Come On — Did They Really Say Those Things?

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Normally, I don’t find much entertainment in news reports of off-year congressional primaries in states where I don’t live. But look what fell into my lap while I was reading election reports on May 20. The author is Fox News reporter Chris Stirewalt; the subject is Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia:

When asked if she would have voted for President Obama’s signature health law, Nunn was gobsmacked in a MSNBC interview. “So, at the time that the Affordable Health Care Act [sic] was passed, I was working for Points of Light,” Nunn says. “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation . . . I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” She’s going to have plenty of chances to reconsider over the course of the campaign.

Now that’s entertainment. Just picture Stirewalt scratching his head and wearing out his eraser, hunting for le mot juste, and coming up with “gobsmacked.” What does that mean? And where does it come from? And what’s it for?

A dictionary informs me that it means “astounded,” and that its origin is “smacked” (I know what that means) plus “gob” (oh yes, now I remember: that’s a Britishism for “mouth”). But that doesn’t help very much. As an immediate descendant of one of America’s famous political families (as they are called; I call them parasites), Nunn could not have been astounded by a question about Obamacare. I’m guessing, but I think that Stirewalt means she was badly hurt, hit in the gob, or mouth, by an interview that went badly, from her point of view. He’s using this strange expression to make fun of her.

I must say, I have no reason to like Michelle Nunn, but I don’t relish the image of people being smacked in the mouth. It doesn’t seem, well, exactly right for news reporting. Or even for satire. And the effort to sound folksy by importing British folksiness seems counterproductive.

So there are several ways in which Stirewalt goofed. Now let’s consider the target of his humor, Michelle Nunn. I’m not concerned with the error noted by Fox News’s “sic”: so what if the real name of the Obamacare legislation is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? But passing beyond all that, the next thing out of her gob was something called Points of Light. She seemed to believe that everyone would know what that means, but I didn’t, until I looked it up. Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Points of Light is an international nonprofit, nonpartisan organization headquartered in the United States dedicated to engaging more people and resources in solving serious social problems through voluntary service.” I guess if you’re professionally employed in figuring that one out, you can’t pay much attention to anything else that’s going on, such as Obamacare.

The dog had been transitioned. Picture that.

So Michelle Nunn, leading light and great political thinker, knew nothing about it.But does she now know what it is, andwhether she would have voted for it? That’s an easy question, too easy for a politician to answer. Politicians want to take on the hard questions, the challenging questions, the questions inspired by their gargantuan hopes and dreams. So instead of saying whether she would have voted for (i.e., now favors) the bitterly unpopular program ruthlessly jammed through Congress by the leader of her party, she entertains a harder question: what kind of people do you wish to inhabit America?

You’ll agree that this is a very hard question. But she found an answer: “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation.”

It is possible that, like many abstruse philosophers — Kant, say, or Heidegger — Nunn has thoughts too profound to be expressed in normal language. Therefore she must use “architect” as a verb and “legislation” as the kind of noun that admits the indefinite article, as in such uncommon phrases as “I will introduce a legislation” and “according to a legislation passed in 1958 . . .” Yet on closer inspection, these peculiar words appear not to differ in meaning from the words that any normally literate person would choose instead — words such as “tried to create, shape, invent, agree upon, etc., a bipartisan bill, act, law, scheme, plan, etc.” Can it be that Ms. Nunn, graduate of the University of Virginia and the Kennedy School of Government, is not a normally literate person, that her odd use of words merely signifies her membership in the ignorant tribe that hunts for food and shelter in political boardrooms and committee meetings, aborigines so innocent of books that they derive their patter entirely from the primitive verbiage of “agendas” and “executive summaries”?

The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

Every language, every system of discourse, even the most primitive, has its symbols, and it’s pretty clear what Ms. Nunn’s words were intended to symbolize. She wanted to say, without saying it, that she had nothing to do with Obamacare and wishes that it had turned out differently, but the blame lies with the Republicans, rather than her own party (which just happened to have passed the bill), because the Republicans refused to cooperate and make the thing bipartisan. Tribal priests sometime speak in this way, so that only their fellow priests will understand their message and know what to do to any rival priests. Priestly concerns have undoubtedly influenced Nunn’s sentence.

Yet there’s yet another sentence, and in it the impression of illiteracy is overwhelming. “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively,” she begins, “and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?”

But as you know, it’s possible to use big words and still not be literate. Children do it all the time. Unfortunately, they are often rewarded for the trick, and many turn out like Nunn, who can’t resist throwing a big word in, despite not knowing what it means. If she knew what “retrospectively” means, why would she pair it with “back,” thus creating the kind of gross redundancy that embarrasses literate men and women?

