Say that Again? No, Don’t

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On July 19, President Biden accepted the counterintuitive task of arguing that if the government spends more than four trillion dollars of borrowed money, the effect will be a reduction of inflation. As usual, his remarks cannot be summarized; they can only be read. As follows:

“If your primary concern right now is inflation, you should be even more enthusiastic about this plan,” Biden said in remarks from the White House State Dining Room. “These steps will enhance our productivity, raising wages without raising prices, and won’t increase inflation. It will take the pressure off of inflation.”

 

“If we make prudent, multi-year investments in better roads, bridges, transit systems and high-speed internet and a modern resilient electric grid, here’s what will happen: It breaks up the bottlenecks in our economy; goods get to consumers more rapidly and less expensively; small businesses create and innovate much more seamlessly,” Biden argued Monday.

 

“New businesses will get in the game, competing against those giant corporations for free to ramp up prices because they haven’t had any real competition.”

That last paragraph is incomprehensible, but the rest might make a kind of sense if goods that small businesses wanted to sell were waiting to cross single-lane bridges, or were mired in the mud of six-lane highways, or went untraded because the internet wasn’t “high-speed” enough. None of that is true, however.

If this is senility, then senility is just the reductio ad absurdum of who Biden has always been.

 

But speaking of infrastructure: imagine a railway yard in which every car of every train was shunted onto the same track and expected, somehow, to merge. That’s what we’re seeing in Biden’s public remarks.

Unfortunately, we’re also seeing what happens when there’s a drastic contraction in someone’s word- and concept-hoard. Try to follow Biden in his bizarre “Town Hall” (by the way, whose town?) performance on July 21:

And I’ll say one last thing: You’re going to — I’ve had a lot of experience internationally and — I mean, not good or bad, just I have — I chaired the Foreign Relations Committee, I’ve been deeply involved.

 

I did national security for our last — the administration with Barack. But folks, the rest of the world’s wondering about us. Those of you who travel abroad, it’s not a joke. Not a joke.

 

Ask — you know, when I went to this G7, all the major democracies. I walked in and go, “America’s back.” I’m serious, heads of state. I give you my word as a Biden. They said, “Are you really back?”

Good question!

There are things this speaker fears, and when he sees them coming, he tries to avoid them. Such things as being called a braggart (which he is); hence “I mean, not good or bad, just I have” — I have so! Such things as legitimizing the Trump regime as an administration; hence “our last — the administration with Barack.”

Then there are things he loves and fondles and feels will protect him. His supposed friendship with “Barack.” High-sounding government crap: “this G7, all the major democracies.” The word “democracy.” The phrase “heads of state” (which, someone should have told him, only two of the G7 attendees were). Folksy, Biden-the-Coal-Miner lingo: “I go, ‘America’s back’”; “I did national security”; “but folks.” The picture of himself as a man, a real man: “I went . . . I walked in,” ready to teach those birds a lesson (compare the false memory he discovered on July 28: “I used to drive an 18-wheeler, man”). Add to these the most ridiculous of all expressions, “my word as a Biden” — which is like somebody saying “my word as a Soprano.”

Imagine a railway yard in which every car of every train was shunted onto the same track and expected, somehow, to merge. That’s what we’re seeing in Biden’s public remarks.

 

If this is senility, then senility is just the reductio ad absurdum of who Biden has always been; and who Biden has always been is the reductio of what all American politics has become. His senile remarks can scarcely be distinguished from the ordinary discourse of the political class.

An instance: Biden press secretary Psaki’s denial (July 20) that the administration is doing what she had spent several prior days bragging about its doing, which was mobilizing social media companies to ban communications the administration doesn’t like (otherwise known as misinformation).

We’ve not asked Facebook to block any individual posts. The way this works is that there are trends that are out there on social media platforms. You’re aware of them. We’re aware of them. Anyone in the public can be aware of them. . . . There’s also data that we look at that many media platforms like many of you also look at data in terms of trends. You report on it, which is to be expected, given the number of people who get their information from social media. It’s up to social media platforms to determine what their application is of their own rules and regulations. So we’ve just certainly raised where we have concerns about information that’s inaccurate that is traveling out there in whatever platform it’s traveling on.

