that “in reality there is not a more terrible event than a total dissolution of government, which gives liberty to the multitude, and makes the determination or choice of a new establishment depend upon a number which nearly approaches to that of the body of the people.” I’m not sure that this is true, though I suspect it is. A "total dissolution" of government by the mob is plainly not what even anarchist libertarians ever had in mind, because it is likely to lead to a new and terrible establishment of power. Shouldn’t a more reserved, conceivably more skeptical, point of view be entertained, if only for a moment, when the media report on the furor of “democratic” crowds?

I’ll return to “democracy” a little later. But here’s Shep Smith, in his impatience for the overthrow of Qaddafi: “If the military doesn’t turn on him, we’re looking at a real possibility of genocide.”

Genocide? Did he say genocide? An attempt to exterminate a whole people? Was Qaddafi attempting to exterminate his fellow Libyans, as the Nazis attempted to exterminate the Jews? Of course not. All we saw in Libya was a revolution and perhaps the beginning of a civil war. Insurgents were attempting to overthrow an absolutist government, and the government was responding as such governments are wont to respond.

Now, this rhetorical redefinition of a morally important word, “genocide,” is disgusting in itself. But consider Smith’s summary of the reasons for his attack on Qaddafi: “This man has sent foreign mercenaries out to murder citizens? Come on!”

It is wrong, by definition, to send people out to “murder” other people. But that isn’t genocide. And the claim that it happened isn’t proof that it happened. Maybe it did. It’s the job of the media to report on that, not to provide us with moral labels in place of news. On all the networks and news services, Mubarak and Qaddafi have been habitually identified, for the benefit of Americans who presumably require such identifications, as “brutal dictator Hosni Mubarak” and “brutal dictator Muammar Qaddafi.” I’m not concerned about the insult to Qaddafi, who is certainly a brutal dictator, or about the insult to Mubarak, who may well have been such; I’m concerned about the insult to the audience. Fox’s slogan is, “We report; you decide.” Well, only in some cases. In others, the audience is assumed to consist entirely of babies, who must be told what to “decide.”

An adult listener might still be curious to know how this insane person could possibly have continued in charge of an ancient, populous country for four long decades.

Actual information about the regimes of the North African authoritarians would be of interest, perhaps of compelling interest. But you could spend (and I have spent) many hours watching network coverage of North African events without ever hearing any presentation of political facts that lasted longer than a minute. One example was the treatment provided by Piers Morgan, the new messiah-interviewer at CNN. On February 22, Morgan modestly stated that CNN had “oversold” him to its audience — a claim he had already proven by his long, lugubrious, pointless conversations with people who asserted some knowledge of Libya. Most of these people were just oohing and ahing about how terrible Qaddafi is, but whenever any of them tried to fill the audience in on the nature of Libyan politics — the tribal divisions, the ideological divisions, the historical divisions, the people's inexperience with self-government — Morgan gave them short shrift. He asked no follow-up questions. He asked for no background information. He asked for no supporting facts. He switched to questions like, “So what is Qaddafi really like?”, and he soon tired of answers that went beyond “He’s a brutal dictator.”

His colleague Anderson Cooper was worse. Rather than presenting Qaddafi’s rants as the news they were, and letting them speak for themselves, he insisted on telling his audience how to think — and even not to think — about them. Introducing a one-minute clip of Qaddafi’s February 22 address, Cooper said, “He’s almost comical in his appearance, but don’t be fooled by his buffoonery.” Thanks, Anderson! I’m a baby, so I’m easily fooled. But you’ve kept me from swallowing that rattle.

After the Qaddafi clip, Cooper introduced Ben Wedeman, CNN’s correspondent in eastern Libya. Wedeman wanted to put Americans at ease with the Libyans. About Libyans’ opinion of Qaddafi he said: “They know he’s insane.” Well good; I'm glad to hear it. But an adult listener might still be curious to know how this insane person could possibly have continued in charge of an ancient, populous country for four long decades? Didn’t anybody know he was insane? If people knew, why didn’t they do something about it? If they didn’t know, what does that say about the Libyan body politic? And what does all this tell us about the possibility of a real freedom movement in Libya? These questions weren’t worth pursuing, either by CNN or by its rival, Fox.

Among other things, this is a commentary on the American media’s abject devotion to the great and mysterious idol, Democracy. No questions must be allowed to interfere with the liturgy of this god, as recited daily by its media priests. At the same time, I haven’t heard a single question from the media about the authoritarian language that our own government has been using about recent events in North Africa. What kind of government is it that announces to a foreign nation that its leader “must go”? Answer: the Obama regime, first about Mubarak, then about Qaddafi. If the gentlemen in question had possessed any sense of humor, they would have made speeches in which they proclaimed that Obama “must go!”

No questions must be allowed to interfere with the liturgy of the god Democracy, as recited daily by its media priests.

As readers of this journal may remember, I have zero respect for the idea that the boundaries of dictatorial states are somehow sacred and that no armed forces must ever cross them. Those borders aren’t sacred to me. Yet the arrogance of the Obama administration takes my breath away — despite the fact that there’s a long tradition of this: the Bush administration showed the same arrogance, and so did most other administrations, all the way back to Woodrow Wilson. Arrogance, and hypocrisy. When American administrations demand “democratic reforms” in other countries, they never ask themselves whether it’s democratic for foreigners to dictate to the people who live there.

