Don’t Say That to Me

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Let’s spend some time thinking about pronounciation.

I spelled it that way because that’s how I heard it in a lecture on the subject when I was in high school. It never occurred to the teacher guy that the spelling of a word might conceivably provide a clue to the sound it makes when you say it. And surely, he must have heard somebody say it before, and say it in the obvious way. This also might have given him a clue, but he didn’t pick up on it.

Ironically, most people are too sensitive to comment on your failure to show an ordinary sensitivity to ordinary words.

It’s true, there are words that are hard to avoid mispronouncing. These words are generally shibboleths — entities whose true properties are known only to a few, and whose proper use identifies you as one of that small, that special clan. The story that explains the word is told in Judges 12:5–6. Charm is an implicit celebration of individuality, and most shibboleths have charm. You know that someone’s from Southern Illinois if he pronounces Versailles as VurrrSALES and Cairo as KAYro. You know that someone’s tuned in to the study of British antiquities when she refers to the Ruthwell Cross as the RIVill Cross. And you know that someone is continuing the educated tradition of English pronunciation when he pronounces err as Alexander Pope did when he wrote, “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” The word is ur, not air.

You wouldn’t think to look these words up; you probably don’t hear them in conversation; you have to be inducted into their pronunciation by a kindly friend — but that’s charming, isn’t it? No one, however, will take you aside and tell you, “Hey buddy, it’s pronunciation, not pronounciation.” Ironically, most people are too sensitive to comment on your failure to show an ordinary sensitivity to ordinary words.

What would you think — what do you think — when you introduce yourself as Denise Hahn and the person you’re talking to insists on calling you Janis Haines? What do you think, especially, when people who are paid to talk to you — for instance, people who are on the other end of the line in a business conversation — cannot get your name right, despite the fact that you’ve said it and their computer is showing it? You think they have no respect for you as an individual. And you’re right. They also have no respect for the individuality of words. In their minds, their pronunciation is close enough.

This is the Age of Approximation — an age in which even earth scientists can read the word “Arctic” and render it Artic, throughout their careers. I know a university administrator, a very good one, in fact, who never pronounces sophomore as anything other than southmore. These people can read — they read all the time — and they’re not hard of hearing, but Artic and southmore are close enough for them. Speaking of science, news reports rather frequently inform us that scientists at John Hopkins University have discovered such and such. I’m sure that the press release from Johns Hopkins said “Johns Hopkins,” but hey, who can read?

You think they have no respect for you as an individual. And you’re right. They also have no respect for the individuality of words.

This is also the Age of Invention, but not always in a good way; its linguistic inventions are generally shoddy substitutes for things that already existed, and worked. For instance, there are established ways to create a plural in English. We use these tools every day. Ordinarily, you add an “s” to the end of the singular form — or an “es” if the singular ends in “s” or “x.” Simple, right? But for many people, it isn’t simple enough. That’s why we read that “the Trump’s vacationed in Florida.” And that’s why we hear that “the crowd applauded the prinCESSes” — the “-es” addition producing a pointless change of emphasis in the original word. This one goes back a long way; I find it in the newsreel about “the two prinCESSes,” Margaret and Elizabeth (now queen), that appears in an otherwise good film, The Snake Pit (Fox, 1948). PrinCESSes was very common in my fourth-grade readalouds. But every time the mispronunciation happens, it requires a fresh act of invention.

Still more imaginative, though not in a childish way, are current efforts, usually by figures of authority, to turn common English plurals into flashy imitations of such Latinate words as analyses and bases (analiseez, baseez). In these usages the mispronunciation of the last syllable is usually emphasized, to make sure you don’t miss it. On June 18, Christopher Wray, head of the FBI, testified before Congress about biasEEZ in his department’s investigations. Maybe he did it because four days earlier, Ron Hosko, former assistant FBI director, had testified before Tucker Carlson about the biasEEZ of FBI officials; Wray evidently didn’t want to be left behind. It’s notable that Wray was reproved by this column for earlier congressional testimony in which he kept saying “processEEZ,” but he paid no heed, and now he’s at it again.

If you’re confused about it, why not look it up?

English is not an entirely phonetic language, God knows, but there is a logic to it, and certain helpful rules of access, the most important of which is: when in doubt, look it up. And when you do, look at the first pronunciation the dictionary gives you, not the concession-to-bad-taste secondary ones. Awful things happen when such rules are flouted. (Note, not flaunted.) In August, a Pennsylvania grand jury published an elaborate complaint about sex abuse in several dioceses of the Roman Catholic Church. Among the many television and radio reporters I heard on this subject, I encountered no one who had figured out how to pronounce either diocese or dioceses. After pronouncing the first one wrong, they pronounced the second one in the same way: DIohseez. These words are by no means as familiar as process and processes, and their succession of “s” sounds makes them goofy to most ears. It is, however, possible to look them up.

Yet the pressure to talk can be daunting, confusing, bewildering. I’m sorry to say that even the great Rod Serling reacted badly in moments of unnecessary bewilderment. You recall that the Twilight Zone was “a wondrous land, whose boundaries [plural] are that [singular] of imagination.” Well, that’s not a problem of pronunciation; it’s a problem of grammar. But try: “you’re looking at a specie . . .” as Serling says in his introduction to the Twilight Zone episode “People Are Alike All Over.” Unluckily, the singular of species is species; and although saying “a species” may sound funny, phonetically identical singulars and plurals are hardly unknown in English (deer and deer, fish and fish, etc.). If you’re confused about it, why not look it up? To which the answer is, I suppose, Why not just make it up?

There is a whole specie of people who do this. I recently participated in a meeting in which a group chock full of college degrees was discussing the report of a landscape architect regarding the placement of water spigots in a flower garden. (Please don’t ask me how I wandered into that bureaucratic Eden.) Everyone in the room pronounced it spickots. All right; maybe they don’t subscribe to Spigot Industry News, so they’ve never seen the word written out. Does that account for the people who look at my first name and call me SteFAHN? I am doubly cursed, because I live on a street whose name is spelled in the phony British way: Centre. Many people are observant enough to recognize this as a form of Center. They’ve seen it before, or they’ve seen the word theatre, and they can draw an inference. Frequently, however, I am asked, by a native English speaker, to confirm my address “on Sentree Street.” Now, how many words ending in “re” are pronounced as –ree? Does anyone go to a theatree? No. But go ahead, just make it up.

Elders never corrected anyone who called her General. Such people never do.

A more frequent example is lay, as in, “When police arrived, the victim was laying on the bed.” Are all the news writers, as well as all the hillbillies, unacquainted with the look and sound of the common-as-dirt word “lie”? Have they never seen or heard the sentence, “He was lying on the bed”? Has a physician never told them to “lie down on the examining table”? Do they themselves say, “I’m going to lay down now”? Well, maybe they do. And maybe their friends do too. But haven’t they ever read a book?

In other cases the appropriate question would be, “Don’t they have any logic?” Consider the word “royal.” A common English noun. Not one of those troublesome verbs that keep changing all the time: lie, lay, lain — who can remember it? Nobody screws up the pronunciation of royal. So how would you pronounce “battle royal”? In the same way you pronounce “battle” and “royal,” obviously. But that isn’t obvious enough for the leading intellectuals of Fox News, Neil Cavuto and Tucker Carlson, who during the month of May made themselves merry by referring to various political and commercial conflicts as examples of a battle royALE. Whether they were leading or following the pack, I don’t know, but I was soon hearing that peculiar noise on every channel. I noted that some people are now fools enough to spell the phrase that way. I suppose the ultimate source is the James Bond novel Casino Royale, although “royale,” being a French word, is not properly accented on either syllable. RoyALE is a Las Vegas pronunciation. In American, even the big island in Lake Superior is simply Isle ROYal, despite the French spelling.

But I must compliment Neil and Tucker for not going the whole distance and babbling about battle royals, in the way that some people do — the same people who think there are such things as attorney generals, who are to be addressed as General So-and-So. This nonsense originated in the Clinton era, when Joycelyn Elders was the nation’s Surgeon General, wore a uniform (like her idiot predecessor C. Everett Koop), and was routinely addressed on TV as General Elders. She never corrected anyone who called her that. Such people never do. These titles, of course, have nothing to do with the military; they merely signify an official who is in general control of something, and their plural is formed by adding “s” to the noun, where “s’s” always belong: attorneys general, surgeons general, inspectors general. And battles royal. Is that too hard?

But there are authority figures even greater than Pooh and professional readers of the Bible.

The really embarrassing pronunciations are those of people who are trying to display their intelligence. These people know a word or two, and they assume that other words work the same way; they also assume that they themselves are superior, in this wisdom, to all other people. You have probably heard talkers on NPR saying that such and such political figure is the arkenemy of someone else. These people know that archangels are arkangels and therefore believe that all other arches are arks. They do not rest with this sagacity; they feel a duty to employ it widely, rooting arkenemies and even arkbishops out of the most unlikely topics, thereby displaying their remarkable mental powers.

To continue with the religious theme: when I’m driving I sometimes listen to the Bible readings provided by a certain chain of Christian radio stations. These recorded readings were made by a gentleman whose voice reeks with pomposity, but I’m very willing to listen to 20 minutes of Isaiah or Job or the histories of Israel, even if he’s the one who’s reading them. I have to put up with a lot, though. Beneath the pomposity is a real inability to figure out how words are pronounced — not just the hard Bible words but also such puzzlers as “Naphtali,” “Ephraim,” and “Gaza” (“GAZEuh” — as if the GAHza Strip hadn’t been in the news these past three generations). The guy is also baffled by such English terms as “requited,” which comes out of him as “RECKwitted.” Yet the language of the King James version, which his broadcasters properly venerate, isn’t good enough for him; he insists on censoring it. Thus, “one that pisseth against a wall” (which is the definition of “male” in 1 Kings 16:11 and other verses) becomes, in his rendition, “one that watereth against a wall.” Watereth? If Winnie the Pooh undertook to read the Bible, that’s what the text would sound like.

But there are authority figures even greater than Pooh and professional readers of the Bible. In the June 6 edition of Fox’s “Outnumbered,” Newt Gingrich, speaking with a self-complacency suggesting that he always got straight A’s in Vocab, made a point of saying that a certain event “presages” a certain other event. The word is obscure, but useful. Yet he pronounced it preSAGES instead of PRESages, as if anyone who knew the word ever said that something was a preSAGE of something else.

In a genial speech, Villaraigosa said he wasn’t “castigating aspersions” on anyone for his electoral defeat.

How much worse it is when someone’s big, impressive word is just a misunderstanding of how another word is pronounced! This seems to be happening in an article that Professor Jonathan Turley published in The Hill (June 10).

Turley is discussing the important but little-heralded indictment of James Wolfe, former director of security for the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, who allegedly leaked secret information to his girlfriend, who published it where it would do the most political damage. Turley claims that “one person should be especially discomforted by the indictment: former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe.” McCabe is neither here nor there, but discomforted, used in this sense, plainly results from a failure to understand the phonetics of the word discomfited. To cite a more flamboyant instance: on June 5, Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles, took the high road while conceding defeat in his attempt to become the Democratic nominee for governor of California. In a genial speech, Villaraigosa said he wasn’t “castigating aspersions” on anyone for his electoral defeat. Probably he’d never seen casting aspersions in print; probably he’d just heard people say it and assumed that their pronunciation was wrong. Anyway, he could do better, so casting became castigating. Bless his heart.

The hearts I do not bless are those that foster or permit the horrible deformation of the English language known as uptalk. You understand? It’s the kind of speech? that turns every phrase? into something that sounds? like a question? Scorned, at its origins in the 1970s, as the “valley girl dialect,” it proved incapable of taking the hint and crawling back under its rock in Tarzana. It never went away. In fact, it spread. By the 1990s it was as common as ya know. By 2010 it was in general use in news reports and solemn political interviews. I shudder to think what may lie (not lay) ahead. Tomorrow, when I turn on the radio, I may hear a high-church voice intoning, “In the beginning? God? created? the heaven? and the earth?” On my deathbed I may hear, just after the sigh of the last breath leaving my body, the sound of a doctor saying, “Dude? I think he’s dead?”




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What So Fulsomely We Hail

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“It’s so insane,” said Sean Hannity at the start of his May 16 TV show, “there’s so much news; we’ll try to get it into an hour.” He followed this protest against the constraints of time with a summary of what he planned to say in his “opening monologue,” which itself turned out to be a summary of what was going to happen still later in the show: “we’ll have more of that in just a second.” His insane, or at least cockeyed, attempt to outline his remarks lasted 13 minutes, about one-third of the show’s noncommercial time.

Hannity is perhaps the biggest timewaster in “public life.” He is a man who is virtually incapable of making a simple statement or asking his guests a simple question. If he seems to ask a question and they try to answer it, he breaks in to let them know what he would say if anyone put the question to him. The processional and recessional to every segment of these agonizing conversations is a list of the top ten crimes of the Democratic Party, often interrupted by the reminder that he’s “said this again and again.” Hannity could easily get the news into an hour, but there aren’t enough hours in anybody’s day for whatever he thinks he’s doing.

The subject of this month’s column is extras, add-ons, timewasters, and verbal extensions of all kinds. If you like today’s political and cultural discourse, you should be grateful for these things, because without them, that discourse would hardly exist.

Sean Hannity is a man who is virtually incapable of making a simple statement or asking his guests a simple question.

It doesn’t have to be that way. You’ve probably heard the famous story about Calvin Coolidge, who was noted for his brevity. Someone told him that she thought she could get him to say more than two words in response to her, and he replied, “You lose.” This story has taken many forms, in some of which the woman is Dorothy Parker, the writer. That is certainly untrue. What is true is that the story first appeared in public in a speech delivered at a lunch at which Coolidge was present, and that Coolidge immediately denied it. Whether he did so with a twinkle in his eye is not recorded, but I want to think he did, because this probably false anecdote is the only thing that many people know about him, and they like it.

We all like brevity — in other people. We feel, perhaps, that their verbal restraint gives us more time to babble, and that couldn’t be bad. But there is still the problem of how to hold their attention, or at least to make ourselves feel that we do.

Lord Chesterfield, in his immortal letters on social decorum, gives this advice to his son (October 19, 1748):

Talk often, but never long: in that case, if you do not please, at least you are sure not to tire your hearers. . . .
Never hold anybody by the button or the hand, in order to be heard out; for, if people are not willing to hear you, you had much better hold your tongue than them.

