Liaisin’ the Night Away

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No, I am not going to do the predictable thing — review Hillary Clinton’s book. I reviewed her earlier one, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us (Liberty, May 1996, pp. 51–54), and that’s enough to expect from me. True, this one seems to have been written by different ghost writers, although it’s hard to be sure. There’s a point below which stylistic analysis can’t be conclusive. But that’s not enough to justify further consideration of this “author’s” work.

Besides, a lot of other people have already done a good job with What Happened. One of them is Joseph Bottum in the Washington Free Beacon. Says Bottum, writing about the “writer”:

Has there been a more self-conscious major-party presidential candidate since Richard Nixon? The stiff way she moved, the personalizing of every slight, the grimacing smile as though she had been forced to teach herself how to wear her face: Nearly everything about Hillary Clinton spoke of a self-consciousness so vast, so heavy, that only the sternest will could shoulder it. Like a robot with slow actuators, she always seemed to have a gap between a stimulus and her response — a brief but noticeable moment of deciding how to react. Leave aside questions of her truthfulness about everything from her Rose Hill law firm's files to her private email server while she was at the State Department. Trump's needling epithet of "Crooked Hillary" gained traction because, regardless of her actual honesty, she had the affect of dishonesty — the pause that recalls for many viewers a liar choosing what to say.

Well put, and I’ll leave well enough alone. On to other matters.

In 1959, Isabel Paterson found a young couple who wanted to buy her old wooden farmhouse near Princeton, New Jersey. “The young wife,” she wrote to a friend, “‘loves an old house.’ She has certainly got something to love.”

Readers don’t care about somebody being killed, but they do care about penthouses, luxury suites, celebrity yachts, and high-rise apartments.

I’ll say the same thing about the good old English language: those who love it have certainly got something to love. It has the largest vocabulary in the world, and the most chaotic spelling, and sources that are stranger and more varied than those of any other language. In addition, it has the world’s most insensitive users.

I can’t establish that scientifically, but I have plenty of what “scientists” disparage as “anecdotal evidence.”

Here’s some:

On July 27, Wyndham Lathem, a science professor employed by Northwestern University, and Andrew Warren, an employee in the business office of Somerville College, Oxford University, allegedly butchered the boyfriend of Lathem in the latter’s high-rise apartment in Chicago. I put in high-rise because murder stories are always supposed to have stuff like that in them. Readers don’t care about somebody being killed, but they do care about penthouses (Ayn Rand wrote a murder play called Penthouse Legend), luxury suites, celebrity yachts, and high-rise apartments. Readers want class.

If it’s a sign that there are still murderers who love a good book, as they did in the Nero Wolfe stories, then it’s a good thing.

Now, after what seems to have been a high-rise thrill-killing, Lathem and Warren apparently left the corpse to cool and — you will never guess what they did next. They drove to the public library in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where Lathem made a contribution of $1,000 in memory of the victim. They then escaped to California, where they eventually turned themselves in. They are now in jail in Chicago.

I thought your curiosity would be aroused by that part about the donation to the library. It leaves me with a few thousand questions, too. If it’s a sign that there are still murderers who love a good book, as they did in the Nero Wolfe stories, then it’s a good thing. But what makes the story relevant, more or less, to reading and writing is what spokespersons for Oxford University had to say about the university’s employee, Mr. Warren.

The PR release was sensibly worded. It said, among other things: “We have been in contact with the police in the UK and are ready to help the US investigating authorities in any way they need.” Unfortunately, the principal of Somerville College wouldn’t leave well enough alone. She added this:

We and the university authorities will liaise with the investigating authorities and provide any assistance that is required.

This comes as upsetting news to all of us. Counselling support can be made available to anyone who needs it.

The principal, Alice Prochaska, is a distinguished archivist and curator who was once head librarian of Yale. Yet her acquaintance with books seems not to have extended far enough to inform her that “liaise with” is a pretty poor substitute for “help,” especially when it is used as a redundant parallel to “provide assistance.”

At first I was willing to congratulate Principal Prochaska on avoiding the temptation to administrative overreach. According to the well known statement of Rahm Emanuel (which I am about to paraphrase), administrators seldom fail to waste a good crisis, but the principal’s double qualifiers, “anyone who needs it” and “any assistance that is required,” somewhat allayed my fears. Then I realized: everything in the principal’s message is classic overreach.

It’s not just the quantity of words that’s important; it’s the quality.

Consider the rush from helping investigators to providing counselling support for “anyone who needs it.” Is Somerville College, whose alumnae include Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Daphne Park, the Queen of Spies, so sheltered a place that the rumor of crimes committed by a clerk in the financial office can drive its inhabitants round the bend? Principal Prochaska’s psychiatric initiative looks like just another way for a modern bureaucracy to reach out to its subjects and clutch them to its smothering breast.

Somerville College had no connection with the murder. If you were wondering, for some bizarre reason, whether the college would help the police with any facts it might have about Andrew Warren, the press release cleared that up. The principal’s only function was to expand useless verbiage — which appears to be why we employ college administrators. Under their tutelage, help becomes assistance, and assistance gives birth to counselling. To increase the number of syllables, counselling generates counselling support (we wouldn’t want anyone to think that our counselors will be non-supportive), and they need generates that is required. It is only proper, in such an authoritative message, that authorities should appear twice in the same sentence.

But it’s not just the quantity of words that’s important; it’s the quality. That’s where liaise comes in. Its function is to convert a common, low-quality, bureaucratic communication into something fairly stinking with high intrigue.When I read “ready to help,” I picture one cop calling up another cop and saying, “Ya know this bloke Andy Warren? Yeah, that’s the one. Got anything on him?” When I read “liaise,” I picture Allied agents behind the German lines, hoping that the message they inserted in the shoe of the Swedish diplomat will somehow make its way to Churchill.

The purpose of official patois is not to communicate meanings clearly or truly in any way. The purpose is to project the self-importance of the authorities.

It would be unfair to the British if I left this discussion of the Chicago murder case without providing a parallel anecdoteabout American verbiage. Here are the wise remarks of a Chicago police spokesman about the murder’s probable cause: "Something pivotal happened that resulted in the victim being attacked." You don’t say so! I thought it was something completely unimportant. I thought it was something on which nothing turned, so to speak. Now I know it was like, oh, the voyage of Columbus, or the invention of the incandescent light. It was something . . . pivotal — whatever it was.

Am I being petty? No, I’m not. The purpose of official patois is not to communicate meanings clearly, or emphatically, or wittily, or charmingly, or poetically, or individually, or truly in any way. The purpose is to project the self-importance of the authorities. That being so, it’s easy to see that this is commonly the language, not just of obscurity, but of obvious untruth, which the recipients are nevertheless expected to swallow.

One of the TV stations in my area has been trying to capitalize on the autumnal return of school children to their places of so-called instruction, by advertising a series about bullying in the schools. In one of its ads, a reporter intones, “We’re not afraid to stand up to bullying.” Refreshing, isn’t it? Here’s a public institution that is prepared to resist the threats of 12-year-olds.

Also refreshing is the station’s openness to the community. “I want you to be part of the conversation,” the reporter assured me. Well, maybe not me. Maybe the million little me’s out here in watcherland who are thought to be gullible enough to believe that by listening to some gasbag on TV, they’re participating in a conversation.

Refreshing, isn’t it? Here’s a public institution that is prepared to resist the threats of 12-year-olds.

If there’s a grossly politicized word in the vocabulary, it’s conversation. Remember when everyone in the Obama White House wanted to start a national conversation about that never-before-discussed topic, race relations in America? In other words, they wanted a conversation in which they had the final, and possibly the only, word. I remember Gorbachev, when he was in power. He was always calling for openness. One day, when he was out in the street conversing with his fellow citizens, a woman actually said something, and it wasn’t favorable to his policies. His response was, “That is what you think. Now I will tell you what I think.” How much more preposterous is someone with a microphone and a TV tower, inviting the invisible people who pick up his electronic signals to start a lively conversation with him? I quoted Gorbachev; now I’ll quote Brooklyn: “How dumb da ya think we are?”

The issue here is manipulative speech, speech that is less concerned to convey facts or even opinions than to neutralize the audience’s well-justified resistance. In this regard, television “journalists” and political “leaders” face a similar problem. Their audience really doesn’t care what they think; it doesn’t care to converse. It prefers, for the most part, to be left alone — unless, in some highly unusual case, a useful fact needs to be extracted from the flow of sound. Say, for instance, a useful fact about an approaching hurricane.

God help me, I squandered many hours of time watching the TV coverage of Hurricane Irma, particularly the 24/7 treatment offered by the Weather Channel. From this coverage I derived one useful fact: if you live in Florida, a hurricane may hit you sometime, so you should consider the obvious choices — leave or stay. If you stay, you should take in supplies and board up your windows.

That’s it. No other valuable knowledge was imparted. Despite graphic displays of predictive models — the European Model, the American Model, etc. — practically nothing was confided about how these models are constructed, or how hurricanes are constructed, or how to respond to the constant changes in the models’ estimates, or . . . anything.

The more the hurricane fizzled, the more insistent the news crews became about keeping it going.

As wall-to-wall coverage completed its sixth day, I began to pity all those hapless souls who had to stand in front of a camera and recite the same shrill warnings, purported facts, and solemn speculations over and over again. I was fascinated by the number of times I heard how foolish it is to try to ride out a hurricane in a small boat, and how dangerous it supposedly is to use candles if your power goes out.

I could forgive a lot of blather from people who have to keep talking long after they’ve exhausted their material. I could even forgive their obvious desire to cover a big story, which could only be the story of terrible destruction. I had more trouble forgiving their inclusion of the word “meteorologist” in every available sentence: “Turning now to meteorologist Jane Doe,” “As a meteorologist, I can say that this is indeed a big storm,” and so forth. I found it impossible to forgive anyone, meteorologist or not, who inflicted on the audience such locutions as, “Miami stands to get a large douse of rain” and “During the past week, millions of people fleed.”

The more the hurricane fizzled, the more insistent the news crews became about keeping it going. On Monday, September 11, the day after it hit, the weather guys had nothing to do but stand in a light breeze, muttering forecasts about the dreadful things that could yet happen. “There’s nothing weak about this,” one of them said, “only weaker.

Well, OK. What else can you do with all that airtime? One thing you could do is provide a sober consideration of what went wrong with all the confidently scientific predictions about where the storm would strike, how hard it would strike, and what the effects might be. That would be interesting, both scientifically and humanly. “Let’s see where things went wrong” is a fascinating study in imperfect humanity. Or you could share your knowledge (if any) about the history of evacuations, particularly the costs and benefits of leaving a place rather than staying in it.

The stunned weather guy didn’t know what to say. He had finally met someone with a sense of realty.

I heard none of that. What I heard was an increasingly shrill hall-monitorism — more warnings about using candles, evading curfews, driving on the roads during the recovery period. On Monday morning, one of the Weather Channel people positioned himself on a residential street and spent 15 minutes bemoaning the fact that a few cars were making their way through the light debris (palm fronds and such). Why are they here? he wondered. Why can’t people see that they may be blocking the way of first responders? Seeing a plump middle-aged gentleman walking calmly along, the weather guy said, “Let’s find out!” So, sir, why are you here?

The man explained that he had refugeed out but was now returning to see how his house was. He also commented that the storm hadn’t been nearly as bad as expected, and gave details. The stunned weather guy didn’t know what to say. He had finally met someone with a sense of realty. As he dismissed the home owner with an admonition not to block any first responders, I wondered what the gentleman might have replied, if he hadn’t been a gentleman, to this weird guy standing in the street with a microphone and a truckload of TV technicians. “Same to you, fella”?

I can’t resist dragging another party into court — Rick Scott, governor of the state of Florida. Scott seemed to me a competent organizer of disaster preparations, such as they are. He may have precipitated a run on gasoline by the millions of people whom he urged, perhaps uselessly, to evacuate, but he did arrange for gas to be stored and rushed to market afterward. And probably he can’t be blamed for trusting the scientific models of coming disaster. But I do resent his failure to notice the existence of 54 % of his state’s population.

His failure to make sense was emblematic of our great communicators’ disdain for most of the people who are purportedly part of their conversation.

What I mean is that 54% of adult Floridians are single, but in Scott’s long string of televised announcements he talked almost exclusively of “families” — as in his oft-repeated, literally absurd promise, “No resource or expense will be spared to protect families.” For the sake of families, he was willing to blow up Disney World, execute every alligator in the state, cut off his thumbs, and destroy every unmarried person he could find.

Or maybe not. Maybe he was just being pompous. But his failure to make sense was emblematic of our great communicators’ disdain for most of the people who are purportedly part of their conversation. And this disdain is generally reciprocated. Somewhere there are people who love Rick Scott for finally mentioning families. Somewhere there are people who feel that they are actually conversing with a television station by listening to its lamentations about childhood bullying. Somewhere there’s a person who warms to university administrators when they mention their passion for liaising. But I’m sure that these people amount to far fewer than 46%.




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Making It Official

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My remarks this month are about official abuse of language — a phenomenon so protean that it’s hard to decide where to start grabbing it. I’ll start at random, with the news about an employee of Google who wrote an essay claiming that there was no room for conservative attitudes in that outfit, and immediately discovered that there was no room for his attitudes:

Google has fired an employee who wrote an internal memo blasting the web company’s diversity policies . . .