But speaking of democracy in the Middle East, let’s consider the “democracy” movement in Wisconsin, where state-employee labor unions are desperately trying to block the governor and legislature from passing a bill cutting their funds and limiting their power. The Republican governor was elected, four months ago, on a platform of doing exactly that; the legislature, elected at the same time, is overwhelmingly Republican and prepared to follow through on the scheme, if it can get just one Democratic senator to show up and make a quorum. Well, that’s democracy, isn’t it? But no: in the name of “democracy,” union hordes invaded and occupied the capitol, attempting to shut down the government, and Democratic legislators, unanimously friends of big labor, fled the state. Leftist demonstrators continue parading up and down State Street in Madison, carrying signs likening the governor to Qaddafi and Mubarak. They also carry signs announcing their own righteousness, signs saying, “This Is What Democracy Looks Like.”

When American administrations demand “democratic reforms” in other countries, they never ask themselves whether it’s democratic for foreigners to dictate to the people who live there.

We see again the kindergarten approach. What do you think democracy is, children? You don’t know? Well, here’s a pretty picture. But when normal adults see such a slogan, employed by such people, their first impulse is to laugh. Democracy? There was an election; the voters said what they wanted; it just didn't happen to be what the protestors wanted. So who's on the side of democracy — the protestors, or the voters they oppose? And notice, this is a rebellion of people who are getting paid by the voters, people who insist that they have a right to as much pay and power as they can get, no matter what the voters want. Doesn’t that sound more like dictatorship than democracy?

Strangely, however, the protestors’ slogans strike most of the media as cogent indeed. To cite only one of many amusing instances: on February 26, at 3:00 p.m. (EST), CBS Radio’s hourly news offered a report from Madison. It consisted of the following: Young woman’s voice speaking over the noise of demonstrators. Young woman: “This is what democracy looks like. These are the people of Wisconsin, fighting for their rights.” End of report.

The woman may have been one of the demonstrators, or she may have been a CBS correspondent in Madison. The absence of identification allowed listeners to make up their own minds about the provenance of the propaganda. The difficulty of deciding who she was exemplifies how hard it often is to distinguish nonsense from "news," leftist agitprop from normal media blather. Of course no question was asked, no remark made, about any of the brutally obvious issues that the “report” raised. Would you expect there to be? No, not unless the babies in charge of the news were replaced by intelligent people who respected the intelligence of their audience.

You might remark, as many libertarian thinkers have remarked, that “democracy” is not a word that (pace the media) is simply synonymous with “good.” You might make the historical observation that unlimited democracy — democracy without legally enforceable respect for rights or a government of limited powers — has often resulted in predatory regimes. You might record your skepticism about the legitimacy either of crowds shouting in the streets or of dictators who advertise themselves as the embodiments of crowds shouting in the streets. If you did that, you would be expressing nothing more than common sense and common knowledge of the world. But common sense and common knowledge will never get you a job in the information industry of America.




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Media, Heal Thyself

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In January the nation survived one of its periodic linguistic disasters — Jared Loughner’s alleged murder of six people and his attempted murder of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tuscon, Arizona.

I’m not calling this a linguistic disaster because I am unsympathetic about the suffering and death that Loughner caused. The death and suffering are real, and talking won’t do anything to help the victims or their friends. Only human concern, the concern shown by individuals for individuals, can possibly do that.

But death, even the death of many people at the same time, is not unusual. During January 2011, hundreds of thousands of people died in the United States. Innocent people were gunned down by criminals. Whole families died in traffic accidents. Lunatics killed many more people than Jared Loughner dreamed of killing. Logically, there was no reason for speeches to be made about the Loughner affair, for Congress to report itself so distressed that it could not do its work, for Fox News, of all things, to run 24-hour coverage of what quickly became the non-news from Tucson, or for anyone else to expend sentences and paragraphs speculating about what it all meant, or should mean, to the republic.

This is not a heartless statement; it is the simple truth.

A few years ago, a guy tried to mug me while I was walking toward a store in my neighborhood. I fought him off. I suppose he could have killed me. But there was a logic to his attack. He wanted my money. “Give me your money,” he said.

You have to respect that. Perhaps you might also want to think about possible means of reducing the number of robberies. But debating the meaning of Jared Loughner? Why?

Some of the commentary on Loughner’s deed resulted from honest concern about whether there is any means of identifying people like him before they can do grave damage. But most of the debate was patently dishonest. Anyone who tries to make a political cause out of Loughner’s behavior is acting worse, in a way, than he did — because he didn’t know what he was doing. The people who immediately exploited his deed to argue for more gun control and more speech control and more media control — they know what they’re doing, and for that reason they are more dangerous than a thousand Loughners.

If you think otherwise, you are under the influence of words, not things, because that is all that the crisis of January 2011 consisted of. It was a crisis of nothing but words, words used to magnify and distort a private, virtually random mental disturbance and turn it into a national and political catastrophe.

The people who immediately exploited his deed to argue for more gun control and more speech control and more media control — they know what they’re doing, and for that reason they are more dangerous than a thousand Loughners.

As you know, within minutes of this sad event, modern-liberal newspaper columnists, and nearly everyone on television was proclaiming it a national tragedy, a troubling indication of the American mentality, a probable indication of the malign influence of political polarization, an undoubted indication of Things that Should Worry Every American, a possible subject for legislation and presidential decree, and, above all, a hopeful occasion for national “healing.” The idea was that Americans are so “fragile” that they are easily “unsettled” and even “wounded” by such events as occurred in Tucson. This is a slander on the American people — a cheap and obvious slander — and a revelation of a shocking lack of perspective on the part of America’s political and media class.

Let’s consider some preceding events.

1. On July 11, 1804, Aaron Burr, Vice President of the United States and President of its Senate, fatally wounded the statesman Alexander Hamilton, in a duel fought over the question of whether Burr was “despicable.”

