Functional Illiteracy

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As you know, the cable networks are filled with advertisements both for medicines and for lawyers who sue about the results of medicines. Medicine ads (note: not lawyer ads) include lists of the unfortunate side effects that the advertised commodities may possibly have. While attractive, smiling, sociable actors illustrate the lovely lives of elderly, sick, drug-dependent people, cheerful voices observe that customers may be subject to shortness of breath, sore feet, heart attacks, pneumonia, depression, insanity, and the seven-year itch.

But lawyers must be suing on the ground that the names of the listed ailments are too hard to understand, because now there’s an ad advising you that Eliquis, which has been defined as “an anticoagulant for the treatment of venous thromboembolic events,” “may cause paralysis — the inability to move.”

Anyone can abuse anyone, at any time — so what?

I would think that any patient who understood the business about “venous events” would also understand “paralysis,” but we can’t count on that, can we? One of my best students recently entertained me with a self-joshing anecdote about his failure to perform some household task, to which his roommates responded by calling him a d*****b**. (I realize that half my readers will resent me for being too prudish to spell that out, and the other half will resent me for bringing it up in the first place.) He quoted the phrase several times, but I began to wonder whether he knew what it literally meant. “No,” he confessed. “I don’t.” So I explained it to him. He blushed, and volunteered not to use it again. But he hadn’t been curious enough to find out what he was saying, before I brought it up.

As I say, he’s intelligent. He has a much larger vocabulary than this incident suggests. Multitudes of our fellow citizens do not. That’s one reason why today’s comedy is so grossly dirty. I have no moral objection to bad words. Most of Abraham Lincoln’s jokes were dirty, and harmless. I think it’s funny when the cartoon kids on South Park break into filthy grownup language; it’s one way of showing how inane adultspeak can be. But you’ll notice that when South Park makes fun of, say, Al Gore, it doesn’t call him dirty names. Its purpose is to deflate, not to abuse. Anyone can abuse anyone, at any time — so what?

Now along come Kathy Griffin and Samantha Bee, and all they can do to satirize President Trump is call his daughter a c*** and pretend to decapitate him. (Griffin did the second, some time ago; Bee did the first on May 30.) Such displays of political rhetoric are dumb enough for anyone to understand — no dictionary, no act of reflection, is required. But why should anyone want to stage them? The usual explanation is that artists of this kind are themselves too stupid to think of anything even marginally clever. But if they have any instinct for their audience — and they must have some — they presumably think that gross abuse is the highest form of art the audience can enjoy. If they’re right about that, we’re all in trouble. Bear in mind that both Bee and Griffin number many defenders among the reputedly educated class.

Even as she spoke she must have been able to hear the sound of her audience contracting.

On May 31, on Tucker Carlson’s show, Tammy Bruce said that Samantha Bee and her ilk “make Trump look like Sir Galahad.” I have long admired Ms. Bruce; she’s very smart and very articulate, and she’s a libertarian. She was certainly right in what she said. But alas, poor Tammy: even as she spoke she must have been able to hear the sound of her audience contracting. Who the hell is Sir Galahad? Do I have to look that up?

And do I have to think before I speak? For Tammy Bruce, the answer would be obvious: Yes. Sure. Of course you do. For other people, that issue would be problematic. Wouldn’t thinking be a speed bump?

Here opens an endless vista of public figures, and public bores, who are generally the same thing, careering toward success along the great highway of language, without a care or a stop sign in the world.

When, on May 18, a lunatic killed ten people at a school in Santa Fe, Texas, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) rushed to the first available mike and reassured his constituents as follows:

Texas, as a state, we’ll make it through this. This community, Santa Fe, will make it through this, leaning on each other, praying for each other, standing with each other. We will make it through this.

I’m surprised that Cruz could make it through that impassioned speech. I know it was hard for me to get through it, and I was merely listening. I’d had no idea that Texas was about to fold like a map and blow away. So it was unsettling to learn that the state could be preserved only by people standing on it and leaning on each other as they stood. Yes, it unsettled me. It made me sick. Why didn’t it make Senator Cruz sick too?

It’s the kind of thing that people who aren’t very bright come up with when they try to insult everybody else’s intelligence.

And why doesn’t it make the New York Times sick to publish such headlines as “F.B.I. Used Informant to Investigate Russia Ties to Campaign, Not to Spy, as Trump Claims” (May 18)? What next — “Joe’s Diner Used Stove to Fry Eggs, Not to Cook Them, as Bill’s Diner Claims”? This is a nasty recipe. First you separate two synonyms (informant and spy); then you assume they are not synonyms at all but the most obvious kind of antonyms, implying that if the reader doesn’t see that, he or she just isn’t very bright. Finally, you decorate the dish with a ritual slam of Trump and his claims, claims having become a word you use for self-evident falsehoods. Like everything else in the Times, this is all supposed to be so erudite that if you question it, you’re just not (to repeat myself) very bright. But it’s not. It’s the kind of thing that people who aren’t very bright come up with when they try to insult everybody else’s intelligence. They’re convinced that nobody else can think, so why should they?

Most forms of stupidity are not that cynical. Rudy Giuliani was not trying to put something over on anybody when, speaking of the Mueller investigation, he told Fox News (May 31), “The whole thing should be squashed.” Picture someone taking the Mueller investigation, placing it on the floor, and squashing it like a pumpkin. But darlings, I’m sorry: the word is quashed. Rudy Giuliani is 74 years old; he has spent his life speaking and writing. He’s a lawyer. He was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Quash is a common legal term. Squash is not. Enough said.

But returning to headline writing — here’s the rare monstrosity that’s not from the New York Times. It’s from the CNN website. (Shouts of “Stop! We can’t stand it!” Sorry. You’ll have to.) Here it is (May 8): “Tonight’s primaries could prove the Trump takeover of the GOP is totally complete.” Not partially complete, you understand, but totally complete. As I write this, about a month later, the online headline has not been changed. Nobody noticed the problem.

