Progress and Poverty
by Stephen Cox | Posted December 25, 2013
I remember R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal, testing a new keyboard by typing out, “Good news — the depression is over, and the banks are filling with money.” Anyone else would have written, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” But Bill liked news, and when he could find it, good news.
So I want to begin with some good news. The year now ending witnessed significant reductions in the rates of certain linguistic crimes. And since “law enforcement agencies” (a.k.a. cops) always take credit for any accidental lowering of a crime rate, this column gladly takes credit for these reductions. Congratulations, Word Watch.
After years of pointing out that “begging the question” doesn’t mean what you might too hastily assume it means (the prompting of an inquiry) — that it means, instead, a species of logical fallacy (arguing in a circle, using a proposition to prove itself) — I am happy to find that many public speakers now realize where the trap door is hidden, and do their best to avoid it. The people on Fox News practically break their necks getting to the other side. They used to put “that begs the question” in every other sentence, and always in the wrong way. No more. Now, just when you see that they’re dying to say it, there’s a pause, a deep breath, and a slow rephrasing: “That . . . uh . . . poses the question”; “That . . . leads to the question”; “That . . . makes me want to ask you . . .” Somebody obviously told them to read Liberty.
After years of hammering away at the ridiculous idea that President Obama is a great, or even a good, writer and speaker (a hammering that could be heard as recently as last month’s Word Watch), I am gratified by some faint signs that conservatives don’t always feel obliged to begin their denunciations of an Obama utterance by saying, “Despite his soaring rhetoric,” or “The president’s actions are not as inspiring as his words.” They should be saying, “Despite his bathetic attempts at rhetoric” and “not as insipid as his words,” but that may come later, when pundits learn the existence of “bathetic” and “insipid” — in short, when they read Word Watch more often.
The great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy.
And after years of insisting that celebrity is not the same as significance, or even fame, I find curious indications that Word Watch may be exerting some influence on the crude but candid (i.e., free) media. I refer, for instance, to the reader comments that appeared on TMZ, following the death of Paul Walker. Walker was an action film star. He liked fast cars. On November 30, he was killed in a speeding car that went out of control and hit a light pole. It was a horrible accident, and the reader comments on TMZ were appropriately sympathetic. But they were more. They were self-dramatizing in a way that has become predictable after every death of anyone who might conceivably be regarded as a public figure. Hundreds of readers proclaimed themselves devastated with grief on behalf of Walker, his family, and his friends — people with whom these readers had no acquaintance whatever. Finally, someone had had enough. “Sorry,” he wrote, “RIP, our prayers are with the family, etc.....who is he?”
It’s a good thing that TMZ, like Word Watch, exists in cyberspace, or there would have been mob violence. But somebody had to point out that heartfelt feelings are often nothing but words.
Celebrity is fleeting, and even authentic feelings pass away, but some things never leave us. Word Watch can’t do anything about them. For God’s sake, even the second George Bush is back. He is daily proclaimed “more popular than President Obama.” When you think of it, this isn’t saying much. But now he is being cited as a film authority — and in the most gruesomely authoritative way. In late November, ads appeared for a movie called The Book Thief, and these ads said, “The critics are raving . . . . And President George Bush raves, ‘It’s a truly wonderful movie.’” He certainly put a lot of energy into that one. Not only wonderful but truly wonderful. But what truly conveys the feeling of the perpetual, the eternal, the Egyptian pyramidal, is that word “raves.” Raves. The expression has screamed at me from every film ad I have ever had to sit through. The critics are raving. Even a former president is raving. And as always, the New York Times raves. They’ve all gone crazy together.
Well, let them. We’re used to it. But must we get used to the steady seep of ignorance into the foundations and concrete basements of our language? I know you have your own examples; here are three of mine:
1. The effort to make “which” a universal connective: “I bought a new place in Vista Hills, which I didn’t realize the taxes were so high.”
2. The loss or mangling of strong verbs, and the creation of dumb replacements for them. It’s bad enough to hear that “the suspect spit,” not spat, “at the arresting officer”; but must we hear “spitted at him”? And why can’t people realize that the past tense of “fit” is “fitted,” but the past tense of “shit” is “shat”?
3. The growing movement to ignore the rules about comparatives and superlatives, whenever their use requires a split second of thought. Example: a journalist on Greta van Susteren’s show, commenting (December 10) on the latest Quinnipiac poll about Obama: “It’s on healthcare that people are ranking him the most low.” Most low? The superlative of “low” is ”lowest.” Is that too hard? Yes, if you can’t figure out what to do when an adjective gets two words away from its noun.