2. On Feb. 24, 1838, William Graves, a congressman from Kentucky, killed a congressman from Maine, Jonathan Cilley, in a duel prompted by accusations of bribery by the latter about the former. The House considered censuring the victor but never did so.

3. On May 22, 1856, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, assisted by another representative from that state, Laurence Keitt, assaulted Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the Senate, beating him brutally. The House censured Keitt, and Brooks resigned from the House.

4. On March 1, 1954, Puerto Rican nationalists stood in the gallery of the House of Representatives and used automatic pistols on the 240 congressmen in the room below, hitting five of them.

5. On June 5, 1968, Robert Kennedy, Senator from New York, was assassinated by a Palestinian who was annoyed by Kennedy’s support for Israel.

6. On Nov. 18, 1978, in the country of Guyana, Leo Ryan, a California member of the House of Representatives, was slain by followers of the “revolutionary communist” Jim Jones, whose purportedly religious activities the congressman had been investigating.

7. On Jan. 8, 2011, Congresswoman Giffords was wounded in an attempt on her life by Jared Loughner, a maniac who thought that his junior college was committing “genocide” on him.

Ask yourself:

Which of these events was of national importance? On the face of it, nos. 1, 4, and 5; and once you understand the context of no. 3, which was the run-up to the Civil War, that one too.

Now ask yourself:

Which of them was a crisis? Here the answer is equally obvious: only no. 5 is a possibility, and only if it is considered from the perspective of the Democratic Party, whose nomination Kennedy was seeking (but almost undoubtedly could not have achieved). The death of Hamilton was a severe misfortune for his party, but not a crisis. The Puerto Rican nationalists were an organized group with a political platform, but they weren’t important enough to create a crisis, even if they had killed all the congressmen they hit. The beating of Sumner was a disgusting symptom of sectional division, not the crisis of division itself.

Ask yourself a third question:

Which of these episodes demanded a “healing of the nation”? Only the beating of Sumner. That was the only one in which deep and truly national emotions were at stake. Compare the approaching Civil War with whatever political causes Jared Loughner might, according to the wildest imagination, possibly be regarded as representing, and you’ll see how ludicrous it is to talk about “healing” the nation from the “rifts” and "wounds" that such causes have purportedly produced. In other words, compare the crisis of the Civil War with the current “crisis of civility.” What a laugh.

On Jan. 17, a popular Southern Californian radio personality, John Kobylt of the “John and Ken Show,” agreed with me in part when he identified Loughner’s act as that of a mentally diseased person, of no political importance. That’s true. But John called the response to this act “mass hysteria,” and that’s not true. It wasn’t mass hysteria. It was media hysteria.

The idea was that Americans are so “fragile” that they are easily “unsettled” and even “wounded” by such events as occurred in Tucson. This is a slander on the American people.

A week after the shootings, I was getting a haircut in the large, middle-American barber shop where I always go for that ritual. One of the barbers has a loud voice, and he introduced the topic of “you know, that thing that happened over in Arizona.” At first, nobody seemed to recognize what he was talking about. Even when he explained what he meant, it elicited, unlike sports talk, no special interest. Even the guy who brought it up couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, or whether anybody had been killed. One customer asked whether there was some kind of congressman involved, but nobody was willing to pronounce on that point. I could have, and probably some of the other 20 guys in the place could have, too. But nobody bothered. Nobody felt impelled to Set the Record Straight. That’s how important the whole thing was to that middle-American crew.

Another datum. During the weeks since the Arizona incident occurred, no one has brought it up to me. No one. I’ve mentioned it to a few people, and they’ve responded in due course. But nobody except me has thought it important enough to start a conversation about. I’ve asked my friends whether any of their acquaintances have brought it up, either. “Oh no,” they say, as if they were considering the proposition that water might run uphill.

This was not what anybody would call a major national event — not for the American people, at any rate. It was a media event. It was an instance of media hysteria, of word hysteria.

It was also an instance of the lack of scale that appears to be built into the media’s approach to human life. A long time ago, the media threw away all measuring devices. During the 1970s, the nation was constantly told that Watergate was “the greatest crisis since the Civil War.” The deterioration of the economy that occurred during the same decade, and that seems today its most important event, received no such dramatic amplification. Today we are taught that our current economic distress is “the worst since the Great Depression.” Yes, it’s bad; and we will see something worse when the bills finally come due for the past decades of profligacy, but I doubt that what we are suffering today is worse than the economic weirdness that followed World War II, or the gas rationing, price controls, and stagflation of the 1970s.

It’s easy to lose your sense of scale when you’re pushing an ideology. You want to lose it, and suddenly, it’s gone! That goes for all those Watergate comments, for the cooked statistics about “homelessness” that were designed to make President Reagan look bad, for the constant blather about the dangers of “handguns,” for the scare tactics used to inspire “respect for the environment,” for the . . . . . But no, I could expand the list indefinitely, and so could you. But there’s something else going on, something that’s hard to explain except by reference to ignorance, stupidity, and the desire to punch up any story for which video is available.

Compare the approaching Civil War with whatever political causes Jared Loughner might possibly be regarded as representing, and you’ll see how ludicrous it is to talk about “healing” the nation.

Here’s what I mean. If they’re watching American TV on Mars right now, they think that fees in community colleges are $100,000 a year, because all they see is suffering students bewailing the fact that “fees keep going up.”Nobody tells them that the fees are practically zero, compared to other costs of living. In addition, the Martians probably believe that Americans do nothing but lose children, then try to relocate them — not realizing, because nobody ever mentions it, how unusual lost children, truly lost children, really are. And I’m sure the Martians believe that every year, America’s landmass is swept by gargantuan fires, because the news folk keep saying, “And in California right now, wildfires have consumed over 1000 acres, with no containment in sight.

