What’s in the Bag?

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Recently, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the monthly offerings of this column have been tightly organized around a central theme or cluster of ideas. Well, maybe you haven’t noticed that. I’ve tried, anyway. But, as we libertarians are fond of saying, TANSTAAFL: there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. You always have to pay for what you get. In the case of Word Watch, tight organization — or a pretense of it — is purchased at the price of ignoring a lot of things that somebody ought to mention.

I’ll put it in another way. Everyone who writes a column like this has something that we call, in our professional language, the Grab Bag. We collect samples of things that we may want to mention, and when it comes time to get serious and write the column, we go to the Grab Bag and pull stuff out. Sometimes we’re frustrated because the great thing that absolutely must be discussed this month is somehow not in the Bag after all, and since we can’t seem to remember what it was, we have no idea of where else to look for it. Occasionally we’re relieved to find that all the items we pulled out of the Bag seem to fit together like a watch. More often we’re disgusted to see that in trying to make it all fit, we failed to exploit our most interesting material.

So this month I’m going to grab items out of the bag with no concern for whether they fit together or not. At the end, we’ll see whether any sense of order has emerged.

As we libertarians are fond of saying, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

Item 1. The acute becomes chronic. There’s a common, and plausible, idea that high-speed mass communication renders language unstable. In the age of the internet, words, phrases, and, bless my soul, memes are born, become known, become popular, become tyrannical, and just as rapidly wither and die, depriving all who had adopted them of the ability to communicate. Expressions that might have measured their lives by generations of human beings now measure it by generations of fruit flies.

Regrettably, this notion is true only of clever and useful expressions, the ones that provoke and enable thought. Nobody remembers those. But words that destroy both thought and the tools of thought — these have remarkable staying power. They not only remain; if they die, they are resurrected. Witness cool and dude, all-purpose signifiers of some kind of goodness and personhood, which were chewed to death by Boomers but miraculously revived by Millennials.

Meanwhile — oh, a mere 25 or 30 years ago — the first generation of computer geeks gave us input as the replacement term for advice, suggestions, responses, dialogue– real words with real meanings, meanings that prompt one to think, “What do I want from her? Her analysis? Her ideas? Her corrections? Her critique? What, exactly, do I want?” But it’s so much easier, dude, just to ask for her input. At the same time, somebody — perhaps a student of meteor trajectories — gave us impact as a way of killing all distinctions among affect, influence, damage, ruin, destroy, annihilate. And the bureaucrats gave us the Universal Slash, the little mark of punctuation that proclaims to us, “I don’t care enough about what I’m writing to choose the words I mean; I’ll just plop down a bunch of possibilities and put slashes between them.” And these means of avoiding thought have (to paraphrase William Faulkner’s comment about man himself) not only endured but prevailed. On the road from here to eternity, they are approaching the goal.

Words that destroy both thought and the tools of thought — these have remarkable staying power.

I feel that more needs to be said about the slash. Here are two examples from a single source (in the comments to which you will see many, many more examples):

That’s why the FBI, and later the Mueller team, were/are so strongly committed to, and defending, the formation of the Steele Dossier and its dubious content.

The CURRENT FBI wants to hide Ms. Kavalec’s warning/notification that Steele was delivering false information about Cohen traveling to Prague.

Tell me, great author, you who have so much to tell: was it a warning, or was it a notification? There’s a difference. Maybe it was both. Decide, and let me know. And were those investigators committed, or are they committed, or have they always been committed? This also makes a difference. So fill me in. Don’t pretend that you’re too busy, or that your keyboard won’t do or and and.

The US (Universal Slash) started as a little ignorant/dippy/sometimes-pretentious fad — but it remained. And multiplied. If you work for an organization, any organization, you’ll get it in your inbox a hundred times a day. But when you talk to people about it, they just look back at you.

2. Are we trying to be ugly, or not to be ugly? In other words, why do people insist on saying passed away and the still more cloying passed, when all they mean is died — yet they make no effort to avoid the desperately ugly nitpick, pick your brain, brown-nose, and suck?

If you work for an organization, any organization, you’ll get the Universal Slash in your inbox a hundred times a day.

3. Horton hears a where. The word where refers to places and spaces. Then why is it constantly used for things that are not places or spaces? “In the argument where she shows . . . ” “It was in the century where . . .” On October 19 I read: “Seats where in years prior the Republicans did not even bother fielding a candidate are being flipped, while Democratic gains in the suburbs are mostly in traditionally competitive swing seats. Historically, the midterm elections typically favor the party that is not in the White House, yet this was trumpeted as a historic turnaround.” By the way, what is the referent of this?

4. Nope, nobody said a word. “No allegations of impropriety have been made.” “There have been no accusations of misconduct.” “No charges have ever been lodged.” To cite Gilbert and Sullivan:

What, never?
No, never!

What, never?
Well, hardly ever!

These no, never phrases are now used in exact proportion to the prevalence of allegations, accusations, charges, opinions, and convictions that something grossly improper or illegal has in fact been done. I’ve been meaning to comment on this singular phenomenon since I noticed that it was routinely being reported that no accusations had ever been made against Jussie Smollett, at a time when everyone in the country was thinking, and many brave souls were writing, that he had faked a racist and anti-gay attack on himself. Long before that, “Hillary Clinton has never been accused of a crime” had become a permanent part of the media mantra, despite the existence of a long shelf of books and about a million news articles accusing her of a wide variety of crimes.

There have always been plenty of American businesses that would give Hunter Biden a job he isn’t qualified for.

By this standard, no one who hasn’t been formally arraigned in a US court has ever been accused of anything. And now Biden’s doing it. In his whole life he’s never been accused of wrongdoing — unlike Trump!

5. And you were silly enough to think the media were unbiased! CNN “anchor” (and never has there been an anchor more weighted with his own importance) Anderson Cooper was the host of the Democratic presidential candidates’ October 15 debate. In that capacity, he put the following question to Joseph (“Honest Joe”) Biden:

The impeachment inquiry is centered on President Trump's attempts to get political dirt from Ukraine on Vice President Biden and his son, Hunter. Mr. Vice President, President Trump has falsely accused your son of doing something wrong while serving on a company board in Ukraine. I want to point out there's no evidence of wrongdoing by either one of you.

Having said that, on Sunday, you announced that if you're president, no one in your family or associated with you will be involved in any foreign businesses. My question is, if it's not okay for a president's family to be involved in foreign businesses, why was it okay for your son when you were vice president?

Well thank you, Anderson. You’re right, of course. There have always been plenty of American businesses that would give Hunter a job he isn’t qualified for.

People like Cooper have apparently decided that they can say anything, anything at all, to their hapless victims in the nursing homes and airport waiting rooms, and still maintain their self-respect.

I don’t need to gloss Cooper’s wiffleball “question” (you can tell it’s a question because he says, “My question is”), which was obviously wafted at Biden as an excuse for proclaiming him and his son innocent and their antagonist guilty, prior to all questions. Political dirt. Falsely accused. No evidence of wrongdoing. Try about a million dollars a year of evidence about that Ukrainian company. But the question proves that Anderson’s still speakin’ truth to power.

In a rational world, the more CNN’s numbers dropped, the more it would strive to look nonpartisan. Exactly the opposite has taken place. People like Cooper have apparently decided that they can say anything, anything at all, to their hapless victims in the nursing homes and airport waiting rooms, and still maintain their self-respect. There’s no evidence that they’re doing something wrong.

6. Do you actually know what you’re saying? There’s lots of Mrs. Clinton stuff in the Grab Bag. Here is a recent utterance. She’s speaking, as usual, about how everyone let her down in 2016:

There was nothing. I had nothing. So from my perspective, I think we’ll be a little better off [in 2020] than we were back then. But we’re gonna be outgunned, outspent, out-lied.

I mean, we’re gonna have a lot of problems.

Literally, then, what “we” need is bigger guns, bigger spending, and bigger lies.

7. For the millionth time, what are teachers getting paid to teach? It isn’t words. If it were, we wouldn’t constantly be encountering authors, themselves fairly well paid, who write things such as “he needed to lay down” and “she was one of the most well informed persons in Washington” and “’Go west, young person,’ as Horatio Alger infamously said.” All right, I made that last one up, but it didn’t surprise you, did it? How about the wondrous literacy of this newsicle. “He then gets on top of a yellow Ford Thunderbird and laying on his side, posing on the car.” Period. That’s the end of the “sentence,” complete with laying. Almost everyone in my building has a college education, but I regularly get notices that “water will be shut-off at 8:00 a.m.” I also read in headlines that “Senator Rand Paul Calls-Out Chairman Lindsay Graham.” Somebody needs to turn-off these hyphens. Somebody also needs to turn-off the sex and gender education and turn-on the English class.

8. Real rhetoric: the absence and the presence. By real rhetoric I mean words intelligently organized for the greatest possible effect on intelligent people. How much of that do you hear or read? How much of it do you get from the biggest spouters of rhetoric, the politicians? Answer: little, and none. But just when I was arranging some rhetorical flowers for the funeral of rhetoric, Democratic presidential contestant Tulsi Gabbard stayed my hand and joyed my heart.

Even if you can separate the value of courage from the value of words (which you should), you can certainly admire Gabbard’s choice of words.

Gabbard was responding to a podcast produced by the aforesaid Hillary Clinton in which Clinton claimed that Gabbard, who questions military interventions abroad, was being “groomed” for the presidency by Russians. She was a Russian asset. Gabbard responded almost instantly:

Great! Thank you @HillaryClinton. You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain. From the day I announced my candidacy, there has been a concerted campaign [in leading newspapers and elsewhere] to destroy my reputation. We wondered who was behind it and why. Now we know — it was always you, through your proxies and powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine, afraid of the threat I pose. It’s now clear that this primary is between you and me. Don’t cowardly hide behind your proxies. Join the race directly.

One thing that’s real about those words is that they’re all true, and obviously true. But even if you’re so oblivious as to think that they aren’t obvious, you have to admire Gabbard’s courage in addressing them to the wealthiest and most influential and most terrifying person in her party. And even if you can separate the value of courage from the value of words (which you should), you can certainly admire Gabbard’s choice of words. Her words have cadence and emphasis; they are educated, yet accessible; the pictures they paint are immediately visible, yet she wastes not a word in painting them. She doesn’t pussyfoot up to her prey and try to nibble it to death; she doesn’t pretend to admire any imaginary good qualities of her victim; she doesn’t try to find a de-“gendered” term for “queen.” She is completely successful. It’s startling to realize that this is what, for three decades, has needed to be said, but wasn’t said by anyone on Gabbard’s side of the aisle, or said with compelling words by anyone on the other side. I think I disagree with almost everything in Gabbard’s own political program, but she sure knows how to write.

L’envoi:

Well, this has been fun. And it had a happy ending, too. I’m sure there’s no order to the thing (except for a certain obsession with Hillary Clinton), but why keep sacrificing wholesome fun to some impossible ideal of organization?

Enough is enough; goodbye for October.




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Thought Leaders and Living Legends

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“Conservative strategist Chris Barron told Fox News that The Times ‘has abandoned any pretext of journalistic integrity,’ and the revised Kavanaugh story is the latest example.” So says a Fox News report (September 16) on the New York Times’ publication of a scandalous claim about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual behavior in college.

That phrase — “sexual behavior in college” — may be sufficient to illustrate the puerility of the allegation and of its eager retailing by America’s “newspaper of record.” I don’t care much for Justice Kavanaugh, but since I left college myself I haven’t been able to work up much concern about anybody’s college nonsense. If this is one of the great issues of our time . . . But look at that phrase from critic of the Times, the conservative strategist (is that a real job?): “abandoned any pretext of journalistic integrity.” Pretext? It would be fun to think that Mr. Outraged consciously chose that word, which means a false account of one’s reasons for doing something, because then we’d be witnessing the spectacle of a newspaper being criticized for abandoning its falsehoods. But alas, the guy must have failed to distinguish pretext from pretense, intending to say that the Times no longer pretends to integrity.

When you see a smarmy title like that, you sense right away that you’re dealing with a boatload of obscurantism.

And there’s a problem even with this charitable interpretation of his remark. In fact, the New York Times continues to pretend. Here’s what happened. On September 14, the Times published the story in question, an account of Kavanaugh dangling his naked penis around at a party. Immediately conservative journalist Mollie Hemingway compared the Times account with the version that its authors simultaneously published in a book, and discovered that something crucial was missing from the newspaper story. On September 15, a suddenly embarrassed Times appended a humiliating note to it:

An earlier version of this article, which was adapted from a forthcoming book, did not include one element of the book's account regarding an assertion by a Yale classmate that friends of Brett Kavanaugh pushed his penis into the hand of a female student at a drunken dorm party. The book reports that the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say that she does not recall the incident. That information has been added to the article.

That’s certainly a pretense to integrity, isn’t?

In the Fox News story we encountered two boon companions of modern journalism, ignorance and exaggeration (“abandoned any pretext”). We’ll meet them again. But let’s say howdy to a couple other good buddies who frequent the news saloon: pomposity and obscurantism.

The person behind the apparently false allegation was one Max Stier, whom the Times reporters call in their book a “respected thought leader.” “Oh!” you may be thinking, “I wish I could get that job!” But who is this respected leader of thought? He is one of the multitude of people, as numberless as the stars of heaven, who have labored in the vineyard of William Jefferson and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Stier worked as a lawyer for Bill when he (Bill) got into one of his adult sex scrapes. Nowadays, however, Stier is ritually identified in news stories as the head of a nonprofit organization. How nice that sounds! No profits! Nothing to deflect him from the pursuit of truth, justice, and the American way. The name of his org is The Partnership for Public Service.

Pompous? Oh, yes. And when you see a smarmy title like that, you sense right away that you’re dealing with a boatload of obscurantism. According to Wiki, the Partnership’s “mission is to inspire a new generation of civil servants and transform the way government works.” I gather that what this means is lobbying for higher pay and greater prestige for government employees, but you can struggle with the Wiki thing yourself.

Buttinskis, the most appropriate name for clerics involved in politics, is far too erudite to be known to journalists.

If you want a fuller experience of gobbledygook, you can go to the Partnership’s website. You can also visit another site, where you will find that someone — probably Stier — wants you to believe that “under his leadership, the Partnership has been widely praised as a first-class nonprofit organization and thought leader on federal government management issues.” Thought leader! A first-class thought leader! A widely praised first-class thought leader!

Stier was the first thought leader I’d ever heard of, but I soon discovered that I was behind the curve. The bizarre locution had been planting itself in our language for several years. As early as 2017 it was being analyzed and rejected, from several points of view. But let’s consider the basic issue: In what way could thought leader not be applied, with equal accuracy, to Martha Stewart, Joseph Stalin, Kamala Harris, Lisa Simpson, Smokey Bear, the Witch of the West? Everyone — well, everyone except journalists — has thoughts or influences thoughts. “But oh! That’s not what it means!” OK. Then what does it mean?

Surely it means even less than its repulsive first cousin, faith leader, the history of which I reviewed in the December 2018 edition of this column. Faith leader is what atheist journalists call ministers, priests, rabbis, and imams, on occasions when they’re doing something that atheists like. (When they’re not doing it, they’re rightwing preachers.) To call them religious leaders — supposing that they actually lead anybody — would be just too creepy, too religious, to appear in a news puff. Buttinskis, the most appropriate name for clerics involved in politics, is far too erudite to be known to journalists.

