The War of Words
by Stephen Cox | Posted September 25, 2013
I am writing this during a long road trip. You know what happens when you’ve driven a few thousand miles and you’ve been through all your CDs and you’re off in the middle of farm country where there’s nothing between you and the stratosphere except NPR (which is everywhere), the daily hog reports, and Sean Hannity. So you listen to Sean Hannity. At least I do. Despite the fact that I dislike him intensely.
Well, not him. His shows. This side of the White House, there’s no purer example of partisan talking points. Every week Hannity has one thing to say, and he says it all week. During the week of September 16, his talking point was how terrible it was that President Obama gave a speech that day in which he made “noble” statements about the shootings at the Navy yard in Washington, then proceeded to give his scheduled speech about the economy in which he dissed Republicans and the former Republican administration. On Sept. 17, Hannity said, “I can’t think of anything more despicable” than Obama’s going on with that scheduled speech. Hannity said that for the rest of the week, in every context and on all occasions.
If you’re looking for overkill, look no further. Indeed, if you’re looking for irrationality, look no further. Obama’s remarks about the economy and about Republicans were nonsense; they always are. They were also obnoxious. But they were not obnoxious because a madman happened to conduct a shooting spree on the same day.
If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.
What offended me was the fact that the president canceled a performance of Latin music that was supposed to be staged at the White House that evening. Why should he do that? People in Amarillo didn’t cancel music events that night. So what if the shooting took place in Washington, within miles, in the constantly reiterated media phrase, of the White House? Is life, such as it is in Washington, supposed to come to a stop because of a minor event (yes, I said minor event) like that? Was the Latin music troupe supposed to spend the night meditating about violence in our society? Or initiating a national conversation about our treatment of the mentally impaired? Were the rest of us supposed to do that? If Obama had any kind of leadership, he would have issued a brief statement and continued as usual, despising the criticism of people like Hannity, who was blue with anger for no reason at all.
Since I’ve said this much, I may as well say more. None of the shootings about which the country has paused, prayed, lowered the flag to half-staff, engaged in a national conversation, mourned the victims of tragedy, kept the families in our hearts and prayers, etc., etc., has been anything but a festival of hypocrisy. If you care about suffering, care about the suffering that hypocrisy like this inflicts on people who have a brain.
Many of the deep mourners over the shooting victims are simply gun-control fanatics, happy enough to discover victims (of guns, not the lack of guns, which is a somewhat greater problem). Many of the others are chasers of thrills, ecstatically snuffing the air of crisis. Many of the rest are slaves of the eye, not followers of the brain: they mourn the deaths of anyone killed on national TV, but when they find out that someone they actually know has died from a car accident (or cancer, or a heart attack, or suicide), their reaction is to move on with their lives, in the same way they were five minutes before. Their reaction to violent news on television is sensationalism: the quest for sensations. But sensations aren’t moral feelings.
I am happy that in September the American populace staged a revolt against sensationalism, when they rejected the president’s plan to punish Syria for its government’s alleged gassing of some of its people. The point was clear: there are people who feel real concern about human life, and then there are people who merely think they do, or act as if they did, because they are interested in the latest media sensation; and that the latter group should not be allowed to set policy for the former.
Multitudes of people have died, in Africa and other places, because environmentalists succeeded in restricting the use of DDT, thus allowing insect-borne diseases to thrive, with devastating effects. Christians, gay people, and members of other minority groups are martyred daily in both “friendly” and “unfriendly” Islamic countries. Uncounted thousands of people have died in Syria, butchered by the government and its foes. Fifteen hundred of those people are thought to have died of a gas attack. Why is the conscience of the world aroused by the latest event and not by the earlier ones?
And what is the response of those whose consciences are so highly exercised? The response is that we should bomb the Syrians — not to remove the government, not even to cripple the government, but just to show ’em. Or, if you’re John McCain, the response is that we should send guns and ammo to antigovernment fighters (curiously, they’re never soldiers; I guess that would make them look bad, somehow), many of whom stand ready to become the jihadist foes of the United States. Do you think that more than 1500 lives might be lost in that way?
But now comes the Obama administration, with a hypocrisy even greater than that of the strict interventionists. And here I need no help from Hannity in discerning the debased quality of our leaders’ rhetoric.
On August 20, 2012, President Obama said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime — but also to other players on the ground — that a red line for us is, we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus; that would change my equation." It was typical of Obama, that weird combination of faux folksiness (“a whole bunch”) and faux acadamese (“calculus,” “equation”).
