College Don’t Make You Smart

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This column has often drawn attention to the ignorance of our supposedly educated classes. A remarkable instance of the phenomenon was provided by Tim Kaine, J.D., Harvard, in his speech on the day following the defeat of his campaign for vice president. The performance was elaborately worked up, loaded with dreadful foreboding (about Republicans), light-hearted optimism (about Democrats), and a heavy-footed quest for applause lines that suggested he had already formed seven Voluntary Committees for his own attempt to seize the White House.

Kaine, who had trouble getting even 75 people at rallies during the climax of this year’s campaign, obviously needed some way to work up emotions about himself. He chose the Happy Warrior, Chin Up, We Won After All approach:

I’ll just say this: Hillary and I know well the wisdom and the words of William Faulkner, he said, “They kilt us, but they ain’t whupped us yet.” They kilt us, but they ain’t whupped us yet.

Because we know that the work remains. We know that the dreams of empowering families and children remain. And in that work, that important work that we have to do as a nation, it is so comforting, even in a tough time, to know that Hillary Clinton is somebody who, until her very last breath, is going to be battling for the values that make this nation great and the values we care so deeply about.

Everything is wrong about that — and wrong in a way that anyone of any intelligence should be able to see. What in the hell would it mean to “empower” children? Or “families,” for that matter? Who in the world pictures Hillary Clinton as a battler for “values”? And by the way, what exactly are those values that Kaine believes are implicit in our nation? I’m sure there are some — tell us what they are.

Kaine, who had trouble getting even 75 people at rallies during the climax of this year’s campaign, obviously needed some way to work up emotions about himself.

The business about empowering children creates quite a picture. I see Dick and Jane taking a break from their coloring books to plot the policy of the Federal Reserve or our strategy in Syria. But what really makes me laugh is the image of Tim Kaine and Hillary Clinton poring over the works of Faulkner and swapping sapient glances about the wisdom of killing and whupping. The remark on whupping is reported to have incited frenzies of emotion among Democrats throughout America.

Well, William Faulkner did write something like that, but while he was responsible for the words, they do not express his wisdom. The connection is itself absurd, as if wisdom ever lived apart from words. The big problem, however, is that the words were written, not in the author’s voice, but in that of Wash Jones, a character in one of Faulkner’s novels. That book, Absalom, Absalom!, is a magnificent literary achievement, in which Wash is the least magnificent character. He is the creepy white servant and abject worshiper of the great plantation owner Thomas Sutpen — otherwise known as “the demon,” a man of ruthless energy whose great purpose is to establish a slave kingdom in Mississippi. This is an odd place to look for an inspiring quotation — an odd place for anyone to look, but most of all for apparatchiks of a party devoted to the supposed needs of minority (chiefly African-American) voters.

The occasion for Wash Jones’ remarks is Colonel Sutpen’s drunken mourning over the fate of the Confederacy. Wash, the novel says, would

put him to bed like a baby and then lie down himself on the floor beside the bed though not to sleep since before dawn the man on the bed would stir and groan and Jones would say, “Hyer I am, Kernel. Hit's all right. They aint whupped us yit, air they?" — this Jones who after the demon rode away with the regiment . . . would tell people that he “was looking after Major's place and niggers” even before they had time to ask him why he was not with the troops and perhaps in time came to believe the lie himself, who was among the first to greet the demon when he returned, to meet him at the gate and say, “Well, Kernel, they kilt us but they aint whupped us yit, air they?"

A touching scene! A drunken Confederate colonel, falsely consoled by a miserable subject, after a disastrous attempt to maintain black slavery. I can imagine other perorations that the functionally illiterate Mr. Kaine might have larded with stuff from online lists of quotations (entitled, probably, Comfort in Defeat). He could have quoted Satan in Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” And nobody in his audience would have known the difference.

I see Dick and Jane taking a break from their coloring books to plot the policy of the Federal Reserve or our strategy in Syria.

Now let’s go from the sublimely ridiculous to the merely ridiculous. During the campaign, I was amused by the complete lack of either literary or folkloric knowledge of Democratic hack Austan Goolsbee — a man who, I can’t resist observing, looks exactly like his name. Goolsbee, Ph.D., Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview on Fox News (July 25), regarding disunity within the two major parties: “We’re all eatin’ a little humble crow.” The host did not, of course, ask Goolsbee what a humble crow might be, although that’s certainly interesting to think about. But what had happened was that Goolsbee (I love to repeat that ridiculous name, so perfect for its owner) had heard the expression “humble pie,” and he had also heard the expression “eat crow,” and he had put them together (why not?), spiced them with the faux-proletarian eatin’, and served them up to an oblivious audience.

Now that Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Harvard, has scrambled somewhere near the top of the Democratic heap, I’m sure I will have many more occasions to discuss dumb people who think they’re smart. But since Warren is also the Senator from the New York Times, it’s fair to introduce that paper’s post-election statement, which Donald Trump and others construed as an “apology” for getting everything wrong about the campaign. We all know that this was true; the Times did get everything wrong — everything from the temper of the populace to the character (or lack of character) of the Democratic candidate to the nature of the Times’ own mission, which it somehow interpreted, not as reporting the news, but as presenting daily Masses for the success of Democratic candidates. Yet when you actually read the “apology” you discover several things.

One is that the Times is still one of the nation’s most dependable sources of bad writing. Look at the first sentence:

When the biggest political story of the year reached a dramatic and unexpected climax late Tuesday night, our newsroom turned on a dime and did what it has done for nearly two years — cover the 2016 election with agility and creativity.

Turned on a dime? What Harvard seminar teaches you to write like that? Probably all of them, but this is no excuse. There doesn’t need to be a New York Times Book of Clichés; the content appears in every issue. But let’s follow up on this particular cliché. Turned on a dime — from what? From bad reporting and bad writing? No, no; that’s impossible. The Times never could have published anything it had to turn away from, and in fact, nothing of the kind is mentioned. What we are supposed to picture is the Times turning on a dime and also doing what it had done for nearly two years. I give up; I can’t picture that. I also give up on what it means to report the news with creativity, unless it means making stuff up, a charge that the Times always haughtily ignores.

The host did not, of course, ask Austan Goolsbee what a "humble crow" might be.

This is the second thing one notices: the “apology” is just one more service of thanksgiving for the wonderfulness of the New York Times, now “rededicating” itself, as the “apology” goes on to say, to the glorious public mission that the august journal has continuously fulfilled: “We aim to rededicate ourselves to the fundamental mission of Times journalism. That is to report America and the world honestly, without fear or favor,” blah, blah, blah. That’s not exactly what the Times’ “public editor,” Liz Spayd, had in mind when she wrote about the failings of the paper’s agile and creative performance — but she has a mind, and the Times, for all its alleged erudition, does not.

The Times was not alone in its unmerited self-esteem; the ability to criticize oneself was in remarkably short supply almost everywhere this year. Republicans seemed incapable of reflecting on the huge majority that Trump might have had if he’d hesitated to make an absolute fool of himself on countless occasions. Democrats could not really imagine that anyone not a bigot or a dumbass tool of bigots could possibly have voted for Trump. In this delicate moral situation, I find the Republicans less guilty than the Democrats, who not only refused to consider their own failures but violently projected them onto others.

Of course I’m referring to the wave of hysteria, ordinarily self-induced, that is still sloshing back and forth in modern-liberal America — hysteria about the actions of Trump, who so far has taken no action, not yet being in office. It is striking that demands for tolerance and diversity should be voiced by mobs in the streets, by employers persecuting employees who voted the wrong way, and even by merchants rejecting the business of customers who became part of the wrong ideological formation. I don’t like to give Freud any credit, but his idea of projection does seem appropriate. I don’t know how else to explain the passionate intensity of people who violently denounce all who disagree with them, because of the latter’s vicious intolerance.

I once, in a minor way, was an organizer of demos against the Vietnam War. There were many angry shouts from our crowd, but I don’t remember any shouts being directed against angry shouting. Now we have people spewing grossly obvious hate against their opponents, because they consider their opponenst “haters.” This isn’t how the Civil Rights Movement got its way; it’s specifically the tactics that Martin Luther King refused to adopt; and it isn’t a tactics that will work now. I just wish it were funnier.

The “apology” is just one more service of thanksgiving for the wonderfulness of the New York Times.

The entertainment personalities who vowed to combat the haters by moving out of the country — they were funny. I’m not sure they were funny because, as someone aptly remarked, they all promised to move to Canada, Australia, and other such places, never manifesting their anti-racism by contemplating a move to Mexico. But it was hilarious to find such deep thinkers as TV actress Lena Dunham denouncing people who noticed that promisers like her weren’t keeping their promises. The Washington Times quoted Dunham’s Instagram:

And for those demanding I move to Canada based on something I said when this man [Trump] seemed like a steak salesman with a long shot at the presidency: stay busy reveling in your new regime . . .

I will go many places during my lifetime, surrounded by kindreds on a mission to spread justice and light. I can’t wait for all of this, and for the change to come, as we use what we’ve been given to protect those who can’t protect themselves. . . . What are you living for?

I wonder what she thinks “kindreds” means. I also wonder what she means by “light” — of which she is shedding a lot, even now, before the start of her “mission” — but only on herself, not on the benighted souls who don’t know what they’re living for.

For hardcore fans of farce, the 2016 campaign was lots of fun, and for them the fun will continue, as long as there are Lena Dunhams. I’m not that hardcore, but I do have good things to say about the campaign. Though it was long on illiteracy, it was short on idol worship — at least when compared with the idolatry of the various Kennedy campaigns, the idolatry eventually lavished on Ronald Reagan, or the posthumous idolatry accorded Harry Truman. (In the 1948 campaign, Truman was generally regarded as an accidental president, an embarrassment to his party. At the start of the 1952 campaign season, when he expected to run for reelection, he received no, zero, nada support from the party, and dropped out.) We did have some idolatrous statements about Trump the Builder, Trump the Man of Action, and even (gasp!) Trump the Seer, but I doubt that many of his supporters took any of that seriously.

A little bit of cynicism would have been a relief, considering the constant, shrieking moralism of American politics this past 30 — or is it 50? — years.

Clinton fared better in the mindless flattery department, because she had many more paid sycophants — not to mention people who, like President Obama, rightly detested her but still associated their political legacy or future employment with the claim that, in Obama’s words, Hillary Clinton was “the best qualified person ever to run for the presidency.”

If that statement makes you wonder what planet you’re living on, try the following expression of Clintonolatry, provided by Liberty’s Managing Editor, Drew Ferguson, who suggests (and I think he is right) that no one can top it. The author is Virginia Heffernan, Ph.D., Harvard:

We don't have to wait until she dies to act. Hillary Clinton's name belongs on ships, and airports, and tattoos. She deserves straight-up hagiographies and a sold-out Broadway show called RODHAM. Yes, this cultural canonization is going to come after the chronic, constant, nonstop "On the other hand" sexist hedging around her legacy. But such is the courage of Hillary Clinton and her supporters; we reverse patriarchal orders. Maybe she is more than a president. Maybe she is an idea, a world-historical heroine, light itself. The presidency is too small for her. She belongs to a much more elite class of Americans, the more-than-presidents. Neil Armstrong, Martin Luther King Jr., Alexander Fucking Hamilton.

Hillary Clinton did everything right in this campaign. . . .

Well, now you know.

In general, however, the political writers of 2016 decided that they had to make the best of a bad deal and dwelt entirely on the evils of the opposing side, evils that were never hard to find. If the Clinton people, especially, had left it at that, I would not have been distressed. A little bit of cynicism would have been a relief, considering the constant, shrieking moralism of American politics this past 30 — or is it 50? — years. But no. Virtually no one except Doug Schoen, the Democratic commentator, admitted that he was being cynical, and even he repented and departed, miffed, from the Hillary side. After her defeat, we are left with the Sean Hannitys of this world, endlessly muttering about the greatness of Donald Trump — a candidate who won because people couldn’t stand him but could stand his opponent even less — and the armies of professors, Democratic office holders, “advocates for,” social justice warriors, guff-addicted leftists, university “students,” and other people who have lots of time on their hands, all huddling in well-advertised terror from the wave of fascism that succeeded Trump’s election.

The exemplary fact is this: in 2012 Obama carried one of the counties in which Youngstown, Ohio, is located by about 28%; in 2016 Clinton carried it by about 3%. In 2012 Obama carried the other county by about 22%; in 2016 Trump carried it by about 6%. Look up the history of Youngstown, which has less than half the population it had in 1970, and you’ll see why. Alleged “hate” has nothing to do with Youngstown and its vote. Lack of real jobs, regulation of every puny detail of life, insults to local culture delivered by high-paid snots in Washington, the perception that Hillary Clinton is a low-level crook who wouldn’t be welcome at a family dinner — those things are sufficient to explain the change. Invoking the sudden “racism” of former Obama voters is just going to turn the 25 or 28% difference into something like unanimity.

The bad, in fact awful, aspect of Trump’s distinctiveness is hard to analyze, because it’s hard to pay attention to.

So much for solemn words. Friends have asked me if Clinton’s defeat isn’t a blow to this column. In a way it is. She and her friends were always available to exemplify some grave linguistic sin. Trump isn’t so easy to write about. His performance is distinctive, in ways that are hard to describe. In his tweets, as in the interviews in which he used to make fun of media mushrooms like Rose O’Donnell (last seen speculating on whether Trump’s son Barron is autistic), he sometimes hits a tone of mischievous naiveté that is uniquely right. One example is his comment on the New York Times’ supposed violation of an agreement for an interview of him:

I cancelled today’s meeting with the failing @nytimes when the terms and conditions of the meeting were changed at the last moment. Not nice

This bluntness is refreshing. Who else would say “the failing @nytimes” as if it were the formal name of the publication? Or add the childish “Not nice,” which somehow manages to suggest that it’s the Times, not Trump, that is childish? That’s an effective combination, but it’s hard to say why. As an analyst, you have to do more work on Trump than you do on Clinton, who was never an effective communicator in any way.

