Making It Official

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For brutal coldness, this one can hardly be surpassed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THOMPSON
Sentimental fellow, aren't you?

RAYMOND
Mmm . . . Yes and no.




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Buchanan the Wicked?

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Morbid curiosity tempts me to buy and read Nancy MacLean’s new book Democracy in Chains, but I have resisted so far; for I don’t want to add to the unearned wealth that her book’s notoriety will probably bring her. I know enough from reviews, favorable and unfavorable, and from a published interview with the author herself, to understand that one main theme is the supposed wicked influence of James Buchanan.

I knew Buchanan very well from 1957, when, as Economics Department chairman, he brought me to the University of Virginia. There I was his academic colleague and friend. After he left the University of Virginia (in honorable protest against the University administration’s maltreatment of a colleague), I kept in contact with him and often saw him at professional meetings and occasionally at his homes in Blacksburg and then Fairfax.

Buchanan took economics seriously. He wouldn’t waste time on conspiracies and was no apologist for the wealthy and powerful.

Buchanan took economics seriously. He drew inspiration from his admired professor at Chicago, Frank Knight, and from the writings of the Swedish economist Knut Wicksell. He encouraged the creative thinking of his graduate students. He was a fabulously hard worker whose collected writings fill 20 large volumes and whose Nobel Prize was amply deserved. He wouldn’t waste time on conspiracies and was no apologist for the wealthy and powerful.

I understand Buchanan’s economic and political philosophy quite well, for my own is close to his. He was more of an egalitarian than I am, favoring an extreme estate tax and pondering redistributionary taxation as an arrangement whereby people insure one another against economic distress. While not completely agreeing with John Rawls, who called for social and economic arrangements designed to maximize the welfare of the least-well-off stratum of the population, he admired Rawls and his writings.

As for his thought on limits to democracy, I could expound it at length and enthusiastically. He admired the American Founders, who wisely tried to create a constitutional republic charged with protecting people’s rights even against abusive majorities and government itself. (“Democracy” is a much abused word, sabotaging clear thought by cramming various and even inconsistent good things together under a single label.)

In short, James Buchanan was an entirely different person from the one that Ms. MacLean imagines. She did not bother to know what she was writing about. But historians and journalists have a professional duty to check the truth of what they write.




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Is It the Cover-Up, or the Crime?

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On October 8 appeared a tape of Donald Trump’s indecent remarks about how to deal with attractive women — a tape justifying Democratic attacks on the crudeness of his character. At virtually the same hour emerged partial transcripts of Hillary Clinton’s secret remarks to Wall Street about her dream of “open borders” and her possession of two “positions,” one public and one private — transcripts justifying Republican assertions about her habit of lying to the public.

These revelations will be a test of the purported wisdom, repeated ad nauseam by political professionals, that what counts is “not the crime but the cover-up.” Trump would certainly have wanted to cover up the tape, but he may not have known it existed. Clinton labored mightily to cover up her private speeches, thereby creating a long-running campaign issue against herself, but the cover-up was palpably less important than what she actually said.

We’ll see whether real people, as opposed to pundits and spin artists (is there a difference?), see it this way. Simultaneously we can test the truth of an even more drearily repeated slogan, “All politics is local” — because in no way are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton “local.” They live on Mars, not in Springfield, USA.

There’s a third cliché that’s interesting. Will the American people continue to “suffer fools gladly”?




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Total Recall

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Low-Hanging Fruit

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This season abounds in low-hanging fruit, linguistic atrocities that are easy to spot, at least for people like us. Let’s grab a few.

On September 8, I gazed into the depths of my cellphone and discovered this headline from the New York Daily News: “Mont. Senator’s nephew found brutally slayed at home.” That’s a brutal dispatch of “slain,” anyway.

A week or so before, I’d discovered that Chris Brown, the singer, claimed he was being “unfairly demonized” because of a scrape with police. As bad a talker as Brown is — and that’s about as bad as you can get — this doesn’t appear to be what he himself said. It’s what the Los Angeles Times said (August 31). But maybe people are fairly demonized every day, and it just doesn’t get reported.

Two days before that, the other Times, the one in New York, reported the following about the fun couple, Anthony Weiner, former congressman and campaigner for the mayoralty of New York, and Huma Abedin, Chelsea Clinton’s shadow:

A documentary, “Weiner,” released in May, traced the disastrous campaign and the effects on Ms. Abedin, who is shown near tears after the revelations were publicly revealed. (August 29)

And no wonder — revelations are bad enough, but it’s terrible when they get revealed.

