The Good Side of Jonathan Gruber

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News! News as you’ve heard it, 300 times a day, on your favorite radio or TV station: “My Pillow [a kind of, guess what? pillow] is the official pillow of the National Sleep Foundation!” http://www.mypillow.com/

Alas, I am not certain that this announcement achieves its desired effect. Nor am I certain — for similar reasons — that the information one finds in the Wikipedia entry for Jonathan Gruber achieves the effect he wanted.

Gruber, as you already knew, is the man who this month became famous for bragging about the methods by which he and other sponsors of Obamacare fooled the “stupid” American people. We’ve now heard a lot about Jonathan Gruber. In fact, there’s too much Gruber to keep up with — especially in the form of videos that keep surfacing every day, each with its own grinning image of Gruber explaining how he schemed to mislead us all.

What can you say that’s good about a man who considers “rip off” a favorable term?

(By the way, who are the people who hoarded videos of this ugly man and then decided to release them now? Who would want to record a lecture by Jonathan Gruber, a man whose personality most closely resembles a load of wet gravel smacking into your windshield? Maybe he grated so much on the people he thought were laughing along with him that a few of them decided to bide their time and pay him back.)

I could choose many examples of Gruber’s style, but I’ll limit myself to one. It’s from a CBS report (Nov. 21):

“And the only way we could take it on [by “it” he means Obamacare] was first by mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people, when we all know it’s a tax on people who hold those insurance plans,” he explained.

In 2012, Gruber described how former Sen. Ted Kennedy ripped off the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars to craft a universal health bill for Massachusetts.

“The dirty secret in Massachusetts is the feds paid for our bill, okay, in Massachusetts,” Gruber said in the recording obtained by CBS News. “Ted Kennedy and the smart people in Massachusetts basically figured out a way to rip off the feds for about $400 million a year.”

Now, what can you say that’s good about a man who considers rip off a favorable term? Well, if you’re Gruber, you can think of plenty of good things to say about yourself, and some of them have landed on Wikipedia. I assume that Gruber’s Wiki page was written mainly by him, except for the “Controversies” part at the end. That’s the usual way with hacks like Gruber. I picture him hunkering down with a list of his supposed accomplishments and checking each of them off as he feeds it into the Net. This is the result:

In 2006, Gruber received the American Society of Health Economists Inaugural Medal for the best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under. He was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine in 2005. In 2009 he was elected to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association.

In 2011 he was named “One of the Top 25 Most Innovative and Practical Thinkers of Our Time” by Slate Magazine. In both 2006 and 2012 he was rated as one of the top 100 most powerful people in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare Magazine.

It tickles me to imagine a roomful of “professionals” sitting around thinking about whom to name as the “best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under.” Were birth certificates required? Was Gruber’s “medal” supposed to stimulate the other kids in the class to work as hard as he did?

Even funnier is the idea of grown people (or was it interns?) scouring the internet to generate a list of the “most innovative and practical thinkers of our time” (“yes, she’s innovative — but is she practical?”), then devoting all their powers of analysis to knocking the list down to 25. Or did they start with five (of which one was their boss), and work like hell to bring it up to 25? Probably the latter — that’s how Gruber would have gotten in. It’s hard for me to believe that powerful is an appropriate adjective for people in health care, but maybe that’s because I think of healthcare as a field in which you help others, not push them around. An old-fashioned idea, no doubt. But coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence. And feeling proud to be on that list? It’s all rather hard to understand.

But the funniest part of Gruber’s canned biography is a sentence recording the fact that in 2006, “he was named the 19th most powerful person in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare magazine.” It’s one thing to spend your time getting 25practical thinkers or 100 powerful people into the corral; but to rank the cows in the exact order of their potency — that would truly be an absorbing occupation; that would truly be something for the hired hands to puzzle over. “Nope, Chuck — reckon yer wrong. Bossy, thar, she ain’t quite so powuhfull as ol’ Thundercud, though mebbe she’s jest a leetle more powuhfull than Fatty Pie genrully is.”

Coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence.

Must have been hard to decide. But the existence of these bizarre competitions does throw some light on the video performances that made Mr. Gruber famous. When he bragged about fooling the voters, he was behaving as the 19th most powerful person in healthcare, and evidently enjoying the role; but when he explained how to rip the voters off, he was competing strongly to be named the 18th most obnoxious person in healthcare.

Ambition is a good thing. Yet Gruber’s powers as a rhetorician will, I am afraid, never get him even to 500th place in a contest for the most eloquent person in healthcare — over, under, or around the age of 40. When the performances by which he appears to have pleased some, if not all, his fellow experts were witnessed by a more numerous but less impressionable audience, and his act was discovered to be (if I may paraphrase Irving Berlin) a turkey that you’d know would fold, he found no better way to placate outraged viewers than to murmur: “The comments in the video were made at an academic conference. I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately and I regret having made those comments.”

One secret of public speaking is not to shoot yourself in the head. If you intend to avoid doing that, you should know — especially if you are a brainy college professor — that a good way of aiming for your head is to say things that will lead almost any audience to think of devastating questions, such as:

Aren’t academics paid to engage in the objective, disinterested search for truth? So if you’re willing to go before an academic audience and brag about misleading the people, what would you say in front of a political audience? If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious? When you say you were speaking inappropriately, do you mean that what you said was wrong? If so, was it wrong in the sense of not being true, or wrong in the sense of turning out to be embarrassing? What do you mean by inappropriately — inappropriate to what?

Obvious questions, easily anticipated. And to answer most of them would probably get you in even deeper trouble than you were in before. Gruber hasn’t answered them. But he doesn’t need to, because the national audience he must have longed for all his life has already found the answers, without his help.

Such is the ignorance and illiteracy of our leaders that until now, Gruber’s sub-500th-rate rhetorical skills have not limited his political influence. According to Wikipedia,

In 2009–10 Gruber served as a technical consultant to the Obama Administration and worked with both the administration and Congress to help craft the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as the ACA or “Obamacare.” The act was signed into law in March 2010, and Gruber has been described as an “architect”, “writer”, and “consultant” of the legislation. He was widely interviewed and quoted during the roll-out of the legislation.

Both Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi expressed their respect for Gruber’s talents. Today, however, Obama is dismissing Gruber as someone who never worked for him, and Pelosi is commenting in an even more dismissive way:

Mr. Gruber's comments were a year old, and he has backtracked from most of them. You didn't have it in your narrative. That's really important. He is not even advocating the position that he was at some conference and some said. So I don't know who he is. He didn't help write our bill. With all due respect to your question, you have a person who wasn't writing our bill, commenting on what was happening when we were writing our bill, who has withdrawn some of the statements.

If you want to check that quotation, it’s from an article by David Weigel at BloombergPolitics, Nov. 14. No matter how hard it is to understand, those are the words Pelosi used. Her employment of “so” is really a puzzler. Does the House minority leader mean to say that because Gruber allegedly “backtracked,” and because “Gruber’s comments were a year old” (were also presents a difficulty: how old are they now?), and because “some said” (what did they say?), she doesn’t “know who he is”? In 1984, unsuccessful politicians became unpersons. In Pelosi’s universe of discourse, they become “Mr. Gruber,” who is “a person,” which sounds even worse than an unperson, somehow.

If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious?

Fox News sent one of its guys, David Webb, to lie in wait for Gruber and ask him if he had really backtracked on the idea that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. . . . Call it the stupidity of the American people or whatever.” This was their exchange:

David Webb: “Professor, do you think the American people are stupid?”
MIT Professor Gruber: “No comment.”

Gruber has realized that there are certain occasions on which even a genius like him should shut his mouth. If he continues this clever strategy, he has a chance of becoming the 499th most powerful rhetorician among healthcare hacks. And the rest of us will hear less of the word inappropriate.

So much for Professor Gruber. Inspired by the political season of 2014, which has been coextensive with calendar year 2014, I’ve put together a list of terms that, like inappropriate, should take a long vacation from the American vocabulary:

  • Americans are tired of gridlock in Washington: I’m not tired of gridlock, and I bet you aren’t either. If Americans were offered a choice between having Congress and the president agree on new laws, or having them caught in a literal gridlock from which their chauffeured vehicles could not escape, my prediction is that 90 percent would choose the latter.
  • Bucket (“bucket of proposals,” “bucket of states that Hillary might carry in 2016,” to say nothing of “bucket list” — things you want to do before you kick the bucket): How vulgar can you get?
  • Double down: Once is enough.
  • Fighting for the middle class(“We’re going to continue fighting for the middle class” — Harry Reid): Starting with George Soros.
  • Income disparity: A term used by people who want everyone to be paid $15 an hour, and no more.
  • Pivot(“The president pivoted to foreign policy”): What do you think of people who are always changing the subject?
  • Shellacking (“The president took a real shellacking in the November election”): That is to say, the president was varnished with a purified lac dissolved in denatured alcohol. Slang should be more descriptive.
  • The people want us to work together, the people just want us to get things done, etc.: Propaganda slogans used by Democrats to get Republicans to concede to them.
  • Vote suppression: Keeping the other party’s voters from voting twice.
  • We are a nation of immigrants: Is that supposed to be an argument?
  • What this election is really about: Whatever your talking points are.

I am considering additions to this list, and I would appreciate readers’ contributions. One of my own candidates is unacceptable, a useful word but perhaps, like red states and blue states, a little too useful for its own good. This month, the people who run Obamacare discovered — actually, their critics discovered — that they had misestimated, by a mere 400,000, the number of people who signed up for the program. And guess which way they misestimated? Right! They overestimated. According to Reuters, the administration’s flack-catcher on this issue, a haggard person named Sylvia Burwell, responded as follows (on Twitter, naturally): "The mistake we made is unacceptable. I will be communicating that clearly throughout the [department]."

Well! That’s telling ‘em. They’ll never do thatagain. It’s unacceptable.




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When You Wish Upon a Czar

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Two minutes after President Obama gave his political crony Ron Klain the job of Ebola Czar, I got a text message from a friend. He’s a political scientist, so I was expecting him to complain about Klain’s being nothing but a Democratic Party hack, but he didn’t. His comment took an historical turn. What he said was, “If trends continue, America will have more czars than Russia had in its whole history.”

I saw that as a protest, not against the Russian monarchy, but against the current assumption that words prove their worth, not in use, but in overuse. To my friend, a word is valuable because it’s both appropriate and fresh. To many other people, it’s valuable because it’s capable of being used over and over again, in any possible circumstance.

There’s nothing wrong, in itself, about the use of “czar” to mean something like “an official appointed to exercise full power over a designated matter.” Czar is an admirably brief, concrete, imagistically evocative word to express that meaning. But one can be driven to suicide by other people’s overuse of even the finest words. No one wants to hear “I love you” every minute of every day, and certainly no one wants to contemplate an endless sequence of organization charts in which every position is labeled “Czar.”

We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: it would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

Consider: the United States now has two czars in the same realm. The first was Dr. Nicole Lurie, whose existence no one remembered until the president started being urged to appoint an emergency preparedness czar. Then we learned that we already had one, and it was Dr. Lurie, who is Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response for the Department of Health and Human Services. But that made no difference; another monarch was added to America’s ever-growing College of Czars.

In 1908, when Ferdinand I, Prince Regnant of Bulgaria, proclaimed himself Czar of Bulgaria, his action excited much unfavorable comment from other monarchs. There already was a Czar of Russia, and the general opinion was that one was enough. Contemporary Americans are clearly without that kind of taste and discrimination. We want a czar in every pot. We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: they are very hard to get rid of. Even if they’ve finished their job and wiped out Ebola or baseball or whatever else it is they’re supposed to handle, they or their bureaucratic progeny remain in office. It would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

There’s another term that has been spread by the nation’s romance with Ebola — the old but increasingly dangerous abundance of caution. How long those six syllables had, until recently, been incubating deep in our linguistic organs, only the zombies know, but now, suddenly, the contagion is everywhere. Whenever a government official delays some urgent job, it’s out of an abundance of caution. Whenever an American citizen is prevented from exercising his rights, it’s because an abundance of caution led the FDA to deny him a drug, or led the gun suppressors to deny him a permit, or led the cops to arrest him for reminding them of the law, or led the high school principal to tell him not to wear a flag-print t-shirt, thereby offending non-Americans. Once it gets going, abundance of caution can do a lot of damage.

