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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We Are All Floridians Now

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The election of 2018 was ably summarized by Brenda Snipes, supervisor of elections for Broward County, Florida, in a comment about 2,000 ballots that her organization appeared to be missing. She said there was one thing she was sure of: “The ballots are in this building.”

There would be nowhere else for them to be. The ballots are in the building. The ballots are in the building.

The ballots, if found, would presumably have been cast for candidates of Snipes’ party, but she was forced to resign her position before she could find them. In the same way, Democratic and Republican partisans spent the election season trying to find the votes they needed and were sure existed, somewhere on the premises; but they never found where. The more or less final results of the election indicated that the voters were pretty much where they were when the whole thing started — evenly divided. The same groups turned out in more or less the same numbers, and when forced to decide between D and R, they decided in a way that taught no one much of anything. There was no blue wave. There was no red wave. Nobody rocked the vote. And because the results were approximately even, both parties will spend the next two years making asses of themselves trying to find their votes.

As a libertarian, I’m inclined to hate everyone’s politics; as someone who can read and write, I’m inclined to be skeptical about all supposed Great Communicators and Inspiring Speakers of the post-literate age.

But more was lost than ballots in the election of 2018. Grammar often got so lost that nobody even went looking for it. Here’s a report from Fox News (November 18) about the Senate election in Snipes’ own virtuous and efficient state:

[Rick] Scott's victory . . . marks the first time in more than a century that Florida has two Republican senators representing them in Washington.

No matter how many ballots Floridians cast — bogus or not — “Florida” is not a “them.”

The best orator among Florida politicians was supposed to be Andrew Gillum, the losing candidate for governor. Gillum is said by conservative friends of mine to be “a good speaker, even if you hate his politics.” As a libertarian, I’m inclined to hate everyone’s politics; as someone who can read and write, I’m inclined to be skeptical about all supposed Great Communicators and Inspiring Speakers of the post-literate age. I liked Ronald Reagan pretty well, but I wasn’t captivated by his speeches. I didn’t like Barack Obama or William Jefferson Clinton, but that wasn’t my reason for disliking their constant attempts at self-expression. The reason was that they were blustery, repetitive, and a hundred times too long for their concept count. I found Gillum’s speeches as embarrassing as any other faux-folksy orations.

There was no blue wave. There was no red wave. Nobody rocked the vote.

His election, like Scott’s, fell into the toils of a Florida recount, and Gillum long pursued a victory of hanging chads. Meanwhile, he talked a lot. He said, among other things,

I wanted so bad, and still want so bad, for us to be able to make a combined impact on this state, and I’m trusting that we’re going to have that opportunity. Once we get beyond this election, whatever the outcome may be, we will have to commit ourselves to an improved and a better democracy.

How bad[ly] do you want to be able to make an impact, Mr. Gillum? I want it so bad. Are you currently committed to a better democracy? Maybe not now, but in the future I will have to commit myself. But what do you mean by a better democracy? I mean an improved democracy. I will have to commit myself to an improved and a better democracy.

I didn’t like Barack Obama or William Jefferson Clinton, but that wasn’t my reason for disliking their constant attempts at self-expression.

Gillum wasn’t the only candidate in that race who was committed to the meaningless doubling of words. Ronald Dion (“Ron”) DeSantis, who emerged as victor, was also so committed. He also kept issuing statements, which were duly reported by the Miami Herald:

“I remain humbled by your support and the great honor the people of Florida have shown me as I prepare to serve as your next governor,” his statement read, striking a more conciliatory tone than the confrontational approach he used in the campaign. [The Herald is convinced that approaches strike tones. Picture that, if you can.]

He said the campaign must now end so it can “give way to governing and bringing people together to secure Florida’s future. With the campaign now over, that’s where all of my focus will be.”

Humbled by support and humbled by honor, DeSantis now turns to governing and bringing people together . . . can’t he just say something once? People who can’t do that are likely to get confused. What does it mean to say that a campaign must give way to bringing people together? Incidentally, what does it mean to secure the future? Isn’t it going to happen anyhow? Leave the damned thing alone.

I know what DeSantis was trying to say. Why didn’t he say it? “The campaign’s over; let’s try to work with our opponents”? Now, was that so hard?

But how in God’s universe did the other guy — Mr. Gillum — get himself so mixed up as to say that “it [meaning either his campaign or the recount he wanted] is not over until every legally casted vote is counted”?

Both Gillum and his opponent are able representatives of the modern form of illiteracy, which is the ability to read and speak without noticing what you read and speak.

Sorry. The past participle of cast is cast. And don’t accuse me of pedantry. The man is a politician. The most important thing in his life is the casting of votes. He must have read hundreds of articles, papers, advice sheets, whatever, about the subject. And he doesn’t know what the past participle of cast may be?