There are, however, expressions that mean still less than thought leader. The death of TV personality Cokie Roberts brought one up. The nation — or at least I — was astonished to learn that Roberts had been one of several people whom the Library of Congress assumed the authority to consecrate as living legends.

For many years Joe Biden has been a leading figure in the movement to create an illiterate America.

Do other countries have such beings? In America, of course, the precedent had been set by Elvis Presley. According to the inscription on his tomb, Elvis was “a living legend in his own time.” Omitting the redundancy (“in his own time”) still doesn’t make this sensible. A legend isn’t a person; a legend is a story, a mythic story. There are no myths of Cokie Roberts — a fact seemingly unknown to that embodiment of learning, that incubator of thought leaders, the Library of Congress.

Whether we have reason to demand literacy from the Presley family, or from Donald Trump, is another question. Surely we cannot expect it from former vice presidents now aspiring to the presidency. For many years Joe Biden has been a leading figure — if you will, a living legend — in the movement to create an illiterate America; and he is still capable of topping his earlier performances. Few illiterates could outdo his response, on or about September 13, to the question of how Americans can “repair the legacy of slavery.” Enslavement is not a legacy that anyone would want to see restored, refurbished, or repaired, but never mind; the illiterate question received an illiterate answer. “Well,” Biden said,

they have to deal with the . . . Look, there is institutional segregation in this country. And from the time I got involved, I started dealing with that. Redlining, banks, making sure that we are in a position where—

Look, we talk about education. I propose that what we take is those very poor schools, the Title 1 schools, triple the amount of money we spend from $15 to $45 billion a year. Give every single teacher a raise to the equal of . . . A raise of getting out of the $60,000 level.

No. 2, make sure that we bring in to the help with the stud— the teachers deal with the problems that come from home. The problems that come from home, we need . . . We have one school psychologist for every 1,500 kids in America today. It’s crazy. The teachers are required — I’m married to a teacher. My deceased wife is a teacher. [Where, in heaven?] They have every problem coming to them.

Make sure that every single child does, in fact, have three, four, and five-year-olds go to school. School! Not day care, school. We bring social workers into homes of parents to help them deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help. They don’t know what — They don’t know what quite what to do. Play the radio. Make sure the television — excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night. The phone — make sure the kids hear words. A kid coming from a very poor school — er, a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time they get there.

He said more, but I’ll leave it at that. I used to think that Trump’s sentences were gruesome, but he’s James Madison compared to Biden.

Now that I’m making allusions to a glorious, perhaps legendary, past, I’ll take up another issue. In case you haven’t noticed it, this is a great age of verbal abuse. No one writes about presidential politics without abusing either Trump or his opponents. Sometimes I think that nobody writes about anybody without abusing somebody. But this is not the first age of abuse — far from it. The difference is that abuse was formerly a lot more literate. The genre is capable of much refinement, and during the course of history it had been improved so much by cultured users that it could be read with profit and delight by intelligent men and women, even when they disagreed with what they read.

I used to think that Trump’s sentences were gruesome, but he’s James Madison compared to Biden.

Whoever characterized the Middle West as “a vast parking lot for human Fords” was a literate person who knew what to do with his literacy. H.L. Mencken’s obituary of William Jennings Bryan was often unfair but always literate — and incomparably vivid. Speaking of Bryan’s last days, he wrote:

It was plain to everyone that the old Berseker Bryan was gone — that all that remained of him was a pair of glaring and horrible eyes.

But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment's notice.

That was written almost a hundred years ago. Now I come to now.

Unlike many other people, I do not regard “social media” as portents of a new Dark Age. The ability to express oneself spontaneously and seek one’s own audience has allowed millions of people, many of them obscure and uneducated, to develop real though previously latent literary skills. I wrote about this when the internet was relatively new (“The Truth vs. the Truth,” Liberty, September-October 2003), and I’d say the same thing today. But electronic media have also made it easy for would-be thought leaders to display their sheer contempt for skill, reflection, freshness, humor, pathos, real intensity — any literary virtue. This is particularly notable when one considers the once-stimulating genre of political abuse.

Everyone can think of instances; they never stop. Some were recently discovered in the online oeuvre of Gordon (“Max”) Heyworth, former aide to freshman Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.). Heyworth apparently helped Spanberger craft the kind of moderate image that might get a Democrat elected in what has been called a Republican district. Among his duties were writing her speeches and “developing communications,” whatever that means. But then the Richmond Times-Dispatch revealed some of Heyworth’s own communications, and Spanberger (a follower of Heyworth’s Twitter account) had to issue a statement bearing the dreaded “d” word: disappointed. She said she was “deeply disappointed to learn about [his] tweets.” Poor lady! You feel sorry for her, don’t you?

Even libertarians engage in stuff like this, imagining that it turns them into H.L. Mencken. But they are not H.L. Mencken.

But the tweets show that Heyworth himself was disappointed, and chronically so. He was especially saddened by Republicans who called for productive work across party lines. And he gave voice to his disappointment. He called one of those discouraging people "a mindless cretin without any sense of service to [his] country. the worst type of American, a sniveling, brain-dead propagandist and a f--- dullard. . . . A guy who publicly fellates a mean-spirited brute like Trump . . . can take his pleas for kindness and shove them all the way up his tiny little a-- ." Another such person, a college kid, got shorter shrift. He was “a f--- p--." As for "all remaining Trump supporters,” they were “racist white supremacists. Every last one of them. No exceptions."

Nothing is easier, or more illiterate, than to memorize a list of insults and drop them into your sentences, pretty much at random. Anyone can do that, all day long. The odd thing is that so many of these people are, like Mr. Heyworth, thought leaders. Even libertarian thought leaders engage in stuff like this, imagining that it turns them into H.L. Mencken. But they are not H.L. Mencken. Mencken didn’t write under another name and then delete his courageous utterances, once his identity was discovered (that’s what Heyworth did), and he didn’t respond to criticism by lashing out even more self-righteously at his critics (which is often the so-called libertarian way). When Mencken was attacked, he published a book — Menckeniana: A Schimpflexikon — reprinting the attacks; he wanted readers to have a convenient collection of the clumsy, mean-spirited words that had been flung at him.

I picked up mean-spirited from Heyworth’s list of insults, and it’s another key to the difference between ignorant insulters and writers who, like Mencken, make insults into art. Mencken had many faults, but they were not the faults of which he accused other people. He was not a job-seeker, a bawler, or a time-server. And he was not dull. But today’s verbal abusers project themselves — infallibly, as if they were the bearers of a gypsy curse — as precisely the mean-spirited dullards, mindless cretins, and brain-dead propagandists they deplore. Although I refuse to employ their own favorite word and call them racists, they are at least race-obsessed; and although they are not white supremacists, they are usually white, and their tone insistently proclaims their assumption of supremacy: “no exceptions.”

For the benefit of future generations I need to stipulate that the two people mentioned in this headline are presently candidates for the presidency.

One exception to the misuse-of-abuse syndrome was presented this month by an unexpected source: President Trump. His tweeted critique of the-world-is-ending climate-change fanatic Greta Thunberg departed from his ordinary manner, and from the manner of the like-minded people who accused Miss Thunberg’s minders of “child abuse” for letting her or inducing her to go on in the way she does. Trump tweeted: “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”

But let’s abandon thought leaders to their supreme thoughts, and have a really healthy laugh. This month there was a funny headline on Fox News; lots of them are funny, but I found one of them particularly so. For the benefit of future generations I need to stipulate that the two people mentioned in this headline are presently candidates for the presidency. So here it is: “Buttigieg, Klobuchar seated behind each other on plane ahead of Dem presidential debate.” Picture that, willya?

This headline was published on September 10. It took Fox News two days to change it to its current form: “Buttigieg, Klobuchar seated near each other on plane ahead of Dem presidential debate.” Somebody finally read the thing.




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From Facts to Frenzies

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I’m familiar with the philosophical — or perhaps anti-philosophical — idea that the words we use cannot be judged by their relationship to the realities they try to represent, that we all have our own “language,” that language is not representational but expressive, and that the deployment of words creates reality rather than mirroring it. I find this a depressing idea. I would not want to live in one of those incompatible language “worlds.” And I do not believe that I live in one. Except right now.

On August 13, Shepard Smith, one of the ickiest people in the Fox News lineup, “reported” on the sit-in at the Hong Kong airport, and on the minor acts of violence that occurred between protestors and police. “It was an unimaginable occurrence, that police should come into this place at this time,” Smith said. Here is a private language, if there ever was one. In the Smithian tongue, August 13 was a sacred day, a day on which the cosmos prohibited violence; and the Hong Kong airport was the place where, above all other places, violence could never occur. That it did was therefore unimaginable. To me, on the contrary, it was so far from being unimaginable that . . . Look! He was talking about something that we were both watching on the Fox feed from Hong Kong!

You might argue, and you would be right, that the cause of such weird ripples in existence is anything but philosophical; it is, instead, merely rhetorical — an hysterical impulse, chronic in our era, to inflate rhetoric beyond the confines of reality. But you would be wrong to argue that it isn’t important, and isn’t troubling.

Here is a private language, if there ever was one.

People who want to blame President Trump for legitimizing this impulse have some reason to do so. This month, he reached a rhetorical zenith with a series of tweets (August 23) about the trade war with China:

Our Country has lost, stupidly, Trillions of Dollars with China over many years. They have stolen our Intellectual Property at a rate of Hundreds of Billions of Dollars a year, & they want to continue. I won’t let that happen! We don’t need China and, frankly, would be far … better off without them. The vast amounts of money made and stolen by China from the United States, year after year, for decades, will and must STOP.

I’m not an expert on trade, so I don’t know whether we have a level playing field with China. I do know that the way to lower tariffs on both sides is usually to raise or threaten to raise your own. I know that the Chinese appropriate other people’s patents without paying for them. (Whether patents are, on balance, a good idea is another matter.) But I’ve noticed that when people talk about trillions of dollars and vast amounts of money and year after year, for decades, and when they join such terms as made with such terms as stolen so as to shift discussion from the first term to the second, without defining either, they are generally talking through their hats. If you don’t believe me, listen to any speech by Bernie Sanders.

In the next particle of tweet, however, Trump sent the rhetorical escalator through the roof:

Our great American companies are hereby ordered to immediately start looking for an alternative to China, including bringing your companies HOME and making your products in the USA.

No one, probably not even Trump, believes that he has the power to order anyone to look for new business locations, even if he puts a hereby on the order. The pumped up rhetoric was useless as well as stupid, unless it was intended to wreck the home economy. Trump’s tirade sent the stock market down 623 points.

People who want to blame President Trump for legitimizing this impulse have some reason to do so.

The president’s mad identification with King Canute, who reputedly ordered the tides to halt, had good precedent. Let us return to those thrilling days of yesteryear when Barack Obama was the nation’s inspirer in chief. Let us return specifically to June 3, 2008, when Obama celebrated the primary victory that ensured his nomination for the presidency. He told a cheering throng:

Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on earth.

It’s hard to get more inflated than that, short of the millennium. Many people have noticed Obama’s pomposity about extending the life of our planet, but notice that he also proposed to extend our own lives. How else could he foresee that “generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children”?

But let’s look back to Trump. The day on which his rhetoric so dismayed the stock market was just a normal day for other people’s rhetorical attempts to destroy him. That was a day on which his former staffer Anthony Scaramucci likened him to murderous cult leader Jim Jones; Obama honcho David Axelrod tweeted that if Justice Ginsburg leaves the Supreme Court and the administration tries to replace her before the next election, which Trump would surely do, “it will tear this country apart”; and media activist Frederick Joseph observed the death of libertarian philanthropist David Koch by tweeting: “David Koch is gone. It’s a celebration. But imagine the turn up when orange satan is taken back to hell.” He added a video clip of basketball fans madly cheering.

It’s hard to get more inflated than that, short of the millennium.

It’s difficult to get more hateful, or more childish, than this, and a measure of the childishness is that the practitioners of that kind of abuse seem incapable of entertaining the obvious reflection that they themselves may be tearing the country apart, acting like cult demagogues, spitting like storybook Satans, and so forth.

While their volume increases, the scope of their invectives expands, as if they knew that superheated rhetoric quickly eats up its fuel, and more supplies need to be located. New targets must be found, and new ways to abuse them. And so they are. It’s not just Trump who’s fair game; it’s Trump’s supporters. Three years ago they were discovered to be deplorables; then it was noticed that they were abhorrent working-class white males (note how far the Left has moved from its authentic social-democratic roots), white women without college degrees (same comment), and of course racists. And not just racists but (invoking the language of the old Alabama Democratic Party) white supremacists.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much new fuel in that forest. Racism is hard to pin on anyone, even the most deserving objects, when you try to pin it on everyone; and people who want to think they’re smart have been deriding the working class as long as there’s been one. To vary my already mixed metaphors, this is like 18th-century tobacco farming, which involved planting the same crop over and over, until there was nothing left of the land. But people kept trying, and so does . . . Beto O’Rourke.

Practitioners of that kind of abuse seem incapable of entertaining the obvious reflection that they themselves may be tearing the country apart.

O’Rourke lately caused as much of a sensation as is possible for him to cause anymore by suggesting that he didn’t really want to say it (especially when he’s out cadging votes), but yeah, all the people who voted for Trump are racists. On August 11, CNN host Jake Tapper got him on the subject:

“Almost 63 million Americans voted for [Trump]. Do you think it is racist to vote for President Trump in 2020?”

There was a long pause from O’Rourke before he said, “I think it’s really hard.”

But actually, as Walter Williams, who is black, conservative, and funny, remarked, “Being a racist is easy today.” Formerly you had to say or do racist things. The responsibility was on you. Now you can just sit back and let people like Beto confer racism upon you, like an honorary degree.

Be that as it may, I’m going to miss Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke when he shuffles off the mortal coil of his presidential campaign and no longer appears on television, unless by accident, in the crowd watching a frisbee competition. He’s a dependable benchmark for the height of frenzy and the depth of illiteracy that is tolerated in today’s putatively serious discourse. Here’s an example. In another appearance before Jake Tapper (August 4), he affirmed that Trump is not only a “white nationalist” but an “open, avowed racist.” I realize that Beto may have trouble with the meaning of avowed, but I thought that open was not a difficult term. Just for frosting, O’Rourke said that Trump’s ideas, or words, or take your pick, “are reminiscent of something you might hear in the Third Reich.” He instanced Trump’s alleged conviction that people are “inherently defective or dangerous” “based on” several things, including “their sexual orientation.” Right. That’s the Donald Trump who appointed Rick Grenell ambassador to Germany. Grenell has been named, by that august authority, Wikipedia, “the highest ranking openly gay American official ever.”