“We are unequivocal in our belief that diversity and inclusion are critical to our success as a company,” [said] Danielle Brown, Google’s new vice president for diversity, integrity and governance.

Emphasizing the fact that corporate officials are sensitive to race, gender, and so forth, but not to irony, the news article continues with a note about Google’s holding company,Alphabet Inc.:

The subject of Google’s ideological bent came up at the most recent shareholder meeting, in June. A shareholder asked executives whether conservatives would feel welcome at the company. Executives disagreed with the idea that anyone wouldn’t.

“The company was founded under the principles of freedom of expression, diversity, inclusiveness and science-based thinking,” Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt said at the time. “You’ll also find that all of the other companies in our industry agree with us.”

Well, that’s diversity for you — universal agreement. It’s science, too. Science means that everybody agrees, and that’s that.

I, for one, do not agree that it’s a good idea to use principles as a kind of camouflage tent and found a company under them. That makes me wonder whether the principles are, in fact, just something to hide beneath. But maybe I’m not thinking scientifically. We know that if science says something, it must be true. That’s that, no matter how preposterous it sounds.

"Science" means that everybody agrees, and that’s that.

Speaking of that’s-that verbiage, let’s turn, without attempt at transition, to President Trump. On August 7, he tweeted this about Senator Richard Blumenthal (D, CT), one of many politicians who have been braying about Trump’s alleged intercourse with Russians (and, oddly, his alleged acceptance of foreign “emoluments”): “Never in U.S. history has anyone lied or defrauded voters like Senator Richard Blumenthal. He told stories about his Vietnam battles and conquests, how brave he was, and it was all a lie. He cried like a baby and begged for forgiveness like a child.”

Cried like a baby isn’t exactly fresh, but it’s fun to see it used about a man so swathed in the dignity of the Senate as Mr. Blumenthal. But I can think of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of anyones who have lied or defrauded worse than Blumenthal, several of them to be found in the Senate today. Maybe Trump can think of some himself, but he also thinks that everyone will understand his untruth as hyperbole.

One may ask, however: what is the use of hyperbole when you’re discussing historical events? If somebody said, “Of all the no-good, lying, dirty dogs, Hillary Clinton is by far the worst,” everyone would understand this as hyperbole; everyone knows she’s not a dog, and everyone can immediately picture all the no-good, lying, dirty “dogs” he has ever encountered, and identify some of them as even worse than Mrs. Clinton. This would not lessen the humorous effect of the trite, though picturesque, characterization of our former almost-president. But when Trump refers to specific, literal, historical facts (about lying, defrauding), he invites people to check them, not just to appreciate his hyperbole. The response is likely to be a pallid, “Sure, Blumenthal’s bad, but he’s not that bad. He isn’t Lyndon Johnson, after all.”

I can think of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of anyones who have lied or defrauded worse than Blumenthal, several of them to be found in the Senate today.

Trump has always trafficked in hyperbole, often to good effect, but historical hyperbole is becoming a habit with him, and a bad habit. On August 3, he tweeted, “Our relationship with Russia is at an all time & very dangerous low.” Since I want to believe, literally and completely, in everything a president of this country says, I immediately went out and bought emergency supplies. If we are at a lower point with Russia than we were during the Berlin blockade, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the breakup of the conference at Reykjavik, I’m preparing for war.

Yes, that’s sarcasm; sorry about that — which is what you say, nowadays, when you aren’t sorry about anything. Let’s pursue this topic of official discourse a little further.

In olden times there was a novel, and then a play, called Ten Nights in a Barroom. It was “temperance” propaganda, endeavoring to shame people out of their favorite saloons. I don’t know whether it accomplished that purpose, but it did show how unpleasant saloons could be, and it turned out to be very popular entertainment. But lately we’ve all spent many more than ten nights in a barroom. Ever since that evil day, now lost to memory, when the 2016 presidential campaign began, we’ve been locked in an old saloon filled with barflies yelling abuse at one another. The barflies are politicians and their journalistic surrogates. They scream, they taunt, they bluster, they try to make life miserable for everyone else. There’s just one good thing about them: they’re acting like human beings — angry, outrageous, extravagantly daft, but overtly, and sometimes interestingly, themselves.

If we are at a lower point with Russia than we were during the Berlin blockade, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the breakup of the conference at Reykjavik, I’m preparing for war.

Contrast the robotic calm that all the best people believe should characterize official discourse — the placid self-righteousness that camouflaged, with equal diligence,the foreign-policy hysteria of the Bush regime, the Neronian corruption of the Clintons, the ignorant Ameriphobia of the Obama class. The absence of this camouflaging discourse is one of the major reasons the shadow state detests Donald Trump. It detests him because it measures value by the degree to which erring human nature is repressed and the drama of life is replaced by professional training, best practices, settled science, authorized procedures, mission statements, job descriptions, educational credentials, and community principles.

But to replace messy human discourse with a comfort zone of politically correct official discourse is not to banish savagery. Oh no. It is only to weaponize it with inhuman words. There are few things more dangerous than official persons armed with official discourse.

You may recall that in last month’s Word Watch, I alluded to the hysterical behavior of Minneapolis police, and their panic shootings of innocent beings, human and canine. Soon after I wrote that column, wry signs were posted in the region: “Warning: Twin Cities Police Easily Startled,” with a silhouette of a cop with a gun in each hand, banging away.The AP distinguished these signs from “legitimate” ones, thus advertising its own political assumptions, but the signs showed an apt use of language. Less apt, indeed chillingly stupid, have been revelations about the ways in which Law Enforcement in Minneapolis talks.

To replace messy human discourse with a comfort zone of politically correct official discourse is not to banish savagery.

The policeman who wantonly shot two friendly dogs in the backyard of a woman whose burglar alarm had accidentally gone off claimed that the pooches made him fear for his safety. Apparently he needed a trigger warning. But the first words out of his mouth after he shot the household pets were a robotic, “Yeah, I dispatched both of ’em.”

Is that the way you talk when you’re rattled? But you’re not a trained professional, for whom the automatic term for shooting to kill is dispatched.

Worse is the way in which the state’s investigative agency described what happened when a policeman who was allegedly frightened by a noise fired his gun over the driver of the car in which he was riding and killed the woman who had called these cops to her neighborhood to investigate a possible rape. She seems to have made the absurd mistake of approaching the car. . . . but let the investigating agency, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, narrate the action as it understood it on July 25:

On July 15, 2017 at approximately 11:30 p.m., Minneapolis PD received a 911 call from a (woman) requesting police respond to 5024 Washburn Ave S, Minneapolis for a female screaming at this location. Approximately 10 minutes later, a female called 911 again to check the status of police arrival at this address. Moments later, Minneapolis PD arrived on scene. Upon police arrival, a female “slaps” the back of the patrol squad.

After that, it is unknown to BCA agents what exactly happened, but the female became deceased in the alley, approximately 10 to 20 ft. north of 51st St. with trauma to her torso that could be a gunshot wound. Minneapolis PD has not elaborated on the circumstances, but requested the BCA to investigate an officer-involved shooting regarding this incident.

Note that the woman had to call twice. Be it also noted that, according to court records, the scene wasn’t searched until seven hours after the killing — I mean the decease — took place. But let’s think about the mentality that created this report.

No, I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t need to be. I’m not looking for individual motivation, biases, or intellectual deficiencies. I’m looking at the organizational mentality that is clearly responsible for this atrocious use of language. It’s practically illiterate, for one thing. “An officer-involved shooting regarding this incident” — what? The shooting was the incident. But much of this is the kind of illiteracy that has to be learned. People don’t normally call women females. They don’t normally say that a woman who obviously was shot dead had trauma to her torso that could be a gunshot wound. Even a sociopath wouldn’t spontaneously employ the language of radical skepticism in a case like this. And it’s interesting that the investigating agency has received a revelation that the cop car was the victim of a “female” slap. They aren’t sure what killed her, but they do know that she — or some other suspicious member of her gender — made the mistake of slapping a car.

For brutal coldness, this one can hardly be surpassed.

But who in the hell has ever said that a person became deceased? We’ve heard a lot of substitutions for died or dead: passed away (eventually followed by that weird nonentity, passed), perished, departed this life, and yes, deceased. Innumerable jocular substitutions (kicked the bucket) have been added, humor being one of mankind’s best means of transcending the fear of death. Each of these terms, euphemistic, religious, or jocular, is appropriate to some human attitude or context, but none of them pictures men and women as mere objects undergoing chemical change.

But now we have became deceased, and it’s not meant to be funny. For brutal coldness, this one can hardly be surpassed. A cake became stale in the fridge. A drain became clogged under the sink. A female became deceased in the alley.

Notice the seemingly inevitable progression of bureaucratic thought. You start with a euphemism (deceased for died), then prevent even that from being an occasion for sentiment.

For some reason, I’m thinking of a scene in Citizen Kane:

THOMPSON
I see. And that's what you know about Rosebud?

RAYMOND
Yeah. I heard him say it that other time, too. He just said, uh,
"Rosebud," then he dropped the glass ball and it broke on the
floor. He didn't say anything after that, and I knew he was dead.
He said all kinds of things that didn't mean anything.

THOMPSON
Sentimental fellow, aren't you?

RAYMOND
Mmm . . . Yes and no.




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Cry Havoc!

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I’ve always been puzzled about the idea of mass hysteria. Is it true that normally sane people suddenly start shouting and screaming and seeing Martians, just because their neighbor, or somebody on the radio, has been talking about the subject? Or is mass hysteria just one of those pop-psychology labels that tells you nothing more than the unmysterious things you’d already noticed yourself? I mean, you hear Mr. Smith saying goofy things; you hear Mrs. Jones and Mr. Green saying similarly goofy things; then somebody calls it mass hysteria, and you’re supposed to believe you’ve learned something. But you haven’t, because you still don’t know why anybody would want to say those things.

Those are my ordinary thoughts. But maybe now I’m suffering from mass hysteria myself, because I think the opponents of Donald Trump have contracted it. There are lots of them, and they’ve all simultaneously lost their minds, or whatever part of their minds is connected with their ability to speak and use a keyboard.

One symptom of hysteria is screaming in public places. Another is saying things that obviously aren’t true, and believing them yourself. Yet another is saying things that make you look like a fool for saying them, but you don’t care. This is how a significant number of Trump’s opponents have been acting, enough of them to turn an unusual activity into one that is usual, expected, and routine. They are hysterical, and they behave in mass.

What’s been happening is the kind of discourse that makes the shouts of the normal witch hunt or lynch mob seem sane and decorous.

Here’s the caveat lector: even hysterics may be right, in a way. The existence of Senator Joseph McCarthy as an hysterical anti-communist didn’t negate the pre-existence of Stalinist agents in the United States. Hysterics and other annoying people may be concerned about something that other people can analyze calmly and agree is cause for concern. In the present case, anyone can construct a cogent argument for the idea that Trump is a good president or a bad one. Such arguments can be calmly debated and assessed by minds that independently assent or dissent from them.

But that isn’t what’s been happening lately. What’s been happening is the kind of discourse that makes the shouts of the normal witch hunt or lynch mob seem sane and decorous. Offhand, I can’t think of a lynch mob in which people shrieked, all together, “He burned down the school! He robbed the bank! He spied for the North! He kicked my dog!” In this case, however, we have, “He’s alt-right! He’s a fascist! He’s a racist! He’s homophobic! He’s anti-Semitic! He stole the election! He’s a Russian agent! He paid two prostitutes to piss on the bed of President Obama!” Wait till they discover the existence of the Bavarian Illuminati.

Surveying headlines on the morning of July 21, I saw a long list of Trump-attack items, including “Can Trump Pardon Himself?” Then I saw, sitting quietly and all alone, “Hawaii Is Preparing for a North Korea Military Attack.” Let’s see . . . which type of story are journalists more excited about?

Hollywood movies inform us that lynch mobs are managed by people who are not themselves hysterics but are hoping to profit from destroying their victims. They want somebody’s ranch or wife or gold mine, or they want to be elected governor. I’m not sure whether this picture of the cold, calculating demagogue matches the current situation. Leaders of the anti-Trump hysteria clearly want to enhance their political power and influence, but some of them do appear to have gone over the edge. They’re like the guy who’s told by his friends, “Calm down! You don’t want the neighbors to hear you!” and who responds by busting the TV, throwing chairs through the window, and screaming, “Who cares if they do! They’re all a buncha God-damned @#@#%^&#’s!”

Leaders of the anti-Trump hysteria clearly want to enhance their political power and influence, but some of them do appear to have gone over the edge.

You can think of many examples. One that appeals to me is Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s badly chosen running mate. Kaine is a hack politician. He happens to be a Democrat, but he’s not much different from hundreds of other hacks, Democrat or Republican. He has a bug in his head about religion, but that hardly distinguishes him. His most visible characteristic is a desire to be loved, hence to be elected to public office. It’s not in his political interest to talk like a lunatic. But on July 11 he responded to the Enormous Revelation that Donald Trump, Jr. (that chump) had once met with a Russian “lawyer” to see whether he could get some dirt on Hillary Clinton. Why didn’t Junior just read the newspaper? Anyway, Kaine made the following hysterical remarks:

Nothing is proven yet. But we're beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what's being investigated. This is moving into perjury, false statements [one sign of hysteria is an obsession with repeating the same idea], and even into potentially treason [another sign is a loss of normal syntax]. . . . To meet with an adversary to try to get information to hijack democracy. The investigation is now more than just obstruction of justice in investigation. It's more than just a perjury investigation. It's a treason investigation.