Again, I’m sorry to quote such babble at such length, but it’s necessary for you to get a fair impression of the press secretary’s eloquence. But are you still awake? Maybe not. Quite possibly, that is her purpose — to put you to sleep. A good way of doing it would be to spout random syllables.

Or maybe she’s sincere. Maybe she just wants to make one thing clear, as her boss is always, fecklessly, trying to do. Another person like that is Minnesota’s governor, Tim Walz. On July 19, he demanded that a state representative immediately vacate his position, in light of certain accusations of alleged bad conduct unearthed from his past:

We all make transgressions in our lives [Walz said], but I just want to be clear, the information over the weekend involving multiple accusations, cases of domestic violence in front of children just makes it to where I cannot believe that the representative can continue to serve us well.

Whenever you wake up, Walz will still be talking.

Such attempts at clarity are also to be seen on the Right side of the spectrum. Here’s a headline from the conservative site Lucianne.com (June 21):

COVID Vaccine Advocate Posts Proof Of Her 13-Year-Old Nephew Vaccination Who Died Three Days Later From Heart Failure — He Had No Known Health Problems

It’s really too bad the vaccination died.

Quite possibly, that is her purpose — to put you to sleep. A good way of doing it would be to spout random syllables.

 

Here’s a flourish of clarity from that venerable expositor of all things proper, National Review. It’s in an article (July 1) attributed to The Editors, and I delight to imagine them there at NR HQ, convened in august conference to craft their finest prose. The Editors write in praise of a couple of Supreme Court decisions, both of which, they claim “will advance the progress of the law toward a vibrant space for democracy.” So, if the law progresses far enough (and can’t you just see it, walking along with a little smile on its face?), it will arrive at a space that vibrates! And that will be the best space for democracy — until, perhaps, the law decides to leave that particular motel and ease on down the road to some other space. Yes, picture it if you can.

The Editors’ grasp of English syntax is well illustrated by later passages, such as this one:

The Court’s renewed focus on the language of the law passed by Congress, and its guidance in how to apply it in practice, is welcome. The doors of the federal courthouse should always remain open to protect all Americans — and black Americans in particular, given the nation’s painful history — from laws that result in real discrimination in who is able to vote.

If you want examples of the decline and fall of pompous sentences, notice that feeble “is welcome,” shuffling in at the close, so baffled at how it got there that it forgets it’s supposed to be “are welcome.” And you have to feel sorry for that second sentence, which gets so tired by the end that it can’t find the right word to follow “discrimination.” Oh hell! But at this point, any preposition will do. Why not go back to “in”? If it can follow “guidance,” it can follow “discrimination,” right?

Sentence fatigue may also be the problem — well, one of the problems — with the orations of the celebrated Dr. Fauci. He too has trouble with the ends of sentences. On June 4 he poured these words into Rachel Maddow’s capacious ears:

What’s happened in the middle of all of that, I’ve become the object of extraordinary, I believe, completely inappropriate, distorted, misleading and misrepresented attacks.

Yes, those attacks have indeed been misrepresented — by Fauci himself.

Many perils beset the struggling politician. He can try to confuse the issue and end up making it perfectly clear that he is a jackass. That’s what Fauci does all the time. Or he can try to be perfectly clear, and in so doing manage to demonstrate how much of a jackass he is. That’s also what Fauci does. He makes clear statements that when later reviewed turn out to be nutty. Remember the idea of wearing two masks? The idea that we will never shake hands again? The idea that nothing that went on in the lab he funded in China could possibly have anything to do with the production of a dangerous virus? Or, to go back a little earlier, the idea that AIDS can be transmitted casually, thereby imperiling even the most Platonic segments of the populace?

Oh hell! At this point, any preposition will do.

