For many years there has been an idea that everyone in the world exists in only about six degrees of separation— or fewer— from everyone else. This may be true.
I believe there are only six degrees of separation between me and the 17th-century person who brought my DNA to this continent. (In my family, generations seem to last a long time.)
I know there are three degrees of separation between me and Adolf Hitler. Ditto me and Franklin Roosevelt.
I don’t think you’re pining to learn more about my family history. But since I mentioned Hitler and Roosevelt, I assume you’d like to know whether my three degrees have enabled me to find out something interesting about them.
The artist in question wound up in Sweden, where he enjoyed his wealth and particularly enjoyed staging large parties that were free to turn into orgies.
First about Roosevelt. A brother of my friend Muriel Hall, friend and executrix of Isabel Paterson, the great libertarian author, was the priest of an Episcopal church in Virginia when Franklin Roosevelt came to worship there. At the time, Roosevelt’s physical handicap was understood by few people, even sophisticated members of an Episcopal parish across the river from Washington. Muriel’s story was that the congregation was admitted only after Roosevelt was seated, and that after the service it stayed in place to allow him to leave without interference— only to be astonished by his agonizingly slow progress up the aisle, struggling with the crippling effects of his poliomyelitis.
Now about Hitler. My connection with him is a German Marxist academic who told me, years ago, that he had met a man who had known Hitler before World War I, when they both lived in a home for down-and-outs in Vienna. This man was a painter, like Hitler, but unlike Hitler an ultimately successful one. He became wealthy by painting pictures that my Marxist friend described as “the kind of thing you can buy at a dime store.” This was a while ago, so I need to say that dime stores were early varieties of Target.
Let’s move along. The artist in question wound up in Sweden, where he enjoyed his wealth and particularly enjoyed staging large parties that were free to turn into orgies. Visiting one night, my friend chatted with him while “stepping among the Swedish bodies spread out on the floor.” The man who knew Hitler had this comment: “Hitler? I knew him. His political ideas— they did not work out. But as an artist, he had real potential.”
“My love is a red, red rose”: picture a rose; picture my love; how many steps do you need to get from one to the other?
Good stories, and I’m sure they’re true. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with the world of words, which is the subject of this column. Here’s what I want to do with “degrees of separation.”
Every time you or I make a verbal reference to something, there is a degree of separation between that something and the words we use. “My love is a red, red rose”: picture a rose; picture my love; how many steps do you need to get from one to the other? Because most people know what a rose is, I think there’s only one degree of separation. Maybe two, if recognition of something as a metaphor counts as a conceptual step.
It’s a pretty easy journey from “love” to “rose.” But in any situation, it’s the business of a good writer or speaker to provide relationships between X and Y that are distant enough to be interesting, charming, unexpected, unusual, dramatic, picturesque, or provocative, while close enough to be understood without perplexity. The business of a bad writer or speaker is to keep you guessing— to put so many stones in the stream, and to make them so distant and obscure, that you have an unduly challenging time hopping across it. Either that, or to make you jump onto some rock that you can’t get off of.
The shape of one’s neck has nothing to do with one’s political worth, and everybody knows that.
I must concede— and this is a significant concession— that chumminess between words and things isn’t always desirable. No religion would get very far if its holy book said, “You want to know who God is? No worries— he’s exactly like this.” Outside the demanding precincts of poetry and theology, however, there are vast territories that are natural habitats for plain speech. And most people seem to like plain speech. That’s one reason why so many of them like President Trump. They realize that half the things he says are false, but they knew that about President Obama, too. At least they don’t have to do a genealogical trace to find out where Trump’s meanings are coming from.
At his recent rally in Grand Rapids, Trump called a certain congressman with whom dislike is mutual “pencil-neck Adam Schiff.” It’s a low, ugly insult, and everybody knows it. The shape of one’s neck has nothing to do with one’s political worth, and everybody knows that too. Everybody also knows that Adam Schiff isn’t important to anyone except Adam Schiff. But the remark immediately caught fire. Why? I suspect it’s because Schiff has spent the past two years telling the world that Donald Trump is a traitor, or something like a traitor, and that he (Schiff) has evidence, or something just as good as evidence, that convinces him, and will convince you too, once you get a chance to see it, or hear it, or learn more about it from Adam Schiff. . . . You see the problem. There are so many steps between what Schiff says and what you’re supposed to make of it that you’d have to take out your . . . pencil . . . . and diagram it all. But you hear Trump say “pencil-neck Adam Schiff,” and with one merry jump, like the 12-year-old you used to be, and probably still are, inside, you understand him perfectly, and agree.
As for “interpretation,” that’s what you’re trying to do, if Royce would only let you.