Hitting the Huma trail on the same day, CNN Politics supplied this information:

Abedin is Clinton’s most well known aide. While Clinton works the ropeline after events, Abedin is always close behind and Clinton supporters regularly ask the aide for selfies with her, much like they do with the candidate. (August 29)

Few of our otherwise omniscient news providers are aware of the fact that the superlative of “well” is “best”; hence, the phrase in the first sentence of the passage just quoted should be best known, and never most well known, which is exactly what a third-grader would come up with. Similarly, third-graders usually do not realize that “like” is a preposition, not a conjunction, and therefore cannot introduce a clause (“they do”). Adults, particularly adults in the word business, ought to know better, but we see that they don’t.

Maybe people are fairly demonized every day, and it just doesn’t get reported.

Many sad events, or sad reports, seem to have happened in late August. Here’s a report originally dated August 25 and attributed variously to the Associated Press and Reuters. It’s about a Bolivian politician, Rodolfo Illanes, who . . . well, see for yourself: the report says that Illanes went

to Panduro, 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of the La Paz, where the strikers [miners rebelling against the government’s refusal to allow them to work for private companies] have blockaded a highway since Monday, to open a dialogue.

When I was in the eighth grade, more or less, I desperately wanted to move to Bolivia. I’d been reading books about Incas and such. Somehow I discovered that you could write to the State Department for “advisories” about living conditions in other countries, and I acquired the advisory for Bolivia. My lazy heart leaped when I found that on the Altiplano one could hire a maid for $20 a month, but it sank at the news that the maid would need to hang the food from the ceiling, to keep non-human fauna from devouring it. That ended my dreams of Bolivia, but it did not end my knowledge that the seat of government (though not the constitutional capital) of Bolivia is La Paz, that “Paz” means “peace,” and that “la” means “the.” So my heart sank again when I saw the place being called, by someone more ignorant than I was in the eighth grade, “the La Paz.”

So, maybe it’s a typo. Maybe. Strangely, however, the typo remained when I checked the report four days later. By then it had been reproduced by the Las Vegas Review Journal, the Seattle Times, the Chicago Tribune, and, of course, the New York Times. All of their texts remained unchanged after four days. Either no one had reported the error, because no one actually reads these papers, or people had reported it, but the papers paid no heed. Obviously, they’ll print (and keep) any damned thing their wire services send them.

Adults, particularly adults in the word business, ought to know better, but we see that they don’t.

I take this as significant evidence of the intellectual nullity of the American press. Confirmation is provided by the inanity of the report itself. Sr. Illanes was seized by the protestors and beaten to death, perhaps also tortured before he died. That’s a hell of a reward for an attempt to “open a dialogue.” But can it be that as the agent of a crazed Castroite president, Illanes had actually shown up to deliver orders and threats? The report might, conceivably, have addressed that question. But certainly the guy wasn’t there to administer hugs and say, “I’m OK; you’re OK; let’s dialogue!” I seem to remember that when the nuts took over Bolivia, American journalists were very interested in this great new attempt to construct a socialist state. Now that the attempt has resulted in nothing but the further impoverishment of the country, journalistic curiosity has dissipated. What was the government agent doing? Oh, probably he was trying to open a dialogue.

Here’s news that’s closer to home. On September 10, and running all day, the following contribution to public knowledge was made by CNN. It’s one of the network’s many attempts to recontextualize Mrs. Clinton’s nauseating “basket of deplorables” statement, thereby rescuing her from the charge of lunacy. “Clinton’s comments,” said the CNN authors,

amounted to startlingly blunt talk for a candidate who is usually measured in her assessment of the Republican nominee.

Although Clinton has accused Trump of racism before, she has never explicitly called him a racist. Last month, she delivered a major speech in which she accused Trump of aligning himself with far-right extremists and saying he "built his campaign on prejudice and paranoia."

"He's taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party," Clinton said in Reno, Nevada. "His disregard for the values that make our country great is profoundly dangerous."

Thank God her assessments are usually measured. But I continue to wonder what language CNN thinks it’s using. In what dialect of English can you accuse someone of racism without calling him a racist? Oh, that’s not “explicit”? Try accusing someone of committing murder and then fending off a lawsuit by claiming that you didn’t explicitly call him a murderer.