Please. Doesn’t anyone have a hand calculator? The Southern California county in which I live contains 2,896,640 acres, the great majority of them uninhabited. In brush country, you can expect a fire on any given acre at least once every 30 years. And the fires always get contained. They don’t keep burning till they reach Cleveland. But even as I write these words, Fox News is showing me a grass fire, somewhere in these great United States, that is actually “burning two structures!” Oh really? In 2009, the last year for which comprehensive statistics are available, fire departments in the United States dealt with almost 400,000 home fires. The fires killed more than 2,500 people. Maybe good video wasn’t available on those.

During the past few days, I’ve watched a lot of cable coverage of the riots in Egypt. Frequently, the talking heads refer to the fact that, as they say, “the United States gives over one billion dollars in aid to Egypt!” The real figure is somewhat larger than that, but never mind. CNN and Fox News have radically different ideological outlooks; yet neither of them has any scale or measurement in its reporting. One or two billion dollars is nothing in the American scale of spending. The annual budget of the university where I teach is larger than that, and it's far from the largest university in the country, or even the state. My city plans to spend about $200 million building a new library. I don’t think it should, but that’s beside the point. If we sent the money to Egypt, it would increase America’s bribery to that country by roughly 10 percent.

Now, when was the last time you heard anything like that from the media?

By the way, CNN and Fox News have both placed heavy emphasis on the idea that you gotta understand the Egyptian revolutionaries, because the official unemployment rate in Egypt is as high as 9%! Tell me, what’s the official unemployment rate in the United States? On Feb. 4, it was reported to be 9%.




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Well, at Least That's Over

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Happy New Year! It gives me pleasure to report that we survived 2010 with fewer devastating hits to the language than we’ve seen in recent years.

If you’re inclined to whine about 2010, please remember “the audacity of hope” and its sad but well-merited fate in the year just past. Of course, there is usually an easy passage from pomposity to farce, but the passage of “audacity of hope” was particularly easy, and particularly gratifying to observe. Every friend of the English language shuddered on election day 2008, expecting that Obama’s stilted, painfully self-conscious phrase would be enshrined forever in America’s pantheon of quotations, alongside “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” “Fourscore and seven years ago,” and “Th-th-th-th-th! That’s all, folks!” But now it’s merely a subject for sardonic humor.

So much of interest might have been said in 2010, but wasn’t.

I’m sorry, however, that I can’t welcome the new year as ecstatically as Addison DeWitt once greeted the debut of Eve Harrington. I am not available for shouting from the housetops or dancing in the streets. It isn’t simply that a lot of muddy snow remains to be shoveled off America’s pavements; it’s that so much of interest might have been said in 2010, but wasn’t.

In 2010 we experienced comparatively little linguistic terror or catastrophe, but we didn’t experience many linguistic delights, either. Washington — Mordor on the Potomac — was more vulnerable to solemn sneers and glorious jests than it had been for many years, and that’s saying something, but its opponents were seldom equal to the occasion. The most eloquent and resonant sound of opposition was “Don’t touch my junk.” That saying will last, and deserves to last. Its four modest monosyllables combine a trenchant protest against authority with a wry parody of enforced sensitivity: if you nice people won’t let me say “penis” or “testicles,” I’ll just call them “junk”; now how do you like that?

But try to think of some equally generous gift to the language, received from 2010. Tell me if you do. I’ll be interested.

The year did afford its share of linguistic monstrosities. It promoted, for example, the further growth of the Great Blob “We.” You know what I mean. Your nurse says, “How are we doing today, Mr. Johnson?” Your boss says, “I think that we [meaning you] had better get that report out right away.” Yesterday a waitperson asked me (I was dining alone), “And how did we like our salad?” I was tempted to reply, “I don’t know; I haven’t had time to poll the rest of us”; but friends have told me that waiters do sometimes spit in your food, so I took refuge in a haughty silence.

All politicians now use “we” to describe themselves. Newt Gingrich was just obeying this professional ethic when, in December, he was interviewed by Fox News about whether he intended to run for president. He replied that “we” were considering it. This makes me wonder how many people may actually be lurking on my ballot, underneath the name of any single candidate that “we” might vote for. It also reminds me irresistibly of those cartoons in which a three-headed monster keeps talking to itself.

But it was Oprah Winfrey who, in 2010, broke all records for “we.” It happened in an interview with Barbara Walters. Barbara asked Oprah about rumors that she was gay, and Oprah responded, “We have said, ‘We are not gay,’ a number of times.” Well, I have never said that, not even once. Have you? But then we weren’t being given the third degree by Barbara Walters.

Nevertheless, “moving forward,” as politicians often said in 2010: the past year not only failed to come up with any colorful new phrases; it was churlish about using old ones that might still have some value. I was astonished by the neglect of a number of venerable expressions that should have seemed perfectly natural, indeed unavoidable, in the context of the year’s political events. These locutions may never have been star players, but their absence from the team made the game a lot less fun to watch.

Who are the war-speakers now? Who claims to be besieged, subverted, held hostage by today’s forces of evil? Why, it’s our pacifist president and his friends, that’s who.

While following the controversy over the tax bill, I was shocked to hear not one satirical reference to the fact that Democrats like to “soak the rich.” And amid the outpouring of sympathy for people who have missed their mortgage payments, I heard not one mention of “giving a hand” to “the deserving poor.” “The poor” no longer exist in our national vocabulary. In this respect, the president is fully representative of leaders left, right, and center: he never talks about “the poor”; he talks exclusively about “the middle class,” or at most about “working families.” (I thought that child labor had been outlawed — except on farms, because farm states have two senators each — but I must have been wrong.) No one ever thinks of po’ folks now.

