The Unbearable Burden of Meaning

 | 

“Life imitates art,” said Oscar Wilde. He was right about many things; maybe he was right about that, too.

On April 16, a sad confirmation came from Rolling Stone, that repository of everything that is dumb and faux and anti-art — and thus, if Wilde was correct, anti-life. In its article about the burning of Notre Dame de Paris, Rolling Stone said this:

For some people in France, Notre Dame has also served as a deep-seated symbol of resentment, a monument to a deeply flawed institution and an idealized Christian European France that arguably never existed in the first place. “The building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation,” says Patricio del Real, an architecture historian at Harvard University. If nothing else, the cathedral has been viewed by some as a stodgy reminder of “the old city — the embodiment of the Paris of stone and faith — just as the Eiffel Tower exemplifies the Paris of modernity, joie de vivre and change,” Michael Kimmelmann wrote for the New York Times.

Exemplifies, eh? I’ll tell you what’s being exemplified. This passage exemplifies the weird combination of ignorance and arrogance that gives current journalism its distinctive smell.

The Eiffel Tower is 130 years old. It was being satirized as a tourist trap as long as 68 years ago.

Just who are “some people”? Are there 30 of them, or is there one? By whom, exactly, and how many of whom, have the cathedral and the old city “been viewed” as such and such? Pray tell us, Rolling Stone; we presume you know. Maybe you can also tell us what “if nothing else” is doing in the third sentence, and why the second two sentences — when you actually read, rather than merely whiff them — aren’t tracking with the first sentence, which they’re meant to support.

The words about “exemplification,” of course, are just one more example of the wacko, your-engine-block-is-no-longer-attached commentary we expect from any of the outlets that make it to the first five on Google’s top stories list. Tour Eiffel is 130 years old. It was being satirized as a tourist trap as long as 68 years ago, when Alec Guinness made The Lavender Hill Mob. Effing Hitler was proud to pose in front of it. Modernity? The joy of life? Change? Change from what to what?

So that’s all meaningless. The Wilde moment comes in the first part, where we hear those lovingly quoted chicken cacklings about “liberation” from “meaning” itself. It’s an echo — certainly unconscious, or comatose, like everything else in the passage — from the world’s most popular book about architecture, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1943), in which Ellsworth Toohey, an expert on architecture, attempts to destroy all meaning in the world, so that he can enjoy liberation. To many readers, this idea has seemed too absurd to put in a novel, but now we find that it’s not. Life now imitates art; Rand’s over-the-top satires are now reality. We’ve always heard of people killing themselves because “there’s no meaning left in the world.” Now we find that to other people, the thought is liberating.

Well, as Alexander Pope said, “Peace to all such!” They felt overburdened. Now they feel free. But I’m not that way. I’d rather live in a world that’s full of more meanings than I can ever live to enjoy. And this, I believe, is the world we live in. I thank God that when I contemplate a Sumerian statue, a poem of Yeats, a panel from an Egyptian tomb, a chorus from Sophocles, any line from King Lear, I sense more meaning than I can fully appreciate. I need to stipulate, however, that I do not feel that way about Rolling Stone.

Life now imitates art; Rand’s over-the-top satires are now reality.

Few current authors or commentators are overtly following the program of Ellsworth Toohey, intent on freeing the world from meaning, although I can think of damned few who follow the program of those despised nonmoderns, the authors and public figures of the 18th and 19th centuries who set the standards of intelligent utterance. They labored to fill every sentence with as much meaning as a sentence could take. Read The Federalist. Read Hume. Read Tennyson. Read a hundred more of them. Read, even, the speeches of William Jennings Bryan, to cite a politician whose ideas do not happen to conform to mine — at all. But do not, whatever you do, read the utterances of today’s savants and politicians.

Consider the oracles momently delivered by the intellectuals’ candidate for president, Peter Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. By what process of logic he persuaded himself that his talents are needed in the White House, I cannot guess. I suppose it involved a stream of images without any meanings attached, because that’s what we find in his public sayings. Buttigieg is in favor of a scheme — some scheme or other — to mandate national service (i.e., enslavement, as Lori Heine points out) for all young men and women. Here are the mighty arguments by which he justifies his proposal:

We really want to talk about the threat to social cohesion that helps characterize this presidency but also just this era. One thing we could do that would change that would be to make it, if not legally obligatory, but certainly a social norm that anybody after they're 18 spends a year in national service.

