What do you think the funniest verbal event of November was?
I thought it might be Prince Andrew’s assertion that he made a special visit to alleged sex demon Jeffrey Epstein just to tell him that he couldn’t see him anymore. When asked why he had lived in Epstein’s house for several days after delivering that message, the prince replied, “It was a convenient place to stay.” I’m sure it was.
On reflection, though, I believe I’ve had the most laughs over the episode that I call the Entitlement of Mr. Vindman.
Alexander Vindman is one of several rightfully obscure Washington bureaucrats who aired their gripes against President Trump during the impeachment inquiry. He happens to be a colonel in the Army, and although his testimony had nothing to do with military service, he showed up in military uniform. This was no doubt intended to remind everyone of the deference that all true Americans should show to our servicemen and women, a deference at least equal to that demanded by the First World War laws mandating prison terms for insults to the uniform. But one congressman was so insensitive, or so unpatriotic, as to address Mr. Vindman as “Mr. Vindman” — whereupon Mr. Vindman said, “It’s Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, please.”
When asked why he had lived in Epstein’s house for several days after delivering that message, the prince replied, “It was a convenient place to stay.” I’m sure it was.
This struck me, and millions, as hilariously, almost hysterically, funny. But let’s get some historical perspective.
It was funny, some years ago, when virtually everyone who ever held a government job started being addressed by his latest or showiest title. People who had paid to become ambassadors to Ruritania 30 years before were always to be addressed as Ambassador Whatever. Andrew Napolitano, once a judge of the Superior Court of New Jersey (1987–1995), was always to be addressed as Judge Napolitano. Not to mention Judge Judy.
That was funny; “prestige” is usually funny. Even funnier were the numerous, ridiculously ignorant, forms of address expected by some of these people. Joycelyn Elders, a goodhearted but bizarre old lady whom President Clinton made Surgeon General of the United States, not only wore a silly uniform (like her predecessor, C. Everett Koop, who looked exactly like his name) but was consistently addressed on television as General Elders. It’s possible that even she didn’t fully grok that she wasn’t in the army, and that “surgeon general” just means “general administrator of surgery, i.e. medicine, for the US Public Health Service.” Soon the attorneys general of the United States and of the 50 great sovereign states were being publicly addressed as “general,” and I didn’t hear any of these legal wizards objecting.
Some years ago, virtually everyone who ever held a government job started being addressed by his latest or showiest title.
Now along comes Mr. Vindman, for whom “Colonel” isn’t a sufficiently sonorous title; he must be called “Lieutenant Colonel.” Look, I am not just the editor of this journal; I am also a doctor (Ph.D.: don’t ask me to prescribe anything except daily doses of a grammar book). If I told people on the phone or the ladies at the DMV or other total strangers that, excuse me, I want to be addressed as Professor Cox or Doctor Cox, how do you think that would be received? To paraphrase Alexander Pope, the reaction would be:
Who would not weep if such a man there be?
Who would not laugh if Doctor Cox were he?
But how would it be if I insisted on being called not just Professor Cox but Full Professor Cox or Distinguished Professor Cox — which is actually, literally, and not a little absurdly my academic title? And Vindman isn’t exactly an — ahem! — colonel, or as they say, full bird colonel. He is only a lieutenant colonel, which is less. So, in his pride, he insists on everyone mentioning his not being promoted.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, my informal advisor, Frank Livingstone Huntley, an elderly, old-fashioned man of letters, who was by no means close to “Mr. Cox” emotionally, nor attempted to be so, and was frequently and stupidly misunderstood by the same Mr. Cox, still gave me warm encouragement in notes on my papers and recommendations to graduate schools, despite what he must have seen as my foolish, hippie-like hair and my goofy manners. He also took time to give me his view of academic titles. I’d probably asked him how I should address some professor I had to write a letter to. I can see him now, seated in his little office with books and microfilms all around him (he was a student of 17th-century manuscripts, so he had a lot of microfilms). He leaned forward slightly, heavily, in his chair, and said, with his thick, scowling lips, “Humph! They all want to be called Doctor or Professor. It used to be that we were all called Mister. Just Mister. That’s the word that I still use.” Professor Huntley was a good American.
Vindman isn’t exactly an — ahem! — colonel, or as they say, full bird colonel. He is only a lieutenant colonel, which is less.
But to return to Mr. Vindman’s demand for entitlement: A few minutes, or hours, or decades later in his strangely deadpan testimony — time stops during these things, and the fogs of eternity roll in — an examiner told Vindman that the congressman who had called him “Mister” hadn’t really meant any disrespect; and he asked him the interesting question, “Do you always insist on civilians calling you by your rank?” Vindman explained that well, he was wearing a uniform, and besides, he was sensitive about such matters, because he had recently been dissed on Twitter: “The attacks that I’ve had in the press, in Twitter have either marginalized me as a military officer or—” He broke off there.
I too must break off. I can’t write any more about Vindman; I’m laughing too hard. I’ll proceed to some other risible personalities. These infest, not the halls of Congress, but the offices of the government of Baltimore.
There was a woman named Catherine Pugh, who after serving herself in various government offices, including majority leader of the Maryland Senate, became mayor of the city of H.L. Mencken and of Francis Scott Key. Strangely, she was not rich. Well, how do you become rich? You write a book. Anyone can do it. You just type a bunch of words and publish it yourself. Then you’re rich.