 

OK, he’s a quack. Here’s another kind of quack — the mayor of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Near Ft. Lauderdale there was a gay pride parade, and a gay man, prominent in a local gay organization, and participating in the parade, accidentally drove his car where it shouldn’t have gone, and killed somebody. Hizzoner had no time to pity either person, or obtain the facts, either. He immediately morphed into Fury in the Alice story:

“I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,” said cunning old Fury.
“I’ll try the whole cause, and condemn you to death.”

To quote the news story,

“This is a terrorist attack against the LGBT community,” [Mayor Dean] Trantalis told Local 10 News on Saturday. “This is exactly what it is. Hardly an accident. It was deliberate, it was premeditated, and it was targeted against a specific person. Luckily they missed that person, but unfortunately, they hit two other people.”

Words of comfort and hope!

Afterwards, the mayor tried to smother his Salem-like outbreak in the usual meaningless syllables:

“Last evening, at the start of what was to be a celebration of pride for the LGBT community and commemoration of our hard-won victories for equality, our community faced the worst of tragedies. The grief of our LGBT community — and greater Fort Lauderdale as a whole — is palpable,” Trantalis said. “I was an eyewitness to the horrifying events. It terrorized me and all around me. I reported what I saw to law enforcement and had strong concerns about what transpired — concerns for the safety of my community. I feared it could be intentional based on what I saw from mere feet away.”

 

“Law enforcement took what appeared obvious to me and others nearby and investigated further — as is their job. As the facts continue to be pieced together, a picture is emerging of an accident in which a truck careened out of control,” he continued.

That’s not the only thing that was out of control.

Here is a monument to the American language in the year 2021. A public official responds to a human calamity with immediate, violent, political accusations. When they turn out to be false, he urges his hysterical self-absorption as a defense. He also lies, asserting that he “feared it could be intentional.” He declared, categorically, unequivocally, and repeatedly, that it was intentional; and he obviously hated to give up his claim to what he thought he “saw from mere feet away” — so hard is it to surrender one’s position at the center of the moral universe, even if that means wanting to believe that an accident was really a crime. And do you notice what’s missing in all that smarm? Any concern about leaders who inspire panic and hatred, any regret about having done so.

Yes, the mayor’s statement makes a lot of things quite clear.

He obviously hated to give up his claim to what he thought he “saw from mere feet away” — so hard is it to surrender one’s position at the center of the moral universe.

 

A classic instance of weird and repellent clarity appeared in April, when NPR reported on a police shooting in Columbus, Ohio, and appended a note:

This is a developing story. Some facts reported by the media may later turn out to be wrong. We will focus on reports from police officials and other authorities, credible news outlets and reporters who are at the scene, and we will update as the situation develops.

This is worlds away from the mob mentality of Ft. Lauderdale, but it is worthy of note. Here is a news writer — or perhaps, as with The Editors of National Review, several news writers — impressed by the idea that facts may later turn out to be wrong. The arbiters are cops, “other authorities” (very reassuring!), and the same kind of credible news outlets that may, and doubtless are, impressed by the new metaphysical notion of facts. Ordinarily, I would object to outlets as a low image for the sources of public information. But these days, it fits.

3 Comments

  1. I might be in a minority of one, but I would like to impose a simple rule: make the writer or speaker diagram his sentence. If he cannot, make him break his sentence down into smaller pieces that he can diagram. This would at least be on the road to clarity.

  2. Michael F.S.W. Morrison

    As usual, Stephen Cox’s syllables have meaning, each and every one of them.
    Was it Dr. Cox who, somewhere, compared Biden’s ramblings to Mr. Thomson’s, the “head of the state” in “Atlas Shrugged”?
    We’ll spend trillions more and end inflation sure sounds like “we’ll give more benefits and we’ll cut taxes,” as uttered by that fictional politician.

  3. Scott Robinson

    Dear Stephen,

    Good description of political talk as being like the Tower of Babble, a vibrant tower caused by the endless babble. Also, I see my error in translating the adjective vibrant into “positive, dynamic”. The dynamic seems accurate, but the positive isn’t. Of course dynamic has that nonliteral positive implication that it is going somewhere which isn’t accurate. Vibrating is just shaking in place wasting energy like babble is a waste of talking.

    Best Wishes,
    Scott

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