Don’t say he merely prefers an accepted variant of the word. Casted hasn’t been used in serious English since the 16th century, and if there’s one thing Florida politicians are not, it’s collectors of antiquarian books. (You can say the same about Mike Pence, who in 2016 babbled about having “casted” his vote, until he was reproved by Merriam Webster and a little swarm of literate people.) Both Gillum and his opponent are able representatives of the modern form of illiteracy, which is the ability to read and speak without noticing what you read and speak. When in doubt — whatever! Just make it up!

That approach can be used with concepts, too. Adults form concepts mainly by reading, reflection, and communication with knowledgeable people. The concepts result from their attempts to find intellectual answers to questions posed by their experience. This is particularly evident in the formation of economic concepts. Today we see one person paying three dollars for a cup of coffee and another declining to pay anything more than two. On another day we see the second person happily paying four dollars for the same commodity. We wonder how to account for this, and if we are willing to read, we may learn from our reading the principle of marginal utility. Similarly, we may wonder why jobs appear to be scarce in one year but abundant in another. If we read, or talk with other people, or pursue our own reflections, we may discover such concepts as the investment cycle, the effects of taxes and regulation, the influence of technological innovation upon productivity, and the like, and we can use these concepts to explain our experience.

I was going to list eight or ten fallacies that are packed into Ocasio-Cortez’s eight words. Then I realized: there aren’t any ideas in what she said.

By contrast, a person who, as Sophocles says, “wishes to talk but never to hear or listen” seeks answers not from reading, reflection, and communication but from an impulse to say something, whether the saying represents a concept or not. Want an example? Here’s a good one. It comes from the inimitable Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, newly elected congresswoman of New York, who was asked by a PBS interviewer for her response to the nation’s low unemployment rate. As a dedicated opponent of the current economic regime, she seemed embarrassed by this question. But her embarrassment did not last long. She soon had something to say, which was: “Unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs.”

When I saw a clip of that interview, I grabbed a piece of paper to record her words, certain that I would use them here. My plan was to show how even dumb people can generate ideas, lots of ideas — dumb ideas, but plenty of them anyway. I would list eight or ten fallacies that are packed into Ocasio-Cortez’s eight words. Then I realized: there aren’t any ideas in what she said, or around what she said, or implied by what she said; it’s just words, nothing but words. Her remark was as empty of concepts as those mysterious messages in Cocteau’s Orphée: “The bird sings with its fingers, three times.” She is conceptually illiterate, that’s all.

I gave up my plan, but I was not disappointed. I knew that in this column, O-C’s future is secure. Most politicians talk nonsense all day long, but few are objects of a publicity cult. They are clowns without an audience, and their words are written on the waves. But Ocasio-Cortez is the Donald Trump of the Left. Nothing can stand between her and a camera, and there are always people showing her the way to one. She is God’s gift to Republicans and to people like me. I expect from her a continuous supply of hilarious remarks.

Like other mainstream politicians, McCaskill spent her career disguising an obsession with power as a manifestation of civic duty.

I have not been so lucky with Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill, whose legislative career was ended by the voters on November 6. I fear that McCaskill will no longer be turning out fodder for Word Watch. But her farewell performance was a knockout in the nonsense department. It had the weight, the gravity, of exemplary things. Ocasio is a nut who sees no reason to disguise the fact, but McCaskill is a representative figure: like other mainstream politicians, she spent her career disguising an obsession with power as a manifestation of civic duty. When she lost, she posted a farewell address in which she made the following outrageous claim.

This campaign was never about me — it was always about the people of Missouri.

Her full statement contains 354 words, 33 of which are first-person pronouns. Most of it is autobiographical: “I love Missouri. I was born and raised here. Waited tables to put myself through college and law school at Mizzou. I have raised my family here. I’ve never left. [Note: except for 12 years vacationing in Washington DC.] . . . We’ve been through a lot together, Missouri and me.”

How icky can you get? The really awful thing is that this could have been “Montana and me” or “New Jersey and me” or “Hoboken and me”: any pol could have written this — and most of them have. The business about waiting tables — they all say something like that. They all maintain that their campaigns are not attempts to thrust their snouts into the gravy bowl; oh no, everything they do is a “fight for what’s right,” for “our values,” as McCaskill put it — the “values” of “this state” (or whatever). We have Missouri values, California values, Cleveland values, any kind of values you like, and every value offers a privilege to serve:

You allowed me to serve the public since I was 28 years old. [There’s an old leftist satirical song that says, “Our leaders are the finest men, / And we elect ’em again and again.”] For decades I have been blessed to get up every single day to make things better and improve people’s lives. [Recall Gillum’s idea about both improving and making better.] That has been my greatest privilege.

Every libertarian must be in agony, having to read yet another assertion that the people are desperately waiting for their lives to be improved by such philanthropists as Claire McCaskill. The real agony, however, begins when one gets to McCaskill’s promise. She puts it in boldface: “I will never stop fighting.