The Constitution defines treason in this way: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” (Seconds elapsed while finding this passage online: 51.)

Only nine people have ever been convicted of treason under that definition, which notably lacks any reference to such offenses as hijacking democracy, the meaning of which is apparently “electing someone other than Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.” Junior is unlikely to become the tenth — if only because the United States is not currently at war with either Russia or Russian lawyers.

Questioned later about his weird remark, Kaine seemed to backtrack on its thrust, but then, like a true obsessive, returned to it anyway:

When they ran a clip they cut off the first part of my sentence which I said “nothing has been proven yet,” they cut that off. If the issue that is being investigated following this last revelation is did someone coordinate with a foreign adversary to attack the basics of American democracy, it doesn’t get more serious than that.

Among problems that I consider more serious, or at least more urgent, are (A) Kaine’s tendency to babble like a street person, and (B) the fact that his hysterical cry of treason was immediately taken up by innumerable politicians and media commentators. (Seconds elapsed while thinking: 0.)

But there’s something yet more serious, if you’re interested in the ways in which words are used. Obsessive and hysterical verbiage is just one of many bad things that happen with words when they’re disconnected from thoughts. These days, we’re experiencing the full range of bad things. Public speech and public writing appear to have become completely unstuck from reflective consideration.

Only nine people have ever been convicted of treason under that definition, which notably lacks any reference to such offenses as hijacking democracy.

Nancy Pelosi is always available to substantiate such points. In her July 18 press conference (she still has them!), the former speaker of the House discussed an article that had bowled her over and left her flat. It was about the sacrifices made by the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it had given her an idea that she was impelled to communicate:

Now, our founders, they sacrificed their lives, their liberty, their sacred honor to establish this democracy.

The closer you look at that sentence, the stranger it gets. Start with the fact that the founders specifically did not intend to establish a democracy. And how many of the signers sacrificed their lives? Go ahead — name one. As it turned out, the essay that Pelosi found so inspiring was filled with errors that anyone with a real interest in American history would have smelled immediately. If Pelosi ever had a sense of smell, she’s lost it. She’s also lost any interest in noticing what words mean. When she said that the signers “sacrificed . . . their sacred honor” she was literally saying that they gave their honor up, got rid of it, didn’t have it anymore. So either she doesn’t know what honor means, or she doesn’t know what honor means. I leave you to choose.

Just say they conspired, Ambassador, and don’t tell me that everybody says it this way.

The article about this in the Daily Caller, a conservative journal, is harshly critical. It points out that Pelosi’s source didn’t even spell the names of the signers right. But it also says, “While nine of the signers did die during the Revolutionary War, none of them died from injuries sustained by the British.” Of course, no one would expect Americans to die because the British were wounded. And that’s what the sentence literally says — “injuries sustained by the British.” The author believes that to sustain a wound is to inflict it.

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When fancied meanings we conceive.

Let’s look at another page from the Daily Caller. It’s an interview (July 9) with Francis Coombs, managing editor of the Rasmussen polling outfit, in which Coombs is reported as saying:

What is clear is that voters do not dislike Trump as much as the media does. Look at Russia. The media is just obsessed with Russia. Democrats who are out on the hustings say “nobody asks me about Russia.” The polls don’t seem to jive with what we’re seeing with the traditional media.

So what’s wrong with that? Jive, that’s what. The word is jibe, and somebody, either Mr. Coombs or whoever transcribed his remarks, ought to know it, ought to have marked the distinction at some point in his or her life — just as any reflective person should have marked the distinction between lie and lay, disinterested and uninterested, famous and infamous, distinctions also commonly unobserved in today’s discourse.

On one matter Democrats and Republicans are in full agreement: we don’t need no stinkin’ dictionaries — or grammar books, either.

From the left: on January 30, the Washington Post ran this provocative headline:

Who Will Trump Add to the Supreme Court?

If you don’t see the problem, or if you never noticed that the Post was a leftwing paper, I’m not going to explain it to you.

From the right: on April 20, Ambassador Nikki Haley told the United Nations that Iran and Hezbollah “have conspired together” — something that she obviously thought was a great deal worse than conspiring individually. Just say they conspired, Ambassador, and don’t tell me that everybody says it this way. If you do, you’re just making my point.

From the left: the online Guardian, June 14, in an early report on the fire in the Grenfell Tower:

The Metropolitan Police have confirmed that “a number of people are being treated for a range of injuries” on Twitter.

I didn’t know that Twitter had the power to treat the injured. Or is it that Twitter has the power to inflict a range of injuries? But that would make more sense to me.

Certainly there is an elite that mates and networks with itself and is partly composed of the witless spawn of rich people.

From the right: Tucker Carlson, during his April 4 TV show: “You see the Orwellian path we are trodding.” I like Carlson, and I thought he read a book from time to time. But I don’t recall George Orwell saying anything like, “Let us trod a better path” or “If we trod like this for very long, we’ll be in some real trouble.” The word is tread, and Carlson’s goofy error came at a particularly bad time — a discussion with Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA), about the misuse of language. Carlson used the word monitoring for Susan Rice’s surveillance of Trump’s associates, and Sherman sanctimoniously objected. So Sherman and Carlson both managed to lose that inning.

On July 14, Bruce Thornton published an interesting essay in Frontpage, called “The Nevertrump Outrage of a Disappointed Elite.”

In it he says, among other things, of course:

From the beginning of Trump’s campaign, the disproportion of his critics’ anger with [i.e., to] their response to Obama’s and Clinton’s assault on law and the Constitution has shown that something else is going on: an elite class is angry that the highest power in the land, with all the attention and perks that go with it, is in the hands of a vulgarian who sneers at their class-defining proprieties and protocols.

Sounds plausible. But what struck me was Thornton’s idea about what identifies the elite:

In antiquity it was land and lineage that defined privilege. In our day, prep schools, top-ten university degrees, formal speech, correct diction, proper manners, and high-cult allusions all mark off the elite, and hide the fact that their position comes from money and connections as much as merit. Someone like Trump, who violates every one of these canons and enjoys the support of the “bitter clingers” and “deplorable” masses, infuriates the elite by challenging their right to rule by virtue of their presumed intellectual and cultural superiority.

Certainly there is an elite that mates and networks with itself and is partly composed of the witless spawn of rich people. But you would have to go to the Arabian Nights to find something more fanciful than Thornton’s description of what marks off this class. There never was a time in American history when the scions of wealth were distinguished by “formal speech, correct diction, proper manners, and high-cult allusions.” (Question: What is a high-cult allusion? Examples, please. And do the people who are able to make such allusions call them high-cult?) Wealthy Americans were always just as oafish and ignorant as other people, despite their diplomas from dear old Yaleton. Evidently our author has never heard of the famous gentleman’s C.

And to suppose that “in our day” we can tell whether people inherited money and attended Harvard or worked their way through Northern Michigan — how preposterous can you get? Has the author ever listened to the conversations that go on in the first-class section of the airplane? Does the author fully understand that the father of Donald Trump, the vulgarian, was very wealthy? Yet there’s no need to go that far afield. Nancy Pelosi was the daughter of a mayor of Baltimore and was educated at the Institute of Notre Dame and Trinity College (Washington). Brad Sherman and Tim Kaine went to Harvard Law School. Tucker Carlson went to St. George’s School and Trinity College. And look what happened to them. It’s enufta make ya panic.

Wealthy Americans were always just as oafish and ignorant as other people, despite their diplomas from dear old Yaleton.

Oh . . . speaking of hysteria: there are hysterically favorable reactions as well as hysterically unfavorable ones. When, on July 21, the police chief of Minneapolis, Janee Harteau, was forced to resign her position, I looked up some biographical information about her, and found a breathless article from the local paper (March 24) reporting that she had been selected as — can you guess what? She had been named Number 22 on Fortune’s list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

The idea of such a list makes me wonder what kind of world we live in. And you can think about the further implications of this incident as you read about cops employed by Ms. 22nd Greatest gunning down a woman who requested their assistance, and even gunning down (“dispatching”) the inoffensive pets of the people they are paid to serve — in each case, allegedly, reacting in panic.




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Innocents at Home

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Here’s an ad that runs on the radio. A child’s voice says:

Hey there, we need to talk. We have more food than we know what to do with in this country, but there are 17 million kids who are struggling with hunger.

The idea is that the audience should give money to an organization that will deal with those kids.

This ad has been running for quite a while on Rush Limbaugh’s show, which is a very expensive ad venue. If it can drag money out of the cobwebbed wallets of Rush’s audience, it must work — a disturbing thought for people who want to believe in the good judgment of the American people.

It’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages.

Who is a “kid”? Suppose we go all out and define “kid” as anybody under 18. That means there are something like 70 million “kids” in this country. The ad asserts that one out of four of these kids is struggling with hunger. If this is so, we might expect to find some evidence in our daily life. We might expect to hear that two or three kids on our block don’t get enough to eat. But we don’t.

We can’t all live in Beverly Hills; but even if we did, while driving through a poorer neighborhood in some adjacent city we might expect to see a lot of kids just sitting idly by, too weak to play. Walking along a city street, we might expect to encounter many young people who were thin and wasted, struggling with hunger. I’ll speak for myself: when I walk down the street, there’s barely enough room on the sidewalk; the space is filled by enormous fat people, many of them enormous fat kids. At the 7-11, the club for poor people in my neighborhood, it’s hard to get to the counter, so thick is the place with fat families loading up on chocolate bars and Hot Cheesy 7-Flavor Sausages. And I think you know what it’s like to shop at Walmart. I’m pretty sure that Chelsea Clinton never does that, but on June 20 she tweeted, “Our globe has an obesity crisis.” Being Chelsea Clinton, she must be right.

About 46 million people get food stamps from the government — about the same number as those considered to be “beneath the poverty line” — and $70 billion are spent on food stamps, enough to give $4,000 a year to every kid allegedly struggling with hunger, or $1,000 a year to every kid, period.

 Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Clearly, obviously, patently, transparently, there is something wiggly about that ad. Somebody is defining the operative terms in a way that does not appear to be the product of childlike innocence.

But consider the ad’s first sentence. It’s an authentic reproduction of the way in which some children talk, the way in which some children are brought up to talk. It’s the voice of a cute little smart-alecky kid who’s repeating Joan Rivers’ old routine (“Can we talk?”), without knowing who Joan Rivers was or even what a routine may be, but ready and willing, nonetheless, to tell the grownups a thing or two. It’s the kind of voice that’s supposed to put us to shame with its innocent candor, while impressing us with its tuned-in sophistication. Didn’t Jesus say, “Suffer the little children to give you glib moral lessons”?

Maybe not. In real life, that kind of voice makes you want to take a swat at the parents, and at every sentimentalist who regards children as oracles and “it’s for the children” as a conclusive argument. Oscar Wilde was right in thinking that “the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. . . . A sentimentalist is simply one who wants to have the luxury of an emotion without having to pay for it” (De Profundis). The first payment that the sentimentalist refuses is the effort required for a moment’s thought.

Anyone can do the math on these for the children campaigns. Anyone who’s tempted to vote more money for education can easily go online and find out how much more money has been given to public education every year and how small the results have been. Similarly, anyone can investigate why UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got? One would think that people who cared about the cause would invest a little of their time in seeing whether their funds will be spent productively or counterproductively. But of course they don’t. They just cynically write a check. They care a little bit about money, much more about restoring their sense of innocence, and nothing in particular about the children.

Last month’s Word Watch considered the childlike (or childish) innocence (or guile) of such entities as James Comey, Donald Trump, and the New York Times. But that column was premature. New evidence of sentimental “innocence” keeps rolling in.

UNESCO, the United Way, and all the church “nonprofits” perennially claim that more money must always be given to help the children. What was done with the last few billions they got?

A good little child may say, “I’ll bet my granddad is a thousand years old,” or “My bike can go faster’n an airplane,” or “My teacher’s the best teacher in school. She’s the best in town. She’s the best in the whole world.” A significantly older, but not necessarily more adult President Trump habitually practices the same rhetoric. Here he is, giving appropriate, then sort of appropriate, then ridiculously inappropriate sympathy to Congressman Steve Scalise, the hospitalized victim of an attempted assassination:

Steve, I want you to know, you have the prayers not only of the entire city but of an entire nation and, frankly, the entire world.

Frankly, the entire world.