Let’s move from Betoland to a higher (ahem!) intellectual plateau. On August 25, a professor from Duke University, one Allen Frances, joined the choir of CNN Trump denouncers and showed what happens when professors try to reason. Trump, he said, “needs to be contained, but he needs to be contained by attacking his policies, not his person” — a reasonable reflection, but somewhat odd when it comes immediately after: "Trump is as destructive a person in this century, as Hitler, Stalin, and Mao were in the last century. He may be responsible for many more million deaths than they were.” Frances did have compunctions about calling Trump crazy, I think because he wanted to say something very funny and clever about him: "Lumping the mentally ill with Trump is a terrible insult to the mentally ill and they have enough problems." But that didn’t keep Frances from claiming that all the voters are nuts: "Calling Trump crazy hides the fact that we’re crazy, for having elected him and even crazier for allowing his crazy policies to persist."

I realize that Beto may have trouble with the meaning of "avowed," but I thought that "open" was not a difficult term.

Nota bene: This is one of those “we’s” that really mean “you.” You need algebra to get at these high professorial significations, but when you finally grok one of ‘em, wow! What a zinger!

Since Frances is a professor of psychiatry, one may be interested in seeing how he diagnoses mental illness. How can he tell whether you or I or the whole American electorate is “crazy”? It’s simpler than you might have thought. You just look at the policies that people endorse:

"It’s crazy for us to be destroying the climate our children will live in. It’s crazy to be giving tax cuts to the rich that will add trillions of dollars to the debt," Frances added. "It’s crazy to be destroying our democracy by claiming that the press and the courts are the enemy of the people."

I hate to think what he would say if somebody alleged that there may be something goofy about psychiatrists.

Of course, I could go on all day, culling flowers of anti-Trump invective. But even Sleepy Joe Biden, as Trump calls him, is not immune from over-the-top critiques. Every day, his enemies, both Left and Right, are out in the field, hunting for gaffes; and every day, they find them. It would be pleasant for the nation to be permitted to enjoy these things for what they are, the follies of an old fool. But too bad for us: low-decibel chuckling is now impermissible, barely conceivable; moral outrage must always be kicked into life. Thus, when Biden observed, on August 8, that “poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids," he was widely criticized, as if he himself were a racist. “Look,” he said. “I misspoke,” and that should have been the end of it. Naturally, it wasn’t. And note: when Biden intends to say something mean, it doesn’t just slip out. My favorite example is the charge he leveled against Republicans in a prepared speech on August 14, 2012, before a crowd that included lots of black people. Faking — badly faking — an African American accent, he said, “They gone put y’all back in chains!” Did I indict Trump and Obama for the rise in rhetorical fakery? There’s a lot of responsibility to be shared.

How can he tell whether you or I or the whole American electorate is “crazy”? It’s simpler than you might have thought.

How shall this stuff be contained? Two known correctives for over-stimulated rhetoric are (A) humor and (B) fact. When used, they work. One of this month’s rhetorical events was the ridicule that greeted the remarks of CNN’s Chris Cillizza about the purchase of Alaska (1867). Cillizza, a reliable source of hot air, was reacting to reports of President Trump’s bizarre desire to purchase Greenland. Jazzed by this new opportunity of blaring his opinions — “Donald Trump has a lot of wild ideas as president. Buying Greenland may be one of the most unorthodox. But it's also not one of his worst” (got that?) — Cillizza produced a column adorned with hasty, pointless, wiki-style recaps of history, such as:

One of the last times the United States bought land from a foreign country was in 1867, when Seward orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians for $7.2 million. It didn't work out so well — and has gone down as 'Seward's Folly' in the history books.

There were outcries from readers, so CNN — not Cilizza, who had vanished from the scene — issued a revision of the article, annotated in this way:

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correctly state the history of US land purchases.

The new version says of the Alaska purchase:

It was heavily criticized at the time — and has gone down as “Seward’s Folly” in the history books.

One would like to know what “history book” pronounces this judgment, but never mind. The passage shows how dully conservative, as well as just plain daffy, the notions of “progressive” media can be. Oh horrors, to be joked about in children’s books! And oh horrors, to be heavily criticized at the time — along with medical hygiene, racial equality, women’s right to vote, and other follies.

Nevertheless, the rhetoric had been tempered — a little. Alaska was no longer an unspeakably hopeless case. An island of relative calm had appeared in the sea of verbal frenzy. We’ll see whether an archipelago emerges, and whether anyone is content to live on it.




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The Possession Fallacy

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One of America’s most enduring, and at least faintly humorous, historical images is that of Europeans landing someplace on the continent and claiming everything from there to the next ocean as the property of the high and mighty prince, King Such and Such of Somewhere.

On June 14, 1671, Francois Daumont, Sieur de St. Lusson, an agent of that most puissant monarch Louis XIV, stood at “the Soo,” the rapids of the St. Mary’s River, and took possession of the Great Lakes, Manitoulin Island, and “all other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto, as well discovered as to be discovered, which are bounden on the one side by the northern and Western seas and on the other side by the South Sea including all its length and breadth.” “This formula,” says F. Clever Bald, the historian of Michigan, “he repeated three times.”

The ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

There is a verbal equivalent. It is the act of seizing on some word or concept and using it to impose your standards of morality, history, or logic on everything that could possibly be related to it. Let’s call this the Possession Fallacy. It might also be called, colloquially, Blab It and Grab It, after an idea current in American Christianity. Some evangelical Christians have the notion that if you pray for something in the right way, if you name it in your prayers, then you are also making a legitimate claim to it, and God must give it to you. The idea is known by Christians who espouse it as Name It and Claim It; by Christians who are skeptical about it as Blab It and Grab It. In either case, the ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

Ours is the great age of self-righteousness, and therefore of the Possession Fallacy. It’s always absurd, but one of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history, simply by pretending that “Republican” and “Democrat” mean today what they meant, say, 150 years ago. Sean Hannity, who knows less about history than anyone but the inhabitants of the House of Representatives, has been doing this for years. Rather than quoting Hannity, who never says anything in less than 1,000 words, I’ll quote an essay published this month in the Aspen Times. Attacking the “hypocrisy” of present-day Democrats, it says:

It was the Dems who defended slavery against the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln; it was the Dems who were behind racial segregation in the South; it was the Dems who opposed civil rights laws; and it was the Dems who bombed government buildings and attacked policemen during civil unrest in the ’60.

It was the Dems of the Ku Klux Klan who lynched blacks and occasionally Jews, and persecuted Catholics.

Et cetera. Some of this is pure nonsense: it was communists, not Democrats, who bombed government buildings. But the deep nonsense is the idea that because some Democrats did X, Y, or Z, this means something about all Democrats — or Republicans — who have ever lived. Anyone who read a book could write endless numbers of sentences in the same form: “It was the national Republicans who advocated Prohibition, while the national Democrats resisted it. It was the Republicans who victimized working people with high tariffs and a national bank, while the Democrats insisted on low taxes, hard money, and decentralized banking. It was Republicans who represented white Southerners in opposition to Northern Democrats during the conflicts over civil rights.” Et cetera.

Slipping into my perpetual role as Mammy lecturing Miz Scarlett: I done tole you an tole you, the two American political parties are organizations designed to get votes. (See, for instance, Liberty, February 2005, pp. 19–24.) Seeking this prey, they wander across the ideological and historical landscape, vacuuming up ballots wherever they can reach them. There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

One of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history.

How preposterous it is to act as if, by saying the name of a political organization spanning generations of history, you can score points either for or against it. This is almost as preposterous as the Left’s current attempt to get its way by labeling people of the distant past as “racists,” “sexists,” “imperialists,” and what not. In today’s terms, Jefferson was a racist, as was virtually the entire population of the world. What are we to deduce from this? That he should be treated as racists are justifiably treated today? Here the assumption is that some leftist agitator, who like Hannity has never read a real book, has the right to name and claim Jefferson’s reputation, on the basis of his own moral superiority — which is quite an assumption in itself. Or is it the idea that not only Jefferson’s memory but also his principles should be treated as those of a racist? “All other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto . . .”

There’s never been a moment in my lifetime when someone wasn’t discovering that the Declaration of Independence is, in the present vocabulary, racist and sexist: racist, because Jefferson was a slaveholder, and sexist, because the document says that “all men are created equal.” If the Declaration were a cow, this would be a constant attempt to rebrand her. But words have meanings, no matter who wrote them, and these particular words, correctly understood in their obvious meaning, provided the intellectual foundation of the abolition movement. When, 81 years after the Declaration, in the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that they didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone — including slaveholders, who were happy to hear this new interpretation. As for women — if Jefferson had wanted to say “males” he would have said “males.” The default meaning of “men” in almost every period and region of the English language has been “human beings, people.” Those who assert that “men” equals “males,” unless proven innocent, are trying to snatch the common language and claim it as their own.

There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

There has lately been a competition to see who can use the Possession Fallacy in the most egregious way. The game is very aggressively played, but right now, Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke, candidate for president, appears to be ahead. O’Rourke kindly interrupted his demanding campaign schedule for some informational “speaking with immigrants and refugees,” and told them:

Here we are in Nashville, I know this from my home state of Texas, those places that formed the Confederacy, that this country was founded on white supremacy and every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects the legacy of the slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression, even in our democracy.

O’Rourke’s syntax was characteristically muddled, but there’s general agreement that by “this country” he meant the United States of America, not the Confederate States of America — although the latter actually was founded on white supremacy, and the former was not, unless you agree with Chief Justice Taney. So he was talking about the United States when he said that “every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects” racist practices, up to and including slavery.

When people use the Possession Fallacy, they’re ordinarily making a claim to the whole ranch and every cow on it, whether or not they know how many cows there are, or, indeed, have ever seen a cow. If they went the other way and tried to gather all the cows that bore their brand, they might not come up with any. To put this in a different manner: Possession can usually be identified as a fallacy when you ask the possessor to name the specifics, and he can’t come up with any. In most cases, asking that question is a waste of time; the most he’ll do is point at Ol’ Bossy and some theoretical cow on the other side of the hill, and that will be enough for him to keep claiming that he owns the whole county.

When, 81 years after the Declaration, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that its words didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone.

But you can ask yourself some questions. What do you suppose would be on O’Rourke’s list of “every single institution and structure”? Does the Presbyterian Church still reek of racism? How about “Sesame Street”? The NAACP? Planned Parenthood? The Democratic Party, USA? Is that what elected O’Rourke to Congress — a racist system? These are just the first questions that came to my own mind. I could expand the list. So could you. I think it would be fun to include all the big-government programs that Beto voted to fund. Since, by his own declaration, these are all racist, he must be a racist too, and an especially sneaky one, since most of those “institutions and structures” are purported to be anti-racist.

Sorry; I’m just taking his words seriously. And that’s the problem for users of the Possession Fallacy. If they want to possess everything, they’re making themselves responsible for everything.

Jeffrey Epstein certainly has a lot to be responsible for, but former President Clinton once tried to take on even more responsibility: he made a strenuous attempt to possess Jeffrey Epstein. Clinton stepped up to the plate, shouldered the burden, bit the bullet, and went whole hog. In 2002, on one of the four trips that Clinton says he took on Epstein’s private plane, he and some (other) people from the world of entertainment journeyed to Africa to “tour HIV/AIDS project sites.” It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them. How was it possible to explain this lavish expenditure of wealth on the egos of Epstein’s junketing celebrities? The answer seemed easy: just appropriate every concept of technocratic goodness you can think of, and deed the whole thing to Mr. Epstein, who would, by association, deed it back to Mr. Clinton and the other gawkers, making it their lawful property. “Through a spokesman” Clinton described the enormous intellectual ranch on which Epstein’s charitable cows were nurtured:

Jeffrey is both a highly successful financier and a committed philanthropist with a keen sense of global markets and an in-depth knowledge of twenty-first-century science. I especially appreciated his insights and generosity during the recent trip to Africa to work on democratization, empowering the poor, citizen service, and combating HIV/AIDS.

Clinton left out the part about raising the dead. He didn’t want to go too far.

It would have been interesting if anyone had asked Clinton to discuss some specific features of the vast mental property notionally possessed by Jeffrey Epstein, college dropout, high school math teacher, options trader, and consultant for a Ponzi scheme. He might have been asked to say what he meant by the large term citizen service. I don’t have a clue. Neither can I guess what he meant by in-depth, democratization, empowering the poor, or work on (when used of people taking a jaunt on a billionaire’s plane). Clinton, presumably, could have said what he meant, because he had made himself the owner and possessor of these phrases. But he didn’t, and I suspect he never will. He is now at pains to indicate that he barely knew Jeffrey Epstein — although he is not at pains to distance himself from the wonderful work that Epstein once helped to finance. He still wants contributions for that.

It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them.

This is one of the ways in which conceptual mortgages come due. There are others. Let’s return to O’Rourke’s our democracy, a sappy phrase if ever there was one. I remember it from my ninth-grade civics text. Even then, it seemed childish. Like so many other uses of our, it was an obvious attempt to make kids think that they owned something they could not possibly own: our history, our families, our ideals, our cities, our highways, and so forth. The idea seemed to be that it wasn’t enough to praise motherhood and apple pie; one had to speak of our motherhood and our apple pie.

This tactic has now been sickeningly revived by Democrats maddened by the election of Trump. For them, nearly everything in political life involves Trump’s attacks on our democracy. The popularity of our democracy now eclipses that of the equally icky in this country, which the Democrats always used to tack onto the end of their sentences: “We must fix healthcare in this country”; “We must enable everyone to vote in this country”; “We must build more affordable housing in this country.” As you can see, in this country was the kind of phrase that nags use. It was a bitchy reminder that America is not exceptional; it is a country like every other country, no better, no worse, except that it’s worse. The phrase went nicely with only country in the world: “America is the only country in the world that lacks universal healthcare.” Such statements were never likelier to be true than the pious our country phrases, but they had a critical edge. Progressives would die rather than say in our country, but in this country came readily to their lips. Eventually, even the Republicans took it up, reciting it with the zombie-like expression of people who don’t know what they’re saying — which they didn’t.

Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother.

Now our democracy is the obsessive phrase. Inevitably, Republicans have started using this one too, but in any statement made by a Democratic politician you can depend on hearing it four or five times. If you can believe US Representative Elijah Cummings (D, MD), it has spread to the general public. Cummings told ABC: “No matter where I go, what I'm hearing over and over again from my constituents is, ‘Please save our democracy.’"

This is a clear example of the Possession Fallacy. Here is a phrase with no literal meaning, a succession of sounds with as much connection to reality as the incantations of the Sieur de St. Lusson, but intended to lay claim to a continent full of ideas and attitudes. No one says what kind of “democracy” is implied, or what kind of ownership is denoted by “our.” It is merely assumed that the speaker knows the meaning, even as a carpenter knows his tools, and that he is eminently qualified, even as a master carpenter is qualified, to determine this tool’s proper use in shaping the otherwise recalcitrant materials of life. In the present crisis in our democracy, the recalcitrant material is the monster Trump. If there is one thing that is clear about our democracy, it’s that our democracy is anything other than what Trump is about. Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother. To talk of motherhood is to deny the existence of Americans who are not mothers. Let us talk instead of our democracy.

The distasteful thing — well, there are a lot of distasteful things, but one distasteful thing — about our democracy is that it’s a double trick of possession. The first is the implicit but dogmatic assertion that the speaker knows what it means and, without any pretense of defining it, can make it the basis of argument. The second is that while pointedly excluding some people from membership in the mystical social union (Trump, or whomever) it suggests that you, whoever you are, actually own the thing. “Our” means “mine and yours."