We no longer hold unwilling listeners by the button — partly because Chesterfield’s letters helped to improve people’s manners — but we have many other means of coercing attention. One is by being elected to public office. Every public official, from the president to the village chief of police, has or believes he has the right to talk a hundred times longer than he ought to.

We all like brevity — in other people.

How many times has your TV or radio enjoyment been interrupted by a press conference at which a police department spokesman introduces the officer in charge of the investigation, who introduces the chief of police, who elaborately thanks the mayor, sheriff, fire chief, county director of emergency services, and several other microphone-attracted worthies, not forgetting special words for all first responders, whether involved or not, and then, having congratulated them for their incredible and unbelievable performance, slowly reviews information already reported, finally refusing to answer any questions — because, after all, the episode is under investigation?

And how many times have you tuned into a congressional hearing on some issue of real importance (I know, that’s narrowing it down a bit), only to be treated to hours of partisan orations, pretending to be questions? If you’re lucky, this nightmare of boredom may be followed by a real interrogation, but you can be certain it will be so swathed in verbiage that it goes nowhere.

How do these people get elected? How do they get nominated? And why is Hannity, Baron of Blowhards, Prince of Pish-Posh, one of the most popular people on television? Even politicians have to compete for an audience, and these people succeeded. How?

If you’re lucky, this nightmare of boredom may be followed by a real interrogation, but you can be certain it will go nowhere.

The explanation is that some people who could never be held by a button are easily held by an attitude. They feel comforted by existential affinity. The rule of novel writing has always been: if they like 200 pages of this stuff, they’ll like 800 pages better — even if it’s pointless background, meaningless subplot, and purely rhetorical conversation. You may not care what happens to the Joad family, but people who do care, or feel they should care, don’t mind that The Grapes of Wrath is four times longer than it needs to be. They don’t need to be persuaded; they like it already.

In the same way, there are people who leap out of bed in the morning, eager for the endlessly repeated shriekings of The View, and cannot go to sleep at night without the endlessly repeated inanities of Stephen Colbert. I know an intelligent person who thinks that Hillary Clinton is “a brilliant public speaker.” Someone else I know claims that President Trump “goes right to the heart of things.” In other words, Clinton and Trump go magnificently to these people’s hearts, no matter how many times Clinton and Trump bore the pants off everybody else.

Such elective affinities have always been important. But at some times in human history there has been a general belief that a serious public utterance should have a broader appeal — an appeal, perhaps, to taste and insight. That’s not true of our time. Today the great controversial documents are hideous bores, sickening bores, Satanic bores — from Clinton’s speeches to Trump’s speeches to (worst of all) Bernie Sanders’ speeches, and finally to the recent work of Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz (and others), elaborately entitled A Review of Various Actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice in Advance of the 2016 Election. Already you can see that the authors have no trouble piling up words. They also seem to know that if you pile them high enough, no one will be able to find the topic. Which would be a problem, if that were your purpose — to discuss your topic. If not, so much the better. Reading that title, who would think the report had anything to do with the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails?

In other words, Clinton and Trump go magnificently to these people’s hearts, no matter how many times Clinton and Trump bore the pants off everybody else.

And who would think that people wanted to read it to find out whether the FBI conducted a biased investigation of Clinton? That’s the question everybody wanted the report to answer — but if you have enough words, you don’t need to answer anything.

The document frequently refers to bias, but this is the way it does it:

There were clearly tensions and disagreements in a number of important areas between [FBI] agents and prosecutors. However, we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative decisions we reviewed in Chapter Five, or that the justifications offered for these decisions were pretextual. (p. iii)

Pretextual? Where have you ever seen that word before? Does it have anything to do with those monkeys that hang by their tails? And speaking of animals, how do you decode that elephantine passage about “tensions and disagreements” and not finding “documentary or testimonial evidence” that bias “directly affected . . . specific [as opposed to nonspecific] investigative decisions”? I think it means that nobody wrote or spoke a confession about having made a biased decision. When you take the pillows off, this is a hard bed to lie in. Nobody ever takes out a piece of paper and writes, as testimonial evidence, “I let Hillary off the hook because I wanted to throw the election to her.”

But Horowitz may be smarter than he sounds. He seems to realize that someone may accuse him (imagine! him!) of bias for excreting such an absurd statement. So, nine pages later, we discover this passage, buried in another mountain of words:

[W]hen one senior FBI official, [Peter] Strzok, who was helping to lead the Russia investigation at the time, conveys in a text message to another senior FBI official, [Lisa] Page, “No. No he won’t. We’ll stop it” in response to her question “[Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right?!”, it is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects. This is antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice. (p. xii)

Were you expecting the second half of that amazingly long series of words to say, “this indicates that the two investigations were biased”? Didn’t the first half reveal the documentary or testimonial evidence of biased investigation? But no, the second half identifies only a biased state of mind (which is evidently quite different from simple, two-syllable bias) and a mere willingness to take official action to impact the prospects. The climactic revelation is that this willingness was antithetical to the FBI’s core values. Well! I am so shocked! Who woulda thunk it?

He seems to realize that someone may accuse him (imagine! him!) of bias for excreting such an absurd statement.

One of my favorite sayings is something I heard from a local preacher. He said he was a strong supporter of the First Amendment, because it lets “everyone talk long enough to show how much of a fool he is.” That’s the problem with piling up words, isn’t it? And that’s what we see in the official response of the FBI to the inspector general’s report. Here’s a highlight:

No evidence of bias or other improper considerations was found by the OIG in the [FBI’s] team’s: use of consent, rather than subpoenas, search warrants, or other legal process to obtain evidence; decisions regarding how to limit consent agreements; decision [sic] not to seek personal devices from former Secretary Clinton’s senior aides; decisions to enter into immunity agreements; decisions regarding the timing and scoping [sic] of former Secretary Clinton’s interview, or to proceed [did anyone proofread this?] with the interview with Cheryl Mills and Heather Samuelson present; and, the decision to obtain testimony and other evidence from Ms. Mills and Ms. Samuelson by consent agreement and with act-of-production immunity.

No evidence, then, except for this and that, and OK, there was also that, and then there’s that other thing. . . . Would that all windbags would discredit themselves as effectively as the blowhards of the FBI.

But they have plenty of competition in official circles. You don’t have to live in Washington; you don’t have to be writing 500-page reports; you can be a blowhard without leaving the provinces, and in only a few ill-chosen words.

Here’s a typical political utterance, from some California potentate grabbing a mike to emit a series of sounds. This person is an advocate of “Title 10,” about which he states: “Title 10 has been a lifeline for about four million Americans in this country.” Never mind what Title 10 is. Never mind that “lifeline” is an image without a fact or definition, and therefore pointless. Never mind that politicians’ statistics are never right, and known never to be right. The idea is simply to make a sentence by throwing things into it. Length equals substance.

Would that all windbags would discredit themselves as effectively as the blowhards of the FBI.

Consider the speaker’s time-wasting substitute for “people”: Americans in this country. (As distinguished from Americans outside this country.) Americans, of course, is better than people, because it drags in the conservative, nationalist attitude to complement the modern-liberal, throw-out-the-lifeline notion. But why in this country? One reason is that about 25 years ago leftist politicians started adding that phrase to every critique they made of America, as in, “There are 30 million people without health insurance in this country.” It sounded cool because it made America into just another country, except that it was worse than all the rest of them. This phrase flourished so mightily that even conservatives now use it, and use it as obsessively as the liberals, and with no hint of satire or, indeed, of any purpose except maintaining a continuous sound. It’s an all-purpose timewaster, one of many phrases useful for bogarting air time: due diligence, first priority, path forward, moving forward, going forward, up for grabs, risk their lives for us every day, 20-20 hindsight, what’s at stake for us as a nation, dear to us as a nation, our values as a nation, never before in our nation’s history, revisit the issue, only time will tell, remains to be seen, nation of immigrants, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me, tough road [sic] to hoe, thank you for your service. It’s there to take up space, to keep any other sounds from breaking in, to hold you by the button.

The dumbest of time wasters is the immemorial ya know, still popular after all these years and, I’m sorry to hear, even more popular than it was 20 years ago, when it was the chief verbal identifier of teenagers and illiterate sports figures. Now it’s everywhere.

The host of a morning talk show on one of my local radio stations recently lavished an hour on an interview with a young woman whom he identified as a former assistant superintendent of the school district. She was following up on a mother’s complaint about alleged mistreatment of her handicapped son by a special education teacher. I was stuck in traffic and got to hear almost all of this. Only my sense of duty as a reporter on linguistic developments kept me from turning it off, or killing myself in despair. The commercials were bliss compared with the interview — because of ya know.

It sounded cool because it made America into just another country, except that it was worse than all the rest of them.

I couldn’t tell whether the ex-superintendent’s charges were justified. All my available energy was required just to figure out what she was saying — an attempt in which I failed. She was incapable of narrating any events that took place outside her head. She harped on how she felt, how greatly she was outraged, how greatly she continued to be outraged. She had innumerable ways of repeating her outrage. But what had happened? The host tried to lead her into saying what had happened by summarizing part of the story, but she refused to take the hint. Nevertheless, with the aid of “ya know” she talked continually. There was at least one “ya know” in every sentence, and usually more than one. Some sentence-like bits of debris consisted almost entirely of that phrase. I estimated that by the time I reached my destination she had used “ya know” about 400 times. This is a person whose profession is teaching, who once supervised and presumably trained teachers, and who made no mention of being fired because she was judged to be inarticulate. She was obviously hired despite that disability. What, I wondered, were the speech habits of the person who did not get the job?

Well, maybe that person is now in Congress. If you’re a member of the House of Representatives, all your speeches are long, all your sentences are long, all your phrases are long, all your words are long. Faced with the choice of point in time or point or time, you always select point in time. No one has to guess whether you’ll say use or utilize; naturally, it will be utilize. Between single and singular, you will infallibly choose the longer one. And now you’re giving us fulsome instead of full.

The ubiquitous Representative Trey Gowdy (R-SC) may not have originated this brain-dead attempt to make full still fuller, but he popularized it. About May 4, before Horowitz published his report, Gowdy admonished him, “It is of the utmost importance that your review be as fulsome, complete and unimpeded as possible.” As you see, Gowdy is almost as good at this stuff as Horowitz. One adjective would be enough, but Gowdy gives us three: complete, unimpeded, full. And one syllable would be enough for full, but that must have sounded hasty, so he turned it into two syllables: fulsome. Unluckily, that word is not synonymous with full, and is almost always derogatory: “fulsome kisses” come to mind, as do William Congreve’s “fulsome lies and nauseous flattery.”

If you’re a member of the House of Representatives, all your speeches are long, all your sentences are long, all your phrases are long, all your words are long.

Well, so Gowdy made a mistake one time. No, he didn’t. On May 11, on Tucker Carlson’s show, he repeated this illiteracy, twice, burbling about his expectations for a “fulsome report,” a report that would present a “fulsome picture.”

By June 7, Department of Justice hacks, who are Gowdy’s political enemies, had caught his disease. On that day, Sara Carter reported on the DOJ’s constant slow-walking of documents to congressional committees:

[A] DOJ official said with regard to not providing the documents on Thursday, “Although the Department and FBI would have liked to provide this information as early as this week [I’ll bet they did], officials have taken a little additional time to provide the most fulsome answers to the members’ questions as possible.”

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Carter’s source is the one person in Washington who knows what “fulsome” means and is accurately describing the way officials write. Remember Congreve’s words about “fulsome lies.”

The final word, for this month, on officials’ determination to turn blah into blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah comes from the aforementioned Peter Strzok, the secret police agent who wrote of Trump’s presidency, “We’ll stop it.” Whatever you think of the sentiment, the expression showed admirable restraint and perspicuity.

One adjective would be enough, but Gowdy gives us three.

But when confronted by congressional investigators with the evidence that he had, at least once, said something brief and to the point, Strzok haughtily denied the charge, implying that anyone who found a simple and direct meaning in anything he said in an email had committed a misidentification of genre similar to confusing Hitchcock’s Vertigo with a hand-written sign reading “Watch Your Step”:

To suggest we can parse down the shorthand like they’re [sic] some contract for a car is simply not consistent with my or most people’s use of text messaging.

In the Clinton era, parse started to be used as an effete synonym for “figure out what the president’s sentences really mean.” Strzok put a new (to me) spin on the word: parse down. Let’s try to follow this. He believes that it’s wrong to take a simple statement and reduce what is already in “shorthand” until you get something that is like a contract for a car — which, as we know is a long, long, redundantly long document — thus discovering meanings that are not consistent with the generic expectations of text messagers.

In this case, the something was a translation of “we’ll stop it” into “we’ll stop it.”

With many strange words Strzok demanded that his simplest declarations be given a meaning so complicated that it could be reached only by refusing to parse down the shorthand, thus producing, by not parsing, the real message for which the shorthand stood — a message, I assume, of approximately 100,000 words.




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Functional Illiteracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But it's one too many,” he added.

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




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Twenty Answers

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What do you say if you’re a self-entitled person who suddenly has to deal with people who are not impressed by your credentials?

Lately, we’re seeing more of these situations. This may mean there are more self-entitled people (SEP), or they’re stupider than they used to be, or both. One indication that this class of people is deteriorating in quality is the frequency with which they ignore the existence of electronic means of recording. Even SEP who make a profession of hogging the camera and tweeting their brains out always seem surprised when somebody actually notices what they’ve said, and sees how stupid and offensive it is.

How wonderful it is when we see the Governing Class asserting its credentials, only to be dismissed with a Bronx cheer.

