Thought Leaders and Living Legends

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“Conservative strategist Chris Barron told Fox News that The Times ‘has abandoned any pretext of journalistic integrity,’ and the revised Kavanaugh story is the latest example.” So says a Fox News report (September 16) on the New York Times’ publication of a scandalous claim about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual behavior in college.

That phrase — “sexual behavior in college” — may be sufficient to illustrate the puerility of the allegation and of its eager retailing by America’s “newspaper of record.” I don’t care much for Justice Kavanaugh, but since I left college myself I haven’t been able to work up much concern about anybody’s college nonsense. If this is one of the great issues of our time . . . But look at that phrase from critic of the Times, the conservative strategist (is that a real job?): “abandoned any pretext of journalistic integrity.” Pretext? It would be fun to think that Mr. Outraged consciously chose that word, which means a false account of one’s reasons for doing something, because then we’d be witnessing the spectacle of a newspaper being criticized for abandoning its falsehoods. But alas, the guy must have failed to distinguish pretext from pretense, intending to say that the Times no longer pretends to integrity.

When you see a smarmy title like that, you sense right away that you’re dealing with a boatload of obscurantism.

And there’s a problem even with this charitable interpretation of his remark. In fact, the New York Times continues to pretend. Here’s what happened. On September 14, the Times published the story in question, an account of Kavanaugh dangling his naked penis around at a party. Immediately conservative journalist Mollie Hemingway compared the Times account with the version that its authors simultaneously published in a book, and discovered that something crucial was missing from the newspaper story. On September 15, a suddenly embarrassed Times appended a humiliating note to it:

An earlier version of this article, which was adapted from a forthcoming book, did not include one element of the book's account regarding an assertion by a Yale classmate that friends of Brett Kavanaugh pushed his penis into the hand of a female student at a drunken dorm party. The book reports that the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say that she does not recall the incident. That information has been added to the article.

That’s certainly a pretense to integrity, isn’t?

In the Fox News story we encountered two boon companions of modern journalism, ignorance and exaggeration (“abandoned any pretext”). We’ll meet them again. But let’s say howdy to a couple other good buddies who frequent the news saloon: pomposity and obscurantism.

The person behind the apparently false allegation was one Max Stier, whom the Times reporters call in their book a “respected thought leader.” “Oh!” you may be thinking, “I wish I could get that job!” But who is this respected leader of thought? He is one of the multitude of people, as numberless as the stars of heaven, who have labored in the vineyard of William Jefferson and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Stier worked as a lawyer for Bill when he (Bill) got into one of his adult sex scrapes. Nowadays, however, Stier is ritually identified in news stories as the head of a nonprofit organization. How nice that sounds! No profits! Nothing to deflect him from the pursuit of truth, justice, and the American way. The name of his org is The Partnership for Public Service.

Pompous? Oh, yes. And when you see a smarmy title like that, you sense right away that you’re dealing with a boatload of obscurantism. According to Wiki, the Partnership’s “mission is to inspire a new generation of civil servants and transform the way government works.” I gather that what this means is lobbying for higher pay and greater prestige for government employees, but you can struggle with the Wiki thing yourself.

Buttinskis, the most appropriate name for clerics involved in politics, is far too erudite to be known to journalists.

If you want a fuller experience of gobbledygook, you can go to the Partnership’s website. You can also visit another site, where you will find that someone — probably Stier — wants you to believe that “under his leadership, the Partnership has been widely praised as a first-class nonprofit organization and thought leader on federal government management issues.” Thought leader! A first-class thought leader! A widely praised first-class thought leader!

Stier was the first thought leader I’d ever heard of, but I soon discovered that I was behind the curve. The bizarre locution had been planting itself in our language for several years. As early as 2017 it was being analyzed and rejected, from several points of view. But let’s consider the basic issue: In what way could thought leader not be applied, with equal accuracy, to Martha Stewart, Joseph Stalin, Kamala Harris, Lisa Simpson, Smokey Bear, the Witch of the West? Everyone — well, everyone except journalists — has thoughts or influences thoughts. “But oh! That’s not what it means!” OK. Then what does it mean?

