Winter Housekeeping

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It’s an old idea: at the end of the year you’re supposed to put things in order, take care of pending business, settle your accounts. But since I’m too lazy to settle my own accounts, I’ll do something easier. I’ll settle the nation’s accounts, at least its verbal ones.

Let’s start at the top of the pile.

President Obama, always good for a pratfall. In his climate change rant in Paris on November 30, Obama said, among other risible things, “I come here personally, as leader of the world’s largest economy.” That one sentence has at least three problems.

  1. How else could he come, except personally?
  2. “Leader” is not a title. Not in this country. Not yet. The noun therefore needs an “a” before it. I’m not making a petty distinction here.
  3. But what does it mean to be a leader of an economy? You can picture an individual leading a company, but you can’t picture him leading a whole economic system. What, with a leash? With fife and drum for accompaniment? Even the delusional Andrew Carnegie didn’t picture himself in that way. Of course, if Obama imagines that the economy of the United States is equivalent to the political organization of the executive branch, it won’t be hard for him to put himself in that picture. And I guess that’s what he does.

At long last, have you no history? These days, you don’t need to read a book to discover the elementary facts of history; you can just Google them. But why bother? Why not just say, as many news authorities said, and kept on saying, on the occasion of the Paris terrorist attacks, “This is the worst night in the City of Light.” No, it wasn’t. For one thing, there were centuries of ravages by the French kings. Then there was the violence of the French Revolution. Including the Reign of Terror. And more revolutions later. How about the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, accompanied by the violence of the Paris Commune, during which communards did their best to destroy the city, only to be executed en masse by their opponents? As if that weren’t enough, there was the Nazi conquest and occupation . . . need I continue?

After the terrorist attacks we were also lectured by smart, university-trained people about our age-old connections with France. CBS, to cite but one example, asserted that “since 1776, America has been allied with France.” No, it hasn’t. Look it up. Check out the XYZ Affair. Or the intervention of Napoleon III in Mexico. Or the Vichy regime. Or about a hundred other passages in the flippin’ history of effin’ France.

Many news authorities said, and kept on saying, on the occasion of the Paris terrorist attacks, “This is the worst night in the City of Light.” No, it wasn’t.

But things have gotten really bad when one of the smartest, and certainly one of the most self-possessed, of TV newsfolk allows herself to begin a discussion of a papal tour to the Central African Republic by saying, “Pope Francis, becoming the first pope to visit an active combat zone. . . .” (Harris Faulkner, Fox News, November 29, 2015). Visit? Popes used to lead their armies in battle. And Pius IX and Pius XII would have been happy if they could simply have visited a combat zone, instead of being besieged in the Vatican and deprived of secular rule, as was Pius IX, or living in a city occupied by Nazis, as did Pius XII. Perhaps I should mention Napoleon’s almost successful attempt to destroy the papacy by kidnaping the pope, etc.

December’s resurgence of the Bowe Bergdahl case reminded me that European history isn’t the only kind that the self-appointed experts don’t know. Has anyone in the media questioned the idea, promulgated by the current administration but seemingly accepted even by its critics, that the United States has “never left a soldier behind on the battlefield”? But it’s obviously untrue. Something like 30,000 Northern prisoners died in Civil War camps, partly because the North eventually decided not to do prisoner exchanges with the Confederates (unlike President Obama, who exchanged five Gitmo prisoners for the idiot Bergdahl). There are Americans still living who were “left behind” in enemy custody in other wars. Anyone who asks himself a simple question about “no man left behind” can find this stuff in a minute.

Yes, language changes, but not that fast. A play was recently performed in my vicinity. The play was good, and it was well performed. But this is the way in which the advertisement characterized the play: “Heartsick love slings like mud, the drink pours strong, and music hides everywhere as the party just. keeps. trying. to. storm.” Gosh, Nellie, imagine that! But what play do you think the ad was trying to describe? It was Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t guess. It could just as easily have been Macbeth.

Has anyone in the media questioned the idea, promulgated by the current administration but seemingly accepted even by its critics, that the United States has “never left a soldier behind on the battlefield”?

The absence of the presence. If someone blocks the street in front of my home, screaming and threatening and preventing me from coming and going, or blocks access to my store, with the intention of stopping my business, I won’t regard that as a peaceful act. Neither would you. But whenever there’s a leftist demonstration that doesn’t proceed to mayhem and murder, it is acclaimed as peaceful, even by the rightwing media. Thus, on November 27, Brit Hume and Chris Wallace, two of the most estimable news people in the nation, conducted a long conversation on Fox about how great it was that recent protests in Chicago had been peaceful.