Let me say more about the depraved art of keeping people from understanding you. If you visit the campus of UCLA you will find, carved over one of the portals of Royce Hall, a quotation from its namesake, alleged philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916): “The world is a progressively realized community of interpretation.” This is not like other remarks by alleged philosophers, such as Albert Einstein, who emitted the famous saying, “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” No difficulty with that idea. It isn’t true, but it’s perfectly clear. The oracles of Royce are not like that. If you’re trying to follow them, you’re in for something worse than a pinball’s trip from the top of the machine to the bottom. You bounce off the concept of “progress,” only to get smacked by the question of “what is ‘realized’ supposed to mean?”; then, before you know it, you’re slapped down by the lever of “community.” As for “interpretation,” that’s what you’re trying to do, if Royce would only let you.
The current political equivalent of dear old Josiah Royce is John Owen Brennan, former head of the CIA, former United States homeland security advisor, former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center— in short, one of the nation’s leading secret policemen. In this role, he was a major engineer of the attempt to remove President Trump from office by means of preposterous accusations about Trump’s supposed collusion with the Russian government. Brennan made a fourth career for himself as denouncer of Trump, tweeting such things as this in response to Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018:
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???
Do you remember the non-event that was Helsinki? No? Then you’ll have quite a few steps to take before you’re able to connect Brennan’s idea of a treasonous performance with anything in the real and historical world. Yet some people assumed that, since Brennan had been a top cop and everything, he must have had something definite in mind; they just couldn’t quite get to it, that’s all.
Then came the Mueller report, or its summary, and it was clear that whatever Brennan had in his mind probably didn’t exist in the outside world, and never had existed. On March 25 he was asked about this, and he said, in words that should be engraved above some kind of door, maybe the door to the latrine at CIA headquarters, or to the New York Times: “I don’t know if I received bad information, but I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.”
Let’s try to figure this out, and consider how many steps we must take to do it.
So Brennan was in search of bad information? I don’t think he means to say that. But what does he mean to say?
First there’s the problem of whether Brennan received what he calls bad information or not. “Two roads,” says the poem by Robert Frost, “diverged in a wood.” Either Brennan’s information was bad or it wasn’t. Either we can follow the road of bad information and try to understand what that was and how it misled him so badly, or we can follow the road of good information and try to understand how that could possibly have misled him. But we can’t tell which road to take. Brennan— who is so positive about everything else— says that he doesn’t know; so how should we? And wait a minute: is bad information actually information at all? I’m not sure. Yet Brennan’s meaning seems to hinge on the idea that information may be bad or good.
At this point, however, Brennan appears to imagine that we are rushing to his meaning with heedless speed. He holds up his hand and halts us: “But I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.”
There’s a lot to ponder in that sentence. Literally he is saying that he may have suspected (though he isn’t sure; he just thinks he suspected) that there was more information— bad or good— than actually existed. Again we see the problem of the two roads. It’s easy to understand that he might have suspected there was more good information than there was, but it’s also possible that he suspected there was more bad information than there was. So Brennan was in search of bad information? I don’t think he means to say that. But what does he mean to say?
If Brennan wanted to bring us closer to his meaning, he had every means of clarifying all these things. He speaks English, doesn’t he?
I think he means to say, “So what? Who cares?” Yet I doubt that this is the meaning on which he wants his audience to land. It’s just that with all those steps we have to take . . . . We can land almost anywhere. The degrees of separation are uncountable.
Brennan, of course, is far from the only public figure to present this difficulty, or the only one to present it on purpose. After all, if he wanted to bring us closer to his meaning, he had every means of clarifying all these things. He speaks English, doesn’t he? Well, sort of. But now let’s consider something even more challenging.
There are places along the Mississippi River where, at certain seasons of certain years, one can cross by jumping from stone to stone. This is not true of the Pacific Ocean, at any time of any year. Yet politicians and bureaucrats are often seen attempting such feats. Consider Nancy Pelosi, who keeps trying to cross that great ocean of ideas, the Bible, with nothing but some fragments of concepts and pebbles of conjecture.
It’s hard to see how someone who doggedly searches the Scriptures wouldn’t eventually realize that the passage reflects neither the verbal nor the intellectual style of any book in the Bible.
For a long time, Pelosi has been looking in Scripture for something— anything— that could mandate her political program. Usually she comes up with nothing more than a claim that the golden rule constrains her to insist on enormous expenditures of tax money for her favorite projects. But sometimes she just makes the whole thing up. There’s a “biblical” adage that she’s been reciting for many years. Eleven years ago she was told that it wasn’t in the Bible, but she’s still using it.
Now consider the way she packaged it in a speech to “Christian educators” in January:
“I can’t find it in the Bible but I quote it all the time, and I keep reading and reading the Bible. I know it is there someplace," Pelosi told the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities conference last Wednesday. “It’s supposed to be in Isaiah, but I heard a bishop say to minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.”
“It’s in there somewhere in some words or another, but certainly the spirit of it is there,” Pelosi said. “And that we all have a responsibility to act upon our beliefs and the dignity and worth of every person.”