State-friendly terms such as czar, abundance of caution, and of course national crisis have been big winners in this, the Ebola Period of our history. Meanwhile, phrases dear to the hearts of (certain) libertarians have suffered badly — indeed, have virtually disappeared from public use: open borders, freedom to immigrate, right to immigrate, and the like. I confess that such terms have never been favorites of mine. To the disgust of (certain) other libertarians, I have argued at length against the concepts they express (Liberty, October 2006). Those terms will have a difficult time regaining the spotlight now occupied by domestic terrorists, the terrorists’ wacko foreign exemplars, and the Ebola virus. It’s hard to see how a radical immigrationistwould answer the question, “Do you mean that Thomas Eric Duncan had a right to enter America and spread a deadly disease?”, or the obviously succeeding questions, “So you’re saying that the right to immigrate isn’t universal, after all? So why do you think it’s a right?” We’ll see what the friends of open borders do to revive their favorite words. I’m sure they’ll think of something.

Where would we be without "adults in the room" and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis?

While they’re thinking, we await in horror the coming election. The political results may be bad or good — more or less crippling to our actual rights — but the linguistic phenomena are already gruesome. A friend recently asked whether American political commentary could do without stupid sports metaphors. The answer is, Apparently not. Where would we be if elections weren’t up for grabs, if the trailing candidate didn’t need to hit a home run, if the leading candidate weren’t trying to run the clock out, orif one of the two parties weren’t just playing DE-fense, never managing to get across the goal line?

And where would we be without adults in the room and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis? Protestors, for example, never yell and scream; they vent their frustrations; they act them out. Their actions are signals that our communities need healing, and that healing can come only from a therapeutic national conversation or bipartisan dialogue — both parties on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not.

But here I must apologize. At some point in this column, I went out of bounds. I stopped blaming the victims — blaming phrases that started their lives with hope and promise, only to lose it because of community pressure to be something they’re not — and I started displaying my phobias about expressions that were losers to begin with.So I’ll adopt a more proactive stance and pose the challenging question: what would happen if an American public figure actually tried to ignore all insipid current clichés and restore the greatness of the English language, the language of Shakespeare and Emerson and Jefferson, of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and . . . oh, maybe, of William Butler Yeats?

Well, here is what would happen, and did happen, when, on Oct. 3, Vice President Biden spoke at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Forum, “Harvard’s premier arena for public speech.” “Folks,” said Biden,

Folks, “all’s changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” Those are the words written by an Irish poet William Butler Yeats about the Easter Rising in 1916 in Ireland. They were meant to describe the status of the circumstance in Ireland at that time. But I would argue that in recent years, they better describe the world as we see it today because all has changed. The world has changed.

There’s been an incredible diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability. Emerging economies like India and China have grown stronger, and they seek a great force in the global order and global affairs. . . .

The international order that we painstakingly built after World War II and defended over the past several decades is literally fraying at the seams right now.

Now, let’s see. Yeats did write a poem, called “Easter 1916,” about the Irish nationalist Easter Rebellion. His poem suggests that commonplace people were transformed, at least in imagination, by their participation in that failed revolt:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not. No good poem, and particularly not Yeats’s poem, “describe[s] the status of the circumstance” of something. But does Biden understand his own remarks? Again, clearly not. What terrible beauty could he possibly see in “the status of the circumstance” that he himself describes — “diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability,” an “international order” that is “literally fraying at the seams” (and can ya believe it, “right now,” too)? That’s not beautiful. It’s not even terrible, in the sense that Biden wants to import from Yeats. A person who doesn’t understand that literally means literally, not figuratively, or that something that was “built” doesn’t have “seams” and therefore cannot “fray” . . . this person should stay as far away as possible from other people’s poetry. We’re used to the vice president’s torrent of clichés; must we now be visited with his attempts to be learned and original?

It’s interesting to speculate how many people would say what they say, if they understood it. Here’s a passage that the vice president presumably wouldn’t like; it’s from a political analysis by Jennifer Rubin, issued on Sept. 30 by the Washington Post.It’s about a number of Democratic senators who may not win their elections. I’ll put the most obvious clichés in italics:

They were napping while the Islamic State surged and were asleep during the wheel for other Obama foreign policy flubs. They didn’t raise any objection to zeroing troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. They were unmoved by the atrocious Iran interim deal. They were quite happy to watch the sequestration cuts wreak havoc on military preparedness. Now the bill has come due for circling the wagons around Obama.

The quantity of clichésis bad enough, but does she really mean to say that the senators were happy to watch even when they were asleep? Is she really able to picture a cut, much less such a passive, somnolent thing as a sequestration cut, wreaking havoc? Does she really think that people who circle wagons get a bill for it? And what picture was in her mind when she thought of people sleeping during the wheel?

Enough. I’m tired. I’m going to find some wheel to sleep during.




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Aping the English Language

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Are you annoyed, angered, outraged by our national illiteracy? Or have you come to be amused by it? Do you wake every day grinding your teeth about the ridiculous mistakes you expect to find, not in the spam section of your email, but in the published words of people who are actually paid to write the bizarre things they write? Or do you rise bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to enjoy the latest nonsense?

I am still one of the intellectual Cro-Magnons who belong to the first category, but I’m evolving toward the second one. The American language is becoming too ridiculous not to laugh about. Suppose that a pianist sits down to perform her first recital, and forgets several bars of the sonata she wants to play. That would be sad, perhaps tragic. But suppose that a chimpanzee sits down at a piano and starts running his paws over the keys as if he were a concert pianist. That would be funny. It might even be entertaining. If chimps have charm, this would be a moment when their charm could be appreciated. The fumbling could be understood as a momentarily interesting, perhaps exhilarating, confirmation of what we already knew: we are smarter than chimps. Some of us, anyway.

This month’s examples of idiotic verbal mistakes are presented in that spirit of fun. At least most of them are.

On August 31, Fox News reported on an explosion in a Paris apartment house: “Initial reports are that this was caused by a potential gas leak.” How great is that! An apartment house blows up, and Fox blames it on a potential gas leak. Imagine what an actual gas leak would have done.

The American language is becoming too ridiculous not to laugh about.

On September 4, John Nolte, writing on Breitbart’s site, noted that “USA Todayis Gannett's flagship publication and enjoys the highest circulation of any other American newspaper.” A paradox worthy of Zeno himself: USA Today is both itself and something other.

On September 17, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published an article about the various kinds of incarceration available for T.J. Lane in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Lane, as you may recall, is the young gentleman who in 2012 assassinated several other young people at a high school in Chardon, Ohio, then showed up in court wearing a shirt on which he had written “KILLER,” and delivered bawdy insults to the victims’ families. This month, he escaped from a ludicrously under-secured facility, was recaptured, and was sent to a real prison. After detailing the penitentiary’s super-max provisions, the article notes that “the maximum-security portion houses about 300 slightly less restrictive inmates.” I can understand that some inmates have to be more restricted than others, but what are the inmates restricting? Their guards’ ability to restrict them, perhaps?

The most entertaining result of T.J.’s escape was the bewildered speculation pursued by many channels of public information about the motivation for his latest escapade. CNN’s online headline (September 12) says it all: “Chardon School Killer T J Lane: Tightlipped about Motive, Escape.” T.J., it seems, failed to say why he scaled the fence and left the prison. Readers can only guess why anyone would want to do a thing like that.

This month, even John McCain showed that he still has what it takes to entertain us. On September 11 he had an amusing confrontation with Jay Carney, formerly the president’s chief prevaricator (i.e., press secretary). In this instance, I suppose, McCain’s heart was in the right place. He called Carney a liar, and why should he call him anything else? But what he said was, “You are again, Mr. Carney, saying facts that are patently false.” Paradox again! Only a radical Pyrrhonist could so boldly assert that even facts can be false, and patently false. The biggest paradox, however, is that Sen. McCain, a man who for many years has done nothing but talk, more or less in English, can be so patently ignorant of the meaning of a common English monosyllable. The word facts is foreign to him.

Jonathan Swift claimed that he wouldn’t satirize people who didn’t court his satire with their ridiculous pretensions. He “spared a hump or crooked nose / Whose owners set not up for beaux.” To vary Swift’s metaphor, it isn’t sporting to make fun of lame people who slip and fall in the street, but when lame people advertise themselves as Olympic athletes, then one has a right to be amused.

If you attend to these sickening displays of self-righteousness, you may be amused by how clumsy they are. They’re almost as subtle, or convincing, as an ape in a tuxedo.

You can see how this applies to McCain, who smugly invoked the rare word patently, only to fall headlong over simple facts. It also applies to the headline writer of the Daily Mail. On September 3, the paper published a translation of one of those arrogant messages that ISIS sends to world leaders. The headline over the article was: “This message is addressed to you, oh Putin.” Oh, how literate! Oh, how parodically grandiloquent! The problem is that the headline writer and the headline approver and the headline proofreader, none of them, knew that the signal of the English vocative is O, not oh. It’s hard to parody someone else’s exalted tone when you don’t know the forms of exalted language.

Is this important? Is it a mere slippage from O to oh? A mere confusion between a vocative and an interjection? A mere revelation that someone doesn’t grasp the language of Milton, Shakespeare, or common English hymns? Or is it another ominous sign that these days, most people are more willing to write than they are to read? After all, when you read, you run into all kinds of whacky old words, and who wants to do that?

If you care about words as tools of meaning, you may have a hard time seeing any fun in the continual erosion of the language. But you won’t deny the dark humor of the latest disaster to afflict Malaysia Airlines. It was a verbal disaster, not an aeronautical one; this time, the company didn’t lose any planes. But it was the kind of disaster that is happening wherever English is the standard tongue, and tongues have found that they can operate without any connection to brains.

Devising its current advertising campaign, Malaysia Airlines began by confusing wit with vulgarity. There’s a vulgar expression that unfortunately has some popularity today. That expression is bucket list. A bucket list is an enumeration of the things you want to do before you kick the bucket; i.e., die. Kicking the bucket was funny at the start of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), in the scene where Jimmy Durante kicks it. Bucket list is an attempt — a stupid attempt — to bring back the fun. But just when it was becoming obvious that bucket list had jumped the shark, Malaysia Airlines, famous for its multitude of dead passengers, initiated an ad campaign called “My Ultimate Bucket List.” If you submitted the “best” bucket list — whatever “best” might mean, although I guess it wouldn’t mean smoking less weed or apologizing to the people you’ve wronged — you would get some kind of prize.

Most people’s idea of an appropriate prize from Malaysia Airlines would be survival, but a thought like that would never occur to a company like that. The company was shocked to discover that anyone could possibly have been offended. Nevertheless, it changed the name of the contest to “Win an iPad or Malaysia Airlines Flight to Malaysia.” I’d accept the first gift, after checking it out for possible safety problems, but I’d pass on the second.

The errors I’ve discussed so far are mostly innocent, monkeylike antics; but not every verbal fumble can be described in that way. Oh, no. Consider the verbal wallpaper that goes by the name of “public service announcements.” If you attend to these sickening displays of self-righteousness, you may be amused by how clumsy they are. They’re almost as subtle, or convincing, as an ape in a tuxedo. This month, the PSA campaign that caught my attention was some advice dished out by a group ostensibly concerned with keeping people’s lives from being ruined by arrests for drunk driving — in other words, a group intent on threatening people with having their lives ruined if they don’t follow its advice.

Make no mistake: people’s lives are ruined by pressure groups like this. I have known several people who lost their jobs and therefore their families because they were poor and they got stopped by a cop and were found to be “drunk” and were jailed and fined and lost their license to drive, which meant that they lost their ability to work. Their lives were devastated, not because they did any damage but because the amount of alcohol in their blood was a trifle higher than a politically identified limit fixed by the law and continually lowered in response to the demands of mad mothers, crony capitalist insurance companies, do-good committees and foundations, municipalities cadging fines, and other lovable persons or nonpersons.

When people try to win an argument by redefining words, they are admitting that they’ve lost the argument but insist on winning anyway.

But that isn’t enough. Enough isn’t a word that busybodies ever understand. Their public service announcements now warn us that we will be arrested even if we are not driving drunk. They claim that we will be arrested for simply driving buzzed: “Buzzed driving,” the ads assert, “is drunken driving.” To which any ordinary speaker of English will reply, “No, it isn’t; that’s why they are called by two different words.” To be buzzed or tohave a buzz on or to have a buzz going is very different from chucking empties of Jim Beam out the window as you drive the wrong way on a one-way street. Everybody knows that. The confusion of drunk with buzzed is an intentional attempt to intimidate. It’s similar to all those other means by which contemporary puritans try to confuse normal conduct, or mild misconduct, with actual crime, and prepare to administer appropriate punishment. Thus, smacking a kid’s bottom becomes child abuse. Having sex with someone who is buzzed or who did not specifically say yes becomes rape. Accusing the president of laziness becomes racism, and declining to subsidize young women’s birth control becomes sexism.

