Two minutes after President Obama gave his political crony Ron Klain the job of Ebola Czar, I got a text message from a friend. He’s a political scientist, so I was expecting him to complain about Klain’s being nothing but a Democratic Party hack, but he didn’t. His comment took an historical turn. What he said was, “If trends continue, America will have more czars than Russia had in its whole history.”
I saw that as a protest, not against the Russian monarchy, but against the current assumption that words prove their worth, not in use, but in overuse. To my friend, a word is valuable because it’s both appropriate and fresh. To many other people, it’s valuable because it’s capable of being used over and over again, in any possible circumstance.
There’s nothing wrong, in itself, about the use of “czar” to mean something like “an official appointed to exercise full power over a designated matter.” Czar is an admirably brief, concrete, imagistically evocative word to express that meaning. But one can be driven to suicide by other people’s overuse of even the finest words. No one wants to hear “I love you” every minute of every day, and certainly no one wants to contemplate an endless sequence of organization charts in which every position is labeled “Czar.”
We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: it would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.
Consider: the United States now has two czars in the same realm. The first was Dr. Nicole Lurie, whose existence no one remembered until the president started being urged to appoint an emergency preparedness czar. Then we learned that we already had one, and it was Dr. Lurie, who is Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response for the Department of Health and Human Services. But that made no difference; another monarch was added to America’s ever-growing College of Czars.
In 1908, when Ferdinand I, Prince Regnant of Bulgaria, proclaimed himself Czar of Bulgaria, his action excited much unfavorable comment from other monarchs. There already was a Czar of Russia, and the general opinion was that one was enough. Contemporary Americans are clearly without that kind of taste and discrimination. We want a czar in every pot. We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: they are very hard to get rid of. Even if they’ve finished their job and wiped out Ebola or baseball or whatever else it is they’re supposed to handle, they or their bureaucratic progeny remain in office. It would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.
There’s another term that has been spread by the nation’s romance with Ebola — the old but increasingly dangerous abundance of caution. How long those six syllables had, until recently, been incubating deep in our linguistic organs, only the zombies know, but now, suddenly, the contagion is everywhere. Whenever a government official delays some urgent job, it’s out of an abundance of caution. Whenever an American citizen is prevented from exercising his rights, it’s because an abundance of caution led the FDA to deny him a drug, or led the gun suppressors to deny him a permit, or led the cops to arrest him for reminding them of the law, or led the high school principal to tell him not to wear a flag-print t-shirt, thereby offending non-Americans. Once it gets going, abundance of caution can do a lot of damage.
State-friendly terms such as czar, abundance of caution, and of course national crisis have been big winners in this, the Ebola Period of our history. Meanwhile, phrases dear to the hearts of (certain) libertarians have suffered badly — indeed, have virtually disappeared from public use: open borders, freedom to immigrate, right to immigrate, and the like. I confess that such terms have never been favorites of mine. To the disgust of (certain) other libertarians, I have argued at length against the concepts they express (Liberty, October 2006). Those terms will have a difficult time regaining the spotlight now occupied by domestic terrorists, the terrorists’ wacko foreign exemplars, and the Ebola virus. It’s hard to see how a radical immigrationistwould answer the question, “Do you mean that Thomas Eric Duncan had a right to enter America and spread a deadly disease?”, or the obviously succeeding questions, “So you’re saying that the right to immigrate isn’t universal, after all? So why do you think it’s a right?” We’ll see what the friends of open borders do to revive their favorite words. I’m sure they’ll think of something.
Where would we be without "adults in the room" and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis?
While they’re thinking, we await in horror the coming election. The political results may be bad or good — more or less crippling to our actual rights — but the linguistic phenomena are already gruesome. A friend recently asked whether American political commentary could do without stupid sports metaphors. The answer is, Apparently not. Where would we be if elections weren’t up for grabs, if the trailing candidate didn’t need to hit a home run, if the leading candidate weren’t trying to run the clock out, orif one of the two parties weren’t just playing DE-fense, never managing to get across the goal line?
And where would we be without adults in the room and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis? Protestors, for example, never yell and scream; they vent their frustrations; they act them out. Their actions are signals that our communities need healing, and that healing can come only from a therapeutic national conversation or bipartisan dialogue — both parties on the psychiatrist’s couch.
Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not.
But here I must apologize. At some point in this column, I went out of bounds. I stopped blaming the victims — blaming phrases that started their lives with hope and promise, only to lose it because of community pressure to be something they’re not — and I started displaying my phobias about expressions that were losers to begin with.So I’ll adopt a more proactive stance and pose the challenging question: what would happen if an American public figure actually tried to ignore all insipid current clichés and restore the greatness of the English language, the language of Shakespeare and Emerson and Jefferson, of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and . . . oh, maybe, of William Butler Yeats?
Well, here is what would happen, and did happen, when, on Oct. 3, Vice President Biden spoke at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Forum, “Harvard’s premier arena for public speech.” “Folks,” said Biden,
Folks, “all’s changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” Those are the words written by an Irish poet William Butler Yeats about the Easter Rising in 1916 in Ireland. They were meant to describe the status of the circumstance in Ireland at that time. But I would argue that in recent years, they better describe the world as we see it today because all has changed. The world has changed.
There’s been an incredible diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability. Emerging economies like India and China have grown stronger, and they seek a great force in the global order and global affairs. . . .
The international order that we painstakingly built after World War II and defended over the past several decades is literally fraying at the seams right now.
Now, let’s see. Yeats did write a poem, called “Easter 1916,” about the Irish nationalist Easter Rebellion. His poem suggests that commonplace people were transformed, at least in imagination, by their participation in that failed revolt:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not. No good poem, and particularly not Yeats’s poem, “describe[s] the status of the circumstance” of something. But does Biden understand his own remarks? Again, clearly not. What terrible beauty could he possibly see in “the status of the circumstance” that he himself describes — “diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability,” an “international order” that is “literally fraying at the seams” (and can ya believe it, “right now,” too)? That’s not beautiful. It’s not even terrible, in the sense that Biden wants to import from Yeats. A person who doesn’t understand that literally means literally, not figuratively, or that something that was “built” doesn’t have “seams” and therefore cannot “fray” . . . this person should stay as far away as possible from other people’s poetry. We’re used to the vice president’s torrent of clichés; must we now be visited with his attempts to be learned and original?
It’s interesting to speculate how many people would say what they say, if they understood it. Here’s a passage that the vice president presumably wouldn’t like; it’s from a political analysis by Jennifer Rubin, issued on Sept. 30 by the Washington Post.It’s about a number of Democratic senators who may not win their elections. I’ll put the most obvious clichés in italics:
They were napping while the Islamic State surged and were asleep during the wheel for other Obama foreign policy flubs. They didn’t raise any objection to zeroing troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. They were unmoved by the atrocious Iran interim deal. They were quite happy to watch the sequestration cuts wreak havoc on military preparedness. Now the bill has come due for circling the wagons around Obama.
The quantity of clichésis bad enough, but does she really mean to say that the senators were happy to watch even when they were asleep? Is she really able to picture a cut, much less such a passive, somnolent thing as a sequestration cut, wreaking havoc? Does she really think that people who circle wagons get a bill for it? And what picture was in her mind when she thought of people sleeping during the wheel?
Enough. I’m tired. I’m going to find some wheel to sleep during.