Never mind the bad grammar and syntax. Let’s see what we can do with the meanings, alleged or real. Start with “we.” “We,” in this place, is a cunning way of saying “I,” which is sort of different. Then we have “social cohesion.” Who knows what this “cohesion” might mean, or why it is so particularly desirable, or why “this era” has so damaged it, or why national service would “change that.” The underlying image is probably that of millions of young men and women caught up in a harmonic convergence induced by two years of compulsory calisthenics, but maybe I’m putting too much content into the mayor’s words. I have a very clear idea about what enforcing “a social norm” might mean, and it seems strange to me that Buttigieg, as a gay person, would think that idea is swell. So maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he didn’t have any meaning in mind.

By what process of logic Buttigieg persuaded himself that his talents are needed in the White House, I cannot guess.

If you take Buttigieg’s inspiration seriously enough to ask why, if it’s such a great idea, nobody else is pushing for it, he provides a still less meaningful parade of words:

It’s one of these ideas that everybody kind of likes, but it was always important and never urgent. How would that ever kind of hold on [sic] its own in a policy debate where we deal with kids in cages and we have to deal with climate change and there are all these pressing, burning issues?

To this, one is virtually invited to respond, “Gosh. I don’t know. How would it?”

There is no meaning to be found here — no meaning of any kind, to be discovered in any way. “We,” who are debating “issues,” do not include me, or, I’ll bet, you. “We” — here intended, I think, to mean “ordinary people” — do not “have to deal” with “kids in cages,” or “climate change.” Those are non-issues, invented issues; they are life imitating the art of the press release. The other “pressing, burning issues” are created by Buttigieg with the same wave of the hand by which teenagers summon meaningless concepts: “Like, all these subjects I gotta take, I got, like, issues with them.” What are they? Again, who knows? Meanwhile, “pressing, burning” is the lowest form of cliché. What does it mean for an issue to press and burn you?

This is simple illiteracy — not unusual in the house organ of the We Know Better than You Do movement.

But let’s look at universal service, which is “one of those ideas that everybody kind of likes.” No, it’s not. I was born a few miles from South Bend. I have spent lots of my adult life in South Bend. Neither there nor in any other place have I met anyone who said that he or she was in favor of national service. In the words of the great gospel song, “No, not one; no, not one!” Buttigieg is — literally, in the literal meaning of the word literally — a nobody talking about nothing.

Of course, expulsion of meaning need not occur on the exalted intellectual level where Buttigieg attempts to situate himself. Here’s a headline from the Washington Post (May 11):

Trump’s interest stirring Ukraine investigations sows confusion in Kiev

Pardon me? Did you say something? What is that supposed to mean? This is simple illiteracy — not unusual in the house organ of the We Know Better than You Do movement. It’s just possible that being a stuffed shirt doesn’t automatically give meaning to your words.

Smugness creates no meanings, and neither does smarminess. There’s a guy who features in ads for Trivago, a company specializing in cheap hotel reservations. The guy was arrested for drunk driving. So what? What’s the deep meaning in that? Nothing; there isn’t any. But the company felt a compulsion to provide one, right away, and in the process . . . Well, take a look.

At this stage, we do not have the full details of the situation, but we want to make clear that Trivago treats such incidents very seriously and strongly condemns drinking and driving, which poses a risk to others and goes against the Trivago culture.

“The Trivago culture” is presumably one and the same with “the Facebook culture,” “the Tumblr culture,” “the Acme Widget culture,” and any other culture that wants to portray itself as absolutely loaded with meaning. Unfortunately, this “culture” is the exact opposite of culture. Culture conserves meanings; “culture” annihilates them. Not only is it empty of meaning; it’s a vacuum cleaner, sweeping up the last remains of the meanings around it. Sensing that, its operators insist all the more that they do so mean something. They mean it seriously and strongly; they mean it very seriously and strongly. . . . Are you still there? Are you still reading? Should we say it even more seriously and strongly?

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that people who uttered such claptrap would notice what it is, and notice what other people think of it. They don’t — and why not? A cause is suggested by a comment made by the 18th-century rhetorician Hugh Blair. Speculating about what was wrong with James Macpherson, author of the Ossian poems, which are as close to being empty of meaning as 18th-century literature could get, he said that Macpherson “must be miserable,” because he was “absolutely void of curiosity.”

Culture conserves meanings; “culture” annihilates them.

It wouldn’t take much curiosity for Professor del Real to find something of continuing interest in the cathedral of Notre Dame. It wouldn’t take much curiosity for Mayor Buttigieg and the Trivago flack to find some words that mean something. It wouldn’t take much curiosity for the Ivy League graduates at the Washington Post to observe that their words may be impossible to figure out.