Picture someone taking the Mueller investigation, placing it on the floor, and squashing it like a pumpkin.

Remember that people are paid to write headlines. As a profession. Now, suppose you call a plumber and ask him to fix your drain. He does so, but he also installs an identical drain, next to the first one, thus making the job totally complete. Would you be stupid enough to pay him? I think not.

Investigative reporter Sara Carter is not that stupid, but she apparently finds it easier to think through the FBI’s web of intrigue than to ponder her own words. On May 17 she published the following weighty sentences:

The Department of Justice Inspector General has sent what is described as an “extremely long and thorough draft” of the much anticipated report on the FBI and DOJ’s investigation and handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe, this reporter has learned. The detailed report on the FBI’s decision making process into the Clinton investigation could lead to possible criminal referrals for some of the officials involved in the case.

Well, that was dull, wasn’t it? Surely she could have cut to the chase. Along the way, she could have asked herself whether she could visualize a “decision making process into an investigation.” I can’t. To me, a process isn’t something that goes into anything. And I’m aware, as Carter is, that the FBI owned the investigation; it didn’t need any process to break into it.

Now let’s look at whether the Inspector General’s report “could lead to possible criminal referrals.” I hope not, because I don’t want a possible referral (nor can I visualize one); I want a real referral. So, I believe, does Carter. Yet even with this personal motive and moral imperative, she can’t get her sentence straight. Try “could possibly lead,” Sara.

Well, that was dull, wasn’t it? Surely she could have cut to the chase.

Falling like a rock from the (comparative) intellectual eminence of Sara Carter, I come, at last, to the level playing field of Wikipedia, where anyone can say absolutely anything. You know those obnoxious TV ads for Sandals, the ads that promise that your sex life will be miraculously restored — and not just restored, perfected! — if you book a trip to one of Sandals’ resorts? The ads provoked me to find out more about this life-changing organization. So I went to Wiki, and here, among other things, is what I found:

In January 2013, the government of Turks and Caicos Islands and Sandals agreed to a settlement of US $12 million around local corruption allegations, without admission of any liability.

If you’re thinking that this is simply routine American discourse, you are right. The proof is that word around. About 20 years ago, baby boomers reverted to their days of hash and roses and started using around as an all-purpose pronoun, just as they used like as their all-purpose sentence-larder. Immediately, every discussion was around an issue, not about it. I believe the indeterminacy of around made the word sound spiritual to them. There were also comforting echoes of illiterate leftist speeches around problems of racism and, uh, poverty. So comforting, and yet portentous, was around that it began to resemble the boll weevil in the old song.

First time I saw him, he was sittin’ on the square.
Next time I saw him, he was sittin’ everywhere.

In Wiki’s part of everywhere, a $12-million settlement is presumed to exist around allegations. Restless and amorphous, the settlement hunches and slops around until it finds a big, embarrassing allegation (right next to a big, embarrassed bank account), and sticks to it.

Around is an ominous symptom of a contagious verbal paralysis, by which I mean an inability to move words into places where they make some sense. A crucial stage of this sickness is loss of the power to visualize what words mean. No one who had the power of visualization would slap around into every slot available for a preposition. And no one who had that power would say the words I’ve been hearing for the past few months as I’ve listened, unwillingly, to a local TV station’s attempts to make itself sound intellectual. The station’s ads convey deep thoughts about the problems of San Diego, one of which is high real estate prices. The fruits of Channel 10’s meditations on this mysterious problem are presented in the words of a news personality who says: “The cost of living here? comes with a price.”

There is no price to a cost. There just isn’t.

The question mark is not a typo. It indicates how the sentence sounds. It represents the dumb, Valley-girl uptalk that makes a hilarious contrast to all the brow-wrinkling over San Diego’s challenges. But just look at that sentence. “The cost comes with a price.” What, in the name of Noah Webster, does that mean? There is no price to a cost. There just isn’t. The sentence can be pronounced with deep seriousness, as if it actually said what the author meant, or should have meant: “If you want to live here, you’ll have to pay a lot.” But that’s not what it says. It says nothing. It is a set of words with no visualizable meaning, and none of the 15 or 20 people who must have been involved in the production and dissemination of the sentence noticed that. In fact, they considered it so successful that they doubled down on it. They recently added a second version: “Cost of living! Is pricey.”

I have to admit, however, that if you don’t care whether your words mean what you want them to mean, or whether they mean anything at all, you may end up being funnier than Samantha Bee, Donald Trump, or even Sir Galahad. The effect may be unconscious, and a little morbid, but hey! Why should you care about that, either? If you notice it.

On May 19 a cougar killed a mountain biker in the woods 30 miles east of Seattle. A widely, and approvingly, circulated statement about this event was given to the world by one Rich Beausoleil (nice name), who is “the state’s official bear and cougar specialist” (enviable position). Notice the redundant, and therefore emphatic and unquestionable, marks of legitimacy: he’s a specialist, he’s designated by a state, and he’s official. I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed.

Anyway, Mr. Beausoleil (who, I have no doubt, is as good as his name) was reported to have said that

The death was only the second caused by cougars in Washington in the last 94 years.

“But it's one too many,” he added.

One too many? What about the first one? Not too many — just about right?




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How to Seize the Moral High Ground

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I was never a fan of Billy Graham. I considered him a raving bore and a probable nitwit. But I was disturbed to read that his death was greeted by a torrent of abuse from leftwing and “moderate” media, as if hundreds of pundits had been storing up rage against him for the past 30 or 40 years. Some of it made me gasp. Literally. Here is the tweet with which someone named Lauren Duca, a figure at Teen Vogue, of all places, bade farewell to Graham:

Have fun in hell, bitch.

“Bitch,” in that sense, started as prison talk for “male homosexual.” After prison it spread to other locales, such as Teen Vogue. Duca’s opposition to Graham seems to have resulted from Graham’s opposition to homosexuality.