Even when they lose, they all say that. They all promise to keep doing exactly what they’ve been doing their whole lives. No matter what you think, they know what’s right for you. You will never get rid of them. They simply won’t go away.




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The Quest for the Perfect Slogan

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Sex seems to bring out the worst in us, even when it doesn’t happen.

I refer, of course, to the Brett Kavanaugh episode. I don’t want to argue about the sex accusations themselves, partly because I just can’t get interested in either Kavanaugh or his accusers — all self-evidently tedious, boring people — and partly because I’m sure you’ve reached your own view, and if we differ, why should we go over it all again?

Merely to be honest, however, I need to say that I never believed any of the accusers. Christine Blasey Ford was the only one I might have believed, but she made untrue statements about so many things — her paralyzing fear of flying, the time and reason for installing an extra door on her house, her lack of memory of crucial episodes that happened only weeks before, let alone three decades before — that there was, for me, every reason not to believe her. I was not impressed by the supposedly corroborating evidence, which consisted only of assertions made by Ford herself (in psychological counseling sessions!) about 30 years after the alleged event. Are we now corroborating our statements by making them more than once?

I just can’t get interested in either Kavanaugh or his accusers — all self-evidently tedious, boring people.

But so much for that. What I want to talk about is the verbal and rhetorical horrors of the affair. I’ll start with the “protestors” who on September 24 assailed Senator Cruz in a Washington restaurant and drove him forth with loud cries, citing his support for the Kavanaugh nomination as a reason for restricting his culinary choices. Cruz has no problems of self-esteem, so I’m sure he’ll survive; I’m not so sure about the survival of some vital distinctions in our language. There is a difference between protestors and harassers, and between individual harassers and a mob. CNN anchor persons now fly into a tizzy if someone uses the word mob, but the word remains useful. A mob does more than bother you or protest against you; a mob wants to have its own way with you.

Protestors can be witty and humorous; mobs never are — although a member of the anti-Cruz mob did say something funny, one of the few funny sayings among the millions spilled over the Brett Kavanaugh dam. Referring to Cruz’s opponent in the current senatorial election, Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke, the young protestor said, “Beto is way hotter than you are.” No one will argue that this isn’t true. Some may argue that it isn’t all that funny, either, but I’ll take funniness where I can find it, especially when it cuts through the shroud of deep moral seriousness with which contestants on both sides of the Kavanaugh affair tried to suffocate us.

The rest of the keep-Cruz-from-eating discourse was not amusing. Its central feature was the high-decibel chant, “We believe survivors!” For weeks that slogan served as the argument of choice for Kavanaugh’s antagonists. Their method was backed by historical precedent, a precedent that illustrates the way in which even good causes can be hurt by bad rhetoric.

There is a difference between protestors and harassers, and between individual harassers and a mob.

Let me put it to you this way. In early life I often participated in anti-Vietnam War protests. Occasionally I organized them. To paraphrase Whitman: I was the man; I shouted slogans; I was there. I still think that the war was wrong — but I no longer think that angrily screaming a few catchphrases is a decent way of carrying on debate. If you believe it is, your tendency will be to make your slogans substitute for thought. Soon, freed from thought, the slogans will stop appealing to anyone except people who view them as the moral equivalent of war, and enjoy waging war. I’m pretty sure that slogans and demos didn’t end the actual war in Vietnam; they enraged more people than they inspired.

Since then, however, Americans of all persuasions have acted as if progress is to be made by shouting inane phrases, suspiciously resembling high school football chants, and imagining oneself as a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegate marching on the Winter Palace. They have so much fun dramatizing themselves that they stop caring about the effect. Does anyone hear people screaming “We believe survivors!” and say, “Hmmm. Maybe I was wrong. Now I see that Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination should be rejected.” Only an insane person would meditate thus, and when I watched adult persons being dragged from Senate chambers shouting the single word “Shame!” until the word dissolved into an animal howl, I wondered why anyone not seriously unbalanced would want to argue in this way.

The noise they were making was the type my grandmother had in mind when she said she hadn’t heard anything like it since the old cow died. It drowned out any attempts at serious discussion of Kavanaugh’s qualifications for high office — discussions from which his adversaries might have emerged victorious. Yet these officially distressed people all seemed remarkably smug, as smug as teachers who’ve caught some students cheating and can now indulge the pleasure of bawling them out. After all, the cry of “Shame!” implies that those on the receiving end understand the rules and know that they violated them; all the culprits need is to be publicly disgraced. But despite its high moral purpose, the protestors’ rhetoric was literally repulsive — repellant, repugnant, noxious to anyone exposed to it for significant periods of time.

To paraphrase Whitman: I was the man; I shouted slogans; I was there.