It’s a rule with few exceptions: when people try to win an argument by redefining words, they are admitting that they’ve lost the argument but insist on winning anyway. There would be no reason to call spanking child abuse if people who are opposed to all corporal punishment had convinced the majority of the public that they were right. But they didn’t, so now they are trying to get public opinion, and ultimately the law, to punish spanking by jumbling it together with abuse. Their ideological cousins try the same stunt, by jumbling racism together with counting President Obama’s golf games.

Here is a great way of creating confusion: making one expression stand for very different things. A curious example of this method is what has happened to the most popular political expression of 2014, boots on the ground. This phrase was once fresh and vivid, and its purpose was clear. It was meant to identify and exclude a certain kind of military force: “There will be no boots on the ground.” But boots on the ground established itself as a cliché that could be given as many delusive meanings as friends of the most transparent administration in history could come up with. Its ostensible meaning is still no troops on the ground, but its real meaning has become no troops on the ground except advisors on the ground; no combat troops on the ground except those originally intended to be combat troops; and no foot soldiers on the ground — only paratroopers, Navy SEALS, Marines, active military advisors, Boy Scouts . . .

And no, I don’t think that’s entertaining.




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Moving Forward, Clichés Remain

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On August 8, Fox News reported on the Obamacare-avoidance strategy of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Since Shaheen is running for reelection, she never mentions the great legislative achievement of the supreme leader of her party; Obamacare is just too unpopular to be named. Accordingly, in an interview played by Fox, Shaheen answered questions about the program by noting that she didn’t write the Obamacare law. She didn’t say whether this was because she opposed its provisions (although she voted for them) or because she can’t write. She did observe that “hindsight is always 20/20.”

She said this with great satisfaction, as if she were proud of her creative use of words.

Odd. But come to think of it, everyone who uses this cliché projects the same morbid pride. A similar cock-eyed vanity accompanies the use of “wake-up call,” “deck chairs on the Titanic,” “it’s a case of he said, she said,” “last time I checked,” “abundance of caution,” “shocks the conscience,” “got your back,” and, of course, “tone-deaf.” I don’t know why people who obviously care so deeply about the words they choose can’t see that their prize expressions have been in everyone’s mouth (ugly thought, isn’t it?) for many, many years. Maybe that’s a lack of hindsight.

It’s funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge.

But what about foresight? On the same day on which Fox was ventilating Sen. Shaheen’s inanities, the network’s B-list anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle said this about Iraq: “Questions remain about President Obama’s strategy, moving forward.” She said this as if it meant something. Well, I have some questions too, as I move forward in my own life. Don’t questions always remain, about anything? Then why bother to say so? If, however, she meant “doubt” or “skepticism,” why didn’t she say that? And isn’t strategy always about what you’re going to do in the future? If so, what is moving forward doing in that sentence? And what’s the grammar of the sentence, anyway? What is it that’s “moving”? Is it “strategy”? Is the president’s strategy moving? Or is it “questions” that are executing a peculiar forward motion? Yet the questions are supposed to remain. Tell me, Ms. Guilfoyle. But maybe someone else can tell me why moving forward has become such a popular cliché? Is it, like many other redundant expressions, just a way for insecure speakers to nail down their meaning — in this instance, to nail down the idea that, yes, I am talking about the future, OK, not the past? Y’know?

There are clichés, and then there are mistakes — continually repeated mistakes. The mistake of writing whacko when you mean wacko. The mistake of calling in the calvary. The mistake of using disinterested to mean uninterested. And, as I’ve told you before, there is the rising tide of squash.

I mean the confusion of that word, which normally evokes absurd images of fat things being flattened, with quash, which is naturally attached to no particular image but does mean something specific: to stop or repress. The judge quashed the indictment. The teacher quashed the question. The dictator quashed all debate. Try to picture indictments, questions, and debates being squashed. You can’t, and the harder you try, the sillier the incipient images become.

I would expect conservatives to conserve the quash-squash distinction. But they have become almost as good at moving forward as the progressives. In the conservative Daily Caller, July 21, we find this headline: “Top Kerry Aide Tries to Squash Claim of Anti-Fox News Bias by Lying to the Daily Caller.” The story is interesting, but the headline is bad by any standard except that of “Dog Bites Man.” One is supposed to picture a “Kerry aide” — an aide of the secretary of state, John Kerry — rushing over to a claim of bias, stomping on it, jumping on it, sitting on it, and finally lying about it, in a futile attempt to squash the thing. Yet the Daily Caller did not intend to be satirical. Or self-satirical.

Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase.

Neither did Attorney General Holder, in solemn remarks (he is always solemn) that announced his insertion of the federal government into the matter of a young man shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Evidently this is the kind of thing that can be handled only by the intrepid intellect of the attorney general, and of the 40 FBI agents he dispatched to a little Midwestern town. But here is the LA Times report (August 11) on the terms in which Holder announced his intervention:

U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement that he believed the shooting in Ferguson “deserves fulsome review,” and he wanted the federal inquiry to “supplement, not supplant” the investigation by police in Missouri.

“Supplement, not supplant”: nothing wrong with that verbiage. “Review” is a little funky — funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge. Citizens were meant to understand that what Holder had in mind wasn’t an investigation, a legal proceeding, a crackdown, an inquisition, a Court of Star Chamber. No, it was merely a review, albeit a “fulsome” one. We’re used to this kind of guff. But where did fulsome come from? The only possible source is the attorney general’s feeling that a full review would be lacking somehow in fullness. Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase. So, as pompous people extend use into utilize, road into roadway, and famous into infamous, Holder put a new deck on the back of the house, and full was transformed into fulsome.

The problem is that fulsome does not mean full (any more than infamous means famous). Fulsome sometimes means “large” (as opposed to “full”), but its ordinary meaning is less predictable by people who want to use big words they don’t understand. One dictionary lists the synonyms of fulsome as “excessive, extravagant, overdone, immoderate, inordinate, unctuous, cloying . . . ” Granted, we can expect an investigation commissioned by the attorney general to be worthy of all these adjectives, because he himself is worthy. But that’s not what he meant to say. Critical self-examination is not his forte.

Nobody thought it was. Yet there is always a rumor that modern liberals, such as the people who write speeches for Holder and checks for Obama campaigns, are highly educated. From Plato’s Republic to this day, specialized education has been considered the qualification and justification for rulers in dirigiste systems of government — all of them instituted, of course, by allegedly intelligent and well-educated (as opposed to actually intelligent and well educated) people. The linguistic spoors left by President Obama and his crew make the credentials of the ruling class look less genuine than ever before.

Almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Moral fulsomeness is sometimes hard to distinguish from mere demagoguery. I don’t think I can make that distinction in the case of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. He it was who followed Holder’s lead by making a television address in which he repeatedly demanded vigorous “prosecution” of the cop involved in the Ferguson affair, a cop who hasn’t been charged with any offense. Nixon’s office later explained that by “prosecution” he really meant “investigation” (a distinction without a difference, from the demagogue or the tyrant’s point of view) but maintained that Nixon had no reason to retract anything in his statements.

I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,
Said cunning old Fury:
I’ll try the whole cause
And condemn you to death.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But speaking of public morals: I’m not one of those people who are addicted to the notion that “our country’s moral fabric is being eroded” — if only because that’s a mixed metaphor as well as a cliché. But I did get a kick out of the videos of Travis County Texas District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg (and that’s a mouthful right there) experiencing the aftermath of an arrest for driving with her blood alcohol considerably over the legal limit. . . If nothing else, the videos give new life to the old expression “drunk as the lord.” (Drunk as the lord of the manor, you understand, not drunk as the Lord God, despite the fact that Judges 9:13 refers to wine as something that “cheereth God and man.”) All right, all right: I admit it: I’m not in favor of laws against drunk driving, unless it results in damage. And I know I’m in a small minority on that. But almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Even Gov. Rick Perry — he of the slack jaw and wandery eye — was acute enough to reflect on the fact that Lehmberg was the person charged with administering an agency concerned with ethics. So Perry threatened to veto the agency’s appropriation unless she resigned; when she didn’t, he carried out his threat and vetoed the bill. His reward was to be indicted by a grand jury for “abuse of office.” Believe me, I hate to defend Rick Perry, but the prosecutor seems challenged by the rudimentary distinction between use of office and abuse of office.

Nor is grotesque abuse of words simply a Texas problem. No one in the national administration appears capable of finding the right phrase. Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (“Chuck”) Hagel has been reprimanded by this column before, but he has not learned his lesson. This month, he babbled about the attempt to rescue martyred journalist Jim Foley from his crazed jihadi captors, calling it a “flawless operation” that had only one problem: it failed. When the rescuers came, Foley was in some other place. Hagel’s exact words were: “This operation, by the way, was a flawless operation but the hostages were not there. We will do everything we need to do, that the American people would expect from their leaders, to continue to do everything we can to get our hostages back.”

But “everything” must not mean everything — in light of the administration’s stout refusal, in respect to the Foley case, to negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom to terrorists. That is what unanimous administration spokesmen declined to endorse. But tell me, if you can, where is Bowe Bergdahl today, and where are the five jihadis with whose freedom Bergdahl was not-ransomed on May 31? And tell me, while you’re at it, is Hagel still conducting an investigation about whether Bergdahl left his post or deserted it? Once more, there’s a problem of words, the distinctions between words, the meanings of words . . . Perhaps it’s a conceptual problem. Perhaps it’s important!

Oh, here’s an item. Bergdahl’s attorney has now told Reuters that Bergdahl “is ready to move on to the next chapter of his life.” Maybe the president should make another speech congratulating Bergdahl on moving forward. Certainly it’s nice to hear that the young man is making plans for his life, not merely wandering around battle zones in Afghanistan. Somehow, though, I just can’t repress my feeling that it should be Jim Foley who’s moving on to the next chapter of his life. He was entitled to, if anyone was.

It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around.

But perhaps Mr. Hagel was having trouble coming to grips, linguistically, with his own emotions. Many people at the apex of power suffer in this way. There is, for example, the president’s confusion of the word heartbroken with such words as having fun figuring out how to bat little white balls into little tin cups. “We are all heartbroken,” Obama said on August 20, in a tense little speech about Foley’s murder. But those words must not have been quite right. Eight minutes later the broken hearted chief executive was giggling with his buddies on the golf course. You have to admire his powers of recuperation. I would giggle myself, at the absurdity of it all, if I could get the scene of Foley’s beheading out of my mind. The president must have greater strength of character than I have.

The most absurd episode of the month — again, linguistically — was a series of events in Montana, in which sitting Senator John Walsh (Dem.) was found to have plagiarized a 14-page so-called paper submitted as part of a credentialing process in a two-bit graduate program. Walsh and his friends justified his stupidity in many ways: by claiming that he had done nothing wrong (he had used 96 footnotes!); by noting that he wasn’t, by nature, an academic; by claiming that his “mistake” was “unintentional”; by saying that he had served in Iraq, that one of his colleagues in Iraq had killed himself, that he (Walsh) had not killed himself but had been the victim of hundreds of enemy attacks (later reduced to one attack); by suggesting that he had post-traumatic stress disorder, though whatever he had was never diagnosed in exactly that way . . . While at school, Walsh, like his president, was known for his devotion to golf.

Finally the senator surrendered his candidacy, and the Democrats came up with another nominee, one Amanda Curtis, probably their worst possible choice. I felt comfortable analyzing Walsh, a lantern-jawed jock who drifted from one official position to another. His mishaps with words practically analyzed themselves. Curtis is different. It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around. Walsh’s supposed thesis paper was a tissue of mild, mainstream clichés, many of them plagiarized. Curtis’s genuine video blog is an exhibit of left-“liberal” thought, unfiltered and unembarrassed. But what is its cause or referent in the real world? That remains unknown. She might as well be reacting to the climate on Mars.

To return to the subject of the educated classes: Can you guess this candidate’s occupation? You’ve got it: she’s a teacher.




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How the Other Half Speaks

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There’s an old expression: “seeing how the other half lives.” It means looking at people who are different from you, ordinarily people who are richer, and enjoying the spectacle — cynically, perhaps, or just with a sense of humor. One of the rewards of writing this column is seeing how the other half lives in its world of words. Occasionally I get to revel in the great things once spoken or written by people who had a real mastery of language. Those people were rich in words, rich in ways of using words, and often rich in wisdom too. I’m feeling guilty, right now, that I haven’t run a column about them in quite a while. But there are other ways of being rich. One can be rich in wisdom, but one can also be rich in ignorance; and, as a good poet said, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

What place did Thomas Gray have in mind when he wrote the word “where”? He may have been thinking simply of 18th-century England, where he lived, in the literal way of living; or he may have been thinking of the universal human condition, in which we all have to live. Probably both. But I like to believe that he was a true prophet and saw, far in the future, a place called 21st-century America. Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can shed all the traditional guilts and compunctions under which the ignorant long have labored, and simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby. These are the truly wealthy. The place they inhabit is like the heaven of Christ, where neither moth nor rust corrupts, nor thieves break in and steal.

