The Emperor Has No Brains

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How weird was that briefing?

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

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

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

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

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: How graphic did you get?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Bridges to Nowhere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a good idea to piss off John Brennan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Don’t Gift Me, Bro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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A Few Things We Can Do Without

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Imitations of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was that a joke? A joke about a joke?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But there was more. According to NBC,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was all reported by The Hill on December 21:

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

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

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

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

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




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The Visualization Test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, why?”

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

“Oh, he’s an idiot. So what?”

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

“What investigations?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobspeak is mobspeak, no matter what the subject is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Channel Us Not into Temptation

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Some people don’t understand how funny they are. Consider Harvey Weinstein, motion picture producer and marketer.

Backward as I am, before October 5 I had never dreamed of his existence. Then, like all other good Americans, I was astonished and deeply saddened to learn that this Hollywood mover and shaker had, for many years, been one of the worst sexual predators, harassers, and, to use the technical term, pigs in Tinseltown. When first assailed by these charges, Weinstein conceded that he might have a few tiny faults, including an anger problem (otherwise known as issues with anger), but indicated that he knew how to remedy it: “I am going to need a place to channel that anger so I've decided that I'm going to give the NRA my full attention."

Picture a big, fat, ugly loudmouth who spends his life pushing other people around, and who now attempts to solve his public relations problem by aiming all of his destructive emotions at one target.

I suppose it all started with Freud — this picture of human beings as bottles full of lethal liquids that are constantly seeking channels through which to vent their nasty stuff. Or maybe it was some other quack who originally suggested that civilization, which has unfortunately been built on the dismal swamp of primitive aggressions, can be kept from returning to the primordial ooze if it is equipped with little pipes and ducts and hoses — art, science, religion, model railroading, writing for the New York Times, and so forth — to draw off the ugly fluid. But no matter who thought up the idea that mental health comes from plumbing, not thinking, it remained for Harvey Weinstein to make the final, irresistibly funny, application.

Picture a big, fat, ugly loudmouth who spends his life pushing other people around, and who now attempts to solve his public relations problem by aiming all of his destructive emotions at one target, so that instead of 50 little hoses spewing filth at 50 different targets we’ll see one giant firehose channeling it all at one of them. Yes, that will fix things, won’t it — especially when you realize that this man’s victims won’t be people in the public spotlight: pretty actresses and rich celebrities. They’ll be old ladies in Detroit who are trying to defend themselves against people who want to hurt them. The fate of elderly black women won’t cause a national crisis of conscience, will it? Apparently not. It never has.

Maybe it was some other quack who originally suggested that civilization can be kept from returning to the primordial ooze if it is equipped with little pipes and ducts and hoses.

Weinstein’s brother and business associate Bob brought up an interesting question about the link between language and conscience. He charged that the politically therapeutic language appropriated by his brother from any of a million sources merely indicated a lack of emotional or moral referent:

I don't feel an ounce of remorse coming from him, and that kills me too. When I heard his written, lame excuse . . . Not an excuse. When I heard his admission of feeling remorse for the victims and then him cavalierly, almost crazily saying he was going to go out and take on the NRA, it was so disturbing to me. It was utter insanity. My daughters all felt sick hearing this because we understood he felt nothing. I don't feel he feels anything to this day. I don't. . . .

He lived for this business and he lived for the outside. There were no insides to this, as far as I can see. So unless there becomes an inner person inside there, I have no idea what he'll do.

This is close to Ayn Rand’s insight: people who live for the approval of others — even if they don’t try to bully or trick them into giving it — are empty vessels. It’s not that the plumbing doesn’t work; it’s that the plumbing doesn’t exist. Maybe it did at some time, but it can’t be located now.