Its logic was repulsive too. The howl of “We believe survivors!” was not only an attempt at winning by intimidation; it was also an attempt at winning by definition. The question for debate was whether someone (e.g., Christine Blasey Ford) was in fact a survivor of something, and if so, what that something was; the demand for belief was just an impudent way of eliding the debate. So was the adjuration to believe the victims, as in Michael Avenatti’s denunciation of the press for not caving in to accusations made by his client. “I am disgusted by the fact that the press is attacking a sexual assault victim,” Avenatti said. He could have saved himself from disgust by simply showing that his client was indeed a victim.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) took the same tack as the “We believe survivors!” sloganeers, although with her even a slogan has to be dressed up with a sofa, a coffee table, and some heavy drapes. “We are now in a place,” she intoned, “where it’s not about whether or not Judge Kavanaugh is qualified. It is about whether or not a woman who has been a victim at some point in her life is to be believed.” No, it’s not about that. Everyone agrees that if someone is a victim, she should be believed. The question is, Were these people victims or not? Did they survive anything that endangered their survival? Murkowski assumes that if you define them as victims and survivors, and shout loudly enough — or orate heavily enough — about it, then you have won the argument. But what if I shout in reply, “I don’t believe a LIAR!” Where are we then? Who will decide between these two sets of powerful arguments?

I’m going to say this as solemnly as I can: a world in which people just are what they say they are, and you are required to believe them, because that’s what they are, is a world incompatible with liberty. It’s a world in which anyone can be accused of anything, and lose everything, because he or she is guilty by definition. If protection from this violation of liberty isn’t specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights, it’s because the authors never thought that anyone would be stupid enough to use such logic in constitutional discourse, or smug enough to insist on it.

The noise they were making was the type my grandmother had in mind when she said she hadn’t heard anything like it since the old cow died.

Less repulsive, I suppose, than argument by definition, but similar in logical status, is argument by emotion — your emotion or somebody else’s. Kavanaugh was believed or not believed because he showed certain emotions. Ford was pronounced credible because her hearers felt that her emotions were appropriate to the occasion. Others, admittedly, found her credible because, as they said, “She had nothing to gain by making these charges.” Excuse me — is there no gain in attracting a national spotlight, advancing the political causes you espouse, or even expressing your turbulent emotions in a public context? Both true and false witnesses can have these motives, and to deny that people have them suggests a disqualifying ignorance of human nature. This may be a good place to cite Ayn Rand’s idea that emotions are not tools of cognition. And they aren’t.

Here’s evidence. There is in this world a person named Anna Ayers. Until recently she was a prominent member of the student “senate” at Ohio University. She is no longer a member of that august body, because she was arrested for sounding a “false alarm” — accusing an unnamed fellow senator of writing abusive and threatening messages to her because of her sexual orientation. The cops say that she wrote the messages herself, and I assume she did, because, despite her plea of not guilty, no defense has been forthcoming. Making her accusations in a speech before the senate, Ayers ranted, declaimed, choked up, and shared her deepest feelings:

“Senate will never be the same for me,” Ayers said in front of her Student Senate peers. “The friendships will continue to grow, and our successes will always evoke pride, but the memory of my time in senate and at OU will be marred by this experience. We will all have a memory of a time when this body failed one of its own.”

Ayers went on to call the threat sender cowardly, weak, and worthless. . . .

“You may find me revolting and worthy of a threat on my life, but in reality, it is your beliefs that are repulsive,” Ayers said during her speech in the senate. “You need to get this through your head, you f***ing a**hole: I am proud to be who I am, and nothing you could say or do will ever change that.”

Emotionally credible? Certainly. But emotional credibility (surprise!) had nothing to do with truth, despite the assumptions of Ayers’ student council colleagues, who instead of reacting with disgust to the evidently false accusations that Ayers leveled at themselves still believe in believing anyone who accuses anyone. Maddie Sloat, Student Senate President, said:

It’s important for you to know that I do not, for one second, regret any of the actions we took in the past week to support Anna on the information [query: what information?] that we had at the time. . . . Know that if you report something to (Vice President) Hannah (Burke), (Treasurer) Lydia (Ramlo) or anyone else on our leadership, we will listen. We will believe you. We care about you.

“You” being . . . everyone in Salem with a tale to tell?

Note that we are still in the to-our-contemporaries-terrifically-confusing realm of sex and sexuality. In a nation that gives — and rightly gives — unprecedented freedom to sexual expression, freedom is never enough; enemies both of sexuality and of chastity must be assiduously hunted, and if not found, invented. In a nation oozing sexuality from every pore, a nation in which sexual aggression is a staple of popular entertainment and in which stars of stage and screen struggle daily to free their bodies of all skin cover, one of the nation’s leading lawyers can refer to Judge Kavanaugh, as having been “accused of the most heinous crime imaginable.”