From "my" to "our" to "your," the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

Perhaps you think that Robert Francis O’Rourke isn’t smart enough to play tricks on anybody, but you must remember that he didn’t invent this little act; he’s just copying others’ performance. But there’s a third trick going on — did you notice it? It’s the owning-not owning trick. “Our” is first a way of appropriating a concept for private use; then it’s a way of coopting the audience into feeling as if it owned the thing too; and then (the third trick) it’s a way of leaving the audience holding the bag. Beto isn’t saying that he is responsible for the racism of our democracy. How could he be?

He wants you to vote for him. He’s saying that you are responsible. From my to our to your, the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

And that’s how the Possession Fallacy works. It’s a means of forcing responsibility on other people for one’s own acts of ownership. I make something up, and you’re supposed to believe it. If you do, you’ll be the one who pays.




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Untruths Unlimited

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In his autobiography, The Prince of Darkness (2007), Robert Novak, a “Washington journalist” who could actually write, describes his weird encounters with former President Jimmy Carter. Early in Carter’s campaign for the presidency (1976), Novak caught him in several lies about his experiences and associates, and published a short column describing Carter’s “fibs.” Carter’s organization produced a refutation, and his press secretary told Novak that according to Carter, he was the liar.

The next time Novak talked with Carter, the sanctimonious politician — “who at every campaign stop said, ‘I’ll never lie to you,’” — told him, “Bob, you have done me a grave injustice and you may well have damaged my candidacy. But that’s not what bothers me. I’m just sorry that you have such a low opinion of me. That really hurts me.” Novak replied, “I’m sorry you feel that way” — only to be told that by the end of the day, Carter had been telling another reporter, “Bob Novak apologized to me. He said he was sorry he wrote the column.”

“After the Iowa incident,” Novak writes, “I became convinced I was too soft in my column by talking about ‘fibbing.’ Jimmy Carter was a habitual liar who modified the truth to suit his purposes” (pp. 285–87).

By the end of the day, Carter was telling another reporter, “Bob Novak apologized to me. He said he was sorry he wrote the column.”

“So what?” you may say. “Politics is full of untruth.” But it’s fascinating to see how many forms untruth can take — and do it with perfect innocence. I don’t mean that the people who create the lies — remember, truth just exists; untruth has to be created — aren’t aware of what they’re saying. They often spend hours and days and polls and counselors and, as the song says, “pretty maids all in a row,” laboriously concocting their nonsense. Yet they may still retain a Jimmy Carter air of naiveté. No one could have lied more, or more ridiculously, than Hillary Clinton in the matter of her illicit emails. Who can forget her riposte to the question about whether she had wiped her server? “What?” she laughed. “Like with a cloth or something?” She uttered this idiocy in the childlike enjoyment of saying something smart. Perhaps with her, as with Carter, the best thing about lying is the feeling of liberation that comes from knowing that, no matter what nonsense one foists on one’s friends and fellow countrymen, one is still pure and right and innocent and wise and clever, after all, and all at the same time. Ain’t I cute?

An old saying — a saying conjecturally attributed by Mark Twain to Benjamin Disraeli — holds that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” But there are more, countless more. In the incident just cited, Jimmy Carter created what can be called a five-dimensional lie: first he lied, then he branded as a liar the person who discovered his lies, then he lied about his attitude toward the discoverer, then he falsely claimed that the discoverer had acknowledged his lie — and he did so in a way that would send this latest lie back to the person he was lying about.

Joseph Robinette (“Joe”) Biden, Jr. is a one-dimensional liar. He just tells one lie after another, apparently unable to control himself. He has never filtered his statements for truth, except, apparently, to keep it out. In 1987 he was run out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination after it was discovered (easily) that he had plagiarized his statements about his personal history from some (odd) remarks of a leader of the British Labour Party about his own history. This disaster did not diminish Biden’s taste for lies. That taste continues, as shown in a report from June 12:

"Know what I was most proud of?" he said, in reference to former president Barack Obama's presidency. "For eight years, there wasn't one single hint of a scandal or a lie," he told a cheering crowd.

It’s not clear whether the crowd consisted entirely of mental defectives or of the kind of people who cheer a magician for falsely claiming to have sawed a lady in half. Maybe it was both kinds — because only a dimwit could mistake Biden for a magician.

Joe Biden just tells one lie after another, apparently unable to control himself.

Still more dramatic evidence of his aversion to truth appeared on June 11, when he told a crowd in Ottumwa, Iowa:

I promise you if I’m elected president, you’re going to see the single most important thing that changes America, we’re gonna cure cancer.

“The statement,” we are told, “drew applause from the [demented?] audience.”

This type of lie deserves its own special name. Let’s call it a promissory lie, a lie that would get you sued or even sent to jail if it appeared on a legal document. It’s not the kind of statement that can be interpreted in virtually any way and is therefore too meaningless to qualify as a lie. Donald Trump’s “We’ll make America great again” can mean almost anything except “We’ll make America not-great again.” “We’re gonna cure cancer” has a more restrictive and actionable meaning.

A striking characteristic of today’s Fair Field of Falsehoods is the fact that many of its obvious untruths go unnoticed, because most people assume it is immoral to see them for what they are. These are virtue falsehoods. Public schools, we are told, are failing because they aren’t given enough money. People live on the streets, we learn, because they can’t find affordable housing. Healthcare, we hear, as we receive our routine hip replacements and cataract surgeries, is broken.

This type of lie deserves its own special name. Let’s call it a promissory lie, a lie that would get you sued or even sent to jail if it appeared on a legal document.

In my town, a supermarket chain runs an ad for food donations, or some such thing, alleging: “One in six San Diego kids don’t know where their next meal is coming from.” A website provides the mess of “statistics” from which this alarming statement appears to come: it mixes “food insecure” with “at risk of hunger,” and both with “do not know where their next meal comes from,” meanwhile proclaiming rather than admitting that “36% of children at risk of hunger in San Diego County are not eligible for federal nutrition programs (free or reduced-price school lunch or breakfast).” So 64% are eligible, eh? Now, I’m sure there are some hungry children, somewhere in town. There are such things as neglectful parents — and tax-funded agencies to deal with them. But I don’t know what it means to say that “the estimated annual meal gap for Feeding San Diego’s service area is 61,524,500 meals.” I am sure that hungry people do not constitute one-sixth or one-sixtieth of the “kid” population. Where are these hordes of (potentially) starving children? No one sees them. Perhaps no one really, concretely, imagines that they exist. Yet virtuous people are supposed to ignore the evidence of their experience and piously go with the program.

Evasion of the truth need not be conscious. The unconscious mind works busily at the task. It has plenty of techniques for performing it. No professional writer has to focus very hard on the problem of getting through a story without stating a truth that may result in accusations of thought crime. You don’t have to lie; you just have to say things that will license a lie. Hence those saving clichés of journalism — only time will tell, some observers suggest, opinion is divided. “Some observers suggest that communist governments impoverish their countries, but opinion is divided; only time will tell whether this will happen in Venezuela.” Even when the time comes, it usually stays mum. Why be brutally honest?

How to write about this in a "serious" manner, without offending any unserious people?

Consider the clichés of evasion in a recent report on the Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett case. You will remember Smollett as the actor on the TV show Empire who falsely claimed to have been the victim of a racist attack on the streets of Chicago. You will also remember that the nation dissolved in laughter at the ridiculous nature of his story, the absurd manner in which prosecutors got him off the hook, and the baffled outrage of Chicago’s liberal establishment about this offense to the city’s amour propre.

But the problem arose: how to write about this in a serious manner, without offending any unserious people? Well, you can do it in this way (I quote from The Hollywood Reporter, June 3):

[Newly released court] documents have raised more questions than they’ve answered about the spectacle surrounding the Empire actor. . . . Whereas Smollett had garnered a loud and vocal base of support after the initial charges against him were dropped, those voices had started to dim even before the latest dumps, as the murkiness around his story continued to deepen.

Incidentally, how do you garner a base? Be that as it may; the murkiness didn’t deepen. There wasn’t any murkiness. But if some people want to believe, contrary to the facts narrated by the Reporter itself, that “the documents have raised more questions than they’ve answered,” these phrases may keep them from voicing their outrage with the hapless writer.

The degree to which social anxieties can license untruth is shown by the confession of a social media “influencer.” Cora Smith is a travel journalist on Instagram. She is called an influencer because that is how someone sees her role in society. Yet she is the one who was disastrously influenced to suggest that her stay in the Dominican Republic was a beautiful experience — omitting certain experiences that, she says, left her in constant fear of violence. She says that she was assaulted and nearly kidnaped, but she wanted to make nice with the Dominicans, or at least about them, for fear of her audience. She was “very worried about bashing anyone or anything. In all honesty, influencers are too scared to tell the truth and feel they need to show the beautiful side. Most people only want to hear the positive things. . . . You feel this obligation to be honest, but a fear of rejection if you are.”

Observers of the trial even suggested that Oberlin despaired of being acquitted and was simply trying to limit the amount of money it would have to pay.

Worse, much worse, are the unctuous untruths of the licensed, accredited, endowed, and established influencers, especially those of the academic tribe. Examples are legion; some new ones appear in the annals of the Oberlin College case, in which a jury awarded tens of millions of dollars of damages against the college for its role in injuring the reputation and business of a local bakery that was accused, on no evidence at all, of racism. Oberlin officials maintained that they were just trying to help.

Throughout the affair, the 2,800-student college-of-third resort projected as much arrogance as if it were the last redoubt of the Romanovs. Yet the college knew it was in trouble, lots of trouble. Observers of the trial even suggested that Oberlin despaired of being acquitted and was simply trying to limit the amount of money it would have to pay. Then the jury awarded $11 million for actual damage done to the bakery — and a second phase of the trial began, the phase to determine if there would be punitive damages as well. At this point, Oberlin tried to jolly the jurors with false suggestions of a change of heart:

“Ladies and gentlemen, you have spoken,” Oberlin College attorney Rachelle Zidar told the jury Thursday before the larger award was announced, according to the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram. “You have sent a profound message. We have heard you. Believe me when I say, ‘Colleges across the country have heard you.’”

The jury thereupon decided to fine Oberlin $33 million more. Perhaps it regarded the “we” in “we have heard you” as just as likely to be truthful as any other institutional use of the first-person plural. If you tried to make Ms. Zidar herself pay the bill for what Oberlin did, the “we” would immediately change to “they.”

But it was hard to stick “we have heard you” on anybody, because just a few days before, the college’s general counsel had passed out a statement disagreeing with the jury’s guilty verdict. Then, the “message” seemed anything but “profound.” The great academic institution deemed the verdict proof that the jury was paying no attention to “the clear evidence our team presented.” At this writing, Oberlin has yet to communicate the profundity that the jury spake unto its soul. The college has reverted to the idea of vindicating itself — presumably in a higher court. Eventually, it hopes, chin uplifted to the rising dawn, it will find the intelligent audience it deserves.

Here is an element common to many varieties of falsehood — the idea that what counts is not what you say, but whom you say it to. If you can find an audience that’s willing to put up with what you say — because you are a college, or a “statesman,” or an “activist,” or . . . whatever — then go ahead; say anything you want! Never mind that nobody with a brain actually believes you. That just means that opinion is divided.




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Six Degrees of Separation

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For many years there has been an idea that everyone in the world exists in only about six degrees of separation— or fewer— from everyone else. This may be true.

I believe there are only six degrees of separation between me and the 17th-century person who brought my DNA to this continent. (In my family, generations seem to last a long time.)

I know there are three degrees of separation between me and Adolf Hitler. Ditto me and Franklin Roosevelt.

I don’t think you’re pining to learn more about my family history. But since I mentioned Hitler and Roosevelt, I assume you’d like to know whether my three degrees have enabled me to find out something interesting about them.

The artist in question wound up in Sweden, where he enjoyed his wealth and particularly enjoyed staging large parties that were free to turn into orgies.

First about Roosevelt. A brother of my friend Muriel Hall, friend and executrix of Isabel Paterson, the great libertarian author, was the priest of an Episcopal church in Virginia when Franklin Roosevelt came to worship there. At the time, Roosevelt’s physical handicap was understood by few people, even sophisticated members of an Episcopal parish across the river from Washington. Muriel’s story was that the congregation was admitted only after Roosevelt was seated, and that after the service it stayed in place to allow him to leave without interference— only to be astonished by his agonizingly slow progress up the aisle, struggling with the crippling effects of his poliomyelitis.

Now about Hitler. My connection with him is a German Marxist academic who told me, years ago, that he had met a man who had known Hitler before World War I, when they both lived in a home for down-and-outs in Vienna. This man was a painter, like Hitler, but unlike Hitler an ultimately successful one. He became wealthy by painting pictures that my Marxist friend described as “the kind of thing you can buy at a dime store.” This was a while ago, so I need to say that dime stores were early varieties of Target.

Let’s move along. The artist in question wound up in Sweden, where he enjoyed his wealth and particularly enjoyed staging large parties that were free to turn into orgies. Visiting one night, my friend chatted with him while “stepping among the Swedish bodies spread out on the floor.” The man who knew Hitler had this comment: “Hitler? I knew him. His political ideas— they did not work out. But as an artist, he had real potential.”

“My love is a red, red rose”: picture a rose; picture my love; how many steps do you need to get from one to the other?

Good stories, and I’m sure they’re true. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with the world of words, which is the subject of this column. Here’s what I want to do with “degrees of separation.”

Every time you or I make a verbal reference to something, there is a degree of separation between that something and the words we use. “My love is a red, red rose”: picture a rose; picture my love; how many steps do you need to get from one to the other? Because most people know what a rose is, I think there’s only one degree of separation. Maybe two, if recognition of something as a metaphor counts as a conceptual step.

It’s a pretty easy journey from “love” to “rose.” But in any situation, it’s the business of a good writer or speaker to provide relationships between X and Y that are distant enough to be interesting, charming, unexpected, unusual, dramatic, picturesque, or provocative, while close enough to be understood without perplexity. The business of a bad writer or speaker is to keep you guessing— to put so many stones in the stream, and to make them so distant and obscure, that you have an unduly challenging time hopping across it. Either that, or to make you jump onto some rock that you can’t get off of.

The shape of one’s neck has nothing to do with one’s political worth, and everybody knows that.

I must concede— and this is a significant concession— that chumminess between words and things isn’t always desirable. No religion would get very far if its holy book said, “You want to know who God is? No worries— he’s exactly like this.” Outside the demanding precincts of poetry and theology, however, there are vast territories that are natural habitats for plain speech. And most people seem to like plain speech. That’s one reason why so many of them like President Trump. They realize that half the things he says are false, but they knew that about President Obama, too. At least they don’t have to do a genealogical trace to find out where Trump’s meanings are coming from.