I have never been a fan of Quentin Tarantino, at all. I think his films are vulgar and obvious. I am aware that he has recently become a politically controversial figure, not because of his “art” but because of his alleged countenancing of his friend Harvey Weinstein’s alleged crimes. But I gasped at the weird screed about Tarantino that appeared on a widely read rightwing site that sometimes publishes good things:

He’s a slobbering, drooling, film-school nerd who stuffs his movies full of bloodshed and curse words, apparently hoping no one will notice the Uber-geek behind the camera who’s likely wearing either panties or diapers. He bears the unmistakably soft air of someone who’s never been punched in the face.

For all of his films’ alleged danger and violence, it’s always seemed barkingly obvious to me that he’s a twerpy fake who’d burst into tears if he chipped a fingernail. He’s an emblem of a generation which truly knows nothing beyond pop culture and gets nearly all of its “life experiences” from a screen.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds this stuff — the leftwing sample and the rightwing sample — literally sickening. What kind of people enjoy these things? This is not H.L. Mencken. It’s not Lord Byron. It’s not Zola. It’s not Mr. Dooley or Sinclair Lewis. It’s not anyone who ever attacked an enemy with wit and insight. It’s not even the vicious polemics of the American revolutionary period, of the Jackson and anti-Jackson movements, or of the Crisis of the Union in the 1850s. It’s garbage.

What gives it cultural license? What allows it to be either cheered or justified — as the canards about President Obama’s birthplace were cheered, and, much more prominently, as the constant charges of treason against President Trump are cheered?

What kind of people enjoy these things? This is not H.L. Mencken. It’s not Lord Byron. It’s not Zola.

Some of the attraction is simply to lynch-mob attitudes. Many years ago I visited a friend who rented an apartment in South Boston. He was gay and Jewish. He had trouble getting out of his place without being ridiculed and threatened by local Catholic youth. Those days are gone. So are the days in which interracial couples were taunted and threatened on the streets of Northern cities. (I don’t have to read about it; I saw it.) But the same mentality, if you want to call it that, is visible in the fanatical attempts to exile from schools and colleges anyone who expresses rightwing ideas, many of which are simply the modern-liberal ideas of 20 or 30 years ago. The same mentality is visible in the frenzied hunt for people who, 30 or 40 years ago, allegedly violated some sexual code. And no, I am not in favor of sexual harassment, however defined. I just don’t like lynch mobs, even when the target is guilty.

But there’s something else going on. Since the 18th century, at least, it’s been noted that people are seldom embittered when they lose a contest they didn’t think they had any reason to enter. I’m not bitter about my failure to be elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, or to be chosen president of my university. But I would be embittered if an assistant professor in my department were given my office and my committee positions. I would be still more embittered if that person asserted his or her right to my perks.

People on the Right, many of them, are embittered and hateful because, for many years, they have been treated as second-class citizens — their distinctive ideas removed from the schools, their gun ownership restricted and threatened, their religion mocked by the most prestigious figures in popular culture. They eagerly applaud every attack on their supposed superiors.

I’m not buying it. If you want to preserve traditional culture, a war of abuse is not how to do it.

People on the Left, many of them, are embittered and hateful because they have grown used to their culture’s institutionalized authority and prestige. The leading figures of government who did everything they could — and are still doing everything they can — to get Trump unelected are not just opposed to his ideas, if any; they are angry, angry, angry that nobodies from the Right have seized their own cultural thrones. No attack on the infidels is too vulgar for them, or for many of their supporters in the media.

Me, I’m more sympathetic to the people on the Right — not the people on the Right who threatened me when I visited South Boston 40 years ago (they’re not there anymore), but the people on today’s Right who are basically (in my view) fighting a defensive battle against those who want to take their guns, their schools, and the power of their votes away from them. So the offended persons lash out, not just at the political establishment, but at all its heirs and assigns, including such heroes of the self-entitled cultural elite as actors and movie directors.

So I get it. But I’m not buying it. If you want to preserve traditional culture, a war of abuse is not how to do it, you slobbering, drooling, twerpy fakes. Neither is the home-family-“cops are wonderful” cant in which the Right has long been marinated. And, my leftist friends, if you want to assert your own values, try to do it by communicating something valuable, or at least plausible, and not such stupidities as “Trump is a traitor,” or the kind of talk one hears on the prison yard — you bitches.




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Diversity of Culture Versus Diversity of Background

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I saw the news about the assailant who drove his car over people on the bridge near Big Ben and then crashed into the gate of Parliament, got out with a knife, and attacked other people. This person was an Islamic terrorist.

Now think of other examples of terrorism, such as the man who went to the top of the tower at the University of Texas, 50 years ago, and started shooting people. Think also of the many cases of black people being taken and lynched by white supremacists. All these examples of terrorism resulted from assailants not living by the code of a certain culture, a culture which assumes that all individuals are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In 2009, Andrew Neather, who was a speechwriter for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, defended government-engineered mass immigration as the source of a more “interesting” and “cosmopolitan” society, delightful to sophisticated Londoners, as if it were the government’s job to create such pleasures. He stated that there were economic reasons for immigration, but that government ministers were “passionately in favour of a more diverse society. . . . I remember coming away from some discussions with the clear sense that the policy was intended — even if this wasn't its main purpose — to rub the Right's nose in diversity and render their arguments out of date.”

Another way to think of a “diverse culture” is a segregated society, one that has different rules for different people.

The problem then was that many of these new immigrants didn’t adopt the English culture of individuality. They held onto a culture that embraces subservience, as exemplified (but hardly exhausted) by burqas and Sharia law.