The bad, in fact awful, aspect of Trump’s distinctiveness is also hard to analyze, because it’s hard to pay attention to. I refer to his amazing, startling, unbelievable incoherence, which is one of the world’s great bores. If Trump has a draft of his inaugural address, it probably begins like this: “Hey! It’s great to see you all! This is incredible. I mean it, incredible. All these American people, men and women, people — simply incredible. It’s incredible. You know, just a couple days ago, I saw, and this is unbelievable. You’re not gonna believe it. But when you look at employment. I saw the figures. Folks, it’s a disaster. But we’ll do it. It’s gonna be done. Depend on it. 100%. You can depend on it. A complete disaster. But there’s gonna be a wall. I promise you. There’s gonna be a wall, and it’s gonna be an incredible wall. You’re gonna like it, I promise you. Unbelievable. Simply unbelievable. ”

Had enough? Me too.




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The Trash Pile

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I know it’s my duty to conduct a thorough review of language used in the 2016 presidential campaign, to assess the major features of this language, and to make appropriate recommendations for improvement. If I accepted that duty, I could answer all requests for information by saying, “I can’t comment; the review is ongoing” — until everybody forgot the whole thing. But I’m sorry: I can’t do it; I can’t conduct that review. The subject is too disgusting. Besides, it would take a book the size of Ulysses, and even more tedious, to sort this trash out.

As with most collections of garbage, however, one sees a few particularly large and unpleasant objects jutting out of the pile, and one feels one ought to notice them. A prominent feature of the current collection is that typical Donald Trump locution: “I gotta tell ya, it was definitely a catastrophe — definitely. Definitely a catastrophe, folks, one hundred percent — an unbelievable catastrophe. And we’re gonna fix it. Definitely. It will be fixed. This incredible catastrophe.” And who could fail to notice and abhor Hillary Clinton’s habitual tone (a grating noise, followed by shrieks) and facial language (the apotheosis of smug)? I was often sickened by Trump’s unbelievable ability to ignore the obvious arguments on his behalf, and Clinton’s chronic use of concept creep; e.g.: Trump makes fun of an idiot female TV personality; Clinton therefore denounces Trump as anti-woman; Trump responds to gross abuse directed at him by a Muslim father whose son was killed in the American armed services; Clinton therefore denounces Trump as opposed to all Muslims and gold-star families. It must have taken an army of Googlers just to resurrect that phrase.

Without such revelations, the Clinton machine would still be gliding across the landscape, covered both with filthy lucre and with the aura of progressive saintliness.

As with all reeking piles of trash, one tries to pass these things with averted gaze. But one knows that either Clinton or Trump will be everywhere during the next four years, emitting even more noxious fumes.

One also knows that, occasionally, something useful gets thrown in the trash. I hope that certain ways-with-words can be rescued from the catastrophe of this year’s campaign. One is Ben Carson’s warm but precise mode of speech, which is always that of a real person talking to other real persons. Another is Carly Fiorina’s way of getting rapidly to the point, and to the actual evidence, with a minimum amount of rhetorical nonsense. Yet another is Donald Trump’s (yes, Donald Trump’s) willingness to say openly what almost everybody understands privately.

My other hope is that detailed revelations of what has really been said or written in the caverns of power will continue to be made, as the result either of lawsuits or of direct action, as the communists used to call it. (By direct action I mean Wikileaks.) People now see this modern version of Laputa more or less for what it is, even if they plan to vote for it. That’s a big improvement, despite the votes. Almost no one thinks that any power Mrs. Clinton gets will be legitimate.

But shouldn’t I regret the thefts of information by which the secrets of this machine have been made known? Shouldn’t I discuss the great moral issue of prying into other people’s secrets?

I don’t think so. I suspect that few people come to this column expecting advice about morality. If they do, they had better go someplace else. I simply want to suggest that there is a difference between (A) publishing secret information that may, when exposed, subvert legitimate government or get innocent people killed, (B) publishing private information that is nobody’s business to learn, and (C) publishing the dark and immoral sayings that pass within such things as National Committees, Departments of State, Federal Bureaus of Investigation, and the armies of hacks that such grotesque entities as those employ to bamboozle the public. Revealing the dirty communications of Mrs. Clinton’s toadies (C) is very different from publishing the codes to atomic missiles (A), or hacking into the life of somebody who works the counter at the DMV (B). I don’t like the DMV. In fact, whenever I think of Hillary Clinton I think of the DMV, because that is her ideal of government. But I believe I can see a moral difference.

I grew up when the Most Respected dispenser of news was Walter Cronkite, a bubblehead with a good voice and presence.

I’m talking about the struggle for information between the people and the Establishment. The term “Establishment” became prominent in America during the agitation of the 1960s. It was in that agitation that the modern Democratic Party and its current standard-bearer acquired their remarkable hunger for power. The self-righteous, rich-kid, elitist “liberalism” of the 1960s and 1970s eventually solidified into the stone-faced statism of the 2010s. It solidified in the form not only of the Democratic Party leadership but of the immense crowd of government employees, crony capitalists, know-nothing academics, politicized “faith leaders,” do-gooders on the take, officials of teachers’ unions, college activists, professional ethnics, gender mongers, grand old men of journalism, persons interviewed on NPR, and all the other tools who get money and prestige from the modern liberal state and in return surrender their identity to its rulers. A prominent feature of our political era is the paucity of public dissent, the rarity of defection from the vast Establishment. Nobody gets fired, and nobody departs in protest. This is something very unusual, and very ominous in American history. And no one who still has a brain will deny that 90% of the media, the people whose careers are supposedly dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of truth, are violent advocates of the Establishment.

I grew up in the days of three government-licensed television networks and a full constellation of newspapers whose major moral purpose was to keep the populace anesthetized. I grew up when the Most Respected dispenser of news was Walter Cronkite, a bubblehead with a good voice and presence. Despite the credit he took (much later) for having somehow, in some subtle way, criticized the Vietnam War, I remember my childish revulsion when I turned on the family TV and heard the perfectly bloodless way in which Cronkite reported every move of the Johnson administration to “beef up our forces in Vietnam.”

Beef up. Even as a kid, I sensed there was something vile about that kind of language, and the inhumanly elitist state of mind it represented. Even I was bright enough to notice that the Establishment media, which were the media of the time, were interested in absolutely no criticism of, or even discussion about, the rightness of such minor matters as conscription, the confiscatory income tax, government schools, labor unions, Social Security, “urban renewal” (i.e., tearing the heart from cities in order to “improve” them), the war on recreational drugs, the imprisonment of gays . . . Need I go on?

President Kennedy womanized on a vast scale, and invited members of the press to participate (which they did), and no word leaked out. Quite the contrary; the media fawned on him as the greatest living embodiment of family values. His family was continuously presented as an Example to Us All. Only its absolutely inescapable sins were reported. When one of his brothers left a young woman to drown after a drunken auto accident, doing nothing except trying to cover up his own involvement, the matter was reported, but the approved assessment was that the poor kid (a member of the US Senate, aged 37) had already suffered enough.

Even as a kid, I sensed there was something vile about that kind of language, and the inhumanly elitist state of mind it represented.

I’m saying these things because I don’t want to lapse into the common illusion that there was once a golden age of American journalism. People who think there was are ordinarily so mired in the cultural Establishment that they confuse journalistic objectivity with journalists’ occasional crusades against an enemy of the Establishment (e.g., Senator Joseph McCarthy). But despite my firsthand knowledge of this history, I am still disgusted by the violent affection of the media for Hillary Clinton. I can see, very well, why people might not like Donald Trump, but it’s literally unimaginable to me that Mrs. Clinton should be liked by anyone, much less by journalists, whose ostensible mission is to discover truth and expose lies. Nothing is more obvious than the fact that when Hillary Clinton tells the truth, it’s an accident, and that she has surrounded herself with hundreds of people whose function is to mislead the public on every possible occasion. This has apparently escaped the attention of the classy media, but it has not escaped mine, and I know it has not escaped yours either.

What fascinates me is how anyone can distort the news with such singleminded absorption as we have seen in the current campaign — while still imagining that nobody can perceive what’s going on. I’m sure you’ve collected as many examples as I have. Perhaps you’ve found some of them in the media’s coverage of Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson. At the beginning of his campaign, the LP appeared in the modern-liberal media, if it ever did appear, as a sad collection of weirdos. Then magically, in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye, it became a respected protest against the vileness of the Right. Or maybe you’ve been thinking about the complete lack of concern among the media, which are religiously anti-war, about Clinton’s long record of going on the warpath — against Iraq, against Syria, against Libya, against Egypt, and now against Russia — and the ecstasy she has found in killing her enemies.

Maybe you’re thinking about a lot, and so am I. But at this moment, I’m reflecting on something comparatively minor. On the morning of October 8, the day after embarrassing revelations were made about both Trump and Clinton (the revelation of Trump’s remarks about propositioning women, and the first verbatim reports of Clinton’s secret Wall Street speeches), I looked at the six Top Stories on Google News. Four of the six — Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5 — were anti-Trump. Magically, as if there were some kind of conspiracy or coordinated action or obedience to Clinton’s daily talking points, they were all advertising the Establishment or Country Club Republicans who were trying to get Trump to leave the race. No. 4 was about Hurricane Matthew, then traveling up the East Coast — a matter of actual moment for ordinary people. No. 6 returned to Trump. That one was about the dog-bites-man topic of foreign financial bigwigs not liking restrictive trade policies, such as those advocated by him. Other anti-Trump stories appeared beneath the “Top” — plenty of them. You had to go down to No. 21 before finding a story about Clinton’s latest scandal.

Nothing is more obvious than the fact that when Hillary Clinton tells the truth, it’s an accident.

But here’s a pivot, as the media like to say. Let’s consider a campaign speech that President Obama made on October 14. Trying to make fun of anti-Establishment media, Obama said, “Look, if I watched Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me.”

This is one of the few really funny things that Obama, a man with a microscopic sense of humor, has ever said. But try it this way: “Look, if I read the New York Times, Iwould certainly vote for me.” It isn’t funny, is it? But why not?

Comedy requires surprise. It isn’t a surprise that people who read the NYT support Obama, and people who follow Fox do not. The surprise is the idea that Obama himself would be persuaded by Fox, if he ever deigned to watch it. He stipulated that he has “more diverse sources of information” (ranging, I believe, from Rolling Stone to Golf Digest), which prevent him from succumbing to the charms of Fox and similar media. But this is really a joke about Obama’s own gullibility, his willingness to be influenced — and the secondary surprise is that he appears to be too dumb to realize how his own joke works. What he thought he was joking about, as suggested by the rest of his speech, is the large proportion of the American people who are stupid enough to listen to Fox and other alternative media, instead of to himself. But if that’s his intended message, why does he think it’s funny?

As many people have noted, the Left, once rich in humor, often of an earthy kind, is now as dour and humorless as the pitchfork in “American Gothic.” Hence “political correctness” — the Left’s crusade for conformity, the crusade that everyone else has been laughing at for decades. The Establishment still can’t see the joke. That’s how stupid, how blankly stupid, it is. If you look at Google News or listen to “All Things Considered,” you know that alleged microaggressions, almost always committed against people with lawyers, will be the subject of constant and grave meditation, while the desperate condition of poor people’s lives and property in cities operated as monopolies of the modern-liberal party will rarely be mentioned — and when it is, responsibility will immediately be assigned to everyone except the modern-liberal party. For me, it’s hard to think of a contemporary rhetoric that is more inhuman — less motivated by actual human problems.

The surprise is the idea that Obama himself would be persuaded by Fox, if he ever deigned to watch it.

If the present campaign showed nothing else, it showed the true size and shape of the Establishment, from such geniuses of the GOP as John McCain, James Comey, and Mitt Romney to such guardians of one-speak as the NYT and the Washington Post. Even Geraldo Rivera, who blustered for a while about having tapes of Donald Trump saying worse things than he said to Billy Bush, finally showed that he can tell a hawk from a handsaw. On October 14, Geraldo commented: “I have never — and I’ve been around a long time — ever, ever seen the mainstream media, particularly the New York Times or the Washington Post — be so partisan in terms of their involvement.”

Ainsley Earhardt, Rivera’s collocutor on that morning’s Fox News conversation, added that “on Thursday night, ABC, NBC, and CBS all devoted a significant amount of time to the allegations [of Trump’s sexual misconduct] — up to nine minutes on ABC and NBC and five minutes on CBS, while only devoting seconds — 30 on ABC, 26 on CBS and none on NBC — to Wikileaks’ leaked Clinton emails.” Rivera continued: “Did you see the New York Times this morning? There was no mention of Wikileaks that I could find in the whole first, in the whole A section.”

When it comes to words, this is the big news: no mention. But I have a feeling that, no matter which bizarre presidential candidate wins this election, no mention will not be a permanently viable option during the next four years.




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Low-Hanging Fruit

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This season abounds in low-hanging fruit, linguistic atrocities that are easy to spot, at least for people like us. Let’s grab a few.

On September 8, I gazed into the depths of my cellphone and discovered this headline from the New York Daily News: “Mont. Senator’s nephew found brutally slayed at home.” That’s a brutal dispatch of “slain,” anyway.

A week or so before, I’d discovered that Chris Brown, the singer, claimed he was being “unfairly demonized” because of a scrape with police. As bad a talker as Brown is — and that’s about as bad as you can get — this doesn’t appear to be what he himself said. It’s what the Los Angeles Times said (August 31). But maybe people are fairly demonized every day, and it just doesn’t get reported.

Two days before that, the other Times, the one in New York, reported the following about the fun couple, Anthony Weiner, former congressman and campaigner for the mayoralty of New York, and Huma Abedin, Chelsea Clinton’s shadow:

A documentary, “Weiner,” released in May, traced the disastrous campaign and the effects on Ms. Abedin, who is shown near tears after the revelations were publicly revealed. (August 29)

And no wonder — revelations are bad enough, but it’s terrible when they get revealed.

