I’m familiar with the philosophical — or perhaps anti-philosophical — idea that the words we use cannot be judged by their relationship to the realities they try to represent, that we all have our own “language,” that language is not representational but expressive, and that the deployment of words creates reality rather than mirroring it. I find this a depressing idea. I would not want to live in one of those incompatible language “worlds.” And I do not believe that I live in one. Except right now.
On August 13, Shepard Smith, one of the ickiest people in the Fox News lineup, “reported” on the sit-in at the Hong Kong airport, and on the minor acts of violence that occurred between protestors and police. “It was an unimaginable occurrence, that police should come into this place at this time,” Smith said. Here is a private language, if there ever was one. In the Smithian tongue, August 13 was a sacred day, a day on which the cosmos prohibited violence; and the Hong Kong airport was the place where, above all other places, violence could never occur. That it did was therefore unimaginable. To me, on the contrary, it was so far from being unimaginable that . . . Look! He was talking about something that we were both watching on the Fox feed from Hong Kong!
You might argue, and you would be right, that the cause of such weird ripples in existence is anything but philosophical; it is, instead, merely rhetorical — an hysterical impulse, chronic in our era, to inflate rhetoric beyond the confines of reality. But you would be wrong to argue that it isn’t important, and isn’t troubling.
Here is a private language, if there ever was one.
People who want to blame President Trump for legitimizing this impulse have some reason to do so. This month, he reached a rhetorical zenith with a series of tweets (August 23) about the trade war with China:
Our Country has lost, stupidly, Trillions of Dollars with China over many years. They have stolen our Intellectual Property at a rate of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year, & they want to continue. I won’t let that happen! We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far … better off without them. The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP.
I’m not an expert on trade, so I don’t know whether we have a level playing field with China. I do know that the way to lower tariffs on both sides is usually to raise or threaten to raise your own. I know that the Chinese appropriate other people’s patents without paying for them. (Whether patents are, on balance, a good idea is another matter.) But I’ve noticed that when people talk about trillions of dollars and vast amounts of money and year after year, for decades, and when they join such terms as made with such terms as stolen so as to shift discussion from the first term to the second, without defining either, they are generally talking through their hats. If you don’t believe me, listen to any speech by Bernie Sanders.
In the next particle of tweet, however, Trump sent the rhetorical escalator through the roof:
Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.
No one, probably not even Trump, believes that he has the power to order anyone to look for new business locations, even if he puts a hereby on the order. The pumped up rhetoric was useless as well as stupid, unless it was intended to wreck the home economy. Trump’s tirade sent the stock market down 623 points.
People who want to blame President Trump for legitimizing this impulse have some reason to do so.
The president’s mad identification with King Canute, who reputedly ordered the tides to halt, had good precedent. Let us return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Barack Obama was the nation’s inspirer in chief. Let us return specifically to June 3, 2008, when Obama celebrated the primary victory that ensured his nomination for the presidency. He told a cheering throng:
Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.
It’s hard to get more inflated than that, short of the millennium. Many people have noticed Obama’s pomposity about extending the life of our planet, but notice that he also proposed to extend our own lives. How else could he foresee that “generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children”?
But let’s look back to Trump. The day on which his rhetoric so dismayed the stock market was just a normal day for other people’s rhetorical attempts to destroy him. That was a day on which his former staffer Anthony Scaramucci likened him to murderous cult leader Jim Jones; Obama honcho David Axelrod tweeted that if Justice Ginsburg leaves the Supreme Court and the administration tries to replace her before the next election, which Trump would surely do, “it will tear this country apart”; and media activist Frederick Joseph observed the death of libertarian philanthropist David Koch by tweeting: “David Koch is gone. It’s a celebration. But imagine the turn up when orange satan is taken back to hell.” He added a video clip of basketball fans madly cheering.
It’s hard to get more inflated than that, short of the millennium.
It’s difficult to get more hateful, or more childish, than this, and a measure of the childishness is that the practitioners of that kind of abuse seem incapable of entertaining the obvious reflection that they themselves may be tearing the country apart, acting like cult demagogues, spitting like storybook Satans, and so forth.
While their volume increases, the scope of their invectives expands, as if they knew that superheated rhetoric quickly eats up its fuel, and more supplies need to be located. New targets must be found, and new ways to abuse them. And so they are. It’s not just Trump who’s fair game; it’s Trump’s supporters. Three years ago they were discovered to be deplorables; then it was noticed that they were abhorrent working-class white males (note how far the Left has moved from its authentic social-democratic roots), white women without college degrees (same comment), and of course racists. And not just racists but (invoking the language of the old Alabama Democratic Party) white supremacists.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much new fuel in that forest. Racism is hard to pin on anyone, even the most deserving objects, when you try to pin it on everyone; and people who want to think they’re smart have been deriding the working class as long as there’s been one. To vary my already mixed metaphors, this is like 18th-century tobacco farming, which involved planting the same crop over and over, until there was nothing left of the land. But people kept trying, and so does . . . Beto O’Rourke.
Practitioners of that kind of abuse seem incapable of entertaining the obvious reflection that they themselves may be tearing the country apart.
O’Rourke lately caused as much of a sensation as is possible for him to cause anymore by suggesting that he didn’t really want to say it (especially when he’s out cadging votes), but yeah, all the people who voted for Trump are racists. On August 11, CNN host Jake Tapper got him on the subject:
“Almost 63 million Americans voted for [Trump]. Do you think it is racist to vote for President Trump in 2020?”
There was a long pause from O’Rourke before he said, “I think it’s really hard.”
