The Other Half

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I’ve heard from a lot of people about last month’s Word Watch. That column was supposed to be the final and definitive commentary on word use in the 2010 political campaign. It was supposed to be the end of the story. But ungrateful readers now insist that it didn’t do half the job it was intended to do. It omitted at least half the tale.

So fine, here’s the other half. Positioned here before the readers’ firing squad, I will proceed to condemn even more of the linguistic sins they’ve complained about. I hope this penance will gain Word Watch a reprieve.

First, the president. Readers wanted much more about him. For example, they wanted more about something he said in the closing days of the campaign, when he was interrupted by hecklers in Connecticut. The hecklers were yelling, “Fund global AIDS!” — which shows how much time these people devote to thinking about the words they use. What their words literally meant was that Obama should subsidize (“fund”) a dreadful disease (“AIDS”), and spread it everywhere (around the “globe”).

Obama’s response showed how carefully he himself considers the words he chooses. He reacted by repeating the protestors’ stupid slogan. “We’re funding global AIDS!” he said. “And the other side is not!” Then he did it again. Addressing the protestors, he intoned: “I think it would make a lot more sense for you guys to go to the folks who aren’t interested in funding global AIDS and chant at that rally, because we’re trying to focus on figuring out how to finance the things that you want financed, all right?”

Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? Diagram that sentence, please. That’s what you get from Obama when he isn’t relying on his teleprompters — all right?

I’m not sure why I want to drag facts into a thing like this, but the biggest funder of the campaign against “global AIDS” (AIDS in foreign countries) was the last President Bush. Obama’s abuse of the Republicans was therefore just as vulgar as his abuse of the language. Yet he continued: “We’re not going to be able to do anything unless we get the economy fixed, unless we can put people back to work, unless folks feel more confident about the future. It’s going to be hard to move forward on all these initiatives.”

What their words literally meant was that Obama should subsidize a dreadful disease, and spread it everywhere.

You might ask, “Why must the ‘folks’ feel more confident about the future before Obama goes after AIDS?”, but if you did, you would have a long time to wait for an answer. Everything the president said, like everything the protestors said, was completely nonsensical.

There was something in the president’s remarks that irritated Liberty’s readers even more than the general senselessness. It was Obama’s increasing reliance on that chummy old monosyllable “folks.” During the latter stages of the election campaign our readers heard "folks" constantly from him, and it didn’t take them long to become heartily sick of it. I’m sick of it too. I got sick of it when Bill O’Reilly started claiming that he was “looking out for the folks.” I’m much more sick of it now that Obama has adopted it as his trademarked way of talking down to voters — the invariable accompaniment of his dropped final “g’s” and pseudo-demotic images of common folks tryin’ tuh buy clothes for the kids an’ havin’ trouble payin’ the mortgage.

The most grating of Obama’s folksy images was his constantly reiterated picture of the Republicans drivin’ the car intuh the ditch an’ then expectin’ folks tuh let ‘em back in the car an’ even give ‘em back the keys. I’ve mentioned this silly image before, but readers wanted me to emphasize the way Obama grinned with pride every time he used it, as if it were the climax of his career as an intellectual. Well, maybe it is. And maybe it will be the only locution for which this man of “soaring rhetoric” is ultimately remembered. When the next generation of politically interested kids picks up a handbook of Famous Presidential Sayings, this president may get credit for nothing except that stupid business about the car.

What people insist on saying over and over again defines both them and their view of their audience. Obama’s thing about the car demonstrates how shallow he is, and how shallow he thinks we are.

As several readers suggested, however, if you want evidence of Obama's power as a political analyst, nothing tops a statement he made in his post-election press conference. On that occasion, he alluded to his vast expansion of federal power: “We thought it was necessary, but I’m sympathetic to folks who looked at it and said this is looking like potential overreach.”Hmm . . . People looked at what he (we) had done and said that this was looking like potential overreach. It wasn’t overreach, exactly, or even loosely; it was just something that some folks believed or felt might possibly turn into or look like overreach. And looking at those folks and sensing their vague emotional reactions, Obama contributed his own vague emotional reaction: he was sympathetic. How many boxes within boxes do you count in that weird non mea culpa?

Can’t people think without stupid sports metaphors? Well, yes, they can, but perhaps not in America.

But everyone (even Liberty’s readers) would like to take a break from Obama at some point, so let’s take one now. Readers remain disgusted by a lot of things besides Obamaisms. Some of these folks believe that there may have been some potential overreach in the media’s constant use of the phrase “up for grabs.” “The election may have been a political football,” one reader pointed out, “but it was not a basketball. Still, every time it was mentioned in the papers or on the air, we were told that such and such a Senate seat was ‘up for grabs,’ or there were 435 desks in the House of Representatives that were ‘up for grabs,’ or some state election was so close that it was ‘up for grabs.’ Can’t people think without stupid sports metaphors?”

Well, yes, they can, but perhaps not in America. It would, however, be nice to see whether the media could struggle on for just a few moments without these crutches.