Where would Hillary Clinton be if she hadn’t attracted (flies to ointment, fools to money) enormous swarms of sophists to protect her and harry her opponents? Living in a senior facility in Altoona, I suppose. But couldn’t she attract better forms of sophism?

On August 30, someone named Krystal Ball, a Democratic politician and sometime TV commentator, appeared on Fox News to claim that “there’s no evidence” Clinton lied about the emails, and that “there’s just no evidence” Clinton practiced pay-for-play when she was working for the State Department. But evidence is Clinton’s problem; that’s why we’re all talking about these things. There’s plentiful evidence of wrongdoing. Everybody heard her lie, repeatedly, about her emails. That’s not just evidence; it’s proof. As for pay-for-play, we can argue about proof, but evidence abounds. If it didn’t, Ms. Ball wouldn’t be discussing it on Fox. And there’s no difference between politicians with bizarre names and Clinton’s institutional propaganda machine, perpetually emitting statements that there’s “not a shred of evidence” that she ever did anything wrong.

Where would Hillary Clinton be if she hadn’t attracted enormous swarms of sophists to protect her and harry her opponents?

Kirsten Powers, an intelligent commentator who sometimes provides actual commentary, as opposed to propaganda, wrote an article for USA Today (September 12) with the engaging title, “What else is Clinton hiding?” But the answer turned out to be “nothing as far as I can see.” Powers noted the “feverish” claims of Donald Trump and his friends that there might be something wrong with Hillary Clinton’s health — claims that by September 12 didn’t sound feverish to anyone except feverish Clinton apologists. On September 10, Clinton had been videoed as she was dumped into a vehicle and carted away, after collapsing at a public event. Bizarrely, Powers continued to emphasize that “these accusations were made in the absence of any actual incident involving Clinton’s health.”

Isn’t it strange that people who comment on the news don’t seem to read it themselves? Clinton’s health problems had been no secret. There had been plenty of incidents, and despite the mainstream media’s attempts to ignore them, the evidence was well known. It had, indeed, been discussed not only “feverishly” but ad nauseam. Here’s a fair summary.

Even more bizarrely — or should I say feverishly? — Powers went for evidence for her own position to . . . can you imagine whom? She went to Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert. Ohhhh Kaaaayyyy . . . And what wisdom did she derive from him? The idea that evidence doesn’t count!

According to Adams,

You have to understand that people don’t use rational thought to make decisions. We rationalize after we make a decision. It’s all about making accusations and associating people with bad feelings.

Strangely, on this foundation of radical skepticism about the influence of fact and reason — a skepticism that, oddly enough, occasions no doubts regarding Adams’ own conclusions — he suggests that, factually, there is nothing wrong with Clinton. So she collapsed on the street? So she had a four-minute coughing fit? So all these other things happened to her?

“If you look at the health claims against Clinton one by one, they don’t mean anything,” Adams told me. “Clinton’s coughing wouldn’t mean anything if (her health) hadn’t already been raised.”

No, of course not. I lie to you once. I lie to you twice. I lie to you 25 times. By then, questions about my veracity are raised. Then I lie to you the 26th time, and you fly into a rage for no reason at all. Somehow, you are now convinced that I am a liar! As Adams says, “Forget about data, logic, facts. The visual [of Clinton’s small, very small, very rare total collapse on a New York street] is so strong” that people actually believe she’s sick.

A pretzel has better logic than this — but it’s only one example of the twists that Clinton’s apologists seem determined to put themselves through. If, to save Hillary Clinton, you need to abandon all pretense to disinterested reflection, that’s a small price to pay, isn’t it? The truly shocking thing is the arrogance with which the alleged intellectuals press their claims. They appear to believe that they are entitled to say anything, anything at all, no matter how silly it is, and still be accepted as authorities about life and truth.

Imagine! Being judged, not by your degree from Harvard, but by your degree of success!

I’m seldom impressed by the sagacity of political commentators, Left or Right. But I was impressed by a recent series of observations made by Pat Caddell, an ostensibly Democratic electoral expert. In an informal interview conducted on September 14, Caddell discussed the existence of

a political class which continues to think that they were the supreme and that they were self-perpetuating, picking and choosing only people who would be like them and think like them, and imposing on the American people what they wanted, which benefited them, but not the people, and never being held to any standards of success or failure.

This, as he said, is the Establishment, “the entire governing establishment of America.”