Nevertheless, the SEP have developed, because they need it so often, a long list of things they can say when they are caught and challenged. Here are 20 items that appear on that list. I’ve tried to put the more popular sayings first; as you’ll see, they tend to be the funniest ones, though they are not intended to be funny. But SEP seldom find just one of these responses sufficient. It’s like diet books, of which there are thousands; if any of them worked, there would be just one. Anyway, here’s my short list of SEP comebacks:

  1. I never said that. I would never say a thing like that.
  2. I’m the victim of a hacking.
  3. I was quoted out of context.
  4. My remarks were misinterpreted.
  5. The American people know where I stand on this issue.
  6. This isn’t what the American people are interested in. They’re interested in jobs and education and the welfare of our children, which is what I’m spending all of my time on.
  7. This is simply the Democrats’ [or Republicans’] attempt to divert attention from their failures.
  8. Last year, the Democritan candidate for Congress was involved in a real scandal; I don’t recall your investigating that.
  9. I know, that’s what Donald Trump [or Nancy Pelosi] wants you to believe.
  10. I don’t see you asking men that kind of question.
  11. This is racism, pure and simple.
  12. I have already addressed this issue.
  13. This is a personnel matter, so I am unable to comment.
  14. This matter is under investigation, so I am unable to comment. (If you think you can get away with it, substitute “so I am forbidden by law to comment.”)
  15. As a public servant, I have always been proud to represent Missouri [or whatever] values, and I plan to continue advocating for them in the public forum. [If you were in Our Town in high school, go ahead and say “in the public square.”]
  16. At times like these, I believe it’s important for all of us, both Democrats and Republicans, to put aside old animosities and work together for the common good.
  17. This is not the time to relitigate this matter.
  18. Those responsible for this unfortunate incident have been appropriately disciplined.
  19. I have already taken full responsibility for this incident, and now it’s time for me to get back to doing the people’s business.
  20. I’m not going to allow you to take the love of the people of this state away from me. [Sorry, I couldn’t resist. That one’s from Citizen Kane.]

Isabel Paterson said that the purpose of elections was not to enable the voters to run the country but to give them the opportunity to fire the people who are currently running it. Her idea was shared by whoever it was — I believe it was a Republican, reacting against the long incumbency of the New Deal — who thought up the slogan, “Had Enough?” Today it is clear that everyone except the self-entitled class has had enough of the responses listed above. Not on the list is one that SEP never think of, although it is one that might work: Fiorello La Guardia’s “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut.” LaGuardia was a modern liberal, thus not my ideal of a leader, but he had a pretty good idea of how a leader of Americans should talk, and it wasn’t Responses 1–20.

Turner is evidently so inextricably a part of the Governing Class as to profit from both political parties.

The really bad thing is that some people fall for this stuff. A large proportion of the populace put up with Hillary Clinton’s use of 15 or 16 of those sayings. And although it so happens that America’s Governing Class, which is peculiarly self-entitled, is overwhelmingly Democratic, you’ll get the same responses from the congressman representing Anytown, USA, a safe Republican district, that you will from a Democrat.

Disgusting? Yes. But how wonderful it is when (to quote the words of the old hymn) the darkness turns to dawning, and the dawning to noonday bright, and we see the Governing Class asserting its credentials, only to be dismissed with what La Guardia knew as a Bronx cheer.

Submitted for your approval . . . the case of Caren Z. Turner.

Ms. Turner (sorry! I should have called her something else, because, as you’ll see, she demands to be called something else) lives in Tenafly, New Jersey (median household income, $126,000; cf. national household income, $49,500). She is a professional lobbyist and is evidently so inextricably a part of the Governing Class as to profit from both political parties. She worked for Hillary Clinton, but Republican Governor Chris Christie appointed her to office as one of the 12 commissioners of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. It may seem odd that a career in lobbying should fit one to exercise authority over an agency that operates giant tunnels, bridges, terminals, and airports (LaGuardia, JFK, Newark, etc.), but I ask you: who knows, better than a lobbyist, how state agencies are run?

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell, from her lengthy account of herself, exactly what she does.

Turner’s skill set, whatever it may be, was clearly considered appropriate for a government official, as government officials are today. According to her self-description (formerly here, now offline), Turner most prominently exemplifies “Experience You Can Trust.” In other words, she’s been around for a while. Nobody has drained her out of the swamp. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell, from her lengthy account of herself, exactly what she does — but the results are said to be conspicuous:

Campaigns led by TURNER GPA [that’s her business — “Turner Government and Public Affairs; Caren Z. Turner, Esq. CEO”] are noted for their high energy, intense focus and no nonsense approach. [I’m italicizing the clichés.]

She has been referred to as “a woman on a mission” (CBS TV), creating legislative solutions where “pigs fly” (NRA News) and having an “iron fist in a velvet glove.” With over twenty-five years federal government relations experience, she has earned the respect of both Republican and Democratic policymakers. Her solutions to business problems are innovative, often radically different from the “norm” and designed to maximize her client’s bottom line with minimal legislative tinkering.

I’ve had some trouble running down the sources of Turner’s quotations, except the one for the iron fist cliché. The ultimate source for that is Napoleon; the proximate source, apparently, is Turner. That’s just the way she likes to see herself. She wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and thinks about iron fists in velvet gloves. I don’t much care who said the other things, because I haven’t any idea what they’re supposed to mean.

I didn’t learn much more from her list of accomplishments, either:

Ms. Turner is proud to have won several eight figure benefits on behalf of clients. [Tell me, what do you mean by “benefit”? An award in a legal case? A government subsidy? A law stipulating that some amount must be appropriated for something or other?] . . . Business issues on which Ms. Turner has worked include: defense, aerospace, tax policy, international trade, health care, Medicare and biotechnology. “Social issues” include: gun safety, genetic ethics and standards, discrimination, children’s advocacy, domestic violence, and cancer research.

Well, isn’t she the little engine that could? But how is she different from talk show hosts, presidential candidates (successful or disappointed), popular preachers, Shepard Smith, or anyone who works for CNN? They all know everything, don’t they?

She wakes up in the morning, looks in the mirror, and thinks about iron fists in velvet gloves.

OK, I’ll move on. Because of Turner’s profound and extensive knowledge, she has been, according to her, “on” finance committees for Hillary Clinton, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Jon Corzine (Democrats) and has served as “Honorary Chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s (NRCC) Business Advisory Council.” She has also been a member of the “Presidential Business Commission” — whatever that is. And whatever any of those things are. She was an intern for Teddy Kennedy, and perhaps that’s the operative factor. Who knows?

And who knows how she has found the time to perform all these honorable functions? But, as the Wizard of Oz told the Tin Man, what a good-deed doer needs is a testimonial. And Turner has plenty of them:

Awards include: “Top 100 Privately-Held Businesses in District of Columbia 2010,” “Top 50 Woman Owned Businesses in the District of Columbia 2010” and “Top 50 Diversity Owned Businesses in the District of Columbia 2010” [Only in 2010? What happened after that?] awarded by Diversity Business.com[.] Honoree “Women’s Business Enterprise Leadership Spotlight” September, 2007. Awardee, 2007 Top 100 Minority [She’s white!] Business Enterprise Awards. Selected one of 15 “Women of Prominence”, BC Magazine.

Is that BC magazine, a former arts and entertainment journal in Hong Kong? Is that the Boston College Magazine? Is that Bergen County the Magazine? No matter. The idea that there are people in this world who are unfortunate enough to spend their time figuring out what are the top 100 privately-held businesses in the District of Columbia is enough to make me question the existence of God. And suppose that in every state there are people employed to root out the top 50 “diversity owned businesses,” and that they actually do that, with proper attention to corporate reports, stock averages, local business rankings, and the philosophical problem of what the meaning of “diversity” is . . . How many lives have been sacrificed so that such as Caren Z. Turner should be officially congratulated for being in the top 50?

But even these indications of exalted social status can never be enough for a go-getter like Caren Z. Turner, Esq. We must picture her partaking in the nightly feasts of ego in the Club of the Governing Class, enjoying the rewards of her mighty efforts, yet still poised just half in and half out of the inner sanctum. She is the kind of person on whom Mrs. Clinton once smiled, assuming she was someone else. She is the kind of person who spends significant time sending CVs to people who pass out Diversity Awards (“to be considered, the prospective honoree must reserve a table for eight at the Awards Luncheon — requested donation $4,000”). She is the kind of person who has one foot in the doorway, but whose other foot has not yet found a way to follow. She’s making a living, but she could be making a much better living.

The idea that there are people in this world who are unfortunate enough to spend their time figuring out what are the top 100 privately-held businesses in DC is enough to make me question the existence of God.

And then, by the connivance of certain friends in Trenton, Republican and Democratic, she gets a real job, meaning a job with Visibility. She becomes a Port Commissioner! This position pays nothing, but it sounds as if it did, and it is, after all, a position in government. Ms. Turner’s path is trending upward.

But then, on March 31, 2018, something changed. Turner discovered that not everything in Jersey is politically corrupt. And she was expelled, actually expelled, from the Club!

What! You’re kidding! How could this have happened?

Here’s how. On the date mentioned, a daughter of Turner was riding through the highways and byways of Tenafly with three of her friends, and the car in which she was riding was halted by a pair of Jersey cops who had noticed that it had tinted windows, illegal in the state, and a partially obscured out of state license plate. Investigation showed that the driver was also defective; he had no current car registration or proof of insurance. Because of these technical improprieties, the cops proceeded to have the car impounded. Daughter called mother, and mother came to the scene to try to intimidate the cops into releasing the car. A long discussion followed, in which cops and Self-Entitled Person deployed their characteristic rhetoric.

These cops knew enough of the law to realize that they didn’t need to recognize her as what Al Gore used to call the “controlling legal authority.”

I want to stipulate that I am not a fan of the cops’ zealous pursuit of the technical, or of their way of speaking. As they grew irritated with Turner they relied repeatedly on the notion that her “demeanor” — that is, her arrogance and contempt — discouraged them from giving her the information she ostensibly sought, which was “what’s goin’ on here, officers?” This is repulsive. Policemen aren’t the mistresses of a charm school that punishes you if you show the wrong demeanor. They have to go by the law, whether they like you or not.

But unfortunately for Turner, these cops knew enough of the law to realize that they didn’t need to recognize her as what Al Gore used to call the “controlling legal authority.” As they noted, she was not involved in the incident, and when she angrily demanded to know what, precisely, had happened, they referred her to the operator of the car and its passengers, who were standing right there and who knew all about it. Turner refused to get her information from that source, thereby proving that she wasn’t after information. She was after intimidation.

But this was a rhetorical crisis. How could she intimidate people who didn’t recognize her right to intimidate them? Unable to impress them as an individual, she invoked her membership in the Governing Class. She told them she was “a concerned citizen and friend of the mayor.”

Policemen aren’t the mistresses of a charm school that punishes you if you show the wrong demeanor.

The Governing Class likes to authenticate itself in this way. It likes to combine and confuse the personal-emotive (concerned), the populist (citizen), and the authoritarian (friend of hizzoner).

When I hear concerned citizen, I figure I’m soon going to hear about the citizen’s membership in a political action group including Senator Bullfinch, Representative Stalwart-Bones, and thousands of people like you! Then I’m going to hear about the need to pass another law and enforce it. The most important part of the three-pronged approach is the authoritarian prong. Realizing that, Turner flashed a card, and probably a badge, and told the cops, “I am a commissioner of the Port Authority, and I'm heading up over 4,000 police officers.”

As NJ.com remarked, “there are only 1,600 officers employed at the Port Authority. And she is not directly in charge of them in any way, shape or form.” The instinctive response of the powers-that-be is: “Just lie to ’em; they’ll never find out.” Nowadays, basic facts are easy to discover online, so that trick doesn’t work as well as it used to. But Turner kept pushing her institutional authority, insisting that she be called, not “Miss” or “Ms.,” but “Commissioner.” She also mentioned that she was an attorney.

That didn’t get her anyplace, so she tried a peculiar recombination of the emotive-personal and the Governing Class appeal. Indistinctly, and then with more clarity and oomph, she insisted on special privilege because, as she put it, “I got four people who are coming back to my house, including people who live in New Haven, attending Yale graduate school, a Ph.D. student.” She was talking about the people in the car, daughter and friends, whom she would now apparently have to drive back to their seats in Valhalla.

The instinctive response of the powers-that-be is: “Just lie to ’em; they’ll never find out.”

I’m sure you’ve noticed that Turner’s grammar and syntax aren’t all that they might be. Remember this; I’ll come back to it. But I need to tell you that I, as the holder of a Ph.D., find this part fascinating. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see that we’ve reached the point where a politically savvy person thinks she can get her way simply by revealing that she is someone who knows someone who is trying to get a Ph.D. from Yale. When she brought it up again, she added MIT.

It went downhill from there. Turner made references to political and police superiors in Tenafly, to whom she would take her complaint, but she was bad at remembering names. As faithfully reported by NJ.com, she said:

"You know Louis, what's his name? Schmaradaski?" Turner asks, apparently referring to Tenafly police traffic officer Louis Smaragdakis.

"What does that have to do with anything?" asks Officer Savitsky, utterly bewildered, and now officially The Most Patient Person in the Universe.

"Well, I'm just telling you who I am," answers Turner.

Or who she thinks she is, as in the old expression, Who do you think you are, anyway?

Turner thinks she’s a person who’s good with words. And isn’t this an attribute that’s supposed to qualify the Governing Class for control of everyone else? (I said “supposed.” I know about George Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump.) That appears to be Turner’s assumption, because one of her parting shots at the cops was, “You can’t put a sentence together.” She said the same thing five times during the episode. In another parting shot, she told the cops, “Shut the fuck up.”

Isn’t this an attribute that’s supposed to qualify the Governing Class for control of everyone else?

This sordid little incident has no importance in itself, but it illustrates a healthy tendency. Since members of the Governing Class are still unaware of the fact that when they make fools of themselves, their folly is likely to show up on Youtube, public exposure of their emptiness and stupidity has become routine. That’s what happened to Commissioner Turner. The police were recording everything on their dashcam, and they released what they had to the public, which was immediately and sanctimoniously outraged, as only video footage can make it. Turner was censured by the Port Authority board and “resigned” her post as commissioner.

May all members of the Governing Class join her lemming rush to the sea. But here’s another interesting thing. If you’re wondering what Turner did as Commissioner of the Port of New York and New Jersey, I’ll tell you: she headed the Government and Ethics Committee.




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The Emperor Has No Brains

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One of the greatest things in this universe is discovering that there are other people — lots of other people — who are just as smart as you are, or even (if you can believe it) smarter.

As a teacher, I’ve often been inspired by what I’ve seen other people doing in the classroom. “How did they think of that?” I ask myself, futilely. As a writer, I’ve spent many of the best moments of my life marveling at the accomplishments of people who were much more intelligent than I. Emily Dickinson, are you listening? J.F. Powers, can you hear me? Even writers who, I think, were not particularly bright (in my way of being bright) have earned my admiration by being smart enough (in their way) to do things I could never dream of doing. Hemingway and Whitman, I salute you.

But it’s not just in my own work that I rejoice to lose the competition. The cleverness of a good carpenter, the strategic intellect of a good cook — such things astonish me. I have a friend who has mastered virtually all the skills of the construction trade. That’s real intelligence, of a kind that I don’t have. When I’m disgusted with the world, I’m consoled by the knowledge that I’m surrounded by so many people who can do things so much better than I.