At his recent rally in Grand Rapids, Trump called a certain congressman with whom dislike is mutual “pencil-neck Adam Schiff.” It’s a low, ugly insult, and everybody knows it. The shape of one’s neck has nothing to do with one’s political worth, and everybody knows that too. Everybody also knows that Adam Schiff isn’t important to anyone except Adam Schiff. But the remark immediately caught fire. Why? I suspect it’s because Schiff has spent the past two years telling the world that Donald Trump is a traitor, or something like a traitor, and that he (Schiff) has evidence, or something just as good as evidence, that convinces him, and will convince you too, once you get a chance to see it, or hear it, or learn more about it from Adam Schiff. . . . You see the problem. There are so many steps between what Schiff says and what you’re supposed to make of it that you’d have to take out your . . . pencil . . . . and diagram it all. But you hear Trump say “pencil-neck Adam Schiff,” and with one merry jump, like the 12-year-old you used to be, and probably still are, inside, you understand him perfectly, and agree.

As for “interpretation,” that’s what you’re trying to do, if Royce would only let you.

Let me say more about the depraved art of keeping people from understanding you. If you visit the campus of UCLA you will find, carved over one of the portals of Royce Hall, a quotation from its namesake, alleged philosopher Josiah Royce (1855–1916): “The world is a progressively realized community of interpretation.” This is not like other remarks by alleged philosophers, such as Albert Einstein, who emitted the famous saying, “You cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.” No difficulty with that idea. It isn’t true, but it’s perfectly clear. The oracles of Royce are not like that. If you’re trying to follow them, you’re in for something worse than a pinball’s trip from the top of the machine to the bottom. You bounce off the concept of “progress,” only to get smacked by the question of “what is ‘realized’ supposed to mean?”; then, before you know it, you’re slapped down by the lever of “community.” As for “interpretation,” that’s what you’re trying to do, if Royce would only let you.

The current political equivalent of dear old Josiah Royce is John Owen Brennan, former head of the CIA, former United States homeland security advisor, former acting director of the National Counterterrorism Center— in short, one of the nation’s leading secret policemen. In this role, he was a major engineer of the attempt to remove President Trump from office by means of preposterous accusations about Trump’s supposed collusion with the Russian government. Brennan made a fourth career for himself as denouncer of Trump, tweeting such things as this in response to Trump’s meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July 2018:

Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???

Do you remember the non-event that was Helsinki? No? Then you’ll have quite a few steps to take before you’re able to connect Brennan’s idea of a treasonous performance with anything in the real and historical world. Yet some people assumed that, since Brennan had been a top cop and everything, he must have had something definite in mind; they just couldn’t quite get to it, that’s all.

Then came the Mueller report, or its summary, and it was clear that whatever Brennan had in his mind probably didn’t exist in the outside world, and never had existed. On March 25 he was asked about this, and he said, in words that should be engraved above some kind of door, maybe the door to the latrine at CIA headquarters, or to the New York Times: “I don’t know if I received bad information, but I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.”

Let’s try to figure this out, and consider how many steps we must take to do it.

So Brennan was in search of bad information? I don’t think he means to say that. But what does he mean to say?

First there’s the problem of whether Brennan received what he calls bad information or not. “Two roads,” says the poem by Robert Frost, “diverged in a wood.” Either Brennan’s information was bad or it wasn’t. Either we can follow the road of bad information and try to understand what that was and how it misled him so badly, or we can follow the road of good information and try to understand how that could possibly have misled him. But we can’t tell which road to take. Brennan— who is so positive about everything else— says that he doesn’t know; so how should we? And wait a minute: is bad information actually information at all? I’m not sure. Yet Brennan’s meaning seems to hinge on the idea that information may be bad or good.

At this point, however, Brennan appears to imagine that we are rushing to his meaning with heedless speed. He holds up his hand and halts us: “But I think I suspected there was more than there actually was.”

There’s a lot to ponder in that sentence. Literally he is saying that he may have suspected (though he isn’t sure; he just thinks he suspected) that there was more information— bad or good— than actually existed. Again we see the problem of the two roads. It’s easy to understand that he might have suspected there was more good information than there was, but it’s also possible that he suspected there was more bad information than there was. So Brennan was in search of bad information? I don’t think he means to say that. But what does he mean to say?

If Brennan wanted to bring us closer to his meaning, he had every means of clarifying all these things. He speaks English, doesn’t he?

I think he means to say, “So what? Who cares?” Yet I doubt that this is the meaning on which he wants his audience to land. It’s just that with all those steps we have to take . . . . We can land almost anywhere. The degrees of separation are uncountable.

Brennan, of course, is far from the only public figure to present this difficulty, or the only one to present it on purpose. After all, if he wanted to bring us closer to his meaning, he had every means of clarifying all these things. He speaks English, doesn’t he? Well, sort of. But now let’s consider something even more challenging.

There are places along the Mississippi River where, at certain seasons of certain years, one can cross by jumping from stone to stone. This is not true of the Pacific Ocean, at any time of any year. Yet politicians and bureaucrats are often seen attempting such feats. Consider Nancy Pelosi, who keeps trying to cross that great ocean of ideas, the Bible, with nothing but some fragments of concepts and pebbles of conjecture.

It’s hard to see how someone who doggedly searches the Scriptures wouldn’t eventually realize that the passage reflects neither the verbal nor the intellectual style of any book in the Bible.

For a long time, Pelosi has been looking in Scripture for something— anything— that could mandate her political program. Usually she comes up with nothing more than a claim that the golden rule constrains her to insist on enormous expenditures of tax money for her favorite projects. But sometimes she just makes the whole thing up. There’s a “biblical” adage that she’s been reciting for many years. Eleven years ago she was told that it wasn’t in the Bible, but she’s still using it.

Now consider the way she packaged it in a speech to “Christian educators” in January:

“I can’t find it in the Bible but I quote it all the time, and I keep reading and reading the Bible. I know it is there someplace," Pelosi told the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities conference last Wednesday. “It’s supposed to be in Isaiah, but I heard a bishop say to minister to the needs of God’s creation is an act of worship. To ignore those needs is to dishonor the God who made us.”

“It’s in there somewhere in some words or another, but certainly the spirit of it is there,” Pelosi said. “And that we all have a responsibility to act upon our beliefs and the dignity and worth of every person.”

Curiously, Mrs. Pelosi, who knows everything about running the country, doesn’t know that there are such things as Bible concordances, which would in seconds relieve her of all anxieties about where that passage is located. Again, the answer is: not in the Bible. It’s hard to see how someone who doggedly searches the Scriptures wouldn’t eventually realize that the passage reflects neither the verbal nor the intellectual style of any book in the Bible, as rendered by any translation. Nevertheless, she goes skipping into the ocean on the stepping stones of:

  • I know it’s there
  • A bishop (which bishop, pray?) said it
  • It’s in some words or [an]other
  • It’s there in spirit
  • I can’t find it
  • So I quote it

If you had trouble following Finnegans Wake, try following Nancy Pelosi.

But maybe the opposite approach is better. Maybe people should invite their readers or listeners to find their own stepping stones of meaning, and see where they end up. My example here has to do with Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., better known as “Joe” Biden, and the current accusations that he has been too handsy with women. I need to state at once that there are few living persons for whom I have more contempt than Biden. He’s a liar and a fool and a credibly accused corruptionist, but one of the worst things that can be said of him is that, before becoming vice president— a good job for someone with no visible talents— he had served six terms as US senator. Further, I don’t think it’s right to sneak up behind someone and snuggle and snuffle her hair, or whatever he’s accused of doing.

On the other hand, I don’t think this peculiar conduct is anything worthy of national concern, or of plaints of victimhood, particularly when the alleged victims of his predatory actions waited years to publicize their pain and anger— waiting, it seems, until there was a political reason to show their courage as survivors. The attacks on Biden commenced when Lucy Flores, a minor-league “progressive” politician, anticipated the announcement of his (ludicrous) candidacy for president by accusing him of having done something with her hair, back in 2014.

There are few living persons for whom I have more contempt than Joe Biden.

Biden made a number of predictable replies; then he went to a union convention and made a joke about asking permission to hug one of the participants. At this, outrage swept the nation, and Ms. Flores issued a victorious tweet:

It’s clear @JoeBiden hasn’t reflected at all on how his inappropriate and unsolicited touching made women feel uncomfortable. To make light of something as serious as consent degrades the conversation women everywhere are courageously trying to have.

Reading this, one’s first reaction is bound to be, “You’re surprised? When did @JoeBiden ever reflect on anything?” But that’s not her point, nor is that the way in which such language works. It’s meant to give you a verbal rope and tell you to go hang yourself, intellectually.

Unsolicited touching can mean anything from smacking you on the face to surprising you with the unexpected embrace that first introduced you to romance. And when you reflect for a moment, you can see that most touching is and has to be unsolicited. It’s not something that, under the best of circumstances, people are ordinarily asked to do. In fact, most touching in this world is merely accidental.

Our author provides no bridge between unsolicited and inappropriate or, in plain terms, wrong. That’s something you’re supposed to build yourself, however you want to do it. If you want to spread all the horror of inappropriate onto unsolicited, well, go ahead. But what does inappropriate mean? It could mean what Donald Trump said on the Billy Bush tape. It could mean something you said about Baptists when you were drunk at a party. It could mean those personal questions that old Aunt Rosa asks when she meets your friends. Because our author is so upset and so indignant, many people will assume that the inappropriate behavior was something terminally gross and disgusting. Yet note: the author never said that; she left it to you to infer.

"Unsolicited touching" can mean anything from smacking you on the face to surprising you with the unexpected embrace that first introduced you to romance.

The second sentence is the masterpiece. Never mind the patent falsehood of “women everywhere.” Consider the conversation. Which conversation? Can you guess? Of course you can. You can fill in the missing step and conclude that the author means her conversation, the conversation she’s having right now. No, she never said that; she left it up to you, convinced that you would find the appropriate interpretation.

And what is that conversation about? It’s about the issue of consent. But again, the operative term is wholly undefined. It could mean the implicit, Lockean consent by which all societies operate. It could mean the explicit consent that is properly required to make a will, enact a law, conclude a contract, or engage in sex. This too is of fundamental importance in a decent society, and many readers will think that this is what is meant in so serious a tweet.

But the reflective reader will see that these meanings cannot be the right ones. Biden is not accused of having engaged in sex without his partner’s consent. Nor do “progressive” politicians consider consent a matter of much significance when it comes to the enforcement of their political program, the whole of which depends on doing things to people without the consent of anyone except politicians like Ms. Flores. Yet if you, as a reflective reader, notice these things, you are not the intended audience. The intended audience will make tracks directly to the unexpressed concept of sex, equating whatever stupid old Joe may have done with all the nonconsensual erotic and otherwise evil things he could possibly be imagined to have done. Indeed, there will be no “tracks”; there will be only a single jump.

Which conversation? Can you guess? Of course you can.

You can say pretty much the same thing about virtually the entire politically correct vocabulary, which consists of words thrown in front of you so you can jump on them with whatever personal, presumably fanatical, meanings you happen to be carrying with you. It’s an attempt to annul all restraining and reflective degrees of separation between words and emotions.

From emotions thus produced I, for one, would like some separation, although the alternative extreme— that of many weird and murky degrees of conceptual distance— is equally unattractive. Today’s political discourse reminds me of one of those parties where most of the guests appear to be friends of a former coworker’s sister-in-law by her first marriage, or something else that’s too tiresome to figure out, and the rest are people you know very well, because they keep yelling in your face. I just hope there’s another party, and that someone will invite me there.




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The Eclipse of Empathy

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Before you write, check your empathy. Even if you’re writing primarily to express yourself, you are also writing to inform other people, to persuade other people, to impress other people in the way you want to impress them. Empathy lets you do that. Empathy is the art of figuring out how your readers will respond to your words.

Like any other art, empathy has its tools and techniques. One of them, believe it or not, is a knowledge of standard grammar, diction, and syntax, because that’s what your readers use to understand what you mean.

Here’s a passage from an article in the March issue of The New Criterion — a good journal, but the copy editing is off and on. Adrian Goldsworthy is discussing the politics of the Roman empire: “Aristocrats remained nostalgic for the centuries when they had real power and political independence without ever really doing anything to revive the system.” Never mind what the difference might be between “doing anything” and “really doing anything”; think about when the aristocrats didn’t do it. Did they fail to revive the system while they had some real power (there’s that real again), or did they wait to fail to revive it until, to quote The Wizard of Oz, it was not only merely dead, but really, most sincerely dead? I vote for the second alternative, but why should I have to vote? Why couldn’t the author have foreseen my plight and worded his thought in this way: “Aristocrats remained nostalgic for the centuries when they had real power and political independence; nevertheless, they did nothing to regain them”?

Trudeau has never shown much empathy toward people who care about the meanings of words.

That was easy, wasn’t it? Still easier is the act of remembering that some of your readers are in touch with a dictionary, and that this technology is available to you, too. If you remember the dictionary, you won’t say such things as a Breitbart author said on March 19, while writing about Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke. “Beto” is a rich person who must be very bored with everything but himself and has spent his life looking for something to do — such as being president, or (wait for it) eating dirt. Yes, Breitbart reported, after O’Rourke lost his Senate race to Ted Cruz, he traveled to some mystic location in the Southwest where you can get some kind of dirt with “regenerative powers.” He got the dirt, and ate it. He also took some home, for other people to eat. Well, that’s odd. But what does our Breitbart author say? He says, “The strange antidote is one of several unflattering details to have emerged regarding O’Rourke’s past.” Empathy can teach us that there are some readers who know the difference between an antidote and an anecdote. Even politicians should know that some people — many people — are pedants like that.

Now, you wouldn’t know it from the American news media, but (I could follow that but with almost anything) for many days now, Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, has been the subject of a terrific scandal. The issue in mid-March was whether he would let significant details about his alleged attempt to influence a prosecution come to light. The Conservative opposition used parliamentary tactics to force the information out, but failed to break through Trudeau’s apparent stonewalling. According to a March 21 article, “Trudeau said there has already been a ‘fulsome’ accounting of the scandal.” There is a big difference between full and fulsome, but Trudeau has never shown much empathy toward people who care about the meanings of words.

Some people have too much empathy with their audience, too ready an understanding of how people will react to their falsehoods, prevarications, stupidities, or inanities.

I need to add that CTV, which published the passage just quoted, apparently doesn’t empathize with word-carers either. Its report includes such elegancies as: “attempts over the several weeks to have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau take further steps to allow [MP Jody] Wilson-Raybould speak further and in more detail about the scandal, [further steps to further speaking!]” “there’s since been two federal cabinet shuffles [ah! shuffles there has been],” and “Conservatives voted against every line item, which Liberals used to try to score political points on social media [using their own line items to score points, eh?], pointing out some of the government programs and services the Tories opposed. Though [look out, here’s a sentence fragment!], from the Conservative’s perspective [just one Conservative, I guess], their ‘no’ votes were to signal they do not have confidence in the government.” The CTV report was updated without correction of those remarkable phrases.

It must be admitted that some people have too much empathy with their audience, too ready an understanding of how people will react to their falsehoods, prevarications, stupidities, or inanities. Like good authors and speakers, they know how others are likely to feel, and they shape their words accordingly. As you know, Christopher Steele is the author of what is called, both by people who know the meaning of the word infamous and by people who don’t, the infamous Trump dossier, the document accusing Donald Trump of doing various weird things in and about Russia. Steele has been deposed in a lawsuit brought by a Russian whom the dossier accused of employing electronic means to disrupt the Democratic Party. Questioned about whether he verified the allegations in the dossier, Steele said, “We did,” and referred to “an article I have got here,” an article that was posted on a CNN website. He understands that many readers will think, “Well! There’s a CNN news report, and he’s got it right there! That’s good enough for me.”