Hitting the Huma trail on the same day, CNN Politics supplied this information:

Abedin is Clinton’s most well known aide. While Clinton works the ropeline after events, Abedin is always close behind and Clinton supporters regularly ask the aide for selfies with her, much like they do with the candidate. (August 29)

Few of our otherwise omniscient news providers are aware of the fact that the superlative of “well” is “best”; hence, the phrase in the first sentence of the passage just quoted should be best known, and never most well known, which is exactly what a third-grader would come up with. Similarly, third-graders usually do not realize that “like” is a preposition, not a conjunction, and therefore cannot introduce a clause (“they do”). Adults, particularly adults in the word business, ought to know better, but we see that they don’t.

Maybe people are fairly demonized every day, and it just doesn’t get reported.

Many sad events, or sad reports, seem to have happened in late August. Here’s a report originally dated August 25 and attributed variously to the Associated Press and Reuters. It’s about a Bolivian politician, Rodolfo Illanes, who . . . well, see for yourself: the report says that Illanes went

to Panduro, 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of the La Paz, where the strikers [miners rebelling against the government’s refusal to allow them to work for private companies] have blockaded a highway since Monday, to open a dialogue.

When I was in the eighth grade, more or less, I desperately wanted to move to Bolivia. I’d been reading books about Incas and such. Somehow I discovered that you could write to the State Department for “advisories” about living conditions in other countries, and I acquired the advisory for Bolivia. My lazy heart leaped when I found that on the Altiplano one could hire a maid for $20 a month, but it sank at the news that the maid would need to hang the food from the ceiling, to keep non-human fauna from devouring it. That ended my dreams of Bolivia, but it did not end my knowledge that the seat of government (though not the constitutional capital) of Bolivia is La Paz, that “Paz” means “peace,” and that “la” means “the.” So my heart sank again when I saw the place being called, by someone more ignorant than I was in the eighth grade, “the La Paz.”

So, maybe it’s a typo. Maybe. Strangely, however, the typo remained when I checked the report four days later. By then it had been reproduced by the Las Vegas Review Journal, the Seattle Times, the Chicago Tribune, and, of course, the New York Times. All of their texts remained unchanged after four days. Either no one had reported the error, because no one actually reads these papers, or people had reported it, but the papers paid no heed. Obviously, they’ll print (and keep) any damned thing their wire services send them.

Adults, particularly adults in the word business, ought to know better, but we see that they don’t.

I take this as significant evidence of the intellectual nullity of the American press. Confirmation is provided by the inanity of the report itself. Sr. Illanes was seized by the protestors and beaten to death, perhaps also tortured before he died. That’s a hell of a reward for an attempt to “open a dialogue.” But can it be that as the agent of a crazed Castroite president, Illanes had actually shown up to deliver orders and threats? The report might, conceivably, have addressed that question. But certainly the guy wasn’t there to administer hugs and say, “I’m OK; you’re OK; let’s dialogue!” I seem to remember that when the nuts took over Bolivia, American journalists were very interested in this great new attempt to construct a socialist state. Now that the attempt has resulted in nothing but the further impoverishment of the country, journalistic curiosity has dissipated. What was the government agent doing? Oh, probably he was trying to open a dialogue.

Here’s news that’s closer to home. On September 10, and running all day, the following contribution to public knowledge was made by CNN. It’s one of the network’s many attempts to recontextualize Mrs. Clinton’s nauseating “basket of deplorables” statement, thereby rescuing her from the charge of lunacy. “Clinton’s comments,” said the CNN authors,

amounted to startlingly blunt talk for a candidate who is usually measured in her assessment of the Republican nominee.

Although Clinton has accused Trump of racism before, she has never explicitly called him a racist. Last month, she delivered a major speech in which she accused Trump of aligning himself with far-right extremists and saying he "built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia."

"He's taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party," Clinton said in Reno, Nevada. "His disregard for the values that make our country great is profoundly dangerous."

Thank God her assessments are usually measured. But I continue to wonder what language CNN thinks it’s using. In what dialect of English can you accuse someone of racism without calling him a racist? Oh, that’s not “explicit”? Try accusing someone of committing murder and then fending off a lawsuit by claiming that you didn’t explicitly call him a murderer.

Where would Hillary Clinton be if she hadn’t attracted (flies to ointment, fools to money) enormous swarms of sophists to protect her and harry her opponents? Living in a senior facility in Altoona, I suppose. But couldn’t she attract better forms of sophism?

On August 30, someone named Krystal Ball, a Democratic politician and sometime TV commentator, appeared on Fox News to claim that “there’s no evidence” Clinton lied about the emails, and that “there’s just no evidence” Clinton practiced pay-for-play when she was working for the State Department. But evidence is Clinton’s problem; that’s why we’re all talking about these things. There’s plentiful evidence of wrongdoing. Everybody heard her lie, repeatedly, about her emails. That’s not just evidence; it’s proof. As for pay-for-play, we can argue about proof, but evidence abounds. If it didn’t, Ms. Ball wouldn’t be discussing it on Fox. And there’s no difference between politicians with bizarre names and Clinton’s institutional propaganda machine, perpetually emitting statements that there’s “not a shred of evidence” that she ever did anything wrong.

Where would Hillary Clinton be if she hadn’t attracted enormous swarms of sophists to protect her and harry her opponents?

Kirsten Powers, an intelligent commentator who sometimes provides actual commentary, as opposed to propaganda, wrote an article for USA Today (September 12) with the engaging title, “What else is Clinton hiding?” But the answer turned out to be “nothing as far as I can see.” Powers noted the “feverish” claims of Donald Trump and his friends that there might be something wrong with Hillary Clinton’s health — claims that by September 12 didn’t sound feverish to anyone except feverish Clinton apologists. On September 10, Clinton had been videoed as she was dumped into a vehicle and carted away, after collapsing at a public event. Bizarrely, Powers continued to emphasize that “these accusations were made in the absence of any actual incident involving Clinton’s health.”

Isn’t it strange that people who comment on the news don’t seem to read it themselves? Clinton’s health problems had been no secret. There had been plenty of incidents, and despite the mainstream media’s attempts to ignore them, the evidence was well known. It had, indeed, been discussed not only “feverishly” but ad nauseam. Here’s a fair summary.

Even more bizarrely — or should I say feverishly? — Powers went for evidence for her own position to . . . can you imagine whom? She went to Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert. Ohhhh Kaaaayyyy . . . And what wisdom did she derive from him? The idea that evidence doesn’t count!

According to Adams,

You have to understand that people don’t use rational thought to make decisions. We rationalize after we make a decision. It’s all about making accusations and associating people with bad feelings.

Strangely, on this foundation of radical skepticism about the influence of fact and reason — a skepticism that, oddly enough, occasions no doubts regarding Adams’ own conclusions — he suggests that, factually, there is nothing wrong with Clinton. So she collapsed on the street? So she had a four-minute coughing fit? So all these other things happened to her?

“If you look at the health claims against Clinton one by one, they don’t mean anything,” Adams told me. “Clinton’s coughing wouldn’t mean anything if (her health) hadn’t already been raised.”

No, of course not. I lie to you once. I lie to you twice. I lie to you 25 times. By then, questions about my veracity are raised. Then I lie to you the 26th time, and you fly into a rage for no reason at all. Somehow, you are now convinced that I am a liar! As Adams says, “Forget about data, logic, facts. The visual [of Clinton’s small, very small, very rare total collapse on a New York street] is so strong” that people actually believe she’s sick.

A pretzel has better logic than this — but it’s only one example of the twists that Clinton’s apologists seem determined to put themselves through. If, to save Hillary Clinton, you need to abandon all pretense to disinterested reflection, that’s a small price to pay, isn’t it? The truly shocking thing is the arrogance with which the alleged intellectuals press their claims. They appear to believe that they are entitled to say anything, anything at all, no matter how silly it is, and still be accepted as authorities about life and truth.

Imagine! Being judged, not by your degree from Harvard, but by your degree of success!

I’m seldom impressed by the sagacity of political commentators, Left or Right. But I was impressed by a recent series of observations made by Pat Caddell, an ostensibly Democratic electoral expert. In an informal interview conducted on September 14, Caddell discussed the existence of

a political class which continues to think that they were the supreme and that they were self-perpetuating, picking and choosing only people who would be like them and think like them, and imposing on the American people what they wanted, which benefited them, but not the people, and never being held to any standards of success or failure.

This, as he said, is the Establishment, “the entire governing establishment of America.”

In the current social and rhetorical environment, the comment about “never being held to any standards of success or failure” is nothing short of shocking. Imagine! Being judged, not by your degree from Harvard, but by your degree of success! That standard is for guys working the line at Ford.

Pick your issue: when do you hear a member of the Establishment advocating some policy and stating the standard by which anyone could tell whether it was a success or failure? I’ll pick education. The Establishment, which consists in large part of professors and their clones, always advocates more (tax) money for “the schools.” Now it is advocating various schemes to make college education “free.” But when does anyone specify the measure by which we might judge the success of these schemes?

This is one of many ways in which the Establishment distances itself from normal people. Normal people allocate a few hundred dollars — of their own money — so they can take a plane to New York on Thursday. If the plane doesn’t get them to New York on Thursday, they reckon that as a failure. They have a standard of judgment. But how many trillions of dollars of other people’s money has the Establishment spent, with great self-congratulation, on ending poverty, ending drug abuse, abolishing racial antagonism, securing peace, etc., and what have we got to show for it? Only an Establishment that keeps getting bigger and fiercer as it hires and indoctrinates new cadres to fight these losing battles. Where are the organs of self-criticism that are supposed to ask the question, “Are you succeeding?”

Trump happens to be a maniacal big-government Planner like all the rest of them. But that is never the source of the criticism, or the hate.

You will not find them in the ordinary media. In Caddell’s view, the alleged critics are now the most vicious parts of the Establishment they are paid to monitor. The media “is [sic] no longer . . . devoted to fact, it is an outrider, it’s the assassination squad of the governing elite.”

When I open my computer, the first thing that comes up is Google News. I’m fascinated by Google’s single-minded devotion to the Establishment cause. On many days, four or five of the first ten stories are attacks, frequently weird and unbalanced attacks, on Donald Trump. Now, this Trump happens to be a maniacal big-government Planner like all the rest of them. But that is never the source of the criticism, or the hate. He is hated because he has made the mistake of revealing that the other emperors have no clothes. Thus the thousands of attempted “assassinations.”

But what about us? You and me. Libertarians.

Right now, both the Republicans and the Democrats think they can benefit from libertarian votes. So you may have forgotten that you — you personally, as a libertarian — are ordinarily a more inviting target for the Establishment’s verbal assassins than even Donald Trump. Just look at the things you believe, the positions you take, and you’ll see that you are.

Do you have an isolationist or an America-first foreign policy? Do you favor homeschooling? Are you opposed to the welfare state? Are you a devotee of the original Constitution, unamended by the sophistry of lawyers? Are you opposed to racial preferences? Do you assert your rights under the Second Amendment? Are you opposed to the mixture of religion with politics, by either Christians or Muslims? Are you opposed to political correctness? Do you believe that free speech means free speech, no matter whom it disturbs, offends, or outrages?

If so, then you are the person whom Donald Trump is accused of being. And you are in line for assassination whenever the media remembers who you are.

Sorry; this fruit is pretty sour.




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You Can Write Whatever You Want

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Word Watch has entered its fifteenth year of operation — a good time to take up a subject that deserves to be addressed, especially on behalf of a libertarian audience. I do this from time to time, in various ways, but I haven’t done it for quite a while. So here goes.

There are two ways of discussing grammar and usage. One is descriptive: you try to describe how a language “really is,” right now. The other is prescriptive: you try to say what the language should be. Almost all academic linguists, and some academic grammarians, take the descriptive, supposedly scientific course. This column, however, is strongly prescriptive. It tries to describe what’s going on, but it also tries to state where it went wrong (or, occasionally, right). But rules and prescriptions — even advice — can be hard to sell to libertarians.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed.

“Why,” readers sometimes ask, “do I have to bother with rules? Why can’t I say and write whatever I want, so long as my audience understands me? And who has the right to make these rules, after all?”

Those are good questions, and they deserve good answers. Here they are.

It’s true; you don’t have to bother with rules. By right you are free to express yourself in whatever way you want. If you want to say, “I think everybody should, like, go ahead and, like, you know, vote for the, like, party of freedom?, I mean the, you know, Libertarian Party?” you can do so, and a normal audience will understand what you’re driving at, despite the pointless interjections and the irritating “uptalk.” But that doesn’t mean that no one should have the temerity to suggest that you sound like an idiot.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed. According to a creed that was temporarily espoused about 40 years ago (and probably 40 years before that, too), teachers should not presume to “correct” their students’ work; they should simply encourage them to abandon their fears and write. If you did enough writing, you would turn out well. Or good. Or something. Old-fashioned teachers were satirized for penning such insolent marginalia as, “I know what you’re trying to say, but it’s not quite coming through.” How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying? But of course that’s nonsense. If a young American writes, “The judge was so disinterested that she fell asleep,” you’ll know what he meant, and you’ll also know that the word he needs, whether he knows it or not, is “uninterested.” You’ll know it because you’re more competent than he is.

Well, who has the right to say that uninterested is the right word? People use uninterested and disinterested interchangeably, all the time.

Yes, that’s a description of what they do. They also say, “I seen you crossing the street,” all the time. There remains the question of what they ought to do. Anyone has the right to decide that question, and be correct or incorrect about it, just as anyone has the right to decide whether Raphael was a better artist than the four-year-old next door.

How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying?

In respect to Raphael and the preschool kid, the best qualified judges will be people who have seen lots of art, and lots of kinds of art, people who are familiar with the various effects that art tries to achieve and who are perceptive enough to notice whether those effects actually are achieved by any given work. Such judges may well say that the kid’s paintings project an immediacy that Raphael never achieved (or wanted), but they will also say that when it comes to the art museum, or the narthex of the church, Raphael is better.

These people’s judgments will carry authority, but the issue is never who shall judge but how the judgment is made. If you have a competent understanding of the resources of the English language, you know that uninterested and disinterested are traditionally considered virtual opposites of each other, and you recognize that the distinction between them continues to be valuable. It allows people to say such things as, “The judge was admirably disinterested, but she was woefully uninterested in the case before her.” No one has authority over the English language — not even Webster’s Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage — but every informed and rational judgment is authoritative.