The cleverness of a good carpenter, the strategic intellect of a good cook — such things astonish me.

An economist would say I was recognizing the importance of the division of labor. I prefer to call it the division of intelligence. According to James Madison, writing in the tenth Federalist paper, this is what our system of government is all about. It’s about protecting the division of intelligence, and the superior degrees of intelligence:

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is . . . an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.

It is not only the rights of property that derive from the division of intelligence; it’s property itself in any significant form. If everyone had one form and degree of intelligence, everyone would be a teacher, with no one to teach; everyone would be a writer of the same kind of stuff; everyone would be a mediocre cook, with no one to produce the food or pay for it.

Recently I bought a new heating and air conditioning unit. At the moment when the superbly intelligent and adroit technician finished installing it and presented me with the bill, social hierarchy did not exist; I was happy to reward the superior intelligence he showed in his craft, and he was happy to receive some of the money that I had been paid for exercising an appropriate degree of intelligence in mine. The best thing is that such moments are constantly occurring. They are the real story of human life.

But there is a class of people — let’s call it the governing class — that does not think in this way, that apparently lacks the capacity to think in this way. Members of this class assume that they are smarter, simply smarter, than everyone else and that they are therefore commanded by nature to tell everyone else what to do. Alexander Pope remarked that

Each might his sev’ral province well command,
Would all but stoop to what they understand.

The meaning of such comments is lost on the hierarchs of the governing class. They don’t command a province of human endeavor; they command human beings. They will not stoop; there is never any reason for them to stoop. They were born with an understanding of existence and their superior role in it, and if they weren’t, they soon learned it from their four years at Harvard, Brown, or Wellesley. They’re smarter than all the rest of us, which gives them the right to push us all around.

Members of this class assume that they are smarter, simply smarter, than everyone else and that they are therefore commanded by nature to tell everyone else what to do.

In the early republic, such people were rare, and scorned. If you wanted to be esteemed for your intelligence, you had to show that you actually were smart at doing something. It might be reading good literature, understanding its meaning, and using it in effective argument, especially on questions of political principle and fundamental law. This is the substantial intelligence that until the 20th century gained the highest rewards in America’s political life. But no one thought there was only one way to demonstrate intelligence. You might do it by showing your grasp of military affairs, or financial investments. You might construct great works of engineering or great industrial combinations. You might invent the electric light. You might build houses that people really wanted to live in or operate a hotel that would really make them comfortable. But you had to do something to show you were smart.

This obligation has been superseded by the modern, all-encompassing state, which inculcates far different, and far narrower, ideas of merit. It rewards people who have no skills except an ability to write memos, endure meetings, and serve on committees, teams, and task forces — most of them useless or harmful, but that’s all right: the state is made to command and not to please. The state grants prestige even to people whose sole job is to spin — that is, to lie to other people, using methods that are openly discussed and admired among the governing class but are presumed to operate unnoticed by those targeted for bamboozlement. In other words, the state gives special rewards to people who lack sufficient intelligence to respect the intelligence of others.

Civilized people — and our society is still, in most ways, civilized — are trained, and properly so, to respect other people’s intelligence and the achievements that are a sign of intelligence. But here’s the problem. They are trained to respect even the appearance of achievement. When I call a plumber and a man shows up with TONY on his chest and a set of plumber’s tools in his hand, I assume that he’s a plumber, and probably a decent one, or he wouldn’t still be in business. I’m inclined to respect him as such. Who am I to say that he’s not a real plumber? I’m not smart enough to judge that.

The modern, all-encompassing state inculcates far different, and far narrower, ideas of merit. It rewards people who have no skills except an ability to write memos, endure meetings, and serve on committees.

But in the same way, when a gang of people stride into a room in $2,000 suits, step to the microphone, and make statements about the welfare of the nation or some other governing-class topic, their air of assurance tempts otherwise intelligent men and women to wonder whether these impressive figures could possibly have attained their power unless they were, in fact, more intelligent than anyone else in the room. So large, and so important, is our respect for accomplishment that we imagine that anyone who has attained some distinguished position must have the mental qualities that merit it — must be, in a word, smart.

We are slow to realize that dumb people are drawn to dumb jobs. Imagine asking a good carpenter whether he would like a more prestigious job. “Doing what?” he says. “Oh,” you say, “going to meetings to decide which of the proposed revisions to the current memorandum regarding the department’s recommendation to the undersecretary should be revisited. You’ll look very impressive doing that.” The plumber would say, in franker words than these, that he wouldn’t consider it. But some people do more than consider it. They make it their life’s work. They often say that they didn’t even wonder about whether it was. They recognized it, right away, as their mission in life. And that’s true. They were just dumb enough to want it. Go read the parable of the trees in Judges 9:8–15.

This brings us at last (but you could see where we were going) to James Comey, late director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Comey has published a book about how much he hates President Trump, who fired him from his job. Comey has apparently governed his life in accordance with the idea that he is smarter than everyone else. He has tried to demonstrate the truth of that idea by snooping on other people and sending them to jail, even when their only crime was lying about something that wasn’t a crime. This is the man who imprisoned Martha Stewart, host of a television cooking show, for committing lèse majesté against Comey’s government agency.

We are slow to realize that dumb people are drawn to dumb jobs.

You might wonder how anyone could have led such a dumb life as Comey, and I suppose the answer is simply that dumb people do dumb things. Puffing his book in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, a fellow member of the governing class, Comey was asked one of those dumb questions that dumb people think are so clever when they’re conducting a job interview: “What is your worst quality?” Stephanopoulos put it in an even dumber way: “What’s James Comey’s rap on James Comey?” The answer was:

Yeah. My rap on myself is that — is that ego focus. That I — since I was a kid, I've had a sense of confidence. That I know I'm good at certain things. And there's a danger that that will bleed over into pride.

Few people will dispute this answer: Comey strikes nearly everyone as an insufferable egotist. But notice the idea that Comey thinks is not in dispute — the assumption that he is “good at certain things.” We have his own word for it: “I know I’m good.” It does not occur to him that an egotist will always imagine that he’s good at something, and that this may be evidence that, after all, he’s not good at anything. What is it, exactly, that Comey is good at?

He’s certainly not good at speaking like an adult. If the fractured syntax of the “rap on myself” answer isn’t enough to convince you, consider his childish answer to another childish question from Stephanopoulos, who wanted to know “what did it feel like to be James Comey” during the last ten days of the presidential campaign of 2016. That’s the period when Comey blunderingly announced that he was reinvestigating the “matter” of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and then blunderingly announced that he’d stopped investigating them. Comey replied:

It sucked. Yeah, it was — it was a very painful period. Again, my whole life has been dedicated to institutions that work not to have an involvement in an election. I walked around vaguely sick to my stomach, feeling beaten down. I felt, when I went to the White House — I don't want to spoil it for people, but there's a movie called The Sixth Sense that I talk about in the book where Bruce Willis doesn't realize he's dead.

That's the way I felt. I felt like I was totally alone, that everybody hated me. And that there wasn't a way out because it really was the right thing to do. And that — that, in a way, I'm ruined. But that's what I have to do. I had to do it the way [sic].

Ah, the reflections of a sage and statesman! The penetrating self-analysis of a man who understands that most mysterious of all things, the human heart! The battle-wrought wisdom of a Churchillian leader!

It does not occur to Comey that an egotist will always imagine that he’s good at something, and that this may be evidence that, after all, he’s not good at anything.

Leader and leadership — Comey mentioned those words 47 times during his wee interview with Georgie. The subtitle of Comey’s book is “Truth, Lies, and Leadership.” Explaining to Stephanopoulos why he wrote a spiteful volume about how he was always telling the truth and President Trump was always telling lies, and that’s why Trump fired him from his leadership role, Comey cited young people’s need for education in leadership:

It occurred to me maybe I can be useful by offering a view to people, especially to young people, of what leadership should look like and how it should be centered on values.

I can’t tell how many young people (or any people) will actually read his book, but Comey is not a very challenging teacher. He’s the kind of teacher who is dumb enough to pander to his students. Kids say “it sucked,” so Comey says “it sucked.” (Lofty phrase! Especially when you remember what it literally means.) Kids feel emotions that make them lose all perspective, so Comey describes his bad day at the office by saying that it made him feel vaguely sick to his stomach, beaten down, totally alone. Kids have a desperate desire to be part of a group, so Comey tells them that when some people didn’t want him on their team anymore, he felt that everybody hated him. This is leadership!

When someone at this intellectual level strives for a literary or artistic allusion, he reaches out to . . . Washington? Lincoln? Dante? Nope. It’s Bruce Willis who’s on his mind. But he can’t fix his thoughts on Bruce. He’s got to keep coming back to . . . James Comey. “I’m ruined,” he thinks. And he keeps thinking that, and he has to tell other people that he’s thinking that. As is natural for a traumatized kid of 57.

Comey’s absence of intelligence, and his inability to conceive that his audience might have some, are painfully displayed when Stephanopoulos takes him through the absurd scene in which Comey informed Trump that he had a secret to tell him. The secret had to do with a dossier (that’s a foreign word, but I think you may be old enough to hear it) purporting to show that several years before, Trump had hired Russian prostitutes to piss on a bed that had once been occupied by President Obama. Master sleuth that he is, Comey is still unable, by his account, to determine whether to believe Trump’s outraged denial of this ridiculous and unsupported allegation.

I don't — I don't know. I don't — the nature of an investigator is you don't believe or disbelieve. [Really? That’s not what they taught me in Investigator School.] You ask, "What's my evidence? What is the evidence that establishes me [Huh? Is this English?] whether someone's telling me the truth or not. And ask this allegation—" I honestly never thought this words would come out of my mouth, but I don't know whether the — the — current president of the United States was with prostitutes peeing on each other in Moscow in 2013. It's possible, but I don't know.

As any person of normal intelligence can see, Comey has to keep asserting that he doesn’t know whether any of this is true, because otherwise he wouldn’t have any reason to talk about it. But, one might ask, what does he know? He knows how he feels about things. He knows that in great detail.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How weird was that briefing?

JAMES COMEY: Really weird. I mean, I don't know whether it was weird for President-elect Trump, but I — it was almost an out-of-body experience for me. I was floating above myself, looking down, saying, "You're sitting here, briefing the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in Moscow." And of course, Jeh Johnson's voice is banging around in my head. President Obama's eyebrow raise is banging around in my head. I just wanted to get it done and get out of there.

What teenager could have said it better? “How weird was that briefing, Jimmy?” “Like, it was really weird.” Just thinking about icky things sent Comey’s brain rushing to the Pop Psych ward, where selves see themselves floating above themselves, and the voices (and eyebrows) of authority figures keep banging around in your head. Dude! How grody was that!

Comey has to keep asserting that he doesn’t know whether any of this is true, because otherwise he wouldn’t have any reason to talk about it.

Please remember that it was Comey who started this weirdness. And why? Because he felt it was his duty to tell Trump that somebody had written something that claimed that Trump had done something bad. Not bad, as in illegal, but bad, as in embarrassing. And embarrassing, to a teenager, is worse than illegal. It was so embarrassing — to Comey! — that he couldn’t tell the president precisely what it was. He preferred to leave some things to Trump’s imagination (which, we have reason to believe, is much more fertile than Comey’s).

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How graphic did you get?

JAMES COMEY: I think as graphic as I needed to be. I did not go into the business about — people peeing on each other, I just thought it was a weird enough experience for me to be talking to the incoming president of the United States about prostitutes in a hotel in Moscow. And so I left that part out. I thought I'd given enough to put him on notice as to what the essence of the material was.

It was all too weird — for Comey, who was apparently so weirded out that he couldn’t bring himself to mention where the gossip came from.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did you tell him that the Steele Dossier had been financed by his political opponents?

JAMES COMEY: No. I didn't — I didn't think I used the term "Steele Dossier," I just talked about additional material.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Did he — but did he have a right to know that?

JAMES COMEY: That it'd been financed by his political opponents? I don't know the answer to that. I — it wasn't necessary for my goal, which was to alert him that we had this information. Again, I was clear on whether it's true or not, it's important that you know, both because of the counterintelligence reason and so you know that this maybe going to hit the media.

Well, well. What shall we make of this? Suppose somebody wants to meet with you and tell you something bad about you. Suppose that person is a cop. Or an employee. Or, as in this case, both. The guy could make a lot of trouble for you, because he’s a collector of secret information. And in this case, he happens to be a person who is trying to keep you from firing him. The information he wants to share with you is this: there is a secret dossier, alleging that you went to a foreign country, which is claimed to be an enemy country, and spent a night having dirty fun with prostitutes. He tells you that, without mentioning that the dossier was sponsored and financed by your political opponents. He just tells you that he has this thing. This secret thing. “I got this information, see, an’ I jus’ wanted youse to know it, see? That I had it, see? Me, I jus’ don’ know what to think of it. But spose it gits out. We don’t want that to happen. Do we . . . boss?” Even if, as the rightwing media theorize, Comey’s goal was to use his chat with Trump as a convoluted means of leaking the dossier, the obvious effect would be to make Trump wonder, “What else does this guy think he has on me?”

But suppose my impression of Comey’s intent is wrong. What type of mind would fail to recognize that it is the impression other minds would form? How stupid do you have to be to think that everybody else is just that stupid?

The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways.

This is not the only mess that Comey has gotten himself into while expecting that no one would notice, and perhaps not even noticing himself. Here, have some links. And, as you’ll see, Comey has not acted alone. The nice thing about his present, tremendous mess is that few members of the governing class are emerging from it with their reputations intact. Since those reputations were largely created by a constant merry-go-round of praise from the governing class itself, it’s only fair that they should all get off the ride together.

As a literary critic, I keep wondering how anyone could read or listen to these people without realizing how dumb they are. The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways. Often they were very smart, and needed to be; their class privilege, if any, wasn’t strong enough to keep them going by itself. The contrast with the current political class appears to be lost on even some of its foes. They persist in saying such things as Laura Ingraham said of Comey on April 19: “He’s a very smart guy. University of Chicago Law School. He’s a smart guy.”

Laura, can’t you read anything besides your teleprompter?