With Murkowski even a slogan has to be dressed up with a sofa, a coffee table, and some heavy drapes.

The author of that statement is the irrepressible Alan Dershowitz, sharing his feelings on Tucker Carson’s show. Dershowitz was actually defending Kavanaugh against accusations he did not find credible, but he followed fashion when it came to the crime itself. In America one can never mention sex without superlatives. Either it is the most sacred, most necessary, and most liberating of all human enterprises, or it is the most heinous crime imaginable.

Why is such language used? One reason is simply a desire to win at any conceptual price. It sounds so feeble, doesn’t it, to say, “I disagree with you about Judge Kavanaugh. I don’t think he has the right qualifications, and I’m inclined to believe Christine Ford. Her testimony isn’t conclusive, but it may be true, and I don’t think that a person under a cloud of serious suspicion should be elevated to the Supreme Court.” It feels stronger to say, “Anyone who doesn’t believe Christine Ford is against the rights of all survivors of heinous assaults.” Then, if you still haven’t convinced everybody, you can seek people out and scream “Shame!” in their faces, thereby winning the argument.

Another reason is fear. Even Dershowitz, who is no little snowflake, apparently fears that if you say something like, “Kavanaugh is accused of forcing himself on a young woman and trying to take off her clothes,” people will accuse you of trivializing sexual assault. So you’re afraid, and you call whatever it was that he’s suspected of doing “the most heinous crime imaginable.” Now no one will attack you, and you will win the argument! Maybe, but at what a price?

And that’s what you can ask about all of the above: at what a price?

Freedom is never enough; enemies both of sexuality and of chastity must be assiduously hunted, and if not found, invented.

Turning now to the lighter side of the news . . .

Here’s a headline from the Boston Herald, September 30: “Howie Carr: Treat Brett Kavanaugh as good as illegal alien criminals.” Hmmm . . . How good are they treated? Real good? The error is not in Carr’s article; he knows grammar — although it doesn’t take much knowledge to avoid the good-well mistake. Now, what part of an article is most important to get right? The headline, that’s what.

In case you think that sex scandals are confined to America, here’s something from an article (October 1) about problems in Sweden: “The scandal started with 18 women publicly accusing well-known photographer Jean-Claude Arnault of sexual misconduct last November.” I don’t want to trivialize anything, but I do think it’s remarkable that he committed sexual misconduct with 18 women in the same month.

Speaking of mass activities, consider a video aired on Fox News on October 6. It showed demonstrators being prepped for their performance at the office of Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) to protest the Kavanaugh nomination. The group is learning, by recitation, how they’re going to protest. The (male) group leader chants, “We are going to Heidi Heitkamp’s office”; the group repeats, “We are going to Heidi Heitkamp’s office!” Etc. Finally one woman interrupts: “But she’s on our side.” All repeat: “She’s on our side!”

I don’t want to trivialize anything, but I do think it’s remarkable that he committed sexual misconduct with 18 women in the same month.

One more item to close it off. It isn’t directly related to the rhetoric of sex, but it’s about Hillary Clinton, so you know it’s gonna be good. I feel sad to make this confession, but Mrs. Clinton is my joy and comfort. Not even Donald Trump can provide such a steady stream of comedy, if only because he himself has a sense of humor. It’s not my sense of humor, but he’s got it, and as the old expression goes, you can’t kid a kidder.

Clinton has no such sense. She has no sense of any kind. When she blamed her husband’s sex scandals on “a vast, rightwing conspiracy,” when she angrily demanded what difference it made about why our embassy in Benghazi was looted and our ambassador murdered, when she, campaigning for the presidency, labeled a large portion of the voting population “deplorables,” her remarks were carefully prepared and conscientiously rehearsed. She wasn’t blurting anything out. She thought her statements were the right things to say. She undoubtedly still thinks they were the right things to say. The more carefully, thoughtfully, and self-righteously she speaks, the funnier you know she’ll be.

Looking for a conclusion to this month’s column, I knew that Clinton would have something for me, and of course she did. It’s the interview (October 9) in which she maintained that it’s impossible to be civil to the opposing party, because "you cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about." Again, it’s the argument from emotion: what you care about. But her assertion of a subjective standard didn’t keep her from adopting the objective tone of an ethics professor, revealing the results of her research.

Clinton wasn’t blurting anything out. She thought her statements were the right things to say. She undoubtedly still thinks they were the right things to say.

Programmatic incivility isn’t especially good politics, but never mind; you can always promise to be civil later on. The logic here is exceptionally challenging, but let’s keep with her. She followed her defense of incivility by saying, “That’s why [why?] I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and/or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”

Here we have a whole new approach to rhetoric. I will rail at you, condemn you, call you names, accuse you of crimes, do my best to intimidate you. This is perfectly ethical; indeed, it is an ethical requirement. But if it succeeds, I will consider it ethical to treat you civilly — again, or for the first time.