This is no tyranny. It is a vindication of the individual mind.

Having said all this, I don’t want to sacrifice too much to the idea that, yes, we can understand you, no matter how ugly we consider your self-expression. Sometimes — not infrequently — we cannot understand you, because your ugliness gets in the way.

On August 11, a good example came into my possession. I was on a ship off the eastern coast of Canada, and my internet connection didn’t work. Actually, I was too cheap to make it work. Anyway, I picked up a copy of the news digest that the New York Times provides for the maritime trade, and there I found an article about James K. Galbraith, an economist who gives zany advice to people in Greece. Apparently the advice is to initiate the millennium by inflating the currency enough to repudiate the nation’s debts. If I’m wrong about this, I’m sorry; I’m just trying to interpret the Times account of his notions:

Galbraith . . . argued passionately that a new currency would wash away the country’s debts, solve Greece’s competitiveness problem and ultimately create what he called a “good society.” A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks, he had drawn up a contingency plan for Greece under [finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis’s direction, in case the country was forced to leave the [euro] currency zone by its creditors.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But there’s a crucial grammatical error in there. It occurs in the second sentence. It’s a dangling modifier. “A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks” is supposed to fit with or “modify” something else in the sentence, but what? The normal candidate would be the noun or pronoun immediately following the modifier. In this sentence, that candidate is “he.” Unfortunately, “he” is not a “step.” So the modifier is dangling, apparently unattached to anything else.

Many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence.

Now, the English, and especially the British, language is full of dangling modifiers. They are widespread, but they are wrong. When you, as a reader, pay the kind of attention to sentences that any author would appreciate your paying, you try to visualize the author’s meaning. But when a sentence includes a dangling modifier, the resulting image is misleading or ludicrous. Steps don’t draw up contingency plans.

And here the dangling modifier creates a problem that is worse than aesthetic. It’s a conceptual problem: what is the step that most Greeks oppose? It is not, alas, Mr. Galbraith (“he”); many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence. Well, is it the “contingency plan”? Probably not. Schemes to get rich by welshing on your debts are usually pretty popular. OK. How about “a good society”? No . . . few people are “opposed” to anything like that.

We’re still searching for the “step.” But notice that now we’re trying to figure out what the passage means by using whatever we knew about the subject before we read the passage. We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

All right, suppose that the “step” to which most Greeks are “opposed” is “a new currency”? Maybe. Probably. But how can we be sure? No matter how free you are with your lingo, “currency” is not a “step.” And we reached our identification of “step” with “currency” only through the process of eliminating every other possibility. It’s conceivable that there is no “step,” that the passage is literally meaningless.

Writing of this quality hardly inspires confidence in the New York Times. It’s a harsh saying, and sometimes wrong, but it’s basically true: if you don’t reflect on the way in which you say things, the things you say are unlikely to be taken seriously.

That’s true about words that appear in professional jargon or regional dialects or purely colloquial language as well as about words embedded in formal written English. If you’re trying to talk like a millennial and you don’t recognize the difference between dude, bro, brother, and mate, you’re not going to be treated as reliable on most of the subjects you want to address. If you’re trying to make some intellectual contribution and you show that you don’t care, or maybe don’t know, about the rules of grammar, your readers will wonder, perhaps justifiably, whether you have anything to contribute. And if you, as an intellectual, turn out writing that’s as stiff as a board, people will begin to ask themselves whether you have the understanding of human beings, their likes and dislikes and ways of interpreting the world, that is necessary to most intellectual disciplines.

We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

I’m talking about what Aristotle called ethos — the perceived character of a speaker or writer. As Aristotle observes, if you don’t have a decent ethos you’ll have lots of trouble getting other people to listen to you and agree with you. But I’m also talking about what we moderns call empathy — human beings’ ability to imagine what others are like, what others are likely to feel, how others are likely to react to what we do or say. If you can’t summon enough empathy to look at your sentences and see whether your readers will receive them as clear communications or as verbal puzzles, you should stop writing until you’re in a better mood. If you insist on writing, “All taxpayers have been now directed to submit his/her forms to the nearest IRS/tax office,” you should have enough empathy to know that while most readers will understand your sentence, sort of, their attention will be fixed not on your meaning but on your annoying slash forms, your unidiomatic placement of words (“now”), and your odd switch from plural (“taxpayers”) to singular (“his/her”). You’re free not to realize that or to care about it, but don’t think you’ll emerge from that sentence with your ethos intact.

In July, the computers at Southwest Airlines failed, and hundreds of flights were canceled. Passengers were understandably unhappy, but the icing on their cake of fury — note: I have enough empathy to realize that you will realize that this is an awful metaphor; I ask you to have enough empathy to understand that the image is supposed to be amusing — the icing on their cake of fury, I say, was Southwest’s explanation of the affair, an explanation that the airline placed on an obscure website, which nobody ever goes to, an explanation headlined by these words:

Information Regarding Operational Impact of Technology Issues

Is there a man or woman on the face of the earth who would guess that this had anything to do with a canceled flight? Empathy? We don’t need no stinkin’ empathy. And is there a person on earth who, after finally getting the point, would retain any confidence in anything that Southwest might deign to say thereafter?

Proceeding to another sample of great corporate writing — an advertisement for the Viking line of cruise ships, which makes this claim:

Designed as an upscale hotel, Viking’s chefs deliver a superb . . . experience.

Here’s another dangling modifier: “designed as an upscale hotel.” It’s presumably the ship that’s designed that way, but ship is nowhere in the sentence. What the sentence literally means is that Viking’s chefs are designed as an upscale hotel.

It’s funny; you laugh. Then you wonder: if Viking’s spokesmen are so careless with words, are they also careless with meanings? Can it be that their messages are just so many phrases thrown at the audience, to see what will stick? Can it be that a Viking ship is not actually anything like an upscale hotel? But one thing is clear: no one at Viking imagines that readers will actually think about its messages.

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy.

Ethos and empathy . . . On July 22, President Obama made a statement in which he said that Donald Trump’s speech of the night before “just doesn’t jive with the facts.” The president said that twice. Of course, what he meant was “agree with the facts.” I know that. But the word that means “agree,” in this sense, is jibe, not jive. I understand that there are millions of people who don’t know the difference. Peace to all such. There are also millions of people who don’t realize that the past tense of “see” is not “seen.”

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy. He has, for instance, never mastered the like-as distinction or the not-so-subtle rules governing pronoun case (“just between you and I”). With him, lack of ethos is related, as it often is with lesser mortals, to a lack of empathy. He has evidently never asked himself whether there may be persons on this planet, and millions of them, who know more about grammar and usage than he does, so he has never felt the need to investigate these subjects.

“Well,” I hear some truly generous libertarians saying, “we all make mistakes.” Yes, we do. Indeed we do. And that’s the most important realization we can have about this subject. We all make mistakes. The question is whether we want to notice our mistakes and do something about them.




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Riddles, Wrapped in Mysteries

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How in the world did this happen?

That’s a question I often ask myself when I read the news. When I ask it, I’m seldom reacting to the events reported. One can easily imagine what makes drunk drivers crash into trees, or political parties disgrace themselves before their constituents. But how in the world did the report end up that way?

On July 11, an inmate in the Berrien County, Michigan jail snatched a gun from an officer and began shooting people. Reporting on this event as it developed, the Washington Post went for some local color:

Video footage posted online that appeared to be from outside the courthouse in southwestern Michigan showed a litany of police vehicles with their lights flashing parked outside the building. . . .

The courthouse is located about 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, where an Uber driver killed six people in a shooting spree earlier this year.

It isn’t hard to see what went wrong with that first sentence. Somebody wanted to jazz it up, and he or she remembered that there was, somewhere in the dictionary, perhaps under the letter “l,” the word litany. Why not use that word? The reason not to use it was merely that it doesn’t mean a line of vehicles, or a line of any kind of objects. It means a series of things one says in church. Its use was, therefore, ludicrous in the extreme.

Oh well, bad guess. A couple of hours later, the sentence was revised to read: “Video footage posted online that appeared to be from outside the courthouse in southwestern Michigan showed numerous police vehicles, their lights flashing. . . .” In some dark cavern of the Washpo building, a graybeard had been found who actually knew what is the meaning of litany.

Did the Washington Post mean to suggest that Uber drivers from Kalamazoo infest the grounds of the Berrien County courthouse, waiting a chance at murder and mayhem?

But what about the second sentence? It was changed, too; the word located was excised: “The courthouse is about 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, where an Uber driver killed six people in a shooting spree earlier this year.” Well, that’s fussy, isn’t it? And it was a fussiness triumphant over meaning. No one addressed the issue of the strange, unfinished quality of the sentence as a whole.

What does it mean to say that the courthouse where an inmate tried to escape is 50 miles west of a town where an Uber driver started killing people at random because, according to him, his app told him to do it? What are we supposed to make of this peculiar lesson in geography? Did the Washington Post mean to hint that there was some hidden connection between events that happened 50 miles, 264,000 feet, away? Did it mean to suggest that Uber drivers from Kalamazoo infest the grounds of the Berrien County courthouse, waiting a chance at murder and mayhem? Or that the Berrien County inmate was an Uber driver in disguise? Or that southwestern Michigan is not, as it appears to be, a lovely champaign country of farms and woodlands — that it is instead a focus of violence in our modern world? Or are we simply to assume that the august editors of America’s second-ranking “intellectual” paper are unable to spot and remove a silly factoid extracted from Google Maps?

We will never know. On this point we must remain as ignorant as MSNBC alleged itself to be when it ran this headline during the terrorist episode in Dhaka on July 1:

Was the Bangla Desh attack premeditated?

Was it? Let’s see. . . . On the evening of July 1, five terrorists attacked a café frequented by foreigners, took hostages, and executed people who were unable to recite passages from the Quran. Twenty-nine people died. Might this event have been premeditated? Gosh, how could MSNBC, or anyone else, for that matter, possibly divine the answer to a question like that? You have to see how these things play out, wait for the investigation, call in the experts. Even then, you may never reach the definitive explanation. When you hear that a bunch of people have invaded a café and taken hostages, you shouldn’t rush to judgment about the way it happened. Even long afterward, you may still be asking, with Mrs. Clinton, "Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some foreigners? What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?"

But you can bet that if a bunch of Baptists, en route to some fundamentalist conclave, were stopped for speeding with an unlicensed gun in their trunk, not a minute would pass before MSNBC and all the rest of them would be talking about nothing except the vast rightwing conspiracy.

Of course, there are many things that American journalists neither know nor care about, even while feeling obliged to “report” them. One is the sickening number of murders, mainly of young black and Hispanic people, in America’s inner cities (i.e., cities that are completely dominated by Democrats). The statistics are sometimes given, the deaths are pronounced unfortunate, but no explanations are provided. May these terrible events have something to do with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, which were succeeded by a civil war within the young male populations most affected by them? Just a thought, which is one more thought than the Washington Post and the New York Times are willing to come out with. I don’t believe that calling these murders “gun deaths” qualifies as an explanatory thought. It qualifies only as willful ignorance.

This type of ignorance actually deepens when we turn to news reports on foreign people. I recently read a report on the tribal wars in South Sudan, a story that waited until paragraph 19 to indicate that the violence was occurring between members of different tribes. Readers were left to guess that tribal rivalry might conceivably be the cause of the terror that had been described in lavish detail by the first 18 paragraphs. No interest was expressed in exploring the idea.

May these terrible events have something to do with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, which were succeeded by a civil war within the young male populations most affected by them?

All right, you say, reporting on Africa has never been very interested, except when white people have been concerned. That’s a fact, although it’s not a fact to be proud of. But even big reports on big events in Europe are full of real or constructed ignorance.

A funny example was Christiane Amanpour’s alleged reporting on the Brexit vote for CNN. How this woman with the empty head and the foghorn voice ever got a job, much less managed to hold it for generations, is beyond me. But as the Brexit returns came in, she gave the most amusing of her many unconsciously amusing performances. Clearly shocked by results she did not desire and had not imagined, she mourned, she spluttered, she pontificated, she asked the hapless people she “interviewed” how it was possible that the voters should have ignored “all the experts”? Well, as demonstrated by the results of her “interviews,” if you don’t already know a thing like that, no one can explain it to you. And since she couldn’t understand the obvious answers to her endlessly repeated “experts” question, it would clearly have been hopeless for anyone to bring up the next point, which was why people like her should be regarded as experts in the first place, if they can’t conceive of anyone disagreeing with them.

A less amusing example of ignorance came from the Washington Post (which, I see, has emerged as the chief villain of this month’s column). The Post ran a long “report” on the sexual attacks perpetrated by men from Islamic countries, many or most of them “refugees,” during the 2015–16 New Year’s festivities in Germany. The events themselves were scandalous; even more scandalous was the subsequent cover-up by police and political authorities. At length, the terrible information came to light: hundreds of women had been attacked. And now, a still more terrible thing has been revealed: more than 1,200 women were attacked, by more than 2,000 men.

Even big reports on big events in Europe are full of real or constructed ignorance.

Somewhere, a sufficient explanation must exist for the fact that liberal media and public figures do everything they can to deflect blame from people (i.e., radical Muslims) who violently oppose the liberals’ most cherished values, people who persecute gays, victimize women, and systematically deny the rights of everyone who does not profess their religion. The fact is notorious, and since I do not have an adequate explanation myself, I will merely state that fact and comment on one of its worst effects, which is to obscure the distinction between barbarian fanatics, who commit horrible crimes, and modern, progressive, enlightened Muslims, who would not dream of doing so. To treat the members of a white supremacist church with the same sweet condescension that one extends to the nice ladies in the altar guild at St. Anne’s would be to demoralize the latter while inciting the former. This is obvious. It is something that everyone knows, or ought to know.

But here is the intellectual payoff (if you want to call it that) of the Washington Post’s report on the German liberals’ attempted cover-up of the events of New Year’s Eve:

The delay in communicating the extent of the New Year's Eve crimes [“delay in communicating” = “cover-up,” a word that appears nowhere in the report] is most likely due to a balancing act between the determination of the Cologne police force to not fuel tensions against refugees and the public expectation to fully reveal what happened that night.