Admittedly, a little curiosity might dispel some of this world’s alluring mystery, thereby, I suppose, dispelling some of its meaning. But it can protect one from exposure as the kind of person who has never noticed any meaningful objects lurking more than 12 inches away from his nose. At the moment, I’m thinking about the first George Bush, who marveled at the way items are scanned at supermarket checkout counters (he’d never seen it before), and Hillary Clinton trying to hide her confusion about how to get into the New York Subway (the Senator from New York had never done it before). I’m also thinking about that constant source of merriment, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who on May 6 reported to her Instagram audience about her latest existential crisis. No, it wasn’t “climate change”; it was — well, here it is:

OK everyone, I need your help because I just moved into this apartment a few months ago and I just flipped a switch and it made that noise and it scared the daylights out of me. This D.C. apartment is bougie [bourgeois-y] and has things I’ve never seen before. Like what is a garbage disposal really for? Is it better or worse than throwing something in the garbage? More importantly why is it so loud and yelling at me?

Why indeed? When that happens, there’s ground for suspicion. What is a garbage disposal really for? Imagine all the possible meanings! And none of them good!

Take this as a warning: If Notre Dame is so bougie that it’s overburdened with meaning, and you’re happy to get rid of it, you may still be threatened by your garbage disposal.




Share This


Six Degrees of Separation

 | 

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.




Share This


The Eclipse of Empathy

 | 

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.




Share This


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

 | 

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.




Share This


We Are All Floridians Now

 | 

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.




Share This


The Quest for the Perfect Slogan

 | 

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.




Share This


Do You Believe in Magic?

 | 

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.




Share This


President Corleone

 | 

In late November 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, President Obama was in Peru for the APEC Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Riding in the back of the US presidential limousine with a few of his closest aides, he turned to his longtime advisor, Ben Rhodes, and said, “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”

This struck me as an odd thing for the president to say.

Michael Corleone and Barack Obama would seem to have little in common. To begin with, one is fictitious, the other is not.

It is from Rhodes’ new book, The World as It Is, which I have not yet read. I found it in Peter Baker’s review of the book in The New York Times.

In the following, I will explain why I thought it odd and then mull over why he said it. The purpose of the exercise is to amuse.

* * *

At first glance, Michael Corleone and Barack Obama would seem to have little in common. To begin with, one is fictitious, the other is not. More to the point, the life experiences of Corleone seem to bear little resemblance to those of Obama.

Michael Corleone, as every film buff knows, was not keen to join the Mafia. In his mid-20s, however, he murdered both the drug kingpin and the NYPD captain who had tried to kill his father, Don Vito Corleone, and, badabing, he was in.

Michael has his sister poison a rival don. Michael’s daughter is shot to death. Even the Pope gets whacked.

A few years later, when he became the head of the Corleone crime family, he orchestrated the murders of all his family’s rivals in New York City. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful baptism montage in The Godfather tells the tale. Then, for decades, Michael Corleone controlled the bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder that are the Mafia’s bread and butter. He was cold, cunning, and absolutely ruthless. He even had his brother Fredo murdered.

The scene Obama referenced in his comment to Rhodes is in the final film of the series, The Godfather, Part III. In it, Michael, who had been trying to extricate himself and his immediate family from the world of organized crime by transferring his ill-gotten gains from the rackets to legitimate businesses, has just survived a machine-gun attack from a helicopter arranged by Joey Zaza, who he had personally chosen to take over the Corleone family’s criminal interests. Michael, now about 60 years old and in ill health, stands in his kitchen and wails, “Every time I try to get out . . .they pull me back in.”

The rest of the movie is a series of betrayals, counter-betrayals, and murders. Michael has his sister poison a rival don. Michael’s daughter is shot to death. Even the Pope gets whacked. The trail of corpses only ends when, much later, Michael, broken, forgotten, and alone, falls off his chair, dead.

Obama has no haunting spectre trailing him, no litany of sins hanging over his head.

Now, it is pretty clear what Michael Corleone meant by his comment. He was trying to morph from a shady mafioso into a legitimate businessman, but his criminal past had created underworld entanglements so deeply rooted, so strong, that try as he might, he was never able to break free.

But what did President Obama mean? In what sense did he identify with this tragic figure, Michael Corleone?

President Obama is fit, rich, and relatively young, with a loving wife and family. He can choose from among the endless opportunities available to former presidents, or choose to do nothing at all. He can stay out of the political arena and Washington forever, if he wants to. Hollywood would welcome him. In fact, it already has.