To think this is remarkable. To announce it is bizarre.




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Do You Believe in Magic?

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If you wonder whether something bad always has something good about it, consider the remarks that a Santa Barbara (California) City Councilman made this summer, regarding the council’s banning of plastic straws.

The attack on straws is the environmentalist fad of 2018, and virtually everyone regards it as an affront to common sense. The councilman, Jesse Dominguez, apparently realized that they do. He remarked, in anticipation of protests from citizens, "Unfortunately, common sense is just not common. We have to regulate every aspect of people's lives."

So that’s a bad thing — two bad things, in fact. First there was petty tyrant Dominguez’s atrocious assertion of his power to regulate everyone else’s life. Second was his atrocious cliché: “common sense is not common.” Come now, Mr. Dominguez, what makes you think that you have the common sense to regulate anyone’s life, when you’re silly enough to think that anyone will fall for the old uncommon common sense routine?

Like the fruit of the deranged trees in The Wizard of Oz, this utterance wasn’t what it ought to be.

But then a good thing happened. There was indeed a public outcry, against both the enactment and Dominguez’s asinine remark, and he acknowledged it at the next meeting of the City Council. "I just wanted to apologize," he said. "A few weeks ago I made a string of words in a rhetorical fashion about regulation and they were not taken as rhetorical and that's my fault so I want to apologize."

What do you know — an apology! But in this world, neither good nor bad comes pure and single. Like the fruit of the deranged trees in The Wizard of Oz, and like virtually all apologies of Important Public Figures, this utterance wasn’t what it ought to be. It labeled itself an apology but justified the action for which it apologized, suggesting that the real problem was a misunderstanding on the part of the people to whom it was addressed, people who “took” a “rhetorical” statement and childishly misinterpreted it. And that business about “rhetoric” — that’s just a gnostic way for a speaker to justify anything that falls from his lips. One can always say of anything: “That wasn’t my real statement; that’s just rhetoric. My real statement is all those deeply spiritual things I actually meant.”

Dominguez isn’t the first to claim he was merely emitting a “string of words,” and it’s your fault that you got his meaning wrong. Other public figures do the same thing all the time. But what is “rhetoric” — what does it mean?

Rhetoric is a way of organizing words to express a meaning. When people analyze the words of a preacher or a politician or a salesman and conclude that “it’s all just rhetoric,” they mean that something has gone wrong with his string of words, that the mechanisms of meaning have been substituted for meaning itself. If someone says, “Every enterprise associate of Acme Widgets is committed to the highest level of personal respect and productive interfacing with the public,” you know that he or she is being rhetorical in the bad sense. None of those words except “Acme Widgets” has a discernible reference to anything; they are simply good wordsenterprise, associate (not employee, never employee), committed, highest, personal, respect, productive, public, interfacing (you’re right; that doesn’t sound like a good word to me, either, but it is thought to be one).

One can always say of anything: “That wasn’t my real statement; that’s just rhetoric. My real statement is all those deeply spiritual things I actually meant.”

Nevertheless, every writer uses rhetoric. If you write a love note, you may say to the target of your endearments, “Who wouldn’t love you?”, thus employing a rhetorical question, a means of breaking up the normal flow of declarative sentences and creating a slight surprise and intensification. You might add some such expression as, “You are the wind beneath my wings,” although I hope the metaphor you choose is not that trite.

Still, trite or not, the expression has a clear meaning. But what did Mr. Dominguez’s rhetoric mean? Was it just a string of words, with no meaning at all? Then why did he say it? If it did have a meaning, what was that meaning? Was he trying to say, “The voters who elected me have common sense and know what they want to do; therefore, I oppose all attempts to second-guess them by means of regulation”?

I doubt that this was what he had in mind. In fact, I can’t think of any meaning concealed beneath his rhetoric. What would that meaning be? The only one I can imagine is the hidden-in-plain-sight idea that “we have to regulate every aspect of people’s lives.” But seeing Dominguez assert that the real meaning is not the plain meaning is irresistibly funny; it’s like watching a magician claim that there’s an invisible rabbit in his hat. So that’s another good thing about his otherwise absurd and threatening statement.

Less funny rabbit-hat routines were on stage last month in the obsequies of John McCain. The ceremonies attending his death were so protracted as to suggest an irrational number, a house of mirrors, a sermon in an evangelical church, or anything else that makes one scream, “Where will all this end?” It was bad with Barbara Bush; it was worse with McCain — and who has not thought with horror about the coming funeral of Jimmy Carter? At some point, mourners had said all they could say about honor, patriotism, Abraham Lincoln, and this great country of ours. At some point, even the most self-centered person had said all he could say about himself. But what remained to be said, day after day, about John McCain? And what could one say that was true?