But there’s a problem. The CNN webpage was just a bulletin board on which anyone was allowed to post anything. CNN itself posted signs on it saying that its contents were “not edited, fact-checked or screened.” So what did Steele have to say to that?

“Do you understand that CNN iReports are or were nothing more than any random individuals’ assertions on the Internet?” an examiner asked [him].

He replied: “No, I obviously presume that if it is on a CNN site that it may has [sic] some kind of CNN status. Albeit that it may be an independent person posting on the site.”

At that moment, Steele triumphantly reestablished his mind meld with the credulous reader. Such readers are impressed by apparent forthrightness — “No!” — and by the assumption that they themselves are too sophisticated not to know the ways of the world. Steele obviously presumed . . . Why, of course he did. We all would, wouldn’t we?

But there’s a problem. The CNN webpage was just a bulletin board on which anyone was allowed to post anything.

Who among us has time in our busy lives to fuss over the CNN status of something that is, after all, a CNN site? Not Steele! Not the reader! The reader, being a sophisticated man or woman, also understands what “albeit” means and, if not, can still pass directly on to a concept of which all forthright, independent readers approve, that of an independent person posting on a website. Of course he posted something! The reader probably posts things too! And why not? The problem with this world is that forthright, independent people post their brains out, without ever being recognized or believed. But Steele saw the truth in the independent person’s post — saw it, and believed it!

I wonder how many politicians, newspaper editors, television commentators, and news junkies have read the infamous dossier and actually believed it. Many of them cynically claimed to believe it, or part of it, or some deduction that might be made from it; but lots of them probably swallowed it whole. It was the right thing for them, and Steele had enough empathy to know that.

There is such a thing as selective empathy, the ability to put yourself in the minds of some people, though not of others. President Trump has made a career out of selective empathy. He doesn’t know or care how lots of people will receive his sayings, but he knows very well and cares very much how lots of other people will react. Whether that kind of empathy will win him the next election, as it won him the last, I cannot predict. But I can say that Hillary Clinton’s entire political life — and she has had no other life — demonstrates what happens when your empathy is too selective. Even among people who were certain to vote Democratic she aroused constant antagonism, and it wasn’t because of her “program” or even her personal history; it was because of her words, her tone, her manner of delivering her thoughts. This antagonism remained mysterious to her; she lacked the empathy to perceive its source. The only people with whom she empathized were those who thought her “deplorables” remark was, in the words of a Stephen Sondheim song, “another brilliant zinger.” Her circle of empathy included only people exactly like herself — uptight snobs who never talk to anyone except other uptight snobs.

Many of them cynically claimed to believe it, or part of it, or some deduction that might be made from it; but lots of them probably swallowed it whole.

Elizabeth Warren has the same problem, except that her circle of empathy is even more contracted. It was originally limited to the staff of the Boston Globe and some people in Cambridge who regard themselves as an intellectual aristocracy. But her long, insistently repeated series of “Indian” gaffes finally proved surprising even to them. They couldn’t empathize with the mind that could proclaim it was right all along about being Native American, because a DNA test purportedly showed a possible one-six-hundredth admixture of the appropriate “blood.”

Dimly sensing that something was wrong, Warren sallied forth in quest of the real America. She first tried to establish herself as a regular person by releasing a video that showed her drinking beer. Somehow that didn’t instill warm feelings in the breasts of average Americans. Then she took up the idea of ethnic reparations, announcing that she “loved” the idea of a congressional commission to study the matter. “I believe,” she added, “it’s time to start the national, full-blown conversation about reparations.” Another amazing failure: it was as if her words were designed to prove her lack of empathy. In a nation largely populated by people whose ancestors were nowhere near America in slavery days, or were here and fought to end slavery, the idea of reparations hardly evokes “love.” Maybe duty. Maybe fear. Maybe disgust. Maybe boredom. Not love. Warren had no clue about that. She also didn’t realize that the words national conversation have been used so much by people like her that to everyone else they now mean “orders from on high.” To refer to the national conversation, as if it were inevitable, merely confirms that reading. Nor did she realize that to most people “full-blown” sounds like something that happens when a gas line explodes.

Nothing can save the Elizabeth Warrens of America from their assumption that politics is a matter of policies and constituencies and one-sided conversations, bereft of the (to them) mysterious quality of empathy. And not only are they lacking in empathy; they are lacking in a knowledge of history. The American political landscape is littered with the wreckage of political careers, blown up when the pipe line of empathy failed.

The words "national conversation" have been used so much by people like Warren that to everyone else they now mean “orders from on high.”

In 1884, James G. Blaine (to his friends the Plumed Knight, to his enemies Blaine, Blaine, James G. Blaine, the continental liar from the state of Maine) was running for president when he was done in by the lack of empathy of a prominent supporter, who described Blaine’s Democratic opponents as the party of “rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” — in other words by anti-prohibitionists, Catholics, and former Confederates. Those three groups proceeded to vote enthusiastically against him.

In 1912, former President Theodore Roosevelt, campaigning for a third term, proclaimed that “we [he and his followers] stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” The statement earned him a predictable derision, both from secularists, who were irritated by his sanctimony, and by religious persons, who knew what Armageddon was supposed to be (and it wasn’t the election of 1912). In 1967, George Romney, father of Mitt Romney and every bit as empathetic as his son, unintentionally terminated his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination by claiming that he had formerly supported the war in Vietnam because he was “brainwashed” by the military: "When I came back from Viet Nam [in November 1965], I'd just had the greatest brainwashing that anybody can get." The comment grated on everyone, including Senator Eugene McCarthy, who was even more distant from normal people than Romney was. For Romney, he said, “a light rinse would have been sufficient.”

In the presidential debates of 1976, Gerald Ford, intending to flatter Polish Americans by saying that their European relatives would not passively concede to communist rule, pressed boldly into the realm of idiocy by claiming that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration." The Poles were not flattered. Ford lost the close election — to Jimmy Carter, who was soon to lecture Americans on the malaise that, he believed, had overcome their values. Although his “malaise” speech is supposed to have impressed people on the night it was given, it was one of those things that just don’t sit well with ordinary folks. Carter lost his own next election.

Blaine, Romney, Ford, Carter, Clinton, Warren, Theodore Roosevelt in his crazy years — all zeroed out by lack of empathy. And if you’re running a list, you can add Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, Richard Nixon . . . When you think about it, I guess you could say that empathy is good for writing, but lack of empathy is good for weeding.




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More Sweet Thoughts about Love

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Suppose that one of your acquaintances used this as the heading of his Twitter account:

I am simply here to help save the world. Nothing is more important than love.

How would you react? If your eye fell only on the second sentence, you might think something like, “Sweet, but childish. Like a little kid. Actually, he may be letting his little kid write some of this stuff.”

It’s true: kids don’t know much about literacy, agriculture, airplane technology, telecommunications, vaccines, and anesthetics, or (to look on the other side of the coin), ignorance, conflict, death — all arguably more important than love in this world we inhabit. And if it’s just a question of moral values, kids may not understand that truth and justice are often far better than love.

No child says he is here to save the world. Only the most narcissistic of adults say that.

So, you think, that sentence must have been written by a child — or by one of those childish old souls you’re afraid to talk to, because they’re certain to load you with theosophical advice. Should you commit the error of making eye contact, the conversation will go like this:

Well hello! And how are you today? (Delivered with a smarmy glare and a wet handshake.)

Uh . . . All right, I guess. (Somehow, you don’t want to discuss the fact that you’ve lost your job and you don’t know where the next mortgage payment’s going to come from.)

Just remember one thing (an admonition strongly suggesting that you have trouble remembering anything): nothing is more important than love.

Recalling such scenes, you feel a sense of doom as your gaze drifts back to the left of “love,” where you discover the portentous saying, “I am simply here to help save the world.”

No child says he is here to save the world. Only the most narcissistic of adults say that. “Help” is in the sentence merely to fend off accusations of extreme narcissism. Of course, that level of self-consciousness indicates that the narcissism is not naïve at all; it is ruthlessly assertive, fully convinced of itself, and aggressively intolerant of any doubts.

If it’s just a question of moral values, kids may not understand that truth and justice are often far better than love.

Now that, unhappily, you have read both sentences, you try to put them together, and find it a creepy experience. Here is a narcissist billing himself as a crusader for love. Either he has so little introspection that he doesn’t recognize the love that’s important to him is self-love, or he has so much contempt for his audience that he expects everyone to swallow whatever he says.

But at least, you may be thinking, the theme is love. This guy may be dotty and self-absorbed, but thank God he isn’t devoting his life to saving the world with some political scheme, with some campaign of force. Then you remember that love has been the justification for many egregious acts of power. The medieval church burned heretics at the stake in the name of its love for men’s souls — including those of the heretics. Laws that send people to jail for using or selling drugs are purportedly motivated by love for our children — including those who use or sell drugs. Prohibition was justified largely as an expression of Christian love for the American family. How much better it was for the gay marriage movement to use “Love Wins” as one of its slogans — though even in that instance, there was the specter of punishment if you didn’t agree. Recall those people who were dragged into court because they declined to make gay wedding cakes. Recall the false accusation that such a cake had been deliberately defiled by (gay) staff at Whole Foods.

All good motives can be reasons for bad deeds and bad emotions. “I am become a socialist,” says Pierrot in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Aria da Capo. “I love Humanity; but I hate people.” If love is really the most important thing in the world, it must have tremendous force for ill as well as good. Remember the scene in Stardust Memories in which someone comes up to Woody Allen and says, “I’m your biggest fan” — and shoots him.

Then you remember that love has been the justification for many egregious acts of power.

Such meditations on love and messiahship may make you hesitate to read any further in this fellow’s Twitter account. But if you do, here is the sort of thing you’ll encounter:

“Shut the hell up you b—— a— n——. You will continue to run this country further into the ground and risk lives every time you breathe. You’re not the president. Just a dumpster full of hate. FOH. [F— outta here] Sick to my stomach that literal s— currently represents America to the world.”

“@AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] is only speaking facts. This is so far beyond political party affiliation. Across the world ... no matter the border ... from sea to shining sea ... 45 and all his white hooded cohorts are a national disgrace. And if you support them ... so are you. Clowns.”

“Dear @realDonaldTrump ... you are a disgusting, racist, piece of trash ... Sincerely, Everyone who is not a disgusting, racist, piece of trash.”

As the song says, “This can’t be love.” Nor is there any indication that it’s a response to any experience of hate directed at the author or anyone he knows. In appearance, it’s a message posted by an anti-homosexual white racist (“b—— a— n—— ”) who has had some kind of falling out with the “white hooded cohorts” of the Ku Klux Klan but has lost nothing of their hatred. Few racists refer to themselves as racists; they’re too busy attributing evil to other people. The denunciation of the president as a racist may be taken simply as an instance of projection, as Freud called it.

I am by no means an appreciative reader of Freud. I dislike the coyness with which he modestly suggests, on one page, that such and such may possibly be considered an object of speculation, and five pages later assumes that the same such and such is obviously true. His grounds of argument and the progress of his arguments seem to me utterly fallacious. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day, and I think that Freud was onto something when he identified projection as a primary means of pseudo-thought. He doesn’t put it in exactly this way, but I think it’s true that the more out of touch with reality you are, the more you are inclined to claim that it’s other people who are out of touch — and, because you’re defending yourself from charges that the rational part of your brain (if any) would naturally bring against yourself, you are especially eager to say that you’re not like those other people, who are guilty, guilty, guilty.

Few racists refer to themselves as racists; they’re too busy attributing evil to other people.

It’s pretty clear that anybody who is tweeting the things I’ve quoted — without, as I say, any particular external incitement, of the type that regularly carries tweeters away — is projecting a s— load of hatred. If this be love, thank you, I’d rather have the Caesar salad. The fact that the tweeter believes in himself as an apostle of love is a matter of still more concern. It’s one thing for a person to be “a good hater.” It’s another thing to believe that hate is the same thing as love. There are good haters and bad haters, and whoever wrote those passages is a bad hater.

By now you may have guessed who that bad hater is. It’s Justin (“Jussie”) Smollett, who was arrested on February 21 for faking an attack on himself, a gay black man, by pro-Trump bigots using some of the vocabulary he had applied to Trump. After the arrest, Chicago police also accused him of having sent a vilely racist and sexist and threatening letter to himself, complete with a white substance suggestive of anthrax powder. The alleged motive? His desire for a raise in salary (currently about $1.3 million) as a C-list TV actor. The cops’ idea was that self-love might sometimes be the most important kind.

From the beginning, Smollett’s story appeared ridiculous: he was attacked in downtown Chicago by masked men who had been waiting for him to walk by at 2 a.m. on one of the coldest days of the year, men who shouted racist insults, beat, kicked, and bit him, poured bleach on him, and put a noose around his neck (tied like a tie you wear to dinner). He emerged with one small cut on his face, an intact cellphone on which he had been conversing, and a Subway sandwich that was preserved unharmed until his arrival at his home, where a friend called the police, about 40 minutes later. When the police came, Smollett refused to let them take his phone for a few hours and have it examined for clues. He said he needed it. Much later he provided a much “redacted” list of his calls.

The more out of touch with reality you are, the more you are inclined to claim that it’s other people who are out of touch.

Clearly, this was a hoax. Yet everyone from Donald Trump to Trump-hating Democratic presidential candidates immediately expressed horror and sympathy; no investigation was needed or desired. It was remarked by citizens of Chicago that people living close to the nonevent were less willing to believe the story than people living far away — more evidence for the libertarian idea that the higher you build a pyramid of power, the less those at the top understand about the world beneath them. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi, Donald Trump, and hundreds of others at the acme of political and “cultural” influence seemed anxious to prove this.

One thing that Trump, who was busy being a fool like all the others, clearly didn’t understand was the vicious hatred that the alleged victim had for him, despite the fact that the hatred had been advertised as much as it could possibly be. Anyone could access Smollett’s public utterances, and you would think that anyone who did would notice the way in which “love” was being used to license hate. You would think that even Kamala Harris would have hesitated to proclaim, in cadences reminiscent of the hypnotized characters in The Manchurian Candidate, “Jussie Smollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know.” But I have so far encountered no one who confessed that, well, yeah, those utterances were sort of a bad sign, that maybe there was something a little . . . strange about them. Can it be that the confusion of love with hate has become so common in our society that it is no longer noticed — so ordinary and inoffensive, indeed, that when it is witnessed it is spontaneously shared?

This kind of confusion is encouraged by the culturally-official dogma that if one cares about victims, including alleged victims, one must believe them, whether their stories are absurd or not. Only under these conditions can the behavior of Robin Roberts, host of “Good Morning America,” be explained. Roberts, star of a program run by ABC News, gave Smollett an interview of whopping length, in which her most probing question was how he could heal if the cops failed to wreak justice on his assailants. (He replied that he couldn’t bear to consider the possibility.) Clearly, she believed the victim — everything the victim said.

He emerged with one small cut on his face, an intact cellphone on which he had been conversing, and a Subway sandwich that was preserved unharmed.