Trump is ordinarily characterized as a tough talking man of action, a swamp drainer, or (by other accounts) gutter dweller. He is no such thing. While enemies denounce him as a traitor, demand his impeachment, and enact his prospective murder, Trump kisses babies, communes with wunnerful, wunnerful fokes, walks on the sunny side, brightens the corner where he is. He fears no evil, even from such a transparent enemy (not to mention hypocrite, Pharisee, and double dealer) as former FBI Director Comey. No normal adult would invite a person like Comey into his office for a little private chat, just the two of them. If a normal adult wanted to ask Comey the obvious question, “Since you’ve already told me I’m not under investigation, why don’t you go ahead and say that in public?”, he would call in lots of other people and ask the question in front of them, thus embarrassing his foe into telling the truth. Whether or not Trump said what Comey claims he did in their private conversation, only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

As for Comey himself, here is an FBI director who uses “Lordy!” as his edgiest oath and who in his recent appearance before Senate investigators amazed the nation by depicting himself as a Babe in Toyland confronting the evil Mr. Barnaby. His testimony might be approved reading for any kindergarten, so loaded is it with moral conflicts that Anyone Can Understand. On one side, there’s the wicked monarch, enticing the boy-hero into his magic oval office, there to be killed and eaten if he fails to solve the tyrant’s riddles; on the other side, there’s the hero himself, little Jim Comey, all frail and scared and sick at his tummy (“queasy” is the word he likes), just as he was when that mean ol’ witch, Loretta Lynch, tried to make him do somethin’ wrong. (Which, by the way, he proceeded to do.) Of his discussion with Trump, Comey said, “Maybe if I were stronger. . . . I was so stunned by the conversation. . . . Again, maybe other people would be stronger in that circumstance but that — that was — that’s how I conducted myself. I — I hope I’ll never have another opportunity. Maybe if I did it again, I would do it better.” Well! Jimmy sure learnt somethin’ that day, didunt he?

Only a president crippled by childish innocence would have talked behind closed doors. And that’s what Trump did.

After escaping, somehow, from what might have been a fatal interview, the solitary, haunted child waked in the middle of the night to ask himself, “What more can I do for the cause of truth, justice, and the American way?” The answer came, quick as lightning: “I’ll take one of those memos I wrote to myself in case I wanted to tattle to somebody, and I’ll pass it along to the newspapers,through the able hands of my trusty friend, a noble professor of law. I’ll be just like the Little Dutch Boy, except that I’ll take my finger out of the dike!”

Comey’s own description of the episode is still more innocent:

It — to me, its major impact was — as I said, occurred to me in the middle of the night — holy cow, there might be tapes. And if there tapes, it’s not just my word against his on — on the direction to get rid of the Flynn investigation. . . .

I asked — the president tweeted on Friday, after I got fired, that I better hope there’s not tapes. I woke up in the middle of the night on Monday night, because it didn’t dawn on me originally that there might be corroboration for our conversation. There might be a tape.

And my judgment was, I needed to get that out into the public square. And so I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter.

Holy cow! How childish would Comey have to be, to think that made sense, or to think that other people would think it made sense? If there were tapes, he wouldn’t have to worry about corroboration of what he said; whatever he said could be checked. But kids do the darnedest things. Comey took the possibility of tapes as a signal to provide his own kind of corroboration, the kind that was secret and anonymous, so the evidence could not be checked. Only the undeveloped logic of a child could come up with that. I reject the possibility that Comey was clever enough to think he could get a fallacious narrative on record and then be able to claim that any taped evidence must have been doctored after the fact. No one who actually thinks by means of such expressions as the public square is bright enough to concoct such a scheme.

But it occurs to me that what we’re considering may be more than a children’s story. It may be something even more naïve. It may be the type of story you expect a modern existentialist to write, a story in which the protagonist (dare I say the hero?) transcends the socially imposed solipsism of writing merely to himself and for himself, and breaks free, makes contact, finds a wider world — the world of newspapers and congressional testimony. “Only connect,” wrote E.M. Forster, in a childishly vengeful novel. “There might be a tape,” said James Comey, in a childishly vengeful testimony. Both became heroes of themselves, and of a childish New York Times.

The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

Childish? How can something so old and gray be childish? Well, it can be. The Times is a venue that lectures its readers continually about the dangers of an armed society, while sponsoring a production of Julius Caesar in which the president is stabbed to death. Even Bank of America withdrew its sponsorship, but the Times sees no evil — in the assassins, at any rate. After all, these guys are using knives, not guns. Children often make such meaningless distinctions. And perhaps that helps to explain the Times’ reaction to Salman Abedi, the Muslim fanatic who killed 22 people in Manchester, England, by using a bomb. For as long as possible (according to a quotation provided by a faithful reader in Northern California), the paper insisted that “no one yet knows what motivated him to commit such a horrific deed.” Do newspapers, as well as people, experience a deaf, blind, cranky, crazy second childhood?

I was not surprised when the Times announced, on May 31, that it was reducing its editorial staff, including “Public Editor” Liz Spayd, whose position was reduced to nothing. Spayd is best known for reprimanding the paper about its hubristic ignorance of Americans who live more than 50 miles from an ocean (and of many Americans who don’t). The Times will now spend less of its money on self-criticism, and also less on such minor functions as fact-checking, sense-checking, and proofreading.

That won’t make much difference; the Times has never looked as if anybody was exercising those functions. But one thing is alarming about the Times’ new policy: the paper is allegedly going to use the money it saves by firing editors to hire more reporters — or as management put it, “more on-the-ground journalists developing original work.” Strange . . . I thought the Times’ reporting was already original enough.




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On the Good Ship Lollipop

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No one knew it, but this column offers an award — annually, semi-annually, monthly, or whenever it feels like it — called the Shirley Temple Prize for Saccharine Speech. Yeth, it doth; and today’s award goes to former FBI Director James Brien Comey. Ohhhhh goodee!

On May 3, Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Huma Abedin, cupbearer-in-chief to Hillary Clinton, had “forwarded hundreds and thousands of e-mails, some of which contain classified information,” to Huma’s unclassified and unclassifiable husband, Antony Weiner. Six days later, the assistant director of the Bureau notified Congress that Comey was (as usual) in error; there were only 12 email chains, presumably not hundreds and thousands of items long.

I’ve known many people who violated the law, and some who went to prison, and none of them carried a sign that said, “I know I’m violating the law.”

In itself, Comey’s misstatement wasn’t worthy of any award, except the one that President Trump presented on May 9, when he fired James Brien Comey. It’s worthy of notice that Comey’s investigation of Huma’s emails, an investigation that determined, some think, the presidential election of 2016, should have been so misleadingly characterized by him. But the really impressive, award-engendering feature of Comey’s remarks was his contribution to legal and moral philosophy. It’s this contribution that puts him in the Shirley Temple class of child stars, or at least childish ones.

Explaining why he didn’t think of prosecuting Huma Abedin Weiner, who was in manifest violation of the law, no matter how many classified messages she supplied to her husband’s computer, Comey said:

With respect to Ms. Abedin in particular, we — we didn't have any indication that she had a sense that what she was doing was in violation of the law. Couldn't prove any sort of criminal intent. Really, the central problem we have with the whole e-mail investigation was proving that people knew — the secretary and others knew that they were doing — that they were communicating about classified information in a way that they shouldn't be and proving that they had some sense of their doing something unlawful.

Here is a way of emptying the federal prisons: insist that people who commit banking fraud, for example, or write off their real estate investments as charitable contributions, or use their positions in Congress to operate phony charities, cannot be prosecuted unless it is proved that they have a sense that what they are doing is in violation of the law.

In Hemingway’s short story “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” a man has a nasty quarrel with someone who is trying to cheat him, and his wife, a reader of consoling religious books, says:

“Dear, I don’t think, I really don’t think that any one would really do a thing like that.”

“No?” the doctor said.

“No. I can’t really believe that any one would do a thing of that sort intentionally.”

I’ve known many people who violated the law, and some who went to prison, and none of them carried a sign that said, “I know I’m violating the law.” They just went ahead and did it. So I guess they’re innocent, though not as innocent as Former FBI Director James (“Jim”) Comey, who like those sweet little girls that Shirley used to play is unable to see anything consciously wrong in the strange doings of other people.

Comey’s sunny disposition is something that we may all wish we had. It would save us a lot of trouble with certain situations. I caught you cheating on a test. Maybe I should do something about it. But gosh, maybe you didn’t intend to cheat. Maybe there’s no indication that you had a sense that what you were doing was in violation of the rules. You took money from the company’s accounts and spent it on yourself? Maybe you were just trying to stimulate the economy. You took secret documents and gave them to your friends? It’s good that you have friends, honey. You operated a foundation to fleece people who want government influence? Well, nothing to be done about it. Maybe you didn’t know it was wrong. And after all, who’s to judge? I can’t see your heart. Here — have another lollipop.

In the Shirley Temple movies there was always someone whose crusty, judgmental attitude was reformed by contact with little Shirley’s beneficent naiveté. Crusty ol’ grampa, or whoever it was, soon started babbling endearing comments so fast that Shirley could hardly keep up with them. Comey, the former Tough Prosecutor, callin’ ’em as he sees ’em, has also experienced this Hollywood reform. The current angel of light is the former mean bastard who, in the words of the Cato Foundation’s Alan Reynolds, sent Martha Stewart to prison for “having misled people by denying having committed a crime with which she was not charged.”

You took money from the company’s accounts and spent it on yourself? Maybe you were just trying to stimulate the economy.

It’s true that Comey’s conversion from hanging judge to sweetiekins might have resulted not from spiritual impulses but from a desire to act as kingmaker on the national stage without incurring the hardship of running for office or saying what he means. It could also be that Comey is like Addison as portrayed by Pope: “Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.” But Comey’s analysis of Huma & Co. is so astonishingly warm-hearted, so amazingly insipid, as to transcend all churlish skepticism. To use the vernacular of Shirley Temple’s time, Comey is a sap, pure and simple. He’s also a chump. And if he did have dreams of glory, he pursued them like a sap and a chump.

Join me, therefore, in congratulating James Comey on his selection as the May 2017 recipient of the Shirley Temple Prize. It’s the culminating award of his career; he won’t get any better ones. And as Shirley would say, he weally, weally desewves to get it.

But what’s a first prize without a second prize? The question answers itself. We proceed then to the Second Prize for Saccharine Speech. And the winner is . . . (drum roll) . . . the President of the United States, Donald John Trump!

Comey is a sap, pure and simple. He’s also a chump. And if he did have dreams of glory, he pursued them like a sap and a chump.

As in his race for the White House, Trump has achieved a come-from-behind victory in this contest. He is identified more with aggressive, accusatory, pseudo-masculine, look-on-the-worst side utterances than with girlish insipidity. But he is a man of many roles, a man who is just as productive of empty compliments as of empty bombast. “You’re doin’ great, just great, just absolutely great” comes as easily to his lips as “Send her to jail.” And while less perceptive columnists attend only to his performance in Ranting Man roles, Trump has many unrecognized achievements playing the Sweetly Bewildered Youth.

The one that is, to my mind, the conclusive example is an interview broadcast on May 12. Entertaining the question of whether James Comey would be “honest” in discussing their failed courtship, the president said:

I hope he will be. And I’m sure he will be. I hope.

Think about it: President Trump doesn’t just speak his lines; he writes his own material and directs his own performance. Now consider what a huge, incredibly unbelievable, really unbelievable accomplishment that you won’t believe is apparent in those 13 words. Everything comes together: the loose, wandering syntax, so like the prattle of a six-year-old; the invocation of hope at the beginning and the return to hope at the end, with an inspirational rise to surety in the middle; the subtle insistence on the idea that all relationships are personal, that they are all I and he, I’m OK, you’re OK, let’s shake on it. Again we see the child mind at work, perfectly reproduced both in the sentence and in the naïve spontaneity of the speaking voice, which constantly seemed to be crafting the very ideas it was speaking forth.

Trump is a man of many roles, a man who is just as productive of empty compliments as of empty bombast.

Was this childlike performance planned, or was it literally spontaneous? No matter; all the great masters of language have had the heart of a child — J.K. Rowling, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. So for this, and in the hope of still more remarkable achievements, I am proud to congratulate Donald J. Trump, winner of the Shirley Temple Prize for Saccharine Speech (second place). Mr. Trump can pick up his award at any time I’m in the office.

But what’s a second prize without a third prize? Nothing. And, to coin a phrase, three’s a charm. So, without further ado, I am pleased to announce that third prize in this competition goes to (you children will never, never guess, so I will have to tell you): The New York Times.

It’s an odd thing about the Times: from the paper’s own point of view, it would be a preposterous insult to common decency for it ever to be ranked as third in anything; while from the point of view of most attentive readers — indeed, most people with a brain — it would be distressing to think that anyone could rank it that high. We can agree that the Times is always thought-provoking, just as it claims; the difficulty is merely that it provokes various people in various ways.

Again we see the child mind at work, perfectly reproduced both in the sentence and in the naïve spontaneity of the speaking voice.

On May 13, the Times provoked even me to thought. It set me thinking about the special kind of childishness that actually does not see beyond its teddy bear, its little toy horse, and its doll named Pie. Isabel Paterson was concerned with this kind of naiveté when she described the childishness of government planners who go about ruining other people’s lives, never having a clue that those dolls are real:

We feel toward Planners as the heroine of the old-time melodrama felt toward the villain. After having pursued her through four acts with threats of a fate worse than death, which he emphasized by shooting at her, setting fire to her home, and tying her to the railroad track just before the down express was expected, he inquired reproachfully, "Nellie, why do you shrink from me?"