You might add some such expression as, “You are the wind beneath my wings,” although I hope the metaphor you choose is not that trite.

One could remind the audience that McCain had been a war hero, a genuine war hero. Captured by enemies in Vietnam, he was imprisoned for more than five years and tortured, horribly, for many months. At one point, fairly early, he could have been released, but he refused to cooperate unless comrades who had been captured before him were also released. His record is as admirable as attempts to question his military courage are despicable.

One could also say, with equal relation to the truth, that McCain spent the rest of his life as a politician — 35 years in Congress were required to perform his great public service — and in that role he revealed himself as a pompous, pigheaded, vindictive man. He was the only Republican politician whom I ever heard being thrown off a Republican talk show for being rude and overbearing. And despite his headstrong character, he switched policies and “convictions” so frequently that nobody knew how he was going to vote on any issue on which his vote was courted. Was he tricky, or was he incapable of coherent reasoning? No one could tell, but neither alternative was attractive. His own political party had no reason to trust him. According to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, McCain flirted with becoming his running mate. According to many people, McCain spent a lot of time peddling the scandalous “dossier” about Trump-in-Russia. I never met anyone who liked John McCain — did you?

When McCain died, his memory was claimed by people who had despised him (liberal Democrats) and people who had made the best of him, to further their own ends (establishment Republicans). These people, with hearty cooperation from McCain in his final illness, saw in his death an opportunity to create an anti-Trump, a politician who was a true American, as opposed to the president, who is un-American. (Have you noticed that this adjective, so long denounced by the Left as a vile slander — which it ordinarily is — now routinely features in Democratic diatribes against Republicans? Odd, isn’t it, that the transference should take place with so little self-consciousness.) Anti-Trump sentiment was mobilized in an attempt to create a panic of grief like that staged when dictators of North Korea die.

McCain was the only Republican politician whom I ever heard being thrown off a Republican talk show for being rude and overbearing.

But what, after all, could be said, day after day, about John McCain? What exactly were his sturdy American principles? What lives had he inspired? What thoughts had he brought to rare expression? What exactly had he accomplished? What had he said that anyone else remembered? How, precisely, could he be eulogized, hour after hour, day after day, week after week? At last the cliché was true: there just weren’t enough words to say about him. Words that meant anything, that is.

By August 31, the alleged mourning had used up so many other words that on-air commentators were clearly puzzled. Yet the show must go on, even at Fox News, which had never liked John McCain (or he, it). It was at Fox that I witnessed one of the most amazing magic acts I have ever seen — magical in the sense of claiming that the invisible rabbit actually was in the hat, that nonsense words were actually conveying some deep meaning. The people at Fox began referring to the marvelous coincidence of two mournings for American “icons”: one was the funeral of John McCain, and the other was the funeral of Aretha Franklin.

Now there’s a desperate string of words.

If there is such a thing as an icon, outside of the religious and artistic circles in which the term has definite meaning, Aretha Franklin was an icon. Icon means “symbol,” and Aretha Franklin was directly and intensely symbolic of a type of music and a type of style and attitude that was irresistibly attractive to millions of Americans. I don’t think that anyone who ever saw her perform “Freeway of Love” will ever forget it. But if John McCain was an icon, what was he an icon of, and by whom was he regarded as such? The answer is plain: He was an icon of John McCain, and recognition of his iconicity was confined to himself. Aretha Franklin and John McCain — each of them an icon? That must be a joke.

The people at Fox began referring to the marvelous coincidence of two mournings for American “icons.”

Worse, in respect to iconicity, is the behavior of our linguistic cousins, the British, whose language appears to be growing even more childish than our own. In Britain, soccer is “footie,” people who work with their hands are “workies” or “tradies,” even snobby writers search out chav words for use on serious topics, and the existence of meaningless Americanisms inspires a quest for equally meaningless anglicisms. So it’s no surprise that an icon in America has now become a totem in Great Britain. On September 3 the Express quoted a member of Parliament as saying, of a meeting the prime minister was scheduled to have ten days later (don’t ask me whether she had the meeting; it’s none of my business): “I think it’s going to be totemic, the crucial meeting on the 13th September.”

Totem, originally an Ojibway term, means a symbolic representation of one’s tribe or family, often specifying its descent. Totem poles do that. In an extended meaning, a totem is a symbol of one’s social group, whatever that may be. Neither of these meanings has anything to do with the MP’s topic. He is making a random seizure of a word he doesn’t understand. I hate to think what an Ojibway chief, sculptor, or storyteller would say about the application of totem to a meeting. He would probably have the same reaction as a Christian would have, if informed that the PM’s next political meeting would be eucharistic.