But actually, as Walter Williams, who is black, conservative, and funny, remarked, “Being a racist is easy today.” Formerly you had to say or do racist things. The responsibility was on you. Now you can just sit back and let people like Beto confer racism upon you, like an honorary degree.
Be that as it may, I’m going to miss Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke when he shuffles off the mortal coil of his presidential campaign and no longer appears on television, unless by accident, in the crowd watching a frisbee competition. He’s a dependable benchmark for the height of frenzy and the depth of illiteracy that is tolerated in today’s putatively serious discourse. Here’s an example. In another appearance before Jake Tapper (August 4), he affirmed that Trump is not only a “white nationalist” but an “open, avowed racist.” I realize that Beto may have trouble with the meaning of avowed, but I thought that open was not a difficult term. Just for frosting, O’Rourke said that Trump’s ideas, or words, or take your pick, “are reminiscent of something you might hear in the Third Reich.” He instanced Trump’s alleged conviction that people are “inherently defective or dangerous” “based on” several things, including “their sexual orientation.” Right. That’s the Donald Trump who appointed Rick Grenell ambassador to Germany. Grenell has been named, by that august authority, Wikipedia, “the highest ranking openly gay American official ever.”
Let’s move from Betoland to a higher (ahem!) intellectual plateau. On August 25, a professor from Duke University, one Allen Frances, joined the choir of CNN Trump denouncers and showed what happens when professors try to reason. Trump, he said, “needs to be contained, but he needs to be contained by attacking his policies, not his person” — a reasonable reflection, but somewhat odd when it comes immediately after: "Trump is as destructive a person in this century, as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were in the last century. He may be responsible for many more million deaths than they were.” Frances did have compunctions about calling Trump crazy, I think because he wanted to say something very funny and clever about him: "Lumping the mentally ill with Trump is a terrible insult to the mentally ill and they have enough problems." But that didn’t keep Frances from claiming that all the voters are nuts: "Calling Trump crazy hides the fact that we’re crazy, for having elected him and even crazier for allowing his crazy policies to persist."
I realize that Beto may have trouble with the meaning of "avowed," but I thought that "open" was not a difficult term.
Nota bene: This is one of those “we’s” that really mean “you.” You need algebra to get at these high professorial significations, but when you finally grok one of ‘em, wow! What a zinger!
Since Frances is a professor of psychiatry, one may be interested in seeing how he diagnoses mental illness. How can he tell whether you or I or the whole American electorate is “crazy”? It’s simpler than you might have thought. You just look at the policies that people endorse:
"It’s crazy for us to be destroying the climate our children will live in. It’s crazy to be giving tax cuts to the rich that will add trillions of dollars to the debt," Frances added. "It’s crazy to be destroying our democracy by claiming that the press and the courts are the enemy of the people."
I hate to think what he would say if somebody alleged that there may be something goofy about psychiatrists.
Of course, I could go on all day, culling flowers of anti-Trump invective. But even Sleepy Joe Biden, as Trump calls him, is not immune from over-the-top critiques. Every day, his enemies, both Left and Right, are out in the field, hunting for gaffes; and every day, they find them. It would be pleasant for the nation to be permitted to enjoy these things for what they are, the follies of an old fool. But too bad for us: low-decibel chuckling is now impermissible, barely conceivable; moral outrage must always be kicked into life. Thus, when Biden observed, on August 8, that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids," he was widely criticized, as if he himself were a racist. “Look,” he said. “I misspoke,” and that should have been the end of it. Naturally, it wasn’t. And note: when Biden intends to say something mean, it doesn’t just slip out. My favorite example is the charge he leveled against Republicans in a prepared speech on August 14, 2012, before a crowd that included lots of black people. Faking — badly faking — an African American accent, he said, “They gone put y’all back in chains!” Did I indict Trump and Obama for the rise in rhetorical fakery? There’s a lot of responsibility to be shared.
How can he tell whether you or I or the whole American electorate is “crazy”? It’s simpler than you might have thought.
How shall this stuff be contained? Two known correctives for over-stimulated rhetoric are (A) humor and (B) fact. When used, they work. One of this month’s rhetorical events was the ridicule that greeted the remarks of CNN’s Chris Cillizza about the purchase of Alaska (1867). Cillizza, a reliable source of hot air, was reacting to reports of President Trump’s bizarre desire to purchase Greenland. Jazzed by this new opportunity of blaring his opinions — “Donald Trump has a lot of wild ideas as president. Buying Greenland may be one of the most unorthodox. But it's also not one of his worst” (got that?) — Cillizza produced a column adorned with hasty, pointless, wiki-style recaps of history, such as:
One of the last times the United States bought land from a foreign country was in 1867, when Seward orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million. It didn't work out so well — and has gone down as 'Seward's Folly' in the history books.
There were outcries from readers, so CNN — not Cilizza, who had vanished from the scene — issued a revision of the article, annotated in this way:
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly state the history of US land purchases.
The new version says of the Alaska purchase:
It was heavily criticized at the time — and has gone down as “Seward’s Folly” in the history books.
One would like to know what “history book” pronounces this judgment, but never mind. The passage shows how dully conservative, as well as just plain daffy, the notions of “progressive” media can be. Oh horrors, to be joked about in children’s books! And oh horrors, to be heavily criticized at the time — along with medical hygiene, racial equality, women’s right to vote, and other follies.
Nevertheless, the rhetoric had been tempered — a little. Alaska was no longer an unspeakably hopeless case. An island of relative calm had appeared in the sea of verbal frenzy. We’ll see whether an archipelago emerges, and whether anyone is content to live on it.