This is disappointing to me, because I grew up around po’ folks, and a lotta folks I know are still po’. I can’t see why they should be omitted from the glossary, but in 2010 even the professional friends of the working man did exactly that. Obama used the word “folks” with fanatical phoniness, but he didn’t call the poor folks “poor.” I suppose that’s because he and his friends had discovered that really poor people don’t vote, and therefore shouldn’t be noticed, and that relatively poor people always insist that they are middle class.

Relatively rich people do that too. Have you ever met an American who referred to himself as “rich”? There’s no point in debating the question of whether to “soak” the rich. They’re linguistically extinct — except when the Democrats want to increase their taxes. Then, as we discovered in 2010, they become the “super-rich” (i.e., people who make more than $250,000 a year).

That is what the Republicans call “class warfare,” a phrase I am heartily sick of, despite its fair degree of accuracy. The reason I regard it as fairly accurate is that Obama’s leading supporters and administrative fixtures are virtually all super-rich themselves — and I’m not talking about people who make only $250K. I doubt that Obama knows anyone who makes as little as that, or has known anyone who makes as little as that during his own past years of political “service.” But some kind of warfare is going on. The most famous remark that Obama made in 2010 was his crack about Republican congressmen holding “hostages” (i.e., refusing, out of principle, to vote for his legislation). That’s war talk, that is.

If Obama came back, where did he come back from? From his dismally low popularity? From the 9.6% unemployment fostered and protected by his economic policies?

And it’s interesting: starting in the 1960s, “right wing” people were violently attacked by college professors and other kindly, mild-mannered folk for “militarizing” the language — you know, insisting on prosecuting a “cold war” against an “evil empire,” and calling communists “traitors” when they were merely plotting to set up a Stalinist dictatorship. The attack revived after 9/11, when a concerted attempt was made to ban the word “evil” as an aggressive, contemptuous piece of hate speech, reminiscent of . . . er . . . uh . . . Nazis or something. (Gosh, I almost said “radical Islamicists.”) But who are the war-speakers now? Who claims to be besieged, subverted, held hostage by today’s forces of evil? Why, it’s our pacifist president and his friends, that’s who.

The truth is less ideological and more rhetorical. Obama was desperate when he made that statement. He would have said anything if he’d thought it would help. To rescue his political career, he needed to make a deal with the Republicans, but he also needed to conciliate the many members of his party who hate Republicans. He decided that the best way to do it was to show that he, too, hated Republicans. That wasn’t hard, because it was true. He does hate them. So he charged that the Republicans had, in effect, manned up (another ridiculous 2010 expression) and were negotiating with him at the point of a legislative gun. Oh, the humanity! But he had to go along with them, for the sake of the republic.

If you can’t see through this stuff, you’re even more naïve than the New York Times.

But speaking of naïve journalism, this is the time for Word Watch to make its fearless forecast for 2011. Here goes.

During 2011, I envision a more complex linguistic situation than prevailed on 2010. I predict that the nation will be annoyed and harassed, not just by the usual guff, but by three rival political dialects.

1. Conservaspeak

This is a language in which I am well educated, a language that has come pretty naturally to me since I stopped being a leftist several generations ago; but I have to concede that it’s lacking in charm. The Republican leadership, which is not very charming to begin with, will speak continually of “balancing the budget,” “ensuring fiscal responsibility,” “setting the nation’s house in order,” “getting America back to work,” and so on and so on. Sound words, if sincerely spoken — which ordinarily they won’t be. But don’t go to John Boehner or Mitch McConnell for inspiring words. They’re too busy running across the fields, with the Tea Party chasing after them.

2. Progressish

Until 2010, “progressives” were old fogies who believed in everything that appeared in the Socialist Party platform of 1912. They went down to the community center on Friday night and listened to speakers (whom no one but other speakers had ever heard of) explain how Big Oil runs the government and will stop at nothing until it poisons the earth and destroys all its people. Outside of that, they had no life. They all voted enthusiastically for Obama but were then horrified to discover that he wasn’t prepared to outlaw capitalism the very next day. One or two of these advanced thinkers happened to be billionaires and thus managed to get themselves taken semi-seriously, so long as they doled out cash; but that was it.

Then came 2010, and by the time it was over, the most leftward people in the Democratic Party had all declared themselves “progressives” out of frustration with Obama. For one thing, he was a total loser. For another thing, they wouldn’t admit to themselves that the specific reason he had lost the November election was that he had followed their advice and “doubled down” on his least popular policy initiatives. To differentiate their wing of the party from the die-hard Obamaites, they needed their own special word for themselves — and lo! “progressive” was found and seized upon. Suddenly, like some animal species that was thought to be extinct until it blundered into a neighborhood where the garbage wasn’t always picked up on time, “progressives” propagated themselves everywhere. Congress and the old-fashioned media filled up with them, overnight.

The current “progressive” ideology isn’t much worth talking about; it consists largely of the idea that government should always expand exponentially, which it would be doing if the president would only ignore the wishes of nine-tenths of the American populace. The progressish dialect isn’t much fun, either; but it will be very prominent in 2011. Expect to hear much more about “empowerment,” “workers’ rights,” “corporate control,” “masters of war,” “the military-industrial complex,” and other standard shibboleths of the distant Left, as leftists try to hold Obama’s renomination hostage in the temple of their idolatries.

3. Obamablab

This is the worst one.

Obama’s popularity ratings have been in the swamp since mid-2009. His amateurish performance as president resulted in his opponents’ overwhelming victory in the election of 2010. Since that election, his biggest accomplishment has been rounding up enough Democrats to vote for the continuation of the Republican tax cuts he had campaigned against.