A good rule is not to use a word if you can’t picture what it means and have no idea where it comes from. I realize that this principle — which Mr. Dominguez might regard as a mere figment of common sense — imposes a tremendous burden on people who want to pull invisible rabbits out of verbal hats, and think they have a foolproof method of doing it. I hate to spoil the fun by revealing how the purported magic is accomplished, but the method is actually simple. First, divide words into two groups — those that sound big, and those that sound small. Then, whenever you want to make an impression, just choose a word, any old word, from the Big list, and throw it in anywhere; applause will follow. You want to compliment a dead politician? Call him iconic, beloved, inspiring, legendary, path-breaking, humble, proud, cautious, bold, whatever.

I hate to think what an Ojibway chief, sculptor, or storyteller would say about the application of "totem" to a meeting.

The same method can be used on some wretched political meeting, or some second-rate storm, such as the recently deceased Florence, which was historic, unique, unprecedented, incredible — until it wasn’t. That’s when people realized there was no rabbit in the hat, despite the Washington Post’s pre-hurricane editorial about President Trump being “complicit” with the rabbit — or wabbit, if you’re a fan of Elmer Fudd, who seems to have written that editorial. Complicit is a big word; it must mean something. Right?

For the Post it all had something to do with the idea that “if the Category 4 hurricane does, indeed, hit the Carolinas this week, it will be the strongest storm on record to land so far north.” Well (to cite a cliché that needs to be revived), if wishes were horses, beggars could ride, and so could the Post, begging for a disaster that proved to be invisible.

Here’s a question. Can you find the supposed rabbit in the following report from the New York Post (July 21)?

“In March, a Tesla driver was killed while test-driving an auto-piloted Model X, the impact fully decimating half the car.” Fairness obliges me to note that at some time after July 21, “fully” was deleted from the story. But that was not the root problem, which was decimating. Liberty editor Jo Ann Skousen was on the case. “’Fully decimated half the car’?” she asked. “Does that mean it was diminished by 20%? 5%? Was half of it untouched and the other half untouched except the front bumper? I’m confused.” But of course she was not confused; she is never confused. She immediately recognized that decimating was simply a word grabbed from the Big list and intended to be accepted as a bunny the size of Harvey. The only difficulty is that words aren’t impressive when they’re ridiculous.

"Complicit" is a big word; it must mean something. Right?

Or when they’re plausible, but false. Tucker Carlson appears to agree with me about the idiocy of McCain worship. He certainly agrees with me about the bad effects of McCain’s constant demands for military intervention in foreign countries. Unfortunately, on his September 4 broadcast Tucker decided to weaponize his criticism by claiming that “he [McCain] was probably the most warlike senator in American history.” What?

True, McCain never saw a military scheme he didn’t like. But for God’s sake, Tucker! What are you talking about? If you add up the senators who wanted to annex Canada in 1812, and the senators who wanted to annex Mexico in 1846, and the senators who wanted to massacre the South in 1861, and the senators who wanted a war with Spain in 1898, and the senators who screamed for war against Germany in 1914, 1915, 1916, and 1917, and . . . should I continue? McCain has some stiff competition in the contest for “most warlike senator in American history.” There is no rabbit in that hat.

Neither is there a rabbit in the hat of Paul Gigot, who runs Fox’s “Wall Street Journal Editorial Report” on weekends (an unjust fate, because the show is usually pretty good). On July 14, Gigot decided to discuss the activities of Peter Strzok. To give decisive emphasis to his feelings, Gigot called him the author of “now infamous” texts. Infamous means “full of infamy,” and in my opinion it’s an appropriate word for the activities of Strzok, the secret policeman who took it upon himself to decide who should be president and left evidence of this high intent and calling among the thousands of stupid texts he sent to his girlfriend. But either something is infamous or it isn’t. It doesn’t become infamous; it isn’t infamous now and not infamous yesterday or tomorrow. What Gigot presumably meant was famous, but he couldn’t stop with that. There’s no magic in saying that something is well known. So, needing a word of greater potency, he reached into his magic hat and pulled out the absurd now infamous.

McCain has some stiff competition in the contest for “most warlike senator in American history.”

When I was studying Latin, I learned from Horace’s Art of Poetry an interesting expression: parturient montes nascetur ridiculus mus: the mountain labors and gives birth to a ridiculous mouse. What’s striking is the labor that some of these people put in, just to get something wrong. You don’t have to talk about infamous texts; just say they’re familiar to everyone. You don’t have to say that McCain was the most warlike senator in history; just say he was mighty warlike. You don’t have to say that even Aretha Franklin was iconic; just call her a good singer, a popular singer, a singer whom millions loved. You don’t have to provide a string of words in a rhetorical fashion — unless, of course, that’s all you’ve got to attract an audience.

It’s remarkable, how many words are wasted in this world. Lives, too.




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Don’t Say That to Me

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Let’s spend some time thinking about pronounciation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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What So Fulsomely We Hail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We all like brevity — in other people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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