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Bridges to Nowhere

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On March 15, a bridge collapsed in Florida, crushing several people to death. The bridge was being constructed as a joint effort of Florida International University and various government agencies, who paid for it. News reports indicated the possibility that some of those involved had rushed the project, failed to supervise it properly, or chosen the wrong firms to undertake it. I don’t know whether Mark Rosenberg, president of the university, had any of that in mind when he issued a statement about the disaster, but here’s a newspaper report on his statement:

Rosenberg [said] in a video shared on Twitter Friday [the day after the accident] that the “tragic accident of the bridge collapse stuns us, saddens us.”

“The bridge was about collaboration, about neighborliness, about doing the right thing,” he said.

“But today we are sad and all we can do is promise a very thorough investigation in getting to the bottom of this and mourn those who we have lost.”

I have four things to say about Rosenberg’s comments.

  1. On occasions like this, old-fashioned college presidents would issue dignified statements, in writing. Rosenberg leaped to tweet a video.
     
  2. Mark Rosenberg, PhD, doesn’t know the difference between “who” and “whom” — not when facing such a linguistic puzzle as an embedded clause. Just turn it around, Dr. Rosenberg. Would you say, “We have lost who?” Maybe you would.
     
  3. Whom, exactly, had Rosenberg lost and was mourning? I have enough trouble picturing public officials kneeling by their beds, rapt in thoughts and prayers for people they don’t know and never heard of. What shall I do with the claim that such people are a personal loss for whom officials are donning the black bands of mourning? Rosenberg should have stopped with the simple and incontestable “today we are sad.”
     
  4. But here’s the worst problem: “The bridge was about collaboration, about neighborliness, about doing the right thing,” Are there any situations in which PC lingo won’t come barging through the door? A bridge is not about anything except getting people to the other side. A bridge may acquire some kind of symbolism, but the taxpayers of the United States didn’t pay 10 or 15 million dollars to construct a monument to collaboration, neighborliness, or doing the right thing. They paid that money so that students could cross Tamiami Trail from FIU to their homes in Sweetwater. This was not the Golden Gate Bridge or the Rainbow Bridge in Das Rheingold. It was a simple, ugly, concrete, utilitarian structure. The university was not being neighborly; it was assisting its own students (with other people’s money, naturally). And if it was collaborating, it was doing so in order to cadge some money from the government. As for doing the right thing, nobody sets out to do the wrong thing, except perhaps in Spike Lee movies.

Rosenberg’s symbol-mongering continued in an interview with an uncritical New York Times:

“This was a good project,” Dr. Rosenberg said Friday. “This was a project that spoke to our desire to build bridges. When the board hired me, I told them, ‘If you give me a pile of rocks, I’m going to build a bridge, not a wall.’ This was about neighborliness and collaboration.”

We see, however, that if you give him a pile of rocks, you’ll end up with a pile of rocks — rhetorically as well as literally.

This was not the Golden Gate Bridge or the Rainbow Bridge in Das Rheingold. It was a simple, ugly, concrete, utilitarian structure.

From Rosenberg’s lofty musings there’s a steep descent to the Death Valley of Hillary Clinton’s latest attempts to explain why she lost the election and deserved, of course, to have won it. On her recent visit to India she took occasion to insult the 52% of American “white” women who voted against her, claiming that their menfolk told them how to vote, so they voted that way. But what especially interested me was the weird mélange of PC and plutocracy that characterized her distinction between places that voted for her and places that voted against:

I won the places that represent two-thirds of America's gross domestic product. So I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.

One of Clinton’s ideas, if that’s the right word for them, is that diverse populations are wealthier than non-diverse ones, and that their wealth is somehow an effect of their diversity. Since she never defines her terms, one must suppose that diverse means non-“white.” She must, therefore, believe that people in East Los Angeles and South Chicago are really good at hiding their wealth: they don’t seem as prosperous as people in Beverly Hills and the Chicago Gold Coast, but they must be wealthy, because they voted for her. So much for Clinton’s grasp of the problem of income inequality, much advertised by her and her party, when it suits them. Her grasp of psychology is almost as good. Some of her most fervent support came from impoverished inner cities and from the Washington suburbs, which are chock-full of government bureaucrats. These communities supported her because they are dynamic, optimistic, and moving forward.

If you give him a pile of rocks, you’ll end up with a pile of rocks — rhetorically as well as literally.

Clinton divulged another idea, and this is one with few competitors in the realm of politically repulsive notions. I refer to the idea that the better population, the more upright and moral and truth-seeking and noble and deservedly optimistic population, is the one that has wealth. I suppose that Clinton ought to know, because she and her husband (who obviously tells her what to do) have amassed, from a lifetime of selfless public service, a fortune worthy of the Arabian Nights. No country bumpkins are these noble sophist-solons. The fabled wealth of their supporters often derives from similarly political sources: government contracts, government-assisted industries, and lucrative government employment, as in those Washington suburbs. There is barely a state capital in the country that doesn’t have higher household incomes than the rest of the state, or that failed to vote for Hillary.

But if you think that the urban plutocrats who use their votes and influence to ruin the schools, bankrupt the middle class, spread crime and welfare dependency through every promising community, and deny peaceful citizens the right to self-defense — if you think these people are wiser and nobler than a single mother waiting tables in Kansas City, you have disqualified yourself not only from public office but also from public respect. And that’s exactly what Hillary Clinton has done.

Descending still further on the trail of the self-disqualified, we arrive at Andrew (“Andy”) McCabe, former second banana at the FBI. When this gentleman got fired for leaking and lying, he released a long, turgid, thoroughly lawyered-up declaration about various things, including the offenses charged against him by the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General. It’s the kind of statement that’s meant to sound childishly simple, but even a child could see that it’s written to be impenetrable. It doesn’t make you wonder how such a smart, caring person could possibly have been fired from his job; it makes you wonder (once more) how stupid one needs to be to qualify for a leadership position in government.

There is barely a state capital in the country that doesn’t have higher household incomes than the rest of the state, or that failed to vote for Hillary.

Here’s a passage; I’ll inject some comments.

The OIG investigation has focused on information I chose to share with a reporter through my public affairs officer and a legal counselor. As Deputy Director, I was one of only a few people who had the authority to do that. It was not a secret, it took place over several days, and others, including the Director, were aware of the interaction with the reporter. [McCabe never says what the information was or to whom it was given. If it wasn’t secret, what is it? But his purpose is to implicate as many other people as possible. He proves, however, that his unethical action was no accident; it was determined and systematic. He must have provided one hell of a lot of information “over several days.”] It was the type of exchange with the media that the Deputy Director oversees several times per week. [The plain word for this kind of “exchange” — and by the way, what was given in return? — is “leak.”] In fact, it was the same type of work [Work? Is leaking a job?] that I continued to do under Director Wray, at his request. [An attempt to implicate the current boss. But notice the obvious but unanswered question: What exactly were you exchanging?] The investigation subsequently focused on who [Ever hear of the word “whom”?] I talked to, when I talked to them, and so forth. During these inquiries, I answered questions truthfully and as accurately as I could amidst the chaos that surrounded me. [He had no role in generating that chaos.] And when I thought my answers were misunderstood, I contacted investigators to correct them. [Give us an example. Maybe we’ll start to imagine something other than “I lied, and then I tried to spin my lies.”]

Of course, McCabe’s statement castigated Trump for saying that he should be fired and denied the pension he had earned by his monumental “20 years of service.” I suggest that those 20 years should be regarded as their own reward, since the servant thinks so highly of their moral value.

Another person who has been unwittingly (to use a favorite term of James Clapper, former director of national intelligence) revealing that he wasn’t qualified for his job is John Brennan, former director of the CIA. Brennan has been making such revelations for quite a while. In December he flew off the handle at Trump’s odd desire to unfriend nations who voted against the US in the UN. Trump, he said, “expects blind loyalty and subservience from everyone — qualities usually found in narcissistic, vengeful autocrats.” While it’s refreshing to find that the former chief of the nation’s army of spooks is so concerned about the welfare of countries he used to spy on, his zeal betrayed him into the ridiculous error of calling blind loyalty and subservience a set of qualities usually found in autocrats. Oh, isn’t that what he meant? But that’s what he wrote. He also accused Trump’s 2016 campaign of being on “a treasonous path,” apparently for being too friendly to certain foreign nations.

Those 20 years of service should be regarded as their own reward, since the servant thinks so highly of their moral value.

If the former head of the CIA is this loose with language, it’s not surprising that he should have gone all out in denouncing Trump for the firing of McCabe, his colleague at the FBI. Brennan spat a tweet at Trump, as follows:

When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America . . . America will triumph over you.

There are arguments to be made both for and against Trump’s conduct, in many areas, but his most obvious defense will be, “Look what I had to deal with” — meaning people like Brennan, whose tin-pot j’accuse can only confirm most people’s suspicions about government spies. He is a man whose instinctive response to opposition is to indicate that he knows something that he can use to get you. If a person like that can threaten the president so automatically and transparently, what was he willing to do to people who were not president?

Yet this is precisely the quality that inspired former UN Ambassador Samantha Power to tweet, as a compliment to the former spymaster:

Not a good idea to piss off John Brennan.

Hey, ya lug. You tryin’ tuh piss off duh boss? You know what happens tuh people that piss off duh boss?

Thus encouraged, Brennan has continued to make himself look like a gangster, going on TV to say that Vladimir Putin “may have something” on Trump.

If we are going to have an FBI or a CIA or a DOJ, I presume it should be run by people of discretion and courage, people who are bold enough to denounce any crimes they uncover by people in the government, but are wise enough to know that they themselves are not the government. This is what the McCabes and Comeys and Brennans and Clappers and Strzoks and Ohrs, geniuses that they are, failed to understand. Like Hillary Clinton, they thought they were the government, having achieved that status by virtue of their superior intelligence and nobility. They then proceeded to sneak their way into higher and higher levels of power. Then it turned out that their nobility was nothing but self-righteousness, and their intelligence was nonexistent.

Trump treats truths and falsehoods in the same way, because he can’t tell the difference.

If there’s a way of being brutally disingenuous, Trump’s enemies have found it. Trump himself is an expert at being brutally ingenuous. The truths he enunciates are blurted out and kicked around, in the way a child finds a football and kicks it into the lamp. He treats falsehoods in the same way, because he can’t tell the difference. Lately he’s been touting a proposal to handle the “opioid crisis” by administering the death penalty to “high level drug traffickers.” What’s the why and how of that? Well, as reported by a prominent source of news and blather, CNN Politics,

Trump told an audience in Pennsylvania this month that "a drug dealer will kill 2,000, 3,000, 5,000 people during the course of his or her life" and not be punished as much as a murderer.

"Thousands of people are killed or their lives are destroyed, their families are destroyed. So you can kill thousands of people and go to jail for 30 days," Trump said. "They catch a drug dealer, they don't even put them in jail."

I can’t help noticing Trump’s switch from the acceptable “his or her” to the horrible “them” (referent: a — i.e., one — drug dealer), which shows that he doesn’t understand grammar. As we’ve seen, he’s not the only one. But the real atrocity is the ideas he’s conveying. Talk about fake news! First we have the glib assertion that single sellers of drugs kill thousands. “How many thousands, Mr. Trump?” “Oh, 2,000, 3,000, 5,000. Is that enough to make my argument? I’ll give you more if you want.” Later we see that drug dealers aren’t put in jail. My modest research on law enforcement (please buy my book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison, Yale University Press, and ask your library to buy it as well) has uncovered a few cases of drug dealers who are in jail — a multitude of cases, in fact.

The worst childishness is the premise that these non-facts are supposed to support, which is the idea that drug dealers are responsible for destroying the live of victims and their families. If I’m drinking myself to death, the guy on the other side of the counter in the liquor store is not my murderer. He is not destroying my family, as 19th-century prohibitionists would maintain. If I die of drink, I am the one responsible. If my family suffers, I am the one who caused the suffering. And if Trump believes so much in the death penalty (which honesty compels me to state that I do also, though without Trump’s touching faith in its pharmacological efficacy), shouldn’t he be advocating that the consumers of illegal drugs be executed? That would solve the whole problem.

“How many thousands, Mr. Trump?” “Oh, 2,000, 3,000, 5,000. Is that enough to make my argument? I’ll give you more if you want.”

Let’s go back to Dr. Rosenberg’s idea about building bridges instead of walls. Intelligent communication is a bridge. Rosenberg’s opaquely politicized language is a wall. The intransigence of virtually all government agencies about revealing, well, anything about their operations — that’s another wall. The nation’s incessant, interminable investigations — those are walls, too.

But then we have the bridge builders, the Trumps and Clintons and McCabes and Brennans, ad infinitum, busily constructing their monuments of words — things built of twaddle and government jobs, unsupported by fact or logic. These projects have been going on for a long time. Now, thanks to the rank stupidity of the architects, everyone can see that they don’t work. The bridges are down. Knowing that, maybe we can start to pick up the scattered stones of our language and build some real bridges.




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Don’t Gift Me, Bro

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Last month’s Word Watch presented a list of terms that were prominent in 2017 and we can do without in 2018. That column was popular in one way and unpopular in another. Many people read it — and wrote to tell me that it was woefully deficient. Too much left out!

Now look. I could write a 10,000-word column about depraved and ridiculous uses of language, but in the immortal words of Tristram Shandy, “Will this be good for your worships’ eyes?”

Nevertheless, I’ll try to fill in some of the blanks left by last month’s column, using linguistic horrors provided either by outraged readers or by my own outraged researches.

Given that performance, it was obvious that Wray’s public statements would repeat the arrogant asininity of Comey’s.

But first! The word outrage prompts a brief digression. It’s about Tucker Carlson. Isn’t he a good writer? I’m not talking about his political insights or lack thereof, but just about the quality of his prose. And it’s getting better. His TV show opens with an editorial monologue, and when I compare the monologues from six months ago with the monologues he’s writing now, I seem to see a good-better-best progression. Anyway, back on December 22, Tucker said on his television show: “A large portion of the American public is now addicted to outrage.” Isn’t that true? And isn’t that a good way of saying three things, briefly and cogently: violent political emotions aren’t confined to a few people; this outbreak of outrage happened recently (“now”), and it isn’t merely a brief emotional spasm; it’s chronic and addictive. He said this in 12 words; it took me 28 to paraphrase it. And he hit the bullseye even more frequently in February than he did in December.