The innocence of Nellie’s antagonist is akin to that of the alcoholic who has no recollection of the bottle of whiskey he’s consumed every day for the past ten years, but who notices his wife cracking open a beer: “Honey, didn’t you have one of those just last week?” And it is akin to the innocence of the New York Times, which on May 13 ran this headline:

Election Is Over, but Trump Still Can’t Seem to Get Past It

No, he can’t. But the marvelous thing isn’t the president’s continual awareness of his victory; it’s the Times’ complete lack of awareness of itself. Every day, sometimes every hour, during the past six months, the New York Times has run headlines attacking Donald Trump. The Times doesn’t require any actual news; its assumption is that of Charles Foster Kane: “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.” Gleefully has the Times amassed a mountain of evidence that, far from getting past the election, it is becoming more and more obsessed with it. But now the same paper sits an’ thinks an’ scwatches its wittle head an’ says, “Golly! Ain’t it funny? Mistah Twump jus’ can’t get ovew what happund las’ Novembuh!”

You have to be sincere — sincerely blinkered — to come out with a headline like that. You have to be functioning with as little insight into yourself as the kid who smacks another kid and then is baffled when the kid smacks back.

Every day, sometimes every hour, during the past six months, the New York Times has run headlines attacking Donald Trump.

And so, for a truly classy exhibition of childlike simplicity, the Shirley Temple Prize (third place) is given to that paragon of papers, the New York Times. Let this award be exhibited next to the Pulitzer that Walter Duranty won when he was the Times’ star reporter.

This is the end of the awards ceremony. Good night to all, and to all a good night.

But before you go —  I just want to stipulate: despite my strained attempts to imitate Shirley Temple’s dialect, and my slighting remarks about her movies, she was a great talent, and at least one of her movies was very good. I refer, of course, to Little Miss Marker. Heidi wasn’t bad, either.




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The Proofreaders’ Puzzle

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“Donald Trump’s Governing Styles Has Critics Up in Arms” — thus the headline of an article in U.S. News & World Report (April 14).

Oh, does they?

The article presents evidence that it hasn’t been proofread any better than the headline. Try this passage: “For one thing, it's clear that Trump is not a devotee of reading, whether it's newspapers, books or memos. Instead, he is most moved by what he sees and hears in a most fundamental sense.” I’m still trying to figure out what it would mean to see and hear in a fundamental sense. And a nasty thought creeps into my mind: maybe this stuff has been proofread. Maybe someone was striving for that asinine repetition of “most.” And maybe someone doesn’t know that “styles” is plural.

I’d prefer that politicians spent all their time on the golf course, where they can do little harm, except to their egos.

Isabel Paterson, who had a lifetime of experience in journalism as both writer and proofreader, observed that “there is an irreducible minimum of pure error in all human affairs.” Good people, famous people, might proofread a text and yet leave “some peculiarly glaring mistake, probably in the front-page headline.” Even Liberty has had some proofreading errors. But if my suspicions are correct, the U.S. News nonsense fits a pattern, not of inadvertent error, but of sheer and sometimes willful ignorance. Nowadays, one isn’t surprised to find errors in a most fundamental sense in every morning’s news reports.

Here’s the Daily Mail (April 9),captioning a picture of President Trump going out to golf for the 16th time since assuming office:

Trump (pictured Sunday leaving Mar-a-Lago) is far outpacing his predecessor, who he repeatedly criticized for hitting the links.

It’s an apt critique of the president — although I’d prefer that politicians spent all their time on the golf course, where they can do little harm, except to their egos. But “who he repeatedly criticized”? Haven’t they ever heard of “whom”? As I write, the mistake has not been corrected; and when the article appeared on the conservative blog Lucianne.com, the headline reproduced the error in the caption:

Trump makes his 16th trip to a golf course since inauguration — far outpacing Obama, who he repeatedly criticized for hitting the links.

How many times during the past week have you read something like the following in a supposedly high-class journal?

The injured woman laid on the sidewalk.

Police drug the suspect out of his car.

The majority leader snuck an extra $100 million into the budget.

I just googled snuck, and in a third of a second got 13,100,000 results. Not all of them, I am sure, are reproductions of an illiterate rural dialect.

It’s disturbing to discover how few people who live by talking and writing understand common English verbs. This demonstrates (A) a collapse of the educational system, (B) a lack of interest in reading real literature, (C) a lack of sensitivity or curiosity about words, or (D) all of the above. Whatever the cause, it’s horrifying.

Tucker Carlson, the libertarian-conservative television personality, is a favorite of mine. I don’t enjoy criticizing him. But here goes. Carlson comes from a wealthy family. He attended La Jolla Country Day School and St. George’s School. He has a long career as a journal writer and editor. He has written a book. It is this Tucker Carlson who, on his April 4 program, discussing the word “monitoring,” which he used for government surveillance in general but his guest, Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman, refused to apply to the surveillance activities of Susan Rice, declaimed:

You see the Orwellian path we are trodding.

Trod on, Tucker. Maybe you’ll eventually trod up against a grammar book.

Ignorance of grammar . . . shall we become still more fundamental and consider ignorance of meaning? On April 10, a man named Cedric Anderson went into a classroom in San Bernardino, California, and killed his wife, a teacher in the school, a child she was teaching, and himself. The next day, the Los Angeles Times ran a story with this headline: “He was a pastor and a gentleman: ‘She thought she had a wonderful husband.’” The idea that Anderson was “a pastor” gives that extra little tingly irony to the story, doesn’t it? It’s a word the Times sought, grabbed, and flaunted — a mighty important word for the Times. But you cannot be a shepherd if you do not have a flock; you cannot be a pastor if you do not have a congregation. Reading through the article, one finds that this basic meaning of the word was totally lost on the LA Times, which was well satisfied with the following evidence of Anderson’s occupation:

Najee Ali, a community activist in Los Angeles and executive director of Project Islamic Hope, said he knew Anderson as a pastor who attended community meetings.

"He was a deeply religious man,” Ali said of Anderson, who sometimes preached on the radio and joined community events. “There was never any signs of this kind of violence . . . [O]n his Facebook he even criticized a man for attacking a woman."

On April 12, our friend the Daily Mail published a more accurate description of Anderson, calling him “a maintenance technician and self-described pastor.” But no one seemed interested in finding out whether Anderson was currently employed (which he seemingly was not) or in saying what a “maintenance technician” might be. The “pastor” identification continued to appear in other “news” venues — until journalistic interest in the story died without repentance, a couple of days later.

It’s disturbing to discover how few people who live by talking and writing understand common English verbs.

Let’s proceed from ignorance of meanings to the corruption of them.Last month’s Word Watch delivered a sharp rebuke to CBS radio news for its childishly politicized language. I could have said more about that, so I will right now.

Here on the cutting-room floor is an item that I might have mentioned last month, but didn’t. On March 3, CBS radio ran a story about Vice President Pence, who was criticizing Hillary Clinton’s use of email. Maybe the good people at CBS thought what you or I would have thought: “Oh great — we have to report on a dull speaker saying obvious things about a familiar subject.” But the report they produced was dull in another way — dull as in dim-witted, stupid, just plain dumb. CBS blandly announced that in making his comments, the sleep-inducing Mr. Pence had been “almost rabid.”

Of course, that’s an overt politicization of the news, but why is it dumb? It’s dumb because the statement itself is rabid, and therefore self-defeating. It’s dumb because the writers obviously didn’t realize that. And it’s dumb because of the pretense at delicate qualification that’s supposed to keep listeners from realizing that they’re listening to propaganda: “We didn’t say that Pence was rabid. We said he was almost rabid. We’re doing the best we can to be fair to this fascist.”

This is the network whose clinically objective way of identifying Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch was to call him “conservative ideologue Neil Gorsuch.” Not an opinion, mind you; just a fact: he’s an ideologue by profession, a card-carrying member of the Association of American Ideologues. But please let me know when you hear CBS referring to liberal ideologue Charles Schumer or liberal ideologue Elizabeth Warren — or liberal ideologue Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It’s dumb because the statement itself is rabid, and therefore self-defeating.

A more interesting example of dumb people trying to do your thinking for you occurred on March 26. It was also on CBS radio news, but unfortunately it could have happened on any of the other networks, TV or radio. On that day I tuned in to hear that police were still assessing, or some verb like that, “the latest incident of gun violence.” So I started assessing, or some verb like that, this latest incident.

What had happened was that, 15 hours before, there had been a fight in a bar in Cincinnati, and shots had been fired. One person had been killed, and more than a dozen injured. This was a terrible, but hardly an unprecedented, event. It’s not clear that it was a big enough story to run in a national broadcast containing only about three minutes of news, but if you wanted to run it as a major news story, how would you package it? What category would you put it in?

I can say, without fear of sensible contradiction, that in the history of normal, quasi-objective news reporting, two categories would have occurred to almost everyone: shooting and bar fight. But those were not the categories that occurred to CBS. To the network’s news providers, this was violence, and it was gun violence, and it was the latest instance or example of the same.

Let’s take the last category first: latest. During the 15 hours between the shooting and the news report, how many fatal shootings do you suppose had happened? In 2016, there are said to have been 2,668 “murders by gun” in the United States. I assume that such murders are more numerous on weekends, but supposing that they happen at a uniform rate, this means that during those 15 hours there should have been fiveof them. If, however, we are looking at gun violence, or as normal people call it, shootings, we find that in 2016 there were 3,550 incidents in Chicago alone (up from 2,426 during the previous year). Other things being equal, there would have been six of these shootings in Chicago during the 15 hours.

This was a terrible, but hardly an unprecedented, event. It’s not clear that it was a big enough story to run in a national broadcast.

So the category of the latest is bogus. But what does it mean to be looking for the latestincident of something? Commonly, it means that you have an argument to make, and you’re seeking fresh examples or instances that you can use as evidence for your argument. Otherwise, the latest, the very latest, only the latest, etc., wouldn’t mean much. So CBS wanted to offer more than news; it wanted to push an argument.

It’s the perennial argument of all the established news providers. It isn’t that there are a lot of people who are on the losing side of violence, or that violence is increasing in certain parts of America, or that violent crime is a scandal, or that the trillion-dollar programs of our welfare state, which are meant to minimize crime by reducing poverty (because we all know that crime comes from poverty, and poverty is cured by welfare), are not working. No. The argument is simpler. It is simply that guns are bad.

Turn we now to the categories of violence and gun violence. A ride through any neighborhood populated by modern-liberal professionals, the men and women who populate what is jokingly known as America’s news organizations, will show you what they value and what they don’t. Valued: 6,000-square-foot private homes, organic food, nonthreatening gyms, skin care, expensive restaurants, wine tasting rooms, Nordstrom-class shopping centers, complex landscaping (and thus, illegal immigrants), household alarm systems, gated communities, on-street surveillance cams. Not valued: filling stations, churches, massage parlors, check-cashing emporia, rental units, fast food, homes of illegal immigrants, Walmart, trucks parked on the street, bus stops, strip malls, bars. In the precincts set aside by the professional classes for the worship of themselves, there is no occasion for violence or gun violence. No fights, even fistfights, ever take place. And nobody ever goes to a gun convention.

For these denizens of Valhalla, violence is an exotic word, and a thought-paralyzing concept. Having no relatives, friends, or acquaintances who commit violence, they regard it with a superstitious terror, like a creature from another world. No, not like such a creature, but literally that creature. Their own forms of misconduct are quiet, genteel, non-disruptive — false statements to clients, false statements to the public, false declarations on financial forms, extortionate lawsuits, bribery of public officials (in marginally legal ways), the occasional in-doors sex offense . . . the honesty of violence is missing.

A ride through any neighborhood populated by modern-liberal professionals will show you what they value and what they don’t.

They therefore do not understand how violence could happen. It could not be rooted in human nature. After all, they themselves are human, and they don’t commit violence. Neither could it be the outlet for aggressions that they also feel, but are afraid to act on. And surely it could not result from barbaric ways of life made more barbaric by elitist efforts to reform them — the kind of efforts for which the professional classes always self-righteously vote. It can only be explained as the product, not of human beings, but of things. The things are guns. Hence the category of gun violence.

The phrase is brutally unidiomatic. Was Lizzie Borden accused of committing hatchet violence? Did Jack the Ripper practice knife violence? Did Hitler invade his neighbors with tank violence? But now we have gun violence, and the distance of this phrase from ordinary speech should alert us to both a certainty and a prima facie probability.

The certainty is that it’s a carefully made-up term. There was no necessity for it; words already existed to cover all its applications, and cover them specifically — such words as the aforementioned shooting and bar fight, but alsoshooting spree, gang war, hold up, crime of passion, and so on. When you make up a vague, new, general term to replace established and specific ones, why are you doing it? Because the existing terms don’t serve your argument. Thus, global warming (once global cooling), which was specific enough to be refuted, yielded to climate change, which means anything you want it to mean, but still suggests that something needs to be fixed — by the people who invented the term.

Was Lizzie Borden accused of committing hatchet violence? Did Hitler invade his neighbors with tank violence?