Surely it means even less than its repulsive first cousin, faith leader, the history of which I reviewed in the December 2018 edition of this column. Faith leader is what atheist journalists call ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams, on occasions when they’re doing something that atheists like. (When they’re not doing it, they’re rightwing preachers.) To call them religious leaders — supposing that they actually lead anybody — would be just too creepy, too religious, to appear in a news puff. Buttinskis, the most appropriate name for clerics involved in politics, is far too erudite to be known to journalists.

There are, however, expressions that mean still less than thought leader. The death of TV personality Cokie Roberts brought one up. The nation — or at least I — was astonished to learn that Roberts had been one of several people whom the Library of Congress assumed the authority to consecrate as living legends.

For many years Joe Biden has been a leading figure in the movement to create an illiterate America.

Do other countries have such beings? In America, of course, the precedent had been set by Elvis Presley. According to the inscription on his tomb, Elvis was “a living legend in his own time.” Omitting the redundancy (“in his own time”) still doesn’t make this sensible. A legend isn’t a person; a legend is a story, a mythic story. There are no myths of Cokie Roberts — a fact seemingly unknown to that embodiment of learning, that incubator of thought leaders, the Library of Congress.

Whether we have reason to demand literacy from the Presley family, or from Donald Trump, is another question. Surely we cannot expect it from former vice presidents now aspiring to the presidency. For many years Joe Biden has been a leading figure — if you will, a living legend — in the movement to create an illiterate America; and he is still capable of topping his earlier performances. Few illiterates could outdo his response, on or about September 13, to the question of how Americans can “repair the legacy of slavery.” Enslavement is not a legacy that anyone would want to see restored, refurbished, or repaired, but never mind; the illiterate question received an illiterate answer. “Well,” Biden said,

they have to deal with the . . . Look, there is institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure that we are in a position where—

Look, we talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title 1 schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise to the equal of . . . A raise of getting out of the $60,000 level.

No. 2, make sure that we bring in to the help with the stud— the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need . . . We have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy. The teachers are required — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. [Where, in heaven?] They have every problem coming to them.

Make sure that every single child does, in fact, have three, four, and five-year-olds go to school. School! Not day care, school. We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t know what — They don’t know what quite what to do. Play the radio. Make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night. The phone — make sure the kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — er, a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.

He said more, but I’ll leave it at that. I used to think that Trump’s sentences were gruesome, but he’s James Madison compared to Biden.

Now that I’m making allusions to a glorious, perhaps legendary, past, I’ll take up another issue. In case you haven’t noticed it, this is a great age of verbal abuse. No one writes about presidential politics without abusing either Trump or his opponents. Sometimes I think that nobody writes about anybody without abusing somebody. But this is not the first age of abuse — far from it. The difference is that abuse was formerly a lot more literate. The genre is capable of much refinement, and during the course of history it had been improved so much by cultured users that it could be read with profit and delight by intelligent men and women, even when they disagreed with what they read.

I used to think that Trump’s sentences were gruesome, but he’s James Madison compared to Biden.

Whoever characterized the Middle West as “a vast parking lot for human Fords” was a literate person who knew what to do with his literacy. H.L. Mencken’s obituary of William Jennings Bryan was often unfair but always literate — and incomparably vivid. Speaking of Bryan’s last days, he wrote:

It was plain to everyone that the old Berseker Bryan was gone — that all that remained of him was a pair of glaring and horrible eyes.

But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment's notice.

That was written almost a hundred years ago. Now I come to now.

Unlike many other people, I do not regard “social media” as portents of a new Dark Age. The ability to express oneself spontaneously and seek one’s own audience has allowed millions of people, many of them obscure and uneducated, to develop real though previously latent literary skills. I wrote about this when the internet was relatively new (“The Truth vs. the Truth,” Liberty, September-October 2003), and I’d say the same thing today. But electronic media have also made it easy for would-be thought leaders to display their sheer contempt for skill, reflection, freshness, humor, pathos, real intensity — any literary virtue. This is particularly notable when one considers the once-stimulating genre of political abuse.