But let’s not take things out of context; let’s look at her whole sentence: “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” Here we have passed beyond the world of words; we are treading the marble floors of metaphysics.The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

This is the logic, simple though conclusive, that eludes Ms. Dunn. She thinks it is not possible — the reason is evident. She supported Obamacare. She must have supported it. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be twisting herself into knots, denying that it’s possible for anyone to say what she “would” have done in some mysterious past that neither memory nor imagination can recover. But if she thinks she’s fooling anybody, she isn’t.

Her verbal methods, alas, are not original. Making pretentious verbs out of common nouns (i.e., “architect”) — that’s what bureaucrats and news people do all day. This month we were informed that a dog employed to do some dirty work by the Department of Homeland Security had been “transitioned” out of service. The dog had been transitioned. Picture that. As for pretentious redundancies, the news is always full of those. On May 3, Fox reported that “pro-government supporters” were active in Ukraine. There was no news of anti-government supporters.

Even more insensate language appeared this month. On May 9, there was an awful accident in Virginia; a balloon hit an electric wire, scattering flaming wreckage and human bodies across the landscape. Three people were eventually found and pronounced dead. While rescue workers still searched for them, a spokesman for the balloon-festival sponsors conveyed this sentiment: “The Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival regrets that there was a safety incident involving one of the balloons participating on the evening of May 9.”

Safety incident? A balloon hit an electric wire, and three people died. It was an incident all right, but a safety incident?

This is the kind of language that 21st-century Americans have grown to expect from public sources. Like Ms. Nunn’s remarks, it’s the product of the public relations school of English, which isn’t English at all. No writer of normal English would refer to a deadly accident as a “safety incident,” or even say that balloons — not people — “participated” in something. But for PR people, and those who learn their ABCs from them, this sort of thing is automatic.

Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you.

Of course, the PR disaster of the month has been the response, or non-response, of the Veterans Administration (aka Department of Veterans Affairs) and its head, Gen. Eric Shinseki, to allegations that many people have died at VA hospitals in Phoenix and elsewhere while waiting for a medical appointment. CNN has done a good job of following up on these allegations. For over six months the network has sought an interview with or statement from Shinseki, but its efforts have not succeeded. It did discover that he employs 54 (fifty-four!) press agents, none of whom responded to CNN’s attempts to get them to do their job. Finally, when the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called for the boss’s resignation, the VA issued a statement:

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously. If the VA Office of Inspector General's investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken. Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care.

Under the leadership of Secretary Shinseki and his team, VA has made strong progress in recent years to better serve veterans both now and in the future. The secretary knows there is more work to do.

Tell me, how many people does it take to reach that level of banality? Answer: 54.

Note the sidelong plea for “faith,” even if, in some cases, this faith must be posthumously awarded. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney, the man America loves to hate, indicated that for some unknown reason Obama himself had succumbed to this plea: "The President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the department and take appropriate action." Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you. But the trick of invoking faith and confidence was worn out generations ago. In 1933, Isabel Paterson wrote, “When any one asks us to have confidence we are glad to inform him that the request of itself would shatter any remaining confidence in our mind.”

But what said Shinseki himself? Here are his words, from the CNN report (Friday, May 23) that I’ve been quoting:

Shinseki said Tuesday that [he] is "very sensitive to the allegations" coming from the Phoenix probe.

“I need to let the independent IG (inspector general) complete his investigation," he told the [Wall Street] Journal.

Paterson died (without the help of the VA) some years before the popularity of two press agent ploys that are as bad as demanding “confidence”: (1) claiming that one is “sensitive,” with the accompanying, implicit demand for sensitivity from one’s hapless audience; (2) insisting on the supposed necessity of doing nothing until an investigation is completed.

If you were really sensitive, wouldn’t you be too sensitive to say you were — in an interview that you finally had to give, as a bare-minimum response to deadly accusations? And, regardless of anybody else’s inquiries, wouldn’t you take the first plane to Phoenix and stand by the door of the hospital, asking patients how long it took them to get an appointment? If you could find a plane that was large enough, you could take all your press agents with you and let them turn you into a national hero. And if you didn’t do it, maybe your super-sensitive president could do it himself. After all, it would take less work than flying to Afghanistan, or figuring out how to flim-flam the VA issue.

But maybe it isn’t “sensitivity” we need. Maybe it’s normal words and normal actions.

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