Readers also indicated that there are many other political expressions of which they have had enough. A brief list: “grow the economy,” “put America back to work,” “energize the base,” “hope and change,” “double down,” "out-source," "foreign money," “a way forward,” “a roadmap to,” “man up,” and the current favorite, “triangulate.”

I share our readers’ shuddering aversion to these junk expressions. Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about my own nominee for worst set of words from the 2010 election season. There’s too much to choose from, but what sticks in my mind is a remark made by Florida Governor Charlie Crist, one of the most repulsive personalities of a political year in which repulsive things abounded.

This Crist, of whom we shall probably hear no more, was a Republican, but when he tried to get his party’s nomination for US Senator, he found himself far behind. He then decided to run as an independent, but he had minimal success in enticing Republican support. To win, therefore, he needed to gain huge numbers of Democratic votes. He worked hard on that. A self-styled “Reagan Republican,” he veered crazily to the left, accusing the conservative Republican nominee, Marco Rubio, of every kind of extremism. But Crist was still behind, so he tried to get the Democratic nominee to leave the race. To do that, he suggested (which was undoubtedly true) that Bill Clinton and, by extension, the White House, had so little confidence in the Democrat that they wanted him to withdraw from the race and endorse Crist.

This was a nutty move for Crist to make. It succeeded only in alienating core Democratic voters. Still, he avidly sought television interviews in which he could discuss backroom maneuvers designed to eject the duly nominated Democrat and throw the election to himself. Grinning with delight at astonished interviewers, he displayed his conviction that everything he did, and everything that might possibly be done for him, was not only right but noble, merely because it aided him. If this doesn’t sound surreal enough, add the fact that Crist possessed an angelic little face and snowy white angelic hair, and that he constantly discussed himself in the third person: “This is a Florida decision for Floridians to decide what they want — if they want an extremist like Marco Rubio or if they want a common-sense candidate like Charlie Crist.”

I hate it when people talk like that. But there was worse to come. Asked whether he had leaked the story of the backroom negotiations in order to score a political advantage, Crist adopted the plural of majesty and intoned, “We’re not causing trouble. We’re causing freedom.”

Causing freedom. The man was causing freedom.

Plato believed that there existed in the eternal Mind the “forms” or blueprints of everything that exists on earth. If I were to pick the Platonic form of the contemporary American politician, it would be Charlie Crist. That sounds bad, but there’s a good thing, too: Crist lost the election. Maybe, sometimes, the folks are smarter than the Platonic Mind.




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Stump Speech

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It’s sad to realize that the most entertaining use of language during the 2010 election campaign involved the shrieks of a computer-generated pig.

I’m referring, of course, to the Geico Insurance ad that shows a man asking portentously, “Can Geico save you 15% or more on car insurance?”, then answering, “Did the little piggy go ‘wee, wee, wee’ all the way home?” Following that, we see the piggy in question. He’s leaning out a car window, waving a party twirler in each, uh, hand, and squealing delightedly, “Wee, wee, wee! Wee, wee, wee! Wee, wee, wee!”, etc., until the driver, a suburban soccer mom, stops the car and snaps, “Max! Maxwell! You’re home!” “Uh, thanks Mrs. A,” Maxwell the piggy replies, and leaves the car, never realizing how rudely he’s behaved.

It’s hard to explain why this ad is funny. (A lot of people think it’s not.) Part of the explanation must be that it takes something that makes no sense (the “this little piggy went to market” nursery rhyme) and converts it into something that looks like a slice of American reality — the pain-in-the-ass teenager, unconsciously exploiting the harassed middle-class mom. This is whimsy, the form of humor that Monty Python generated by imagining middle-class English people reacting with courteous acquiescence to palpably absurd situations.

Unfortunately, the political campaign that formed the background to the Little Pig ad was going in the opposite direction. The combatants took a serious event, a climactic election, and converted it into a stupefyingly unamusing absurdity.

Paul’s reply was exactly right. “How ridiculous are you?” he asked.

There were few exceptions to this pattern. One of them was the internet ad attacking Senator Boxer of California, who in 2009 made a fool of herself at a congressional hearing by demanding that a soldier call her “Senator” instead of “Ma’am”: she had worked hard to become a senator, she insisted, and therefore deserved every inch of her title. The anti-Boxer ad was filled with characters — generals, judges, policemen, Boy Scouts, nuns, Indian chiefs — who also demanded that they be accorded the highest possible honorific, because they had worked for it. Don’t call me “Sister”; call me “Mother Superior.”

One other amusing episode was the penultimate debate between the two senatorial candidates from Kentucky. The Democrat, Jack Conway, demanded that the libertarian Republican, Rand Paul, tell him whether he thought it was a good idea to worship “a false idol” named “Aqua Buddha.” Conway was trying to take seriously, indeed solemnly, an alleged episode of sacrilege from Paul’s life as a bumptious undergraduate, many years before. Paul’s reply was exactly right. “How ridiculous are you?” he asked.

But few participants in the great electoral process followed his example by ridiculing the ridiculous. When the Democrats dug up a former servant of the Republican candidate for governor of California and held press conferences in which the woman bewailed the fact that her employer had believed her when she furnished a bad Social Security number, no one said, “How ridiculous are you?” or started to laugh.