That wad of words, so complicated, so self-conscious, so faux-judicious, virtually cries out, “How clever I am!” But again: how did it happen? Did anyone at the Post actually read that sentence? I mean, did anyone spend the 30 seconds necessary to determine whether it made sense? Not whether it was true, or even whether it employed good grammar — which it doesn’t — but simply whether it made any sense. The answer appears to be No.

What does the sentence say? It says that there were two things being balanced. One was the cops’ politically motivated determination (not just desire, but determination) to cover something up. The other was the public’s desire to know. And the result was that the cops covered something up. Where’s the balance in that? There isn’t any; the whole business about a “balancing act” is meaningless.

I hope I am right in suggesting that nobody read that sentence to see whether it had any meaning. The alternative — that somebody read it and thought it was right in every way and looked forward to readers’ being influenced by it — is almost too shocking to consider.




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They Couldn’t Have Said That!

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On May 27, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that his city had received a grant of $9 million dollars to employ people from Los Angeles who have recently gotten out of prison and train them in “life skills.” I’ve published a book about prisons, and I still do research in that area. I’ve usually liked the convicts and ex-convicts I’ve met. I’m very much in favor of giving them the clichéd second chance, and I don’t think I’d have any more worries about employing one of them than about employing an otherwise similar person who had never been in prison. People who land in prison tend to be fairly young, and they are much less likely to commit crimes when they get older. Also, as a prison warden remarked to me, many convicts committed their crimes when they were drunk or high, and they’re different people when they’re not that way. So if they don’t go crazy with substances again, why not employ them?

Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

Nevertheless, I did have some problems with Garcetti’s glee over his $9 million grant, because the money came from CalTrans, the California state agency that is supposed to be maintaining our roads and is not, despite the fact that it constantly demands more money. The fact that the money came from CalTrans was obscured by news “reporting” that spoke about an “agreement” or “pact” between CalTrans and the city, or simply said that “between” them they would spend $9 million. I don’t think the source of the money was intentionally obscured; it was represented in that way because the news writers just didn’t care. What’s another $9 million of the taxpayers’ money? And who cares whether everyone in the state should pay for services to Angelenos, or just the Angelenos themselves?

More upsetting was the fact that nobody paid any attention to the strange things that Garcetti actually said in making his announcement — nobody, that is, except the “John and Ken Show,” an afternoon radio program that raucously exposes the misdeeds of California politicians. John and Ken ran and reran the audio of Garcetti’s remarks:

When we invest in people we don’t know where things will turn out. But when people have paid their debt to society, our debt of gratitude should be not just thanking them for serving that time, but allowing them a pathway back in. They will also have access to services from life skills training to cognitive behavior therapy. You can’t just give folks a job; you have to give services with the job.[emphasis added]

Who would say such a thing? And who would neglect to mention it, if they were reporting on a politician — the mayor of the nation’s second largest city — who said it? The answer: people who have spoken and listened to the language of political correctness for so long that they no longer recognize its most ridiculous extremes as . . . well, ridiculous — abnormal, absurd, insulting to the intelligence. The episode provides an index of how low the American “elite” has sunk. Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

A few days after the “John and Ken Show” — which happens to be the most popular public affairs show in Southern California — started making fun of Garcetti, he grabbed an interview with a “John and Ken” reporter and said, pleasantly, that he (the mayor) had been confused. His remarks had been delivered on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and they had gotten mixed up with thoughts about members of the military for whose service we should be thankful. To my mind, this just made things worse. Garcetti’s excuse was that he had, sort of naturally, confused the idea of “service” when it applies to fighting for one’s country with the idea “service” when it applies to being sent to prison.

Oh well. From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same. Should I bring up the “workplace violence” at Ft. Hood?

Let’s follow the path from the ridiculous to the truly degraded. The man who shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando was a Muslim fanatic who repeatedly claimed religion as his motivation. Is there any mystery here? No. This was a religious crime, by now familiar to the whole world. For the editorial board of the New York Times, there’s no mystery either — except that it is somehow plain to the Times that Republican politicians were to blame for the atrocity:

While the precise motivation for the rampage remains unclear, it is evident that Mr. Mateen was driven by hatred toward gays and lesbians. Hate crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. They occur where bigotry is allowed to fester, where minorities are vilified and where people are scapegoated for political gain. Tragically, this is the state of American politics, driven too often by Republican politicians who see prejudice as something to exploit, not extinguish.

This sort of thing is beneath contempt, and almost beneath comment. The solemn denunciation of hate is itself an obvious product of hate. But hate is nothing compared to the cheap rhetorical tricks by which the writers try to develop reasons for their gross and obvious lie. The tricks are clear evidence that the authors know they are lying and are proud of their ability to continue lying without, as they imagine, getting caught.

From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same.

Do atrocious crimes happen in a vacuum? No. Do they tend to happen where bigotry is allowed to fester, minorities are vilified, etc.? Yes. And are there politicians in America who exploit prejudices (besides the prejudices that sway the New York Times)? Why, yes. Therefore, it was American politicians, specifically Republican politicians, who incited Mateen’s murders. A clever arrangement of thoughts!

Well, the authors must think so. It must never occur to these brilliant people that readers, even their readers (the numbers of whom are diminishing every hour), could possibly respond by saying, “Stop! Wait a minute! Wasn’t the atmosphere for this kind of slaughter the bigotry, vilification, and scapegoating practiced without let or shame by the radical Islamists whom Mateen claimed as his inspiration?” Which of course it was. Which of course it continues to be, not just in America but in Islamist regimes throughout the world, many of them the friends of the Times’ good friends. Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing. This is a vacuum that the Times can’t imagine anyone noticing.

Another view of the vacuum was provided by the Times’ idol and oracle, President Obama, in his recent discourse on the demands by people on the right, and people with sense, that he call Islamic terrorism “Islamic terrorism,” instead of “terror,” “hate,” and other unmodified, meaningless terms. These demands, alas, were not prompted by Word Watch, which has always wanted people to talk so that other people can understand what they’re saying. But the demands made sense. They were prompted by a realization that the president, like any other head of a vast bureaucracy, commands the apparatus as much by what he does not say as by what he actually does say. There are many indications that by refusing to make radical Islam a concern of law enforcement, by in fact saying that terrorism has nothing to do with Islamand that ISIS itself is not Islamic. Obama sends government agencies out on a futile search for “hate” instead of a search for certain specific fanatics who want to kill other people.

Finally, on June 14, faced with a catastrophic example of what he must have wanted to call nightclub violence, Obama meditated upon the weighty problem of nomenclature. Since he is a constant public speaker and an alleged author, his ideas about words would surely be worthy of consideration. And they are. “Calling a threat by a different name,” he pronounced, “does not make it go away.”

Reading that, one remembers the old chestnut about whether Senator McCarthy had any sense of decency. “Have you no logic, sir,” one wants to say. “At long last, have you no logic?” If calling a threat by a different name doesn’t make it go away, why do you insist on calling Islamic terrorism by so many different names?

The truth, I’m afraid, is that somehow such people as the president and the editors of the New York Times worry more about the tender feelings of radical Muslims — who violently oppose every value that the modern liberals profess — than about safeguarding the lives of normal Americans, gay or straight, white or black, Muslim or non-Muslim. This ruthlessness of sentiment is something I cannot explain.

Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing.

We saw it again, in a particularly ridiculous way, on June 20, when the FBI, under orders from the Department of Justice, issued a “transcript” of the Orlando assassin’s electronic conversations during the atrocity. The transcript was “redacted.” For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, redacted means censored. The conversations were long, but practically none of the words appeared in the transcript. All possible references to radical Islamic contacts and inspirations were removed. The alleged reason was that the government didn’t want to “propagandize” for the radicals, and that it did not want the surviving victims to be “retraumatized.”

Either the Attorney General and her employees believe this or not. If not, they’re lying. If so, they have a very strange idea of the effects of public discourse. If someone goes into a nightclub and starts slaughtering people, and in the process claims you as his inspiration, is that a good notice for you? Doubtful. More doubtful is the notion that translating the assassin’s “Allah” as “God” will save the feelings of his victims. (Yes, “Allah” is a word for the more or less shared god of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but in English it is always and everywhere rendered as “Allah.”)

All this was so exceedingly ridiculous that the government relented and published another redaction, which it called unredacted. The government relented — but it did not repent. This version apparently still lacked much of the original, and it still rendered “Allah” as “God.” I have no questions to ask the government about God, but I would like to know what all those expurgated words may have been. I would also like to know — really know — what these strange officials have in mind. Unfortunately, all you get from thinking about this is the craving for a good stiff drink.

I don’t have a drink to offer you, but here’s some good news. Fox’s late-night comedy show, “Red Eye,” which rose to greatness under the wonderful Greg Gutfeld, is under new management (Greg got a one-man show), and it seems to be working out. Tom Shillue, the new host, maintains Greg’s style of humor, one element of which is a constant stream of clichés deployed in solemnly hilarious ways. When Greg wanted to refer to Obama, he used to say, in an ominous tone, “President Obama, if that’s his real name.” Now Tom is discussing “the reclusive billionaire, Donald Trump.” This kind of stuff goes by too fast for you to wonder, “Why am I laughing?” But it’s great and you don’t forget it.

Greg Gutfeld is a libertarian, and probably Tom Shillue is also, though I haven’t heard him say so. I wish there were more libertarians with a sense of humor. For a single, delicious moment I thought that Gary Johnson, Libertarian nominee for president, had one of those things. In a television interview on May 23, I heard him say, “Most people are libertarians; it’s just that they don’t know it.”

I thought that was hilarious. Imagine: a nation full of libertarians, almost none of whom ever manage to vote for the Libertarian Party! What are they thinking? Are they drunk? Stoned? Are they as illiterate as the thousands of Californians, some of them celebrities, who recently discovered that when they registered to vote as partisans of the American Independent Party, they weren’t actually registering as “independents”? Or are they playing their own massive joke on the politicians — consistently voting for principles they detest? The zany adventures of a wacky electorate!

But Johnson didn’t smile; he just kept talking as if this absurdity were true! I’ve heard him say it several times since, and I’ve been forced to conclude that he is only being funny in the way that politicians usually are funny — unconsciously.

For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, "redacted" means "censored."

The sad truth is that most Americans are not libertarians. They are the beneficiaries of a great libertarian tradition, inseparable from this noble nation, but they are not libertarians. They are libertarian about gun laws but not about drug laws. Or they are libertarian about taxes but not about gun laws or drug laws. Or they are libertarian about the internet but not about taxes or gun laws or drug laws or anything else. They are libertarian about X but not about Y through Z or A through W.

These proclamations of Mr. Johnson are either pious lies or self-deception. He’s a nice guy, so I strongly suspect the latter. But they are uncomfortably close to the perpetual declarations of the mainline politicians, who are always assuring us that “what the American people really care about” or “what the American people really want” is miraculously identical with what the politicians themselves want or care about. That’s one reason why there’s so little real argument in American politics. The strategy is not to say anything new, anything you might have to argue for, but simply to compliment the audience as fulsomely as you can, then slip offstage, bearing away as many votes as you’ve managed to collect. I can’t see any reason to vote for someone like that, except to keep someone worse from winning.

I’m sorry if I done Mr. Johnson wrong. If he’s got any amusing remarks lying around, I hope he’ll come out with them. We can use them right now.




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Just Keep Talking

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In case you think that United Statesians are the only people who are losing command of their language, and American politicians are the permanent world champions in the Oaf and Malaprop contest, consider what happened in the Canadian Parliament on May 18.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, known on the street as Li’l Obama, got upset about his colleagues’ slowness in voting on, of all things to get hot about, an assisted-suicide bill. So he stomped across the chamber toward Opposition Whip Gord Brown and some other people, including opposition member Ruth Ellen Brosseau. In the language of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which is so nicey-nice that you can hardly understand it, “in video from the House, Trudeau is seen walking toward Brown in a crowd of MPs in the Commons aisle, taking his arm in an apparent effort to move Brown toward his seat. While doing so, he encountered Brosseau, who was also standing in the aisle and was seen physically reacting after the contact.” In the language of a more alert reporter, Trudeau “strode across the floor with an anger fierce in his face and eyes, towards a group of individuals. What took place was the prime minister physically grabbing people, elbowing people, hauling them down the way.” Brosseau said she had been “elbowed in the chest [i.e. breast] by the prime minister.” Others reported the PM’s deploying “the f-word” and continuing the confrontation in dialogue with the New Democratic Party Leader, who characterized him, aptly enough, as “pathetic!”

Later, amid loud cries of scorn and derision, Trudeau “apologized.” This is what he said:

I want to take the opportunity . . . to be able to express directly to [Brosseau] my apologies for my behavior and my actions, unreservedly. The fact is, in this situation, where I saw . . . I noticed that the member, the opposite member whip, was being impeded in his progress, I took it upon myself to go and assist him forward, which was I now see unadvisable as a course of actions and resulted in physical contact in this House that we can all accept was un, un, unacceptable. I apologize for that unreservedly and I look for opportunities to make amends directly to the member and to any members who feel negatively impacted by this, by this exchange and intervention because I take responsibility.

Here, in the comments of the lordly Canuck, are the same four and twenty blackbirds that American politicians are always baking into their own verbal pies:

A. The “apology” — but for what? For trying to “assist” someone. Some crime, eh?

B. The misleading description. Trudeau, it seems, took “a course of actions that resulted in physical contact.” Gosh, we all do that every day. I guess he’s no guiltier than the rest of us, eh?

This is a society in which tens of millions of people spend all day on their cellphones, and far too many people are paid to start talking and never stop.

C. The total disregard, or ignorance, of common idioms. English speakers never talk about “a course of actions.” It’s action, for God’s sake. Can’t you listen when other people talk? But when you’re a politician or other prominent personality, you don’t have to. So you don’t.

D. The reduction of a dramatic offense to something merely “unadvisable.” By the way, no one says unadvisable if he’s ever heard of inadvisable.