Everyone can think of instances; they never stop. Some were recently discovered in the online oeuvre of Gordon (“Max”) Heyworth, former aide to freshman Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.). Heyworth apparently helped Spanberger craft the kind of moderate image that might get a Democrat elected in what has been called a Republican district. Among his duties were writing her speeches and “developing communications,” whatever that means. But then the Richmond Times-Dispatch revealed some of Heyworth’s own communications, and Spanberger (a follower of Heyworth’s Twitter account) had to issue a statement bearing the dreaded “d” word: disappointed. She said she was “deeply disappointed to learn about [his] tweets.” Poor lady! You feel sorry for her, don’t you?

Even libertarians engage in stuff like this, imagining that it turns them into H.L. Mencken. But they are not H.L. Mencken.

But the tweets show that Heyworth himself was disappointed, and chronically so. He was especially saddened by Republicans who called for productive work across party lines. And he gave voice to his disappointment. He called one of those discouraging people "a mindless cretin without any sense of service to [his] country. the worst type of American, a sniveling, brain-dead propagandist and a f--- dullard. . . . A guy who publicly fellates a mean-spirited brute like Trump . . . can take his pleas for kindness and shove them all the way up his tiny little a-- ." Another such person, a college kid, got shorter shrift. He was “a f--- p--." As for "all remaining Trump supporters,” they were “racist white supremacists. Every last one of them. No exceptions."

Nothing is easier, or more illiterate, than to memorize a list of insults and drop them into your sentences, pretty much at random. Anyone can do that, all day long. The odd thing is that so many of these people are, like Mr. Heyworth, thought leaders. Even libertarian thought leaders engage in stuff like this, imagining that it turns them into H.L. Mencken. But they are not H.L. Mencken. Mencken didn’t write under another name and then delete his courageous utterances, once his identity was discovered (that’s what Heyworth did), and he didn’t respond to criticism by lashing out even more self-righteously at his critics (which is often the so-called libertarian way). When Mencken was attacked, he published a book — Menckeniana: A Schimpflexikon — reprinting the attacks; he wanted readers to have a convenient collection of the clumsy, mean-spirited words that had been flung at him.

I picked up mean-spirited from Heyworth’s list of insults, and it’s another key to the difference between ignorant insulters and writers who, like Mencken, make insults into art. Mencken had many faults, but they were not the faults of which he accused other people. He was not a job-seeker, a bawler, or a time-server. And he was not dull. But today’s verbal abusers project themselves — infallibly, as if they were the bearers of a gypsy curse — as precisely the mean-spirited dullards, mindless cretins, and brain-dead propagandists they deplore. Although I refuse to employ their own favorite word and call them racists, they are at least race-obsessed; and although they are not white supremacists, they are usually white, and their tone insistently proclaims their assumption of supremacy: “no exceptions.”

For the benefit of future generations I need to stipulate that the two people mentioned in this headline are presently candidates for the presidency.

One exception to the misuse-of-abuse syndrome was presented this month by an unexpected source: President Trump. His tweeted critique of the-world-is-ending climate-change fanatic Greta Thunberg departed from his ordinary manner, and from the manner of the like-minded people who accused Miss Thunberg’s minders of “child abuse” for letting her or inducing her to go on in the way she does. Trump tweeted: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”

But let’s abandon thought leaders to their supreme thoughts, and have a really healthy laugh. This month there was a funny headline on Fox News; lots of them are funny, but I found one of them particularly so. For the benefit of future generations I need to stipulate that the two people mentioned in this headline are presently candidates for the presidency. So here it is: “Buttigieg, Klobuchar seated behind each other on plane ahead of Dem presidential debate.” Picture that, willya?

This headline was published on September 10. It took Fox News two days to change it to its current form: “Buttigieg, Klobuchar seated near each other on plane ahead of Dem presidential debate.” Somebody finally read the thing.




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