One very wealthy person — not just a member of the Other Half but a member of its One Percent — is President Obama. It used to be said, even by his opponents, that Obama was a fine public speaker. Today, few of his proponents dare to make that claim. Always happy to hear his own words, Obama constantly emits them; and this compulsion has forced people to notice, not only that he is lost without his teleprompter, but also that his utterances have no memorable components. The great thing, for him, is that he doesn’t realize any of this. He hasn’t a clue. When it comes to himself, ignorance is profoundly blissful; he has no critical faculty or even the ability to recognize that other people do.

Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby.

I’m not saying this because I oppose his politics. I feel the same about the politics of President Roosevelt (both of them), President Truman, President Johnson, President Nixon, President Ford, and the two Presidents Bush — to name a few. But there was something redeeming, if only in a minor way, about their verbal exercises. Anyone can think of interesting, though sometimes very strange, things said by the Roosevelts: “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord” (TR, on his presidential campaign in 1912). Truman, in my opinion, was a terrible president, and Lyndon Johnson was worse; but their private or informal remarks were often witty and sometimes wise, if only in a cynical way. When Johnson said that he didn’t want to fire J. Edgar Hoover because he’d “rather have that s.o.b. inside, pissing out, instead of outside, pissing in,” he said something significant in an unforgettable way. Nixon had neither wit nor humor, but he did have wide interests and was capable of saying things that were actually informative. Ford and the Bushes had no literary ability at all, and their expressed intellectual interests could fit on a postage stamp, but they didn’t think they were literary geniuses. They didn’t think they were anything in that department. Their best hope was not to offend, and they seldom did.

By contrast, Obama’s only bad feeling about himself is a lingering resentment that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as the Nobel Prize for Peace. It is impossible to think simultaneously of “Obama” and “self-doubt.” To say that Obama is self-satisfied is to judge him with insensate prejudice. Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it. His tone and body language express the continuous certainty that whatever falls out of his mouth is both momentous in its influence and fascinating in its nature. He has the naïve and wonderful self-confidence of the pampered child, because that is what he is.

A recent article by Terence Jeffrey reviewed one of Obama’s speeches and found that he used first-person pronouns 199 times. To be fair, the speech was 5,500 words long. Also to be fair, 5,500 words is a mighty long speech, unless you have something to say. So what did the president have to say?

He said, “I’m just telling the truth now. I don't have to run for office again, so I can just let her rip.” You see what I mean. He has no idea that “let her rip” is a subpresidential expression, or that even people who work in the 7-11 recognize it as such, and recognize it as a cliché. They also recognize — and the other day, while buying my two-dollar coffee, I heard some of them discussing — the idiocy of saying “I’m telling the truth now,” because it implies that you haven’t been telling the truth before. Obama is cognizant of none of this. Bless his heart, he’s happy with himself.

Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it.

Another thing he said was, “You look at our history, and we had great Republican presidents who — like Teddy Roosevelt started the National Park System, and Dwight Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System, and Richard Nixon started the EPA.” It’s quaint, and kind of entertaining, to picture old President Eisenhower out there buildin’ highways, or President Nixon thinking hard and coming up with the EPA. But what struck me, outside of Barry’s childish reference to the first Roosevelt as “Teddy,” was his strange idea of grammar. As I have said before in these pages, Obama has never mastered the use of “like,” but now we see him using it in a way so ignorant that I can’t remember hearing it before, even in junior high school: “Like Teddy Roosevelt started . . .” By the way, the national parks had existed for generations before Roosevelt “started” them. But what the hell. If you don’t know that you don’t know grammar or history, you’re a happy man.

A third thing he said was, “It is lonely, me just doing stuff.” Sad, isn’t it? But no, you have to picture him saying this to a crowd of listeners at a rally. Sad, and ironic. Intelligence is often manifested not only in a knowledge of history and a familiarity with grammar but also in a sense of irony. That’s three strikes, right there. Yet he’ll never know that he struck out. Much of the fun of seeing how the Other Half lives is enjoying the complete self-assurance they show when they are saying patently ridiculous things.

And they never run out of those things. Consider a few samples from the past few weeks.

Start with lovable old Harry Reid. Spurting outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, Reid noted with disgust that it was decided by “five white men.” None of the anointed news media seems to have observed that Reid himself is (gasp!) a white man; and none was willing to mention that one of the five white men in the Court’s majority was . . . Clarence Thomas. Perhaps this indicates why Reid is able to talk with absolute self-assurance on any topic he addresses — no one to the left of the Daily Caller and National Review is willing to correct him.

Not that the rightwing media suffer from an excess of self-criticism. For me, a particularly interesting illustration was something that Michael Warren, staff writer for the Weekly Standard, said on Fox News a couple of months ago (May 11). This isn’t Sean Hannity, mind you; Hannity says bizarre things every day, and nobody on Fox seems to notice. But Warren wasn’t a popular daily offering, so you would think someone would dare to question his senseless statement that congressmen investigating the administration’s scandals shouldn’t be allowed to “go off on any conspiracy theories” but just “stick to the facts.” Now look. The scandals are about the alleged joint actions — conspiracies — of many people. What if “the facts” show that there has been a conspiracy? Oh, leave that alone! Don’t go off on that!

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about the subject.

Warren’s remark was senseless in the way in which virtually all references to “conspiracy theories” are senseless. I certainly don’t believe that Clay Shaw conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President Kennedy, but I do believe that conspiracy has a meaning and may be useful if you know that meaning. You can say the same about a lot of words that authoritative people wouldn’t dream of looking up. Why bother finding out what decimate means when you can just go ahead and use the word — as did Fox News on July 5, when reporting on pictures of “a decimated Shiite holy site.” Terrible! Someone removed one-tenth of the holiness! But it’s wonderful that Fox can quantify things in this way.

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about religion. If ignorance is ever funny, it certainly was on May 24, when Fox reported that “the Pope visited the Jordan River, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized.” This message was repeated throughout the day — no correction. So I assume that nobody on active duty at Fox perceived the idiocy of the statement. It was like referring, very instructively, to Mecca as the place where many Muslims believe that Muhammed lived, or the state of Washington as the place that many Americans believe was named after a general of the Revolutionary War. Not everyone believes that Jesus was resurrected, but there’s no dispute that he was baptized, and baptized in the Jordan River. Why would there be? Where does Fox think that manyother Christiansbelieve he was baptized — the Chattahoochee?

(Please don’t write to tell me that in your opinion, Jesus never existed, and that therefore many Christians do believe he was baptized someplace besides the Jordan. That makes no sense.)

OK, enough picking on Fox (for now). Among the people most likely to be comfortable while spouting meaninglessly emphatic words are military officers, not all of whom have the literary insight of Wellington or Grant. Transcripts of officers commenting to congressional investigators about their (the officers’) role in the Benghazi affair have now been released (though redacted). These remarksare designed to show that, although commanders did little to rescue the Americans under attack at Benghazi, and told others to do less, no one was ordered to “stand down.”

This is a tough line to elucidate, but one must assume that the officers did their best. Here’s what came out. We are told that when one officer and his group were ready to proceed to Benghazi, where there was bad trouble, they were told to stay in Tripoli, “in case trouble started there.” The officer, one Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, explained that this was not a “stand down”:

“It was not a stand-down order," Gibson said. "It was not, 'Hey, time for everybody to go to bed.' It was, you know, 'Don't go. Don't get on that plane. Remain in place.'"

Thanks for clearing that one up.

And thanks to the aforesaid Harry Reid, senator from Nevada, majority leader of the Senate, for clearing up something of even greater importance, the question of whether the United States has a southern border. Currently, it appears that it does not, unless you mean by “border” a place where you go to be admitted to the United States and given free food, clothing, and shelter — at a government-estimated price of $250 to $1,000 a day — until such time as you are allowed to walk away free, with a promise to attend a deportation hearing at some time in the distant future. Strangely, few people keep such appointments — few except those whose lives are made miserable by the insanely complicated steps that are necessary to abide by the immigration laws.

Unable to think or look for themselves, they kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree.

According to Reid, however, these appearances are deceiving. Why? Because he says so. On July 16, with the border crisis at its height (for now), Reid found a microphone and announced, “The border is secure. I can tell you without any equivocation, the border is secure.” That’s it. That’s what he said. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of irony.

I can’t resist — let’s go back to Fox News. When the Malaysian airliner was shot down on July 17, in a region of the world where borders are taken all too seriously, Fox immediately concluded that the Russians had to be involved. Not a far-fetched conclusion. But the map on which the first two hours of the Fox analysis were based showed the plane barely penetrating the northwest border of Ukraine, hundreds of miles away from Russia or anything that thinks it’s Russia. The Foxcasters, presumably led down this path by their producers and alleged researchers, and unable to think or look for themselves, kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of its own ignorance.

On July 17, unmistakable evidence of this fact was provided by MSNBC and its researchers, producers, and anchorwoman Krystal Ball (sic). Apparently under the conviction that they know how to spot a truthteller when they hear one (consider the outfit’s affection for Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, etc.), the people at MSNBC jumped at a caller’s claim to be a US military man attached to the embassy in Kiev, who had seen, from Kiev — that is, from about 500 miles away — the missile that shot down the Malaysian plane. Amazingly, this man turned out to be a prankster.

That was bad enough. Worse was Ms. Ball’s response. Her caller said, “Well, I was looking out the window and I saw a projectile flying through the sky and it would appear that the plane was shot down by a blast of wind from Howard Stern’s ass.” To which Ball replied, “So it would appear that the plane was shot down. Can you tell us anything more from your military training of what sort of missile system that may have been coming from?”

The prankster paused, apparently in stupefaction, then said what we have all been wanting to say to the Other Half:

Well, you’re a dumbass, aren’t you?

But that wasn’t all. She still couldn’t quite understand what was going on. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “All right, we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be back with all the latest next.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” Sorry for what — being a dumbass? No, that couldn’t be.

Yet speaking of people who miss the point: the author of the story I’ve been quoting and linking about this MSNBC stuff, Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, never fully grokked the problem he reported on. As I keep saying, Kiev is hundreds of miles away from the place where the plane went down. That’s what anyone giving the news should figure out, right away. It would take about 20 seconds. And that’s why the prankster should have been detected, right away. But what does Wemple say about it? He turns for his opinion to the citadel of the Other Half: “As the New York Times has reported, the plane came down in an area with few structures in the vicinity, meaning that anyone claiming to have viewed all this from a window needs to be greeted with skepticism.” So if you can’t see Detroit from the Adirondacks, that’s because you don’t have a window to look out from. But by the way, there are actually windows, and buildings too, both in the Adirondacks and in the eastern Ukraine.

In conclusion: that’s how the Other Half thinks — the Other Half that is responsible for reporting and interpreting the news.

* * *

At the start of this column, I regretted not spending more time with the good things that people say or write. While completing it, I learned of the death of James Garner, an actor of great charm who appeared in many charming and witty movies and TV shows. The first of them was Maverick, an essentially comic and satiric TV western that was my delight when I was a kid. Many a Sunday night I have spent in the heights and depths of pleasure, eating my mother’s wonderful salmon cakes and watching James Garner make fools of everyone else on the little black and white TV screen. He (or his character Bret Maverick, who I like to imagine was a lot like Garner) gave me a saying that I commend to everyone who wants to understand the world, especially the world of American politics: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, and those are pretty good odds.

James Garner, rest in peace.




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That Instructive Tone

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Many years ago, when I was a kid libertarian emerging from the swamps of the New Left, one of my friends, a student of sociology, told me something he had learned in class: among its other functions, government is a means of supplying information.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “like when they put up a traffic light. It tells you when to stop and go.”

I was too young to be paying any perceptible amount of money in taxes, so I didn’t think, “So this is why we need a government that spends as much every year as Europe did between AD 100 and AD 1960 — so it can throw that little switch on the traffic light?” But I did think, “Gosh, that’s banal.”

They are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide.

Since that time, unfortunately, government has become ever more intent on fulfilling the vital function of supplying information. Its attempts to do so are not limited to “merge,” “no left turn,” “pay your taxes by April 15 (or we are sending you to prison).” In my state, you can hardly eat a meal without being informed, someplace on the menu, that eggs and chickens need to be cooked at such and such a temperature. You can hardly pick up a package of anything without seeing a sign that says:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

You can hardly enter an apartment house without seeing an even more disturbing sign:

WARNING: This Area Contains a Chemical Known to the State of California to Cause Birth Defects or Other Reproductive Harm.