You may think that’s unrealistic, but your title is not Mayor of Baltimore. You are not a person who, as mayor, has much to say about lucrative government contracts and favors — for example, in the healthcare field. For particular example, in the university hospital healthcare field. The people who run healthcare orgs are great patrons of literary art, and if you show them you have talent, they will buy your books by the thousands of copies and distribute them to schools and sickrooms and . . . things like that. In fact, you don’t need to sell them a book, in the sense of actually letting them see it and possess it. You can keep the damned thing, for all they care. They just want to give you money.
Vindman explained that he was sensitive about such matters, because he had recently been dissed on Twitter.
Cool, huh? Dante never had such an appreciative audience. Ms., or Mayor (or is it Lieutenant Colonel Dame Catherine) Pugh self-published some inane books about how little girls can take care of their health — by, like, exercising. These books were “bought,” at remarkable prices, and “distributed” by orgs that wanted to have this great author as their friend. It’s not clear that any little girl in Baltimore ever read the Healthy Holly books. But Ms. Pugh read her checks, very carefully.
When other people read of this, however, Mayor Pugh was bounced from her job and indicted for a variety of crimes, to which she has now confessed. One hopes that her accomplices in the oh-so-smarmy and respectable world of government-sponsored “nonprofits” will also be indicted and sent to jail.
The man who took over Pugh’s job as mayor is one Bernard C. (“Jack”) Young. I have no evidence that he’s a crook, but there’s good verbal evidence that he is the Platonic form of political hack. And in that capacity he’s very funny. Here is what Mayor Young said about his predecessor’s indictment:
Anything that puts a black eye on the city makes us all angry. We are all heartbroken and disappointed at today's news. I pray for former Mayor Pugh. I'm focused on helping our city to heal.
That’s 36 words and six clichés: black eye, makes us all, heartbroken, pray for, focused on, heal. Pretty damn good. One of the six, black eye, is historically conscious — coming, as it does, from the Joe Palooka school of journalism, c. 1930. The rest come from psychobabble and fake religiosity (school of Nancy Pelosi). The collectivist premise rules: we are all angry, heartbroken, disappointed; we must all come together, pray, heal, blah blah.
You may think that’s unrealistic, but your title is not Mayor of Baltimore.
How many citizens of Baltimore actually feel those emotions? My guess is none, except for people who are about to be indicted. And can you possibly, conceivably, picture Mayor Young kneeling in prayer for Former Mayor Pugh? No, you can’t.
Thank God, a rawer, less sensitive, and therefore even funnier side of Mayor Bernard C. (“Jack”) Young surfaced at about the same time. It had to do with Baltimore’s almost unbelievably high rates of murder and other violent crimes. This was not, apparently, “anything that puts a black eye on the city” and “makes us all angry." Oh no. Asked about the annual slaughter of hundreds of citizens of Baltimore, the mayor of the city said:
There is not a lack of any leadership on my part. I have been moving this city forward … you know, because I’m not committing the murders and that’s what people need to understand. I’m not committing the murders, the police commissioner is not committing it, the council is not committing it. So, how can you fault leadership?
This is funny — not as funny as the heartbreaking testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Alexander Vindman, but pretty funny. Jesus said, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” Now we know whom Jesus had in mind — the mayor of Baltimore. He didn’t kill anyone.
How many citizens of Baltimore actually feel those emotions? My guess is none, except for people who are about to be indicted.
Well, who did? It was (guess who?) Donald Trump. Four months ago, Mayor Young eagerly stoned the president for portraying Baltimore as what it is, a mess. He excoriated Trump for “racially dividing us” (the mayor happens to be black) and attributed Baltimore’s misfortunes to (guess what?) Trump’s purported failure to give Baltimore money.
We have our challenges just like any major city in America, and it’s because of the constant reduction in funding for cities like Baltimore.
Maybe Trump has “constantly” reduced assistance to “cities like Baltimore” (such as which cities?). But I doubt it. Federal assistance to Baltimore itself totaled $5.44 billion in 2018, about $9,000 for every man, woman, and child in the place. Has the lack of additional assistance caused a homicide rate that is about ten times higher than the national average? Were hundreds slain by a sudden dearth of Benjamins? (Not that ordinary citizens of Baltimore were much advantaged by the sums lavished on their city.)
I have a theory. My theory is that verbal absurdities are closely correlated with state subsidies paid to such officeholders as Mayor Bernard C. (“Jack”) Young and the Honorable Lieutenant Colonel Lord Alexander Vindman. There are many thousands of these people, and they have nothing better to do with their time than conducting experiments with the English language. And that’s the best thing they do, because at least it can be entertaining.
None of the statements I have quoted in this column, by Vindman or anyone else, was made with the least appearance of irony, shame, hesitancy, self-questioning, or reflection.
I thought I was through with Vindman, but I’m not. Consider what, officially, he does with his time. A writer with a more-than-Arthurian name, Tristan Justice, has reported on Vindman’s administrative title and what it signifies. He says that Vindman
claimed in his opening statement to be the “principal advisor to the National Security Advisor and the president on Ukraine and the other countries in my portfolio.”
When asked about the claim however by Republican Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio, Vindman admitted to having never met, spoken with, or advised the president on anything.
“You’ve never spoken to the president and told him advice on Ukraine,” Turner said.
“That is correct,” Vindman said.
Notice that none of the statements I have quoted in this column, by Vindman or anyone else, was made with the least appearance of irony, shame, hesitancy, self-questioning, or reflection. They’re just out there, among the millions of utterances of self-entitled government officials whose “advice” and “work” destroys cities, drags nations into wars, promotes public ignorance, and demoralizes the young.
That part’s not funny.