Dangerous Mood Swings
by Stephen Cox | Posted July 15, 2012
On June 27, appearing on the Hannity show, Karl Rove responded to a question about what would have happened if President Bush had set aside laws in the way in which President Obama set aside the immigration law. “All heck would have broken loose,” Rove replied.
Karl Rove is 61 years old. He was talking on the network that runs the “Red Eye” show (which, unlike the Hannity show, is pretty good once you get used to it). But he wouldn’t say the word “hell.” He said “heck” instead. And “hell” isn’t a coarse expletive. It isn’t even an expletive, really. It is rumored to be a place. Yet Rove was behaving like the clergyman whom Alexander Pope satirized 300 years ago — the “soft dean” who “never mentions hell to ears polite.”
Ordinarily, as you know, this column collects examples of verbal ineptitude, comments upon them, and weaves the commentary subtly into one thematic whole. This month, that can’t be done. There are just too many discrete (in the sense of separate) bits of wreckage flying past us. One can only gaze and marvel as they cross the eerie sky that we call modern discourse.
Look, there’s another one! Have you noticed that every single “public figure” you encounter now says “we” when he or she can’t possibly mean anything more than “I”? People of all parties do this. Ron Paul does it. Barack Obama does it. Mitt Romney does it all the time. Scott Walker, who relieved some of my worries about the future of the republic by winning his recall election in Wisconsin, does it so often and so confusedly that I can hardly stand to listen to the poor guy. It used to be that politicians were laughable because they said “I” all the time. Now they say “I” in a much more nauseating way. They use a “we” that means, simultaneously, “I am too humble to say ‘I,’” and “I am too mighty to say ‘I’ — observe the hosts that follow me.” Actually, of course, the person saying “we” is just that one strange-looking guy, standing at the bottom of the swimming pool, talking incessantly to himself.
On to the next disaster. San Francisco has just experienced a mass landing of verbal flying saucers. There exists in that city a man named Larry Brinkin. Thirty years ago, this man sued his employer, the Southern Pacific Railway, for allegedly refusing to give him three days off to mourn the death of his male lover, the same three days the company allegedly gave straight people to mourn the deaths of their spouses. Because Brinkin kept doing things like that, he was given a job as an enforcer for something called the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, which uses tax money to procure the votes of modern liberals by hunting down private individuals who allegedly treat gay people, “transgendered people,” foreign people, fat people, short people, and probably many other people in “discriminatory” ways. One of Brinkin’s accomplishments, I believe, was spending years worrying a gay bar for its alleged racial discrimination in admitting customers. A larger accomplishment is alleged to have been (sorry, I need to use “allegedly” a lot in a column like this) the invention of a phrase, “domestic partner.” Some accomplishment. Sounds more like a poodle to me.
Let me be clear. If the railway refused to give him three days off, it did an indecent thing. Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so, in my opinion, is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.
Anyway. Two years ago, for the inestimable work he had done for human rights, and for retiring from his $135,000 a year city salary, Brinkin received a great public honor. The city declared a “Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week” (one day was just not enough), in recognition, it was said, of his “advocacy.” The retired civil servant, about whom you now know 100 times more than almost anyone who lived in San Francisco at the time, was pronounced by all available media a “gay icon,” a “beloved icon,” and every other kind of “icon” that can puff up a lazy text. But after June 22, San Franciscans learned, or thought they learned, a great deal more than they had known before, because on that day Brinkin was arrested for (once more allegedly — and this time the word really does deserve the emphasis), having had something to do with child pornography. He had also, allegedly, made racist remarks pertaining to the subject, although that is not illegal, even in San Francisco.
Discriminating against people because you look down on their race, religion, or sexuality is always indecent. But so is devoting your life to demanding that other people give you stuff, or you’ll send the law after them.