A second or two after grabbing their genitals, most Californians recall that this information is without any merit or interest. Every property in the world includes some substance, some chemical, that might conceivably prevent you from reproducing. Eat enough dirt, and you will never reproduce again.

But lately the “information” conveyed by government has assumed a somewhat more lethal form — lethal to mental health, at any rate. President Obama’s comments are almost all of this nature; and the problem has gotten worse as Obama has moved from Partisan Manipulation and Just Plain Lies to the still deadlier genre of Words for the Ages. Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

As for the people who thought those speeches had information to supply, they are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide. I’m sure we can agree, however, on the idea that with such encouragement from the top, Obama’s subordinates are very likely to optimize their own potential for banality.

Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

Governmental banality manifested itself in virtually Platonic form in remarks delivered on June 11 by Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, former senator, former banker, former head of a cellphone company, former organizer for the Reagan campaign, former official of the Veterans Administration, former lobbyist for a tire company, and current Secretary of Defense. The occasion of his remarks was an investigation conducted by the House Armed Services Committee into the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who walked away from his post in a combat zone in Afghanistan, was captured by the enemy, and was ransomed at considerable expense by the Obama administration.

Hagel said:

Wars are messy, and they’re full of imperfect choices. . . .You know there’s always suffering through war. There’s no glory in war. War is always about human beings. It’s not about machines. War is a dirty business. And we don’t like to deal with those realities. But realities, they are. And we must deal with them. . . . . . War, every part of war, like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise. The hard choices and options don’t fit neatly into clearly defined instructions in how-to manuals. All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.

Now, would anybody ever guess that this man had come to Congress to talk about Bowe Bergdahl?

Of course, it’s hard to talk about something you know absolutely nothing about. Hagel’s comments, on this and other occasions, indicated that he had no idea whether Bergdahl was a deserter or if other soldiers had lost their lives looking for him or if the five Taliban honchos who were released in exchange for him were really important or not. But as Secretary of Defense, he had to talk about something, so he talked about the eternal truths. If someone produces The Wit and Wisdom of Chuck Hagel, these wise observations will need to be included:

Wars are messy.

There’s always suffering through [sic] war.

War is not some abstraction.

War is always about human beings.

War is a dirty business.

And just to keep the troops happy:

There’s no glory in war.

What is the listener supposed to deduce from this string of truisms? Don’t go to war? If you go to war, make sure to obliterate your enemies? All’s fair in a dirty game? What goes around comes around? War is an existential tragedy, best understood by curling up with a Camus novel? War isn’t half so pleasant as a successful career in Washington? Pass me the gin bottle?

Here we have a traffic light that’s blinking red, green, and yellow, all at once. But Hagel’s demeanor insisted that you had to respect any information he supplied. When anyone expressed a hint of skepticism, the Secretary of Defense was miffed.

Watching Hagel’s testimony, I was reminded that Leland Yeager had alerted me to the existence of another exponent of government as information, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. And Yeager was right, although McCarthy turns out to have a very different style from Hagel’s. Hagel (age 67) plays the part of the wise but grumpy old grandfather; he reacts to criticism by twisting around with an expression on his face that suggests his hearing aid is missing and he knows that the questioner has stolen it. By contrast, McCarthy (age 60) is young and hip. At least she thinks she is.

In a long, long speech delivered on June 2, McCarthy puffed something called the Clean Power Plan. In case you hadn’t guessed, this monstrosity has to do with governmental “shaping” and “crafting” of large but impenetrably vague “solutions” to such nonproblems as global warming.

Remember global warming? The idea that people are heating up the globe, or planet? Yes, that’s what we used to hear. But since the expected warming doesn’t seem to be going on, people concerned with the purported emergency have changed their name for it. What government is now supposed to prevent is climate change, climate inaction, or, if you’re really hip, just climate. Those are the words that McCarthy uses in her speech; never once does anything so frank as warming appear. But she is hip, or cunning, enough to realize that some people in her audience know, or have heard somewhere, that there’s been a lot of actual cooling going on. How can she handle that? She handles it by indicating she’s so far ahead of the game that she’s plumb tired of watching it. After all, her sole purpose is to win. So whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we? I mean, sometimes the electricity goes off!

If anything, what threatens reliability and causes blackouts is devastating extreme weather fueled by climate change. I’m tired of people pointing to the Polar Vortex as a reason not to act on climate. It’s exactly the opposite. Climate change heightens risks from extreme cold that freezes power grids, superstorms that drown power plants, and heat waves that stress power supplies. And it turns out, efficiency upgrades that slow climate change actually help cities insulate against blackouts.

The solution, of course, is a set of nationwide government interventions, entailing many billions in losses for companies and consumers.

But what strikes me is the tone. It’s the tone of a tenured sage who is tired of people with their petty questions and objections. If that’s the way they are, they’re not worth talking to — even though they’re paying her salary.

Remember, this woman hasn’t even been elected to her exalted position. And she isn’t a person who has won repute by offering the public some goods that it wants to buy. She’s just a government employee. But here she is, talking to people who have either been elected by the public or whose business has been favored in some kind of marketplace, and acting as if it’s her role to give awards at the kindergarten graduation:

I want to give a shout out to all the local officials, rural co-ops, public power operators, and investor owned utilities leading on climate change: It’s clear that you act not just because it’s reasonable, but because it's the right thing to do for the people you serve. Governors and mayors of all stripes are leaning into climate action. They see it not as a partisan obstacle, but as a powerful opportunity. And we know that success breeds success. Those of us who’ve worked in state and local government have seen healthy competition push states to share ideas and expertise. That’s when everybody wins.

If McCarthy actually were a teacher, I would advise her, first, to drop the attempt at pretending to be hip and cool. If you’re not young, you ought to know enough not to do that. But this is a teacher so unwise as to think that somebody’s going to like her to death because she uses expressions like shout out, lean into, and, elsewhere in her rambling, boring, repetitive speech, all about (“This plan is all about flexibility”), a win (“efficiency is a win”), think about it like this, calling our number (“Now, climate change is calling our number”), etc. It must be admitted that there are some signs of authenticity in McCarthy’s youthful patter: she resembles many young people in never having mastered English grammar and syntax. In company with her boss, President Obama, she has not yet learned the “like-as” distinction — and that’s just one example of a grammatical notion she’s never leaned into.

Whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we?

Second, I would advise her that one establishes one’s credentials to instruct others by recognizing and avoiding clichés, and not by running after them as if they were one’s heart’s desire. How else could she give us the right thing to do, of all stripes, success breeds success, and everybody wins within the space of five lines? In other passages we get in the driver’s seat, shifts the conversation, proven path,skeptics who will cry the sky is falling (actually, a skeptic would doubt that the sky is falling, but if you’ve collected a lot of clichés, you may as well butcher some), competitive edge, think of our children, cried wolf, bottom line, doomsday predictions that never came true (another odd choice for a person who spends her time warning about apocalyptic climate stuff),and my favorite pair of bromides, “Corporate climate action is not bells and whistles — it’s all hands on deck.”

That, like the earlier list, is selective. In the space available to me, I can’t do justice to McCarthy’s clichés. But go ahead — read the speech. I dare you. I gave you the link.

In the meantime, I ask you: Is she truly exercising the function of government to supply information? What she supplies is attitude, and a very bad attitude indeed. Bad ’tude, dude. No adult should talk to other adults in this way. In fact, no one should talk to anyone in this way. Although both the tone and the total absence of thought will be familiar to all who remember their high school assemblies, that precedent doesn’t make any of this a good, or even a decent, model for discourse of any kind, including high school assemblies.

But here, as bad speakers like to say, I’m reminded of a joke. Once there were two people who were very religious. They went to church all the time; they gave money; they never missed a vigil or a potluck dinner; with them it was all hands on deck. I’ll call this couple Adam and Steve. One Sunday Adam was sick, but he wanted to find out what the new priest had to say that morning, so he sent Steve along to church with instructions to report back to him. So Steve went and returned, and on his return he said, “Do you want the bad news first, or the good news?”

Adam gulped. “I guess,” he replied, “I’d better hear the bad news first.”

So Steve said, “Well, the priest got into the pulpit, and he preached nothing but heresy!”

“Oh my God!” Adam exclaimed. “After that, what could the good news be?”

“The good news,” Steve said, “is that nobody was listening.”

I would place bets on how many people, if any, read that speech by Ms. McCarthy, or, if present, listened to it. I fear that Leland Yeager and I may be her only attentive audience. And Obama’s sermons are just as eagerly followed.




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Come On — Did They Really Say Those Things?

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Normally, I don’t find much entertainment in news reports of off-year congressional primaries in states where I don’t live. But look what fell into my lap while I was reading election reports on May 20. The author is Fox News reporter Chris Stirewalt; the subject is Michelle Nunn, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia:

When asked if she would have voted for President Obama’s signature health law, Nunn was gobsmacked in a MSNBC interview. “So, at the time that the Affordable Health Care Act [sic] was passed, I was working for Points of Light,” Nunn says. “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation . . . I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” She’s going to have plenty of chances to reconsider over the course of the campaign.

Now that’s entertainment. Just picture Stirewalt scratching his head and wearing out his eraser, hunting for le mot juste, and coming up with “gobsmacked.” What does that mean? And where does it come from? And what’s it for?

A dictionary informs me that it means “astounded,” and that its origin is “smacked” (I know what that means) plus “gob” (oh yes, now I remember: that’s a Britishism for “mouth”). But that doesn’t help very much. As an immediate descendant of one of America’s famous political families (as they are called; I call them parasites), Nunn could not have been astounded by a question about Obamacare. I’m guessing, but I think that Stirewalt means she was badly hurt, hit in the gob, or mouth, by an interview that went badly, from her point of view. He’s using this strange expression to make fun of her.

I must say, I have no reason to like Michelle Nunn, but I don’t relish the image of people being smacked in the mouth. It doesn’t seem, well, exactly right for news reporting. Or even for satire. And the effort to sound folksy by importing British folksiness seems counterproductive.

So there are several ways in which Stirewalt goofed. Now let’s consider the target of his humor, Michelle Nunn. I’m not concerned with the error noted by Fox News’s “sic”: so what if the real name of the Obamacare legislation is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act? But passing beyond all that, the next thing out of her gob was something called Points of Light. She seemed to believe that everyone would know what that means, but I didn’t, until I looked it up. Here’s what Wikipedia says: “Points of Light is an international nonprofit, nonpartisan organization headquartered in the United States dedicated to engaging more people and resources in solving serious social problems through voluntary service.” I guess if you’re professionally employed in figuring that one out, you can’t pay much attention to anything else that’s going on, such as Obamacare.

The dog had been transitioned. Picture that.

So Michelle Nunn, leading light and great political thinker, knew nothing about it.But does she now know what it is, andwhether she would have voted for it? That’s an easy question, too easy for a politician to answer. Politicians want to take on the hard questions, the challenging questions, the questions inspired by their gargantuan hopes and dreams. So instead of saying whether she would have voted for (i.e., now favors) the bitterly unpopular program ruthlessly jammed through Congress by the leader of her party, she entertains a harder question: what kind of people do you wish to inhabit America?

You’ll agree that this is a very hard question. But she found an answer: “I wish that we had had more people who had tried to architect a bipartisan legislation.”

It is possible that, like many abstruse philosophers — Kant, say, or Heidegger — Nunn has thoughts too profound to be expressed in normal language. Therefore she must use “architect” as a verb and “legislation” as the kind of noun that admits the indefinite article, as in such uncommon phrases as “I will introduce a legislation” and “according to a legislation passed in 1958 . . .” Yet on closer inspection, these peculiar words appear not to differ in meaning from the words that any normally literate person would choose instead — words such as “tried to create, shape, invent, agree upon, etc., a bipartisan bill, act, law, scheme, plan, etc.” Can it be that Ms. Nunn, graduate of the University of Virginia and the Kennedy School of Government, is not a normally literate person, that her odd use of words merely signifies her membership in the ignorant tribe that hunts for food and shelter in political boardrooms and committee meetings, aborigines so innocent of books that they derive their patter entirely from the primitive verbiage of “agendas” and “executive summaries”?

The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

Every language, every system of discourse, even the most primitive, has its symbols, and it’s pretty clear what Ms. Nunn’s words were intended to symbolize. She wanted to say, without saying it, that she had nothing to do with Obamacare and wishes that it had turned out differently, but the blame lies with the Republicans, rather than her own party (which just happened to have passed the bill), because the Republicans refused to cooperate and make the thing bipartisan. Tribal priests sometime speak in this way, so that only their fellow priests will understand their message and know what to do to any rival priests. Priestly concerns have undoubtedly influenced Nunn’s sentence.

Yet there’s yet another sentence, and in it the impression of illiteracy is overwhelming. “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively,” she begins, “and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?”