The weirdness continued on Sept. 4 of this year. You remember the president’s remarks on that day. “First of all, I didn’t set a red line,” he said, with the high-school-principal petulance that expresses his dislike of criticism. “The world set a red line.” He continued, with equal testiness: “My credibility’s not on the line. The international community’s credibility is on the line.” He also mentioned America’s credibility, and that of Congress. There he went beyond hypocrisy. He told a set of flat-out lies.
Isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies?
Of course, the weirdest thing about the Syria affair was John Kerry, the dove turned screaming eagle. First Kerry ranted like a maniac about the gas attacks, which he insisted, because of evidence he would not reveal, were both real and the responsibility of the Syrian government, not that of its equally nasty opponents. About this, he said, in the bullying voice with which the global warming nuts announce their findings, there were “no dissenters.” (Whenever someone says that, you know they’re trying to fool you.) According to him, all good people must unite in hitting Syria so hard that it would never dream of gas again. Then, after he was criticized for being a warmonger, which he visibly was, he insisted that the airstrikes he advocated would be (dramatic drum roll) “unbelievably small.”
Tell me: can someone with such wild mood swings be believed about anything?
It’s curiously appropriate, isn’t it, that Kerry should come to roost on the word “unbelievably.” And isn’t it interesting that these vastly educated scions of New England colleges should have such Valley girl vocabularies? Can it be, can it be, that they have never actually read a book?
Consider President Obama’s comments about Syria on Sept. 6:
"When there's a breach this brazen of a norm this important, and the international community is paralyzed and frozen and doesn't act, then that norm begins to unravel. And if that norm unravels, then other norms and prohibitions start unraveling, and that makes for a more dangerous world, and that then requires even more difficult choices and more difficult responses in the future."
Can you think of a good author who has ever tried to foist an image as bad as an unraveling norm? Jane Austen would slit her wrists before doing something like that. Jane Austen, hell; Harry Truman would slit his wrists. Not only did Obama evoke that unvisualizable image: he insisted on it; he used it three times in a row. It’s the kind of image that only the most childish of bureaucrats would use. You can picture them, hunched over the computers, proudly crafting their next public utterance. So, they’re thinking, there’s this really cool word, that word we hear all the time on NPR . . . norm, normed, normative, norming . . . And there’s this other hip, cool word, which is unravel. Like, uh, our initiative unraveled, our funding unraveled . . . . So yeah! It would be really really cool if we put them together and said, like, our norm, our norm unraveled.
James Rosen, the Fox News correspondent who probably dislikes Obama as much as Obama dislikes him, which is plenty, opined on August 31 that “this president, so attuned to literature,” would put a lot of effort into preparing his next speech on Syria. Obama would be all worked up about the judgment of history and so forth. But what’s the evidence that Obama is thus “attuned”? Name one author whom Obama reads and quotes. You can’t — and that’s enough to make my case. No one ever charged Obama with fleeing the responsibilities of office in order to curl up with a book. He is charged, instead, with fleeing his responsibilities to play golf or watch basketball on TV.
Obama is not only unattuned to literature; he’s unattuned to grammar. Try this passage, selected virtually at random from his recent (Sept. 6) verbal interventions:
"For the American people, who have been through over a decade of war now with enormous sacrifice in blood and treasure, any hint of further military entanglements in the Middle East are going to be viewed with suspicion." Obama is a great orator. He just can’t make his subjects match his verbs.
And Kerry is worse, much worse. As if to emphasize his total lack of literary education or sensitivity, Kerry (or one of his assistants, deputed to the hard task of fishing through the internet for jazzy quotes) discovered a cliché that has been kicking around for about 250 years. It started as one of Samuel Johnson’s witty remarks. According to Boswell’s Johnson, it went like this: “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
That’s still quotable, I suppose. But when something, even a cliché, gets into Kerry’s maw, it ends up horribly mangled. “A lot of people,” he intoned on Sept. 10, à propos his threats to Syria, “say that nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.”
I would like to find some cunning here. I would like to think that Kerry didn’t credit Dr. Johnson because he didn’t want to ruffle the rubes by implying that he could actually quote an actual author, and had therefore, at some desperate hour, managed to read a book. I would like to think he wondered about the possibility that someone would think, “Strange — I never heard anyone say that ‘nothing focuses the mind,’ etc.,” but concluded that the possibility was remote: no one would check his memory on that point. And I would like to think he substituted “focuses” for “concentrates” because he knew that “concentrates” would take the rubes as much as two seconds to figure out. But there’s no evidence that Kerry himself is anything but a rube. And that goes for the rest of our statesmen, too.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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