The Visualization Test

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When I was a kid, a few million years ago, my parents subscribed to the Sunday edition of the Detroit Times (now defunct). The part of the paper that interested me was the eight pages of color cartoons, gathered in a section called “Puck: The Comic Weekly.” It was headed by a tiny figure of Puck and a quotation from one of his remarks in A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “What fools these mortals be!”

The message appealed to me almost as much as the beautifully drawn, intricately plotted, glacially moving episodes of Prince Valiant. I was too young to read Shakespeare, but I was starting to get the point: mortal life is one hell of a crazy thing.

You know you live in a crazy world when its reputedly big people do things for no reason at all — or, to put this in a more pedantically accurate way, do things that no one asked them to do, things that no one wants them to do, things that can accomplish nothing except to get them into trouble. I need only mention Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

It’s crazy for someone who wants to go down in history as an ultra-discreet manager of America’s super-sleuths to go around blurting things out with no show of evidence.

A crazy world, however, is not just a world of elephantine insanity. It’s a world in which every little opportunity for craziness is promptly identified and eagerly exploited. It’s a world of micro-craziness.

On November 12, John Brennan, who thank God is a former head of the CIA, opined to CNN that President Trump “for whatever reason is either intimidated by Mr. Putin, afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations.” He said that Trump sends “a very disturbing signal to our allies and partners who are concerned about Russian interference in their democratic processes as well.”

There was a reason for Brennan to say such things: he wants to continue to be seen on TV. But it’s crazy for someone who wants to go down in history as an ultra-discreet manager of America’s super-sleuths to go around blurting things out with no show of evidence. This man wants to be known as a deep thinker (something that, by the way, his CIA X-ray vision should have told him was not what deep thinkers ever want, or reveal that they want). So he pontificated about disturbing signals and democratic processes — which, for no reason except pomposity, he pronounces “processEEs.” Try as I may, I can’t visualize what he’s talking about. What processEEs?

I tried picturing Angela Merkel (a person whom I do not delight to picture, but I’ll rise to the call of duty) phoning Emmanuel Macron (ditto) to say:

“Whaddup, Manny. Listen, I’m very disturbed this afternoon.”

“Oh, why?”

“I’ve received a disturbing signal from President Trump.”

“Oh, he’s an idiot. So what?”

“No, I am very disturbed. I am concerned about Russian interference in the democratic processes of our countries. I fear that Trump is either intimidated by Mr. Putin or afraid of what he could do or what might come out as a result of these investigations.”

“What investigations?”

Investigations into the influence of Russia on the November 2016 election in the United States.”

“Well, if you put it that way, I am concerned as well.”

Try as I may, however, I can’t visualize any real person saying anything to the announcement of such concerns except, “What the hell are you talking about?” And try as I may, I can’t keep myself from believing that the attempt to visualize what a statement means, to get a clear and sensible image out of it, is a test of its validity as an act of communication.

If you want another example of words that fail the test, I have one ready, this time from the Right side of the political spectrum. It’s in an article in PJ Media excoriating Senator Tim (Smilin’ Jack) Kaine for his refusal to return money donated to him by disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. I confess that I’m amused by Kaine’s idea that he can’t give the money back, because (dramatic pause) he’s already spent it! Yeah, and so what? But I also confess that I am skeptical about the idea that money derived from immoral sources has to be returned to the sources themselves, thus rewarding them for their immorality, or else handed off to some charity, so that its holiness will miraculously remove the moral contagion.

America’s tendency, throughout its history, has been to designate certain offenders as people about whom one can say anything, anything at all, and expect one’s listeners to nod in agreement.

Yet passing beyond all that, it’s hard to make sense of PJM’s critique of Senator Kaine: “He's not prepared to give Weinstein's blood-money back or try to donate it. He just got to profit off of a sexual assaulter.” Again the question: “What are you talking about?” I know some of the things that Weinstein is supposed to have done, and they are all bad things, but sexual assault has now been given so many meanings, from bothering people to raping them, that the phrase, seen by itself, no longer has meaning. It evokes no picture. We are also, it is true, offered the more pungent image of blood-money, but this image, though clear, is false. Weinstein didn’t make money from assaulting people; he lost it that way, by the bushel. Also, the man is an ape, but he is not a murderous ape — and what else could “blood-money” mean?

America’s tendency, throughout its history, has been to designate certain offenders as people about whom one can say anything, anything at all, and expect one’s listeners to nod in agreement. This is a bad tendency, and it makes no difference whether the offenses are real or whether they are such old-time, say-anything-you-want-against-it offenses as witchcraft, homosexuality, and questioning whether the Great War was a good idea. Mobspeak is mobspeak, no matter what the subject is; and that’s what we’re hearing with regard to Weinstein and his ilk.

Morally excited people often make their point so emphatically that all one can see in their statements is a preposterous image of themselves. Here’s something along that line. It’s a statement by Mika Brzezinski, reputed star of cable TV, about the Weinstein affair. (Cries of “Enough already! Find another topic!” But to proceed . . . ) Brzezinski tweeted: “I have a three-book deal with Weinstein Books. . . . I can’t go forward with those books unless Harvey resigns.” She can’t? Picture a woman so stunned by the revelation of Weinstein’s flaws that she can no longer make her mouse run about her screen. You can’t picture that; you start laughing too hard. But the really difficult thing to visualize is someone, even Harvey Weinstein, patron of the arts, thinking hard and long and then declaring, “What this world needs is not one book by Mika Brzezinski, but three!” Evidently Ms. B has no trouble visualizing that; she is certain that not going forward with those books is a threat that will make the world tremble. The world, however, may not have such a daring imagination.

Mobspeak is mobspeak, no matter what the subject is.

The rule is: If you can’t visualize it, don’t write it; and even if you can visualize it, ask yourself what, if anything, your readers will see. It isn’t enough to gesture toward some possible meaning.

For an exhibit of such a gesture, I turn to the venerable British Broadcasting Corporation. There used to be an idea that the BBC was a standard of good, though precious, English. If you still have that idea, forget it. Consider a current sample of high-class British lingo: subject, Africa; date, November 18. Reporting on the political liquidation of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe and his spouse, the BBC referred to “Grace Mugabe, who is four decades younger than him.” Oh, that much younger than him is?

I’m not mentioning this report just to be unkind about its grammar (although that’s fun). My real concern is a passage that illustrates how easy it is to destroy your meaning if you don’t try to visualize it. According to the BBC,

Our correspondent says the situation may appear to be getting out of [the Zimbabwean ruling party’s] control and there could be a broad push to introduce a transitional government that includes the opposition.

OK, I’m picturing a person who says something. So far, so good. He or she says that there is a situation. All right; “situation” is pretty abstract, but I know it means political events in Zimbabwe — mobs in the streets, that sort of thing. I have some kind of picture in my mind. Now, this situation appears to be out of control. . . . But no, that’s not quite right. It may appear to be getting out of control. . . . Picture that. Go ahead. Try.

Sometimes we can’t blame writers and speakers. Sometimes the audience is at fault.

The depressing thing is that people are actually getting paid to write stuff like this. I suppose someone also got paid to write a news item for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the appointment of a new president at Morehouse College. He is David A. Thomas, and he

said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution his goals include increasing enrollment from its current 2,200 students to 2,500 students, providing more scholarships, finding opportunities for every student to study abroad, supporting faculty research and engaging in issues that improve outcomes for African-American men, noting Morehouse “is a place where we can offer solutions to those issues.”

I’m not sure what Mr. Thomas provided as a referent for “those issues,” so I’m not sure whether he thinks that finding opportunities for students, supporting research, and increasing enrollments are things that need to be solved. But by the time his interview was written up by the AJC, he was proposing to offer solutions even to issues that improve outcomes. And if you think this is hard to visualize, first try to visualize engaging in issues. If “issues” means “problems,” as it usually does these days, I hope that the new college president doesn’t engage himself too deeply. But even if it just means “matters,” how do you picture that? And how do matters “improve outcomes”? And if they do that, why, again, should Mr. Thomas solve them?

In statements of this kind, a resistance to being visualized is considered an asset.

No one can visualize any of this; it’s all just words, with no pictures attached. But sometimes we can’t blame writers and speakers for engaging in issues that don’t improve outcomes. Sometimes the audience is at fault.

Denise Young Smith, Apple’s (former) Vice President of Inclusion and Diversity, found this out when she told a conference of diversity mavens that

there can be 12 white blue-eyed blonde men in a room and they are going to be diverse too because they’re going to bring a different life experience and life perspective to the conversation.

The words are clear and self-evidently true. Yet they were understood as meaning, among many other things, “that there really is no need to look beyond any sort of seeming homogeneity within Silicon Valley’s tech workforce (which is mostly white and overwhelmingly male).” Smith, who is African American, was forced to apologize for her “choice of words” and then to step down from her job — a position she had held for only six months, in a company at which she had worked for 20 years. Apple has proclaimed that 50% of its “new hires are from historically underrepresented groups in tech.” I’m trying to visualize what that means, and unfortunately I can’t, except that it does not include Ms. Smith. I assume that in statements of this kind a resistance to being visualized is considered an asset.