E. “Marks of weakness, marks of woe” — or at least of ignorance. You’re getting close to illiteracy when, within a very few words, you say, “We can all accept [that something] was unacceptable”; when you join accept with a clause, as in such current clichés as “you need to accept that your husband is a drunk”; and when you utter that virtually meaningless cliché “negative impact.”

F. The shifting of blame from actions to feelings, and hence from self to others — those others who “feel negatively impacted” by what you did. I am so sorry that you feel that way — now get over it.

G. The stilt stumble. Instead of saying that someone had trouble getting through the crowd, you climb on your stilts and say he was “being impeded in his progress.” My, Justin, what a big boy you are!

So much for Mr. Trudeau’s “unreserved” apology — and its ilk, whose name is legion, on both sides of the border.

Modern society is verbal to a degree that often makes me feel like Norma Desmond, longing for the days of silent movies. This is a society in which tens of millions of people spend all day on their cellphones, and far too many people — from talk show hosts and alleged teachers to political “consultants” and “activists” — are paid to start talking and never stop. But there appears to be an inverse relationship between quantity and quality.

Take Hillary Clinton. (Please!) She does nothing but talk. That’s been her sole occupation for the past 50 years. But somehow, the more she talks, the worse she gets. The more she talks about anything, the worse she gets about whatever that is. If you haven’t seen the YouTube video, “Hillary Clinton Lying for 13 Minutes Straight,” take a look at it, especially at the parts where she denies ever having changed her mind — or her essential values, or her basic concerns, or what she fights for, or whatever phrase she wants to substitute for mind. More hilarious still are the parts that show her lying — needlessly, endlessly, pathologically — about the nonexistent attack on her at that airport in the Balkans.

Now consider her attempts to jimmy her husband into her campaign. She and the liberal media (at present, her only friends and audience) still believe that Bill Clinton is the most popular person in the world. On May 20, Mr. Clinton appeared in my county, speaking in a high school to what was termed “a good crowd.” At the same time, the cops were blocking off streets for a Sanders rally. Who’s popular?

More hilarious still are the parts that show Clinton lying — needlessly, endlessly, pathologically — about the nonexistent attack on her at that airport in the Balkans.

It must seem strange to Mrs. Clinton that every time she brings up her husband, she loses more supporters. Insanely, she keeps on trying. On May 15, desperately attempting to get the workers of Kentucky to vote for her, despite her promise to put coal miners out of their jobs, she actually called the guy her “husband” — something she had hitherto avoided at all costs. (Understandable — she got where she is because of her own accomplishments, right?) She screamed about “my husband, who I’m gonna put in charge of revitalizing the economy, cause, you know, he knows how to do it.” At the mention of “my husband,” she waved her hand nonchalantly, as if already enjoying absolute power.

Note the phony folksiness of “gonna” and “cause,” and the real lack of grammar embodied in “who.” In view of her syntax, and her total absence of reference — what do we know that Bill Clinton knows about doing it? — Democrats should no longer complain about these qualities in Donald Trump. She’s right down there with him. Incidentally, if Bill knows how to revitalize the economy, why isn’t he doing it? What’s standing in his way? Has Hillary never anticipated these questions?

The “13 Minutes” video shows how dumb politicians can look when they’re trying to be clever. But here’s where the Dumber Principle comes into play. That’s what R.W. Bradford called the idea — useful to politicians, salesmen, conmen, evangelists, and people who are anxious to unload the house that they paid too much for — that “there’s always somebody dumber than you are.” On May 20, after the crash of the Egyptian airplane, I saw a Democratic spokesman castigating Trump for immediately suggesting that the cause was terrorism. The Fox News interviewer was apparently too dumb to mention that Mrs. Clinton had done exactly the same thing. He was also too dumb to deal with the contention that “there’s no evidence it was terrorism.” He looked puzzled, as if there was something he was missing, or something he had forgotten . . . But he never found it.

At the mention of “my husband,” she waved her hand nonchalantly, as if already enjoying absolute power.

The missing concept was the distinction between evidence and proof. Of course there was no proof of terrorism, or anything else, a few hours after the plane fell from a clear sky into the sea. But there was certainly evidence. The plane, which was on its way from Paris to Cairo, two top targets of terrorism, fell from a clear sky, into the sea, and without any cry of distress.

Confusing evidence with proof is a common dodge, a dumb looking for a dumber, and ordinarily finding it. President Obama used it on May 12 to debunk the FBI director’s contention that police are making fewer arrests because of the bad publicity they got from real and alleged abuses in black neighborhoods. “We have not seen any evidence of that,” the president said; it was all “anecdotes.” I’m not debating the substantive issue — I don’t know enough about it — and I don’t know whether there’s proof, one way or the other. But if you’re looking for proof, you need to start with evidence, and since when aren’t anecdotes evidence? Obama’s use of “evidence” to mean “proof” was simply a way of deferring the inspection of whatever evidence exists, until everyone forgets the matter. He did the same thing with the evidence of IRS harassment of rightwing nonprofits. But don’t let the blame stop with him. Where is the interviewer, or even commentator, who says on such occasions: “Excuse me. We’re talking about this because there is evidence. We’re trying to find out whether it’s proof or not.”

Let’s see. What else can I pick on this month? Here are two other instances of people emitting words long after they’ve run out of anything that makes sense to say.

My use of the first example demonstrates my integrity, because I’m bringing up a flaw in one of my favorite things in the world, Turner Classic Movies. TCM has given me so many hours of knowledge and pleasure that I am willing to forgive even the dumb things its announcers say about Hollywood people “accused” of communist sympathies; actual communists are unknown to TCM. But in the land of TCM, unlike a communist dictatorship, all kinds of movies are shown, and no movies are cut or censored. In our era of censorship and self-censorship, this is a shining accomplishment. So I am also willing to forgive the offense I am about to mention — although to forgive is not to forget.

So here it is: TCM keeps advertising its annual film festival as “the intersection of emotion and excitement.” This leaves me speechless, and not with admiration. An advertisement has to say something, but not that. No, not that. In a purely linguistic sense, President Obama’s failure to distinguish “evidence” from “proof” is of no importance, compared with TCM’s demand that we picture an intersection where emotion and excitement, which is a type of emotion . . . intersect. I may be too smart, or I may be too dumb, but I cannot picture that.

Confusing evidence with proof is a common dodge, a "dumb" looking for a "dumber," and ordinarily finding it.

Passing quickly, and finally, to someone who is not as likable as TCM, to someone who is not likable at all, I come to “Pastor” Jordan Brown, the idiot who tried to shake down Whole Foods in Austin by falsely alleging that when he ordered a cake that said “Love Wins” the store handed him a cake that said “Love Wins — Fag.” Linguistically, this event was important only because many of the media refused to state the offensive word, making up for their self-censorship by joyously presenting a picture of the cake itself, with the word on it.

But the bone I want to pick with the “pastor” has to do, not with the cake, but with one of the inspirational statements he tweeted to advertise his “church,” which if it existed was in the self-help, love-yourself business. The statement, sent out on April 14, just before the affair of the icing, was: “You cannot become what you will not confront.” If anything can be less than nonsense, that’s it. But it isn’t a peculiarly Jordan Brown statement. It’s the kind of idiocy exuded from every organ of the self-help monster that continues growing, 30 years after it ran out of the clear, simple, and actually helpful advice with which it began. Its brain is dead, but its words go on.

I like to remember what the actual pastor of an actual gay church once told me, in defense of other people’s right to say nasty things about gays: “Freedom of speech means being able to talk long enough to prove you’re a fool.”




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Duly Noted

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In my romantic moods I liken myself, as conductor of this column, to a lighthouse keeper on a distant isle. Picture him, if you will: scanning the waves, tending his lamp, doing his duty so that others, duly warned of danger, may safely reach their port. Alternatively, I see myself as a prison guard standing in his tower, wary and farsighted, watching to make sure that the criminals don’t run loose.

In short, this is a lonely job, and it can make you a little strange.

But to return . . . people with solitary occupations sometimes amuse their empty hours by keeping diaries or notes of the things they observe. And that’s what I do. Some of my notes find their way into the column right away. Others build up, and worry me. This is a good time to purge a few of them.

Any order will do, so I’ll start with:

1. Hillary Clinton, April 13, speaking at a conference hosted by Al Sharpton, and addressing the problem of white people, of which she is one: “We need to recognize our privilege [she said], and practice humility.” A good thought. And if either she or her host wants to start practicing humility, none of us will stand in the way. Start now! By the way, don’t you love seeing pictures of politicians that show them as they really look? If you do, you’ll enjoy this link to Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.

Put this down as one more instance of a common phenomenon: news writers simply miss the glaring and immediate contradictions that news readers see at once.

2. Headline, Washington Post, March 22: “Infamous ex-Toronto mayor Rob Ford dies after cancer fight.” Ah, wasn’t it Franklin Roosevelt who said, “Rob Ford — a mayor that will live in infamy”? Well, the Post can take its pick: either recognize the distinction (not a small one) between “infamous” and “famous,” and substitute the latter for the former in headlines like that; or consciously employ its headlines to editorialize on the news. But it is not an option to keep writing headlines without a head.

3. Alas, another report about Hillary Clinton, this one from Reuters, April 2: “Clinton, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic Party nomination in the Nov. 8 presidential election, has apologized for using a private email server for official business while in office from 2009 to 2013 and said she did nothing wrong.” I believe this wording comes fairly close to the truth — she did say she made a “mistake,” which I guess is something close to making an apology, and she does continue to talk and act as if she did nothing wrong, often chortling about the very idea that she might have done so. But shouldn’t the report at least signal the disjunction between apologizing and saying you’re right? Put this down as one more instance of a common phenomenon: news writers simply miss the glaring and immediate contradictions that news readers see at once.

4. It occurs to me that the great unsolved mystery of the presidential campaign is this: what would Donald Trump sound like if he ever prepared a speech? He is the first major presidential candidate who ever started to run for the office just because he thought it would be fun, and his grammar, vocabulary, and syntax (what there is of it — you try to diagram his sentences) reflect that fact. They continue to reflect it, now that he’s taking the campaign seriously. They haven’t changed. I wonder, if he ever wrote out a speech and connected subjects with verbs and adjectives with nouns, and got it all down on paper in the way that normal people do when they have something important to say, would we discover that he actually is in favor of free trade and would welcome open borders? Or would it be the same mishmash of notions and promises that it is right now?

5. You’ve probably seen those Ancestry.com ads in which personable men and women talk about not having known the families or ethnic groups from which they descend, until they paid for the services of Ancestry.com. That’s fine: who am I to object to historical research? But one of the recent ads seemed strange to me, and the more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. In this one, a young woman says that because of what she learned through Ancestry.com, “I absolutely want to know more about my Native American heritage.”

I wonder, if Trump ever wrote out a speech and connected subjects with verbs and adjectives with nouns, and got it all down on paper in the way that normal people do when they have something important to say, what would we discover?

Of course, one curious feature of that sentence is its substitution of the trendy “Native American” for the old-fashioned “American Indian.” I don’t particularly care which expression people decide to use, but I would feel better if they recognized that the expressions are both inaccurate. (That’s an ordinary characteristic of ethnic monikers: people who don’t like something I wrote often claim that I wrote it because I’m a “WASP,” although I have only a tiny fraction of Anglo-Saxon “blood”; I’m just white, that’s all.) American Indians aren’t Indians in the sense that they once came from the (East) Indies, as Columbus thought; but if you believe there’s something authentic about naming yourself after Amerigo Vespucci, you ought to be more reflective. Besides, anyone born in this country is a native American.

But where do these broad claims of “heritage” come from? If you’re brought up in a community of Germans or Jamaicans or, yes, American Indians, or if you know even one family member who can transmit that community’s cultural heritage, why yes, you yourself have a heritage that you may perhaps enjoy. In a nation that seems to be filling rapidly with genealogists, however, I have met precisely two persons who have recovered some significant knowledge of culture from their genealogical research. The rest of them are just filing in blanks on family trees, and paying as little attention to Great-Grandmother Emeline’s life, historical circumstances, or distinctive culture as stamp collectors pay to the political careers of Paraguayan statesmen.

Yet the ad doesn’t merely suggest that would-be genealogists will learn about their “heritage”; it asserts that they already have it: it’s their heritage; they possess it. Now, how can you have something like that, without even knowing it? You can’t — unless culture is, somehow, in your “blood.” Which it isn’t.

6. If you’re seeking wisdom about cultural matters, you might seek it from — guess who? — Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure exactly when she said this, but it was recently, because it appeared in remarks on current events that were replayed by Fox News on March 26. I was unlucky enough to be walking past the television when I heard her being asked a question about what makes people want to become Islamic terrorists. She opined: “People who feel marginalized, left out, left behind, are going to want to join something.”

The best teachers — have you noticed? — are the kind who inspire their students to ask questions. As an eager student of Mrs. Clinton, I have some questions I’d like to ask about that statement of hers. Here are a handful:

A. Do you mean we can fight Islamic terrorism by giving money to the Boy Scouts?

B. Why, in your opinion, don’t these people who feel so marginalized join something that will place them a little closer to the center? Why do they insist on joining something that wants to destroy both the center and the margins?

C. Or are you saying that clubs, churches, mosques, temples, auto racing associations, kennel clubs, the Loyal Order of Moose, the NAACP, and the Friends of the Library are filled with people whose need to join something would otherwise have made them terrorists? This quest for belonging — is that why people wander into your own campaign?

D. You’re quite a joiner yourself. You’ve been a member of countless organizations. Is that because you felt marginalized and left behind? If you lose the presidency, will you turn terrorist?

E. The terrorists in San Bernardino — a civil servant, making a decent income; a wife who was given a baby shower by his coworkers not long before the couple tried to murder them all: in what sense were they left out?

G. But why confuse ourselves with specifics? Let’s be more general: Do some people get left behind because they don’t move fast enough? Do some people get marginalized by their own bad qualities? Is it possible that some people become religious terrorists because they are disgusting, hateful people who have finally discovered a convenient excuse to act out their hateful feelings? Do you think that by making comments such as the one we are discussing, you may be making that excuse more convenient?

There’s no point in going on to H, I, or J. As the man says in Citizen Kane, “You can keep on asking questions if you want to” — for all the good it will do.