He stepped down from the presidency with his head high, unbowed by scandal. He has no haunting spectre trailing him, no litany of sins hanging over his head. There is no Watergate, no Teheran Hostages, no Iran-Contra, no Monica Lewinsky, no missing WMDs, no Special Counsel to dog his footsteps for the rest of his days. There is no helicopter circling. In fact, some argue that his was an untainted, if not exemplary, presidency. Some even say that his has been a charmed life.

Likening his disappointment with the 2016 election results to Michael Corleone’s torment brings to mind the little boy whose ice cream falls from the cone and splats on the sidewalk. The boy looks at the sky and says, “Why me, God?” OK, that probably goes a little too far, but you get the point.

The remark seems odder because there was a more apt comparison much closer at hand.

In the runup to the election in November of 2000, Bill Clinton’s hand-picked successor, Al Gore, was thought by many to be the favorite. But while Gore won the popular vote, he lost in the Electoral College, some say because of an unfair assist by the Supreme Court. As a result, Bill Clinton had to give the keys to the White House not to his chosen successor but to George W. Bush, who opposed his policies in many areas, among them: taxes, gay rights, energy, abortion, education, the environment, and foreign affairs.

Bill Clinton really did get out, his wife’s career ambitions and the occasional tarmac meeting notwithstanding.

Before the 2016 election, Barack Obama’s chosen successor, Hillary Clinton, was the clear favorite. But while Clinton won the popular vote, she lost in the Electoral College, some say because of Russian help. As a result, Barack Obama had to give the keys to the White House to Donald Trump, who opposed his policies in many areas, among them: taxes, immigrant rights, energy, women’s health, education, the environment, and foreign affairs.

Now, had President Obama said to Rhodes, “I feel like Bill Clinton must have felt when Bush beat Gore,” it would have made perfect sense. True, the bit about “almost getting out” doesn’t quite fit here, in that Bill Clinton really did get out, his wife’s career ambitions and the occasional tarmac meeting notwithstanding. Still, the circumstances are remarkably similar.

But when Obama sought to explain himself to Rhodes, what popped into his mind was not the face of the charming former president whose liberal, if triangulated, legacy had suddenly been put in jeopardy by a more conservative successor. No. When he gazed deeply into the mirror of his consciousness what he saw staring back at him was the tortured face of Michael Corleone.

Go figure.

* * *

While the above should help clarify why I found the president’s comment odd, it does not explain why he made it. Three possible explanations follow.

Peter Baker suggested the first possibility in the NYT review of Rhodes’ book. Here’s the complete line that includes the comment: “In handing over power to someone determined to tear down all he had accomplished, Mr. Obama alluded to The Godfather mafia movie, ‘I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.’

When Obama gazed deeply into the mirror of his consciousness what he saw staring back at him was the tortured face of Michael Corleone.

But in The Godfather, Michael was handing over power to Joey Zaza, his chosen successor. Joey wasn’t trying to tear down anything the Corleone family had built; he just wanted it all for himself, and Michael dead. That’s why Michael couldn’t get out. Am I missing something here? Hillary Clinton was Obama’s hand-picked successor. Is she supposed to be out to get him? Is Donald Trump or some other rival that I’m unaware of trying to keep President Obama from “getting out” of politics? Is there some opponent who’s trying either to assassinate him or to “pull him back” into the political arena? No. This explanation of Obama’s comment just isn’t working.

More importantly, is Baker suggesting that President Obama was equating his own life’s work, fostering peace, justice, and sustainability, with Michael Corleone’s, committing bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder? That doesn’t sound like the kind of analogy that President Obama would encourage, not if he’s proud of his accomplishments. It certainly wouldn’t do much to burnish his legacy. No, Baker’s explanation just doesn’t fit. It lacks verisimilitude.

The second possibility is hypothetical. Given that bending the arc of the moral universe can be very hard work, let’s say that President Obama sometimes resorted to means that ever so slightly trimmed ethical or legal corners in order to achieve the precise curvature that the moral universe seemed to call for at the moment. By employing this hypothetical, we may be able to find a context in which the words that the president uttered in the back of “the Beast” that day in Lima make sense.

Is Baker suggesting that the president was equating his own life’s work, fostering peace, justice, and sustainability, with Michael Corleone’s, committing bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder?

Let’s say that President Obama quietly approved the fix of Hillary Clinton’s illegal handling of classified documents, and her hamhanded attempt to cover it up in order to keep her candidacy alive. Let’s say that he put the desired end, a Democratic successor, on one side of the scale and the means proposed to achieve that end, a political decision not to indict, on the other side, and decided that the greater good would be served by putting the fix in, cut corners and all. When, in spite of the fix, the public’s confidence in Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness plummeted, let’s say that President Obama became more eager than ever that his successor be a fellow Democrat. Let’s say that he approved of an effort to discredit Donald Trump by, among other means, using the fishy DNC-funded Steele dossier to manipulate a judge into allowing surveillance of the Trump campaign. Let’s say that when Donald Trump won the election despite this effort to derail his candidacy the president was concerned.