You may think it’s strange to mention conscience and then bring up Hillary Clinton, but her life has taught us a lot about the subject. She has demonstrated that lack of conscience doesn’t keep you from public office. It doesn’t even keep you from being funny. On an entertaining page of his letters, Lord Chesterfield describes the kind of person who is incapable of understanding how to behave. When he goes to a party, he inevitably chooses the wrong clothes, unerringly finds the worst places to sit or stand, and makes certain to state with emphasis the very things that will make him seem most ridiculous. Mrs. Clinton is one of those people.

She it was who defended her husband from charges of immorality by saying to, among other people, millions of country music fans, “You know, I’m not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette.” She it was who said that she’d solved the mystery of why some people didn’t like her husband: it was all a “vast, rightwing conspiracy.” She it was who thought she’d made a hit when she responded to congressional questions about what caused the attack in Benghazi by shouting, “What difference does it make?” She it was who gave a campaign speech in which she asserted that 25% of the American electorate is morally “deplorable,” presenting this analysis with a thoughtfulness and solemnity that made it impossible for anyone to dismiss it as just one of those things you say by accident.

This is close to Ayn Rand’s insight: people who live for the approval of others — even if they don’t try to bully or trick them into giving it — are empty vessels.

All of these blunders were carefully staged; all of them were intended as climaxes of rhetorical art. And there was no reason to stumble into any of them. No one asked her to comment on Tammy Wynette or to theorize about conspiracies or to assess the significance of cause and effect. And although many politicians have hated the voters, none but Hillary Clinton ever made a point of saying it to them.

Of course the voters struck back; they crippled and then killed her political career. But she never learned. She has never learned. She’s like one of those animals that seems constantly, solemnly, and innocently discovering its tail; and, not being able to conceptualize such things, remains at a loss about what that object could possibly be.

I’m sorry to take so much time with Hillary Clinton. If she were just a blatherer, like President Trump, the comic interest would soon have faded. But what was said of Cleopatra can be said of her: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.” Like the perpetually inappropriate man in Chesterfield, she is always finding new ways of making herself ridiculous. Having chronicled her antics on innumerable occasions, I still had to cling to my seat when I heard her recent remarks about Mr. Weinstein: I was laughing so hard I almost fell off.

All of these blunders were carefully staged; all of them were intended as climaxes of rhetorical art. And there was no reason to stumble into any of them.

Harvey Weinstein is an old friend and strong financial supporter of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton therefore waited several days before yielding to the mob’s demand (I’m sorry; I don’t like mobs, no matter whom they intend to lynch) that everyone who had ever laid eyes on Weinstein should immediately denounce him. I thought that for once she might commit an act of courage, even in a questionable cause. But no. She finally denounced him, like all the rest of them.

Yet she couldn’t stop with that. Finding herself in a bad position, politically, since she’d taken all those contributions from the man she was denouncing, she insisted that attention be turned to the most compromising subject for her — politics. She compared Weinstein to her bête noir, Donald Trump, who in Hillary’s mythic incantations has acquired the stature of Trotsky, as viewed by Stalin; Lucifer, as viewed by Yahweh; and Phineas Quimby, as viewed by Mary Baker Eddy. Unable to understand that comments of this kind would simply prolong the nearly universal chants of “sore loser!”, she attacked Trump for supposedly admitting that he had “assaulted” women — a reference, perhaps, to his vulgar remarks to Billy Bush. “This kind of behavior,” she decreed,

cannot be tolerated anywhere, whether it’s in entertainment [or] politics. After all, we have someone admitting to being a sexual assaulter in the Oval Office. There has to be a recognition that we must stand against the kind of action that is so sexist and misogynistic.

Clinton’s syntax was particularly unfortunate — suggesting, as it did, that Trump had illicit affairs in the Oval Office, which is exactly where people picture her husband having them. And who tolerated that?

This was funny enough. Still funnier was her shock when her interviewer from the BBC pressed the political point that she herself had introduced. He brought up women who had complained about Bill, women with whom Hillary had not precisely taken a stand:

In your book, three women brought on stage [during the 2016 campaign] by Trump attacking your husband, you kind of dismiss them. Was that the right thing to do? Are you sure about that?

