When I was a kid, a few million years ago, my parents subscribed to the Sunday edition of the Detroit Times (now defunct). The part of the paper that interested me was the eight pages of color cartoons, gathered in a section called “Puck: The Comic Weekly.” It was headed by a tiny figure of Puck and a quotation from one of his remarks in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “What fools these mortals be!”
The message appealed to me almost as much as the beautifully drawn, intricately plotted, glacially moving episodes of Prince Valiant. I was too young to read Shakespeare, but I was starting to get the point: mortal life is one hell of a crazy thing.
You know you live in a crazy world when its reputedly big people do things for no reason at all — or, to put this in a more pedantically accurate way, do things that no one asked them to do, things that no one wants them to do, things that can accomplish nothing except to get them into trouble. I need only mention Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
It’s crazy for someone who wants to go down in history as an ultra-discreet manager of America’s super-sleuths to go around blurting things out with no show of evidence.
A crazy world, however, is not just a world of elephantine insanity. It’s a world in which every little opportunity for craziness is promptly identified and eagerly exploited. It’s a world of micro-craziness.
On November 12, John Brennan, who thank God is a former head of the CIA, opined to CNN that President Trump “for whatever reason is either intimidated by Mr. Putin, afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations.” He said that Trump sends “a very disturbing signal to our allies and partners who are concerned about Russian interference in their democratic processes as well.”
There was a reason for Brennan to say such things: he wants to continue to be seen on TV. But it’s crazy for someone who wants to go down in history as an ultra-discreet manager of America’s super-sleuths to go around blurting things out with no show of evidence. This man wants to be known as a deep thinker (something that, by the way, his CIA X-ray vision should have told him was not what deep thinkers ever want, or reveal that they want). So he pontificated about disturbing signals and democratic processes — which, for no reason except pomposity, he pronounces “processEEs.” Try as I may, I can’t visualize what he’s talking about. What processEEs?
I tried picturing Angela Merkel (a person whom I do not delight to picture, but I’ll rise to the call of duty) phoning Emmanuel Macron (ditto) to say:
“Whaddup, Manny. Listen, I’m very disturbed this afternoon.”
“I’ve received a disturbing signal from President Trump.”
“Oh, he’s an idiot. So what?”
“No, I am very disturbed. I am concerned about Russian interference in the democratic processes of our countries. I fear that Trump is either intimidated by Mr. Putin or afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations.”
“Investigations into the influence of Russia on the November 2016 election in the United States.”
“Well, if you put it that way, I am concerned as well.”
Try as I may, however, I can’t visualize any real person saying anything to the announcement of such concerns except, “What the hell are you talking about?” And try as I may, I can’t keep myself from believing that the attempt to visualize what a statement means, to get a clear and sensible image out of it, is a test of its validity as an act of communication.
If you want another example of words that fail the test, I have one ready, this time from the Right side of the political spectrum. It’s in an article in PJ Media excoriating Senator Tim (Smilin’ Jack) Kaine for his refusal to return money donated to him by disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. I confess that I’m amused by Kaine’s idea that he can’t give the money back, because (dramatic pause) he’s already spent it! Yeah, and so what? But I also confess that I am skeptical about the idea that money derived from immoral sources has to be returned to the sources themselves, thus rewarding them for their immorality, or else handed off to some charity, so that its holiness will miraculously remove the moral contagion.
America’s tendency, throughout its history, has been to designate certain offenders as people about whom one can say anything, anything at all, and expect one’s listeners to nod in agreement.
Yet passing beyond all that, it’s hard to make sense of PJM’s critique of Senator Kaine: “He's not prepared to give Weinstein's blood-money back or try to donate it. He just got to profit off of a sexual assaulter.” Again the question: “What are you talking about?” I know some of the things that Weinstein is supposed to have done, and they are all bad things, but sexual assault has now been given so many meanings, from bothering people to raping them, that the phrase, seen by itself, no longer has meaning. It evokes no picture. We are also, it is true, offered the more pungent image of blood-money, but this image, though clear, is false. Weinstein didn’t make money from assaulting people; he lost it that way, by the bushel. Also, the man is an ape, but he is not a murderous ape — and what else could “blood-money” mean?
America’s tendency, throughout its history, has been to designate certain offenders as people about whom one can say anything, anything at all, and expect one’s listeners to nod in agreement. This is a bad tendency, and it makes no difference whether the offenses are real or whether they are such old-time, say-anything-you-want-against-it offenses as witchcraft, homosexuality, and questioning whether the Great War was a good idea. Mobspeak is mobspeak, no matter what the subject is; and that’s what we’re hearing with regard to Weinstein and his ilk.