But now, since I’m already digressing, I may as well say something else I’ve been meaning to say, although it’s not about the meanings of words; it’s about their pronunciation. One of the things I always held against the pompous, prissy James Comey, whose strongest expression of dismay was “Lordy!”, was his pompous, prissy pronunciation of the word processes. He pronounced it “processEEZE.” Now, why would anybody say it that way? When talking about Comey and his friends, does anyone refer to “dumbassEEZE”? Was the FBI one of Hillary Clinton’s “franchisEEZE”? And how about “Comey’s second guessEEZE”? Is that how we say it?

This pronunciation is even more emphatic in its advertisement of the speaker’s stupidity.

Behind “processEEZE” lies the same kind of embarrassment before words that people exhibit when they wonder how to make “princess” plural and come up with “prinCESSes,” or can’t figure out how to say that Mrs. Hastings has a pet and end up referring to “Mrs. Hasting’s cat.” Comey isn’t alone in devising weird pronunciations. “EEZE,” the phony plural, has been a badge of Washington pomposity for many years. If you want to identify people whose method of suggesting that they’re “smart” is to demonstrate that they’re dumb, listen to their plurals. When Comey’s successor, Christopher Wray, testified before Congress, it was notable that he kept saying “processEEZE.”

Given that performance, it was obvious that Wray’s public statements would repeat the arrogant asininity of Comey’s. You’ve probably seen the supposed apology that Wray issued for the FBI’s failure to do anything at all with a citizen’s detailed warning about Nikolas Cruz, who then proceeded to murder 17 people in a Florida high school. Wray said:

We are still investigating the facts. [As I mentioned in last month’s Word Watch, that’s what this gente always says. The idea is to keep saying it until everyone else forgets.] I am committed [How touching! But this also is what they always say.] to getting to the bottom [A fresh and heartfelt phrase.] of what happened in this particular matter, as well as reviewing our processes [Reviewing them, as opposed to doing anything about them.] for responding to information that we receive from the public. It’s up to all Americans to be vigilant [Wray can’t bring himself to reflect on the behavior of his own org without criticizing all the rest of us.], and when members of the public contact us with concerns, we must act properly and quickly. [This is the place where members of the public look for some discussion of why “we” didn’t do that. Still looking . . . . ]

We have spoken with victims and families, and deeply regret the additional pain this [What’s the referent of this? It could be “our abject failure,” but curiously, failure is not in Wray’s statement.] causes all those affected by this horrific tragedy. All of the men and women of the FBI are dedicated to keeping the American people safe, and are relentlessly committed [There’s that word again.] to improving all that we do and how we do it.

Oh, for God’s sake — all of you are relentlessly committed? Then how did the Florida disaster happen? How did the Peter Strzok-Lisa Page disaster happen? And how did all of the FBI’s other gross failures happen to happen? I guess the processEEZE will have to be reviewed.

Meanwhile, we are enduring a blizzard of accusations from all parties, alleging that their political opponents are being “divisive” — pronounced “diVISSive.” This may be worse than “processEEZE.” It’s pompous and it’s prissy and it reflects a similar inability to understand the words one uses. What word does “diVISSive” come from, “diVID”? But this pronunciation is even more emphatic in its advertisement of the speaker’s stupidity. After all, processes, no matter how one pronounces the word, are seldom the point of emphasis of anyone’s remarks. But divisive always is, wherever it occurs, so that the mispronunciation calls even more attention to itself.

So much for things I wanted to bring up. A reader wanted me to discuss the horror of going forward, moving forward, and other expressions that redundantly and ungrammatically signal future action. An example: speaking of Wyndham Lathem, the Chicago professor accused of the bizarre murder of his boyfriend, Chicago Tonight said, “[Judge Charles] Burns wasn’t present at Lathem’s arraignment in September, but said he will be the trial judge moving forward.” That’s a typical conclusion for what is proving to be a typical American sentence: moving forward.

All of you are relentlessly committed? Then how did the Florida disaster happen?

Typical, and bad. Such expressions are invariably redundant because they follow one indication of the future (“will be”) with another (“moving forward”). They are ungrammatical because . . . What moves forward? In the Lathem example, the only candidate for what is the judge, but he’s not moving anywhere. I suppose it’s the legal case that will move forward, but case is not in the sentence, so it can’t be modified by moving. “Moving forward, going forward,” and all their linguistic kin are engendered by nothing but a vague anxiety that one has somehow not said enough, coupled with a strange unwillingness simply to notice what one has, indeed, already said. They are the type of “are you with me?” gesture that we see constantly in this age of insecure communication. All right? You understand? OK? I really mean it. Ya know?

More than one reader — actually two of them — let me know that something should be done about “on,” as in “on you.” When, for instance, Hawaii was terrorized by a false alarm about an atomic attack from North Korea, Jamie Lee Curtis, whoever she is, tweeted, “The Hawaii missile crisis is on you Mr. Trump” (who had nothing whatever to do with it). In general, people who use on you or on me as a substitute for the very cumbersome and difficult “your responsibility” or “my fault” are illiterates who should never be discussing questions of this nature.

But I do enjoy their imagery. If you take these expressions literally, you have to picture men and women plastered with such things as missile crises and failed garbage pickups and teenage drinking and the absence of party favors at a 6-year-old’s birthday bash: it’s all on them. And in theory, any adjectival expression can be used about the past as well as the future, so it’s fun to think of statements such as “The Great Depression was on the Smoot-Hawley tariff,” “The Civil War was all on John C. Calhoun,” and “The Sodom disaster was definitely on Yahweh.” But fun like this isn’t worth the annoyance.

"Moving forward, going forward,” and all their linguistic kin are engendered by nothing but a vague anxiety that one has somehow not said enough.

Here’s another complaint from a reader: gifted. This isn’t about gifted painters, or gifted young sopranos. It’s about: “For Christmas I gifted him with a new nine iron,” “Michelle Obama Finally Reveals What Melania Trump Gifted Her at the Inauguration,” and “Pippa Middleton gifted her sister this sentimental piece of jewelry — and it's actually affordable.” The first passage is something I made up, to show where the whole ugly process began. Apparently, gifted intruded itself on the contemporary language as a pointless substitute for gave. Its users may have been the same kind of people who use moving forward to make sure that you got it, right? — I’m talking about the future, OK? So, dude, gave has only one syllable, right? So you might miss it, right? So why not give it two syllables, ya know? Right? OK? Which gifted has, ya know? And besides, maybe gifted sounds more festive? Right?

In the distant past, like, two years ago, gift (used as a verb) was an obscure expression, seldom employed, and cursed with bad associations, such as its association with a shadowy companion, with. Says the American Heritage Dictionary (1982): “Gift (verb) has a long history of use in the sense ‘to present as a gift, to endow’: He gifted her with a necklace. In current use, however, gift in this sense is sometimes regarded as affected and is unacceptable to a large majority of the Usage Panel.”

Notice the telltale with: “gifted her with.” The tale it tells is called: “The Burden of Affectation.” When people wanted a better, cuter, more precious word than gave, they went, sometimes, to gifted, but they had to take with along, because that’s how the expression had always appeared in print: gifted with.

I like that one especially, because when you first read it, you think that Pippa gave away her sister.

Yet even illiterate people can be affected. And when, seized with the desire to be better, cuter, and more precious themselves, they decided to substitute gifted for gave, they missed one of gifted’s idiomatic requirements, which was with. The result was, “Pippa Middleton gifted her sister this sentimental piece of jewelry.” I like that one especially, because gifted is followed by an indirect as well as a direct object, so when you first read it, you think that Pippa gave away her sister. Gosh, how sentimental. And it’s actually affordable. Thus gifted became the language of love. Ya know?

This is a good place to acknowledge the concerns of a faithful reader about “there isn’t any there there,” “nothingburger,” and other clichés of emptiness. Eighty-one years ago, in a book called Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein wrote of her hometown, Oakland, California, “There is no there there.” During the next few generations, this bon mot was occasionally quoted, usually to show that the quoter knew something about Gertrude Stein. Then, suddenly, the thing was here here and everywhere everywhere. No one could write about American politics without asserting that there was no there there in the opposition’s statements, programs, arguments, accusations, proofs, or patriotism. You’ll notice that people who use this expression usually say it with a look that claims they’ve got something very smart in their noggins. But there’s no there there, any more than there was in Oakland.

I’m not sure who came up with nothingburger, although verbal burgers have been with us for quite a while — consider an article by Nora Ephron (1970) that quotes Helen Gurley Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan, as saying, “If you’re a little mouseburger, come with me. I was a mouseburger and I will help you. You’re so much more wonderful than you think.”

Nonentities can now become dominant and stay dominant. Think Meryl Streep. Think Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

I myself was once a little mouseburger, but I’m not coming with her. I’ve had it with burgers of every description. They were never very impressive, and they’ve exhausted their 15 minutes of fame.

See! I can make trite allusions like everyone else — this time to something that Andy Warhol wrote in 1968. Fifty years later, “15 minutes of fame” can be heard 24 hours a day. Warhol’s idea was that in the future nothing would be much more significant than anything else; the dominant culture of the media would allow nothing but itself to get that way. This isn’t exactly what happened. It’s true that total nonentities can now become “stars,” and insignificant political events can now be heralded, for about “15 minutes,” as game-changing moments. But that was true in 1968, and 1958, and 1948 before it. More important is the fact that nonentities can now become dominant and stay dominant. Think Meryl Streep. Think Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The reason isn’t lack of communication, as in Cool Hand Luke (“what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”), but lack of imagination, lack of the ability to think of anything to replace nothing burgers with something burgers.

The proliferation of “media” may be relevant. It may be harder to think, to visualize, to imagine things for yourself when you can feast 24/7 on other people’s images. But whatever the cause, if you believe that Meryl Streep is a great actor and Barack Obama is a great orator and Stephen Hawking is a great philosopher and Doris Kearns Goodwin is a great historian and George F. Will is a great political thinker and Paul Krugman is a great economist and the New York Times is a great paper and Angela Merkel is a great European leader and Pope Francis is a great religious leader, this means that you cannot imagine anything better than these wretched substitutes for greatness. And if you can’t think of any better words than “there’s no there there” and “it’s a nothingburger,” then, actually, you cannot think. And that’s where we are right now.




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A Few Things We Can Do Without

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A new year is always hopeful — until you notice that it’s only the calendar that has changed; none of the problems has gone away. Word problems can be especially sticky visitors.

As 2017 changed to 2018, I was thinking about that old expression back in the day. I heard it once or twice when I was a kid. I thought it was charming, in a daft way. (Not that I knew the word “daft.”) It gestured vaguely toward some unspecified moment in the past on which something of vague, unspecified significance had occurred. It was quaint and silly. Then, about 1998, I heard the expression again — this time from college students, who had heard it from other college students, who had picked it up from somewhere. These students were saying it about anything that had happened before, well, 1998. “When I was in high school, back in the day . . .”

I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Soon the expression was everywhere. It was a fad. I thought that fads went away; they’re supposed to go away. But this one hasn’t. I hope that it will, eventually — although many other hoary old youth expressions — cool, hot, weed, hittin’ on, even hip, as in hipster — won’t give up their lease. Perhaps (who knows?) you can hasten the exit of back in the day by saying, the next time you hear it, “Pardon me . . . which day do you have in mind?”

And here are some other things, few of them as innocent as back in the day, that have overstayed their welcome. I’ve arranged them alphabetically, starting with:

All about, as in, “Libertarianism is all about freedom.” OK, I understand that statement, and there’s nothing especially wrong with it; it’s just a way of heightening an effect: instead of saying that “libertarianism is about freedom” you say “all about freedom.” Maybe it’s a little childish: you wouldn’t say, “War and Peace is all about the Napoleonic wars.” But it gets, and has gotten, worse. Usually, nowadays, it involves the pretense that human beings have themes, just as books and movements do. I recently told a colleague that something should be kept confidential. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m all about discretion.” I’d thought that discretion was only a few pages of his personality; now I found that there was nothing else in the book.

Bible fakery. This is a perennial medium of political disinformation. Somewhere in history, there must have been a politician who used biblical references with some respect for their source, but I can’t think of one. Christmas is a dependable venue for Bible fakes. At Christmas 2017 the most popular type was the equation of illegal immigrants with the Holy Family. A few blocks from my home there’s a church that’s still flying a banner depicting Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem and proclaiming, “Immigrants & Refugees Welcome Here.” If any immigrants or refugees turn up at the church door, they’ll find out how much this kind of “welcome” is worth. But never mind; here’s something sillier. Martin O’Malley, decayed Governor of Maryland, whose campaign for the presidency was a ludicrous flop, has not ceased his quest for the limelight. On December 22, he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s TV show to say, “Merry Christmas. And remember that Jesus himself was a refugee child. What would you do if he came to the borders of your country?”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France?

Carlson’s comment was: “That’s so stupid, it’s hard to respond.” So I will respond. Jesus and his family were not immigrants, and they were not part of some “refugee” movement. They never crossed the borders of their “country,” which was the Roman Empire. According to one of the gospels, they came to Bethlehem by government order, to fulfill a tax regulation; according to another, they fled, a couple of years later, to another part of the empire, but soon returned. Notice, however, what Bible fakery depends upon: an audience that is impressed by “Bible” ideas but is unwilling to ask “What is this guy talking about?” — and then open the book and find out what it says. It’s easy. A child could do it. Millions of children have done it. It is not a good sign that churchgoers and media gatekeepers (there’s another term we can do without) can’t be bothered to do it. Tucker evidently did, but in the program that aired on Fox News just before his, it was assumed without contest that Jesus’ parents took him illegally across a border.

Culture of, toxic culture of. An online journal devoted to the topic of eating has become alarmed about reports “of a male-dominated ‘boys’ club’ environment that, in some ways, has become synonymous with restaurant culture as a whole. The restaurant world is known for late-night, loose, sometimes wild culture, but staffers told Eater,” the online journal, that so and so “epitomized the archetype of rich, powerful restaurateurs who party hard with beautiful women and celebrities, and indulge in what several former employees called the most debaucherous behavior they had ever witnessed.”

Debaucherous? Epitomize an archetype? Powerful restaurateurs? What did they do — invade France? This stuff is pretty hard to take. But culture, used in an anthropological and yet judgmental way — that’s even harder. When it’s used about realms of lifethat I’ve had anything to do with, I feel like a native of New Guinea who is suddenly being “studied” by a bunch of ignorant people from America. I feel that these people are full of crap. I know that they’re full of crap. Since I don’t cook, and I have some money, I have visited many provinces of the restaurant world; I am fairly well acquainted with restaurant culture. I’ve had good friends who ran expensive restaurants. The most debaucherous behavior I ever saw was a waiter flirtatiously kissing his (male) manager. That’s restaurant culture for you! Was it toxic? I don’t know, but no hospitalizations were reported.