She did the best she could with the question, and her best was hilarious:

Well, yes, because that had all been litigated. That had been the subjectof a huge investigation in the late ’90s and there were conclusions drawn. That was clearly in the past, but it is something that has to be taken seriously and not just in entertainment.

How’s that for a cunning use of the passive voice? Litigated by whom? What conclusions were drawn? And how’s that for a climactic use of truism, cliché, and unconscious irony? Yes, her husband’s conduct was in the past (and still is), but I’m not sure that “it,” the only referent for which is “that,” i.e., her husband’s conduct, or the charges bearing on the same, is what she really wants to be taken seriously.

I have trouble taking anything about Mrs. Clinton seriously, and to me it’s doubly amusing that she never notices how many people have that trouble about her. After all these years, she still assumes that whatever she says will be copied down in everybody’s book of instructive sayings. How childlike! How adorable. And it’s so cute that she’s surprised by even the most obvious questions.

Still funnier was Clinton's shock when her interviewer from the BBC pressed the political point that she herself had introduced.

One of them was posed by Fareed Zakaria of CNN, often called the Clinton News Network. He had the gall to ask whether she was going to follow other leading Democrats and return the money she’d gotten from the now-odious Weinstein. She gave the answer that you would give to a moralistic child who’s been pestering you to return the quarter you found on the street. “Well,” she said, “there’s no one to give it back to.”

Really? Have you lost Weinstein’s address?

Zakaria kept looking at her, so she continued:

What other people are saying, what my former colleagues are saying, is they’re going to donate it to charity, and of course I will do that. I give 10% of my income to charity every year. This will be part of that. There’s no — there’s no doubt about it.

This is as close, I believe, as Hillary Clinton has ever come to acknowledging that normal, nondeplorable people might ever doubt any of the absurd things she habitually says. Realizing that there could be doubt, she immediately decreed that there is no doubt.

One thing she did not realize is that other people know arithmetic. Supposing that she does give the biblical tenth every year, I assume that her charity of choice is the Clinton Foundation, which has indicated in no uncertain terms that it isn’t giving any of Weinstein’s money back. But let’s suppose otherwise, and picture her contributing a tenth of her money to the Salvation Army. Now she can keep that money and substitute Weinstein’s money. And, of course, take the tax deduction. Neat, isn’t it? But normal people are unlikely to be impressed by this act of moral courage.

Realizing that there could be doubt, she immediately decreed that there is no doubt.

The Daily Beast, a leftwing journal, says that “the donations will be ‘part of’ the 10 percent of her income that she donates to charity each year, but it was unclear whether she meant that the money from Weinstein would be in addition to that 10 percent.” I wonder what the Daily Beast finds unclear about “part of.”

While the Beast is scratching its head, ordinary people are howling with laughter. Clinton has no means of knowing this. She thinks that other people are just like her. She’s hollow and impercipient; they must be too.

There are a lot of “leaders” like that now. Weinstein is one. An unconsciously ironic portrait of him has been communicated by a psychologist who worked on him in some “recovery” clinic in Arizona. This healthcare professional reported to TMZ on a week of treatment:

The psychologist says he helped Weinstein focus on "dealing with his anger, his attitude toward others, boundary work and the beginnings of work on empathy." He says Weinstein was "invested in the program."

I don’t know what “boundary work” may be, but in these cases “work on empathy” is certainly indicated. The problem is that empathy is the hardest thing to work on, because people who don’t have it don’t realize that they don’t. Little things like losing their jobs as heads of billion-dollar businesses, or losing a national election, never suggest to them that something might be wrong about the language with which they communicate with the world.

Under these circumstances, I’m not sure that psychologists will be much good at fixing all the pipes and ducts that channel stuff from one person to another. Some good might be accomplished, however, if other people just laughed in the faces of our cultural and political leaders. A few days of that might make some impression, and no one would need to be paid for it.




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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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