Strangely, in response to his questionable achievements a chorus of cheers is now being heard from the loftiest heights of the established media — cheers rendered in a barbaric, virtually untranslatable tongue, full of terms that have no plausible equivalent in normal English. Thus, Obama is complimented for his “thoughtful,” even “deeply intellectual and reflective” leadership, for his “moderation,” his “conciliatory approach,” and his “reaching-across-the-aisle method of government.” He is said to have “emerged victorious” and to have “surprised the pundits” as he “turned the corner” on his “struggle to lead America out of its financial doldrums.” Obama is, in short, “the comeback kid.”

Only an expert on mental illness could comprehend what all this means, but its chief characteristic is clearly its gross dishonesty. If Obama came back, where did he come back from? From his dismally low popularity? From the 9.6% unemployment fostered and protected by his economic policies? From the total disarray of his own party? From any other conditions that were just as evident on November 2 as they are today?

The president is not a kid, and the only way in which he has come back is by means of this hideously contrived and shopworn language. We’ve had a comeback kid before: his name was Bill Clinton. And there has never been a moment when modern liberals were not relabeled, when necessary, as conciliatory “moderates” of a “bipartisan spirit,” “pragmatists” who “govern from the center,” etc. Some years ago, the New York Times declared, in a lead editorial, that Walter Mondale was “a man of principle, who has always had the courage to compromise.”

To conclude. These three dialects are the linguistic survivors of 2010. We’ll have to put up with them. But I can think of a good thing about last year: it appears to have jettisoned one considerable wad of smarm: “transparency.” We used to hear a lot about the cellophane-like “transparency” of the Obama administration. Now it appears, what with the healthcare deals and the taxation deals and the stimulus deals and the immigration deals and the security deals and all the other kinds of deals, that “the era of transparency” was over before it started, banished by the era of obvious lies. And that’s the real come-back kid.




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The Other Half

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I’ve heard from a lot of people about last month’s Word Watch. That column was supposed to be the final and definitive commentary on word use in the 2010 political campaign. It was supposed to be the end of the story. But ungrateful readers now insist that it didn’t do half the job it was intended to do. It omitted at least half the tale.

So fine, here’s the other half. Positioned here before the readers’ firing squad, I will proceed to condemn even more of the linguistic sins they’ve complained about. I hope this penance will gain Word Watch a reprieve.

First, the president. Readers wanted much more about him. For example, they wanted more about something he said in the closing days of the campaign, when he was interrupted by hecklers in Connecticut. The hecklers were yelling, “Fund global AIDS!” — which shows how much time these people devote to thinking about the words they use. What their words literally meant was that Obama should subsidize (“fund”) a dreadful disease (“AIDS”), and spread it everywhere (around the “globe”).

Obama’s response showed how carefully he himself considers the words he chooses. He reacted by repeating the protestors’ stupid slogan. “We’re funding global AIDS!” he said. “And the other side is not!” Then he did it again. Addressing the protestors, he intoned: “I think it would make a lot more sense for you guys to go to the folks who aren’t interested in funding global AIDS and chant at that rally, because we’re trying to focus on figuring out how to finance the things that you want financed, all right?”

Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Diagram that sentence, please. That’s what you get from Obama when he isn’t relying on his teleprompters — all right?

I’m not sure why I want to drag facts into a thing like this, but the biggest funder of the campaign against “global AIDS” (AIDS in foreign countries) was the last President Bush. Obama’s abuse of the Republicans was therefore just as vulgar as his abuse of the language. Yet he continued: “We’re not going to be able to do anything unless we get the economy fixed, unless we can put people back to work, unless folks feel more confident about the future. It’s going to be hard to move forward on all these initiatives.”

What their words literally meant was that Obama should subsidize a dreadful disease, and spread it everywhere.

You might ask, “Why must the ‘folks’ feel more confident about the future before Obama goes after AIDS?”, but if you did, you would have a long time to wait for an answer. Everything the president said, like everything the protestors said, was completely nonsensical.

There was something in the president’s remarks that irritated Liberty’s readers even more than the general senselessness. It was Obama’s increasing reliance on that chummy old monosyllable “folks.” During the latter stages of the election campaign our readers heard "folks" constantly from him, and it didn’t take them long to become heartily sick of it. I’m sick of it too. I got sick of it when Bill O’Reilly started claiming that he was “looking out for the folks.” I’m much more sick of it now that Obama has adopted it as his trademarked way of talking down to voters — the invariable accompaniment of his dropped final “g’s” and pseudo-demotic images of common folks tryin’ tuh buy clothes for the kids an’ havin’ trouble payin’ the mortgage.

The most grating of Obama’s folksy images was his constantly reiterated picture of the Republicans drivin’ the car intuh the ditch an’ then expectin’ folks tuh let ‘em back in the car an’ even give ‘em back the keys. I’ve mentioned this silly image before, but readers wanted me to emphasize the way Obama grinned with pride every time he used it, as if it were the climax of his career as an intellectual. Well, maybe it is. And maybe it will be the only locution for which this man of “soaring rhetoric” is ultimately remembered. When the next generation of politically interested kids picks up a handbook of Famous Presidential Sayings, this president may get credit for nothing except that stupid business about the car.

What people insist on saying over and over again defines both them and their view of their audience. Obama’s thing about the car demonstrates how shallow he is, and how shallow he thinks we are.

As several readers suggested, however, if you want evidence of Obama's power as a political analyst, nothing tops a statement he made in his post-election press conference. On that occasion, he alluded to his vast expansion of federal power: “We thought it was necessary, but I’m sympathetic to folks who looked at it and said this is looking like potential overreach.”Hmm . . . People looked at what he (we) had done and said that this was looking like potential overreach. It wasn’t overreach, exactly, or even loosely; it was just something that some folks believed or felt might possibly turn into or look like overreach. And looking at those folks and sensing their vague emotional reactions, Obama contributed his own vague emotional reaction: he was sympathetic. How many boxes within boxes do you count in that weird non mea culpa?