Grab. This word has traditionally, and rightly, been reserved for instances of haste, rudeness, or criminality: “Dude! He grabbed my wallet!” During the past year, however, I have seldom heard a waiter or barista or person in a store respond to a request by saying, “I’ll get that for you.” What I hear is, “I’ll grab that for you.” Right; first grab me a steak; then you can grab me my check; after that, I can grab my car and leave.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions: people who work in them need to communicate essentially the same information, hour after hour, day after day; they look for new ways of communicating it; they find them. Then they say these new thingsover and over, until even they get sick of them. In the meantime, multitudes of other people have heard the cute new things and have passed them along. This is what happened, for example, with the vile “You still workin’ on that?” The result is similar to the one we see when explorers introduce some quickly multiplying rodent to an island populated by a diversity of interesting but unprotected species. Now every person who intends to get something, find something, provide something, reach for something, or pick up something is saying, “I’ll grab that for you.” Our only recourse is to take the word seriously and reply with the appropriate warnings: “Watch out! You don’t want to spill that check!” “Don’t grab it too hard! Those Big Macs are delicate!” “If you grab your data like that, you’re just lookin’ for trouble!” “Be careful how you grab it; those salads can get violent!”

Historical fakery. On January 20, Eric Trump talked to Fox News’ renowned legal expert, Judge Jeanine, and confided inside information about the president: “My father’s workin’ like nobody ever worked before. . . . He’s gotten more done in one year than arguably any president in history.” “Arguably” is the weasel word, but it isn’t enough, unless nobody in his audience ever heard of Washington, Jackson, Polk, Roosevelt (both of them), Truman, Johnson (Lyndon), Nixon, Reagan . . . I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant, so ignorant that it amounts to fakery. A guy who writes you a check for a thousand dollars without bothering to find out whether he’s got a thousand dollars in his account — if he’s not faking you, he’s faking himself.

Restaurants and coffee houses are primary breeding grounds for inane locutions.

In history is something the country should have tired of four decades ago, when Democrats in Congress endlessly reiterated the notion that Watergate was “the worst crisis in our history,” at least “since the Civil War.” But that was a true and moderate statement, compared with such recent claims as that of Trump fils, or that of a would-be Trump nemesis, Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois), who is reported to have said that Trump is the first “racist” president in US history. By Gutierrez’ standards, if he has any, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, and many others were all racists; and other presidents were racists by any standard. Depend on it: any public figure who uses the phrase in history knows nothing about the subject.

Knowledge is power. This phrase is submitted for your consideration by Mehmet Karayel, who says that he’s tired of hearing it — as well he might be. Knowledge is power is one of the Western world’s oldest clichés (it goes back to the Renaissance, anyway, though it smells like the Romans), and one of its most harmful. Every expert in ichthyology or Sumerian mythology treasures this silly aphorism, regarding it as his license to loot the world’s moral bank account: “I have knowledge; you are now required to give me power.” You see the fallacy, but the possessor of knowledge never does. So knowledgeable is he that he swallows the statement whole and spends the rest of his life in vengeful disappointment with the ignoramuseswho will not give him power. It never occurs to such wisepeople that their absolute trust in their own knowledge (of something or other) is itself a decisive refutation of their eligibility for power.

Legendary. We see examples of this one every day. The following happens to come from Mediaite (December 21), but it could be from anyplace: “Legendary anchorman Tom Brokaw took a hard swing against Fox News this morning . . .” Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw. And, if memory serves, Paul Bunyan could occasionally talk so as to make himself understood.

I’m not saying whether these people got more good things done than bad things, but even if you limit them to the good things, Eric Trump’s statement is preposterously ignorant.

How does legendary get attached to people who are not even memorable? The reason is that it’s too hard to find another adjective for them; they just aren’t worth the effort, so to be nice, somebody makes them legendary. Notice that no one ever refers to “the legendary Abraham Lincoln.” It’s always “the legendary Meryl Streep” or someone like that.

Litigating, relitigating.This is a low-grade form of political flimflam. It’s the substitution of a high-class term that many people do not understand for simple terms that everyone uses all the time, in order to make simple events appear too complicated to be understood. Thus CNN, last November, on the goofy ways in which goofy Senator Alan Stuart (“Al”) Franken dealt with allegations of goofy sexual misdemeanors:“What Franken is doing here is obvious. He is letting the statement he released last week in the wake of the first allegations stand. He's not adding to it, re-opening it or relitigating it.” You’re an intelligent person; you’re a good reader; you know what litigate means. So tell me: how can someone litigate, let alone relitigate, a statement, let alone relitigate his own statement? The simple word, the word that relitigating has been used to replace, is “changing.”

Much worse than the passage just quoted is Senator Elizabeth Warren’s statement to the Boston Globe about her bizarre claim to be an American Indian:

These issues were extensively litigated in 2012 [when she ran for the Senate] and I think the people of Massachusetts made their decision. I think what the people of Massachusetts and what voters are concerned about is the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.

No, an election is not a litigation. And if it were, its purpose would not be to decide the issues of whether Elizabeth Warren and her employer, Harvard University, falsely claimed that she was an American Indian. Neither, unfortunately, would it be held to pronounce judgment on the illiterate syntax of Dr. Elizabeth Warren, darling of liberal “intellectuals,” a woman who says such things as “the direction that Donald Trump is pulling this country.” Diagram that, if you can. Her underlying idea is simple: she got elected, so she must be right, either about being an American Indian or about the morality of falsely claiming to be an American Indian. This idea is ridiculous, and that’s why she’s trying to make you feel that the situation is too complicated for you to understand.

Nation of immigrants. Everyone — Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, whoever — constantly recites this article of the American Creed. That’s sufficient reason, in itself, to send nation of immigrants to the retirement home. But there’s another reason. It isn’t true that we are a nation of immigrants, and it hasn’t been true since the 17th century. The vast majority of Americans were born right here in America; they are native Americans in the true sense of those words. But even if we were a nation of immigrants, so what? What inference could possibly be drawn from that? It wouldn’t mean that more or less immigration should occur. The only thing it might suggest is that the original native Americans, the Indians, should have done more to prevent the growth of a nation of immigrants, in which they would become a small and persecuted minority.

Tom Brokaw should not be confused with Paul Bunyan. There are no legends about Tom Brokaw.

Perch. I mentioned Al Franken (boo!, hiss!). I mentioned Tucker Carlson (hurrah!). Here they are again, but not in a good way for either. During his December 6 TV program, the latter referred to the former as “a powerful person knocked from his high perch” by a sex scandal. That would have been all right, if Tucker hadn’t been echoing one of the media’s insta-clichés. During the past six months, every prominent social position has become a perch, and while it pleases me to picture former Senator Franken as a fat yellow parakeet being knocked from its little plastic swing, this cliché is like all the rest of them: it usurps the position of other expressions, many of them more exact or vivid or imaginative, that might be useful for the occasion. The plague of perch will get worse before it gets better, because it only started recently.

Tone deaf. Discussing the execrable behavior of federal prosecutors in the Bundy case, “Ian Bartrum, a constitutional law professor at University of Nevada Las Vegas, said he's struggled to understand what led to the prosecutors' ‘tone deafness’ to their obligations.” Contrary to current popular opinion, you can’t be tone deaf to something that’s not a tone. Obligations, for instance, are not a tone.

Under investigation. Here’s another phrase marked for condemnation by Mehmet Karayel. He notes its constant use as a charm to keep the peasants from storming the palace — in plain terms, to keep the public from learning anything about the government it pays for. Whenever some particularly atrocious official deed is perpetrated, the first response of every government agency is to begin an investigation. Of course, if something is under investigation, no information can be divulged. If, however, the investigation has been concluded, well, the investigation has been concluded — case closed; go away. The next thing you’ll hear is that the matter has been fully litigated, and this is no time to relitigate it; i.e., bring it up again.

These are sayings, by the way, that you will never hear from Word Watch. This column never refuses to give out information, and the public can stay just as long as it wants.




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Imitations of Life

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In the surreal world of “news,” the funniest thing that happened during the past few weeks may have been the fake Thanksgiving episode of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” The show was prerecorded, but — and this is the thing that tickled me — Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski kept making fraudulent Thanksgiving sounds. As reported by the New York Daily News:

“Day after Thanksgiving. Woo! I’m stuffed!” host Mika Brzezinski said to open the show.

“A great Thanksgiving,” Joe Scarborough replied before they both offered a few awkward clichés.

S and B later claimed that the performance was a joke and that anyone who took it seriously (e.g., all media reporting on it) was a “moron.” Was that a joke? A joke about a joke? Much funnier was the network’s response to complaints. Its spokeswoman said:

There was no intention to trick viewers. Would it have helped if there was a disclaimer? Maybe. But that’s not typically done.

If this is correct, does it mean that news shows are typically faked? I can believe it. And I guess she’s right: a disclaimer wouldn’t help.

Or maybe it would, if the news content still made sense. I know, I know: that would mean hiring news people with the (minimal) knowledge and (minimally) balanced minds required to tell the difference between sense and nonsense. Such people would need to be paid, and that might be difficult, because the corporate vendors of news are strapped for money; they’ve got nothing left after paying such people as Matt Lauer and Megyn Kelly tens of millions, just to cause trouble.

Was that a joke? A joke about a joke?

But if the principal news media could scrape up some cash, maybe we wouldn’t see reports about “young, undocumented immigrants born in the U.S.” (NBC, November 28). That phrase (discovered by hawkeyed Liberty author Michael Christian) was later changed to “brought to the U.S.,” when somebody finally noticed the obvious mistake. But what’s the difference? The Dreamers are here, aren’t they? Who cares whether they were born or brought?

The larger question is why soi-disant journalists should want to make sense about anything, when nobody else seems to care. If the people at large really cared, why would they be getting their news from NBC or “Morning Joe” in the first place? And if the president cared . . .

Here’s a good one. When, on December 18, an Amtrak train went off the rails on a curve near Tacoma, killing several people, Trump immediately attributed the disaster to a lack of government investment in the infrastructure:

The train accident that just occurred in DuPont, WA shows more than ever why our soon to be submitted infrastructure plan must be approved quickly. Seven trillion dollars spent in the Middle East while our roads, bridges, tunnels, railways (and more) crumble! Not for long!

Now, one of the first things broadcast about the accident was the observation of witnesses that the train was going about 80 miles an hour. This turned out to be true. And if anyone was curious enough, as I was, to google a map, he could see at a glance that a train going anywhere near that speed would never get around that curve. Little more time was required to discover — because this too was immediately reported — that the stretch of rail in question had just been opened to passenger transportation after a vast federal investment in the infrastructure. This doesn’t mean that the president is always wrong. It does mean that his Does It Make Sense Monitor is subject to periodic deactivation.

That would mean hiring news people with the (minimal) knowledge and (minimally) balanced minds required to tell the difference between sense and nonsense.

But I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: if VIPs made sense, where would Word Watch be? The answer is: out of copy. So senselessness has its benefits. That sudden, excited breath you take, that little jump your heart makes when you ask yourself, “Did the president really say that?” — you’d be missing all that fun if the VIPs (Vitally Ignorant People) limited themselves to sensible statements. As Yeats put it, “What theme had Homer but original sin?”

The sin of senselessness can brighten any subject. On December 14, ABC fired somebody named Mario Batali, who seems to be a chef, from its show “The Chew”(!). The cause was the usual sexual allegations, and Batali responded with the usual Reeducation Rag:

I have made many mistakes and I am so very sorry that I have disappointed my friends, my family, my fans and my team. My behavior was wrong . . . . I will work every day to regain your respect and trust.

That tells you a lot, doesn’t it? Now I feel that I understand exactly what happened. But he added:

In case you’re searching for a holiday-inspired breakfast, these Pizza Dough Cinnamon Rolls are a fan favorite.

He followed with a picture of the magic Rolls, and a button you could click to get the recipe. It’s an odd effect, isn’t it — this combination of repentance and recipes? But the senselessness is almost as savory as a plate of warm cinnamon rolls.

If you want senselessness of any kind, sex is the most dependable source, and the result is virtually guaranteed when sex is combined with politics. As John McLaughlin used to say, here’s a political potpourri.

If VIPs made sense, where would Word Watch be? The answer is: out of copy.

My first exhibit comes from Senator Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV). She is one politician who really knows how to sling the clichés. Determined to destroy, as she put it, the “toxic culture of predatory sexual behavior” (that’s two big clichés in only six words), she attacked her colleague, Congressman Ruben Kihuen (D-NV), for his alleged sexual improprieties. But she was anxious to free herself from any implication of unfairness, and this is how she did it (dateline December 1):

I support a full, fair and expedient investigation against Congressman Kihuen and any other Member of Congress who have women or men come forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior. This process must be open [and] transparent and have an appropriate investigatory timeline that delivers justice.

It’s good to know what Senator Masto supports, as opposed to what she actually believes (if anything).

It gives her utterance that special something that was lacking in Mr. Batali’s statement of personal responsibility — that flavor of political process that adds so much to moral discourse. It suggests speaking at rallies, recording your vote, and wearing your most serious face when the cameras are on. She supports — but does she think? The quality of her thinking is indicated by her reference to a fair investigation against Kihuen. Thank you, Madame Defarge.

Let’s see, let’s see . . . the next linguistic scandal is provided by the Los Angeles Times, reporting on the life of California Assemblyman Matt Dababneh, who has lately been charged with sexual impropriety:

In 2013, Dababneh narrowly won a special election for his Assembly seat in a reliably Democratic district. . . . Since then, he has handily won reelection twice, boosted by a flush campaign account and an influential perch as chairman of the Assembly’s Banking and Finance Committee.

Picture that, if you can: boosted by a flush account, the man attained an influential perch. “Perch”: what is that, a fish? No, but I can more easily imagine a fish being influential than influence being wielded by one of those things that a bird sits on. My assumption is that the Times, which was knocked off its perch by a drop in daily circulation from 1,225,000 in 1990 to 274,000 in 2017, feels a compulsion to be flashy and jazzy all the time. Or try to be.

Again, big birds (well, once-big birds) give examples of senselessness to all the little birds. Remember Nancy Pelosi, and you’ll see at once what I mean. Whenever sane persons hear her name, they automatically ask themselves, “What idiotic remark has she made now?”