Wallace: What was most interesting about the protest was that they were clearly heartfelt and they clogged the Magnificent Mile, the downtown shopping area of Chicago, as you can see. They were also peaceful.

Hume: They were peaceful, and in addition to that, they had a point. . . .

Indeed they did, and I agree with that point, wholeheartedly. Police shouldn’t shoot and kill people when they don’t need to, and mayors shouldn’t cover it up when that happens. But it was not a peaceful protest.

Don’t lay to me. I don’t want to pick on Fox News. I’m not accusing Fox of anything that others aren’t guilty of doing. But when the best people at Fox lose their standards, what will happen with all the rest of them? Fox’s Juan Williams is a fine writer, and I’m not saying that because I usually agree with him, because I don’t. So it is especially disappointing to see that even he is losing his grip on English verbs. On Thanksgiving he was on the air discussing (guess what?) Thanksgiving, and he said that after eating a Thanksgiving meal, you have to go and “lay down.” My reaction was what I would expect to have if I found that a dear friend had contracted bubonic plague: you too, Juan? “I’ll lay on the bed; I laid on the bed; I’ve laid on the bed” is the current national plague, and when it gets to Williams, you know it’s hit almost everyone. Any reading of purported news and commentary confirms this awful truth, and it’s enough to make you want to lay right down and die.

Going Hillary just one step further. In case you didn’t know it, North Korea has a state-sponsored “girl band,” which was supposed to put on its act, which must be awful, at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. On December 12, however, the performance was canceled. The reason, according to the NCPA, was: “for a reason.”

Government, it seems, is not the only offender. Government undoubtedly provided the models, standards, touchstones, and paradigms for the job title that Walmart gave its employee, Enrique Marquez, before the dopey young man was revealed as an accomplice of terrorism in San Bernardino, but that doesn’t excuse Walmart. According to the company, Marquez was employed as “an asset protection and customer specialist.” It’s generally believed that this means Enrique was a security guard.

The back to nature movement. If you were going to list the most self-righteous movements in America today, what would appear at the top of your list? Ah, there are so many to choose from! But Mehmet Karayel has provided evidence that the California Water Curtailment Movement may win the prize.

Tennyson referred to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Not an attractive portrait of the old gal, but I prefer it to “Nature, dry, brown and weedy.”

In case you haven’t noticed — and there’s not much reason why you should — California is suffering from one of its cyclical droughts. Shrill voices insist that everyone conserve, and yet again, conserve! The owners of these voices — mostly governmental — are in a somewhat difficult position, because while ordinary citizens are flushing their toilets only once a day, the state is dumping billions of gallons of water into the Pacific to create optimal conditions for the Delta smelt, a useless species of fish.

This is the background for the item Mehmet mentioned. It’s a journalistic effort to shame the human hogs who slurp and guzzle more water than their neighbors (though much less water than any single Delta smelt). It might be remembered that the hogs are also paying for the water they use, but I guess that’s beside the point. The article’s nicest touch is this:

Slurp central appeared to be a place in Danville called Saddleback at Blackhawk, an unnaturally lush, gated community full of sprawling multimillion-dollar mansions. The enormous green lawns, tropical plants and exotic trees surrounding the homes are in stark contrast to the adjacent hills, which are dry, brown and weedy.

Tennyson referred to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Not an attractive portrait of the old gal, but I prefer it to “Nature, dry, brown and weedy.”

Let me be very specific with you. On December 15, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest but perhaps the worst district in the nation, suddenly shut down all 1,100 of its schools because of a terror hoax that everyone else, including the New York City School District, recognized as a hoax. A press conference attended by countless government officials produced not even an attempt to notify parents about what had been done with their kids when the schools shut down, but it did produce repeated assurances that every official was acting out of an abundance of caution regarding a very specific threat. It was specific because it didn’t just say that “weapons” would be used; it specifically mentioned bombs and guns. Even more compelling was the fact that it didn’t just say that “schools” would be attacked; it specified the 1,100 schools of the Los Angeles district.

It’s my duty to predict that specific will be the next word you hear a thousand times a day. It can be contained only by equally frequent references to an overabundance of caution.

* * *

Well, so much for 2015’s abuses of language. Let them go. I have two important things to say at this December’s end.

For 14 years, the readers of Liberty have tolerated, indulged, and, often against their better judgment, encouraged this column. For their generosity I am more grateful than I have words to say, and I will do my best to merit their continued indulgence.