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Liaisin’ the Night Away

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No, I am not going to do the predictable thing — review Hillary Clinton’s book. I reviewed her earlier one, It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us (Liberty, May 1996, pp. 51–54), and that’s enough to expect from me. True, this one seems to have been written by different ghost writers, although it’s hard to be sure. There’s a point below which stylistic analysis can’t be conclusive. But that’s not enough to justify further consideration of this “author’s” work.

Besides, a lot of other people have already done a good job with What Happened. One of them is Joseph Bottum in the Washington Free Beacon. Says Bottum, writing about the “writer”:

Has there been a more self-conscious major-party presidential candidate since Richard Nixon? The stiff way she moved, the personalizing of every slight, the grimacing smile as though she had been forced to teach herself how to wear her face: Nearly everything about Hillary Clinton spoke of a self-consciousness so vast, so heavy, that only the sternest will could shoulder it. Like a robot with slow actuators, she always seemed to have a gap between a stimulus and her response — a brief but noticeable moment of deciding how to react. Leave aside questions of her truthfulness about everything from her Rose Hill law firm's files to her private email server while she was at the State Department. Trump's needling epithet of "Crooked Hillary" gained traction because, regardless of her actual honesty, she had the affect of dishonesty — the pause that recalls for many viewers a liar choosing what to say.

Well put, and I’ll leave well enough alone. On to other matters.

In 1959, Isabel Paterson found a young couple who wanted to buy her old wooden farmhouse near Princeton, New Jersey. “The young wife,” she wrote to a friend, “‘loves an old house.’ She has certainly got something to love.”

Readers don’t care about somebody being killed, but they do care about penthouses, luxury suites, celebrity yachts, and high-rise apartments.

I’ll say the same thing about the good old English language: those who love it have certainly got something to love. It has the largest vocabulary in the world, and the most chaotic spelling, and sources that are stranger and more varied than those of any other language. In addition, it has the world’s most insensitive users.

I can’t establish that scientifically, but I have plenty of what “scientists” disparage as “anecdotal evidence.”

Here’s some:

On July 27, Wyndham Lathem, a science professor employed by Northwestern University, and Andrew Warren, an employee in the business office of Somerville College, Oxford University, allegedly butchered the boyfriend of Lathem in the latter’s high-rise apartment in Chicago. I put in high-rise because murder stories are always supposed to have stuff like that in them. Readers don’t care about somebody being killed, but they do care about penthouses (Ayn Rand wrote a murder play called Penthouse Legend), luxury suites, celebrity yachts, and high-rise apartments. Readers want class.

If it’s a sign that there are still murderers who love a good book, as they did in the Nero Wolfe stories, then it’s a good thing.

Now, after what seems to have been a high-rise thrill-killing, Lathem and Warren apparently left the corpse to cool and — you will never guess what they did next. They drove to the public library in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, where Lathem made a contribution of $1,000 in memory of the victim. They then escaped to California, where they eventually turned themselves in. They are now in jail in Chicago.

I thought your curiosity would be aroused by that part about the donation to the library. It leaves me with a few thousand questions, too. If it’s a sign that there are still murderers who love a good book, as they did in the Nero Wolfe stories, then it’s a good thing. But what makes the story relevant, more or less, to reading and writing is what spokespersons for Oxford University had to say about the university’s employee, Mr. Warren.

The PR release was sensibly worded. It said, among other things: “We have been in contact with the police in the UK and are ready to help the US investigating authorities in any way they need.” Unfortunately, the principal of Somerville College wouldn’t leave well enough alone. She added this:

We and the university authorities will liaise with the investigating authorities and provide any assistance that is required.

This comes as upsetting news to all of us. Counselling support can be made available to anyone who needs it.

The principal, Alice Prochaska, is a distinguished archivist and curator who was once head librarian of Yale. Yet her acquaintance with books seems not to have extended far enough to inform her that “liaise with” is a pretty poor substitute for “help,” especially when it is used as a redundant parallel to “provide assistance.”

At first I was willing to congratulate Principal Prochaska on avoiding the temptation to administrative overreach. According to the well known statement of Rahm Emanuel (which I am about to paraphrase), administrators seldom fail to waste a good crisis, but the principal’s double qualifiers, “anyone who needs it” and “any assistance that is required,” somewhat allayed my fears. Then I realized: everything in the principal’s message is classic overreach.

It’s not just the quantity of words that’s important; it’s the quality.

Consider the rush from helping investigators to providing counselling support for “anyone who needs it.” Is Somerville College, whose alumnae include Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Daphne Park, the Queen of Spies, so sheltered a place that the rumor of crimes committed by a clerk in the financial office can drive its inhabitants round the bend? Principal Prochaska’s psychiatric initiative looks like just another way for a modern bureaucracy to reach out to its subjects and clutch them to its smothering breast.

Somerville College had no connection with the murder. If you were wondering, for some bizarre reason, whether the college would help the police with any facts it might have about Andrew Warren, the press release cleared that up. The principal’s only function was to expand useless verbiage — which appears to be why we employ college administrators. Under their tutelage, help becomes assistance, and assistance gives birth to counselling. To increase the number of syllables, counselling generates counselling support (we wouldn’t want anyone to think that our counselors will be non-supportive), and they need generates that is required. It is only proper, in such an authoritative message, that authorities should appear twice in the same sentence.

But it’s not just the quantity of words that’s important; it’s the quality. That’s where liaise comes in. Its function is to convert a common, low-quality, bureaucratic communication into something fairly stinking with high intrigue.When I read “ready to help,” I picture one cop calling up another cop and saying, “Ya know this bloke Andy Warren? Yeah, that’s the one. Got anything on him?” When I read “liaise,” I picture Allied agents behind the German lines, hoping that the message they inserted in the shoe of the Swedish diplomat will somehow make its way to Churchill.

The purpose of official patois is not to communicate meanings clearly or truly in any way. The purpose is to project the self-importance of the authorities.

It would be unfair to the British if I left this discussion of the Chicago murder case without providing a parallel anecdoteabout American verbiage. Here are the wise remarks of a Chicago police spokesman about the murder’s probable cause: "Something pivotal happened that resulted in the victim being attacked." You don’t say so! I thought it was something completely unimportant. I thought it was something on which nothing turned, so to speak. Now I know it was like, oh, the voyage of Columbus, or the invention of the incandescent light. It was something . . . pivotal — whatever it was.

Am I being petty? No, I’m not. The purpose of official patois is not to communicate meanings clearly, or emphatically, or wittily, or charmingly, or poetically, or individually, or truly in any way. The purpose is to project the self-importance of the authorities. That being so, it’s easy to see that this is commonly the language, not just of obscurity, but of obvious untruth, which the recipients are nevertheless expected to swallow.

One of the TV stations in my area has been trying to capitalize on the autumnal return of school children to their places of so-called instruction, by advertising a series about bullying in the schools. In one of its ads, a reporter intones, “We’re not afraid to stand up to bullying.” Refreshing, isn’t it? Here’s a public institution that is prepared to resist the threats of 12-year-olds.

Also refreshing is the station’s openness to the community. “I want you to be part of the conversation,” the reporter assured me. Well, maybe not me. Maybe the million little me’s out here in watcherland who are thought to be gullible enough to believe that by listening to some gasbag on TV, they’re participating in a conversation.

Refreshing, isn’t it? Here’s a public institution that is prepared to resist the threats of 12-year-olds.

If there’s a grossly politicized word in the vocabulary, it’s conversation. Remember when everyone in the Obama White House wanted to start a national conversation about that never-before-discussed topic, race relations in America? In other words, they wanted a conversation in which they had the final, and possibly the only, word. I remember Gorbachev, when he was in power. He was always calling for openness. One day, when he was out in the street conversing with his fellow citizens, a woman actually said something, and it wasn’t favorable to his policies. His response was, “That is what you think. Now I will tell you what I think.” How much more preposterous is someone with a microphone and a TV tower, inviting the invisible people who pick up his electronic signals to start a lively conversation with him? I quoted Gorbachev; now I’ll quote Brooklyn: “How dumb da ya think we are?”

The issue here is manipulative speech, speech that is less concerned to convey facts or even opinions than to neutralize the audience’s well-justified resistance. In this regard, television “journalists” and political “leaders” face a similar problem. Their audience really doesn’t care what they think; it doesn’t care to converse. It prefers, for the most part, to be left alone — unless, in some highly unusual case, a useful fact needs to be extracted from the flow of sound. Say, for instance, a useful fact about an approaching hurricane.

God help me, I squandered many hours of time watching the TV coverage of Hurricane Irma, particularly the 24/7 treatment offered by the Weather Channel. From this coverage I derived one useful fact: if you live in Florida, a hurricane may hit you sometime, so you should consider the obvious choices — leave or stay. If you stay, you should take in supplies and board up your windows.

That’s it. No other valuable knowledge was imparted. Despite graphic displays of predictive models — the European Model, the American Model, etc. — practically nothing was confided about how these models are constructed, or how hurricanes are constructed, or how to respond to the constant changes in the models’ estimates, or . . . anything.

The more the hurricane fizzled, the more insistent the news crews became about keeping it going.