Morally excited people often make their point so emphatically that all one can see in their statements is a preposterous image of themselves. Here’s something along that line. It’s a statement by Mika Brzezinski, reputed star of cable TV, about the Weinstein affair. (Cries of “Enough already! Find another topic!” But to proceed . . . ) Brzezinski tweeted: “I have a three-book deal with Weinstein Books. . . . I can’t go forward with those books unless Harvey resigns.” She can’t? Picture a woman so stunned by the revelation of Weinstein’s flaws that she can no longer make her mouse run about her screen. You can’t picture that; you start laughing too hard. But the really difficult thing to visualize is someone, even Harvey Weinstein, patron of the arts, thinking hard and long and then declaring, “What this world needs is not one book by Mika Brzezinski, but three!” Evidently Ms. B has no trouble visualizing that; she is certain that not going forward with those books is a threat that will make the world tremble. The world, however, may not have such a daring imagination.
Mobspeak is mobspeak, no matter what the subject is.
The rule is: If you can’t visualize it, don’t write it; and even if you can visualize it, ask yourself what, if anything, your readers will see. It isn’t enough to gesture toward some possible meaning.
For an exhibit of such a gesture, I turn to the venerable British Broadcasting Corporation. There used to be an idea that the BBC was a standard of good, though precious, English. If you still have that idea, forget it. Consider a current sample of high-class British lingo: subject, Africa; date, November 18. Reporting on the political liquidation of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe and his spouse, the BBC referred to “Grace Mugabe, who is four decades younger than him.” Oh, that much younger than him is?
I’m not mentioning this report just to be unkind about its grammar (although that’s fun). My real concern is a passage that illustrates how easy it is to destroy your meaning if you don’t try to visualize it. According to the BBC,
Our correspondent says the situation may appear to be getting out of [the Zimbabwean ruling party’s] control and there could be a broad push to introduce a transitional government that includes the opposition.
OK, I’m picturing a person who says something. So far, so good. He or she says that there is a situation. All right; “situation” is pretty abstract, but I know it means political events in Zimbabwe — mobs in the streets, that sort of thing. I have some kind of picture in my mind. Now, this situation appears to be out of control. . . . But no, that’s not quite right. It may appear to be getting out of control. . . . Picture that. Go ahead. Try.
Sometimes we can’t blame writers and speakers. Sometimes the audience is at fault.
The depressing thing is that people are actually getting paid to write stuff like this. I suppose someone also got paid to write a news item for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the appointment of a new president at Morehouse College. He is David A. Thomas, and he
said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution his goals include increasing enrollment from its current 2,200 students to 2,500 students, providing more scholarships, finding opportunities for every student to study abroad, supporting faculty research and engaging in issues that improve outcomes for African-American men, noting Morehouse “is a place where we can offer solutions to those issues.”
I’m not sure what Mr. Thomas provided as a referent for “those issues,” so I’m not sure whether he thinks that finding opportunities for students, supporting research, and increasing enrollments are things that need to be solved. But by the time his interview was written up by the AJC, he was proposing to offer solutions even to issues that improve outcomes. And if you think this is hard to visualize, first try to visualize engaging in issues. If “issues” means “problems,” as it usually does these days, I hope that the new college president doesn’t engage himself too deeply. But even if it just means “matters,” how do you picture that? And how do matters “improve outcomes”? And if they do that, why, again, should Mr. Thomas solve them?
In statements of this kind, a resistance to being visualized is considered an asset.
No one can visualize any of this; it’s all just words, with no pictures attached. But sometimes we can’t blame writers and speakers for engaging in issues that don’t improve outcomes. Sometimes the audience is at fault.
Denise Young Smith, Apple’s (former) Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity, found this out when she told a conference of diversity mavens that
there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.
The words are clear and self-evidently true. Yet they were understood as meaning, among many other things, “that there really is no need to look beyond any sort of seeming homogeneity within Silicon Valley’s tech workforce (which is mostly white and overwhelmingly male).” Smith, who is African American, was forced to apologize for her “choice of words” and then to step down from her job — a position she had held for only six months, in a company at which she had worked for 20 years. Apple has proclaimed that 50% of its “new hires are from historically underrepresented groups in tech.” I’m trying to visualize what that means, and unfortunately I can’t, except that it does not include Ms. Smith. I assume that in statements of this kind a resistance to being visualized is considered an asset.