Curiously, Mrs. Pelosi, who knows everything about running the country, doesn’t know that there are such things as Bible concordances, which would in seconds relieve her of all anxieties about where that passage is located. Again, the answer is: not in the Bible. It’s hard to see how someone who doggedly searches the Scriptures wouldn’t eventually realize that the passage reflects neither the verbal nor the intellectual style of any book in the Bible, as rendered by any translation. Nevertheless, she goes skipping into the ocean on the stepping stones of:
- I know it’s there
- A bishop (which bishop, pray?) said it
- It’s in some words or [an]other
- It’s there in spirit
- I can’t find it
- So I quote it
If you had trouble following Finnegans Wake, try following Nancy Pelosi.
But maybe the opposite approach is better. Maybe people should invite their readers or listeners to find their own stepping stones of meaning, and see where they end up. My example here has to do with Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., better known as “Joe” Biden, and the current accusations that he has been too handsy with women. I need to state at once that there are few living persons for whom I have more contempt than Biden. He’s a liar and a fool and a credibly accused corruptionist, but one of the worst things that can be said of him is that, before becoming vice president— a good job for someone with no visible talents— he had served six terms as US senator. Further, I don’t think it’s right to sneak up behind someone and snuggle and snuffle her hair, or whatever he’s accused of doing.
On the other hand, I don’t think this peculiar conduct is anything worthy of national concern, or of plaints of victimhood, particularly when the alleged victims of his predatory actions waited years to publicize their pain and anger— waiting, it seems, until there was a political reason to show their courage as survivors. The attacks on Biden commenced when Lucy Flores, a minor-league “progressive” politician, anticipated the announcement of his (ludicrous) candidacy for president by accusing him of having done something with her hair, back in 2014.
There are few living persons for whom I have more contempt than Joe Biden.
Biden made a number of predictable replies; then he went to a union convention and made a joke about asking permission to hug one of the participants. At this, outrage swept the nation, and Ms. Flores issued a victorious tweet:
It’s clear @JoeBiden hasn’t reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable. To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have.
Reading this, one’s first reaction is bound to be, “You’re surprised? When did @JoeBiden ever reflect on anything?” But that’s not her point, nor is that the way in which such language works. It’s meant to give you a verbal rope and tell you to go hang yourself, intellectually.
Unsolicited touching can mean anything from smacking you on the face to surprising you with the unexpected embrace that first introduced you to romance. And when you reflect for a moment, you can see that most touching is and has to be unsolicited. It’s not something that, under the best of circumstances, people are ordinarily asked to do. In fact, most touching in this world is merely accidental.
Our author provides no bridge between unsolicited and inappropriate or, in plain terms, wrong. That’s something you’re supposed to build yourself, however you want to do it. If you want to spread all the horror of inappropriate onto unsolicited, well, go ahead. But what does inappropriate mean? It could mean what Donald Trump said on the Billy Bush tape. It could mean something you said about Baptists when you were drunk at a party. It could mean those personal questions that old Aunt Rosa asks when she meets your friends. Because our author is so upset and so indignant, many people will assume that the inappropriate behavior was something terminally gross and disgusting. Yet note: the author never said that; she left it to you to infer.
"Unsolicited touching" can mean anything from smacking you on the face to surprising you with the unexpected embrace that first introduced you to romance.
The second sentence is the masterpiece. Never mind the patent falsehood of “women everywhere.” Consider the conversation. Which conversation? Can you guess? Of course you can. You can fill in the missing step and conclude that the author means her conversation, the conversation she’s having right now. No, she never said that; she left it up to you, convinced that you would find the appropriate interpretation.
And what is that conversation about? It’s about the issue of consent. But again, the operative term is wholly undefined. It could mean the implicit, Lockean consent by which all societies operate. It could mean the explicit consent that is properly required to make a will, enact a law, conclude a contract, or engage in sex. This too is of fundamental importance in a decent society, and many readers will think that this is what is meant in so serious a tweet.
But the reflective reader will see that these meanings cannot be the right ones. Biden is not accused of having engaged in sex without his partner’s consent. Nor do “progressive” politicians consider consent a matter of much significance when it comes to the enforcement of their political program, the whole of which depends on doing things to people without the consent of anyone except politicians like Ms. Flores. Yet if you, as a reflective reader, notice these things, you are not the intended audience. The intended audience will make tracks directly to the unexpressed concept of sex, equating whatever stupid old Joe may have done with all the nonconsensual erotic and otherwise evil things he could possibly be imagined to have done. Indeed, there will be no “tracks”; there will be only a single jump.
Which conversation? Can you guess? Of course you can.
You can say pretty much the same thing about virtually the entire politically correct vocabulary, which consists of words thrown in front of you so you can jump on them with whatever personal, presumably fanatical, meanings you happen to be carrying with you. It’s an attempt to annul all restraining and reflective degrees of separation between words and emotions.
From emotions thus produced I, for one, would like some separation, although the alternative extreme— that of many weird and murky degrees of conceptual distance— is equally unattractive. Today’s political discourse reminds me of one of those parties where most of the guests appear to be friends of a former coworker’s sister-in-law by her first marriage, or something else that’s too tiresome to figure out, and the rest are people you know very well, because they keep yelling in your face. I just hope there’s another party, and that someone will invite me there.