Let us now imagine how President Obama’s comment might sound in this hypothetical scenario.

A few weeks after the election, President Obama, wearing an immaculately tailored dark suit, was riding in the back of his armored black Cadillac Escalade with a few of his closest aides. He was looking through the five-inch thick bulletproof window. He knew that in order to get Hillary Clinton off the hook and to put Donald Trump on it he had done things worse than the Watergate break in. He also knew that, at that very moment, the effort to conceal those deeds was growing a web of semi-transparent lies that was threatening to ensnare him.

If only Hillary Clinton had won, as everyone had expected, he could have ridden the wave that had elected him twice all the way to the beach. He could have stepped off the board directly onto the sand, a free man. The new president would have had his back and her administration would have been composed of the very people who had helped him to put her in office. He would have been out, scot-free.

He closed his eyes and pressed his right temple to the glass. He realized that he was in a war. He would have to fight or he would end up like Nixon, disgraced. Sitting next to him was his long-time advisor, Ben Rhodes. The president turned to him, sighed, and said, “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”

If only Hillary Clinton had won, as everyone had expected, he could have ridden the wave that had elected him twice all the way to the beach.

The third possibility is not as illogical as the first or as far-fetched as the second. It is this: the president was joking.

Frankly, this is my favorite explanation, in part because it is the least disheartening. No one wants to think ill of the president, do they? And all of that abusing of presidential power for personal gain and self-preservation in the second explanation would make the president seem so grubby, so small. No one wants to believe that possible. People want to think the best of the president, not the worst. Right? I mean, only Vladimir Putin would want the American people to think of their president as a Mafia don.

OK, then. So no one laughed. Maybe Ben Rhodes didn’t get the joke. That’s OK. Apparently, Peter Baker didn’t get it either. But I suspect that if President Obama were asked about it, and he was being perfectly honest, he would admit that he had just been trying to be funny.

Let’s just say.

“Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh man.’ Now they just keep on lying.” — Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, July 17, 2018




Share This


The Debate About the Court

 | 

Confirmation of a Supreme Court justice is a circus disguised as a graduate seminar. But amid all the pseudointellectual parading and posturing, there are real principles of constitutional interpretation at stake. From a libertarian point of view, I think that four basic schools of interpretation can be identified, each with its attractive and unattractive results.

1. The originalist school, in which the Constitution is interpreted according to the “original intent” of its writers. Predictably, the results are most attractive to libertarians where the freedoms explicitly mentioned in the Constitution (e.g., freedom of speech) are concerned, and least attractive where they are not (e.g., in most matters of local and state legislation).

2. The evolutionist or revisionist school, in which the Constitution is interpreted as “a living document” whose meanings constantly develop in accordance with judges’ attempts to “grapple with new conditions.” This is a very unattractive position for libertarians who want to preserve explicit constitutional rights (e.g., 2nd Amendment rights) from the social engineering of modern judges; it is more attractive to those concerned primarily with such contemporary issues as abortion and gay marriage.

Amid all the pseudointellectual parading and posturing, there are real principles of constitutional interpretation at stake.

3. The theoreticist school, in which the Constitution is interpreted, not according to its original intent, but according to its aboriginal principles, “the principles that inspired it.” For this school, the final meaning of the Constitution is found not in its words but in the theories that originally justified its words, and not in those theories as explicitly stated by, for instance, the words of John Locke, but in the system of ideas that can be found, undamaged by personal errors and contradictions, behind those words. Theoreticism sounds more abstruse than it is. It is an attempt to say that the framers worked with certain ideas of liberty; these ideas were their intellectual “intent”; and we must interpret their words as expressions of that intent, whether the words capture the whole of the intent or not. Theoreticism allows almost every constitutional controversy to result in a victory for traditional libertarian principles; it has therefore been very attractive to many libertarians. One of its unattractive features is that it allows judges with different ideas of “liberty” or the origins of “American ideas” to read the Constitution in that other light.

4. The proceduralist school is the dullest of all schools. It is not meant to be inspiring. It is meant to reduce the risk of constant judicial upheaval by demanding that judges follow orderly processes, paying due deference to stare decisis. We are hearing much of that principle these days, because modern liberals don’t want the Supreme Court to overturn past decisions that they favor. The decisions may have been reached hastily or arbitrarily, but if the results are favorable to what the liberals regard as liberty, they should stand. By the same token, conservatives challenge proceduralism — now. Proceduralism is a ball that anyone can kick. I imagine that few libertarians would want a Court that had no respect for precedent, continuity, and rules of judicial procedure; I also imagine that few libertarians would argue for the maintenance of decisions that they regard as contrary to their own theories, simply on grounds of precedent.