But as you know, it’s possible to use big words and still not be literate. Children do it all the time. Unfortunately, they are often rewarded for the trick, and many turn out like Nunn, who can’t resist throwing a big word in, despite not knowing what it means. If she knew what “retrospectively” means, why would she pair it with “back,” thus creating the kind of gross redundancy that embarrasses literate men and women?

But let’s not take things out of context; let’s look at her whole sentence: “I think it's impossible to look back retrospectively and say, ‘You know, what would you have done when you were there?’” Here we have passed beyond the world of words; we are treading the marble floors of metaphysics.The question to be decided is a fundamental one: is it possible to say what you would have done in the past? And the answer is: yes, it is, because you did it.

This is the logic, simple though conclusive, that eludes Ms. Dunn. She thinks it is not possible — the reason is evident. She supported Obamacare. She must have supported it. If she didn’t, she wouldn’t be twisting herself into knots, denying that it’s possible for anyone to say what she “would” have done in some mysterious past that neither memory nor imagination can recover. But if she thinks she’s fooling anybody, she isn’t.

Her verbal methods, alas, are not original. Making pretentious verbs out of common nouns (i.e., “architect”) — that’s what bureaucrats and news people do all day. This month we were informed that a dog employed to do some dirty work by the Department of Homeland Security had been “transitioned” out of service. The dog had been transitioned. Picture that. As for pretentious redundancies, the news is always full of those. On May 3, Fox reported that “pro-government supporters” were active in Ukraine. There was no news of anti-government supporters.

Even more insensate language appeared this month. On May 9, there was an awful accident in Virginia; a balloon hit an electric wire, scattering flaming wreckage and human bodies across the landscape. Three people were eventually found and pronounced dead. While rescue workers still searched for them, a spokesman for the balloon-festival sponsors conveyed this sentiment: “The Mid-Atlantic Balloon Festival regrets that there was a safety incident involving one of the balloons participating on the evening of May 9.”

Safety incident? A balloon hit an electric wire, and three people died. It was an incident all right, but a safety incident?

This is the kind of language that 21st-century Americans have grown to expect from public sources. Like Ms. Nunn’s remarks, it’s the product of the public relations school of English, which isn’t English at all. No writer of normal English would refer to a deadly accident as a “safety incident,” or even say that balloons — not people — “participated” in something. But for PR people, and those who learn their ABCs from them, this sort of thing is automatic.

Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you.

Of course, the PR disaster of the month has been the response, or non-response, of the Veterans Administration (aka Department of Veterans Affairs) and its head, Gen. Eric Shinseki, to allegations that many people have died at VA hospitals in Phoenix and elsewhere while waiting for a medical appointment. CNN has done a good job of following up on these allegations. For over six months the network has sought an interview with or statement from Shinseki, but its efforts have not succeeded. It did discover that he employs 54 (fifty-four!) press agents, none of whom responded to CNN’s attempts to get them to do their job. Finally, when the chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee called for the boss’s resignation, the VA issued a statement:

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) takes any allegations about patient care or employee misconduct very seriously. If the VA Office of Inspector General's investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken. Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care.

Under the leadership of Secretary Shinseki and his team, VA has made strong progress in recent years to better serve veterans both now and in the future. The secretary knows there is more work to do.

Tell me, how many people does it take to reach that level of banality? Answer: 54.

Note the sidelong plea for “faith,” even if, in some cases, this faith must be posthumously awarded. Presidential spokesman Jay Carney, the man America loves to hate, indicated that for some unknown reason Obama himself had succumbed to this plea: "The President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki's ability to lead the department and take appropriate action." Whenever you see “appropriate” in an official announcement, you know that someone is trying to manipulate you. But the trick of invoking faith and confidence was worn out generations ago. In 1933, Isabel Paterson wrote, “When any one asks us to have confidence we are glad to inform him that the request of itself would shatter any remaining confidence in our mind.”

But what said Shinseki himself? Here are his words, from the CNN report (Friday, May 23) that I’ve been quoting:

Shinseki said Tuesday that [he] is "very sensitive to the allegations" coming from the Phoenix probe.

“I need to let the independent IG (inspector general) complete his investigation," he told the [Wall Street] Journal.

Paterson died (without the help of the VA) some years before the popularity of two press agent ploys that are as bad as demanding “confidence”: (1) claiming that one is “sensitive,” with the accompanying, implicit demand for sensitivity from one’s hapless audience; (2) insisting on the supposed necessity of doing nothing until an investigation is completed.

If you were really sensitive, wouldn’t you be too sensitive to say you were — in an interview that you finally had to give, as a bare-minimum response to deadly accusations? And, regardless of anybody else’s inquiries, wouldn’t you take the first plane to Phoenix and stand by the door of the hospital, asking patients how long it took them to get an appointment? If you could find a plane that was large enough, you could take all your press agents with you and let them turn you into a national hero. And if you didn’t do it, maybe your super-sensitive president could do it himself. After all, it would take less work than flying to Afghanistan, or figuring out how to flim-flam the VA issue.

But maybe it isn’t “sensitivity” we need. Maybe it’s normal words and normal actions.




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Lessening the Language

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A friend of this column, Carl Isackson, has a beautiful dog named Lassen. But, to paraphrase the old rock ‘n’ roll song, Carl is bothered by “just one thing”: “Why can’t anybody get the name of my dog right?”

Carl, who lives in northern California, points out that his dog has the same name as a great natural monument of northern California, Lassen Peak. And the name is spelled phonetically. It’s one of the easiest names in the world. So why, when Carl takes Lassen to the vet or a hound-dog Hilton or some other place where his name needs to be registered, can’t people get it right?

“Oh, what a pretty dog!” they say. “What’s her name?”

“His name is Lassen,” Carl replies.

“What’s that again?”

“Lassen. Like the mountain.”

“Oh, Laysen. What an original name.”

(Growl.) “No, it’s Lassen L-A-S-S-E-N.”

“Right. Laysen.”

(Carl looks at the registration form. It says “Laysen.”)

“It’s LASSen. Like LASSie.”

“Huh?”

These attempts at instruction have never gone well. But then, the other day, Lassen checked into a pet hotel, and when he came out, the name on his Pawgress Report Card was “Lessen.”

Lessen.

From Lassen Peak to, just, uh, y’know, Lessen — that’s the progress of our language.

I assume that the people who think “Lassen” is a strange new name would react with outrage if they heard that Lassen Peak was being devastated by development. But they wouldn’t know what it was, or where, or be able to pronounce it if they saw it in writing, any more than those millions who went crazy about Bush’s scheme to drill oil in Alaska could pronounce or locate the minute part of the frozen north where Bush wanted to allow environmental devastation.

Picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and “squash” an indictment.

That was false consciousness, similar to the false consciousness of people who oppose the Keystone Pipeline on the ground that it would have some mystical effect on “the environment” — what effect, they don’t know.

But I want to discuss something more basic.

In my neighborhood there is, or was, a classy, early 20th-century stretch of boulevard that for the past nine months the city has maintained as a ruin. City workers blocked off two of the four lanes, tore up the median strip, dug a hole in what used to be pavement, and are now, very slowly, pouring concrete for what looks like an anti-tank emplacement. This, we are told, is supposed to become a “high-speed bus corridor.” How it will work, I don’t know; but it’s obvious that whatever speed a bus will be able to work up in those few blocks (two, to be exact) will never compensate for the time and gasoline that drivers are spending and will have to spend on the delays inevitably produced by eliminating two lanes of traffic. This, as I say, is obvious; but although everyone in the neighborhood complains about the city’s atrocious conduct, virtually no one comments on the fact that the whole giant waste of energy is motivated by an attempt to save energy. No one recognizes this irony, just as no one recognizes the fact that a dog named Lassen is named after, and spelled after, a mountain peak, not a word for diminishing returns.

Another instance! Consider the word quash. When is the last time you heard it? Yet it’s a standard term, one that until recently was used whenever people wanted to talk about the repression or suppression of something. Judges quashed indictments. Congressional committees quashed proposed legislation. Tyrants quashed rebellions. To use the word quash, you didn’t need to know all its uses. You just needed to know that there was such a word, and it might fit what you wanted to say.

But sometime during the past 20 years, people stopped recognizing the existence of quash. They stopped being able to hear or read it. When they encountered it, they saw and heard something more familiar, less daunting to their ignorance. They heard the word squash. And, like the goofy dog handlers, they didn’t care to puzzle (i.e., spell) out a less familiar word or to test the applicability of the easier word they wanted to substitute. Lassen became Lessen, and quash became squash.

Now proposals are squashed, rebellions are squashed, student protests are squashed, and even, God have mercy, wars and diseases are squashed. Conservatives don’t recognize the difference, any more than liberals. Poor Andrew C. McCarthy — he had to see his article about militant Islamics come out on National Review Online under the headline “DOJ Source: Obama Political Appointees Squashed Indictment of CAIR Leader and Other Islamist Groups” (April 14). And the British are as bad as we are. Here’s the author himself, someone named Con Coughlin, who is defence editor of the Telegraph, reporting on one of those convoluted British political things: “Mr Hammond no doubt believes these arguments are merely a political game and that, with a general election and the chance of further promotion in prospect, all he needs to do is squash criticism from the military by dismissing their claims as nonsense” (March 31).

Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and “impact” is the club of choice.

Whole lotta squashin’ goin’ on. You can picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and squash an indictment. Now let’s see you take that indictment to court! Or something named Philip Hammond (British writers no longer consider it their job to identify anyone, so why should I?) seizing a fat lump of criticism and squashing it into irrelevance.

These picturesque effects are not, of course, intended. They are the products of a lack of intention, and a lack of attention, too. They happen when words lose their history, their integrity, and their appropriate imagery and become mere flyover territory, uninteresting in detail — a landscape you just have to cross, preferably while sleeping, on your way to the big payoff — your meaning. Except that your meaning can only be expressed in words.

This is how people who want to say that someone is uninterested in his job assert that “he’s definitely disinterested,” not realizing that they’re paying the guy a compliment. This is how people who want to emphasize someone’s fame say that he’s “infamous.” They’ve heard the words uninterested and disinterested, and they’ve heard the words famous and infamous, but they never recognized a distinction. Everything just passed in a blur.

Sometimes the result is comic; more often it too is only a blur, a graying of meanings in a shadow world where nothing distinct, or distinctive, ever emerges. Well, it’s easier that way. That’s why impact is currently such a hit (pun intended) with everyone who wants to say something without going to the trouble of saying anything. What would a political speech be without impact? Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and impact is the club of choice. Context never matters. Here’s a tweet sent out by the White House, as part of President Obama’s attempt to end poverty by raising the minimum wage: “If we #RaiseTheWage here's how many workers would be impacted in your state . . .” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/live, April 19).The real, though unintended, message is: “For God’s sake, don’t raise the minimum wage! Don’t clobber those low-paid workers!” Because impact suggests a blow being struck, a planet hurtling into another planet, a car smashing into an orphanage . . . anything except the beneficial influence, assistance, or help that the tweeter had in mind.

I don’t know whether this is the chicken or the egg, but I do know that our daily speech is greatly impacted by the words used on talk shows; and here’s a sample of what you’ll find in the page of online news summary that professional talkers scan before they start their programs: “President Obama met with six faith leaders Tuesday to discuss immigration. The leaders told the president stories about how immigration policies had impacted members of their congregations” (Talk Radio News Service, April 16). “Faith leaders” are of course religious leaders, but let’s keep religion out of politics, shall we? Apparently these spokesmen for faith-in-politics spend their time picking through the debris left by their congregants’ (sorry, constituents’) collisions with immigration policies, searching for stories about how the poor folk have been impacted. This time, at least, I’m sure that the meaning is negative, but maybe the same people can come back tomorrow and tell the president stories about how their constituents were positively impacted by Obamacare.

Speaking of impacts, wouldn’t you be positively impacted if somebody used a word that could be distinguished from just any other word? I mean, think of all the synonyms for positive, as in positive impact: favorable, beautiful, helpful, wonderful, splendid, slightly encouraging . . . . And the synonyms for negative are much more fun. Why lessen the impact of what you want to say by using the most nondescript term available? Maybe because you’re lazy?

But it’s not just impact that’s at stake; it’s also knowledge. You might like to know precisely what kind of impact those policies had. Or, to use another example (I have plenty), if you’re concerned, as maybe you ought to be, with the chronic mystery of how many of Franklin Roosevelt’s advisors were communist agents, intentional or unintentional, and you happen to look up the name of his intimate friend Harry Hopkins, this is what you’ll find in a defensive but fairly well informed Wikipedia article:

Hopkins was the top American official charged with dealing with Soviet officials during World War II. He interfaced with many Soviets, from middle ranks to the very highest — apart from Marshal Stalin, most notably Anastas Mikoyan, Hopkins's counterpart with responsibility for Lend-Lease. He often explained Roosevelt's plans to Stalin and other top Soviets in order to enlist Soviet support for American objectives, and in turn explained Stalin's goals and needs to Roosevelt.