No, this was an election conducted in high seriousness, an election in which the Obama forces ran TV ads showing the American electorate’s purse being stolen in a darkened parking structure by thugs paid with stacks of Mao Tse-tung notes — and nobody laughed. Ceaselessly campaigning against the Supreme Court’s decision to respect the first amendment, the president kept arguing that by purportedly spending money to express their opinions, his opponents were supporting dictatorship: “This isn't a threat to the Democrats, it's a threat to our democracy." Again, nobody laughed.

It’s important to notice that the word “our” was used far too much in this campaign, by both political parties. Aren’t you tired of the attempt to smuggle togetherness into every political conception? But I’m much more tired of sheer pomposity — and in that category, President Obama won the election, hands down. Now that Senator Byrd is dead, no one can possibly be more pompous than Obama. Note to Republicans: I know your own long training in pomposity, but don’t even consider relying on it in 2012. You’ll never beat the president, once he really cranks it up.

Think about the campaign speeches he delivered, month after month — speeches mercilessly reiterating a single metaphor: the Republicans had been “driving” the nation’s economic “car,” they had “run it into a ditch,” and now they were “asking for the keys back.” That was something, but it wasn’t much, and it shouldn’t have lasted long; because the longer Obama pontificated in that way, the more likely people were to remember that it had actually been Barney Frank in the driver’s seat, with President Bush riding shotgun. Obama appeared to sense the dullness of his ruling metaphor, because he kept adding things to it — images of himself working in the ditch, sweating in the ditch, rappelling into the ditch, and so on, all to fix the car that the Republicans had disabled. You were supposed to picture him as a combination of Errol Flynn and a working-class hero with “Barry” on the tag over his left pocket. Pompous? You bet.

One measure of a nation’s culture is its ability to identify pomposity, and conquer it with laughter.

And think about his long and deep meditations on human psychology, as vouchsafed to a coven of donors in West Newton, MA during the last stages of the campaign. This is the speech in which he attributed dissatisfaction with his policies to the backwardness of voters, especially working-class voters. "Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now,” he opined, “and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we're hardwired not to always think clearly when we're scared. And the country's scared."

For a long time I’ve been saying that if you think the president is good with words, you should read his words. Look at that first sentence. Did you think it would ever end? Now look at his subject-verb agreement, or lack thereof: “facts and science and argument does . . . ” (This is a frequent problem with him.) Look at his use of that most clichéd of all current clichés, “hardwired”: “we,” meaning you and me, not him, have no more volition or reflection than a computer; we just can’t help committing thought crimes. Finally (because I have to stop somewhere), look at the bizarre assumption that we don’t agree with him because we’re deaf to “facts and science and argument.” Science? Does he want the Nobel Prize in Physics now?

That other great scientist, David Axelrod, did even better than his boss at turning normal discourse into absurdity. One of the scenes in Citizen Kane that always make people laugh is the one in which someone points out to Kane, the scaremongering newspaper publisher, that “there’s not the slightest proof” that a Spanish armada is preparing to attack the United States (“GALLEONS OF SPAIN OFF JERSEY COAST!” ); and Kane replies, “Can you prove it isn’t?” That’s exactly what David Axelrod said to Bob Schieffer of CBS News, when, on October 10, Schieffer asked him for proof that the foreign money the Chamber of Commerce was allegedly using to fund anti-Democratic campaigns was “anything other than peanuts.“ “Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not?” said Axelrod. Unfortunately, Schieffer didn’t laugh.

It must have been hard to keep from doing that. I know I find it hard not to laugh when I hear partisan utterances of any kind. That’s true even when I’m dealing with a respectable political authority, such as Sean Trende. Trende is Senior Elections Analyst for RealClearPolitics (I’m sorry to say that this is the way they spell it). On October 18, Trende wrote an intelligent article for the RealClear site, comparing the election of 2010 with that of 1994. But the pomposity of politics infected even Mr.Trende, its analyst. His essay included the following passage: “This is a different kind of election than 1994, entirely. When my lay friends ask about this election, I explain that it is like seeing Haley's Comet; you'll usually only get to see it once in your lifetime.”

Trende may be right about the election, but what a thing to say! Maybe it’s Trende’s editor, not Trende himself, who mistakes the common mispronunciation (“Haley” instead of “Halley”) for the comet’s actual name; I’ll let that one go. I’ll also give Trende a pass on the common but nonsensical “different than.” But what’s this nonsense about “lay” people? The only distinction that I recognize between “lay” people and other people is the distinction between laymen and clergy. Are political analysts now administering the sacraments? How pompous can you get? And notice how easily that term rolled off Mr. Trende’s keyboard: no suggestion of irony, just the naive conversion of an honorable title — journalist — into a pompous absurdity.

One measure of a nation’s culture is its ability to identify pomposity, and conquer it with laughter. The next time Obama or any other of the new class of priests and “scientific” analysts stands up to pontificate, I hope there’s a chorus of laughter. That will solve most of our problems.




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