The end of 2015 also marks ten years since the death of the original encourager of Word Watch — R.W. Bradford, founder, publisher, and editor of Liberty, who died on December 8, 2005. (See “A Life in Liberty.”) But for me, Bill has never died, nor will he.

Bill Bradford was a great man — brave and independent, generous and kind, and as much fun as 20 other people. What he didn’t knew about American history and politics wasn’t worth knowing, and his knowledge of the American libertarian movement cannot ever be surpassed. Bill understood what freedom meant; he knew it, he lived it, and he granted it joyously to others. He also knew, very well, what is meant by quality of language. He wanted Liberty to be a journal that sought both freedom and excellence. What worthier goal could there be?




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The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

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For the world, Saturday, February 22 was a day of historic significance — a day when the government of a nation of 46 million, part of the developed world, was toppled by a revolution. Defying the arrangements of Western diplomats, who are always anxious to impose security, the people of Ukraine took possession of their capital and its citadels of power. Parliament turned on the president. The police deserted him. The army deserted him. He fled toward the border, leaving his Russian allies to determine whether they would try to reinstall his regime in a rump Ukraine of native Russian speakers. There is a chance that might happen; after all, Russophone Ukraine is merely a construct of Soviet dictators who did not care who was part of what province, so long as all were obedient to them.

We will see. In the meantime, what television audience, what television crew, could resist the spectacle? Multitudes in Kiev’s enormous central square, welcoming the archenemy of the ousted president, suddenly liberated from prison, who addressed them from her wheelchair by the light of flaring torches, on the ground where, only days before, protestors had been shot and burned alive on the barricades. Who could resist these scenes as they exploded?

The answer is: the American “news” media.

For Yahoo! News, the big stories were the popularity of hoodies in Sochi and the recapture of a “drug kingpin” in Mexico. For the more sober Google News, they were the kingpin and many other things — Ukraine was way down the list, and no effort was made to separate new stories from ones warmed over. For the three TV networks, Ukraine did not exist; their news is down on weekends, except for the most perfunctory evening readings of press releases from the staffs of American politicians, out on the golf links.

For CNN (“we bring you the world”), the big stories, oft repeated, were a gay football player who remains a gay football player; a racial complaint in Mississippi; how to lose weight; replays of video footage, thought to be “viral,” about a child who might have been injured but wasn’t; and a variety of other non-news features. For Fox News, the stories were the chronic errors of President Obama, a US win at the Olympics (over 20 years ago), how to look good, and a variety of other non-news features. Both cable news networks had correspondents stationed in Kiev, but they were summoned to the camera about as often as brothers-in-law are requested to receive excess funds. After all, there wasn’t room for them, what with all the “news” that’s prearranged for weekends. When the news anchors tried to ask them questions, it immediately became obvious that the anchors had no more idea than a rabbit of what to ask. In the case of CNN, it was apparent that neither the anchor nor her producers had the least conception of what a Ukraine might be.

For the three TV networks, Ukraine did not exist; their news is down on weekends, except for the most perfunctory evening readings of press releases.

As the day wore on, Fox became visibly nervous about its reputation. It dragged in a moth-eaten diplomat who vexed even the anchor with his astonishingly empty statements. Hours later, they found, of all people, Susan Estrich, who made an excellent try at saying what the historical significance and prospects of the events in Ukraine might be. The anchor clearly had no grasp of what was going on, but she was happy Susan showed up. And she was right to be.

Now, what does this all mean? It means that the gross errors and omissions of the American media cannot all be attributed to political cunning, or any cunning at all. Many of them can be ascribed to the simple fact that there are people in this business — many people — who resemble the stupid old editor whom Orson Welles’ character in Citizen Kane fires at the start of his newspaper career. He fires him because the old guy says that his paper is practically closed during a lot of the day. Kane tells him that the news happens 24 hours a day (and on weekends). To let the news be shaped by the fact that you weren’t expecting news to happen on the weekend . . . well, what kind of journalist are you?

And what kind of journalist are you if you lack any sense of drama? Not to mention any knowledge of geography. Because the loss of Ukraine blows a hole through the Russian empire.

What seems to be required in today’s newsrooms isn’t knowledge or a sense of drama but a sensitivity for the drab. Who won the hockey game. Who won the lottery. Who’s complaining that his neighbors don’t like him. Whose child is obese. Whose child is not obese. The big things. The important things.




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