“Most low” exemplifies a general problem — people’s increasingly evident inability to keep track of their sentences. Leland Yeager, a friend and expert advisor of this column, has collected many instances of the problem, including offerings by such respectable journals as The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Try these exhibits from the Yeager museum of unnatural history:
“A key benefit to [sic] offshore wind power is the lower rate of wind turbulence at sea vs. on land” (WSJ, June 19, 2008). As Yeager suggests, why not just write, “A key advantage of offshore wind power is less wind turbulence at sea than on land”? But here is early documentation of an illiteracy that continues to spread: the use of “versus” (“vs.”) to mean “than.” What next — “My kid is smarter vs. your kid”?
Commentators “take great pride in emphasising how much more sophisticated civilization was in Japan in the 11th century compared with Europe at that time” (Economist, Dec. 20, 2008). It doesn’t take much to compete with the medieval West. But what exactly is being “compared” — “the 11th century” and “Europe”? No, it’s supposed to be . . . let’s see . . . it must be levels of sophistication in Japanese and European civilizations in the 11th century. Commentators apparently like to emphasize the idea that in the 11th century Japan was more sophisticated than Europe.
That’s one way of reforming the sentence, and you can easily think of many others — none of which occurred to the writer. But there are sentences that just make you want to give up and head for the bar. If you have any interest in economics, you’ve seen too many sentences like this one, which Yeager recovered from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review (Sept.-Oct. 2008):
But the embedded leverage in these products meant that end-investors were often buying assets with much greater risk characteristics compared with the underlying pool of mortgages, credit card debts, or loans than they might suppose.
Do scholarly journals still have editors?
Still, the great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy: always ignorant, always talking, always striving to influence, always striving, simultaneously, to obscure the truth. The Obamacare fiasco has born teeming litter after teeming litter of repulsive words. Any example will do, but let’s look at a little missive by the irrepressible Julie Bataille, director of communications, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (November 22, 2013). Remember, as you read, that she is a director of communications.
“Today,” she begins, “Jeff Zients [the wizard that Obama appointed to clean up the mess he had made of the merry old land of Oz] offered an update on our efforts to improve HealthCare.gov; data on key metrics on site performance, the progress made this week and the view looking forward.”
Already you know you’re in trouble. You know that Bataille has no intention of rushing forward with any facts. If she did, she would say up front what’s wrong with the site, instead of tucking “site performance” into a box called “metrics,” tucking that box into one called “data,” and tucking that one into an “update” that was “offered” by somebody else. How about just giving us the data? We know that an update on “progress” assumes that progress has been made — but that’s the topic of debate, isn’t it? Could Bataille be begging the question? Clearly, she is a very bad writer. She’s going to give us nothing but happy talk, and the happy talk will consist of slick-sounding clichés, such as the progressive “view looking forward.” Turning worse into worst, she will mangle those clichés. To her, a “view” looks.
As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time?
“In late October,” she continues, “we appointed QSSI as the general contractor to deploy their expertise in technology and program management to lead this project forward.”
So. Since late October, when the nation, as distinguished from Ms. Bataille, realized that Obamacare was a hideous disaster, something called QSSI has been leading the project forward. (There’s that word again.) But how is that leading accomplished? What’s been happening? Oh, it’s all very technical. Let’s just say that the company (singular), here regarded as they (plural), deploy their expertise. Expertise, one gathers, is like an army. Division 1: Attack that defective code! Division 2: You’re in reserve; wait behind the hill. Division 3: Lift the siege of Fort Obama!
“The team from QSSI continues to work with people from CMS [can’t have enough acronyms] and other contractors around the clock [can’t have enough clichés, either] to troubleshoot the system, prioritize fixes, and provide real-time management decision making.”
So you can “troubleshoot” a “system,” can you? I suppose, then, you can “troubleshoot” almost anything. “Hey, honey, I just wanta troubleshoot ya.” OK. But I draw the line at prioritizing fixes. It just sounds so gruesome. As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time? Maybe that’s what went wrong with Obama . . .
We haven’t reached the end of Bataille’s memo — that’s a very long way off — but we have reached the climax, which she has cleverly deployed in the middle. And this is it:
“Thanks to this team effort, we have made measurable progress.”
Measurable progress.Let’s consider how such phrases might work in real time.
Automobile passenger: “Hey, what’s the speed limit, anyway? Seems like we’re going awful slow.”
Automobile driver: “No, we are making measurable progress.
Airline seat holder: “How long before we get to Cleveland?”
Airline attendant: “We are making measurable progress, sir.”
Employer: “When do you expect to get that project done?”
Employee: “I am making measurable progress.”
Employer: “You’re fired.”
Bataille’s communication, horrible as it seems, is a fair sample of the words oozing out of Washington. If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered: do people who write this kind of prose actually think the way they write? Are they just prowling across their keyboard, trying to find enough words to bamboozle everybody else, or does it all come spontaneously and sincerely to them? When their car breaks down, do they look for expertise that can be deployed? When the guy from Triple A arrives, do they reflect that measurable progress is now being made? Which alternative is more terrible to contemplate — that kind of cunning or that kind of sincerity?
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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