It would be absurd to read texts written by others without a governing respect for the authors’ choice of words.

In the battle over Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination, all these schools of thought will be used and abused, though usually without reference to the names I have given them. It will be interesting to see what Kavanaugh does with them. It’s only fair, however, that I should state my own position. I am a supporter of the first school, the originalist.

Why? One reason is my belief that most of the rights that libertarians value are clearly and originally expressed in the words of the Constitution. Another reason is that I am a literary historian, and it would be absurd for me to read texts written by others without a governing respect for the authors’ choice of words, claiming that the texts mean something that their words don’t say.

But here’s where originalism is itself misinterpreted. Originalism is about interpreting what Hamilton called in Federalist No. 78 the “manifest tenor of the Constitution” — “manifest” meaning clearly evident in the original words. Originalism is about interpreting a document, not the psychology or social position or personal aims or philosophies of the authors. Shakespeare’s purpose was to make money, but King Lear is not about the importance of making money. Chief Justice Taney, in the Dred Scott decision, thought that the authors of the Constitution, some of whom owned slaves, intended it only as a document for white people; unfortunately for him, that’s not what the document actually says.

A truly originalist reading would find little in the Constitution on which to base the vast and crushing edifice of the federal government.

To my mind, the best books on these subjects are still Validity in Interpretation and The Aims of Interpretation, by E.D. Hirsch. You can see what you think of their arguments.

The originalist school of interpretation will be least attractive to libertarians who want to claim certain rights that are real enough but are not in the Constitution, or to accomplish ends that cannot be accomplished, right now, except through revisionist courts. I am thinking, for instance, about the death penalty, which has put constitutional interpretation farther from the manifest tenor of the authors’ words than anyone could possibly have imagined. If the death penalty is bad, an originalist would say, it would be worse to try to abolish it by revisionist interpretation.

The good thing for libertarians is that an originalist reading of the Constitution — a truly originalist reading — would find little in that document on which to base the vast and crushing edifice of the federal government. And that, of course, is why we will probably hear least about true originalism during the political debates about Judge Kavanaugh. If the debaters took it seriously, most of them would be out of a job.




Share This


Functional Illiteracy

 | 

As you know, the cable networks are filled with advertisements both for medicines and for lawyers who sue about the results of medicines. Medicine ads (note: not lawyer ads) include lists of the unfortunate side effects that the advertised commodities may possibly have. While attractive, smiling, sociable actors illustrate the lovely lives of elderly, sick, drug-dependent people, cheerful voices observe that customers may be subject to shortness of breath, sore feet, heart attacks, pneumonia, depression, insanity, and the seven-year itch.

But lawyers must be suing on the ground that the names of the listed ailments are too hard to understand, because now there’s an ad advising you that Eliquis, which has been defined as “an anticoagulant for the treatment of venous thromboembolic events,” “may cause paralysis — the inability to move.”

Anyone can abuse anyone, at any time — so what?

I would think that any patient who understood the business about “venous events” would also understand “paralysis,” but we can’t count on that, can we? One of my best students recently entertained me with a self-joshing anecdote about his failure to perform some household task, to which his roommates responded by calling him a d*****b**. (I realize that half my readers will resent me for being too prudish to spell that out, and the other half will resent me for bringing it up in the first place.) He quoted the phrase several times, but I began to wonder whether he knew what it literally meant. “No,” he confessed. “I don’t.” So I explained it to him. He blushed, and volunteered not to use it again. But he hadn’t been curious enough to find out what he was saying, before I brought it up.

As I say, he’s intelligent. He has a much larger vocabulary than this incident suggests. Multitudes of our fellow citizens do not. That’s one reason why today’s comedy is so grossly dirty. I have no moral objection to bad words. Most of Abraham Lincoln’s jokes were dirty, and harmless. I think it’s funny when the cartoon kids on South Park break into filthy grownup language; it’s one way of showing how inane adultspeak can be. But you’ll notice that when South Park makes fun of, say, Al Gore, it doesn’t call him dirty names. Its purpose is to deflate, not to abuse. Anyone can abuse anyone, at any time — so what?