Sounds pretty suspicious to me. And it all turns on that word “interfaced.” The word originates, not in the Roosevelt White House (which was much more literate than the White House of today) but in the kingdom of the computer. Its tendency, if you take it seriously, is to deny human agency. You don’t blame one computer for interfacing with another. But what went on? Did Hopkins just download his memory and upload his hosts’, or did he talk, negotiate, party, parry, gossip, conspire, or idly chat with the Soviets? Our author saith not. Then why is he writing? Surely not to give us knowledge. Maybe it’s just his way of interfacing with the ethereal blur.

It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year.

I’m not asking for more words. I’m not arguing that more is always more. Oh no. I think that President Obama has communicated all the knowledge he has in about the first 30 seconds of a speech, the part in which he thanks his introducers. He knows enough for that. If, as the Book of Common Prayer would have it, you read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the rest of what he says, you’ll end up knowing a lot less than you knew when he was thanking Senator Foghorn.

But now we have the peculiar, yet somehow representative, case of José Fernandez, superintendent of the Centinela Valley Union High School District in Southern California. It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year. No, it was more; it’s just been discovered that the board also gave him two life insurance policies that he can cash in at any time, and their annual payments on these policies bring the total to around $750,000 a year. All this for someone who went bankrupt twice in his life and, according to a recent report, had been fired from his job as assistant superintendent.

The explanation, as alleged by Fernandez’ foes, is that a large construction company financed a school board election, and the resultant school board hired Fernandez, and Fernandez pushed through some large construction programs. This accusation may be relevant to the approach Fernandez adopted when his takings became public knowledge and angry constituents showed up at a school board meeting (February 25):

Fernandez declined to address any of the complaints about his compensation package, choosing instead to express his appreciation to the board for its support and touting his accomplishments.

“I want to thank the board for their support,” he said, over catcalls coming from a few members of the audience. “I want to thank residents in the area who voted for the bonds that funded new buildings, new science labs.

“I do hear you. I’ve listened very carefully and I will sit and work with the board on your concerns. I want to thank you all for coming here and expressing your concerns. I want to thank you all again. Good evening.”

The public wanted more, and got some of it: on April 9, Fernandez was placed on “administrative leave” (you guessed it — a paid leave). The surprising thing is this: Fernandez didn’t get away with his lessened approach to public controversy. How many politicians — and political CEOs, and other figures of supposed authority — have you heard mouthing syllables like “I hear you”; “I’ve listened very carefully”; “I will work on your concerns”; “thank you for expressing your concerns”; “thank you again”; “good evening,” and then shutting up, hoping that if nothing is uttered except a handful of subcommunicative syllables, nobody will recognize the difference between that and real public discourse?

The answer is, almost all of them — and almost all of them are getting away with it, despite Pawgress Reports that correctly name them Lessen.




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My Hero

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It’s good to have heroes. One of mine is John Kerry.

My love is a selfish one: a column like this depends on buffoons like him. I was devastated when Al Gore retired from politics to maximize his “climate” business. Gore could always be depended on to say something delightfully absurd. Of course, he couldn’t give up the habit, any more than he could give up eating to excess, but after exiting politics, stage left, he no longer had such a range of opportunities to show how hard it is to make sense when you never reflect on anything you’re saying.

Fortunately for me, Barack Obama came along, towing Kerry behind him. When Kerry was just a rich guy squatting in the Senate (for 28 years!), nobody paid much attention to what he said. Nobody paid much attention when he was running for president, either, but some people assumed they had a duty to report on him. That stopped, until Obama anointed him as secretary of state. Since then, his life has been an unbroken sequence of crises and assumed crises. Syria. “Warming.” Crimea. And Kerry is not one to nurse a crisis in silence. Oh no. On any given day, one can google “Kerry” and find a display of verbal paraplegia. It’s only a nagging sense of fairness that keeps me from filling every column with Kerry-isms; I want to give other people their chance in the Special Olympics. But whether I use his material or not, Kerry gives me a sense of confidence. I know that even if everyone else reforms, even if Harry Reid finally seeks a connection between words and things and President Obama finally opens the books he was supposed to read in college, John Kerry will always be words in the bank for me, an inexhaustible supply of malaprop.

Lately we’ve been hearing so much from him that I can’t resist displaying a few of his gems. Take, for instance, this one. A news source recently informed us that “Secretary of State John Kerry said he has consulted with other world leaders, and ‘every single one of them are prepared to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia with respect to this invasion’ of Crimea."

On any given day, one can google “Kerry” and find a display of verbal paraplegia.

One of the many bad things about Kerry’s statements is their petulance. He is always the little boy who’s miffed that the other little boys aren’t listening respectfully to him. He anticipates (rightly enough) that they don’t believe what he says. So he raises his voice. “Oh yeah? Well, I’ve been talking to world leaders! I have so!” Observe that according to him, he hasn’t just been hobnobbing with officials from here and there; he’s been consulting with other world leaders, as if he were a world leader, too, and all of them liked him and agreed with him. To the hilt. Every single one of them are prepared to go to the hilt. Note the grammatical error (“one of them are”), the kind of error people make when they haven’t the faintest idea of how to analyze a sentence. Note the grandiose cliché (“go to the hilt”). Note the obvious lie: no “world leader,” not even Kerry, was ever prepared to “go to the hilt” over Crimea. Note the secondhandedness: I’ve been talking with them, and they are all agreed. Lastly, note the vagueness, so characteristic of Kerry’s bombast. “Isolate Russia” — meaning what? Even that wiggly little “with respect to” — a vaguer, yet more pompous, way of saying “about.”

Gosh, what a mess. Now try this, which is fully characteristic of our secretary of state and can certainly be attributed to him: “’(The Ukraine incursion) is a show of weakness,’ a senior administration official said. ‘They have lost the government they backed in Kiev, now they're resorting to the type of intervention that will severely distance them from the international community.’" Pretend you’re Russia. You’re annoyed by the overthrow of a friendly government in Ukraine, which you had been heavily subsidizing. But you realize how weak you are. So out of your weakness you seize the best part of Ukraine, the part you had always wanted, and there’s nothing that “world leaders” can do about it, because you’re so weak. Makes perfect sense, right? It seemed so sensible to President Obama that he was soon making the same diagnosis of Russia’s weakness; he reasserted it vigorously in his press conference at The Hague on March 25. Weakness, I assume, is the reason Putin controls the situation in Crimea, and Obama does not (the Obama who is down to 40% approval by voters in his own country). Putin is weak. But never fear. Russia will be horribly punished by its distance from the international community.

Pompous? Vague? Petulant? Empty? Yes. That’s the Kerry style.

Back to weakness. Kerry and his fellow perpetuators of the 1960s have long resorted to pseudo-psychological, deep-insight explanations of phenomena that other people explain quite directly, in accordance with the “surface” (i.e., obvious) evidence. Liberals of the ’60s generation apparently find it inconceivable that some people should lash out at homosexuals because they simply don’t like homosexuality. They know, these friends of aged pop psychology, that such people are actually afraid of homosexuals, or of their own homosexual tendencies, known only to far distant observers. They are, in fact, homophobes. In the same way, conservatives explain Putin and Putin’s Russia by evoking the specter of the playground bully, who will back down if you just stand up to him, because bullies are afraid of you. Actually, I’m not sure I’ve ever met a bully who was afraid of me; I’ve looked largely in vain for bullies who would consent to back down when people stood up to them. I’ll bet that’s your experience, too.

But what do you think of adults who treat other adults as children, coddling them, placating them, condescending to them, lecturing them about their psychological issues, and otherwise infantilizing them? Do you think these adults may be relating to others out of their own childish fears? Maybe that’s what Kerry was doing on March 18, when he intoned (he always intones): “Russia has an enormous historical connection to Ukraine. We know this, but that doesn’t legitimize just taking what you want because you want it or because you’re angry about the end of the Cold War or the end of the Soviet Union.”

That “enormous” sticks in my craw. An enormous connection? Is it a railroad coupling? A 20-ton anchor? I’m familiar with connections that are strong, intimate, lasting, firm . . . but enormous? That’s absurd — but Kerry has a way of emphasizing the absurd parts of his statements. The overwhelmingly absurd thing, though, is the parental attitude: “Listen, little boy, you can’t just take what you want because you want it.” Does he actually expect anyone to listen to stuff like this? Does he expect Putin to hang his head and shuffle his feet and say, “Ah, you’re right, Uncle John. I guess I’ll hafta give it back”? Does he expect Putin to be stunned by his grand psychological insight that he, Putin, didn’t take the Crimea because it’s a valuable piece of real estate and any adult could see that there wasn’t a chance in the world that anyone would successfully oppose the action; no, he took the Crimea because he was angry?

Kerry doesn’t like shy little dewdrop clichés; he likes big, manly clichés, the kind that every serious student must take, well, seriously.

The anger that’s most visible is Kerry’s anger. When has he made a speech in which he wasn’t angry — angry with some foreign power, angry with global-warming skeptics, angry with anyone he suspected of not listening to him. And if you want to see weakness, look to the same source.

Oh, but there are still so many jewels to exhibit. One more example. This is a big one, because Kerry is always saying big, long, deep, important things — such as his remarks at the World Economic Forum (what is that, anyway?) on January 18. From this mass of vital importance I will select two paragraphs about whether, heaven forbid, the United States has become less of a buttinsky than it was before Kerry arrived on the scene:

I must say I am perplexed by claims that I occasionally hear that somehow America is disengaging from the world, this myth that we are pulling back or giving up or standing down. In fact, I want to make it clear today that nothing could be further from the truth. This misperception, and in some case, a driven narrative, appears to be based on the simplistic assumption that our only tool of influence is our military, and that if we don’t have a huge troop presence somewhere or we aren’t brandishing an immediate threat of force, we are somehow absent from the arena. I think the only person more surprised than I am by the myth of this disengagement is the Air Force pilot who flies the Secretary of State’s plane.

Obviously, our engagement isn’t measured in frequent flier miles — though it would be pretty nice if I got a few, as a matter of fact — but it is really measured — and I think serious students of foreign policy understand this — it is measured by the breadth of our global commitments, their depth, especially our commitments to our allies in every corner of the world. It is measured by the degree of difficulty of the crises and the conflicts that we choose to confront, and it is measured ultimately by the results that we are able to achieve.

Here’s a guy who’s a phony even when he’s “joking.” Frequent flier miles indeed — Kerry is married to the widow of an heir to one of the nation’s great fortunes. The funny thing is that he doesn’t expect us to know how rich he is, even after it became an important issue in his presidential campaign. Another mark of phoniness is that word “somehow,” appearing twice in one paragraph. This is the dismissive somehow that people — usually leftists — employ when they have the following problem rumbling around in their heads: “The idea I am rebutting is obviously true, and the only way I have of rebutting it is to express bafflement that anyone could harbor such a silly idea.”

Why did I say that it’s usually leftists who talk this way? Just the empirical evidence: listen, and you’ll hear. But why would it be leftists, any more than rightists? I’m not sure, but I think it’s because articulate leftists were often educated in pricey schools, schools where they weren’t taught how to listen to those strange little people who disagree with them, but they were taught how to sneer at them. Anyway, the dismissive or sneering somehow wasn’t invented by John Kerry. Distinguished preceding uses include

  • The idea that somehow most people will be better off if we allow a few people to make all the money they can . . .
  • The idea that somehow there are new oil resources, just waiting to be discovered . . .
  • The idea that somehow guns can reduce crime . . .
  • The idea that somehow there is mass starvation in the Soviet Union . . .

Let us return to what Kerry is trying to argue. He’s insisting that America is just as “engaged” with “the world” as it used to be, before he stumbled into office. The difficulty is that he wouldn’t be making this speech if he weren’t aware of the evidence that leads people to believe that America is not as “engaged,” and that the evidence is persuasive. I happen to believe that America is still far too “engaged,” but never mind: Kerry thinks the opposite, because he would like it to be more “engaged”: that’s why he’s talking. So he sneers at the very reason he’s giving his speech. You see what a double dealer he is. And notice: he thinks that nobody will detect his double dealing — or, again, he wouldn’t be giving this speech. You see how dumb he is.

One sign of a dumb person is the use of words like engaged, which practically everyone knows mean practically nothing. If you don’t know that, you’re either 17 years old, or you’re dumb. Kerry is considerably older than 17. Another sign of dumbness is childish metaphors such as “the arena,” an image popularized by Theodore Roosevelt (1910):

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Someone who sees international relations as an “arena” of this kind should not be involved with international relations.