How can you have a single culture that is diverse in this way? “Culture” is another way of saying “social group,” which is governed by social rules. Another way to think of a “diverse culture” is a segregated society, one that has different rules for different people. Sharia law would apply to Muslim people, who would be further divided into Sunni and Shiite people. The Ten Commandments and kosher laws would be enforced on Jewish people. Christian people would be divided into Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, and all the other denominations of Christianity, each with its own legally recognized rules. Polygamy would be legal for Mormon people but not for Catholic people. In short, a fully diverse culture would be analogous to a group of not-necessarily friendly tribes living in the same area, similar to the way in which Native Americans used to live on nearby but separate reservations in Oklahoma when it was called the Indian Territory. They were called, very accurately, the nations.

A segregated society is not one society, with variations, which is what the average person thinks of when they think of “diversity.” As the Supreme Court said in Brown v. Board of Education, “Separate is not equal.” This is why I think our desired diversity should be defined as diversity of background, not diversity of overarching rules. We have many different ancestors, religions, orientations, and physical characteristics, but we have a common set of social rules. Our shared social rules should center on our individuality, not on our backgrounds. Each of us individually has the right to do or not do whatever we want, as long as we are not imposing our wishes on others, or getting the government to do so, which is often what “multiculturalism” means. In other words, laws that restrict our liberty should be placed at the minimum, whoever we are.




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The Matlock Moment

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METV recently showed an episode from the old television series Matlock in which the eponymous hero is delivering a closing address to a jury in a murder case. He says, in words somewhat similar to the following: “Not only is my client not guilty of murder, but the alleged victim is still alive, and is about to walk through that doorway and into this courtroom!” All eyes turn expectantly to the door — through which, eventually, enters a quite different person. There is a general sigh of disappointment, and Matlock turns back to the jury. “The person who came through that door is not, of course, the alleged murder victim. But the fact that you turned to the door in full expectation that the victim was alive and about to enter indicates plainly that you have a reasonable doubt a murder occurred!” The jury acquits his client.

Sometimes, merely to make a seemingly outrageous claim is enough to show that the claim is credible and that most people are already prepared to believe it.

Then came the now-predictable, hopelessly muddled statements by Obama officials.

I don’t know whether Donald Trump began his political career with an understanding of that principle, but he has certainly put it to good use. He said that Hillary Clinton belonged in jail, and the nation responded with a general feeling that, well, yes, we believe she does. He said that Barack Obama was a disastrous president, and the nation said to itself, “Yes, I already knew he was nothing but talk.” Then, on March 4, Trump said that Obama had been spying on him, and the reaction was far from the media-anticipated, “Now he’s done it. Now everybody can see that he’s crazy.” People in general were quite willing to believe that Obama, or his administration, would naturally have been tapping Trump’s phone, reading his emails, or whatever it was that Trump was suggesting.

Some people continue to demand that Trump prove his claim. The media instantly asserted that the claim could not be proven, that nothing of the kind could even conceivably have happened. Consumers of the media’s own claim were not supposed to have noticed the media’s own, fairly constant, retailing of secret information about Trump — information that must have come from some unfriendly government source. On January 20 the front page of the New York Times had exulted in the alleged fact, certainly leaked to it by people in US intelligence agencies, that said agencies had carried out or were carrying out a program of wiretapping (“intercepted communications”) against Trump or his associates or both. This alone made Trump’s charge seem plausible.

One of the least welcome surprises in the past year has been the extent to which elite opinion has become not merely acquiescent but brazenly complicit in government by intelligence spooks.

Then came the now-predictable, hopelessly muddled statements by Obama officials, and something more important: the realization that, by recent edict of Obama, 17 US intelligence agencies are now able to share “intercepted” or invented information, one with the other, thereby greatly increasing the possibility of leaks, harassment, blackmail, and whatever else any one of them may want to inflict on any US citizen against whom secret investigations have been undertaken. Seventeen times the 16 other agencies is 272. Obama’s action made it 272 times more likely that someone would leak, harass, or blackmail under the succeeding regime than under his own.

Many things about the past year in politics have left my mouth open in amazement. One of the least welcome surprises has been the extent to which elite opinion has become not merely acquiescent but brazenly complicit in government by intelligence spooks, now called “the intelligence community.” People who loudly lamented the activities of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and refused to believe even its most plausible findings now encourage the kind of behavior by which secret agents attempt to control political events — the commissioning of investigations by political hacks, the initiation of investigations that result in nothing except intimidation and implied disgrace, the provision of group statements that cannot be tested for truth because they are based on secret information, and the relentless leaking of information or surmise to a partisan public press.

One doesn’t have to possess any love for conspiracy theories to sense a bad smell coming from the back room of the republic. Now that Trump has announced, in his dumb, clunky way, that he smells it too, maybe someone will open the door and find out exactly who is trying to control this country.




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2016 — Reaching Out to an Iconic Year

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Isabel Paterson said, “What this country needs is a lot less of all sorts of things” (see our October 1993 issue, p. 39). She was mainly concerned about political agencies and political schemes, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind her observation being applied to words as well. This country needs a lot less of all sorts of words — most of them politically inspired, but bad words in any case.

Here are a few of 2016’s worst and most prominent verbal offences. I am indebted for some of them to the advice of readers, but I won’t credit these friends by name. I don’t want them to be criticized — or, to use the vernacular of 2016, I don’t want them to get death threats from haters and Nazis.

On haters and Nazis, see below. My list is alphabetical, and it starts with:

An abundance of caution. Before 9/11, this phrase — once shy, legalistic, recherché — was willing to appear in public only about once a decade. Now it is in the mouth of every hack official who decides, for no reason at all, to inconvenience or endanger his fellow citizens. On January 6, an insane person shot up the baggage lobby at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. He was immediately arrested. But passengers who had already cleared security were still held captive, without baggage, without food, without restrooms, for at least five hours. From time to time, medics showed up to cart one of these caution-damaged passengers away. There was no abundance of caution about heart attacks or ruptured bladders. Half of the airport didn’t reopen until 24 hours later, at which time it was discovered that innocent people had lost 20,000 items of luggage, pieces of identification, and so on. This shows what an abundance of caution can do. I suggest alternative and more accurate expressions: an abundance of stupidity or an abundance of arrogance.