Now along come Kathy Griffin and Samantha Bee, and all they can do to satirize President Trump is call his daughter a c*** and pretend to decapitate him. (Griffin did the second, some time ago; Bee did the first on May 30.) Such displays of political rhetoric are dumb enough for anyone to understand — no dictionary, no act of reflection, is required. But why should anyone want to stage them? The usual explanation is that artists of this kind are themselves too stupid to think of anything even marginally clever. But if they have any instinct for their audience — and they must have some — they presumably think that gross abuse is the highest form of art the audience can enjoy. If they’re right about that, we’re all in trouble. Bear in mind that both Bee and Griffin number many defenders among the reputedly educated class.

Even as she spoke she must have been able to hear the sound of her audience contracting.

On May 31, on Tucker Carlson’s show, Tammy Bruce said that Samantha Bee and her ilk “make Trump look like Sir Galahad.” I have long admired Ms. Bruce; she’s very smart and very articulate, and she’s a libertarian. She was certainly right in what she said. But alas, poor Tammy: even as she spoke she must have been able to hear the sound of her audience contracting. Who the hell is Sir Galahad? Do I have to look that up?

And do I have to think before I speak? For Tammy Bruce, the answer would be obvious: Yes. Sure. Of course you do. For other people, that issue would be problematic. Wouldn’t thinking be a speed bump?

Here opens an endless vista of public figures, and public bores, who are generally the same thing, careering toward success along the great highway of language, without a care or a stop sign in the world.

When, on May 18, a lunatic killed ten people at a school in Santa Fe, Texas, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) rushed to the first available mike and reassured his constituents as follows:

Texas, as a state, we’ll make it through this. This community, Santa Fe, will make it through this, leaning on each other, praying for each other, standing with each other. We will make it through this.

I’m surprised that Cruz could make it through that impassioned speech. I know it was hard for me to get through it, and I was merely listening. I’d had no idea that Texas was about to fold like a map and blow away. So it was unsettling to learn that the state could be preserved only by people standing on it and leaning on each other as they stood. Yes, it unsettled me. It made me sick. Why didn’t it make Senator Cruz sick too?

It’s the kind of thing that people who aren’t very bright come up with when they try to insult everybody else’s intelligence.

And why doesn’t it make the New York Times sick to publish such headlines as “F.B.I. Used Informant to Investigate Russia Ties to Campaign, Not to Spy, as Trump Claims” (May 18)? What next — “Joe’s Diner Used Stove to Fry Eggs, Not to Cook Them, as Bill’s Diner Claims”? This is a nasty recipe. First you separate two synonyms (informant and spy); then you assume they are not synonyms at all but the most obvious kind of antonyms, implying that if the reader doesn’t see that, he or she just isn’t very bright. Finally, you decorate the dish with a ritual slam of Trump and his claims, claims having become a word you use for self-evident falsehoods. Like everything else in the Times, this is all supposed to be so erudite that if you question it, you’re just not (to repeat myself) very bright. But it’s not. It’s the kind of thing that people who aren’t very bright come up with when they try to insult everybody else’s intelligence. They’re convinced that nobody else can think, so why should they?

Most forms of stupidity are not that cynical. Rudy Giuliani was not trying to put something over on anybody when, speaking of the Mueller investigation, he told Fox News (May 31), “The whole thing should be squashed.” Picture someone taking the Mueller investigation, placing it on the floor, and squashing it like a pumpkin. But darlings, I’m sorry: the word is quashed. Rudy Giuliani is 74 years old; he has spent his life speaking and writing. He’s a lawyer. He was US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Quash is a common legal term. Squash is not. Enough said.

But returning to headline writing — here’s the rare monstrosity that’s not from the New York Times. It’s from the CNN website. (Shouts of “Stop! We can’t stand it!” Sorry. You’ll have to.) Here it is (May 8): “Tonight’s primaries could prove the Trump takeover of the GOP is totally complete.” Not partially complete, you understand, but totally complete. As I write this, about a month later, the online headline has not been changed. Nobody noticed the problem.

Picture someone taking the Mueller investigation, placing it on the floor, and squashing it like a pumpkin.

Remember that people are paid to write headlines. As a profession. Now, suppose you call a plumber and ask him to fix your drain. He does so, but he also installs an identical drain, next to the first one, thus making the job totally complete. Would you be stupid enough to pay him? I think not.

Investigative reporter Sara Carter is not that stupid, but she apparently finds it easier to think through the FBI’s web of intrigue than to ponder her own words. On May 17 she published the following weighty sentences:

The Department of Justice Inspector General has sent what is described as an “extremely long and thorough draft” of the much anticipated report on the FBI and DOJ’s investigation and handling of the Hillary Clinton email probe, this reporter has learned. The detailed report on the FBI’s decision making process into the Clinton investigation could lead to possible criminal referrals for some of the officials involved in the case.