What is gun violence? It may not be a homicide; it may not be an actual shooting; it may be threatening someone with a gun; it may mean using a gun to kill yourself. Yes, a suicide may also be a shooting, although that isn’t what the nation is supposed to get upset about; the professional classes insist on their right to kill themselves in any way they choose. But they will insert suicides into the statistics about gun violence anyhow, because that’s the purpose of gun violence: itlumps everything together — a bank holdup, a Mafia intimidation, a hunting accident, a crazy creep who kills a cop, a crazy cop who kills a creep, and Frankie of “Frankie and Johnny”:

She didn’t shoot him in the bedroom,
She didn’t shoot him in the bath,
She didn’t shoot him in the parlor;
She shot him in the ass.

So much for the certainty: gun violence was invented to push an agenda. Now for the prima facie probability, which has to do with the nature of that agenda: gun violence was invented, and is used, as a two-word argument for getting rid of all guns. Of course, I should have written “a two-word non-argument,” because you can’t win an argument by shifting terms around. You can’t win such an argument with intelligent people, anyway.

Now we return to my constant theme: these people bellied up to the conference table, talking about how primitive and dumb the rest of the country is — who are the dummies, after all?




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Babes in Wordland

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Like many people who have been to college, I once harbored the idea that Democrats are smarter than other people — a conception on which Democratic electoral power in large part depends. When I became one of those other people, I abandoned the idea. Occasionally, however, something happens to revive it.

That’s what occurred on March 21, when I unluckily turned on my television and encountered the Senate hearings on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The first, and last, thing I heard was a question from some senator who was clearly not a Democrat. He wanted to know how Gorsuch “interpretated” the First Amendment. Gosh, I thought, during the second it took me to change the channel, maybe the Republicans really are dumb. And there have been other indications, through the years . . .

Having interpretated Senator Klobuchar, which was somewhat harder than interpretating the Constitution, Gorsuch assured her that in his view a woman could become president.

I was startled out of my speculative mood when, later in the day, a talk show played another clip from those hearings. This one featured the remarks of Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who was discussing the fact that the Constitution refers to the president as “he.” Just what, she demanded, did Gorsuch think about that?

For a while he was baffled. What could she be after? Then he got it — she’d come up with a new way of challenging his originalist approach to constitutional interpretation. How could he be an originalist when the Constitution kept saying “he”? Didn’t the pronoun mean that the text, the original text, barred women from the presidency?

Having interpretated Senator Klobuchar, which was somewhat harder than interpretating the Constitution, Gorsuch assured her that in his view a woman could become president; he hoped, indeed, that one of his own daughters might do so.

So much for that. I hadn’t been worried about the intellectual value of originalism, but I had been vaguely concerned about the intellectual caliber of Democratic senators from Minnesota. I was therefore happy to find that Amy Klobuchar was every bit as intelligent as Al Franken.

Hannity's entire intellectual apparatus is a list of four or five factoids, constantly recited, as if he were a child asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

In my view, modern “liberalism” lost the intellectual argument about three generations ago, and it’s useless to expect any remarkable level of political intelligence from people who continue to believe in the stuff. But there’s a more distressing problem: what level of intelligence can we expect from people who have the unchallenging profession of arguing against the Democrats?

Consider Sean Hannity. He’s a nice guy, and his radio and TV shows are very popular, but they are a joke — a bad joke, a joke that’s far too boring to be funny. His entire intellectual apparatus is a list of four or five factoids, constantly recited, as if he were a child asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” And like the “personalities” on the local news, he cannot ask a question without turning it into five questions, which he throws at his guests until there is no time left to answer.

You know how this works on the 10 o’clock news. Somebody interviews a witness to an auto accident:

Interviewer: Can you tell us what you saw tonight? I mean, what you saw while witnessing this horrendous accident? We’ve been told that the car might have been going as fast as 40, 50, even 60 miles an hour — is that what you saw?

Person being interviewed: Well, I . . .

Interviewer: It must have been a pretty frightening experience, right? I mean, how did you feel when you saw that car flying past you? Did you feel like, oh my! That car is gonna go right into that ditch? Or was it just going by so fast that you didn’t have time to think? I mean, was it just sort of a blur? Or what?

Person: Maybe. I was . . .

Interviewer: I’m sure it must have been a scary sight. It isn’t often that we see an accident on this scale, is it? I mean, we don’t see such things very often, do we?

Person: Well, I, uh . . .

Interviewer: But thank you for telling us your story. And now back to our studio. Brian?

Did I say the local news? I should have added ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC . . . . The same interview style can be seen on all of them. But Hannity is about the worst. It goes something like this:

Hannity: Dr. Krauthammer [Charles Krauthammer, a literate man who is paid by Fox to subject himself to Hannity and other nitwits], would you please tell us, in your opinion, isn’t it obvious that President Trump is right when he says that the swamp should be drained? I mean, we’ve got intelligence agents that are spying on the president. We’ve got these scandals at the VA. We’ve got Bill Clinton, collecting money from the Chinese, the Saudis, and God knows who. We’ve got his wife, Hillary Clinton, who’s trying to stage a comeback. We’ve got all these things. So don’t you think it’s clear by now — as if it wasn’t clear before — that President Trump was right about draining the swamp?

Krauthammer: Well . . .

Hannity: I mean, isn’t it clear that the president was right when he said that the swamp should be drained?

Krauthammer: Actually, my idea . . .

Hannity: And wouldn’t you agree that the swamp is even larger than we thought way back in April, when I said, and I was the only one that was saying it way back in April, that something really needed to be done to reduce the size of this intrusive federal bureaucracy?

Krauthammer: As to the bureaucracy . . .

Hannity: So wouldn’t it be fair to say — to say, just on the elementary basis of fairness, honesty, and above all, of integritywouldn’t it be fair to say that President Trump was right? That he was right after all? About the swamp being drained?

Krauthammer: (Sighs) Yes. The president is right.

I invented that dialogue, because no one should be forced to read an actual transcript of Hannity, or of any of the countless interviewers who have adopted that style. One thing, however, is special to him, and it’s even worse than the ordeal-of-many-questions. It’s his addiction to the word “now.” On March 20 — a day chosen at random — I listened to the opening monologue on Hannity’s television show. It lasted about four minutes, when you subtract the news clips. During those four minutes he started nine sentences with now. If he were a mystic, I would say he was living in the eternal present. But he simply doesn’t know any better, and apparently no one will tell him. I call that dumb.

Now, contrary to popular belief, there are as many ways of being dumb as there are ways of being smart, and one of them is to assume that you’re so smart that nothing you do could possibly be dumb. My example today is Rachel Maddow, the leading or second-leading personality on MSNBC. I have heard friends say, “I don’t like her, but I have to admit she’s smart.” No, you don’t have to admit that. Please cite one intelligent thing she has ever said.

The problem with smirkers is that they actually believe in their own superiority, and it can be a dangerous thing to believe in something that doesn’t exist.

All right, we’ve gotten that out of the way. Why then does she have an audience? Well, as Bob Beckel has shown for the past million years, and Bill Moyers showed before him, and Gore Vidal showed even before him, it’s fairly easy to get an audience by turning bigotries into passwords. A password is not an argument or a fact; it’s just something insiders use to show they’re insiders. It may be nothing more than a gesture. In politicized news reporting, one of the most common passwords is a simple, even a silent indication that everyone who disagrees with you and the other kids in your club is a philistine, a yahoo, a hopeless illiterate, a fascist. You don’t need to know any facts; you don’t need to master any arguments; you certainly don’t need to read a book or research a field of history (although you can retail bogus history if you want to); you just need to say a few abusive words. Or flash an elitist smirk. Then other people who have nothing to offer but a bias and a smirk will see it, understand it, and feel honored to be members of your club — the club of the intellectuals.

Thus Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert, and Rachel Maddow, whose basic function is to read something, pause, smile in a superior way, and perhaps add “Really?” or “This is real; this is happening.” And that’s it; that’s the intellectual climax.

The problem with smirkers is that they actually believe in their own superiority, and it can be a dangerous thing to believe in something that doesn’t exist. That’s what Maddow should have discovered, but perhaps did not, when she managed to alienate large parts of her audience (which was only a small niche audience to begin with) by her flop with the Trump tax returns.

Hack news writers are smarter than Rachel Maddow, but not smart enough to understand that readers can see the propagandist behind the smirk.

As you recall, someone gave her a copy of two pages of President Trump’s federal tax returns for 2005. It showed him paying a respectable amount of tax, about twice as much, percentage-wise, as was paid by Bernard Sanders (scourge of the rich, friend of the working class). But instead of registering disappointment that she might, after all, have been wrong in assuming that Trump is a crook and a traitor and that’s why he won’t release his returns, Maddow decided simply to act as if some climactically horrible thing must be in those returns, even though it wasn’t. She advertised her timed release of the returns as if police were scheduled to appear at the end of the show and cart Trump off to jail. Even after the White House preempted her by releasing the disappointing information, her hype continued. Promising that she was just about to reveal her big discovery, she smirked her way through the first 20 minutes — 3,500 words — of her program, prattling about the damaging things that tax returns, of some kind, might possibly show, in some way.

It’s unfair to sample Maddow’s remarks; you need to read them for yourself in their entirety. But here is my favorite passage:

Couldn’t the tax returns sort this out for us?

If there are inexplicable dumps of foreign money into the president’s coffers that cannot be explained in normal business terms, that’s potentially a huge problem for somebody who’s serving as president of the United States, right? I mean, the interest in Trump’s tax returns is not a picayune thing. It’s not a partisan thing.

If people, if interests have inexplicably given him a lot of money in recent years, why did they do it? What do they want for that money now? Is the president in a position where we need to watch to make sure he is not paying off his past benefactors with our country’s resources, with U.S. policy, with decisions he can make as president? That’s part of why we need to see his tax returns.

And I raise this issue of this particular Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, I’ve been practicing, Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev? Rybolovlev.

Isn’t that cute? But is it smart? No, it is not. It’s the kind of dumb thing that dumb people do when they cannot conceive the possibility that they are not the smartest people in the world.

Hack news writers are smarter than Rachel Maddow, but not smart enough to understand that readers can see the propagandist behind the smirk. Evidence appears in the childish political attacks of which the “Top Stories” on Google News — News, mind you — increasingly consist. Here’s the array of headlines at 10:50 on the morning of March 16 (again, my choice was random):

Washington Post – 2 hours ago

If you're a poor person in America, President Trump's budget proposal is not for you. Trump has unveiled a budget that would slash or abolish programs that have provided low-income Americans with help on virtually all fronts, including affordable . . .

Related Donald Trump »President of the United States »United States Environmental Protection Agency »
Pelosi: Trump budget a 'slap in the face' - The Hill
Democrats rush to turn Trump's budget cuts against him - Politico
Highly Cited: Donald Trump Budget Slashes Funds for EPA and State Department - New York Times
Most Referenced: America First - The White House - The White House
Opinion: Trump's Ridiculously Skinny Budget - U.S. News & World Report
In Depth: Trump Budget Cuts to Scientific, Medical Research Will Have 'Devastating' Effect: Experts - NBCNews.com

Whoever writes and arranges these headlines thinks he is very smart, very smart indeed — putting out propaganda garbed as news and assuming that none of us in the hinterland will hitch up our jeans, scratch our noggins, and mutter to ourselves, “Gee golly, all this slashin’ an’ slappin’ an’ puttin’ po’ fo’ks down in the dirt an’ devastatin’ sci-unz an’ med’cine. . . . Guess them kids that write the nooz back in Noo York City really hate that Mr. Trump.” Which is what the normal, non-dialectical reader concludes, and seeks news elsewhere.

This kind of “news” isn’t even new. A little later on March 16, a picture turned up next to “Top Stories,” showing a woman in a Big Bird costume, parading “in support of public broadcasting.” She held a sign saying, “Keep your mitts off me!” — an apparent protest against Trump’s plan to cut support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which employs Big Bird (or the other way around, because Big Bird scratches up more than enough money to support himself independently of government handouts). Yet when I looked at the photo credit, I found that the picture was taken in 2012.

One mark of a dumb writer who thinks he’s smart is overkill. When people pile up redundant abuse, it’s often because they’re dumb enough to think that otherwise, their readers would be too dumb to get the point. Thus the Washington Post, in a Google Top Story from 6:35 p.m. on March 17:

Trump drags key foreign allies into controversy over unproven wiretap claims

Washington Post – 46 minutes ago

President Trump's unproven allegation that his predecessor wiretapped Trump Tower in New York ahead of the election blazed a new path of political disruption Friday as he dragged two foreign allies into his increasingly thin argument that he is right.

Emphasis added — I’m sure you wouldn’t have gotten the point unless I’d italicized those words. I love the image of world politics being disrupted by Trump’s claim that Obama’s spies listened in on him. Holy intelligence, Batman! But much quainter and more amusing is the image of yet another writer who believes that his attempts to manipulate the news will never be detected. It’s like a small child who imagines that he won’t be seen if he puts his hands over his eyes.

Lest anyone believe that this kind of smartiness exists only on the left, try this headline, from the rightwing Washington Times (March 21):

Obama tried to legalize migrant accused of murdering 15-year-old step-daughter

By a cunning feat of translation, “the policies of the Obama administration” becomes “Obama,” and “a numerous class of foreigners” becomes “migrant accused of murdering 15-year-old step-daughter.” I remain a vigorous foe of mass migration (pp. 26–32), but I wonder whether there is anyone childish enough to read that headline and believe that President Obama devoted his scheming time to protecting the alleged murderer of a young woman. Yet that is what the headline, in its childish stupidity, tries to suggest.