Artists. This term should be retained for people who actually create art, as opposed to people who just decide to call themselves artists. Such artists are, almost invariably, people who screech or bellow popular music or do visual art that resembles, in the late Nikita Khrushchev’s words, “something that’s left behind after a child has — pardon the expression — done its business.” Real artists call themselves painters or singers or sculptors or writers or composers, not generic artists. They are concerned with what they create, not with the kind of titles they can procure from agents, marketers, or peers — a peer being someone who gives you an award or serves as a peer reviewer when you’re trying to get a grant. Such awards, such artists, and such peers have multiplied greatly since tax money started being used to fund almost anyone and anything capable of irritating old-fashioned (i.e., sensible) minds with the latest revival of Dada and other remains of the Great War avant-garde.

Is uniting any better than dividing? If you answered Yes to that, you are being an idiot: it’s a meaningless question.

Death threats. For the past year or so, everyone who makes a public fool of himself — by, for instance, harassing other people about their political beliefs — has responded by demanding sympathy because of the death threats he has therefore received. Hard evidence is seldom offered for the existence of these threats, partly because no one in the media asks for evidence and also, probably, because the threats either don’t exist or exist in some such form as “I don’t like you” or “You are an imbecile” or the still more heinous “Why don’t you just grow up?” We must remember that for some people, growing up would be worse than death. But it isn’t just individual idiots that receive death threats. It’s idiot institutions, too. If some 14-year-old phones a death threat to P.S. 38, a superintendent with the aforementioned abundance of caution will lock down every school in the district, thus justifying the three press conferences he and the police chief and the mayor have been dying to hold. It’s one small step for safety, one giant leap for self-congratulation. But what else are schools for?

Divisive, used of persons whom one dislikes, and when so used pronounced di-VISS-ive, with a facial expression suggesting unanimous condemnation by the faculty of Harvard College. Americans supposedly do not want to be di-VISS-ive. But is uniting any better than dividing? If you answered Yes to that, you are being an idiot: it’s a meaningless question. Yet people who rant against divisiveness are not precisely idiots. They are aspiring social strategists. Their strategy is to infuriate people who disagree with them and then to remark that these people are responding divisively, thus tricking them into surrendering.They may also lecture them about the importance of reaching out to one’s opponents, building bridges, healing wounds — in short, doing the opposite of what they themselves are doing. Clearly, this is a strategy adopted by cynics who realize that there is nothing to be said for their own positions and are trying to win by sapping their opponents’ self-respect. If my comments on this issue are divisive, make the most of it.

Get and got, as in “I get it,“ used as the introduction of a counterargument, or “You got this,” used as a means of encouragement. The next time someone tries to inspirit you by claiming that you got this, you should reply, “I get it: you’re illiterate.”

Give back, as in “It’s Christmas, and many people are taking this occasion to give back to the community.” At Christmas, 2016, I received precisely that message from an organization to which I routinely give — combined with the suggestion that I engage in the national orgy of giving back by sending some more of my money. I replied, in part: “I have nothing to give back. I have earned what I own. No one — least of all you — has given it to me. I give because I want to give, not because I think I have some obligation to do so. I don't like the implication, and I suggest that you will get more money, from me and others, by abandoning it.” I received no reply; nobody gave back to me.

The next time someone tries to inspirit you by claiming that you got this, you should reply, “I get it: you’re illiterate.”

Going forward, moving forward, as in, “What is our plan, going forward?” These expressions appear to have originated among government bureaucrats and to have been spread by political speeches. They now appear wherever people wax pompous about implementing their agendas. The phrases in question are usually plunked into a sentence with as little regard for grammar as you see in the example I quoted. According to that sentence, what exactly is going forward? We are, surely; yet “we” is not in the sentence, although “our” is. But no matter who or what is going on its merry way, I’m sitting this one out.

Hate speech, haters, etc. I assume you’ve noticed that people who habitually employ these terms tend strongly to be the biggest haters you know. The observation is substantiated by the violent response that some of them are making to the fall election. Of course, there is never any reason to punish people — verbally or legally — for not liking others. When haters become physical harmers, there are plenty of means to punish them; but does anybody, not a moral fanatic, care whether the guy who assaulted him and stole his money hates him, or whether a guy spewing political obscenities also feels hatred? The hate vocabulary is just a way of insulting the people you hate, because they haven’t done anything that merits any other kind of punishment.

Icon, as in conservative icon, icon of the Civil Rights Movement, Hollywood icon, pop music icon, and the like.Icon does have some useful meanings. It means a religious picture. It means those little blibs and blobs you see on a computer screen. It can refer to passages in a work of literature that, like pictures in a church, symbolize a set of values and make them memorable. All these things can be called icons. But what does that have to do with Madonna? Icon has become a word that means “famous” and “good.” Often it just means “good.” The wordis always an honorific; headlines never say, “Joe Blow, Icon of Crime, Dead at 96.” Indeed, icon is most useful for what can be called merit-smuggling — the awarding of unearned value. (See legendary, below.) When you encounter an obit for some iconic figure of whom you never heard, it’s probable that this is nothing more than a posthumous attempt to manufacture greatness. Such is commonly the case with recently deceased activists for discredited, usually communist, causes.

Issues, as in the ad that advises you to “help defend against those digestive issues,” meaning “use our brand of laxative”; or in the frequently heard complaint “my son has issues,” meaning unspecified psychological problems; or in the cry of the chronically outraged, “I have issues with that.” Issues seems to have arisen in the politicization of feeling that was the legacy of 1960s radicalism, whence it spread to political discourse generally and now to every phrase that gestures at a difficulty, problem, illness, or complaint.Look: if you need a laxative, take it; if somebody has a problem, say what it is; if you ‘re angry, say what you’re angry about. But if you have a real issue, meaning something you seriously want to discuss (“I’m concerned about the issue of Medicare”), call that an issue and we’ll talk about it, not just fake some empty sympathy.