The charges, I am happy to say, are not the business of this column. I have no idea what really happened, or what he really did, if anything. Perhaps I will have a better idea, once the police department’s “forensic” experts complete what has turned out to be a very longterm “study” of Brinkin’s computers. And perhaps I won’t. But the verbal reactions to the matter — those are things within the interest and competence of us all. And they don’t reflect very well on the City by the Bay, which is allegedly so well supplied with intelligence and sophistication.
Icon was in every headline, as if Larry Brinkin’s picture, rendered in a Byzantine style, encrusted with jewels, and lit by votive candles, was a fixture of every church and civil-servant cubicle in Northern California. One of Brinkin’s organizational associates got media attention by saying that she was surprised by the charges, because . . . Guess why. Because he was a “consummate professional.” In the religion of the state, the corporations, and all those occupations in which people must conform to the rules of some “peer” association, professional is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.” Coupled with such terms as “consummate,” it offers prima facie grounds for sainthood, for membership in that exclusive order of men and women who have been selected by their peers for the highest forms of recognition they can imagine and bestow: a picture on the coffee room wall, a place in the Civil Servants’ Hall of Fame and Museum of Professionalism, and at last a funeral in the Executive Conference Room, where colleagues will be invited to step forward and voice their memories of how well Old So and So took care of the paperwork when SB 11-353 was working through committee.
Here’s a politician — one Bevan Duffy, a busy bee about San Francisco, and the caring soul who sponsored the Larry Brinkin Appreciation Week — responding to Brinkin’s arrest: "I have admired and respected his work for the LGBT community. . . . I respect and am confident that there will be due process." Grammar flees where professionalism reigns. Mr. Duffy respects that there will be due process.
Here’s another colleague — the “executive director” (how does that differ from “director”? — but I guess that’s a professional mystery) of the Human Rights Commission, as quoted in a report by Erin Sherbert of the SF Weekly:
We put in a call to Theresa Sparks, executive director of the Human Rights Commission, [who] told us this allegation is "beyond hard to believe."
"It's almost incredulous, there's no way I could believe such a thing," Sparks told us. "He's always been one of my heroes, and he's the epitome of human rights activist — this is [the] man who coined phrases we use in our daily language. I support Larry 100 percent, hopefully it will all come out in the investigation."
It’s not surprising that someone who can’t tell the difference between “incredulous” and “incredible” would regard Larry Brinkin as a hero of the English language. But to be a true professional, especially in a governmental or community context, one must have a grasp of all the inanities with which government workers are equipped. And what a parade of them we see here — beyond hard, one of my heroes (of whom there are, no doubt, countless thousands who are yet unsung), epitome, activist, I support, 100 percent, and that indispensable lapse from basic grammar, hopefully. Nothing more could possibly be required. But by the way, what do you think of this apostle of justice declaring that “there’s no way” she’ll believe what the evidence shows, if it doesn’t show what she already believes?
In the religion of the state, “professional” is not the neutral term it was a mere 20 years ago. It is now a term of absolute value, a universal replacement for ”virtuous,” “admirable,” and all those other words for “morally swell.”
There once was a time when a president of the United States, himself an uneducated and, some said, an illiterate man, could respond to legal opposition in a memorable and verbally accurate way. Referring to a decision written by Chief Justice Marshall, President Jackson said, “John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it.”
Contrast our current Attorney General, Eric Holder (you see, now I’ve had to switch to another, unrelated track), responding to the vote by which the House of Representatives charged him with contempt of Congress. “Today’s vote,” he said, “may make good policy feeder in the eyes of some . . .” He then continued with the usual blather. But I had stopped listening. What stopped me was “feeder.” Clearly, the Attorney General has never been around a farm, or wasn’t listening when he was. And clearly, he’s not hip to ablaut, the means by which one type of word becomes another type of word by changing one of its vowels. Farm animals are sometimes fed in feeders, and the feed that some animals are fed is fodder — not feeder. But why worry about ablaut, or exposure to agricultural conditions? Like his boss, President Obama, who got through Harvard Law without discovering that there is any difference between “like” and “as,” Holder just doesn’t seem to read or listen.