7. Bernard (“Bernie”) Sanders at the Democratic Presidential Town Hall, March 7: “Every other country on earth, as you may know, has a national healthcare program of one kind or another.” What shall we say to a statement like that — delivered, as always with Sanders, in a tone of total certainty and extreme indignation? Let me try a couple of responses.

The first is admittedly off the subject. It is: haven’t we had enough of faux folksiness? If the gathering at which Sanders pontificated (but where doesn’t he pontificate?) was a “town hall” meeting, so is an animal act in Vegas. Town meetings are places where real business is transacted; they aren’t arenas set aside for political hacks to exhibit their grotesqueries.

No one had suspected Sanders of a sense of humor, and he really doesn’t have one, because it took him about two months to work this saying up, but it’s genuinely funny.

My second, and more relevant, response is simply: how can anyone listen to this stuff with a straight face — and without asking questions about what, if anything, it means? The United States has not one but two national healthcare programs. They’re called Medicare and Obamacare. In fact, Sanders went on to mention Medicare, in an odd manner, given his earlier statement: “We have a program called Medicare which needs improvement.” Whether this means we’re doing worse than Nigeria, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Surinam, or Bhutan, I do not know, but I strongly suspect that “national healthcare” in those places may not be so well established, if it exists at all. Probably “one kind or another” is meant, in a lying way, to cover all such possible states of the international healthcare biz; but if so, why doesn’t it sufficiently cover our own national healthcare? Why does it justify everyone except ourselves?

Sanders went on to claim, essentially, that insurance causes accidents:

If you are a physician, my guess is you spend half your life arguing with the insurance companies, is that right?

And, you got [sic] people out there filling out forms. Every person in the room has private insurance, filling out forms. The reason that we are so much more expensive than other countries is that we have huge bureaucracy in the healthcare system, and we pay much, much too much for prescription drugs.

Again, you can keep on asking questions (such as, “By the way, what’s your source for all this?”) — but nobody does.

The reason nobody does may be that Sanders is so highly esteemed for his “sincerity,” “authenticity,” and “honesty” as to be protected from normal inquiries about even his most ridiculous claims. And he maintains this esteem because the journalists who surround him simply let him prattle on, without asking factual questions. It’s a perfect circle. But believe it or not, a person is actually not honest, sincere, or authentic if he keeps saying things that aren’t true, just because he wants to say them — because, although he wants enormous power over other people’s lives, he isn’t responsible enough to make ordinary attempts to find the truth.

8. Since I, however, have some sense of responsibility, I will admit that among the thousands of idiocies that gush forth daily from the lips of the leading presidential candidates, one can, if one inspects the torrent with exhaustless care, discover an occasional remark that is not idiotic. I have one comment marked “entertaining” in my record of current sayings, and by God, it’s by Senator Sanders. No one had suspected him of a sense of humor, and he really doesn’t have one, because it took him about two months to work this saying up, but it’s genuinely funny. It’s about (who else?) Hillary Clinton, and it’s the centerpiece of Sanders’ perpetual demand for her to publish the text of that extraordinarily well-paid talk she gave to “Wall Street bankers.” Sanders’ crack is: “That musta been some speech, if it was worth $225,000 dollars.” This isn’t hilarious, but it’s funny, much funnier than you’d expect from a man who spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union; and at this point in the Campaign from Gehenna, I’ll take any kind of humor I can get.




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Free Speech — A Losing Candidate?

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Consider these two arrangements of the same story:

  1. May 11 — Violence caused the cancellation of a Donald Trump rally in Chicago after Trump denounced people opposed to his candidacy. People who came to protest against Trump were fought by Trump supporters.
  2. May 11 — Violence caused the cancellation of a Donald Trump rally in Chicago after protesters entered the hall and fought with Trump supporters. Trump had previously denounced protesters who appeared inside his rallies.

Both versions are true. But the first of them is a piece of propaganda, designed to get people to vote against Trump.

It’s easy to write such things. Try your own hand at it — maybe you can get a job with one of those big media outlets that are spending a lot of time blaming Trump for the violence of their own allies, the ’60s refugees and college clones who want to make sure that only one Great Thought gets heard in America.

But before I share any more of my own great thoughts, please take this brief version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test. Have you already concluded that I who am writing this am a supporter or a detractor of Donald Trump?

Others spoke of their campaign for “compassion and understanding,” thus making theirs the first riot ever staged for compassionate purposes.

If your answer is Yes, you have jumped to a conclusion, and you will interpret all subsequent sentences as further proof of your opinion. You will also conclude — or you have already concluded — that I am either a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, or an American patriot who just wants to see something done about the mess in Washington. I’m sure your ability to divine these things will be gratifying to your self-esteem.

But if your answer is No, then you are qualified to read what follows. Reading involves, among other things, the ability to identify what a piece of writing is about. This piece of writing is not about Donald Trump or my opinion of Donald Trump. It’s about a massive default from the principle of free speech.

Trump’s rally on March 11 was shut down by a mob of leftists, many of them carrying Bernie Sanders signs. Sanders was not behind the action, but his political faction was massively involved. In the for-once-apt words of a police union spokesman, “it was a planned event with professional protestors.” A week or weeks in advance they had planned what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. Once in occupation of the hall where Trump was supposed to speak, they alternately shrieked in well-rehearsed apoplexy and danced and giggled with delight. When attempts were made to interview them about what they were trying to do, most refused to admit knowing any motive. Others spoke of their campaign for “compassion and understanding,” thus making theirs the first riot ever staged for compassionate purposes.

In short, this was the gross and obvious use of a mob to deny free speech and assembly to one’s political opponents.

That being, as I said, obvious, I confidently awaited the outrage that must surely follow, even from the American political establishment. But I was disappointed. Every online headline I saw made it sound as if Trump had attacked his own rally; every article arranged the story so as to picture “violence” being spontaneously ignited by the presence of people who support Donald Trump, or actually and solely begun by them. The worst headline I saw — but there were probably even worse — was this from the Washington Post:

‘Get ’em out!’ Racial tensions explode at Donald Trump’s rallies

In truth, the only connection with “race” was the presence of Black Lives Matter activists and other people screaming about Trump being a “white supremacist,” which of course he is not. Trump is a jackass who happens to be white. Other people are jackasses who happen to be black. In neither case does race matter. But if you want to claim that someone is a white supremacist, just go to the Washington Post, and they’ll give you a headline. That headline is your license to destroy the right of free speech that allows the Post to enjoy its own ridiculous life.

Similar events continue. When protesters disrupteda Trump rally in Arizona on March 19, after trying to prevent Trump from even reaching the venue, the CBS News headline was “Violence Erupts at Donald Trump Rally in Tucson.” Clever, very clever. Omit the human agents — the people who want to shut Trump up — and make it appear as if Trump were some dangerous natural phenomenon that may “erupt” at any time. The message? Get away from Trump.

if you want to claim that someone is a white supremacist, just go to the Washington Post, and they’ll give you a headline.

This is shameful dishonesty. But silly me, I was half expecting leading Democrats to be embarrassed by the mob behavior of some of their supporters. Had it been a Republican mob that attacked a rival political campaign, we would never have heard the end of the Democrats’ outraged demands that all Republicans immediately repudiate such fascist tactics. For the Democrat establishment, however, Trump was the fascist. Sanders showed not a hint of shame about his followers, and no questioner tried to get him to. Mrs. Clinton lost no time in denouncing “the ugly, divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump, and the encouragement he has given to violence. . . .” “If you play with matches,” she said, after exhaustive research in America’s vast storehouse of domestic clichés, “you can start a fire you cannot control.” Well, that much was to be expected from such an implacable proponent of objective law as Hillary Clinton.

But let us return to the problem of fouling the well you drink from, which is the giddy enterprise of the Washington Post and other journals that value free speech mainly because it’s good for people who agree with them. Consider Trump’s Republican rivals. Long victims of media slanders about their party’s supposed alliance with the supposed racists and violence-mongers of the Tea Party, Republicans might be expected to insist on free speech and fair play for everyone, but especially for themselves. Well, don’t expect anything like that. When push came to shove at the Trump rallies, they preferred to blame the victim, a fellow Republican, and try for a cheap political advantage.

Ted Cruz asserted that if you talk as Trump does, “you’re creating an environment that only encourages” violence. This from the man who has been mightily, and unfairly, blamed for inciting the wrath of other Republican senators — by refusing to give up his right to free speech.

John Kasich repeated, like a mantra, “Donald Trump has created a toxic environment . . . Donald is creating a very toxic environment, and it’s dividing people.” Note to Kasich: what is a “toxic environment”? Another note to Kasich: Aren’t you “dividing people” whenever you disagree with somebody? A third note to Kasich: why are your clichés of a higher intellectual quality than Donald Trump’s?

Republicans might be expected to insist on free speech and fair play for everyone, but especially for themselves. Well, don’t expect anything like that.

But it was left to Marco Rubio — who as I maintained last month is not a bad talker, so long as he’s talking one-on-one and about something specific, instead of standing on the balcony to deliver the papal blessing — it was left to Rubio to deliver the most inane remark of this supremely inane political season:

Presidents and presidential candidates cannot just say whatever they want.

I guess not. And I guess that’s what makes their sayings so profound, so probing, so candid, and so trustworthy.

Republican operatives were singing from the same page as the candidates, or vice versa. To cite one of many examples, Guy Benson, political editor of Town Hall, an outlet for conservative and sometimes radical conservative ideas, and attempts at ideas, used an interview with Fox on March 17 to accuse Trump of “fomenting violence.” To cite another, Doug Heye, a “Republican strategist and advisor,” lamented to Fox’s eager ears that attention had been stolen from Rubio’s campaign by the riot in Chicago, while his interviewer, Shep Smith, noted that some people thought the riot was actually contrived by Trump. To be fair, Heye then said that although Trump used “bigoted” language, he was “not a bigot,” and he himself would vote for Trump if he were nominated.

Let’s pause for a moment, and meditate upon these samples of the Republican mind at work.

If you’ve ever suspected that the political leaders of our nation are just not that bright, here is new evidence. Trump’s political appeal is known to result very largely from his warfare against the politically correct Left, an ideological formation that is feared and despised by almost everyone in the country who doesn’t have a Ph.D., work for a Human Resources department, or hold office in a safe Democrat district. In fact, it’s hated and despised by many people who do fit those descriptions; they’re just afraid to admit it. And as Trump’s Republican opponents have good reason to understand, this aspect of his political appeal is very strong. They also know that Americans traditionally resent blatant attempts to shut people up. They may try to shut people up themselves — specific people on specific occasions — but in the abstract, at least, they dislike the process. They have a feeling that it’s unfair, undemocratic, counterproductive. That feeling also is very strong.

In these circumstances, what would any Republican politician with brains more powerful than a bowl of jello have to say about the politically correct attacks on Trump’s rallies? He would say, “As you know, I am opposed to Donald Trump’s nomination on the Republican ticket. Nevertheless, I believe that all Americans should condemn the dastardly attempt of political radicals and supporters of the Democratic Party to do something that has never been done in American politics — prevent a candidate from running for the high office of president of the United States,” etc., etc., etc. Anyone could write that speech, which would appeal to virtually everyone in the country and position the speaker as morally superior not just to the Democrat mob but also to Donald Trump, whose own protests might be written off as merely self-interested.

Even a child might pity the obvious phoniness and insensate self-interest of Clinton's attempt to escape from being criticized.

But that’s not what happened. It was one of those moments when the fortunes of the Grand Old Party were magically aligned with those of high principle and popular sentiment, and the GOP not only missed the moment but disgraced it. Its candidates and spokesmen actually thought that their own self-interest was involved, not with the assertion of ideas that almost everyone holds, but with the petty advantage to be sought by suggesting that their chief opponent deserved whatever bad things happened to him. In the process, they gratified the politically correct people who can barely force themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, let alone some low-life Republican, and they morally outraged the legions of Trump supporters whose assistance they themselves require for victory.

It seems very childish to point this out. But our politics (not without the help of Donald Trump) have become so childish that anyone who knows that C-A-T spells “cat” is operating with an enormous intellectual advantage over the other kids.

I should have reached this conclusion about the prevalence of baby talk and infantile tantrums when Hillary Clinton went before the Benghazi committee and screamed, with well-rehearsed outrage, “What difference does it make?” Even a child might pity the obvious phoniness and insensate self-interest of her attempt to escape from being criticized. Yet the august organs of public opinion hailed it as an unanswerable defense of her actions. Only later did they sense that there might have been some slippage in the public relations department: everybody but them considered Clinton’s tantrum the worst performance ever presented on TV. So why should I be surprised by the need to suggest that America’s deep political thinkers may have missed a few other things — things that even some non-pundits understand?

Among those things are the following reflections:

  1. It’s wrong to blame the victim, whether the victim is sensible or not, likable or not, or any other not. A woman who is robbed while walking down a dark street is not responsible for being robbed, even though “she should have known better” than to walk that way. A man who ventures into “a bad neighborhood” with an expensive watch — ditto. A person who makes rude remarks from a public stage is not to blame if someone organizes a mob to kick him off the stage. Even a blowhard who goes around saying, “If anybody tries to kick me off this stage, I’ll hit him in the face” is not to blame if, yes, somebody tries to kick him off the stage. We are not living in the old Soviet Union, which had such tender feelings that any rude remark became a provocation. Weighing rights on the scale with provocations is an excellent means of getting rid of rights, and that’s why it is the consistent practice of dictatorships.
  2. Whether Donald Trump was being jocular or not when he suggested to his listeners that if somebody caused trouble, people in the audience would be justified in taking physical action against that person, those remarks had nothing to do with the invasions of his rallies. If talking offhandedly about violence actually incited violence, then half the stand-up comics and three-quarters of the leftwing demonstrations in this country would be guilty of inciting violence. If Trump had said absolutely nothing about any kind of violence, the people who turned out to “protest” his alleged racism and sexism would still have turned out to “protest” his alleged racism and sexism. That’s what their signs said they were doing. Logically, anyone sincerely moved to protest Trump’s rude bellowings would want to do so by exhibiting the opposite behavior. But that’s not what makes a mob. For that you need bullhorns, filthy slogans, and, yes, actual violence. When other Republicans maintained that Trump was getting what was coming to him, they were siding with people who would cheerfully raise the same kind of mobs against them.
  3. When it comes to free speech and free assembly, it makes no difference whether someone is pleasant or unpleasant, or even whether he is a “racist” or some other offensive something. Free speech isn’t about allowing your sweet old grandmother to discuss how much she’s always admired Mother Teresa. Neither she nor her admiration requires protection. It’s unpopular views and unpopular people that require protection, and they are guaranteed protection by our national charter.