In the current social and rhetorical environment, the comment about “never being held to any standards of success or failure” is nothing short of shocking. Imagine! Being judged, not by your degree from Harvard, but by your degree of success! That standard is for guys working the line at Ford.

Pick your issue: when do you hear a member of the Establishment advocating some policy and stating the standard by which anyone could tell whether it was a success or failure? I’ll pick education. The Establishment, which consists in large part of professors and their clones, always advocates more (tax) money for “the schools.” Now it is advocating various schemes to make college education “free.” But when does anyone specify the measure by which we might judge the success of these schemes?

This is one of many ways in which the Establishment distances itself from normal people. Normal people allocate a few hundred dollars — of their own money — so they can take a plane to New York on Thursday. If the plane doesn’t get them to New York on Thursday, they reckon that as a failure. They have a standard of judgment. But how many trillions of dollars of other people’s money has the Establishment spent, with great self-congratulation, on ending poverty, ending drug abuse, abolishing racial antagonism, securing peace, etc., and what have we got to show for it? Only an Establishment that keeps getting bigger and fiercer as it hires and indoctrinates new cadres to fight these losing battles. Where are the organs of self-criticism that are supposed to ask the question, “Are you succeeding?”

Trump happens to be a maniacal big-government Planner like all the rest of them. But that is never the source of the criticism, or the hate.

You will not find them in the ordinary media. In Caddell’s view, the alleged critics are now the most vicious parts of the Establishment they are paid to monitor. The media “is [sic] no longer . . . devoted to fact, it is an outrider, it’s the assassination squad of the governing elite.”

When I open my computer, the first thing that comes up is Google News. I’m fascinated by Google’s single-minded devotion to the Establishment cause. On many days, four or five of the first ten stories are attacks, frequently weird and unbalanced attacks, on Donald Trump. Now, this Trump happens to be a maniacal big-government Planner like all the rest of them. But that is never the source of the criticism, or the hate. He is hated because he has made the mistake of revealing that the other emperors have no clothes. Thus the thousands of attempted “assassinations.”

But what about us? You and me. Libertarians.

Right now, both the Republicans and the Democrats think they can benefit from libertarian votes. So you may have forgotten that you — you personally, as a libertarian — are ordinarily a more inviting target for the Establishment’s verbal assassins than even Donald Trump. Just look at the things you believe, the positions you take, and you’ll see that you are.

Do you have an isolationist or an America-first foreign policy? Do you favor homeschooling? Are you opposed to the welfare state? Are you a devotee of the original Constitution, unamended by the sophistry of lawyers? Are you opposed to racial preferences? Do you assert your rights under the Second Amendment? Are you opposed to the mixture of religion with politics, by either Christians or Muslims? Are you opposed to political correctness? Do you believe that free speech means free speech, no matter whom it disturbs, offends, or outrages?

If so, then you are the person whom Donald Trump is accused of being. And you are in line for assassination whenever the media remembers who you are.

Sorry; this fruit is pretty sour.




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Nothing But Good News

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I’ve noticed something good about the current presidential campaign, and I’ll tell you what it is. I think you’d like to hear anything that could possibly be good about the neverending quest for power.

The voters don’t care about the candidates’ positions. They don’t care at all.

I know that sounds like a bad thing. But it isn’t. The voters don’t care about the candidates’ positions, economic plans, moral perspectives, or whatever, because they don’t take them seriously. They don’t think the candidates are wizards, possessed of mystic insight and supernatural power. In most cases, they don’t even think they’re telling the truth.

This is a big advance over the credulous shouting and swooning that ordinarily greets at least one of the presidential candidates. I imagine there’s not a person in the world today who actually believes that Barack Obama is telling the truth. This is a big advance over 2008, and I give Obama a lot of credit for sapping the credibility of political utterances in general. It’s a healthy trend.

Voters don’t think the candidates are wizards, possessed of mystic insight and supernatural power. In most cases, they don’t even think they’re telling the truth.

You may object that some people actually like a few of the candidates, the few being Trump and Carson. This is true, but it’s not the idolatry given to the Kennedys, or to Reagan, or to the former Obama. People like Carson in the way in which they like a favorite uncle — his ideas may be a little weird, but you love him anyway; who cares about the “ideas”? That doesn’t mean you’d give your last penny to him, either. People like Trump in the way in which they like a favorite performer, which in fact he is. He’s more of a person than, say, Hillary Clinton (who isn’t a person at all). Probably he could do the job, no matter what he “thinks.”