As wall-to-wall coverage completed its sixth day, I began to pity all those hapless souls who had to stand in front of a camera and recite the same shrill warnings, purported facts, and solemn speculations over and over again. I was fascinated by the number of times I heard how foolish it is to try to ride out a hurricane in a small boat, and how dangerous it supposedly is to use candles if your power goes out.

I could forgive a lot of blather from people who have to keep talking long after they’ve exhausted their material. I could even forgive their obvious desire to cover a big story, which could only be the story of terrible destruction. I had more trouble forgiving their inclusion of the word “meteorologist” in every available sentence: “Turning now to meteorologist Jane Doe,” “As a meteorologist, I can say that this is indeed a big storm,” and so forth. I found it impossible to forgive anyone, meteorologist or not, who inflicted on the audience such locutions as, “Miami stands to get a large douse of rain” and “During the past week, millions of people fleed.”

The more the hurricane fizzled, the more insistent the news crews became about keeping it going. On Monday, September 11, the day after it hit, the weather guys had nothing to do but stand in a light breeze, muttering forecasts about the dreadful things that could yet happen. “There’s nothing weak about this,” one of them said, “only weaker.

Well, OK. What else can you do with all that airtime? One thing you could do is provide a sober consideration of what went wrong with all the confidently scientific predictions about where the storm would strike, how hard it would strike, and what the effects might be. That would be interesting, both scientifically and humanly. “Let’s see where things went wrong” is a fascinating study in imperfect humanity. Or you could share your knowledge (if any) about the history of evacuations, particularly the costs and benefits of leaving a place rather than staying in it.

The stunned weather guy didn’t know what to say. He had finally met someone with a sense of realty.

I heard none of that. What I heard was an increasingly shrill hall-monitorism — more warnings about using candles, evading curfews, driving on the roads during the recovery period. On Monday morning, one of the Weather Channel people positioned himself on a residential street and spent 15 minutes bemoaning the fact that a few cars were making their way through the light debris (palm fronds and such). Why are they here? he wondered. Why can’t people see that they may be blocking the way of first responders? Seeing a plump middle-aged gentleman walking calmly along, the weather guy said, “Let’s find out!” So, sir, why are you here?

The man explained that he had refugeed out but was now returning to see how his house was. He also commented that the storm hadn’t been nearly as bad as expected, and gave details. The stunned weather guy didn’t know what to say. He had finally met someone with a sense of realty. As he dismissed the home owner with an admonition not to block any first responders, I wondered what the gentleman might have replied, if he hadn’t been a gentleman, to this weird guy standing in the street with a microphone and a truckload of TV technicians. “Same to you, fella”?

I can’t resist dragging another party into court — Rick Scott, governor of the state of Florida. Scott seemed to me a competent organizer of disaster preparations, such as they are. He may have precipitated a run on gasoline by the millions of people whom he urged, perhaps uselessly, to evacuate, but he did arrange for gas to be stored and rushed to market afterward. And probably he can’t be blamed for trusting the scientific models of coming disaster. But I do resent his failure to notice the existence of 54 % of his state’s population.

His failure to make sense was emblematic of our great communicators’ disdain for most of the people who are purportedly part of their conversation.

What I mean is that 54% of adult Floridians are single, but in Scott’s long string of televised announcements he talked almost exclusively of “families” — as in his oft-repeated, literally absurd promise, “No resource or expense will be spared to protect families.” For the sake of families, he was willing to blow up Disney World, execute every alligator in the state, cut off his thumbs, and destroy every unmarried person he could find.

Or maybe not. Maybe he was just being pompous. But his failure to make sense was emblematic of our great communicators’ disdain for most of the people who are purportedly part of their conversation. And this disdain is generally reciprocated. Somewhere there are people who love Rick Scott for finally mentioning families. Somewhere there are people who feel that they are actually conversing with a television station by listening to its lamentations about childhood bullying. Somewhere there’s a person who warms to university administrators when they mention their passion for liaising. But I’m sure that these people amount to far fewer than 46%.




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Making It Official

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For brutal coldness, this one can hardly be surpassed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THOMPSON
Sentimental fellow, aren't you?

RAYMOND
Mmm . . . Yes and no.




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Cry Havoc!

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I’ve always been puzzled about the idea of mass hysteria. Is it true that normally sane people suddenly start shouting and screaming and seeing Martians, just because their neighbor, or somebody on the radio, has been talking about the subject? Or is mass hysteria just one of those pop-psychology labels that tells you nothing more than the unmysterious things you’d already noticed yourself? I mean, you hear Mr. Smith saying goofy things; you hear Mrs. Jones and Mr. Green saying similarly goofy things; then somebody calls it mass hysteria, and you’re supposed to believe you’ve learned something. But you haven’t, because you still don’t know why anybody would want to say those things.

Those are my ordinary thoughts. But maybe now I’m suffering from mass hysteria myself, because I think the opponents of Donald Trump have contracted it. There are lots of them, and they’ve all simultaneously lost their minds, or whatever part of their minds is connected with their ability to speak and use a keyboard.

One symptom of hysteria is screaming in public places. Another is saying things that obviously aren’t true, and believing them yourself. Yet another is saying things that make you look like a fool for saying them, but you don’t care. This is how a significant number of Trump’s opponents have been acting, enough of them to turn an unusual activity into one that is usual, expected, and routine. They are hysterical, and they behave in mass.

What’s been happening is the kind of discourse that makes the shouts of the normal witch hunt or lynch mob seem sane and decorous.

Here’s the caveat lector: even hysterics may be right, in a way. The existence of Senator Joseph McCarthy as an hysterical anti-communist didn’t negate the pre-existence of Stalinist agents in the United States. Hysterics and other annoying people may be concerned about something that other people can analyze calmly and agree is cause for concern. In the present case, anyone can construct a cogent argument for the idea that Trump is a good president or a bad one. Such arguments can be calmly debated and assessed by minds that independently assent or dissent from them.

But that isn’t what’s been happening lately. What’s been happening is the kind of discourse that makes the shouts of the normal witch hunt or lynch mob seem sane and decorous. Offhand, I can’t think of a lynch mob in which people shrieked, all together, “He burned down the school! He robbed the bank! He spied for the North! He kicked my dog!” In this case, however, we have, “He’s alt-right! He’s a fascist! He’s a racist! He’s homophobic! He’s anti-Semitic! He stole the election! He’s a Russian agent! He paid two prostitutes to piss on the bed of President Obama!” Wait till they discover the existence of the Bavarian Illuminati.

Surveying headlines on the morning of July 21, I saw a long list of Trump-attack items, including “Can Trump Pardon Himself?” Then I saw, sitting quietly and all alone, “Hawaii Is Preparing for a North Korea Military Attack.” Let’s see . . . which type of story are journalists more excited about?

Hollywood movies inform us that lynch mobs are managed by people who are not themselves hysterics but are hoping to profit from destroying their victims. They want somebody’s ranch or wife or gold mine, or they want to be elected governor. I’m not sure whether this picture of the cold, calculating demagogue matches the current situation. Leaders of the anti-Trump hysteria clearly want to enhance their political power and influence, but some of them do appear to have gone over the edge. They’re like the guy who’s told by his friends, “Calm down! You don’t want the neighbors to hear you!” and who responds by busting the TV, throwing chairs through the window, and screaming, “Who cares if they do! They’re all a buncha God-damned @#@#%^&#’s!”

Leaders of the anti-Trump hysteria clearly want to enhance their political power and influence, but some of them do appear to have gone over the edge.

You can think of many examples. One that appeals to me is Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s badly chosen running mate. Kaine is a hack politician. He happens to be a Democrat, but he’s not much different from hundreds of other hacks, Democrat or Republican. He has a bug in his head about religion, but that hardly distinguishes him. His most visible characteristic is a desire to be loved, hence to be elected to public office. It’s not in his political interest to talk like a lunatic. But on July 11 he responded to the Enormous Revelation that Donald Trump, Jr. (that chump) had once met with a Russian “lawyer” to see whether he could get some dirt on Hillary Clinton. Why didn’t Junior just read the newspaper? Anyway, Kaine made the following hysterical remarks:

Nothing is proven yet. But we're beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what's being investigated. This is moving into perjury, false statements [one sign of hysteria is an obsession with repeating the same idea], and even into potentially treason [another sign is a loss of normal syntax]. . . . To meet with an adversary to try to get information to hijack democracy. The investigation is now more than just obstruction of justice in investigation. It's more than just a perjury investigation. It's a treason investigation.

The Constitution defines treason in this way: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” (Seconds elapsed while finding this passage online: 51.)

Only nine people have ever been convicted of treason under that definition, which notably lacks any reference to such offenses as hijacking democracy, the meaning of which is apparently “electing someone other than Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.” Junior is unlikely to become the tenth — if only because the United States is not currently at war with either Russia or Russian lawyers.

Questioned later about his weird remark, Kaine seemed to backtrack on its thrust, but then, like a true obsessive, returned to it anyway:

When they ran a clip they cut off the first part of my sentence which I said “nothing has been proven yet,” they cut that off. If the issue that is being investigated following this last revelation is did someone coordinate with a foreign adversary to attack the basics of American democracy, it doesn’t get more serious than that.