The quality of her thinking is indicated by her reference to a "fair" investigation "against" Kihuen. Thank you, Madame Defarge.

Pelosi’s special characteristic has always been her senseless clichés. A cliché is often just a tired way of saying something sensible, but her clichés are tired ways of saying nothing. Pelosi is the High Priest, the Grand Mufti, the Magical Adept, the Mysterious Oracle of meaningless clichés.

When sex charges arose against Congressman John Conyers (D-MI) — a perpetual representative from Detroit, where politics is as dirty as dirt — Pelosi stepped forth to defend him, dressed in her costume as the sweet village maiden who never wants to hear any bad things. I’ll quote her, putting her clichés in italics:

We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused — and was it one accusation? Is it two?

How dear that she didn’t know! Although it wasn’t just one. If it had been, she wouldn’t have been talking about it. But now comes the Yankee Doodle Dandy part of her comments (except that Yankee Doodle Dandy was created by people who understood what to do with clichés):

John Conyers is an icon in our country. He has done a great deal to protect women — Violence Against Women Act, which the left — right-wing [oops!] — is now quoting me as praising him for his work on that, and he did great work on that. [Did you ever notice how similar Pelosi’s rhetoric is to that of her bête noir, Donald Trump?] But the fact is, as John reviews his case, which he knows, which I don’t, I believe he will do the right thing.

I always enjoy listening to moral lectures, especially from people who don’t know what they’re talking about:

When asked specifically whether she believes the accusations against Conyers, Pelosi said: “I do not know who they are. Do you? They have not really come forward.”

Actually, they had. So later that day (November 26) Pelosi put out a statement saying, "Zero tolerance means consequences. I have asked for an ethics investigation, and as that investigation continues, Congressman Conyers has agreed to step aside as Ranking Member."

But there was more. According to NBC,

Pelosi, meanwhile, also [being a news writer means that you don’t have to worry about whether it’s senseless to write also when you’ve already written meanwhile] said the reaction to sexual misconduct accusations against former President Bill Clinton from that era versus today represent [and you don’t have to worry about subject-verb agreement, either] “obviously a generational change.”

“The concern that we had then was that they were impeaching the president of the United States, and for something that had nothing to do with the performance of his duties, and trying to take him out for that reason," Pelosi added. "But let's go forward. Let's go forward. I think that something wonderful is happening now, very credible. It's 100 years, almost 100 years, since women got the right to vote. Here we are, almost 100 years later, and something very transformative is happening.”

What the hell? What does that mean? It’s said that the definition of “true poetry” is something that cannot be translated into any other language. So I guess that Pelosi’s words are true poetry. You can’t even summarize them in a sensible way. As Alexander Pope put it, “true no-meaning puzzles more than wit.”

Nancy Pelosi is the High Priest, the Grand Mufti, the Magical Adept, the Mysterious Oracle of meaningless clichés.

Now that I’m quoting from the 18th century, I recall that Thomas Gray called the great front of the palace of Versailles “a huge heap of littleness.” A good phrase, susceptible of many applications. “A huge heap of littleness” is what all these official people are making of our language — our means of thinking and the palace of our culture.

On December 11, Fox News described, with peasant navieté, the way in which achievement is signified in Washington. The subject was Bruce Ohr, one of the horde of hollow men that government spawns and nurtures:

Until Dec. 6, when Fox News began making inquiries about him, Bruce Ohr held two titles at DOJ [if you aren’t inside the Beltway, this means “the Department of Justice”]. He was, and remains, director of the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force; but his other job was far more senior. Mr. Ohr held the rank of associate deputy attorney general, a post that gave him an office four doors down from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. The day before Fox News reported that Mr. Ohr held his secret meetings last year with the founder of Fusion GPS, Glenn Simpson, and with Christopher Steele, the former British spy who compiled the dossier [accusing Donald Trump of bad behavior in a Moscow hotel], the Justice Department stripped Ohr of his deputy title and ousted him from his fourth floor office at the building that DOJ insiders call “Main Justice.”

Associate deputy attorney general . . . four doors down . . . ousted from the fourth floor . . . good grief! What would the Buddha think? What would your grandmother think? There used to be a half-good novel (Fannie Hurst, 1933) that spawned two half-good movies; and its title was Imitation of Life. That title is appropriate to many people and many things.

But here we are, as Pelosi says, at the end of 2017 — a year of linguistic horrors. It’s fitting that she should have the last word about this year, because she has extended it. Yes she has.

Pelosi thinks that "the process" has some significance, because she said it.

She doesn’t want anyone to imagine that she and her party exploited the cloyingly denominated Dreamers by promising that their wishes would be made into law this year, only to disappoint them. Therefore, by decree of Pelosi, 2017 has acquired a 13th month.

This was all reported by The Hill on December 21:

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) on Thursday defended her fellow Democrats for allowing the debate over “Dreamers” to carry into January, saying the delay is no indication that party leaders have abandoned demands that the issue be tackled this year.

Instead, according to Pelosi's argument, the Republicans’ decision to punt the fight over 2018 spending into next month meant the Democrats had to postpone their immigration push, as well.

“They kicked the can for the omnibus into January. It’s this year, extended, that’s what it is. It’s the process,” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol.

What does this mean, if anything? It means that Pelosi thinks that everyone in the country knows the significance of the omnibus, just as everyone is supposed to know the significance of the fourth floor. It means that she thinks the process has some significance, because she said it. It means that she thinks kicked the can sounds fresh and new. It means that she thinks she can lie about the calendar.

My idea is that neither the calendar nor the United States of America can be favorably transformed by nonsense words. My idea is that words ultimately depend on realities. To put this in another way, I agree with Yeats: “At stroke of midnight God shall win.”




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The Visualization Test

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When I was a kid, a few million years ago, my parents subscribed to the Sunday edition of the Detroit Times (now defunct). The part of the paper that interested me was the eight pages of color cartoons, gathered in a section called “Puck: The Comic Weekly.” It was headed by a tiny figure of Puck and a quotation from one of his remarks in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “What fools these mortals be!”

The message appealed to me almost as much as the beautifully drawn, intricately plotted, glacially moving episodes of Prince Valiant. I was too young to read Shakespeare, but I was starting to get the point: mortal life is one hell of a crazy thing.

You know you live in a crazy world when its reputedly big people do things for no reason at all — or, to put this in a more pedantically accurate way, do things that no one asked them to do, things that no one wants them to do, things that can accomplish nothing except to get them into trouble. I need only mention Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

It’s crazy for someone who wants to go down in history as an ultra-discreet manager of America’s super-sleuths to go around blurting things out with no show of evidence.

A crazy world, however, is not just a world of elephantine insanity. It’s a world in which every little opportunity for craziness is promptly identified and eagerly exploited. It’s a world of micro-craziness.

On November 12, John Brennan, who thank God is a former head of the CIA, opined to CNN that President Trump “for whatever reason is either intimidated by Mr. Putin, afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations.” He said that Trump sends “a very disturbing signal to our allies and partners who are concerned about Russian interference in their democratic processes as well.”

There was a reason for Brennan to say such things: he wants to continue to be seen on TV. But it’s crazy for someone who wants to go down in history as an ultra-discreet manager of America’s super-sleuths to go around blurting things out with no show of evidence. This man wants to be known as a deep thinker (something that, by the way, his CIA X-ray vision should have told him was not what deep thinkers ever want, or reveal that they want). So he pontificated about disturbing signals and democratic processes — which, for no reason except pomposity, he pronounces “processEEs.” Try as I may, I can’t visualize what he’s talking about. What processEEs?

I tried picturing Angela Merkel (a person whom I do not delight to picture, but I’ll rise to the call of duty) phoning Emmanuel Macron (ditto) to say:

“Whaddup, Manny. Listen, I’m very disturbed this afternoon.”

“Oh, why?”

“I’ve received a disturbing signal from President Trump.”

“Oh, he’s an idiot. So what?”

“No, I am very disturbed. I am concerned about Russian interference in the democratic processes of our countries. I fear that Trump is either intimidated by Mr. Putin or afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations.”

“What investigations?”

Investigations into the influence of Russia on the November 2016 election in the United States.”

“Well, if you put it that way, I am concerned as well.”

Try as I may, however, I can’t visualize any real person saying anything to the announcement of such concerns except, “What the hell are you talking about?” And try as I may, I can’t keep myself from believing that the attempt to visualize what a statement means, to get a clear and sensible image out of it, is a test of its validity as an act of communication.

If you want another example of words that fail the test, I have one ready, this time from the Right side of the political spectrum. It’s in an article in PJ Media excoriating Senator Tim (Smilin’ Jack) Kaine for his refusal to return money donated to him by disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. I confess that I’m amused by Kaine’s idea that he can’t give the money back, because (dramatic pause) he’s already spent it! Yeah, and so what? But I also confess that I am skeptical about the idea that money derived from immoral sources has to be returned to the sources themselves, thus rewarding them for their immorality, or else handed off to some charity, so that its holiness will miraculously remove the moral contagion.

America’s tendency, throughout its history, has been to designate certain offenders as people about whom one can say anything, anything at all, and expect one’s listeners to nod in agreement.

Yet passing beyond all that, it’s hard to make sense of PJM’s critique of Senator Kaine: “He's not prepared to give Weinstein's blood-money back or try to donate it. He just got to profit off of a sexual assaulter.” Again the question: “What are you talking about?” I know some of the things that Weinstein is supposed to have done, and they are all bad things, but sexual assault has now been given so many meanings, from bothering people to raping them, that the phrase, seen by itself, no longer has meaning. It evokes no picture. We are also, it is true, offered the more pungent image of blood-money, but this image, though clear, is false. Weinstein didn’t make money from assaulting people; he lost it that way, by the bushel. Also, the man is an ape, but he is not a murderous ape — and what else could “blood-money” mean?

America’s tendency, throughout its history, has been to designate certain offenders as people about whom one can say anything, anything at all, and expect one’s listeners to nod in agreement. This is a bad tendency, and it makes no difference whether the offenses are real or whether they are such old-time, say-anything-you-want-against-it offenses as witchcraft, homosexuality, and questioning whether the Great War was a good idea. Mobspeak is mobspeak, no matter what the subject is; and that’s what we’re hearing with regard to Weinstein and his ilk.

Morally excited people often make their point so emphatically that all one can see in their statements is a preposterous image of themselves. Here’s something along that line. It’s a statement by Mika Brzezinski, reputed star of cable TV, about the Weinstein affair. (Cries of “Enough already! Find another topic!” But to proceed . . . ) Brzezinski tweeted: “I have a three-book deal with Weinstein Books. . . . I can’t go forward with those books unless Harvey resigns.” She can’t? Picture a woman so stunned by the revelation of Weinstein’s flaws that she can no longer make her mouse run about her screen. You can’t picture that; you start laughing too hard. But the really difficult thing to visualize is someone, even Harvey Weinstein, patron of the arts, thinking hard and long and then declaring, “What this world needs is not one book by Mika Brzezinski, but three!” Evidently Ms. B has no trouble visualizing that; she is certain that not going forward with those books is a threat that will make the world tremble. The world, however, may not have such a daring imagination.

Mobspeak is mobspeak, no matter what the subject is.

The rule is: If you can’t visualize it, don’t write it; and even if you can visualize it, ask yourself what, if anything, your readers will see. It isn’t enough to gesture toward some possible meaning.

For an exhibit of such a gesture, I turn to the venerable British Broadcasting Corporation. There used to be an idea that the BBC was a standard of good, though precious, English. If you still have that idea, forget it. Consider a current sample of high-class British lingo: subject, Africa; date, November 18. Reporting on the political liquidation of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe and his spouse, the BBC referred to “Grace Mugabe, who is four decades younger than him.” Oh, that much younger than him is?

I’m not mentioning this report just to be unkind about its grammar (although that’s fun). My real concern is a passage that illustrates how easy it is to destroy your meaning if you don’t try to visualize it. According to the BBC,

Our correspondent says the situation may appear to be getting out of [the Zimbabwean ruling party’s] control and there could be a broad push to introduce a transitional government that includes the opposition.

OK, I’m picturing a person who says something. So far, so good. He or she says that there is a situation. All right; “situation” is pretty abstract, but I know it means political events in Zimbabwe — mobs in the streets, that sort of thing. I have some kind of picture in my mind. Now, this situation appears to be out of control. . . . But no, that’s not quite right. It may appear to be getting out of control. . . . Picture that. Go ahead. Try.

Sometimes we can’t blame writers and speakers. Sometimes the audience is at fault.

The depressing thing is that people are actually getting paid to write stuff like this. I suppose someone also got paid to write a news item for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the appointment of a new president at Morehouse College. He is David A. Thomas, and he

said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution his goals include increasing enrollment from its current 2,200 students to 2,500 students, providing more scholarships, finding opportunities for every student to study abroad, supporting faculty research and engaging in issues that improve outcomes for African-American men, noting Morehouse “is a place where we can offer solutions to those issues.”

I’m not sure what Mr. Thomas provided as a referent for “those issues,” so I’m not sure whether he thinks that finding opportunities for students, supporting research, and increasing enrollments are things that need to be solved. But by the time his interview was written up by the AJC, he was proposing to offer solutions even to issues that improve outcomes. And if you think this is hard to visualize, first try to visualize engaging in issues. If “issues” means “problems,” as it usually does these days, I hope that the new college president doesn’t engage himself too deeply. But even if it just means “matters,” how do you picture that? And how do matters “improve outcomes”? And if they do that, why, again, should Mr. Thomas solve them?

In statements of this kind, a resistance to being visualized is considered an asset.

No one can visualize any of this; it’s all just words, with no pictures attached. But sometimes we can’t blame writers and speakers for engaging in issues that don’t improve outcomes. Sometimes the audience is at fault.

Denise Young Smith, Apple’s (former) Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity, found this out when she told a conference of diversity mavens that

there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.

The words are clear and self-evidently true. Yet they were understood as meaning, among many other things, “that there really is no need to look beyond any sort of seeming homogeneity within Silicon Valley’s tech workforce (which is mostly white and overwhelmingly male).” Smith, who is African American, was forced to apologize for her “choice of words” and then to step down from her job — a position she had held for only six months, in a company at which she had worked for 20 years. Apple has proclaimed that 50% of its “new hires are from historically underrepresented groups in tech.” I’m trying to visualize what that means, and unfortunately I can’t, except that it does not include Ms. Smith. I assume that in statements of this kind a resistance to being visualized is considered an asset.




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