People who habitually employ "hate" and "hate speech" tend strongly to be the biggest haters you know.

Legendary. Ulysses is a legendary figure. Odin is a legendary figure. Cary Grant, as much as I like him, is not a legendary figure. For one thing, he really existed. For another, there are no legends about him. I don’t mean lies or little stories about things that probably never happened. I mean there is no legend of Cary Grant and the Golden Fleece. Cary Grant did not discover the Seven Cities of Cíbola, nor is he a figure in the Götterdämmerung. Debbie Reynolds was a good actress and a great dancer, but she was not the face that launched a thousand ships; pace the media, her death did not make her a legend. Real people do, sometimes, have whole cycles of false but romantic stories associated with them. In that sense, it is possible to discuss the legend of John F. Kennedy, although myth, a more neutral term, would be more appropriate. (Just in case you’re wondering, I explored this matter in an article called “The Titanic and the Art of Myth”: Critical Review [January 2003] 403-434.) One can also talk about the legend of Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman, 1774–1845), a great man about whom many doubtful — not necessarily untrue — stories cluster. But Mick Jagger, Meryl Streep, and Mad Dog Mattis are not legends, even in their own time.

Nazi, fascist, KKK, and all their ideological and linguistic cousins. On January 11, President-Elect Trump likened the practices of US intelligence agencies to those of the Nazis. That did it for me — it was one Nazi too many. If you’re going to redefine your enemies so that everyone turns out that way, you’re showing a pathetic lack of imagination. Can’t you think of anything else to call people you don’t like? There’s another problem. If you use these words, you’ll soon have a pathetic lack of listeners. Almost everyone knows that Hitler is dead.

Parse, as in “parsing the press secretary’s statement, one finds . . .” What one finds is that the press secretary intentionally suggested (without literally stating) a meaning that the audience might swallow but that could be denied if the audience finally choked on it. That is clearly objectionable, but what is the objection to using the word parse for the game of creating or interpreting such a statement? It is the same objection I would lodge to calling calf testicles prairie oysters. Parse is a term of grammatical art; it comes from a much more refined environment than that of its currently popular use, which is understanding and appreciating doubletalk. People who parse politicians’ statements are ordinarily changing the subject from the politicians’ tricks to their own equally cynical, and equally cheap, cleverness. Parse is a flower that grows on dung heaps.

Passed (a euphemism for died). The original of this expression was passed away, itself a euphemism for deceased, which was a euphemism for died, but at least potentially meaningful in the context of an assumed belief in the afterlife. Passed is, perhaps, like season’s greetings, an attempt to escape from any offensive expression of religious convictions. But the residue makes even less sense than the original. If you passed, where did you pass to? These days, people don’t even pass away. And like many other bad children, this expression is trying to kill its parent. In 2016 I started hearing passed ten times more frequently than passed away.

Passion. In an omnipresent television advertisement, a man speaks of his wish for a shirt that you don’t have to tuck in. “This to me became my passion,” he says. Well, enough said.

Reach[ed] out to. Until approximately November 15, 2015, this was a moderately expressive phrase for moderately unusual acts of communication, accompanied by unusually strong emotions: “My sister and I had a fight, but later she reached out to me, and now I think it’s OK”; “The priest reached out personally to the homeless people in the neighborhood.” Then, suddenly, and for no reason at all, the phrase became equivalent to sent a routine request, called in an idle moment, asked how late the cafeteria was open, bothered me with pictures from his summer vacation. The confusion between the first kind of meanings and the second says a lot about the pompous way in which Americans are learning to treat their ordinary affairs (see passion, above).

If you’re going to redefine your enemies so that everyone turns out to be a Nazi, you’re showing a pathetic lack of imagination.

The slash, as in hopes/fears, requests/complaints, liberty/democracy, and so forth. I want you to look at this little article from January 4 of the present year. You won’t get through it, because it’s the most boring thing ever written, except for any of Hillary Clinton’s speeches. It’s a farewell letter written by the British ambassador to the European Union. Yeah, you’re asleep already. And it gets worse. The reason I’m bringing this up is that the man starts his almost incredibly prolix message, in which every sentiment is repeated at least five times, with a prominent slash:

Dear All,

Happy New Year! I hope that you have all had/are still having, a great break.

Probably he thought it would be good to allow for every possibility. He wanted to be inclusive. Maybe some people were still having a good time; maybe, for some other people, the good times had passed. He couldn’t decide. Yet he was addressing “All.” What to do? And there is also the possibility that he didn’t know what day it was. Whatever. When in doubt, use a slash.

Poor Sir Ivan Rogers. But this is the problem of all who slash: they can’t decide whether it’s yesterday or today, good or bad. They can’t decide whether they’re talking about politics or economics, or politics and economics. So they write yesterday/today, political/economic, good/evil. In the same way, Daniel Webster cried, in the peroration of his second reply to Hayne:

When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken/dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered/discordant/belligerent. . . . Let their last feeble/lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the Republic, now known/honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms/trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased/polluted, nor a single star obscured . . . but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea/land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart: Liberty/Union, now/forever, one/inseparable!

Inspiring, isn’t it, what you can do with a slash?

In fact, I’m too inspired to continue. I’ve had enough for now.

Just one more thing: have you noticed how many of the atrocities I’ve been examining in this column have emerged from the field of politics, or have flourished best in that environment?

You may think that this is simply because I’m not hip to all the cool new lingo, in which I could have discovered many strange expressions that have nothing to do with politics. If you think that, you have a point — but how much harm is done by saying that somebody you admire is chill, or that it’s been a long time since you hung with him? Not much. I’m reluctant to add such small, merely recreational linguistic experiments to my repudiation list. And it’s true that passed has practically nothing to do with politics, although it easily made the list. But take a look at the other items, and I think you’ll see fresh evidence for my conviction that the American political establishment, which is the world’s biggest supplier of words, is also the world’s biggest supplier of idiotic words.