Among problems that I consider more serious, or at least more urgent, are (A) Kaine’s tendency to babble like a street person, and (B) the fact that his hysterical cry of treason was immediately taken up by innumerable politicians and media commentators. (Seconds elapsed while thinking: 0.)

But there’s something yet more serious, if you’re interested in the ways in which words are used. Obsessive and hysterical verbiage is just one of many bad things that happen with words when they’re disconnected from thoughts. These days, we’re experiencing the full range of bad things. Public speech and public writing appear to have become completely unstuck from reflective consideration.

Only nine people have ever been convicted of treason under that definition, which notably lacks any reference to such offenses as hijacking democracy.

Nancy Pelosi is always available to substantiate such points. In her July 18 press conference (she still has them!), the former speaker of the House discussed an article that had bowled her over and left her flat. It was about the sacrifices made by the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it had given her an idea that she was impelled to communicate:

Now, our founders, they sacrificed their lives, their liberty, their sacred honor to establish this democracy.

The closer you look at that sentence, the stranger it gets. Start with the fact that the founders specifically did not intend to establish a democracy. And how many of the signers sacrificed their lives? Go ahead — name one. As it turned out, the essay that Pelosi found so inspiring was filled with errors that anyone with a real interest in American history would have smelled immediately. If Pelosi ever had a sense of smell, she’s lost it. She’s also lost any interest in noticing what words mean. When she said that the signers “sacrificed . . . their sacred honor” she was literally saying that they gave their honor up, got rid of it, didn’t have it anymore. So either she doesn’t know what honor means, or she doesn’t know what honor means. I leave you to choose.

Just say they conspired, Ambassador, and don’t tell me that everybody says it this way.

The article about this in the Daily Caller, a conservative journal, is harshly critical. It points out that Pelosi’s source didn’t even spell the names of the signers right. But it also says, “While nine of the signers did die during the Revolutionary War, none of them died from injuries sustained by the British.” Of course, no one would expect Americans to die because the British were wounded. And that’s what the sentence literally says — “injuries sustained by the British.” The author believes that to sustain a wound is to inflict it.

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When fancied meanings we conceive.

Let’s look at another page from the Daily Caller. It’s an interview (July 9) with Francis Coombs, managing editor of the Rasmussen polling outfit, in which Coombs is reported as saying:

What is clear is that voters do not dislike Trump as much as the media does. Look at Russia. The media is just obsessed with Russia. Democrats who are out on the hustings say “nobody asks me about Russia.” The polls don’t seem to jive with what we’re seeing with the traditional media.

So what’s wrong with that? Jive, that’s what. The word is jibe, and somebody, either Mr. Coombs or whoever transcribed his remarks, ought to know it, ought to have marked the distinction at some point in his or her life — just as any reflective person should have marked the distinction between lie and lay, disinterested and uninterested, famous and infamous, distinctions also commonly unobserved in today’s discourse.

On one matter Democrats and Republicans are in full agreement: we don’t need no stinkin’ dictionaries — or grammar books, either.

From the left: on January 30, the Washington Post ran this provocative headline:

Who Will Trump Add to the Supreme Court?

If you don’t see the problem, or if you never noticed that the Post was a leftwing paper, I’m not going to explain it to you.

From the right: on April 20, Ambassador Nikki Haley told the United Nations that Iran and Hezbollah “have conspired together” — something that she obviously thought was a great deal worse than conspiring individually. Just say they conspired, Ambassador, and don’t tell me that everybody says it this way. If you do, you’re just making my point.

From the left: the online Guardian, June 14, in an early report on the fire in the Grenfell Tower:

The Metropolitan Police have confirmed that “a number of people are being treated for a range of injuries” on Twitter.

I didn’t know that Twitter had the power to treat the injured. Or is it that Twitter has the power to inflict a range of injuries? But that would make more sense to me.

Certainly there is an elite that mates and networks with itself and is partly composed of the witless spawn of rich people.

From the right: Tucker Carlson, during his April 4 TV show: “You see the Orwellian path we are trodding.” I like Carlson, and I thought he read a book from time to time. But I don’t recall George Orwell saying anything like, “Let us trod a better path” or “If we trod like this for very long, we’ll be in some real trouble.” The word is tread, and Carlson’s goofy error came at a particularly bad time — a discussion with Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA), about the misuse of language. Carlson used the word monitoring for Susan Rice’s surveillance of Trump’s associates, and Sherman sanctimoniously objected. So Sherman and Carlson both managed to lose that inning.

On July 14, Bruce Thornton published an interesting essay in Frontpage, called “The Nevertrump Outrage of a Disappointed Elite.”

In it he says, among other things, of course:

From the beginning of Trump’s campaign, the disproportion of his critics’ anger with [i.e., to] their response to Obama’s and Clinton’s assault on law and the Constitution has shown that something else is going on: an elite class is angry that the highest power in the land, with all the attention and perks that go with it, is in the hands of a vulgarian who sneers at their class-defining proprieties and protocols.

Sounds plausible. But what struck me was Thornton’s idea about what identifies the elite:

In antiquity it was land and lineage that defined privilege. In our day, prep schools, top-ten university degrees, formal speech, correct diction, proper manners, and high-cult allusions all mark off the elite, and hide the fact that their position comes from money and connections as much as merit. Someone like Trump, who violates every one of these canons and enjoys the support of the “bitter clingers” and “deplorable” masses, infuriates the elite by challenging their right to rule by virtue of their presumed intellectual and cultural superiority.

Certainly there is an elite that mates and networks with itself and is partly composed of the witless spawn of rich people. But you would have to go to the Arabian Nights to find something more fanciful than Thornton’s description of what marks off this class. There never was a time in American history when the scions of wealth were distinguished by “formal speech, correct diction, proper manners, and high-cult allusions.” (Question: What is a high-cult allusion? Examples, please. And do the people who are able to make such allusions call them high-cult?) Wealthy Americans were always just as oafish and ignorant as other people, despite their diplomas from dear old Yaleton. Evidently our author has never heard of the famous gentleman’s C.

And to suppose that “in our day” we can tell whether people inherited money and attended Harvard or worked their way through Northern Michigan — how preposterous can you get? Has the author ever listened to the conversations that go on in the first-class section of the airplane? Does the author fully understand that the father of Donald Trump, the vulgarian, was very wealthy? Yet there’s no need to go that far afield. Nancy Pelosi was the daughter of a mayor of Baltimore and was educated at the Institute of Notre Dame and Trinity College (Washington). Brad Sherman and Tim Kaine went to Harvard Law School. Tucker Carlson went to St. George’s School and Trinity College. And look what happened to them. It’s enufta make ya panic.

Wealthy Americans were always just as oafish and ignorant as other people, despite their diplomas from dear old Yaleton.

Oh . . . speaking of hysteria: there are hysterically favorable reactions as well as hysterically unfavorable ones. When, on July 21, the police chief of Minneapolis, Janee Harteau, was forced to resign her position, I looked up some biographical information about her, and found a breathless article from the local paper (March 24) reporting that she had been selected as — can you guess what? She had been named Number 22 on Fortune’s list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

The idea of such a list makes me wonder what kind of world we live in. And you can think about the further implications of this incident as you read about cops employed by Ms. 22nd Greatest gunning down a woman who requested their assistance, and even gunning down (“dispatching”) the inoffensive pets of the people they are paid to serve — in each case, allegedly, reacting in panic.




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Ich Bin Ein Latino

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Who is a Latino? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “Latino,” as used in North America, means, “a person of Latin American origin or descent.” That seems pretty straightforward. So, if you’re looking for a simple answer to a seemingly simple question, there it is. If, on the other hand, it strikes you as too neat and you’d like to know why that is, read on.

* * *

In order to use the OED definition to determine who is a Latino, one must first take out an atlas and determine exactly where Latin America is. While this may seem like hair-splitting, it’s not. The boundaries of Latin America and the parameters of the definition are inextricably intertwined. For example, if my grandfather was born in, say, Cuba, am I a Latino? Yes? How about Haiti? OK. Jamaica?

The first line that can be drawn is along the southern border of the US. While some suggest that it should be drawn considerably farther north to include the territory the US took from Mexico, for the moment, there is general agreement that Latin America is composed only of lands south of what may one day be called Trump’s Wall.

There is also some disagreement about which of the lands south of the US should be considered part of Latin America. While the United Nations takes the broad view, considering all of the nations and territories in the Western Hemisphere south of the US to be part of “Latin America and the Caribbean,” intentionally overlooking all historical and linguistic differences, the people who actually live in the Americas are more selective. While they generally agree that nations whose primary language is Spanish are part of Latin America and that those whose primary language is either English or Dutch are not, there is a difference of opinion regarding the inclusion of those whose primary language is either Portuguese or French.

Just because a person is of Latin American origin or descent does not mean that he speaks a language directly descended from Latin.