That’s what they think. It may be shallow, but I say, thank God for shallowness. Idolatry has never done us any good, nor has a credulous belief in somebody’s “plan of action.”




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If Ever, Oh Ever, a Wiz There Was

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Entering his capital in triumph after a desperately hard campaign, Frederick the Great rode with his eyes forward, refusing to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. An aide said, “Sire, the people are applauding you.” Frederick, eyes still resolutely on the road, replied, “If you put a monkey on this horse, the people would applaud him.”

That is my idea about news “anchors” such as Brian Williams.

It’s not everybody’s idea. On Feb. 8, in one of the last columns he wrote before his untimely death, David Carr said:

For some time now, there have been two versions of Brian Williams. One is an Emmy-winning, sober, talented anchor on the “NBC Nightly News” and the other is a funny, urbane celebrity who hosts “Saturday Night Live,” slow-jams the news with Jimmy Fallon and crushes it in every speech and public appearance he makes.

Each of those personas benefited the other, and his fame and appeal grew accordingly, past the anchor chair he occupied every weeknight and into a realm of celebrity that reaches all demographics and platforms. Even young people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching the evening news know who Mr. Williams is.

I’m citing this as a good example of the strange idea that there was a before and after to the Williams story — a before in which Williams was not just a celebrity but a funny, urbane, talented, appealing celebrity, and an after in which he was a dope and a blowhard, always telling ridiculous stories about himself.

As witnessed by the add-on adjectives, one can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time, but it’s still interesting to know. Unfortunately, it’s also evident that one doesn’t need to do much in order to be regarded as funny, urbane, talented, and appealing. To me, and to hundreds of millions of other people, there was never anything remarkable about Brian Williams. I don’t regard slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon as something that requires a lot of talent. Williams never crushed it with me.

Williams’ talent, such as it was, consisted merely of being a news anchor who did things that are usually not associated with being a news anchor. Lots of people are celebrities for reasons like that. Preachers and politicians get loud laughs when they tell a joke, but only because people think it’s amusing that someone with such a dull job can tell any joke at all. The animals on YouTube are considered amusing for doing things that any dull, ordinary person does every day; their talent is merely being animals that are trying to do those things. But if you found out that the dog wasn’t really a dog, or the cat wasn’t really a cat, or the news anchor wasn’t anchoring much of anything, no one would want to watch any of the supposedly amusing antics. And being a news anchor requires a lot less than being a dog or cat.

One can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time.

I am old enough to have been a victim of the Age of Cronkite, an age now deeply venerated by a lot of people who believe that at some time in the past there really was a Wizard of Oz. I say “victim” because in those days there was no national electronic news except the offerings of the three government-licensed networks. Cable TV — always called, suspiciously, “pay TV” — did not exist. Basically, it was illegal. So, for lack of competition, a complacent man of modern-liberal ideas who was capable of reading a few minutes of typecript, crying when Democrats were hurt or killed, and, essentially, reprocessing news releases from the White House (or, in times of Republican administrations, from opponents of the White House) was worshiped as a god. At the time, however, he was worshiped by nobody except people whose own intellectual equipment was so faulty that their fondest hope was to be like him.

I know of one “news anchor” who was smart and knowledgeable and a good writer of his own books. That was David Brinkley. There used to be a cable anchor who was even better than Brinkley, Brit Hume of Fox News. But Brinkley is dead, and Hume is retired. Compared with these respectable figures, Walter Cronkite was the little mouse you see in the diorama of North American mammals, nibbling seeds at a fearful distance from the lordly elk. Brian Williams is down the hall, in the insect diorama.

This kind of comparison is actually too good to waste on such a lowly subject as Williams. It would be more appropriate for creatures with real significance — dictators, kings, and presidents. In the presidential diorama, the elk herd would feature such important fauna as Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Cleveland (who commanded his aides to “tell the truth,” and meant it); the mice would be Monroe, Benjamin Harrison, Hoover, and so on; and the insects would be Tyler, Carter, Clinton, Bush (the second), and Obama. Yes, I know, we may need to bring more animals into the metaphor. But the curious — or curiously predictable — thing is that Williams actually aspired to be one of the celebrity insects, who in our times are happiest scurrying about in their hard little bodies, irritating everybody else into noticing them.

Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

In a documentary filmed in 2006 about Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 flooded low-lying parts of New Orleans, and which with a lot of help from Williams enraged the nation at the inability of Republican administrations to overrule acts of God, Williams boasted: “People say we found our voice on this story, after some long, cold years of one Bush term and some change.” What? What did he mean by that?

He provided part of an explanation in a speech at Temple University last October. He was there, as Tim Graham put it in News Busters on Feb. 10, to pick up “an award for ‘excellence.’” They give each other awards, these excellent people. And if they have to lie, well what the hell? "I have seen thousands of dead people in different places," Williams claimed, erroneously. Then he demanded the reward of sympathy for his own imaginary suffering. Speaking of himself, he said, "You have to find a place to put that [his erroneous memories] or else you can't get up in the morning." Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

After that outburst, he turned to his reason for hearing a mighty significance in the “voice” he “found” in New Orleans — in the tale he told (with suitable adjustments, over the years, such as seeing dead bodies floating around the streets, or nearly dying, himself, of dysentery, or being threatened by gangs that busted into his hotel) about the New Orleans hurricane. I apologize for the syntax of the following quotation from Williams. You have to realize that this is how talented network news anchors (pay rate: $10 million a year) talk when they’re off-script:

For what it meant to our society. For what it still means. The issues. Race. The environment. Energy. Justice. The lack of it. It's all still there.

Now really, what can you make of that? Beneath the total incoherence appears to lurk some claim that by reporting (falsely) on a flood, Williams was somehow addressing issues of race (granted, most of the people who were flooded out by Katrina were African-Americans), energy (huh?), justice (it’s unjust to be flooded by a hurricane?), and “the environment.” The only way in which that last phrase makes sense is to assume that Williams is indicting Mother Nature for being, as Tennyson called her, “red in tooth and claw.” But I’m sure that’s not what he meant.

Whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap.

When something is really bad, it’s impossible to parody. Its literary effect cannot be enhanced, no matter what you do. But the political and social interest of Williams’ bizarre statements has not been fully developed. The big question is, why didn’t somebody at NBC stop him from saying all this crap? Everybody knew he was saying it, over and over again, for years. And I’m not just depending on anonymous sources to make that allegation. Given the nature of television broadcasting, it has to be true.

To me, one of the most amazing things in the world is that people give some kind of credence to the word “reality” in connection with what they see on television. Consider the term “reality TV.” Twenty feet away from those morons who face the camera and pour out their hearts about how lonely and helpless they’re feeling is a crowd of photographers, directors, producers, make-up artists, best boys, gophers, and people whose jobs cannot be described. In the same way, whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap. When he dribbled out his life story to interviewers on other media, hundreds of people back at NBC were following the publicity it gave him, and them. They knew, all right. The social and political question is, why did they let it go on, for more than a decade?

One answer is that they were lazy. But that’s the wrong answer. People who have responsible positions with TV networks aren’t sleepy little puppies; they’re sleepless sharks, required to compete with other sleepless sharks. OK, try this: nothing was done about Williams because he was being paid ten million dollars a year, and you don’t mess with that kind of investment. If you do, the investment will make like a shark and mess with you. That’s a better answer. And maybe it’s a sufficient one, although it doesn’t account for the behavior of the top predators, the ones who were doling out the money and should have been more risk-averse.

A third answer, which may be true, or partially true, is that Williams was protected by his dopey, inarticulate, yet constant political correctness. Here is the guy who interviewed the last President Bush, long after he had left office, and expressed astonishment that his recent reading matter could actually have included a Camus novel and three of Shakespeare’s plays. Astonishment. To the man’s face. Anyone not a dopey leftist would have said, “Oh, Mr. President, what impressed you most about those works?” But Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda. He believed that Bush was dumb, and he didn’t know how to deal with the counter-evidence. (Or, probably, with the literary conversation that might have ensued.)

I hope you won’t write in to accuse me of being a partisan of George Bush, either one of them. Don’t worry about that. But everybody with the least curiosity has always known that Bush (regnal years 2001–2009) is a huge reader of books. Whether they do him any good — that’s another question. But what books has Williams ever read? Certainly none that would reveal to him the individuality of human life, its constant war with social stereotypes (e.g., “Republicans have no culture”). So naturally he aspired to become a stereotype — in just the best and brightest way. He cast himself as a thoughtful advocate for such stereotyped issues as, oh, “the environment,” “justice,” and the like. No one could possibly fear that he would ever harbor a critical thought about such things.

Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda.