Can’t people think without stupid sports metaphors? Well, yes, they can, but perhaps not in America.

But everyone (even Liberty’s readers) would like to take a break from Obama at some point, so let’s take one now. Readers remain disgusted by a lot of things besides Obamaisms. Some of these folks believe that there may have been some potential overreach in the media’s constant use of the phrase “up for grabs.” “The election may have been a political football,” one reader pointed out, “but it was not a basketball. Still, every time it was mentioned in the papers or on the air, we were told that such and such a Senate seat was ‘up for grabs,’ or there were 435 desks in the House of Representatives that were ‘up for grabs,’ or some state election was so close that it was ‘up for grabs.’ Can’t people think without stupid sports metaphors?”

Well, yes, they can, but perhaps not in America. It would, however, be nice to see whether the media could struggle on for just a few moments without these crutches.

Readers also indicated that there are many other political expressions of which they have had enough. A brief list: “grow the economy,” “put America back to work,” “energize the base,” “hope and change,” “double down,” "out-source," "foreign money," “a way forward,” “a roadmap to,” “man up,” and the current favorite, “triangulate.”

I share our readers’ shuddering aversion to these junk expressions. Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my own nominee for worst set of words from the 2010 election season. There’s too much to choose from, but what sticks in my mind is a remark made by Florida Governor Charlie Crist, one of the most repulsive personalities of a political year in which repulsive things abounded.

This Crist, of whom we shall probably hear no more, was a Republican, but when he tried to get his party’s nomination for US Senator, he found himself far behind. He then decided to run as an independent, but he had minimal success in enticing Republican support. To win, therefore, he needed to gain huge numbers of Democratic votes. He worked hard on that. A self-styled “Reagan Republican,” he veered crazily to the left, accusing the conservative Republican nominee, Marco Rubio, of every kind of extremism. But Crist was still behind, so he tried to get the Democratic nominee to leave the race. To do that, he suggested (which was undoubtedly true) that Bill Clinton and, by extension, the White House, had so little confidence in the Democrat that they wanted him to withdraw from the race and endorse Crist.

This was a nutty move for Crist to make. It succeeded only in alienating core Democratic voters. Still, he avidly sought television interviews in which he could discuss backroom maneuvers designed to eject the duly nominated Democrat and throw the election to himself. Grinning with delight at astonished interviewers, he displayed his conviction that everything he did, and everything that might possibly be done for him, was not only right but noble, merely because it aided him. If this doesn’t sound surreal enough, add the fact that Crist possessed an angelic little face and snowy white angelic hair, and that he constantly discussed himself in the third person: “This is a Florida decision for Floridians to decide what they want — if they want an extremist like Marco Rubio or if they want a common-sense candidate like Charlie Crist.”

I hate it when people talk like that. But there was worse to come. Asked whether he had leaked the story of the backroom negotiations in order to score a political advantage, Crist adopted the plural of majesty and intoned, “We’re not causing trouble. We’re causing freedom.”

Causing freedom. The man was causing freedom.

Plato believed that there existed in the eternal Mind the “forms” or blueprints of everything that exists on earth. If I were to pick the Platonic form of the contemporary American politician, it would be Charlie Crist. That sounds bad, but there’s a good thing, too: Crist lost the election. Maybe, sometimes, the folks are smarter than the Platonic Mind.




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Stump Speech

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It’s sad to realize that the most entertaining use of language during the 2010 election campaign involved the shrieks of a computer-generated pig.

I’m referring, of course, to the Geico Insurance ad that shows a man asking portentously, “Can Geico save you 15% or more on car insurance?”, then answering, “Did the little piggy go ‘wee, wee, wee’ all the way home?” Following that, we see the piggy in question. He’s leaning out a car window, waving a party twirler in each, uh, hand, and squealing delightedly, “Wee, wee, wee! Wee, wee, wee! Wee, wee, wee!”, etc., until the driver, a suburban soccer mom, stops the car and snaps, “Max! Maxwell! You’re home!” “Uh, thanks Mrs. A,” Maxwell the piggy replies, and leaves the car, never realizing how rudely he’s behaved.

It’s hard to explain why this ad is funny. (A lot of people think it’s not.) Part of the explanation must be that it takes something that makes no sense (the “this little piggy went to market” nursery rhyme) and converts it into something that looks like a slice of American reality — the pain-in-the-ass teenager, unconsciously exploiting the harassed middle-class mom. This is whimsy, the form of humor that Monty Python generated by imagining middle-class English people reacting with courteous acquiescence to palpably absurd situations.

Unfortunately, the political campaign that formed the background to the Little Pig ad was going in the opposite direction. The combatants took a serious event, a climactic election, and converted it into a stupefyingly unamusing absurdity.

Paul’s reply was exactly right. “How ridiculous are you?” he asked.

There were few exceptions to this pattern. One of them was the internet ad attacking Senator Boxer of California, who in 2009 made a fool of herself at a congressional hearing by demanding that a soldier call her “Senator” instead of “Ma’am”: she had worked hard to become a senator, she insisted, and therefore deserved every inch of her title. The anti-Boxer ad was filled with characters — generals, judges, policemen, Boy Scouts, nuns, Indian chiefs — who also demanded that they be accorded the highest possible honorific, because they had worked for it. Don’t call me “Sister”; call me “Mother Superior.”