A circumnavigation of the blogosphere gives a fairly clear picture of the dispute. The majority opinion seems to be that because Portuguese and French are, like Spanish, directly descended from Latin, nations that speak one of these languages should be considered part of Latin America. Support for the inclusion of Portuguese was stronger than for French, perhaps because Portuguese and Spanish are more alike. That there are about 400 million Spanish, 200 million Portuguese, and around 11 million French speakers in the region may have had something to do with it as well. (Interestingly, the OED joined the minority in this case and chose to exclude francophone countries in its definition of Latin America.)

In any case, this is the map of Latin America, with all the Romance speaking countries in and all the Germanic speaking countries out, as confirmed by the collective wisdom of Wikipedia. In South America, by this reckoning, only Surinam (once Dutch Guyana) and Guyana (once British Guyana) are not part of Latin America, while in Central America the only country that is excluded is Belize (once British Honduras). In the Caribbean, all the English and Dutch speaking islands are excluded, including Jamaica, Barbados, Aruba, Curaçao, and all the others. The rule is simple, really: English and Dutch need not apply. (The island that in English is called Saint Martin has been divided since 1648 between France and the Netherlands. The French side is in Latin America, the Dutch side is not.)

* * *

Does it follow that because a nation must speak a Romance language to be part of Latin America, a person must speak a Romance language to be considered a Latino? It does not. Just because a person is of Latin American origin or descent does not mean that he speaks a language directly descended from Latin.

For instance, consider a child born in Peru of Peruvian parents who is raised to speak only Quechua, the language of the Incas. That the child does not speak Spanish, or any other Romance language, does not alter the fact that he is of Latin American origin and is, therefore, a Latino.

This is not a hypothetical case. There are millions of people in Latin America who speak Quechua, Guarani, Kekchi, and Nahua, to name the most widely spoken of the hundreds of indigenous languages still in use. In 2007, Richard Baldauf, in Language Planning and Policy in Latin America, estimated that 17% of the 40 million or so indigenous language speakers in Latin America were monolingual, which means that there are something like seven million people in the region who not only don’t speak a Romance language but don’t speak any Indo-European language at all, who are, nonetheless, Latinos.

Whatever their numbers are, the millions of people of Latin American origin or descent in the US who speak only English are also Latinos.

Neither is it hypothetical that monolingual speakers of indigenous languages from Latin American countries migrate to the US. In 2014, the New York Times reported on a Mixtec speaker from Mexico who arrived in East Harlem without Spanish or English. An estimated 25 to 30 thousand Mixtec speakers live in New York City alone, and there are about 500,000 Latin Americans in the US who speak indigenous languages. They are all Latinos.

To be clear, monolingual speakers of indigenous languages born in countries south of the US border where the primary language spoken is Germanic, meaning English or Dutch, would, of course, not be considered Latinos. This restriction would apply, for example, to Guyana (the former British Guyana), and to Surinam (the former Dutch Guiana), but not to French Guiana, which is, curiously, part of the European Union.

Next, consider the case of Mexican migrants living in the United States with a child who has been raised to speak only English. Is he a Latino? The answer has already been given. As he is of Latin American descent, he is a Latino.

Although neither the US Census Bureau nor the Pew Research Center seems to know how many English-only Latinos there are in the US, their stories abound on the internet and polling by the Pew Research Center shows that with each successive generation, the descendants of Latin American migrants are less likely to rely on the primary language of their antecedents. A 1999 Stanford report on the linguistic isolation of Hispanics of age 60 and older showed that more than 10% of the 125,000 polled spoke only English. Whatever their numbers are, the millions of people of Latin American origin or descent in the US who speak only English are also Latinos.

(As an aside, according to 2015 American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau, 3.4 million Spanish speakers in the US who were asked how well they spoke English responded “Not at all.” The question, presumably, was asked and answered in Spanish. They, too, are Latinos.)

* * *

Is it possible for a person who is not of Latin American descent and who was born outside of Latin America to be considered a Latino? Well, no, at least not according to the OED.

Before us is a Spanish child, born in Spain, of Spanish parents, raised and educated in a Spanish speaking home, then brought to the US at ten. Listen carefully. Just because a person is of Romance language country origin and descent does not mean he is a Latino. This child is not, and can never be, a Latino. It is simple, really. He is not of Latin American origin or descent.

But then there is Enrique Iglesias. His father, the singer Julio Iglesias, is from Spain, and his mother, the journalist Isabel Preysler, is from the Philippines. Enrique was born in Madrid, raised speaking Spanish, and currently lives in Miami. In 2010 he was named the King of Latino Pop by Latin Gossip magazine.

Just because a person is of Romance language country origin and descent does not mean he is a Latino.

While I will grant that the editors of this journal know far more about the scuttlebutt in the Vatican cafeteria than I could ever hope to, bestowing that title on Enrique makes as much sense as awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan. Unless, of course, the folks at Latin Gossip know more about the word “Latino” than the contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Or consider Carmen Miranda. She was born in Portugal of Portuguese parents. She was taken to Brazil as a child, became a great singer, and then took America by storm, singing such hits as “Chica Chica Boom Chica,” and starring in such films as “Copacabana” before dying tragically in 1955. She is viewed as a latina icon by Literanista, a wonderfully eclectic blog that covers such matters. A quick review of feminist, Latino, and multicultural blogs confirms that Ms. Miranda has been universally designated and welcomed as a latina icon.

But hold on. Latin American origin? Well, no. Latin American descent? Again, no, not really. Far be it from me to second-guess the creator of Literanista, who undoubtedly knows far more about the life of Ste. Bernadette of Lourdes than is absolutely necessary, but to beatify she-of-the-fruit-hat as a “latina icon” makes no more sense than the coronation of Enrique. To be fair, it could be that the editor of Literanista hadn’t consulted her copy of the OED while researching the piece.

The case of New Mexico is trickier. About half of the people of the State of New Mexico are Spanish speaking, to one degree or another. Many of them have their roots in Mexico, but most of them, particularly those in the northern part of the state, are the direct descendants of the original Spanish settlers. (Santa Fe, the current capital, was founded in 1610, ten years before the Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor.) Often called Hispanos, many of them speak a sort of Old World Spanish. That the New Mexicans who are of Mexican descent are Latinos is clear, but are the Hispanos, who are direct descendants of Spanish settlers, Latinos?

To beatify she-of-the-fruit-hat as a “latina icon” makes no more sense than the coronation of Enrique.

Let’s say that the family tree of a Hispano man named Juan is populated exclusively by Spaniards who came directly from Spain to settle in New Mexico. As in the case of the “King of Latino Pop,” Juan was not born in Latin America and his ancestors were not Latin American. Is Juan a Latino? Well, no.

Let’s try this: New Mexico itself was once part of Mexico. If Juan’s ancestors were born in New Mexico at that time, they could be said to be of Latin American origin, which would mean that all of their descendants, including Juan, could be said to be Latinos.

Then there are the genizaros. During colonial times, the Spanish colonists of New Mexico snatched Native American children away from their tribes and forced them to work as domestic servants and, tragically, slaves. By 1776, a third of the people in what would become New Mexico were genizaros. According to some sources, the practice continued into the early 20th century. Today, there are about 300,000 direct descendants of genizaros in New Mexico, most of them Spanish-speaking.

(The word “genizaros” comes from the Turkish word “yeniceri” that translates into English as “janissary.” The Janissaries were Christian children captured by the Ottomans and then trained and compelled to serve in their military as shock troops.)

Are the genizaros Latinos? The same reasoning that could make it possible for Juan to be considered to be a Latino could also apply to the genizaros. If their ancestors were born in New Mexico when it was a part of Mexico, then those ancestors could be said to be Latinos. As direct descendants of those ancestors, the genizaros could be said to be Latinos, too.

If that line of reasoning is accepted, however, then the descendants of the children of American settlers in Texas who were born in Texas when it was a part of Mexico would have to be considered Latinos, too.

For example, the older children of Samuel May Williams, a close associate of Stephen F. Austin, were born in Texas when it was part of Mexico. Under the broad interpretation of “origin” used with the genizaros, any descendants of these children would have to be considered Latinos as well. It sounds rather Talmudic, but it could be viewed as heartless to deny the genizaros a place at the Latino table. If the only price that would have to be paid would be to make a little room at the table for a few Anglos whose patriarch acquired the 125-ton schooner Invincible, credited with depriving Santa Anna of much-needed supplies and reinforcements, thereby (arguably) ensuring Sam Houston’s victory at San Jacinto and the independence of Texas, it might be a good deal. After all, seven Tejanos died defending the Alamo.

That’s right, even the Inuit of Baffin Island would have to be considered Latinos. The same would probably have to apply to New France.

One more Talmudic twist: genetic tests have proven that many of the Hispanos of New Mexico were Jews from Spain who had either converted to Catholicism or feigned conversion to avoid the Inquisition. Their descendants, sometimes called conversos or marranos, could be considered Latinos, in the same way that Juan could. In fact, Juan may be a converso. (In Judaic scholarship, they are called the “anusim,” or “the forced ones.”)

There may be a problem. If the boundaries of Mexico prior to the creation of the Republic of Texas and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo are allowed to define Latin America, then the window of opportunity for a birth to convey latinidad to subsequent generations is small. While Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, in 1836 Texas won its independence, and in 1848 the rest of the American Southwest became part of the US, so New Mexico was only part of Mexico for 27 years. Unless an ancestor of Juan gave birth to another of his ancestors during that interval, Juan might have no ancestor who was of Latin American origin, which would mean that Juan could not be a considered a Latino.

