The big political news of May 6 was the British people’s vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Labour Party. The big news for Word Watch was what Brown said a week before the election. It was his “bigoted woman” remark.
At one of his campaign visitations, Brown was questioned (“heckled,” according to a prissy mainstream media report) by a 66-year-old widow, Gillian Duffy, a steady voter for Brown’s own party. Mrs. Duffy asked him about taxes and the national debt and the recent immigration of six million people to Britain. That last issue is of understandable popular concern at a time when the British economy is in a coma, jobs for native-born Brits aren’t easy to come by, and the welfare state, which caters to many immigrants, has become increasingly discredited and suspect in all its dealings.
Anyhow, one of Brown’s aides thought it would be good public relations for him to have a one-on-one with Duffy, and she thought it had gone well. But when he got back to his limo, he said, “That was a disaster; they should never have put me with that woman. Whose idea was that? It’s just ridiculous. She was just a sort of bigoted woman.”
There’s the “bigoted woman” comment. Brown hadn’t noticed that his mike was on.
His remarks were immediately heralded as an enormous gaffe. The effect was heightened when a newswoman played them back to the smiling, grandmotherly Duffy. Her face filled with horror. “You’re joking!” she said, in a thick, non-London accent. “Where was I a bigot?” Nothing could have been more spontaneous, or more devastating. A chorus of other horrified voices called on Brown to apologize.
(Imagine the headline: “King George Urged to Apologize for ‘Americans Are Traitors’ Remark.’ ” Try another one: “Roosevelt
Urged to Apologize for ‘Big Stick’ Gaffe.” No, this kind of urging is a new thing.)
So Brown apologized. “I apologize profusely,” he said, “to the lady concerned. I don’t think she is that.” It was assumed that what he meant by “that” was “a bigoted woman,” not “a lady.”
His syntax left a lot to be desired. The same was felt about his apology. Soon after, he turned up at Mrs. Duffy’s house and spent another 45 minutes apologizing to her. Whether that was enough to win her vote did not transpire. He then continued his campaign, chastened by the shadow of Mrs. Duffy. One of his political friends made the inevitable remark: “He’s apologized, move on”
— which merely indicated that Brown himself was having a lot of trouble moving on.
But what are the precedents? Has President Obama, for instance, ever said anything that came close to the derogatory comment that Prime Minister Brown made on the open mike? Yes, he has. The comment that comes closest is the one he made during the presidential primaries, when for some reason he felt inspired to psychologize about voters in rust-belt states. “And it’s not surprising then,” he said, “that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
The same elitism as the “bigot” remark, right? The same disdain for the voters one is courting, right? The same portrayal of potential opponents as jerks and fools and Frankenstein-like stereotypes, stalking the electoral moors, lusting to destroy any modern-liberal planner who appears among them in a thousand-dollar suit? Oh yeah.
There’s one difference. Obama had prepared his remarks. He delivered them publicly. Granted, he didn’t expect them to be disseminated to the nation. He confided them to a Democratic fundraiser in San Francisco, the Olympus and Valhalla of stereotypes and caricatures, a place where you can get away with saying anything at all about the beings who inhabit that weird world east of the Ferry Building. Nevertheless, his remarks didn’t look like an urgent, immediate, pissed-off, uncalculated baring of the soul. He was trying to raise money for his campaign, and he was offering the rich people of the Left Coast what they wanted to hear. Probably his words were sincere. But they weren’t as nakedly sincere as Gordon Brown’s.
Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot of good things about “transparency” in government. Every politician now endorses “transparency.” Yet “transparency” remains, like the afterlife, the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler (at least no politician) returns. To paraphrase the old joke about heaven, “Everybody talks about transparency, but nobody wants to die.” Gordon Brown blundered into transparency, and he died.
It’s quite possible that if Brown hadn’t called Mrs. Duffy a bigot, his party would have won significantly more parliamentary seats. That possibility may lead American politicians (those who have something to lose, at any rate), to speak with greater circumspection about the people they disdain. Obama may be more careful about accusing Arizonans of bigotry. He will still think they’re bigots, but he won’t be as likely to use the words that say it. Obama, after all, isn’t a big cat that runs up to its prey and bites it on the neck. He’s a little cat that lies in wait, hoping that his meal will just come strolling past his den.