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So, What Did You Do All Day?

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In the company I run, my partner and I have over 70 employees. Crazy. Business is good but stressful.

I just finished the latest meaningless HR task that small business owners must do: creating a “safety binder” for every single chemical in the office, with printouts of the numerous-page Safety Data Sheets from each product’s manufacturer, and with first aid information. “Every chemical” includes printer toner, dish soap, dry erase markers, WD-40, glue sticks, antibacterial wipes . . . the list is long, and the SDS sheets can be up to 11 pages. The Safety Data Sheets list such things as toxicity to fish and what to wear if you are in a plant that manufactures the dangerous item.

And this means he won’t sue us? Of course he will sue us. But maybe we will be spared the guillotine.

So, if an employee squirts hand sanitizer in his eye, he can get the safety binder and flip to the page that tells what to do if you have hand sanitizer in your eye. Or if he eats Windex, he can likewise turn to the safety binder. And this means he won’t sue us? Of course he will sue us. But maybe we will be spared the guillotine because we have shown such caring by having a bright red safety binder.

On a more practical note, I’ve bought three fire extinguishers, a huge first aid kit, and those continuous charge flashlights that plug into walls. Next on my list is choosing safety officers, devising a fire drill, and conducting it. My partner wants to get some of those bright orange vests. I’m thinking about it.

By the way, I have not done anything even remotely related to our product in a very long time.




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Is the GOP Terminally Stupid?

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On October 8 I received an email from Representative Luke Messer, a Republican representing the 6th District of Indiana. Attached was a “constituent survey” that Rep. Messer wanted me to fill out and email back to his office. As the reader can perhaps guess, the survey sought my views on the government shutdown.

To the best of my recollection I have never been in the state of Indiana, much less the 6th Congressional district. I did fly over the state once, I think. In any case I can’t conceive why Rep. Messer would want the opinion of this New Englander on the government shutdown. The survey itself was framed in classic push-polling style, an attempt to draw from me the answers that Rep. Messer and his allies so want to receive from the public.

The Tea Partiers just don’t seem to understand that the country as a whole is not to the right of Rick Perry.

For the fun of it I did fill out and send back the survey. But the whole business only reinforced the impression that has been growing in my mind — that the GOP is incredibly and perhaps terminally stupid.

This impression was further reinforced by an AP dispatch from Washington dated October 12 and titled “During Shutdown, Congressional Pay Strikes a Nerve.” Quite a few Republican friends of the shutdown saw no problem about collecting their pay while it was going on. They gave no thought to donating their salaries or setting them aside for the duration. I quote from the dispatch:

When Rep. Lee Terry, R-Neb., was asked whether he’d continue to collect his paycheck during the government shutdown, he offered a defiant response: “Dang straight.”

Days later, a penitent Terry changed course, telling his hometown paper, the Omaha World-Herald, that he was “ashamed” of his comments and would have his salary withheld until furloughed government workers got paid again.

And Rep. Terry was hardly alone. The AP went on to quote several other Republican members moaning, “I need my paycheck,” until constituent anger forced them to backtrack. “[I put my] needs above others in crisis. I’m ashamed of my comments” said one.

These are the people who craft our laws. So devoid of common sense are they that they could not see the political incorrectness and moral turpitude of their words and actions. This is the GOP the Tea Party has given us. Apparently, the complete proletarianization of our politics is being realized — not, as one might have expected, by the Democrat Party, but by the GOP. The party of Wall Street and the country clubs has been taken over (or almost so) by petit bourgeois Babbitts.

Consider the Tea Party-driven strategy behind the government shutdown. It began as an attempt to defund Obamacare. When this provoked indifference or hostility among the majority of the electorate, the GOP sought to extract concessions in other areas of spending and entitlements. This looked like extortion to many observers, and polling showed that the public agreed. Rather than fold a losing hand, the Republicans upped the ante by threatening not to raise the debt ceiling, a much more chilling prospect for business leaders as well as average voters. The Republicans gave the Democrats one opening after another to demagogue the situation, and Obama and his minions proceeded to do so. As a result the Republican Party, both in Congress and out, has dropped to new lows in public approval. Over 40% of the Tea Party currently disapproves of the GOP, according to the latest Gallup poll.

The actual dangers threatened by the Republicans’ stand have been overstated by the media as well as the Democrats. The government shutdown has done very little harm to the nation as a whole, although depriving federal workers of pay is hardly fair and will, economists say, lead to a slowing of economic growth if the shutdown is prolonged. But one way or another, the government is eventually going to reopen, and the effects of the shutdown will pass.

The GOP threat not to increase the debt ceiling is a more serious matter, though not for the reasons Obama and Co. have put forward. Republicans in Congress have pointed out quite correctly that money coming into the Treasury every month exceeds the amount needed to pay the interest on the national debt. Despite Secretary of the Treasury Lew’s prediction that October 17 would bring financial Armageddon, there is no prospect of serious trouble before about November 1. Moreover, the US has actually defaulted on its debt at least twice in the past (once in 1814 when the British came close to making us a colony again, and then in 1979 when a fight over a balanced budget amendment led to a brief delay in the Treasury’s ability to redeem about $120 million in maturing T-bills) without the world coming to an end.

Yet the environment today is quite different from that of 1814, when we were not the linchpin of the world economy, or even 1979, before the era of globalization. As so often in economic affairs, it’s the psychology that matters. Loss of confidence in the US as the world’s rock of financial stability would almost certainly lead to panic in world markets. A prolonged crisis would likely cause the dollar to fall from its perch as the world’s reserve currency, and the effects of that would be felt in every American business and household. A global 2008 for which no bailout could be organized might follow. The result could be a years- or decades-long depression in the US and much of the world.

The scenario outlined above may or may not reflect the exact conditions a default would produce. But do we really want to find out? Certainly the vast majority of Americans are not willing to gamble their livelihoods on Republican assurances that a default would be no big deal.