A possible solution hinges on the fact that, prior to becoming part of Mexico, New Mexico was part of the Spanish Empire. It would be tempting simply to stipulate that anyone who has an ancestor within the borders of Spanish America is, under the OED definition, a Latino. The sticking point is that Mexico is a Latin American country and Spain is not. If this exception were allowed, there would be people calling themselves Latinos who were not of Latin American origin or descent. This “Hispano exception” will be considered further, if only to see where the twisted path leads.

In 1494, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the Americas with a single line, drawn north to south. Spain got everything to the west of the line; Portugal got everything to the east. The Pope gave the treaty his blessing, with the proviso that only non-Christian lands were fair game for conversion and conquest.

Is it correct to infer, from the fact that the OED definition of “Latino” makes no mention of the construct of race, that a person of any racial identity can be a Latino? Yes, it is.

An inescapable consequence of using the boundaries of Spanish America to determine “Latin American origin or descent” is that every Native American from Tierra del Fuego to Point Barrow would have to be considered a Latino. That’s right, even the Inuit of Baffin Island would have to be considered Latinos. (The same would probably have to apply to New France. Everyone with an ancestor who lived within its boundaries would also be a Latino.)

All of which illustrates the difficulties that can crop up when the OED guidelines are ignored. The line has to be drawn somewhere, and adherence to the OED parameters ensures consistency and clarity. “Hispano,” after all, means “Spanish,” not “Latin American,” and the Inuit probably have no wish to be Latinos, anyway.

* * *

Is it correct to infer, from the fact that the OED definition of “Latino” makes no mention of the construct of race, that a person of any racial identity can be a Latino? Yes, it is. Over the past 500-plus years, millions of migrants traveled from Europe, Africa, and Asia to join the millions of Native Americans already in Latin America. They are all Latinos.

A few examples will help underscore the point.

There are at least 17 million Latinos of German descent living in Latin America, of whom at least a million speak German. A handful of them are descendants of Nazis who fled Allied justice after Word War II.

Because of differing methods of determining race, estimates range from 19 to 67 million Latinos of African descent in South America alone, a fraction of whom are descendants of the thousands of runaway slaves, or maroons (from the Spanish cimarrónes), who created their own free communities, called palenques by the Spanish andmocambosorquilombos by the Portuguese.

if you’re riding on the city bus in Des Moines and a stranger sits next to you, you cannot know from his appearance or his language whether he is a Latino or not.

There are at least 2 million Latinos of Japanese descent living in Latin America, a few of whom who may be descended from the samurai recruited by the Spanish crown and brought from Manila harbor to protect the mule trains filled with Asian treasure being carried from Acapulco to Veracruz.

There are also thousands of Latinos who are descendants of the “Confederados” who fled Yankee occupation at the end of the Civil War and settled in southern Brazil.

All these people are Latinos.

In addition, there are many millions of people living in Latin America whose genes reflect the endless combinations that such diverse ancestors make possible. In colonial times, there was a peculiar and intricate system of classification called “las castas” that assigned names, some of them quite exotic sounding, to a multitude of the combinations. Some of the names are still in use today. The bearers of these names, too, are all Latinos.

In the US, there are Latinos of many racial identities as well. In the 2010 US Census, the more than 50 million who marked the box for “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish,” went on to identify their “Race,” by indicating one of the following categories: “White, Black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, Some Other Race, or Two or More Races.” In excess of 26 million, or 53% of the respondents, identified themselves as “White.” Latinos, all.

Further proof is unnecessary: Latino is not a race.

* * *

To summarize:

  1. Latin America comprises all the Romance language speaking countries in the Western Hemisphere south of the United States.
  2. A person born in Latin America is a Latino.
  3. A person born outside of Latin America who has Latin American antecedents is a Latino.
  4. A Latino does not have to speak any particular language.
  5. A Latino does not have to have any particular racial identity.

In other words, if you’re riding on the city bus in Des Moines and a stranger sits next to you, you cannot know from his appearance or his language whether he is a Latino or not. Two examples will make this point.

A dark-skinned man with the distinctive profile of a Mayan aristocrat takes his seat and starts to talk with the man in front of him in Spanish. Is he a Latino? No. He is from Belize.

A blonde-haired, blue-eyed man sits next to you and starts talking to his friend across the aisle in German, but with a soft accent that you can’t quite place. Intrigued, you gather up your courage and say, “Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind my asking, but, are you by any chance Swiss?”

He quickly purses his lips in suppressed amusement before answering, “Nein, ich bin ein Latino.”




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The Proofreaders’ Puzzle

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“Donald Trump’s Governing Styles Has Critics Up in Arms” — thus the headline of an article in U.S. News & World Report (April 14).

Oh, does they?

The article presents evidence that it hasn’t been proofread any better than the headline. Try this passage: “For one thing, it's clear that Trump is not a devotee of reading, whether it's newspapers, books or memos. Instead, he is most moved by what he sees and hears in a most fundamental sense.” I’m still trying to figure out what it would mean to see and hear in a fundamental sense. And a nasty thought creeps into my mind: maybe this stuff has been proofread. Maybe someone was striving for that asinine repetition of “most.” And maybe someone doesn’t know that “styles” is plural.

I’d prefer that politicians spent all their time on the golf course, where they can do little harm, except to their egos.

Isabel Paterson, who had a lifetime of experience in journalism as both writer and proofreader, observed that “there is an irreducible minimum of pure error in all human affairs.” Good people, famous people, might proofread a text and yet leave “some peculiarly glaring mistake, probably in the front-page headline.” Even Liberty has had some proofreading errors. But if my suspicions are correct, the U.S. News nonsense fits a pattern, not of inadvertent error, but of sheer and sometimes willful ignorance. Nowadays, one isn’t surprised to find errors in a most fundamental sense in every morning’s news reports.

Here’s the Daily Mail (April 9),captioning a picture of President Trump going out to golf for the 16th time since assuming office:

Trump (pictured Sunday leaving Mar-a-Lago) is far outpacing his predecessor, who he repeatedly criticized for hitting the links.

It’s an apt critique of the president — although I’d prefer that politicians spent all their time on the golf course, where they can do little harm, except to their egos. But “who he repeatedly criticized”? Haven’t they ever heard of “whom”? As I write, the mistake has not been corrected; and when the article appeared on the conservative blog Lucianne.com, the headline reproduced the error in the caption:

Trump makes his 16th trip to a golf course since inauguration — far outpacing Obama, who he repeatedly criticized for hitting the links.

How many times during the past week have you read something like the following in a supposedly high-class journal?

The injured woman laid on the sidewalk.

Police drug the suspect out of his car.

The majority leader snuck an extra $100 million into the budget.

I just googled snuck, and in a third of a second got 13,100,000 results. Not all of them, I am sure, are reproductions of an illiterate rural dialect.

It’s disturbing to discover how few people who live by talking and writing understand common English verbs. This demonstrates (A) a collapse of the educational system, (B) a lack of interest in reading real literature, (C) a lack of sensitivity or curiosity about words, or (D) all of the above. Whatever the cause, it’s horrifying.

Tucker Carlson, the libertarian-conservative television personality, is a favorite of mine. I don’t enjoy criticizing him. But here goes. Carlson comes from a wealthy family. He attended La Jolla Country Day School and St. George’s School. He has a long career as a journal writer and editor. He has written a book. It is this Tucker Carlson who, on his April 4 program, discussing the word “monitoring,” which he used for government surveillance in general but his guest, Democratic Congressman Brad Sherman, refused to apply to the surveillance activities of Susan Rice, declaimed:

You see the Orwellian path we are trodding.

Trod on, Tucker. Maybe you’ll eventually trod up against a grammar book.

Ignorance of grammar . . . shall we become still more fundamental and consider ignorance of meaning? On April 10, a man named Cedric Anderson went into a classroom in San Bernardino, California, and killed his wife, a teacher in the school, a child she was teaching, and himself. The next day, the Los Angeles Times ran a story with this headline: “He was a pastor and a gentleman: ‘She thought she had a wonderful husband.’” The idea that Anderson was “a pastor” gives that extra little tingly irony to the story, doesn’t it? It’s a word the Times sought, grabbed, and flaunted — a mighty important word for the Times. But you cannot be a shepherd if you do not have a flock; you cannot be a pastor if you do not have a congregation. Reading through the article, one finds that this basic meaning of the word was totally lost on the LA Times, which was well satisfied with the following evidence of Anderson’s occupation:

Najee Ali, a community activist in Los Angeles and executive director of Project Islamic Hope, said he knew Anderson as a pastor who attended community meetings.

"He was a deeply religious man,” Ali said of Anderson, who sometimes preached on the radio and joined community events. “There was never any signs of this kind of violence . . . [O]n his Facebook he even criticized a man for attacking a woman."