Well, that was dull, wasn’t it? Surely she could have cut to the chase. Along the way, she could have asked herself whether she could visualize a “decision making process into an investigation.” I can’t. To me, a process isn’t something that goes into anything. And I’m aware, as Carter is, that the FBI owned the investigation; it didn’t need any process to break into it.

Now let’s look at whether the Inspector General’s report “could lead to possible criminal referrals.” I hope not, because I don’t want a possible referral (nor can I visualize one); I want a real referral. So, I believe, does Carter. Yet even with this personal motive and moral imperative, she can’t get her sentence straight. Try “could possibly lead,” Sara.

Well, that was dull, wasn’t it? Surely she could have cut to the chase.

Falling like a rock from the (comparative) intellectual eminence of Sara Carter, I come, at last, to the level playing field of Wikipedia, where anyone can say absolutely anything. You know those obnoxious TV ads for Sandals, the ads that promise that your sex life will be miraculously restored — and not just restored, perfected! — if you book a trip to one of Sandals’ resorts? The ads provoked me to find out more about this life-changing organization. So I went to Wiki, and here, among other things, is what I found:

In January 2013, the government of Turks and Caicos Islands and Sandals agreed to a settlement of US $12 million around local corruption allegations, without admission of any liability.

If you’re thinking that this is simply routine American discourse, you are right. The proof is that word around. About 20 years ago, baby boomers reverted to their days of hash and roses and started using around as an all-purpose pronoun, just as they used like as their all-purpose sentence-larder. Immediately, every discussion was around an issue, not about it. I believe the indeterminacy of around made the word sound spiritual to them. There were also comforting echoes of illiterate leftist speeches around problems of racism and, uh, poverty. So comforting, and yet portentous, was around that it began to resemble the boll weevil in the old song.

First time I saw him, he was sittin’ on the square.
Next time I saw him, he was sittin’ everywhere.

In Wiki’s part of everywhere, a $12-million settlement is presumed to exist around allegations. Restless and amorphous, the settlement hunches and slops around until it finds a big, embarrassing allegation (right next to a big, embarrassed bank account), and sticks to it.

Around is an ominous symptom of a contagious verbal paralysis, by which I mean an inability to move words into places where they make some sense. A crucial stage of this sickness is loss of the power to visualize what words mean. No one who had the power of visualization would slap around into every slot available for a preposition. And no one who had that power would say the words I’ve been hearing for the past few months as I’ve listened, unwillingly, to a local TV station’s attempts to make itself sound intellectual. The station’s ads convey deep thoughts about the problems of San Diego, one of which is high real estate prices. The fruits of Channel 10’s meditations on this mysterious problem are presented in the words of a news personality who says: “The cost of living here? comes with a price.”

There is no price to a cost. There just isn’t.

The question mark is not a typo. It indicates how the sentence sounds. It represents the dumb, Valley-girl uptalk that makes a hilarious contrast to all the brow-wrinkling over San Diego’s challenges. But just look at that sentence. “The cost comes with a price.” What, in the name of Noah Webster, does that mean? There is no price to a cost. There just isn’t. The sentence can be pronounced with deep seriousness, as if it actually said what the author meant, or should have meant: “If you want to live here, you’ll have to pay a lot.” But that’s not what it says. It says nothing. It is a set of words with no visualizable meaning, and none of the 15 or 20 people who must have been involved in the production and dissemination of the sentence noticed that. In fact, they considered it so successful that they doubled down on it. They recently added a second version: “Cost of living! Is pricey.”

I have to admit, however, that if you don’t care whether your words mean what you want them to mean, or whether they mean anything at all, you may end up being funnier than Samantha Bee, Donald Trump, or even Sir Galahad. The effect may be unconscious, and a little morbid, but hey! Why should you care about that, either? If you notice it.

On May 19 a cougar killed a mountain biker in the woods 30 miles east of Seattle. A widely, and approvingly, circulated statement about this event was given to the world by one Rich Beausoleil (nice name), who is “the state’s official bear and cougar specialist” (enviable position). Notice the redundant, and therefore emphatic and unquestionable, marks of legitimacy: he’s a specialist, he’s designated by a state, and he’s official. I don’t know about you, but I’m impressed.

Anyway, Mr. Beausoleil (who, I have no doubt, is as good as his name) was reported to have said that

The death was only the second caused by cougars in Washington in the last 94 years.

“But it's one too many,” he added.

One too many? What about the first one? Not too many — just about right?




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2019 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.