A third infallible sign that a speaker is just plain dumb is a reliance on the stuff that eighth-grade English teachers once called “flowery language,” and put red X’s through. (Good teachers still do that; the others are just too dumb.) By “flowery language” they mean “nothing but language.” What do you learn from the second paragraph I quoted from Kerry’s speech? You’re supposed to learn that the United States is stuck to the world like Krazy Glue. But Kerry can’t manage to say that, or anything like that. He can’t even manage to say, “The United States is still very interested in the world outside its borders; it will honor its promises to other nations, and it will get results.” Oh no. He needs “flowers,” otherwise known as clichés, which he plucks by the handful: serious students, global commitments, every corner of the world, choose to confront. Kerry doesn’t like shy little dewdrop clichés; he likes big, manly clichés, the kind that every serious student must take, well, seriously.

And the whole thing is meaningless. Obviously, our commitments aren’t literally global; they don’t extend to every corner of the world. At least, I hope we have no commitment to Eritrea, Uruguay, or Wrangel Island. The measure of Kerry’s phoniness is the fact that the words he emphasizes are precisely the ones that are not true, that are obviously untrue, that if taken seriously would lead any sensible listener to scorn and reject his speech.

I just used measure intentionally, so you could see what you had to do to figure it out. You had to stop and try to picture what it meant. You wondered whether it made sense to measure “phoniness” by a “fact.” Maybe you thought, ultimately, that it did make sense; maybe you didn’t. But consider Kerry’s use of measure. He wants you to believe that engagement must be measured by breadth and depth of commitments. That’s a puzzler. Picture that, will ya? Engagement must be measured by our commitments to our allies in every corner of the world. Write that out in a simple sentence: “Our engagement must be measured by our commitments.” Is that saying the same thing twice, or is it saying nothing at all? Kerry’s sentences often provoke this question.

The measure of Kerry’s phoniness is the fact that the words he emphasizes are precisely the ones that are obviously untrue.

Despite all that, Kerry somehow keeps coming out with astonishing assertions. There’s one at the end of the passage we’re examining. There he claims that “engagement” grows better, or realer, or something like that, as it grows more difficult — in Kerryese, “It is measured by the degree of difficulty of the crises and the conflicts that we choose to confront.” So, the more difficult something is, the more you’re engaged with it? Physicists aren’t really engaged with their work unless they’re trying to invent a perpetual motion machine? Women aren’t really engaged with romance unless they’re seeking the most repulsive and abusive boyfriends? Well, they may be engaged, but not in any healthy way. Yet Kerry also claims that the ultimate measure of “engagement” is the “results” it achieves. This seems reasonable, until you take maybe a second to reflect on it. Then you see that the crook who succeeds in getting you to purchase a stolen car is much more engaged with you than the friend who fails to sell you on giving up smoking. Not only are Kerry’s ideas expressed in the least attractive and least accessible way, but they aren’t even true. Any of them.

All right, here’s the scary thing: you can spot a Kerry sentence a mile off. You can’t mistake it for anybody else’s sentence. He’s like Shakespeare, in that way. And the sentences he speaks spontaneously are very close to the sentences he reads from a script. You see the horrifying truth: this guy actually writes his own speeches. I can’t say worse.

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Peripheral Vision

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Does it seem to you that people are losing their peripheral vision? It seems that way to me.

I halt at a stop sign, look to the left, look to the right — and then, just when I start to move, observe with horror that people are jumping off the curb and walking in front of me. I’m looking in their direction, but they’re not looking in mine. Oh no. They’re looking straight ahead, with no indication that they see my car, hear my brakes, or feel the heat of my engine as I screech to a stop three feet away from them. They parade in front of me with the gait of peacocks solemnly treading the Queen’s lawn.

(She does have peacocks, doesn’t she? In the summer? Or is it swans? Very well, with the gait of swans solemnly treading, etc. Swans always seem about as stupid as peacocks, except in Tchaikovsky ballets. And even then, they’re more beautiful than smart.)

There’s a general opinion that this kind of behavior is restricted (A) to persons under 25, and (B) to persons with electronic instruments jammed in their ear sockets. But no, it’s not. It has spread to every demographic group.

They don’t see anything. They just continue. Like those children of all ages, waltzing merrily in front of the oncoming traffic.

Have you ever been in a Whole Foods store? I ask that because Whole Foods is somewhat more expensive than your ordinary supermarket, and notoriously attracts a Better Sort of People — mainly NPR clones and trust-fund babies with tattoos, but lots of libertarians as well. (Like me.) These are sensitive souls, if anybody is. That’s why the baby seal advocates line up outside to get their signatures in support of sensitive causes. But you can’t walk through the aisles without constant attempts to avoid injury from NFL-class shoppers jumping in your way, then stopping dead in front of you, blocking the aisle. When you try to dive around them, boom! There they are again. If you make it to the dairy products, you can expect two or three of them to smash into you while you’re reading the labels, innocently attempting not to buy soy milk. They didn’t see you. They never see you. They have no peripheral vision.

Something of the same effect is achieved by all those people who make your life miserable in restaurants, movie theaters, and other places of public resort — the blithe spirits who yell, shriek, chatter, debate, and conduct lengthy reviews of their private lives for the benefit of everyone within a five-block radius. When you give them the meaningful look that, when your grandparents used it, would shush everyone but the most hardened conversational criminals, they just face you with a glassy stare. They’re not staring at you. They don’t see you. They don’t see anything. They just continue. Like those children of all ages, waltzing merrily in front of the oncoming traffic. Like their fellow hazards to health, the parents who chat idly with each other while their children run about the airport, the parking lot, or the edge of the nearest volcano, endangering their lives and the lives of others. Their parents literally do not see them. They have no peripheral vision.

This is the kind of behavior that was formerly common among those whom our grandparents rudely classified as trash. Only now is it manifesting itself as a mass phenomenon. Its counterpart is the recent, very large increase in loss of peripheral vision about what people are saying while they insist so much on saying it. No one seems to care that it might be embarrassing to tell a roomful of strangers all about one’s effing conversation with one’s effing bedmates, because said effing bedmates are getting fatter than effing hogs, not to mention being bad about their toilet manners. It must be stipulated, however, that loss of peripheral vision is especially pronounced among the self-important classes, who ought, one might think, to take more care about saying things that will disgrace them.

Strangely, this loss has coincided with an enormous increase in the retrievability of verbal gaffes. Nowadays, if you don’t have enough peripheral vision — once known as foresight — to notice that your words may possibly come back and bite you on the ass, it’s much more likely that they will come back and do just that. Digitally embodied, they will wait beside you, visible to all but you, until such time as they are ready to spring upon and permanently discredit you.

Suppose, to take a purely hypothetical example, a racial or sexual epithet should be scrawled on someone’s wall. These are the days of forensic science; it gets easier and easier to determine who did such things. If the action is in fact a fraud — an expression not of racial or sexual hatred but of a sick desire to advertise some cause or issue of the person who scrawled the epithet in order to make accusations about somebody else — chances are large that the fraud will be exposed. During the past few years, scores of these moral disasters have occurred, and have been well publicized. Now why are such fraudulent charges always attended by instant, loud, fanatical declarations of their unquestionable truth, delivered by every school principal, public official, church leader, and college professor in the neighborhood? These people practically crawl over one another to get to the microphone and announce their support for even the most ridiculous accusations. Then, when their charges, the charges they have made their own, prove false, they apparently think all memory of their words will be erased. Things don’t happen that way, but they still can’t see it. They have no peripheral vision. They don’t see the car that’s going to hit them.

Listening to friends of the current administration, one would think the attempt to “end poverty in our lifetime” had been a grand success. Apparently they never heard of Detroit.

To put this in a broader context: were you as astonished as I was when intellectual friends of the current administration began making loud noises about the fiftieth anniversary of the War on Poverty? Their intention was not to mourn the devastation that the War (apt name) had visited on the poor in America. Their intention was to celebrate the War. Listening to them, one would think the attempt to “end poverty in our lifetime” had been a grand success — and also, curiously, that we need even more of it. Apparently they never heard of Detroit. Apparently they can’t see the neighborhoods that lie directly adjacent to the government zone in Washington or to 50 of those proud universities from which celebratory noises issued. Everyone else can see — so why can’t they?

Like the people at the intersection, they don’t see because they don’t bother to look; and they don’t bother to look because they feel entitled not to look, not to see, not to get hit by the onrushing vehicles — of failure, and of public exposure. They see themselves, of course, but only as the heroes of their inward vision. They haven’t a clue about how they look or sound to others.

And now we come to Secretary of State John Kerry. On Feb. 16, in, of all places, Indonesia, he delivered a speech about “climate change.” By now, almost everyone has observed that climate change is a term used by people who don’t want to admit that their wild predictions of global warming have been falsified. They don’t want to see the falsification, any more than the guy stepping off the curb wants tosee the car approaching. Truths are indeed inconvenient. To admit the existence of the car might require one to change one’s course — and who wants to do that? But the climate change people are in a worse position than the guy in the street. They actually believe that other people don’t see them either, see and rememberthat they predicted a lot of hurricanes, but now there are very few; that they predicted wet days for California, but California is in drought; that they predicted warm winters, but look at the country now. Well, as a satirical friend remarked last night, “the most devastating thing about climate change is its unpredictability.”

Kerry, being an old man and a failure in his real job, now wants another job. He wants the job of prophet. He declared to the Indonesians that “this city, this country, this region, is really on the front lines of climate change. It's not an exaggeration to say that your entire way of life here is at risk." "In a sense,” he said, “climate change can now be considered the world's largest weapon of mass destruction, perhaps even, the world's most fearsome weapon of mass destruction." “The science,” he said, “is unequivocal, and those who refuse to believe it are simply burying their heads in the sand." Like his boss, President Obama, Kerry has a real zest for clichés. And like his boss, he carries the clichés as far as they will go. He believes that climate change, whatever that is, must be regarded as settled science.

Now, Senator, I hate to tell you, but you’re strolling across a busy street. I’d be a little more careful if I were you. Most of the people on this street don’t think that what you’re talking about is settled science at all. Some suspect it’s an unsettled science. Some suspect it’s a pseudo-science. Some suspect it’s a real science that is disgracing itself by its cheap propaganda. Some, including many scientists who are close to the grant-getting game, know that it would look a lot less settled if so much weren’t being done to prop it up. Overwhelmingly, grants go to people who investigate the assumed effects of climate change, not people who set out to examine the process critically (if it is a process, and one process, and a process not competing with other natural processes). Schools and colleges deluge students and faculty with propaganda about the danger of climate change, with no hint of interest in the multitude of debates that attend this issue. Whole communities are mobilized to promote the kind of sustainability and climate friendliness that could be rationally defensible if (A) the theory had been proved, (B) the theory hadn’t changed so, well, unpredictably that right now it’s hard to tell exactly what is being proved or disproved, and (C) doing without paper bags could have the slightest effect on the global climate, no matter what condition it’s in.

Kerry doesn’t see the millions of eyes watching him, and noticing that he’s made a fool of himself.

A theory that you are not allowed to doubt is a theory that has proved its doubtfulness. A scientific theory that needs the support of sermons by such renowned scientists as a former vice president and a former senator from Massachusetts is a theory that confesses it is in serious trouble. Theories that appear to need this kind of assistance merely invite public ridicule. If they turn out to be true, which is always possible in a regime of true science, they have already damaged their own credibility, and the damage may be fatal. I think it is safe to say that only a tiny minority of the American population believes the party-linestatements that Kerry was making in his big, pompous speech, and the majority is even less likely to believe the theory, now that he has spoken.

Kerry doesn’t see the millions of eyes watching him, and noticing that he’s made a fool of himself. His way of avoiding the oncoming cars is by insulting their drivers, braying about “shoddy scientists” and “extreme ideologues” and comparing anyone who disagrees with him to members of “the Flat Earth Society.” And because there is no one this side of North Korea who is more arrogant, humorless, and condescending than John Kerry, no one who is fitter to be called the embodiment of social entitlement, he has done more to harm his cause than an army of deniers could possibly do.

He doesn’t see it. He’ll never see it. But what I saw, next to the news story about Kerry’s speech, was a series of teasers for other news stories:

Another Ice Storm Causes Havoc Across the South

New England Hit with Another Winter Blast

Another Messy Morning in Winter-Weary Northeast

Is this proof that Kerry is wrong about whatever theory of change he has in his head right now? No, probably not; one winter doesn’t make a case (although Kerry claimed individual meteorological incidents as conclusive evidence of change). Is it proof that Kerry is a fool? Oh yes. How hard is it not to look both ways before you cross the street?




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