On April 12, our friend the Daily Mail published a more accurate description of Anderson, calling him “a maintenance technician and self-described pastor.” But no one seemed interested in finding out whether Anderson was currently employed (which he seemingly was not) or in saying what a “maintenance technician” might be. The “pastor” identification continued to appear in other “news” venues — until journalistic interest in the story died without repentance, a couple of days later.

It’s disturbing to discover how few people who live by talking and writing understand common English verbs.

Let’s proceed from ignorance of meanings to the corruption of them.Last month’s Word Watch delivered a sharp rebuke to CBS radio news for its childishly politicized language. I could have said more about that, so I will right now.

Here on the cutting-room floor is an item that I might have mentioned last month, but didn’t. On March 3, CBS radio ran a story about Vice President Pence, who was criticizing Hillary Clinton’s use of email. Maybe the good people at CBS thought what you or I would have thought: “Oh great — we have to report on a dull speaker saying obvious things about a familiar subject.” But the report they produced was dull in another way — dull as in dim-witted, stupid, just plain dumb. CBS blandly announced that in making his comments, the sleep-inducing Mr. Pence had been “almost rabid.”

Of course, that’s an overt politicization of the news, but why is it dumb? It’s dumb because the statement itself is rabid, and therefore self-defeating. It’s dumb because the writers obviously didn’t realize that. And it’s dumb because of the pretense at delicate qualification that’s supposed to keep listeners from realizing that they’re listening to propaganda: “We didn’t say that Pence was rabid. We said he was almost rabid. We’re doing the best we can to be fair to this fascist.”

This is the network whose clinically objective way of identifying Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch was to call him “conservative ideologue Neil Gorsuch.” Not an opinion, mind you; just a fact: he’s an ideologue by profession, a card-carrying member of the Association of American Ideologues. But please let me know when you hear CBS referring to liberal ideologue Charles Schumer or liberal ideologue Elizabeth Warren — or liberal ideologue Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

It’s dumb because the statement itself is rabid, and therefore self-defeating.

A more interesting example of dumb people trying to do your thinking for you occurred on March 26. It was also on CBS radio news, but unfortunately it could have happened on any of the other networks, TV or radio. On that day I tuned in to hear that police were still assessing, or some verb like that, “the latest incident of gun violence.” So I started assessing, or some verb like that, this latest incident.

What had happened was that, 15 hours before, there had been a fight in a bar in Cincinnati, and shots had been fired. One person had been killed, and more than a dozen injured. This was a terrible, but hardly an unprecedented, event. It’s not clear that it was a big enough story to run in a national broadcast containing only about three minutes of news, but if you wanted to run it as a major news story, how would you package it? What category would you put it in?

I can say, without fear of sensible contradiction, that in the history of normal, quasi-objective news reporting, two categories would have occurred to almost everyone: shooting and bar fight. But those were not the categories that occurred to CBS. To the network’s news providers, this was violence, and it was gun violence, and it was the latest instance or example of the same.

Let’s take the last category first: latest. During the 15 hours between the shooting and the news report, how many fatal shootings do you suppose had happened? In 2016, there are said to have been 2,668 “murders by gun” in the United States. I assume that such murders are more numerous on weekends, but supposing that they happen at a uniform rate, this means that during those 15 hours there should have been fiveof them. If, however, we are looking at gun violence, or as normal people call it, shootings, we find that in 2016 there were 3,550 incidents in Chicago alone (up from 2,426 during the previous year). Other things being equal, there would have been six of these shootings in Chicago during the 15 hours.

This was a terrible, but hardly an unprecedented, event. It’s not clear that it was a big enough story to run in a national broadcast.

So the category of the latest is bogus. But what does it mean to be looking for the latestincident of something? Commonly, it means that you have an argument to make, and you’re seeking fresh examples or instances that you can use as evidence for your argument. Otherwise, the latest, the very latest, only the latest, etc., wouldn’t mean much. So CBS wanted to offer more than news; it wanted to push an argument.

It’s the perennial argument of all the established news providers. It isn’t that there are a lot of people who are on the losing side of violence, or that violence is increasing in certain parts of America, or that violent crime is a scandal, or that the trillion-dollar programs of our welfare state, which are meant to minimize crime by reducing poverty (because we all know that crime comes from poverty, and poverty is cured by welfare), are not working. No. The argument is simpler. It is simply that guns are bad.

Turn we now to the categories of violence and gun violence. A ride through any neighborhood populated by modern-liberal professionals, the men and women who populate what is jokingly known as America’s news organizations, will show you what they value and what they don’t. Valued: 6,000-square-foot private homes, organic food, nonthreatening gyms, skin care, expensive restaurants, wine tasting rooms, Nordstrom-class shopping centers, complex landscaping (and thus, illegal immigrants), household alarm systems, gated communities, on-street surveillance cams. Not valued: filling stations, churches, massage parlors, check-cashing emporia, rental units, fast food, homes of illegal immigrants, Walmart, trucks parked on the street, bus stops, strip malls, bars. In the precincts set aside by the professional classes for the worship of themselves, there is no occasion for violence or gun violence. No fights, even fistfights, ever take place. And nobody ever goes to a gun convention.

For these denizens of Valhalla, violence is an exotic word, and a thought-paralyzing concept. Having no relatives, friends, or acquaintances who commit violence, they regard it with a superstitious terror, like a creature from another world. No, not like such a creature, but literally that creature. Their own forms of misconduct are quiet, genteel, non-disruptive — false statements to clients, false statements to the public, false declarations on financial forms, extortionate lawsuits, bribery of public officials (in marginally legal ways), the occasional in-doors sex offense . . . the honesty of violence is missing.

A ride through any neighborhood populated by modern-liberal professionals will show you what they value and what they don’t.

They therefore do not understand how violence could happen. It could not be rooted in human nature. After all, they themselves are human, and they don’t commit violence. Neither could it be the outlet for aggressions that they also feel, but are afraid to act on. And surely it could not result from barbaric ways of life made more barbaric by elitist efforts to reform them — the kind of efforts for which the professional classes always self-righteously vote. It can only be explained as the product, not of human beings, but of things. The things are guns. Hence the category of gun violence.

The phrase is brutally unidiomatic. Was Lizzie Borden accused of committing hatchet violence? Did Jack the Ripper practice knife violence? Did Hitler invade his neighbors with tank violence? But now we have gun violence, and the distance of this phrase from ordinary speech should alert us to both a certainty and a prima facie probability.

The certainty is that it’s a carefully made-up term. There was no necessity for it; words already existed to cover all its applications, and cover them specifically — such words as the aforementioned shooting and bar fight, but alsoshooting spree, gang war, hold up, crime of passion, and so on. When you make up a vague, new, general term to replace established and specific ones, why are you doing it? Because the existing terms don’t serve your argument. Thus, global warming (once global cooling), which was specific enough to be refuted, yielded to climate change, which means anything you want it to mean, but still suggests that something needs to be fixed — by the people who invented the term.

Was Lizzie Borden accused of committing hatchet violence? Did Hitler invade his neighbors with tank violence?

What is gun violence? It may not be a homicide; it may not be an actual shooting; it may be threatening someone with a gun; it may mean using a gun to kill yourself. Yes, a suicide may also be a shooting, although that isn’t what the nation is supposed to get upset about; the professional classes insist on their right to kill themselves in any way they choose. But they will insert suicides into the statistics about gun violence anyhow, because that’s the purpose of gun violence: itlumps everything together — a bank holdup, a Mafia intimidation, a hunting accident, a crazy creep who kills a cop, a crazy cop who kills a creep, and Frankie of “Frankie and Johnny”:

She didn’t shoot him in the bedroom,
She didn’t shoot him in the bath,
She didn’t shoot him in the parlor;
She shot him in the ass.

So much for the certainty: gun violence was invented to push an agenda. Now for the prima facie probability, which has to do with the nature of that agenda: gun violence was invented, and is used, as a two-word argument for getting rid of all guns. Of course, I should have written “a two-word non-argument,” because you can’t win an argument by shifting terms around. You can’t win such an argument with intelligent people, anyway.

Now we return to my constant theme: these people bellied up to the conference table, talking about how primitive and dumb the rest of the country is — who are the dummies, after all?




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Babes in Wordland

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Like many people who have been to college, I once harbored the idea that Democrats are smarter than other people — a conception on which Democratic electoral power in large part depends. When I became one of those other people, I abandoned the idea. Occasionally, however, something happens to revive it.

That’s what occurred on March 21, when I unluckily turned on my television and encountered the Senate hearings on the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The first, and last, thing I heard was a question from some senator who was clearly not a Democrat. He wanted to know how Gorsuch “interpretated” the First Amendment. Gosh, I thought, during the second it took me to change the channel, maybe the Republicans really are dumb. And there have been other indications, through the years . . .

Having interpretated Senator Klobuchar, which was somewhat harder than interpretating the Constitution, Gorsuch assured her that in his view a woman could become president.

I was startled out of my speculative mood when, later in the day, a talk show played another clip from those hearings. This one featured the remarks of Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), who was discussing the fact that the Constitution refers to the president as “he.” Just what, she demanded, did Gorsuch think about that?