One other amusing episode was the penultimate debate between the two senatorial candidates from Kentucky. The Democrat, Jack Conway, demanded that the libertarian Republican, Rand Paul, tell him whether he thought it was a good idea to worship “a false idol” named “Aqua Buddha.” Conway was trying to take seriously, indeed solemnly, an alleged episode of sacrilege from Paul’s life as a bumptious undergraduate, many years before. Paul’s reply was exactly right. “How ridiculous are you?” he asked.

But few participants in the great electoral process followed his example by ridiculing the ridiculous. When the Democrats dug up a former servant of the Republican candidate for governor of California and held press conferences in which the woman bewailed the fact that her employer had believed her when she furnished a bad Social Security number, no one said, “How ridiculous are you?” or started to laugh.

No, this was an election conducted in high seriousness, an election in which the Obama forces ran TV ads showing the American electorate’s purse being stolen in a darkened parking structure by thugs paid with stacks of Mao Tse-tung notes — and nobody laughed. Ceaselessly campaigning against the Supreme Court’s decision to respect the first amendment, the president kept arguing that by purportedly spending money to express their opinions, his opponents were supporting dictatorship: “This isn't a threat to the Democrats, it's a threat to our democracy." Again, nobody laughed.

It’s important to notice that the word “our” was used far too much in this campaign, by both political parties. Aren’t you tired of the attempt to smuggle togetherness into every political conception? But I’m much more tired of sheer pomposity — and in that category, President Obama won the election, hands down. Now that Senator Byrd is dead, no one can possibly be more pompous than Obama. Note to Republicans: I know your own long training in pomposity, but don’t even consider relying on it in 2012. You’ll never beat the president, once he really cranks it up.

Think about the campaign speeches he delivered, month after month — speeches mercilessly reiterating a single metaphor: the Republicans had been “driving” the nation’s economic “car,” they had “run it into a ditch,” and now they were “asking for the keys back.” That was something, but it wasn’t much, and it shouldn’t have lasted long; because the longer Obama pontificated in that way, the more likely people were to remember that it had actually been Barney Frank in the driver’s seat, with President Bush riding shotgun. Obama appeared to sense the dullness of his ruling metaphor, because he kept adding things to it — images of himself working in the ditch, sweating in the ditch, rappelling into the ditch, and so on, all to fix the car that the Republicans had disabled. You were supposed to picture him as a combination of Errol Flynn and a working-class hero with “Barry” on the tag over his left pocket. Pompous? You bet.

One measure of a nation’s culture is its ability to identify pomposity, and conquer it with laughter.

And think about his long and deep meditations on human psychology, as vouchsafed to a coven of donors in West Newton, MA during the last stages of the campaign. This is the speech in which he attributed dissatisfaction with his policies to the backwardness of voters, especially working-class voters. "Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now,” he opined, “and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we're hardwired not to always think clearly when we're scared. And the country's scared."

For a long time I’ve been saying that if you think the president is good with words, you should read his words. Look at that first sentence. Did you think it would ever end? Now look at his subject-verb agreement, or lack thereof: “facts and science and argument does . . . ” (This is a frequent problem with him.) Look at his use of that most clichéd of all current clichés, “hardwired”: “we,” meaning you and me, not him, have no more volition or reflection than a computer; we just can’t help committing thought crimes. Finally (because I have to stop somewhere), look at the bizarre assumption that we don’t agree with him because we’re deaf to “facts and science and argument.” Science? Does he want the Nobel Prize in Physics now?

That other great scientist, David Axelrod, did even better than his boss at turning normal discourse into absurdity. One of the scenes in Citizen Kane that always make people laugh is the one in which someone points out to Kane, the scaremongering newspaper publisher, that “there’s not the slightest proof” that a Spanish armada is preparing to attack the United States (“GALLEONS OF SPAIN OFF JERSEY COAST!” ); and Kane replies, “Can you prove it isn’t?” That’s exactly what David Axelrod said to Bob Schieffer of CBS News, when, on October 10, Schieffer asked him for proof that the foreign money the Chamber of Commerce was allegedly using to fund anti-Democratic campaigns was “anything other than peanuts.“ “Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not?” said Axelrod. Unfortunately, Schieffer didn’t laugh.

It must have been hard to keep from doing that. I know I find it hard not to laugh when I hear partisan utterances of any kind. That’s true even when I’m dealing with a respectable political authority, such as Sean Trende. Trende is Senior Elections Analyst for RealClearPolitics (I’m sorry to say that this is the way they spell it). On October 18, Trende wrote an intelligent article for the RealClear site, comparing the election of 2010 with that of 1994. But the pomposity of politics infected even Mr.Trende, its analyst. His essay included the following passage: “This is a different kind of election than 1994, entirely. When my lay friends ask about this election, I explain that it is like seeing Haley's Comet; you'll usually only get to see it once in your lifetime.”

Trende may be right about the election, but what a thing to say! Maybe it’s Trende’s editor, not Trende himself, who mistakes the common mispronunciation (“Haley” instead of “Halley”) for the comet’s actual name; I’ll let that one go. I’ll also give Trende a pass on the common but nonsensical “different than.” But what’s this nonsense about “lay” people? The only distinction that I recognize between “lay” people and other people is the distinction between laymen and clergy. Are political analysts now administering the sacraments? How pompous can you get? And notice how easily that term rolled off Mr. Trende’s keyboard: no suggestion of irony, just the naive conversion of an honorable title — journalist — into a pompous absurdity.

One measure of a nation’s culture is its ability to identify pomposity, and conquer it with laughter. The next time Obama or any other of the new class of priests and “scientific” analysts stands up to pontificate, I hope there’s a chorus of laughter. That will solve most of our problems.




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