I’ve found CBS radio an unlimited source of such childishness, which happens, with them, to be consistently of the politically correct variety. On March 18, many hours after an attempted terror attack at Orly Airport in France, CBS radio was still identifying the culprit only as “a French citizen” whose motives were being investigated. In the news network’s peculiar dialect, “a French citizen” now means “an immigrant who proclaimed himself a religious terrorist” — because that’s what Ziyed Ben Belgacem, who shouted “I am here to die in the name of Allah,” actually was.

When people pile up redundant abuse, it’s often because they’re dumb enough to think that otherwise, their readers would be too dumb to get the point.

Here’s another example from CBS. After the first dismal day of the Gorsuch hearings, Charles (“Chuck”) Schumer, minority leader of the Senate, made another one of his attempts at coming up with a catchy phrase. He does this continually. This time, he said that Gorsuch had spent the day “playing dodgeball” with the senators’ questions. Of course, Gorsuch was just following the universal procedure of judges being examined by senators — refusing to state his position on specific issues that might come before him. But CBS was childish enough to take Schumer seriously. Its evening report on the Gorsuch hearings consisted of just one line: “Democrats are frustrated with Gorsuch, who dodged questions on divisive issues.” Divisive was pronounced “diviSSive,” as ignorant people always pronounce it when they’re trying to appear high-class.

Aren’t you glad that CBS News blandly assumed that its role is to sympathize with “Democrats” (i.e., Schumer) about Gorsuch “dodging” questions, without bothering you with information about the questions he “dodged”? What tickles me is the network’s altruistic horror of “divisive” issues — altruistic because CBS would have no politics to report if there were no divisions among us.

But of course it doesn’t report on much of anything. Like the other beings and entities I’ve noticed in this column, CBS is just doing what kids do. Children want to be doctors, so they play doctor. They want to be firemen, so they roll a plastic truck around the floor and try to scream like a siren. These other people want to be reporters and commentators and public figures, so they play “politics.” The difference is that real kids eventually grow up.




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Peaceful Riots and Inorganic Cows

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This is the great age of absurdity, of self-evidently ridiculous words that are meant to be taken seriously. The evidence is seemingly infinite, but let’s begin with cows.

The Oakland, California school district, seeking fresh challenges after its wonderful success in teaching students how to read, write, and understand mathematics, has decided to take on the threat of global warming. It has reduced the cheese and meat component of school lunches (please go elsewhere to learn what this has to do with “climate”), and it promises that whatever bovine products are ingested by its students will be derived from “organic dairy cows.”

The Oakland school district is willing to eat not only a peach but a fully organic cow.

The reader’s challenge is to picture an inorganic cow. What does she look like — a thousand-pound vacuum cleaner, slurping up grass? And how do you get the meat out?

Visualization is the key to writing. Remember the command of the New Critics: “Show, don’t tell.” You could say that Prufrock is a nice but feckless gentleman, but it’s more effective to show him wondering, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Well, the Oakland school district is willing to eat not only a peach but a fully organic cow.

Senator Charles Schumer, a master of malaprop who is also the minority leader of the United States Senate, is constantly instigating Memorable Phrases. He has a childish glee about pushing such slogans as “Make America Sick Again,” which is what he claims Republicans want to do by repealing Obamacare. The slogan flopped; Americans failed to visualize that terrible ante-Obama time when the nation was sick. Yet Schumer joyously pursues his art. A recent attempt at immortal phrasing was his allegation (January 4) that a Republican plan to replace Obamacare “would blow a trillion dollar hole in the deficit.”

For some reason, the senator is always smiling, but he smiled with particular self-satisfaction when he said that. He thought he’d hit a home run. He hadn’t. Picture a deficit. Now picture a hole in the deficit. That’s not easy, but if you can, you’ll discover that it’s a good thing: a hole in the deficit means less of the deficit. So here was another absurd image, although no one seems to have questioned it.

This may be the place to bring up another visualization puzzle, one that I’ve been saving, like a good bottle of wine. It’s a delicious pre-election “news” story that appeared on October 22, on the PBS site. The story is entitled, “Clinton campaign ponders: What if Trump doesn’t concede?” It encourages the thought that Clinton would carry such Republican states as Georgia and Utah.

For some reason, the senator is always smiling, but he smiled with particular self-satisfaction when he said that.

Here’s what actually happened: Georgia — 51% Trump, 46% Clinton; Utah — 46% Trump, 27% Clinton, 22% McMullin (a Mormon spoiler candidate). The “red state strategy” was a tactic invented by Clintonworld to pump news venues such as PBS full of silly ideas (not hard to do) and cause panic among Republicans, who would then divert scarce resources to supposedly threatened states. But even PBS needs to cite some reason for its silly ideas. So, if anyone asked, For what reason could Democrats dream of taking Georgia with a candidate like Hillary Clinton? the answer was: Georgia “has had an influx of diverse voters in the Atlanta area” and is therefore “considered a future battleground state, with many Democrats comparing it to North Carolina.” The comparison was just; Trump won North Carolina by 4%, which was only a little less than the amount by which he won Georgia, and represented a sizable victory.

But what does “diverse voters” mean? Literally, it means nothing: diverse from what? All right-thinking Americans, however, should be able to interpret the code. Diverse means “good,” of course, but it also means “non-white”; and “non-white” means Democrat. Because diverse voters are all alike — right? In other words, they are the opposite of diverse. That’s the idea.

I’ll talk about blatant self-contradiction a little later. First I must entertain some other comments that make no sense but are supposed to be solemnly accepted. Here’s an example that centers around (please note my use of another common expression that is immune to visualization) the phrase on me, as in it’s on me. The it in this phrase is generally supposed to mean something like “the responsibility” or “the mistake,” although it invites earthier images. Anyway, please consider Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly’s declaration that the problems involving President Trump’s famous executive order — the one about entrance to the country by people from certain nations — were on him. In his testimony before Congress on January 7 Kelly showed a sad, indeed a revolting, affection foron me; it appeared to have become his go to phrase:

In retrospect, I should have, and this is all on me by the way, I should have delayed it just a bit in order to talk to members of Congress, particularly leadership of committees like this to prepare them. . . .

Lesson learned on me.

Lesson learned on me. Where is the lesson? It’s on him. No doubt pasted on him, somehow, somewhere — the lesson that has been learned. That’s what he literally said.

What does “diverse voters” mean? Literally, it means nothing: "diverse" from what?

Let’s move along to America’s sweetheart, Bill Gates. Patrick Quealy, one of this column’s most valued friends, writes in with sad news: Gates has issued another public statement. I can’t do better than to quote what Patrick said:

I have long believed that Bill Gates should not be listened to about technology, and I understand that many people disagree with me about this, but one would think we could all unite behind the idea that such a hapless twit is not an ideal person to lecture us about AIDS in Africa or education policy or whatever else his handlers have whispered in his ear that we ought to be concerned about.

To that end, I share this actual thing, reported on CNBC and elsewhere, that Gates said after meeting with Trump:

"I think that whether it's education or stopping epidemics, other health breakthroughs, finishing polio, and in this energy space, there can be a very upbeat message that his administration is going to organize things, get rid of regulatory barriers, and have American leadership through innovation be one of the things that he gets behind."

As Patrick understands, this kind of “exquisite noise” defies analysis and eludes visualization:

Is Gates cooking polio one more minute before it's ready to serve, and doing it in a particularly energetic kitchen? Or has he nearly completed a painting, a study of a viral particle, in a brightly lit studio? I don't know. But so far, from my admittedly privileged point of view, the worst thing about Trump's election is not any policy that has been proposed or implemented. It's that I had to read that f—ing sentence as a result of it.

I can’t improve on that. I can only add that Gates’ comments help me understand why the Help functions on Microsoft products are worse than the problems they’re supposed to solve.

Speaking of New Age benefactors: I’m sure we are all impressed by their ability to enjoy every word that comes out of their mouths. We have all noted the bovine (sorry — I’m still thinking about cows) acceptance of their words by the crackpot (I mean mainstream) media. For the next New Age item I am indebted to John and Ken, Southern Californians’ favorite talk show hosts. They are based in Los Angeles and pay special attention to the decline of that city, where ordinary living becomes less sustainable in direct proportion to the government’s concern with sustainability.

John and Ken recently uncovered a news story solemnly proclaiming the absurd fact that Los Angeles possesses a “chief sustainability officer for the office of the mayor” (yes, the office includes an officer), and that this man has

convened a group of about 20 civil servants and university scientists to determine how to bring the city’s temperature more in line with what it would have been if Los Angeles had never been developed.

The commune of experts reminds me of the passage in Ayn Rand’s Anthem about “the twenty illustrious men who had invented the candle.”But “what we are trying to do,” says the drone in charge of sustainability, “is create a research collective to help us reach our target. It’s a huge challenge.” An even huger challenge would be to explain (A) how we know what the temperature would have been if the city had never been developed and (B) how to convince anyone not on the city payroll or otherwise daft that a community clogged with traffic, bankrupted by welfare, terrorized by crime, and scammed by a vast, almost wholly ineffective school system can put up with perky little officials being paid to theorize about reducing the temperature. The Los Angeles Times pronounces the temperature idea “a noble goal.” That’s tough, skeptical news reporting for you.

The result was a press that remains the perfect image of the snobby, intellectually self-sufficient modern liberal reader, the only person who still cares what editorial boards and noted correspondents have to say.

Contrary to self-serving notions constantly floated by the mainstream media, America never did have a judicious, disinterested, Olympian press. During most of its history it had a press that was unapologetically partisan. Abuse and gross distortion were taken for granted. In the mid-20th century, the press tried to dignify itself by pretending that it was a profession like medicine or physics. The hallmark of professionalism was the science of moderating one’s language so that one could always say, “Who, me?” when confronted by examples of gross though covert partisanship. Its model was the man satirized by Pope, who “without sneering, taught the rest to sneer.” The result was a press that remains the perfect image of the snobby, intellectually self-sufficient modern liberal reader, the only person who still cares what editorial boards and noted correspondents have to say. This is a press that both sermonizes and believes its own sermons, never recognizing how radically they diverge, not just from fair play and a decent regard for truth, but from common sense and logic.

One example, of millions available, is an item in California Magazine; the subject of which is the mob violence that prevented gay libertarian — or is he a gay conservative or a gay rightwinger? — Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at a duly authorized and paid-for event at the University of California, Berkeley. Summarizing this event, the magazine says:

Before Yiannopoulos could utter a single inflammatory syllable, the event was disrupted, by peaceful protestors at first, then by “black bloc” property-destroying saboteurs.

You’ve noticed how the author stacks the deck against the victim, whose remarks (which he never got to deliver) are assumed to have been inflammatory. It’s an interesting word, much in use right now. It suggests a quaint idea of innocence. It pictures normal listeners or readers as the kind of bottles that, as their labels warn, should not be shaken roughly or brought close to an open flame. Look out — these people may blow at any second! But it’s not their fault; their contents are just inflammable. Following this logic to its quick and sorry end, one finds the moral of the journalistic sermon: anyone who, like Milo, plays around with inflammable human material deserves whatever he gets.

It’s an interesting concept of individual responsibility, yet it does have a logic. There is something else in that sentence, however — something that has no logic at all. It’s the words “disrupted by peaceful protestors.” One doesn’t expect violent self-contradiction from self-righteous smugness, but here it is. And it has become so common that most of the people to whom I showed those words reacted at first without any sense that something odd was happening. It took them a while to recall that, hey, there is no way that someone who disrupts a peaceful event is a peaceful protestor.

This is a flat contradiction in terms, so flat that you never see it outside the context of leftwing agitprop — or mainstream reporting. In normal life, no one imagines that a gang of people who walk into a busy intersection and force traffic to stop, in order to accomplish some purpose of their own, are doing something peaceful. Yet when this happened in downtown Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day, as part of a protest aimed (ridiculously) against the building of a pipeline 1,500 miles away, the demonstrators were reported to be peaceful. The same adjective is used for everyone who stops subways, occupies public squares, blocks freeways, enters other people’s offices and has to be carried out — the list is long and constantly growing. This is not peace, any more than it is peace when somebody blocks your driveway, enters your house, sits on your furniture, tries to prevent you from entering, and refuses to leave. Few of the demonstrators appear to believe their actions are peaceful — but the mainstream media do, even when the demonstrations are plainly directed against the freedom of speech that the media pride themselves on exemplifying.

One doesn’t expect violent self-contradiction from self-righteous smugness, but here it is.

On February 16, President Trump gave a press conference in which he excoriated the media for their unfairness to him. The unfairness is real, and deserved to be noticed, but I was struck by two other features of the event. One was my difficulty in locating any of the president’s comments that amounted to a complete statement. There might be a subject — but where was the verb? There might be a transitive verb, but where was the direct object? There were allusions, but what were they alluding to? You can get tired of this kind of thing, and I rapidly did.