And that, I believe, is why “liberal” commentators have been so anxious to defend him, regretting that he quit, being confident that his offenses didn’t rise to the level of lying, bringing in psychiatry to remind us that people easily and innocently confuse their memories, and doing all the other stuff they’re paid big bucks to do. I guess they don’t want to lose their own license to lie.

NBC’s official approach is different. Network pooh-bahs are taking the line that presidential spokesman Josh Earnest recently took, in response to questions about Obama’s decision not to join the Charlie Hebdo protest against terrorism, or to send anyone important to sub for him. The basic policy is that responsible officialsaccept responsibility only for successes. Failures are no one’s responsibility. They happened. Well, sort of. But now we can move on.

As Julie Pace of the AP informed her readers, Earnest explained his boss’s absence from the Paris demonstration in this way:

Earnest said the White House took the blame but that Obama himself was not personally involved in the decision. Earnest would not say who was responsible for deciding the administration's participation in the event.

In other words, it is now possible to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, or not to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, and still have nothing whatever to do with the decision, personally. It wasn’t the decision of anyone who lives in the White House; the White House itself made the decision, or at least took the blame. Personal now means impersonal, and responsibility means freedom from responsibility.

Good. Very good.




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Brian Williams: The Political Effect

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Yesterday I had lunch with a friend whom I have known for a long time, and whom I would describe as an idolator of Hillary Clinton. My friend is an intelligent person, but Hillary is her blind spot. Every national election cycle has seen her proudly hailing Hillary’s political progress or bitterly regretting her failure with the electorate. Any attempt to suggest grounds for skepticism has been greeted with a swiftly rising cloud of anger.

Yesterday was different. When she pointedly brought up Brian Williams, I thought I would soon hear her favorite refrain about “people who lie — just like George Bush.” This time, however, the “just like” was Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s amazing lie about being shot at in Bosnia was recounted in detail, and with something approaching glee. My efforts to divert the discussion from such an unpleasant subject were unavailing. My friend now despises Clinton.

When people hate Brian Williams for lying, a little bell goes off in their heads, and a lot of them start hating Hillary Clinton for lying.

I suspect there are a lot of other people like her. I also know there are a lot of other problems with Hillary, besides the one that got to my friend. Hillary’s lies about not being rich. Her being rich, with money accrued during the political process. Her total lack of accomplishments. Her bizarre and ridiculous husband, and the bizarre and ridiculous things she has said about him. Her slick, repellent friends. Her friendship with crony capitalists. Her “what difference does it make?” speech about Benghazi. Her “business doesn’t create jobs” speech. Her “vast rightwing conspiracy” speech. Her apparent inability to give a speech that anybody actually likes. Her own complete lack of likability.

I was surprised to hear someone as savvy as Doug Schoen (speaking on Fox News on February 9), alleging that none of this matters to Hillary’s prospects. He pointed to the disarrangement of the Republicans, which supposedly makes people like Hillary more. I have another theory. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I’m trying it out. When people hate Brian Williams for lying, a little bell goes off in their heads, and a lot of them start hating Hillary Clinton for lying. Similarly, when people hate Clinton for being a nepotist, the little bell goes off again, and they hate Jeb Bush for the same reason. And when people hate President Obama for his babbling obfuscations, they remember the babbling obfuscations of most of the leading Republicans.

These reactions, which are normal and natural for normal people, may clear a lot of bad candidates out of the field. Hell, it worked with Romney.




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Peak Obama

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"We tortured some folks."

Set aside the occasion — a weekday afternoon speech during the middle of crises both foreign (Gaza, Ukraine) and domestic (border control, CIA surveillance, sluggish economy, et cetera). Set aside also his inexplicable support for CIA chief John Brennan, who lied openly and unabashedly to the Senate about his agency spying on members of Congress. (And potentially, of course, all other United States citizens; the senators naturally only care when such tools are turned against them and their offices.) Set aside all else about the inadequate performance of this president, so lukewarm that all but his most ardent supporters are prepared to spew him out of their mouths. Just savor these words:

"We tortured some folks."

Years of Stephen Cox's Word Watch coverage of Obama's misuse of language can be summed up in those four words. The condescension and arrogance of his affected folksiness, the coerciveness of his forced plural pronouns, the maddening vagueness of his utterances — all wrapped into one short burst of faux sincerity.

"We tortured some folks."

These four words stand as President Obama's most representative contribution to US political rhetoric. God help us all if he manages to top them.



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Presidential Punctuation

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