After the scandal was officially exposed, she tried to wipe the egg off her face by saying that when the interview was recorded the police still seemed to be going along with Smollett’s story. Who was she to question the police? Days after that, her associates at the network, prompted to defend her, “suggested that Roberts was a victim, who was ‘lied’ to by Smollett.” So now it’s the job of a news person cheerfully to believe the victim (and the police), even if it makes her the victim of lies.

Roberts interviewed Smollett two weeks after the “crime.” It’s safe to say that by that time almost everyone who’d ever heard of the case was convinced it was a hoax — everyone, that is, except the people whose job it was to report the facts. But even with two weeks to put the facts together, Roberts hadn’t a clue. Finally confronted by the amazing! revelation! that Smollett was not entirely on the up and up, Roberts said:

This touches all the buttons. It’s a setback for race relations, homophobia, MAGA supporters. I cannot think of another case where there is this anger on so many sides and you can understand why there would be.

Pardon me — what is she babbling about? I understand how the Jussie thing might be considered a setback for race relations (although I don’t think the discovery of a hoax can do anything but increase truth and candor, which every well-meaning person values, regardless of race), but how can it be a setback for “MAGA supporters”? Or for “homophobia”? Does it increase or decrease the fear of gays? Roberts is literally saying that it decreases it, which she would probably think is a good thing, but . . . what is she babbling about?

Can it be that the confusion of love with hate has become so common in our society that it is no longer noticed?

More babble issued from politicians and media people, spin artists all, who responded to the scandal by regretting that “conservatives” or “Trump followers” or “rightwing bloggers” or some other groups they don’t like would pounce on it and use it for their own purposes. This tactics, now in use whenever the Left embarrasses itself, is a new wrinkle on the ugly old face of American journalism. Newspapers in the 1850s were violently partisan, but even the most absurd Southern rag wouldn’t have run the headline: “Abolitionists Pounce on Legree Misdeeds.” I do feel a bit underrepresented, though, when I read about all these other people pouncing. Why shouldn’t I — or you, or you, or you, whoever you are — pounce on this story, too? It seems that anyone who’s interested in a hysteria-free society would want to use it for some purpose. To point a lesson, perhaps.

Yes, and lots of lessons, but not the one that is most often heard in media comments on the incident — the idea that Smollett’s actions will lead people to think that hate crimes are not a serious issue. Bigots will continue to think that, just as credulous people on the other side will continue to believe that hate crimes are happening all around them. Any hate crime is serious, but any fake hate crime is serious, too.

If you want to know an approximation of the truth about the frequency of hate crimes, you might consult Wilfred Reilly, a professor who teaches at an historically black college and has a new book on the subject. In a recent op-ed, he provides documentary sources on the large number of hate crime hoaxes (he claims to have easily numbered 409 confirmed instances) and says:

To put these numbers in context, a little over 7,000 hate crimes were reported by the FBI in 2017. . . .

However, hate crime hoaxers are “calling attention to a problem” that is a very small part of total crimes. There is very little brutally violent racism in the modern USA. . . . Inter-racial crime is quite rare; 84% of white murder victims and 93% of black murder victims are killed by criminals of their own race, and the person most likely to kill you is your ex-wife or husband. When violent inter-racial crimes do occur, whites are at least as likely to be the targets as are minorities.

From that, you can take whatever lessons you want, but such facts are a good deal more useful than the constant hurling of charges between Right and Left about inattention to hate crimes on our side of the racial or political divide.

Newspapers in the 1850s were violently partisan, but even the most absurd Southern rag wouldn’t have run the headline: “Abolitionists Pounce on Legree Misdeeds.”

What is most disturbing to me about the Jussie Smollett incident is nothing that I’ve mentioned above. It’s a particular manner of regretting the incident, a manner that became very common across the moderate-to-hard-Left spectrum in the days when Smollett’s guilt was thought (by some) to be in doubt. I refer to the touching hope that he wasn’t lying after all.

One example — this from a writer published by CNN:

I continue to hold a sliver of hope that the dots that continue to feel so far apart will eventually connect and the picture before us will show he was telling the truth all along. I hold hope that those faint whispers that began almost as quickly as the story made its way across the networks will be silenced[!], that Smollett will be vindicated. And the people who took to social media to demand justice for him will not be left to look like fools. . . .

I . . . am still hoping that he's telling the truth. It may be naïve, but it's a hell of a lot better than trying to answer the "what" — as in what do we do next?

Apparently the author, like Jussie Smollett, is laboring under the impression that we just have to be doing something majestic all the time. But the vital phrase is, “I am still hoping that he’s telling the truth.” Which means —  You’re still hoping that bands of bigots are roaming the streets, beating up gays and blacks? Still hoping that race hatred is so plentiful that it never runs out, even in downtown Chicago at 2 a.m., with enough wind chill to blast your hands off? Still hoping that the world is a terrible place that only you can save?

Ah yes! That may be it. It’s all about you, isn’t it?




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L’Amour, L’Amour!

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I’m sure that at some time in your life you’ve had a friend who made you his confidant about the details of a troubled romance. He claimed to want your advice, but advice was hard to give, because he kept painting different pictures of his special person. One day she was an angel; the next day, a devil; the third day, some woman he could barely remember — a minor mistake from which he was moving forward. But the cycle began all over again, and you wondered whether he was talking about the same person, or any person, or just a strange projection of himself.

I thought of this when I watched the behavior of the alleged news media on the weekend of January 18, when they fell in love with a story provided by an oft-discredited reporter for the oft-discredited BuzzFeed. The story, which involved “evidence” that Donald Trump had told one of his attorneys, the oft-discredited Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress about a hotel deal in Russia, was unlikely on the face of it. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the media took to it like trout to Acme’s Amazing Fly. Then it was proven false, and became, like a discarded love affair, a sad betrayal of ardent feelings, closely followed by, “Oh, that! Do you still care about that?”

I’m doubtless being too judgmental, but ye who have watched a friend go through this cycle again and again, whisper now to me: after a while, don’t you begin to wonder whether your lovelorn buddy is actually very bright? You don’t care whether he’s a college professor or an expert on something scientific, or even a talking head on TV. You wonder: maybe this guy’s just not very smart.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the media took to it like trout to Acme’s Amazing Fly.

I say that, because the media have gone through all this many times before, and we know they’ll go through it many times again. Curiously unable to make a cogent argument against the Trump regime, the $300K-per-year hacks of big media are always dying to romance another story with flashy makeup and fishnet stockings, protecting themselves from consequences not with a condom but with a magic incantation: “If this is true . . . .”

On January 18, the phrase, “If this is true, then President Trump will be impeached” was repeated so often that, a couple of days later, during the wake-up-with-a-hangover-but-without- your-wallet period of the news cycle, I heard a pundit on MSM-TV (don’t ask me which; they all look alike to me) exclaim: “‘If true’ — the most important words in Washington today!”

Here’s the game, and any fanatic, or newsroom partisan, or idiot with an axe to grind, knows how to play it: in a well-wired nation of hundreds of millions of people, you can source any kind of story you want to run. If you want to suggest that plants can talk, or microwaves cause cancer, or marijuana has no medical value, or minimum wage laws create jobs, or immigration increases average household income, or crime is out of control, you can refer to a study or report that makes that claim, broadcast it, and add, “If true, this calls for . . .” some kind of action.

After a while, don’t you begin to wonder whether your lovelorn buddy is actually very bright?

You can do the same with any well-known person. You can find someone who accuses him or her of something, present some version of testimony or senior officials’ anonymous comments or the cleaning staff’s careful review of discarded notes, add the “If true,” and make your own suggestions about impeachment, hanging, drawing and quartering, or merely (because you are full of mercy) firing, shaming, and reeducating.

Intelligent people can usually see through this. Unintelligent people assume that nobody will. It is with this in mind that I present the comment of Congressman Jim Clyburn (D-SC) regarding the “if true” debacle of the weekend of January 18: “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front [by saying], 'If this is true.' When you preface your statement with 'If this is true,' that, to me, gives you all the cover you need."

So if some rightwing screed should claim, with no evidence except its say-so, that Jim Clyburn told an election official in his district to pack the ballot box, the whole establishment media as well as House Republicans would be justified in saying to the nation, in tones of solemn righteousness, “If this is true, Clyburn will be thrown out of Congress”? Well, if you say so. People have been hanged on less evidence.

Intelligent people can usually see through this. Unintelligent people assume that nobody will.

But let’s return to the wording of Representative Clyburn’s statement, the part about “if this is true” giving “you all the cover you need.” Cover, used in this sense, has interesting connotations. It originated in the argot of criminals — “Yeah, I’m a bank teller; that’s my cover, till we git through with lootin’ the joint” — and it has never shed its associations with shady dealing. To cover yourself means to obscure a wrongful or equivocal deed. No one says cover myself without meaning cover up. If Clyburn doesn’t know this, he’s illiterate. If he does know it, he’s bragging about his colleagues’ shadiness.

Aaron Blake, senior political reporter for the Washington Post (what titles they have!), reviewed the issues about BuzzFeed’s fake news and its, ahem, coverage in a long series of tweets, going back and forth over the ethical problems like a cow searching helplessly for that last blade of grass (“I honestly don’t know what the answer is here”), and munching such deep thoughts as: “Each piece that’s written about something that may turn out to be untrue is counter-productive, at best. Even with extensive caveating (which I included), it furthers a story the [sic] erodes trust in the media.” He preceded this observation with a muddled commentary on the supposed responsibility of you and me, his audience (if any): “Media consumers aren’t as savvy as we’d like them to be, and just because something is technically accurate and qualified doesn’t make it good. People skip right over those caveats, and if they want to believe these reports, they treat them like gospel.”

Well, isn’t that smart! It’s almost as smart as thinking that caveating is a word, and very hip and cool, indeed. It’s almost as smart as telling your audience (media consumers) how dumb you think they are. But wait! Maybe that means that you yourself aren’t very smart. If that is true . . .

If Clyburn doesn’t know this, he’s illiterate. If he does know it, he’s bragging about his colleagues’ shadiness.

It’s hard to think about Washington, the place where words and phrases go to die, without thinking of that great eviscerator of meanings, the Washington Post, which recognized and continues to encourage the talent of Mr. Blake. On the night of January 18, the Post ran a story, as it had to do, about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s contemptuous dismissal of the BuzzFeed report. At the end of that story appeared the words, in bold type: “Reporting the facts for over 140 years” — a bizarre reference to the Post itself. This claim was followed by a list of articles that “The Post Recommends.” The first two ridiculed President Trump. The third was headlined in this way:

Five big takeaways from the stunning report that Trump told Cohen to lie

If Trump told Michael Cohen to commit perjury, this could break the dam.

For God’s sake, couldn’t they drop the “recommends” at the moment when they themselves were debunking the stunning report?

Intelligent? No.

But as if to verify a lack of intelligence, the liberal media, and some noteworthy conservative media, immediately fell head over heels in love with a new story — a story about the supposed attack on an “ancient,” “frail,” American Indian “elder” and “Vietnam War veteran” who was “surrounded” and “harassed” and “threatened” by teenagers from a Catholic school in Covington, Kentucky who had come to Washington to participate in a church-sponsored anti-abortion rally.

It’s almost as smart as telling your audience how dumb you think they are.

By this time, I don’t need to tell you what happened on January 18 at the Lincoln Memorial. My own version, which I believe is now the generally accepted one, is that the teenagers were waiting for a bus when they were attacked with violent words by a nutball group of “black Israelites” who called them crackers, faggots, and incest children, and called their black members a word that sounds like Negro, but is not. Rather than respond with violence, the students continued to wait, with placid, dopey high-school expressions on their faces. Then, out of nowhere, an American Indian from Ypsilanti, Michigan came forward to beat a drum in their faces. I mean in their faces. Through all these things, the students responded with goofy good humor, chanting inane school cheers, jumping along with the rhythm of the drum, etc. That’s it. Here is Robby Soave’s account of the story, from Reason. And here are videos, of various political tendency. You are welcome to disagree with Soave’s interpretation, or mine.

In any event, the “elder’s” entourage bore cameras, and by means of a Twitter source that even Twitter has now banished for misrepresenting itself, an invidiously edited video of the proceedings was made available to established “news” organizations, which immediately, without waiting a second, retailed the incident as a prize example of white racism.

This new spasm of national outrage included, in short order and with no pretense of investigation, fervent denunciations of the students not only by the usual suspects but also by the March for Life, the students’ Catholic diocese, the neighboring Catholic diocese, their school, and that august conservative journal, supporter of the right to life, and scourge of political correctness, National Review. NR published an article alleging of the students that “they might as well have just spit on the cross and got it over with.”

I’m not a Catholic, but I’m willing to confess: when I see “spit” being used instead of the real form of the verb in question, which is “spat,” my thought goes to, “You’re pretty dumb, aren’t you?” Especially if you’re a religious person, supposedly steeped in Scripture, and think that the Kentucky students are like the Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross. That’s the comparison that NR’s author made. My liveliest feeling was disgust at this combination of ignorance (why can’t you bother to investigate, at least, before you accuse people of being Christ-killers?), lack of perspective (even if the kids had been guilty of something, they’re effing kids, man), and inquisitorial thinking (by this point in history, I don’t need to explain what I mean by that). National Review — is that the journal William F. Buckley once edited?

When I see “spit” being used instead of the real form of the verb in question, which is “spat,” my thought goes to, “You’re pretty dumb, aren’t you?”

Eventually NR apologized for the frantic article by its deputy managing editor, but with some curious excuses. The author, it said, was “operating off the best version of events he had” — an excuse that can be made for any failure to exercise a modicum of skepticism — and he was “writing as a faithful Catholic and pro-lifer who has the highest expectations of his compatriots, not as a social-justice activist.” Wait a minute — did I get that right? Are readers of NR supposed to be reassured that a writer of trash is one of their own?

Within a few days, and after a few threats of lawsuits, many prominent people who had said literally thoughtless things about the Kentucky high-school students — such as the suggestion that there were never more punchable faces than theirs (a desire for physical brutality is ordinarily a sign of intelligence, correct?) — were deleting their posts and tweets and declarations and journal articles (such as the NR article), sometimes in coward silence, but sometimes with sickeningly stupid attempts at explanation.

Example: one Jack Morrissey, a figure in Hollywood, has a Twitter account, on which he said, “#MAGAkids go screaming, hats first, into the woodchipper.” He followed that evocative phrase with a famous image from the movie Fargo, in which a dead body is fed into a woodchipper. Be it noted that the Kentucky kids were, some of them, wearing MAGA hats, which seems to have been the real reason why they were harassed, first in person, and then in the media, it being fair to attack kids as faggots and incest children and words that sounds like Negro but are not and people who have stolen your land, so long as they appear to be supporters of the opposite political party. Very well. Mr. Morrissey dumped his tweet, and apologized. He said, “Yesterday I tweeted an image based on FARGO that was meant to be satirical — as always — but I see now that it was in bad taste.”

Are readers of National Review supposed to be reassured that a writer of trash is one of their own?

Well, good. But wait a minute. Morrissey also said, “I have no issue whatsoever with taking responsibility, but also completely apologizing that I clearly intended it to be seen as satire. That was clearly not recorded that way by many who saw it.”