But he’s nothing compared to Jerry Brown, California’s version of Joe Biden — except that he’s even worse in the words department. Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government. His obsession right now is California High-Speed Rail, an attempt to “create jobs” for union employees by building the largest public-works project in American history, a rail line between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Two years ago, he convinced a majority of voters to approve the project. Today, even its friends concede that it will cost three times more than mentioned in the bond referendum, that it will not and cannot be high-speed, and that it may not even enter San Francisco or Los Angeles. Nevertheless, on July 6, the California legislature authorized a set of bonds for what many now regard as the Browndoggle. Ignoring the language of the referendum, which stipulated that the money should go for a high-speed train and nothing else, the solons proudly allocated billions of dollars to such things as buying new subway cars for San Francisco.
That’s the background. Here, in the foreground, babbles Jerry Brown, who on one of the many occasions on which he “argued” for “high-speed” rail, intoned: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.” Brown doesn’t even know the difference between “suck it up” (a vulgar term for “endure it”) and “suck it in” (a vulgar term for faking weight loss).
Jerry Brown’s utterances are commonly described as “babble,” despite the fact that their purpose is always clear: increase the power of government.
Let’s put this in perspective. President Obama, campaigning among morons, or people he regards as morons, drops hundreds of final “g’s” in every speech he gives, and regularly converts “because” to “cuz.” You’ve heard of the hoodlum priest? This is the hoodlum president. But there are people still more vulgar than he, people who speak on serious public occasions in the language of the drug-lost: “Don’t freak out.” Some of them go so far as to omit the “out,” thereby demonstrating that they’re at least as jivy as the jiviest 65-year-old. Other public figures innocently reveal that they’ve gone through their whole lives without a basic knowledge of English-language idioms. Thus the acclaimed Spike Lee, prattling on Turner Classics (July 5) about the last scenes in On the Waterfront, and describing what happens to the Marlon Brando character: “The thugs beat him an inch within his life.” And of course the rich are always with us, in the form of politicized tycoons who lecture us about being a low-taxed people, compared to the Europeans or the Russians or somebody else. Every day of our lives, we in California hear this kind of thing from professors and pundits, politicians and thinktank fishies, despite the fact that our savage sales tax and still more savage income tax put us in the front ranks of slave labor in the United States.
All right. Let me summarize. We’re used to hillbilly talk, and drug talk, and pressure-group talk, and impudent talk, and just plain ignorant talk. Then Jerry Brown comes along, and runs all the bases: “Don’t freak cuz you got a few little taxes. Suck it in.”
Is this what wins the ballgame? What happened to the people on the other team? (No, I’m not thinking about the Republican Party. I’m thinking about people with a normal command of the English language.)
Maybe they’re suffering from the demoralizing condition that afflicts Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr. Some weeks ago, Jackson stopped showing up in Congress. For quite a while, it seems, the absence of the nine-term Congressman wasn’t noted. Then colleagues started theorizing that he was being treated for exhaustion, because of all the hard work that congressmen have to do. Others, including NBC Nightly News, entertained suspicions that Jackson was being treated for something much more serious. Finally, as reported by Rachel Hartman on Yahoo News (July 11), the nation learned the truth:
“The Congressman is receiving intensive medical treatment at a residential treatment facility for a mood disorder," Jackson's physician said in a statement provided to Yahoo News via the congressman's congressional office. "He is responding positively to treatment and is expected to make a full recovery." The statement indicated that Jackson's attending physician and treatment center "will not be disclosed in order to protect his continuing privacy."
Privacy? Jesse Jackson, Jr.? That’s funny. Continuing privacy? That’s beyond funny.
Speaker Boehner, always the man with le mot juste, may be right in taking a cautious and distant approach to Jackson’s illness: “This is an issue between he and his constituents.” And it’s good to know that President Obama isn’t the only one who has this curious way with pronouns that follow prepositions. But if you’re laughing about Jackson’s mood disorder, I’m here to tell you that the condition is real, and serious. By the time I’ve finished one of these columns, I too am ready for a residential treatment facility.
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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