But the second thing that impressed me was the fact that I kept on listening to the diatribe. It may have been a cheap pleasure, but it was pleasure nonetheless, just to listen to the crude and obvious smugness of the press get its due reward in the crudeness of its rejection. I think that most listeners felt that way. I can’t imagine that many of them, even if they happened to be modern liberals, were overwhelmed with sympathy for the press. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer wrathful, unformed sentences to the imbecile completeness of disrupted by peaceful protestors?




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2016 — Reaching Out to an Iconic Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear All,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The Strange Case of Feelings Versus Facts

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Don’t tase me, bro, but I sometimes watch “Outnumbered” on Fox News. I do it mainly because I like the discussion leader, the always poised, always intelligent Harris Faulkner. She isn’t big on one-liners, but on December 13 she put a lot of truth into just five words. “Facts,” she said, “don’t care about feelings.”

That could provide a fitting introduction and conclusion to any discussion of political discourse in 2016, which consisted largely of lunatic ravings, followed by shrieks of joy or anguish that had virtually nothing to do with facts and almost everything to do with the writer’s or speaker’s mental condition. Particularly notable was a fleet (I was going to say “raft,” then promoted it to “ship,” then “battleship,” and so on up) of statements, based wholly on their authors’ authority, the content of which demolished that authority. These statements included Donald Trump’s continuous assurances that he would successfully perform various mostly impossible economic tricks, and Hillary Clinton’s continuous assurances that she had been vindicated by every investigation ever undertaken of her.

When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us.

Blame is not confined to those two notorious offenders. Throughout my life I’ve been bored and irritated by elder statesmen, pollsters, media commentators, religious leaders, and yes, college professors like me retailing their opinions as if everyone else were bound to believe them, in obeisance to the source. This year, I was alternately nauseated and entertained as I watched such people asserting their intellectual authority by rushing onstage, tearing off their costumes, setting fire to their toupees, and making obscene gestures at the audience. These were the people who considered themselves entitled to laugh like maniacs at the idea that Trump could ever be elected, because they understood American politics, or they had taken the pulse of the American voter, or they had high ratings among Americans in the prime demographic, or they were in touch with the spiritual longings of the American people. These were the authorities who then screamed and tore their hair at the sudden discovery that America had been — all along, and unknown to them — a nation of xenophobes and white supremacists.

The facts, of course, didn’t care about these people’s feelings, any more than they cared about Jill Stein’s feeling that somehow the election had been “hacked,” or about Hillary Clinton’s feeling that it was “Comey” who had done her in, or about her later feeling that it was the Russkies that done it (by the simple act of revealing her servants’ private correspondence), or about Donald Trump’s feeling that he, like Shakespeare’s Bottom, knows how to perform every part in the play.

Fortunately, libertarians have so far avoided this bad behavior, even when sorely tempted by the example of Stein. When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us. Years ago I attended a libertarian conference at which a resolution was presented. It said that such and such idea was contrary to reality, and that “reality always wins.” This might have been taken as a mere rhetorical flourish, but a lengthy debate followed among the many people who took that truth claim seriously. Some of them argued, passionately, that even false ideas are part of “reality,” while others retorted, with equal passion, that false ideas aren’t really real. After an hour or so of this, Bill Bradford and I walked out. We were laughing at the futility of the whole affair, which was simply a disagreement about two common understandings of a common word. But we were not laughing at the libertarian reverence for “reality,” and we certainly weren’t laughing at the egalitarian nature of the proceedings. If anybody had said, “I’m a college professor, and I know what ‘reality’ means,” or even, “I’m a libertarian, and this is how libertarians view ‘reality,’” the crowd would have gaped in wonder. What’s this guy talking about?

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock, or as Chelsea Clinton. He’s the former presidential candidate who became former when he announced during a debate that there were three federal agencies he would eliminate, one of which was the Department of Uhhhh. He meant the Department of Energy, but he couldn’t remember the name. His appointment recalls the ancient Athenian democracy, in which public offices were filled by lot. You or I could just as easily have received a call from the president-elect: “Hullo Stephen, this is Donald Trump. Oh, I’m doing incredible today, thank you. Look, Stephen, I’ve got this unbelievable job for you . . .”

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock.

Alas, I didn’t get the call. (If I had, I could have told Mr. Trump that there would, indeed, be one less federal agency.) Perry got it because he is a former governor. His appointment was an act of deference to the political class, which is known for its deep feeling and sensitivity, its tendency to brood over any apparent slight. By appointing Perry, Trump was undoubtedly trying to save him from a tailspin of grief about his apparent obsolescence, while relieving other senior politicians from similar fears.

Colin Powell may be one who needs reassurance. Like many of the rest, he feels that he deserves power, no matter what. A political general whose career was advanced by the Republican Party, he repaid the GOP by exposing its racism and disdaining its presidential candidate, not expecting him to be elected. Proven wrong about that, he still let it be known that he was “available for advice” to the winner. This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because . . . he’s an Elder Statesman.

You don’t have to be all that Elder to be accorded automatic hat-tips by the Establishment media. Any government employee — any employee likely to be a modern liberal — is an object of solicitous concern. Here are two Google News headlines from December 13: “Trump taps Exxon’s Tillerson as top US diplomat, lawmakers worried” (Reuters); “Energy Dept. rejects Trump’s request to name climate change workers, who remain worried” (Washington Post). Notice that in both instances the final emphasis falls on a status group (“lawmakers,” “climate change workers”), that the two groups enjoy their place in the sun because their members are paid by the government, and that their status is exalted enough to qualify them for euphemistic treatment. In place of the common yet arresting words one expects in a headline, Google hands us the very uncommon and unarresting “lawmakers” (a euphemism for “politicians” or at most “elected officials”) and “climate change workers” (a euphemism for “government bureaucrats concerned with, and probably advocating, the theory that the climate is changing, that human beings are responsible, that this is a bad thing, and that geniuses like themselves should be employed to stop it”). When prostitutes — literal prostitutes — start getting paid by the government, we will see headlines about “sex workers” being “worried” by requests to know their names.

This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because he’s an Elder Statesman.

The problem that supposedly justifies these solemn headlines is that the status group is worried. Well, as Scarlett O’Hara said to her worried sister: “Too bad about that!” If there’s a significant issue to be debated, sure, let’s debate it; but why should anyone worry about the mental condition of any particular group of people? Only in a status society are specific groups or individuals granted the right to sympathy.

As 2016 drew, slogged, dragged, or devolved to its end, one saw more clearly than ever that, in today’s America, this right is conferred by modern-liberal politicians and the media that serve them. Formerly, Democrats called attention to the frequent stupidity and chronic tyranny of the FBI and CIA; now they dwell upon the selfless heroism of the CIA, because a member of the Agency has whispered that Putin loves Trump and wants him to be president. About the FBI the “liberals” switch back and forth, like locomotives looking for a train, one moment extolling its “integrity,” because it allegedly exonerated Hillary Clinton, and the next moment excoriating it as “deeply broken,” because it allegedly caused her defeat.

The Electoral College has been on a sympathy rollercoaster all year long. Before the election, a lot of Democrats who couldn’t do arithmetic smugly assumed that their party had a lock on the electoral college, because it would deliver a large block of votes from such solidly Democratic states as California. The College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era, the members of which were mindless hacks, selected for a total lack of intelligence and responsibility. Then arose the movement to reverse the election by getting Electors to switch from Trump. Now the College was a great American institution and its members wise solons who needed only to be reminded of their power. When, thus reminded, they didn’t switch, they were again the objects of scorn. They were un-Americans who had no right to vote as they did. They were people who had “sold out the country,” people who “don’t deserve to be in America.” This was one of the things that protestors screamed at Electors; a protestor in Wisconsin added a monarchical “This is my America!”Not yours, you bastards.

She had a point. If facts really do respond to (my) feelings, then I really do own . . . everything. I am a divine-right monarch with the arbitrary power to say what shall be true. Monarchs themselves often start to believe the meaningless, self-serving things they feel. It is a symptom and a means of their fall. And that’s what we’re seeing now, in the spectacle of leading Democrats demanding sympathy for what they themselves did to their party, and doing so without a hint of embarrassment. On December 19, when William Jefferson Clinton was being quoted as blaming his wife’s defeat, not on her, but on angry white men, Tucker Carlson (whose new TV show is, unexpectedly, pretty amusing) asked the rhetorical question, “Does he include himself?” It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to Clinton.

The Electoral College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era.

Even more obtusely self-righteous was John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s campaign. He was the person whose computer provided many of the emails that damaged her campaign. In strict terms, those emails were probably not hacked, as people insist on saying, but were phished in the stupidest, most obvious way. But on December 18, Podesta tried to unelect Trump by saying, “It’s very much unknown whether there was collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russkies, in the matter of the emails. He called for the Electoral College to be informed about this very much unknown conspiracy.

I just can’t get my head around this. After everything Podesta did to lose the election, he wants some kind of do-over. Why? Because it’s unknown whether his opponent was involved in the revelation of his (Podesta’s) own stupidity. If you say things like that, you believe you have a natural right to boundless sympathy and respect, and even reparations, in the form of a delegitimized election.

In the December 22 Washington Post, Ruben Navarrette painted a suggestive portrait of Podesta and the org he managed:

Thanks to a combination of leaks and reporting, we now know just how poorly run the Clinton campaign was, how top campaign staffers dismissed the importance of working-class white voters, how Democratic leaders had contempt for their own supporters, and how the coziness between the news media and campaign officials turned to collusion and created a backlash.

And virtually all those storms have something in common: Podesta. In short, the campaign chairman was at the center of just about everything that went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House.

I wonder whether you noticed what I did: every critical comment that Navarrette makes about the Democracy can also be made about the modern state: it’s stupid, unreflective, badly managed, and sovereignly contemptuous even of its clients and supporters (with one exception: the supporters known as the mainstream media). The Clinton org was a state within a state, with its own departments of revenue, foreign affairs, enforcement, propaganda, etc. It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to William Jefferson Clinton.

In the Clinton machine one saw statism in a pure form. That’s why no one could figure out what Mrs. Clinton’s program was, or why, in the absence of any particular goals that she wanted to achieve as president, she kept running for the office. The state in its pure form is power; it desires no reason for its existence but the projection of its power. Hillary Clinton wanted that power and needed no other justification of her political life (which, horrible to say, is her whole life). Never once did she or her organization advocate an action that was not an extension of state power; never once did they propose or recognize the existence of any limitations on this power, or reflect on the fact that human knowledge would be limited even if human power were not. Identifying themselves so completely with an all-powerful, all-knowing state, she and her associates assumed that they had a right to be the state. They still do. If you think you have a natural right to unlimited power, and you somehow, in some way that you cannot understand, lose that power, your demand for sympathy will also be unlimited. It’s another rebellion of feelings against fact.

No one actually feels sorry for Hillary Clinton, but many people feel sorry for themselves, because their side lost, and they believe it had a right to win. So they try to see her as a sympathetic figure — a kind of Charles I, condemned and executed by a mob of cretins who could never grasp his greatness. In fact, Charles was an autocrat, and a stupid autocrat, and a deceitful autocrat to boot. As with Mrs. Clinton, if Charles said you had ten fingers, you would count your fingers to make sure. But when he was deposed and executed, the self-pity of the aristocrats who had despised him during his life was focused on him, and he became a Saint. I doubt that this process will go very far with the ludicrous Mrs. Clinton, but it is well underway with her former boss, President Obama. The funniest source is Fareed Zakaria of CNN, whose December 7 crockumentary about Obama suggested that America had failed its president: “It remains unclear if the country was ready for Barack Obama’s vision.”If you’re looking for a fact-free sentence, you have found it.

It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

In America, we have whiny, self-privileged classes, and whiny, self-privileged individuals. Now these have given us whiny, self-privileged issues, political positions that can get away with anything. Today, you are at least as likely to be fired for questioning inclusiveness, economic equality, public education, the environment, or the rights of undocumented workers — or even seeking definitions of these sacred concepts — as you used to be for taking the same approach to Americanism, our Judeo-Christian heritage, defeating the Reds, or the fight against illicit drugs; and before that, temperance, womanhood, our men in uniform, or purity of essence. (OK, I admit it: I took that last one from Dr. Strangelove.) One of the most privileged issues is, of course, common-sense gun control (i.e., elimination of the private ownership of firearms). So empty of fact and full of feeling is the anti-gun cause that The Federalist ran an absurd but accurate headline: “Progressives Demand Gun Control After Knife Attack at Ohio State University.” The article following the headline provided many examples of “progressives” who knew that any attack must be a gun attack, or caused by guns, or preventable by the prevention of guns, or something. Among millions of Americans, the very word “gun” (or even “knife”) is enough to cause hysteria. It makes them feel so insecure.

It has often been noted that the manners of the aristocracy are eventually transferred to the middle class and thence to the lower classes. It’s true; that often happens, and often it’s a good thing. I regret the fact that aristocratic reserve is no longer practiced in restaurants and airline terminals, or even museums and nature trails, where you can always depend on somebody showing up with a cellphone and a voice like Goebbels. But aristocracy is fully alive in another, quite unfortunate way. We are witnessing a transference of self-regard, self-privilege, and self-pity from the American political aristocracy to the issues they push and then to the pathetic voters who derive their own self-regard and their own demands for pity not from any fact but from their feelings about these mighty issues. That is how state power corrupts its holders, and how its holders corrupt everything.




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