So much for Obama. The history of Brown’s mistake is similar enough to those of American politicians’ “gaffes” to suggest that the American language is finally taking over the mother ship. There’s a lesson in that word “gaffe.” The fact that Brown’s mistake was universally called a “gaffe” rather than an insult, a violation
of decorum, a failure of empathy, a gross misapprehension of the electorate, a total absence of the common touch, an act of reverse
bigotry, a crude expression of arrogance, an intellectual blunder — all this illustrates the progress of cynicism on both shores of the Atlantic. “Gaffe” doesn’t mean that you did something wrong, or thought something wrong; it means that your act somehow went wrong.
“Gaffe” is a cynic’s condemnation, and Brown, for his part, showed a remarkable degree of cynicism. After visiting Mrs. Duffy in her home, he commented, “She has accepted that there was a misunderstanding and she has accepted my apology. If you like, I am a penitent sinner.” Now, why would one evoke religious imagery at a time like that? Several reasons. (1) You don’t believe in religion, but you want other people to think you do. (2) You are not repentant, but you want the reporters to say you are. (3) Despite your blunders, you consider yourself very clever, and you want to prove this to other clever people by using a private, ironic language that only they will understand: “If you like, I am a penitent sinner.” He didn’t believe that he had sinned (notice the word “misunderstanding”). But he knew very well that he had gotten caught.
Cynicism frequently takes a folksy form. That’s what happens when Obama starts dropping his “g’s,” as he does whenever he thinks he’s in trouble. And that’s what finally happened with Brown, in his last debate with the other candidates. Knowing he was almost certainly washed up, he was still determined to exploit the Duffy affair if he could. “There is a lot to this job,” he said, “and as you saw yesterday I don’t get all of it right. But I do know how to run the economy — in good times and in bad.”
Aw shucks. I admit I screwed up about that li’l ol’ bigot. But my humility just shows I have the qualifications to run the economy.
Such cynicism is close to insanity — as cynicism often is. Both cynicism and insanity result from a severely distorted understand- ing of what the world is like, and a failure to learn any different.
Consider the following report from the Associated Press: “‘I thought he was understanding but he wasn’t, was he?’ said Duffy, who said she had planned to vote Labour but would now most likely abstain.” Mrs. Duffy showed an ability to revise her understanding. Contrast Mr. Brown. He (like our president) apparently started his career by thinking that the common people were bigots, but he knew how to fool them. He is ending his career by thinking the same thing.
A similarly distorted understanding is visible in the wise commentary of the media. about the PM’s “gaffe.” For the most part, it was viewed as an unfortunate event in theater history, not as a revelation of something seriously out of kilter in the rulers’ perceptions of the ruled. But this is a revelation of something seriously out of kilter in the media’s understanding of, well, everything it reports on.
And there was worse. Frank Luntz, an adviser to American Republicans, opined that the l’affaire Duffy was “the ultimate Shakespearean tragedy for Gordon Brown.”
Think about “Macbeth.” How could “Macbeth” be reworked so as to include Gordon Brown? Let’s see . . .
Lady Duffy: Think’st thou, my Lord, employment shall be bred
In full by such as throng fair Albion’s shore
With visas newly stamp’d? Nay, my Lord, not so!
Lord Brown: Thou bigot and rude-questioned dame, get hence!
But lodge thy ballot safe within thy party’s
Ample bosom. Now away! Take leave!
Nor cavil at thy Planner’s arch behest.
Lady Duffy: Thou daft vote-catcher, thou shalt rue this hour. Lord Brown: Aroint thee, witch! None shall know this converse
Unless the microphone . . . the microphone . . .
O Gods! O Fate! My microphone’s awake!
Now save me, Heaven, from this devilish mistake!
In short, what in the world could be “Shakespearean” about Gordon Brown? Why “Shakespearean”? Why “tragedy”? Why “ul- timate”? “Off with his head!” as the character in Shakespeare says. “So much for Brown.”
But why should we give Brown so much attention? He is not alone. There are many means of displaying one’s displeasure with normal people, and those means become more common all the time.