And therein lies the absurdity of the GOP position. Senator Cruz’s crusade against Obamacare, which touched off the crisis, has morphed into a game of chicken threatening the stability of the world economy. This is a path few Americans want to tread. Recall that over 40% of Tea Party members¤tly disapprove of the GOP.

Within the last few days the Republicans have tried to say that they provoked the shutdown and debt ceiling fight in order to force the Obama administration to negotiate over spending cuts and entitlement reform. Had they actually started out with that line, they might have attained the moral and political high ground. But too late did they realize that this was the only possible way to justify shutting down the government and threatening to default on the national debt. Everyone knows how and why this contretemps actually began, and few are buying the new Republican line. Obama and the Democrats are winning the argument despite the weakness of their case.

Quite a few Republican friends of the shutdown saw no problem about collecting their pay while it was going on.

This Republican performance represents the quintessence of political stupidity. The Republicans have bungled a potentially winning hand into a losing one. They have inflicted enormous political damage on themselves for 2014. Whereas six months ago it seemed certain they would reclaim a majority in the Senate, that prospect now seems very dim. While they will almost certainly not lose control of the House, their majority may well shrink, with districts gerrymandered to provide small Republican majorities tipping Democratic. 2014 is beginning to look like 1998 all over again — but worse.

Ideologically the party has been split asunder, with the establishment wing further alienated from the far right faction. This makes its presidential prospects even more tenuous. If Ted Cruz is the nominee in 2016, establishment Republicans will stay home or vote for Hillary. If the candidate of the establishment, that is, Jeb Bush, runs and wins the nomination, many Tea Partiers will go rogue by not voting or perhaps even taking the third party route. The Tea Party mantra, on the morrow of Hillary’s landslide, will be that the GOP candidate was another Romney, i.e., not conservative enough. The Tea Partiers just don’t seem to understand that the country as a whole is not to the right of Rick Perry. Maybe they will get a nominee to their liking in 2020. Then, after he or she is crushed in that election, perhaps reason will prevail, and stupidity recede. Perhaps.

More than any other single person, Ted Cruz is responsible for the present fix the Republicans are in. He won his Senate seat by taking on the Republican establishment in Texas. But that establishment is too far right for most of the rest of the country. Cruz, who definitely wants to be president, has gained new prominence, not by reaching out to the center but by pandering to his Tea Party supporters. This may or may not be a good idea for someone seeking the Republican nomination for president in 2016 or 2020, but from a national perspective it amounts to political suicide.

The GOP, whose symbol is the elephant, faces, like the real animal, the danger of extinction. California, once a purple state, is now definitely blue. Florida, once a red state, is purple trending toward blue. Texas is still a red state, but demographic trends indicate that its future is purple and perhaps even blue. If and when Texas goes, the Republican Party will be finished nationally. Cruz, the Cuban-Canadian-American who was last seen hobnobbing with Sarah Palin on the National Mall, is doing nothing to prevent the GOP’s decline — indeed, he is accelerating it. By choosing the path of political stupidity he is leading the Republican Party to destruction.

The elephant, reputedly a highly intelligent animal, does not have the ability to save itself from extinction. The GOP is headed that way purely because it has become too stupid to recognize political realities.

¤




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Required by Law

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Well, I’ve seen it all. I mean the long arms of the nanny state. Yes, they’re always thinking of me — my health, my safety. Could expenses connected with monitoring (monitoring, not governing) my life have driven the Feds into unimaginable depths of debt, and many states into the lobby of bankruptcy court?

I know that angelic, big-hearted comedian who governs New York is worried about fat and sugar consumption (strange, neither word is in the state constitution), but I thought that down here in Dixie I was safe from such intrusive vaudeville masquerading as “Government.” Although there's a pernicious rumor going around that they're sending inspectors into our homes to make sure there's a seatbelt on any chair over 16 inches off the ground.

Anyway, I’ve discovered the only hiding place from over-government is Antarctica. Just yesterday I’m trudging up the trail to a picnic in one of our many local parks when I’m faced with a glaring sign. It’s pretty. Green and white, sorta blends in with the leafy atmosphere. The sign is all right — it’s the message that’s frightful. It tells me to clean up after my dog because it’s a threat to the health of our children. And below, it cites the law. Fine, jail, execution? Who knows? I can’t stand to read it all the way through.

And why health? Pardon my crudity . . . instead of a dog, I’m with my cousin Harry — does this apply to his upset stomach? I understand the need to keep the park clean, but must you threaten me? It’s “required by law,” the sign announced in bold letters. And “it’s a threat to the health of our children.” A threat to our children? As we know, TV and smart phone games are a greater threat. Will they be tempted into dog poop fights? Will they make dog poop sandwiches with lettuce and tomato? In all my reading of our nation’s history I’ve never seen the bone-chilling statement that a single kid died from dog poop. Not one since 1776 — even if they added sugar and chocolate sauce to convert it into hors d’oeuvres.

Is our mayor tenderhearted or is he trying — like the clown in New York City — to impress the voters? To assure them that nothing exceeds his concern over a ravaging dog poop epidemic. And why does he think he must threaten me with execution to appeal to my sense of cleanliness? What a dim view he takes of his citizenry. It’s born of the same sign-philosophy that states: “Fines Doubled When Workers Are Present.” What an insult to the driver. “Oh boy — now I’m outta that double fine zone — I can bowl over a couple of workers at half price. Woulda cost me twice the price two miles back.”

We all understand that piles of poop interfere with the beauty of a park. Sure it’s unsightly — but a threat to health? About the same level as the threat of lightning death at the same location. I wonder who cleans up the deer, wolf, elk, bear, chipmunk, and squirrel excrement in national parks. It’s a good thing that elephants don’t thrive therein.

I’m sure that somewhere in the alphabet soup of federal agencies there’s a Department of Poop. I’m sure it has signs warning of careless, low-flying birds that could make a mess of your hat or hair or health.




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