So much for my review of ideas that should have occurred to everyone, but obviously have not, although there is nothing more important in the realm of words than everybody’s right to use them freely.




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The Bad and the Ugly

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I suppose that everyone who has been chained to a sofa and forced to watch the presidential “race” (which is actually a horrible, slow crawl, relieved only by an occasional fall off a cliff) has compiled a mental list of the best, better, worse, and worst verbal performers. Here’s my list.

The Best performer, I believe, was Carly Fiorina. Trailing badly in the polls, she was willing to speak at any time, on any subject — and every time I saw her, she was crisp, clear, and well-informed. She was actually, on occasion, informative. She said things that conveyed knowledge that I, at least, hadn’t possessed before. She could surprise you that way. She didn’t completely avoid clichés, but she had a lower cliché count than the other candidates, and she had practically no “uh” count.

This is very rare among politicians, and should be greeted as a miracle after seven years of Obama, whose rate often goes up to 40 “uhs” a minute. Saying “uh” all the time commonly indicates that a person is trying to hold the stage long after running out of anything to say. Obama is the best example in the present era. If you counted the time he has spent on substantive remarks, and compared it with the time he has lavished on “uh,” you’d end up with a ratio of about 1 to 100. But Fiorina never wasted your time. And she, virtually alone in the pack of presidential contenders, never evaded a question by proclaiming that the American people don’t care about that; what they care about is blah, blah, blah. She was likable, and I liked her.

She was actually, on occasion, informative. She said things that conveyed knowledge that I, at least, hadn’t possessed before.

In any context except that of an American political campaign, none of the other candidates would be regarded as even a tolerable public speaker. Most of them would be considered sickening bores, heartless charlatans, or dangerous lunatics. In that sad context, however, they can still be ranked as better or worse.

Marco Rubio is a case in point. Chris Christie, in the best rhetorical moment of his own campaign, told Rubio that he was onto him: Rubio had a thing that he said all the time, something about Obama trying to make America into a European socialist country; and while that happened to be true, Rubio said it on every occasion, in answer to every question, and that was going too far. Christie noticed it, and made an issue of it in debate with Rubio, and his comments had a devastating effect on Rubio’s campaign. Rubio actually apologized to his supporters for screwing up so badly. In my opinion, Christie’s reproof of Rubio was the verbal high point of the campaign, so far.

But notice the difference between Christie and Rubio. Christie is great in dealing with hecklers, and in giving sharp answers to the kind of inside-the-beltway questions that turn other candidates into bores. Beyond that, he’s a bore himself. He could not manage to argue for own candidacy. But Rubio, who was on the losing side in his exchange with Christie, is actually a pretty good public speaker. Most of his time is occupied with denouncing Obama, which is easy to do, but he manages to do it without the overt ranting that is one of Ted Cruz’s besetting sins (about which more, below). Rubio’s “uh” count is low, and although he seldom has anything informative to say, he’s fluent and well organized and occasionally puts a little vibration in his voice that passes for inspiration.

In any context except that of an American political campaign, none of the other candidates would be regarded as even a tolerable public speaker.

On February 8, two days after his disastrous exchange with Christie, Megyn Kelly interviewed Rubio on Fox News and tested him by popping a quick series of questions about niche issues: should kids be legally required to get vaccinations? should “racist” Hallowe’en costumes be outlawed? etc. Rubio replied to all her queries rapidly and incisively, without the hedging to which most candidates resort when they don’t want a minor issue to make them the victims of pressure-group mayhem.

Ben Carson was an unusual candidate and an unusual speaker. I enjoyed his understated manner. He was too slow, but with him slowness suggested thoughtfulness, not lack of substance. His tendency to generalize was unfortunate, because it associated him with professional politicians and other people who seldom have anything specific to say. Carson did know what he was talking about, most of it, until he got involved with foreign policy — which was too bad, because his lack of knowledge in that field implied (I think falsely) that he didn’t know much about other fields, either.

My lack of bias in this assessment of speaking skills is demonstrated by my placement of Jeb Bush, whose nepotistic sense of entitlement I very much disliked, in the ranks of the Better speakers, with Rubio at the top of the Betters, Carson someplace in the middle, and Bush at the still-honorable bottom. Despite the mean things that Donald Trump kept saying about him, Bush was not notably lacking in energy or enthusiasm (as I certainly would have been if I had spent every waking hour of the past few years indulging a greed for public office). His tone was too even to inspire or surprise, and his constant references to various obscure and uninteresting successes in “running” Florida gave him the gravitas of a lead pipe. Nevertheless, he was a reasonably coherent speaker and much more circumspect in diction than the majority of his opponents. I say this despite his many obnoxious statements about “growing” things that cannot be “grown,” such as the economy.

Bush’s real problem wasn’t his lack of enthusiasm for the race but his audience’s lack of enthusiasm for his politics. His salient proposals, examined either singly or together, attracted no one except the crony capitalists and RINOs and Chamber of Commerce types. Whenever Jeb said anything, he was reasonably suspected of relaying the doubletalk of those core supporters, and of his brother — a language in which “immigration reform” means “open borders,” “I don’t believe in nation-building” means “I do believe in nation-building,” and so on. For normal listeners, that was not a source of enthusiasm.

As politicians go, however, Jeb did a much better than average job. There’s something to be said for the quality that ancient rhetorical theorists would call his ethos, the character he projected. I can hardly think of anything more demoralizing than to be regarded as my party’s inevitable nominee, and be backed by maybe a hundred million dollars in contributions and pledges, and then fall into the swamp, and stay there. Yet Jeb maintained to the end the same ethos, dull but sturdy, with which he began. Even Dr. Carson finally yielded to the temptation of public bitterness, as he found himself sinking in the polls. But Jeb did not. That was the best thing about him.

Jeb Bush’s real problem wasn’t his lack of enthusiasm for the race but his audience’s lack of enthusiasm for his politics.

Exchanging, now, the Better for the Worse, we come to Ted Cruz. Cruz is a trained debater. If you read his speeches, he often comes across as a clever verbal strategist. But when you hear him deliver them, the effect is different. He is nasal, uncomfortably gestural, and full of the little pauses that say, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. This is going to be one of my best statements.”

He has been criticized — indeed, portrayed as weird — for using the Bible, even when, in celebration of his victory in Iowa, he turned to Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” That verse, familiar to most Christians, and cited with considerable effect not just by Cruz but by such people as Gene Debs, the socialist leader, struck media commentators with astonishment. What was the guy saying? Was that the Bible? How can we find out? Well, there are such things as Bible concordances, scores of which you can find online, if you know the word “concordance.” But we shouldn’t suppose that the educators of the populace will themselves be educated people. The problem for me was that Cruz’s Iowa victory speech, like many of his other efforts, was mercilessly long and frothy, indicating nothing so much as a delight in hearing himself talk — a problem that can only grow worse, should his electoral success, such as it is, continue. Another bad, bad tendency is pandering to his audience, not once but over and over again. The occasional Bible verse is one thing, but his evangelical buzzwords are another. Even the evangelicals must be bored by them.

I’m tiptoeing toward the Worst.

I am not the only person who’s said it, but the political success of Bernie Sanders is almost entirely attributable to the fact that he is not Hillary Clinton. The claim has been made that he’s buoyed by his own ethos (if an ethos can keep you from drowning, which it usually can’t). But ask yourself: if he were your neighbor, would you like or respect him? Sure, he’s sincere, in the sense that he believes the nonsense he spouts, but must we assume that every crank or crackpot is sincere? That’s the question H.L. Mencken asked about William Jennings Bryan, and his answer was No. The idea is that if you have cancer, and I offer to cure it by having you place your hands on your television and chant, “I am the 99%,” the concept of sincerity does not apply. If you sincerely want to cure cancer, why don’t you become a physician? Why don’t you read a book? As Mencken said, “This talk of sincerity, I confess, fatigues me.”

Cruz is nasal, uncomfortably gestural, and full of the little pauses that say, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. This is going to be one of my best statements.”

Sanders cares too much to read a book. And his is not a passive but an aggressive ignorance. His speeches are nothing but rants. You realize that when you hear his words, but the awful thing is that you get the same impression when you turn down the volume and just look at him. He is the male equivalent of the Witch of the West. A person who looks like that when he talks, or yells, can hardly be said to have a persuasive ethos. And when, with reluctant hand, you turn the volume back up, you get the full horror of Bernie Sanders. The words are idiotic. That whole business about one-tenth of one percent owning 90% of the nation’s wealth . . . You’d have to redefine 20 common terms in 20 peculiar ways in order to get to that figure, and even then, I don’t see how you could. No, it’s crap, and it’s obvious crap, and nobody with an ounce of integrity would spout it.

But there’s a Worst of the Worst, and everyone knows who it is. It’s Mrs. Clinton. A delight to all opinion journalists, she is the person about whom nothing is too bad to say. Even among people who intend to vote for her there is almost universal loathing of her public performance and private character. Of all serious presidential candidates in American history, she is undoubtedly the most repellent. No list of adjectives can exhaust her repulsive qualities, and one of the most repulsive is that the people who support her know it and feel it themselves. A person who can command a leading campaign under these circumstances does indeed have something going for her, but it has nothing to do with the old categories of ethos, pathos, and logos.It has to do with the fact that she is a pathetic fool, hopelessly twisted by her lust for money and power, and therefore irresistibly attractive to wealthy people of similar character.

Well, but what happened to Donald Trump? What shall we think of him?

This is a problem. What kind of public speaker is Donald Trump? As I said in last month’s column, he’s a person who blurts out his message, whatever it is, in slogans and fragments of observations and whoops of glee (“We’re gonna win so much, and you’re gonna be so happy . . . !”). None of this leaves much room for literary analysis. He is not Daniel Webster. And he is not “presidential” in any normal sense. John Kasich — whom I haven’t discussed in this column, because he is far too dull — was correct in suggesting that Trump lacks the ethos of a president. But his candidacy demonstrates, for good or ill, that you can become president without that ethos. So he, too, must have something.

The political success of Bernie Sanders is almost entirely attributable to the fact that he is not Hillary Clinton.

Look — If I tell you that Franklin Roosevelt had persuasive charm, are you going to attack me for favoring the New Deal? I don’t favor the New Deal, and the New Deal has little to do with an assessment of Roosevelt’s rhetorical techniques. Please apply the same logic to what I say about Trump. My assessment of Trump’s rhetoric is that it’s done a lot of harm and a lot of good. The harm is that it’s narrowed the gap between competition for the world’s most potent office and the kind of thing one reads in entertainment magazines. When Trump talks about political issues, he does it in the style of a Hollywood columnist, full of breezy anecdotes, flashy claims, and satirical remarks.

That’s the bad part. The good part is . . . well, you’d have to possess a heart of stone not to enjoy the satirical remarks. But the really good part is that he has broken the bonds of media correctness.

When Trump began his campaign, you were not supposed to say that Bill Clinton is a bad man, and that his wife has been his enabler. You were not supposed to say that there are millions of people in this country illegally, and that their presence depresses wages for people who are in the country legally. You were not supposed to say of any candidate for the presidency that he is lifeless and weak. You were not supposed to say that an unpopular foreign leader is someone we need to come to terms with. Now, whether such things are true or not, they are on the minds of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, and they should be spoken about, so they can be debated. What kind of political process is it that forbids such obvious topics from being introduced? It’s a corrupt political process, a process in which every type of social pressure is exerted against the expression of unpopular ideas and even of popular ones.

This is new, and terrible. But Trump successfully defied the ban. He showed that he just didn’t care what the managers of public discourse thought about him. He didn’t care that they wanted to shame him and shut him up. He just went on saying things — many of them goofy or tasteless or just plain wrong — and it soon became evident that the other candidates and their managers and the pressure groups who support them and the analysts and the academics and the would-be censors weren’t smart enough to know how to answer him. This general unmasking has to be good for the country, and perhaps for the world.

Every victory for Trump that I can think of has not been a victory so much for his specific ideas as for his refusal to be shut up.

If there is a sacred cow on this planet, it’s the pope. Heaven forbid you should say something against the Pope o’ Rome, especially such a wonderful, sympathetic, warmhearted man of the people as the current wearer of the triple crown. But the problem with prelates is that they always want to intervene in politics. That’s what Pope Francis spends a lot of his time doing, and that’s what he did when he called Trump “unchristian” because he wants to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States. The pope denounced him for wanting to build walls rather than bridges — and you’d have to look a long way before finding a more inane comment, unless you looked through some of the pope’s other statements. Trump immediately blasted back, and the pope sent out a public relations man to say that Francis didn’t really mean Trump, and didn’t really mean to intervene in politics . . . “This wasn’t, in any way, a personal attack or an indication on who to vote for [sic]. The Pope has clearly said he didn’t want to get involved in the electoral campaign in the US and also said that he said what he said on the basis of what he was told [about Trump], hence giving him the benefit of the doubt.”In short, the Vatican could come up with nothing better than an obvious lie, soaked in obvious bilge. It was another victory for Trump.

In fact, every victory for Trump that I can think of has not been a victory so much for his specific ideas as for his refusal to be shut up. He has shown that if you don’t pretend to respect people and opinions that you do not, indeed, respect, you can keep on talking, and you may also find yourself winning friends and influencing people. Does that mean that Trump’s talk is any good? Certainly not. But I would like to live in a world in which I am free to criticize the pope, or to call Hillary Clinton an enabler of vice. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

To tell you the truth, however, what I really want to do is to stop talking about any of the candidates. I probably won’t get my wish. But I did think it was my duty to say something about them now, before people forget who most of them were.




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