One method is simply writing directions as “directions” are written for Microsoft. You know that whenever you hit the drop-down menu under “Help,” those dudes in the cubes are laughing at you, man.
Another means of establishing one’s superiority to the world around one is to twist some ordinary expression until nobody but the initiates can grasp it. A Word Watch correspondent reports a recent incident of this. It’s from an office memo. “We of course,”
it says, “need a fairly quick turn around on a draft to socialize internally and get to this prospective partner.” Our correspondent’s comment: “Can you even guess what that means?”
Not really, but I think the problem is “socialize,” a normal word to which the author has assigned an esoteric meaning. Maybe the synonym is “share,” but who can tell? Only the inner circle can divine the meaning.
Yet another way of making oneself a member of the verbal Illuminati is to smack other people in the face with hundred-dollar words. A news report describes Thad William Allen — a Coast Guard admiral (who knew the Coast Guard had such things?)
who is acting as Obama’s “National Incident Commander” for the Gulf of Mexico oil leak — as a man “defend[ing] himself against criticism that the Coast Guard waited too long to intervene with BP. ‘Everybody was acting at each point in accordance with our doctrine and our judgment,’ said Allen, who is due to retire at the end of this month. ‘There’s no hard and fast criteria to some of this. . . . We have not had an event involving a platform like this in my career, and that’s 39 years. This is an asymmetrical, anomalous complex unprecedented event.’”
Does he think we should swallow that? Are we supposed to be reassured about the Coast Guard’s performance by being told that it acted “in accordance” with its own “doctrine and judgment”? I’m not reassured. And I’m especially not reassured by the fact that the admiral’s high and mighty declaration is followed by the relativistic “no hard and fast criteria.” (By the way, “criteria” is plural, not singular, as the admiral seems to think.)
Now we come to his final phrases, that stuff about the “asymmetrical, anomalous complex unprecedented event.” Gosh, ain’t that somethin’? Lookit all them big words! I have no idea what “asymmetrical” means in this context, and I’ll bet that you don’t either. The whole assemblage of syllables appears to mean no more than, “Good Lord! This kinda thang never happinned before! Whadda we do now?”
Let’s think about this. There’s an oil platform. Conceivably it might catch fire. What would you do if it did? Is this situation so “asymmetrical” that you can’t figure it out? The fact that I’ve never had a heart attack doesn’t preclude my considering what I should do if I have one, does it? Or am I speaking too much in normal human language?
Nevertheless, peace to Admiral Allen — recipient of the Humanitarian Service Medal with one service star, the Coast Guard Unit Commendation with one award star and “O” device, and many other awards and commendations. And peace to his strange
locutions. Maybe he doesn’t mean to diss the rest of us. Maybe he’s just infatuated with the sound of his own voice. And even if that’s not true, I forgive him. He’s not really a member of the political class.
But Obama and Brown I do not forgive. “Bigot,” indeed. “Cling to antipathy,” indeed.
These people can achieve my forgiveness only if they abandon their anti-intellectual approach. I know that “intellectual” has become synonymous with “obfuscating” and “name-calling.” But it shouldn’t be that way. In my opinion . . . well, when the president figures out the distinction between “like” and “as,” which is a consistent problem in his speeches, I’ll start thinking of him as a thinker, as a person who doesn’t cling to cliches, stereotypes, and bad grammar.
In the meantime, I want to observe that as many obnoxious things as libertarians say about other people, especially political people, they almost never use words that separate them into a superior group, or get hypocritical about how other people perform that separation, thus becoming “bigots.” They may call people “fools,” but they’re unlikely to call them “bigots,” even when
those people are obviously bigoted against libertarian ideas. And libertarians are unlikely to use specialized jargon. They derive this tradition of restraint from the earliest libertarians. “When we say free speech,” wrote Isabel Paterson, “we mean free speech.” And in case you didn’t get her message about the nature of freedom, she translated it into the plainest terms: “A lot of American principle is contained in the two words: ‘Just don’t.’ Much of the rest is encompassed by the suggestion of minding one’s own business. The whole is summed up in the word ‘liberty.’”
“Free speech.” “Mind your own business.” “Just don’t.” “Liberty.” There’s no cynicism there.