Oh, I see. It’s we the readers who were dumb enough to miss the point that Morrissey clearly intended to be seen as satire. I’m very sorry! I completely apologize (as opposed to partially apologizing). But tell me, what was it a satire of? If Morrissey would give me a clue, even in his afterthoughts, that it might conceivably be a satire of people who rush to judgement and persecute other people and, in effect, feed kids into a woodchipper, alive and screaming, hats first, then perhaps I will understand. Otherwise, I will conclude that it was a satire of the students, and it was a kind of satire suggesting that something atrociously bad should happen to its objects.

I don’t think that smart people join mobs.

And I don’t think that smart people, apologizing for writing something that appears to be a vile attack on others, will abdicate their responsibility to discover, at long last, the relevant facts of the situation they wrote about. But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Morrissey is as smart as he’s paid to be. Maybe it isn’t dumb for him to have added: “I have seen tweets from both sides feeling disappointed that the mainstream media went his [sic] way or that way. But I haven’t had the headspace to take the time to watch all the videos.”

Isn’t that precious? He doesn’t have the headspace. And I’ll bet he’s right. He doesn’t.




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Awright, Which One a You Mugs Moiduhed duh Inglish Language?

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Who’s responsible for the things that go wrong with our language?

Individuals, surely — and sometimes just lazy individuals, people who can’t be bothered to listen and learn, people who say “I was laying on the bed” without ever noticing that lie and lay are different verbs.

Often the culprits are individuals acting in social or occupational groups. About 25 years ago, some waiters on the west coast thought it was cute to ask their customers, “Are you still workin’ on that?” when they wanted to know whether the customers had finished their meals. Still workin’ on that is an ugly expression, and it’s actually bad for business, because it implies that eating restaurant food is work. But soon after it started, I traveled to Connecticut to visit my friends Muriel Hall and Mary Jane Hodges, and when we went out to dinner I told them that “workin’ on that” was abroad in the West and would soon infest their own neighborhood. They couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen: “No, you’re kidding!” Yet within a few months it hit them, and everyone else. It’s still with us.

Just as bad money drives out good, false language drives out real language.

A couple of years ago, the same occupational group started using grab to mean everything that an employee does for a customer. “I’d like some coffee, please.” “OK, I’ll grab it for you.” “What happened to my order of lox?” “Sorry; I’ll grab it.” “The restroom has no toilet paper.” “Hold on; I’ll grab you some.” Now this ugly expression, too, is everywhere.

Why? Catchphrases of this sort are self-subverting attempts to say something “different” in circumstances in which the same kind of thing has to be said over and over, every day — attempts made without the realization that if you keep saying that different phrase, you will produce an even drearier sameness. This goes double for the repulsive jargon of the electronics business, from input to meme and all the rest of it. Just as bad money drives out good, false language drives out real language. That’s why people undergoing a spiritual crisis can think of nothing more poignant to say than, “I’m just trying to process my emotions.”

Major collections of culpable individuals are corporations, advertising agencies, pop psychologists, romance writers, and self-help quacks (aka “inspirational authors”). A TV ad for Cancer Treatment Centers of America combines the bad attitudes of all five. “Cancer treatment is more than our mission,” it claims. “It’s our passion.” Mission? These days, everybody’s got a mission statement. Even the garbage company pretends that it’s Father Serra. And that isn’t enough. The mission has to be carried on with passion. But look. If I get cancer — again! — I won’t be looking for treatment that happens to leak out of somebody’s passion; I’ll be looking for treatment that’s guided by cold reason. “It’s our passion” . . . Why not go the distance? Why not say, “It’s our insanity”?

There are sins of omission and sins of commission, and the state is guilty of both.

The capitalist system allows people to compete by the quality of their language. Retailers of vital services can attract customers by offering clear information, dispassionately conveyed. Restaurants can get an edge on their competitors by hiring staff who speak decent English, and many of the better restaurants do. Corporations sometimes compete in similar ways; see the Progressive Insurance satire of passion. If businesses don’t watch their language, and customers don’t care, it’s their own fault.

Yet the strongest, most pervasive, and most repulsive influence on modern language is the modern state — political power in its many branches: the schools and colleges, funded overwhelmingly by government; the professional associations, licensed and inspected by government; the mainstream, heritage, and soi-disant respectable media, propaganda agencies of government; and the omnipresent advocacy (i.e., pressure) groups, constant campaigners for government money and influence.

There are sins of omission and sins of commission, and the state is guilty of both. Why do the public schools exist if it isn’t to teach people, at some point in their 13 years of “education,” that there’s something wrong with saying “Sally laid on the couch”? Or to show them why they’re right to be mildly sickened by “You still workin’ on that?” (Recently I heard an even more disgusting version: “You still pickin’ at that?”) But government isn’t merely letting bad language happen; it isn’t merely teaching tolerance for bogus words. It’s creating bad language, constantly and massively.

I’m not just thinking about the language of tax codes and applications for building permits. I’m thinking about the countless words and phrases by which the state infiltrates its blunt, reductive mentality into our way of life. Where do you think the plague of impact came from? You know the word I mean, the verb that has annihilated influence, shape, guide, determine, control, damage, devastate, and all the shades of meaning these options represent, and left nothing but an image of violent collision — impact! Tell me you were impacted, and I won’t know whether you had a dental problem, enjoyed a book, or lost your home in an earthquake. The government started this, when it started issuing “studies” and edicts (more the latter than the former) about the impact of “processes” on “communities,” about how the planet has been, is, or may conceivably be impacted by its climate, and about every other kind of impact a million busy bureaucrats can invent. The evil locution spread. Now, in the dim religious light of the psychiatrist’s inner office, a voice is heard: “How were you impacted by your wife’s eating habits?”

Tell me you were "impacted," and I won’t know whether you had a dental problem, enjoyed a book, or lost your home in an earthquake.

During the month of December, local and national radio informed me that numerous faith leaders were getting themselves arrested in protests at the Mexican border with San Diego, where I live. Their protest involved President Trump’s border policies — that much was clear, although its rationale was never developed, or even hinted at. (The reason, I suppose, is the assumption, cultivated by Democratic Party leaders, that all anti-Trump activity is the same, in a world in which there are but two entities: Trump and The People.) But what does faith leaders mean?

My working assumption about all religious attempts to impact politics is that the true meaning of faith leaders is “busybodies.” This was clearly not the intended meaning, but the words themselves refuse to tell us what that is. So let’s go at it in another way. Why would someone say faith leaders when any other phrase was available?

The answer is this. In the first decade of the 21st century, religious officials who involved themselves in politics were called by the media ministers or preachers, usually preceded by the adjective rightwing. Leftwing religious activity was ordinarily not identified as “religious.” Religious activists might be concerned citizens or community leaders, but never, never leftwing preachers. (The tradition holds for talk-show hosts, who are always rightwing, never leftwing.) This was language as new as it was misleading. Martin Luther King was always, in the media, a minister or preacher; had he been called a faith leader it would have implied something spooky and cultlike, or something righteous in a distant, transmontane way. But times changed, and the media decided that separation of church and state meant that only rightwing dominies had wandered into politics — a tribute to the media’s ignorance about such little things, unimportant in American history, as the African-American churches.

Why would someone say "faith leaders" when any other phrase was available?

Then came the election of Barack Obama, who appealed continually to religious sentiment; and later there appeared the come-to-Jesus moments of Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and so on, who discovered that all of Donald Trump’s policies were not only anti-American but anti-religious and specifically anti-Christian. Much talk of the Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, and “suffer the little children.” But the problem was that according to the modern liberals’ own ideas (and in this case, not such bad ideas), religion should not be involved in politics.

A way was found to deal with this. Political figures began referring to religion as faith (a word that would surprise a Hindu or a Buddhist, but why bother to find out about other people’s faiths?) and preachers as leaders. From the politicians the glad phrase faith leaders passed directly, and without digestive process, into the copy of newspapers and radio and TV stations.

Of course, it isn’t used for rightwing “faith leaders.” These remain rightwing preachers, rightwing rabbis, and radical imams — when mentioned. No matter: to whomever it is applied, the phrase remains as meaningless, yet as suggestive, as it was originally meant to be. The fact that a Unitarian minister, a Roman Catholic priest, and a Reform rabbi stage a political demonstration doesn’t mean that they are leaders of anything, much less of a faith. Listening to the news, however, you would think they were Maimonides or St. Augustine — or Martin Luther King, to whom the august title of Faith Leader would have seemed just pompous nonsense.

It wasn’t just a disaster, you understand, but a catastrophic one.

Pompous, and obscurantist. But if you want transparency — an expression that achieved some popularity when it was used by anti-government protestors demanding that a few of the state’s inexhaustible horde of secrets be revealed, but was soon coopted by such intensely secretive politicians as President Obama, who smugly asserted that his administration was the most transparent in history — if you want transparency, I say, and you want the thing instead of the word, you will find it in the relationship between state and media, which is as clear as any bell. What the state says, the media say, and vice versa. They’re the same, and you can see right through them, in more ways than one. When you do, you can also see, quite transparently revealed, what some call the deep state.

Here’s a parenthesis that I think is necessary. There are two types of conspiracy hunters. The first believe credulously in political conspiracies. The second try to discredit their political opponents as credulous believers in conspiracies. To all these hunters I say: I do not believe that John F. Kennedy was slain by the CIA or Big Oil or anyone except Lee Harvey Oswald. I do not believe that the Illuminati rule the world, or even exist. I don’t even believe in the International Communist Conspiracy. I do believe that people cooperate with one another, often without advertising the fact that they do, and that this tendency is particularly notable among people who have not been elected but are nevertheless accustomed to holding state power. These are the people who deserve to be called “the deep state.” Am I being transparent enough about my views?

Now, if you have trouble seeing through the media to the state, and the state to the deep state, you can hear the tightness of their relationship in the pompous yet just-plain-dumb language that they all use. On December 19, CBS radio, agitating against Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, reported an “anonymous administration official” fulminating against the move as “catastrophically disastrous.” It wasn’t just a disaster, you understand, but a catastrophic one. Does the word overkill come up in classes at the Columbia School of Journalism, or are they all about advocating for social justice? And speaking of credulity, why is special credence to be paid to someone because he or she is (A) hysterical, (B) semi-literate, (C) a government official who (D) wants to operate in secret? Members of the deep state aren’t shy about expressing themselves; they glory in their power and prestige — but they do want to escape the consequence of being bounced out on the street.

Catastrophically disastrous, while dumb, is not an expression that somebody stayed up all night to invent. But what about this item from CNN (December 20):

Shaken, saddened, scared: Washington erupts over Mattis resignation

Can’t you just see the news staff, huddled around a computer screen, trying to get the alliteration right?

The idea, of course, was to issue a clarion call, suggestive of . . . I don’t know what. A nuclear explosion in Cincinnati? The return of the Black Death? The Day of the Triffids? Here, as usual, the tone of the open media is the same as that of the deep state. Catastrophically disastrous, I’d like you to meet mass eruption. Oh, you’ve met before. I thought so.

How childish this is! No matter what you think about General Mattis (or Syria, for that matter, except that I, for one, would like us to get out of there), the picture of a sad and shaken city erupting, and doing so over somebody’s resignation, could be created only by people who think that words are nothing but emotional pricks and goads, and if you use enough of them on your audience, you can steer them in any way you want.

That’s not a particularly bright idea. But I recall that R.W. Bradford, the founder of this journal, used to refer to the “dumber principle” — the idea, common among people who have bought something at an inflated price and are now trying to unload it on someone else, that “there is always somebody dumber than you are.” In this light, consider the recent protective action of the American media on behalf of the government of France. On December 10, Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister, responded to violent demonstrations against a (highly regressive) fuel tax by declaring that his government was ready to make any gesture of appeasement (geste d’apaisement) that might restore unity; i.e., make the mobs go away. Le Maire’s geste was a transparent display of the modern state’s contempt for the people. Let ’em eat gestures.

Here, as usual, the tone of the open media is the same as that of the deep state.

At this, strangely, there was no populist revulsion among the American media. Reportage about the French affair was lackluster, uninterested. Could that have been because the public’s object of disgust was a tax imposed to save the environment?

Things are normally that way, in Europe and America — the ruling class gets hypochondria, and the working class gets pneumonia. Name one public figure who has, in the name of the environment, climate change, sustainability, or simple economy, taken even one trip fewer in a private jet. Yet these are the people who never met a tax or regulation they didn’t like. There is always the question: What are they thinking? Are they just that rude? Or are they just that dumb? And they may be both. If you want a combination of rude and dumb, you can hardly do better than an account of French politics published by the Chicago Tribune on December 8.

The Trib, at least, could not be accused of ignoring the French demonstrations; it reported them in a 30-paragraph article (bylined to the Associated Press). In paragraph 13 there is a vague reference to “a gas tax hike” and “eroding living standards.” (Al Gore did predict erosion, didn’t he?) Yet only in the final paragraph is their cause stated clearly — in a quotation from, of all people, President Trump: “People do not want to pay large sums of money . . . in order to maybe protect the environment."

Perfectly true, but the betting is that you won’t read that far. To get there you have to resist the anesthetic administered in paragraph 24, which invokes the usual anonymous authorities: “Many economists and scientists say higher fuel taxes are essential to save the planet from worsening climate change, but that stance hasn't defused the anger among France's working class.” (So saying something is now a stance?)

Things are normally that way, in Europe and America — the ruling class gets hypochondria, and the working class gets pneumonia.

You also have to get past the mysterious paragraph 12, which mentions “the financial disconnect that infuriates many of the protesters.” Aha! Now we know! These people are infuriated by a disconnect. I feel the same, whenever my computer goes down, and I need to find the plug. But how did so many Frenchies get unplugged? Maybe paragraph 21 will help us. It describes another, “environmental” demonstration that appears to have featured some of the same character actors: “A scattering of yellow vests [these are things that French law requires you to carry in your car, in case your fashion sense is insufficient to meet an emergency], as well as women, children and retirees, were among the 17,000 people marching to demand action against climate change. One sign read ‘No climate justice without fiscal and social justice.’"

Make sense of that, will you! Here are people demanding action against climate change. So they’re enraged environmentalists, eh? That’s what the article says. But the people seem to be saying — sorry, one of their signs is saying; it’s so easy to take one sign as representative, isn’t it? — that they want other kinds of “justice” first. So are they upset about climate change, or not? Well, if they aren’t, they ought to be. The economists and scientists say so. In fact, the economists and scientists demand that they (that is, the people) pay higher taxes. But somehow, this demand has not defused the people’s anger. Why not? Ah! (Gallic shrug) — who knows?

Is the Tribune’s mess of a story intentional — a way of boring and confusing readers until they give up on the matter? Or is it merely a predictable result of the uncertain hold on literacy so often noticeable among the controlling class? In any case, it’s transparent. It presents a true picture of the modern state and its organs of propaganda.

I’ll hand you some of my own propaganda. Here it is. You can have a flourishing language or you can have a flourishing state. You cannot have both; you need to decide. And if you’re too lazy, dumb, or silly to decide, you’ve already made your decision, and it’s obvious what you’ll get. It’s what you’ve got right now.




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