For a while he was baffled. What could she be after? Then he got it — she’d come up with a new way of challenging his originalist approach to constitutional interpretation. How could he be an originalist when the Constitution kept saying “he”? Didn’t the pronoun mean that the text, the original text, barred women from the presidency?

Having interpretated Senator Klobuchar, which was somewhat harder than interpretating the Constitution, Gorsuch assured her that in his view a woman could become president; he hoped, indeed, that one of his own daughters might do so.

So much for that. I hadn’t been worried about the intellectual value of originalism, but I had been vaguely concerned about the intellectual caliber of Democratic senators from Minnesota. I was therefore happy to find that Amy Klobuchar was every bit as intelligent as Al Franken.

Hannity's entire intellectual apparatus is a list of four or five factoids, constantly recited, as if he were a child asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”

In my view, modern “liberalism” lost the intellectual argument about three generations ago, and it’s useless to expect any remarkable level of political intelligence from people who continue to believe in the stuff. But there’s a more distressing problem: what level of intelligence can we expect from people who have the unchallenging profession of arguing against the Democrats?

Consider Sean Hannity. He’s a nice guy, and his radio and TV shows are very popular, but they are a joke — a bad joke, a joke that’s far too boring to be funny. His entire intellectual apparatus is a list of four or five factoids, constantly recited, as if he were a child asking, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” And like the “personalities” on the local news, he cannot ask a question without turning it into five questions, which he throws at his guests until there is no time left to answer.

You know how this works on the 10 o’clock news. Somebody interviews a witness to an auto accident:

Interviewer: Can you tell us what you saw tonight? I mean, what you saw while witnessing this horrendous accident? We’ve been told that the car might have been going as fast as 40, 50, even 60 miles an hour — is that what you saw?

Person being interviewed: Well, I . . .

Interviewer: It must have been a pretty frightening experience, right? I mean, how did you feel when you saw that car flying past you? Did you feel like, oh my! That car is gonna go right into that ditch? Or was it just going by so fast that you didn’t have time to think? I mean, was it just sort of a blur? Or what?

Person: Maybe. I was . . .

Interviewer: I’m sure it must have been a scary sight. It isn’t often that we see an accident on this scale, is it? I mean, we don’t see such things very often, do we?

Person: Well, I, uh . . .

Interviewer: But thank you for telling us your story. And now back to our studio. Brian?

Did I say the local news? I should have added ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, MSNBC . . . . The same interview style can be seen on all of them. But Hannity is about the worst. It goes something like this:

Hannity: Dr. Krauthammer [Charles Krauthammer, a literate man who is paid by Fox to subject himself to Hannity and other nitwits], would you please tell us, in your opinion, isn’t it obvious that President Trump is right when he says that the swamp should be drained? I mean, we’ve got intelligence agents that are spying on the president. We’ve got these scandals at the VA. We’ve got Bill Clinton, collecting money from the Chinese, the Saudis, and God knows who. We’ve got his wife, Hillary Clinton, who’s trying to stage a comeback. We’ve got all these things. So don’t you think it’s clear by now — as if it wasn’t clear before — that President Trump was right about draining the swamp?

Krauthammer: Well . . .

Hannity: I mean, isn’t it clear that the president was right when he said that the swamp should be drained?

Krauthammer: Actually, my idea . . .

Hannity: And wouldn’t you agree that the swamp is even larger than we thought way back in April, when I said, and I was the only one that was saying it way back in April, that something really needed to be done to reduce the size of this intrusive federal bureaucracy?

Krauthammer: As to the bureaucracy . . .

Hannity: So wouldn’t it be fair to say — to say, just on the elementary basis of fairness, honesty, and above all, of integritywouldn’t it be fair to say that President Trump was right? That he was right after all? About the swamp being drained?

Krauthammer: (Sighs) Yes. The president is right.

I invented that dialogue, because no one should be forced to read an actual transcript of Hannity, or of any of the countless interviewers who have adopted that style. One thing, however, is special to him, and it’s even worse than the ordeal-of-many-questions. It’s his addiction to the word “now.” On March 20 — a day chosen at random — I listened to the opening monologue on Hannity’s television show. It lasted about four minutes, when you subtract the news clips. During those four minutes he started nine sentences with now. If he were a mystic, I would say he was living in the eternal present. But he simply doesn’t know any better, and apparently no one will tell him. I call that dumb.

Now, contrary to popular belief, there are as many ways of being dumb as there are ways of being smart, and one of them is to assume that you’re so smart that nothing you do could possibly be dumb. My example today is Rachel Maddow, the leading or second-leading personality on MSNBC. I have heard friends say, “I don’t like her, but I have to admit she’s smart.” No, you don’t have to admit that. Please cite one intelligent thing she has ever said.

The problem with smirkers is that they actually believe in their own superiority, and it can be a dangerous thing to believe in something that doesn’t exist.

All right, we’ve gotten that out of the way. Why then does she have an audience? Well, as Bob Beckel has shown for the past million years, and Bill Moyers showed before him, and Gore Vidal showed even before him, it’s fairly easy to get an audience by turning bigotries into passwords. A password is not an argument or a fact; it’s just something insiders use to show they’re insiders. It may be nothing more than a gesture. In politicized news reporting, one of the most common passwords is a simple, even a silent indication that everyone who disagrees with you and the other kids in your club is a philistine, a yahoo, a hopeless illiterate, a fascist. You don’t need to know any facts; you don’t need to master any arguments; you certainly don’t need to read a book or research a field of history (although you can retail bogus history if you want to); you just need to say a few abusive words. Or flash an elitist smirk. Then other people who have nothing to offer but a bias and a smirk will see it, understand it, and feel honored to be members of your club — the club of the intellectuals.

Thus Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert, and Rachel Maddow, whose basic function is to read something, pause, smile in a superior way, and perhaps add “Really?” or “This is real; this is happening.” And that’s it; that’s the intellectual climax.

The problem with smirkers is that they actually believe in their own superiority, and it can be a dangerous thing to believe in something that doesn’t exist. That’s what Maddow should have discovered, but perhaps did not, when she managed to alienate large parts of her audience (which was only a small niche audience to begin with) by her flop with the Trump tax returns.

Hack news writers are smarter than Rachel Maddow, but not smart enough to understand that readers can see the propagandist behind the smirk.

As you recall, someone gave her a copy of two pages of President Trump’s federal tax returns for 2005. It showed him paying a respectable amount of tax, about twice as much, percentage-wise, as was paid by Bernard Sanders (scourge of the rich, friend of the working class). But instead of registering disappointment that she might, after all, have been wrong in assuming that Trump is a crook and a traitor and that’s why he won’t release his returns, Maddow decided simply to act as if some climactically horrible thing must be in those returns, even though it wasn’t. She advertised her timed release of the returns as if police were scheduled to appear at the end of the show and cart Trump off to jail. Even after the White House preempted her by releasing the disappointing information, her hype continued. Promising that she was just about to reveal her big discovery, she smirked her way through the first 20 minutes — 3,500 words — of her program, prattling about the damaging things that tax returns, of some kind, might possibly show, in some way.

It’s unfair to sample Maddow’s remarks; you need to read them for yourself in their entirety. But here is my favorite passage:

Couldn’t the tax returns sort this out for us?

If there are inexplicable dumps of foreign money into the president’s coffers that cannot be explained in normal business terms, that’s potentially a huge problem for somebody who’s serving as president of the United States, right? I mean, the interest in Trump’s tax returns is not a picayune thing. It’s not a partisan thing.

If people, if interests have inexplicably given him a lot of money in recent years, why did they do it? What do they want for that money now? Is the president in a position where we need to watch to make sure he is not paying off his past benefactors with our country’s resources, with U.S. policy, with decisions he can make as president? That’s part of why we need to see his tax returns.

And I raise this issue of this particular Russian oligarch, Dmitry Rybolovlev, I’ve been practicing, Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev. Rybolovlev? Rybolovlev.

Isn’t that cute? But is it smart? No, it is not. It’s the kind of dumb thing that dumb people do when they cannot conceive the possibility that they are not the smartest people in the world.

Hack news writers are smarter than Rachel Maddow, but not smart enough to understand that readers can see the propagandist behind the smirk. Evidence appears in the childish political attacks of which the “Top Stories” on Google News — News, mind you — increasingly consist. Here’s the array of headlines at 10:50 on the morning of March 16 (again, my choice was random):

Washington Post – 2 hours ago

If you're a poor person in America, President Trump's budget proposal is not for you. Trump has unveiled a budget that would slash or abolish programs that have provided low-income Americans with help on virtually all fronts, including affordable . . .

Related Donald Trump »President of the United States »United States Environmental Protection Agency »
Pelosi: Trump budget a 'slap in the face' - The Hill
Democrats rush to turn Trump's budget cuts against him - Politico
Highly Cited: Donald Trump Budget Slashes Funds for EPA and State Department - New York Times
Most Referenced: America First - The White House - The White House
Opinion: Trump's Ridiculously Skinny Budget - U.S. News & World Report
In Depth: Trump Budget Cuts to Scientific, Medical Research Will Have 'Devastating' Effect: Experts - NBCNews.com

Whoever writes and arranges these headlines thinks he is very smart, very smart indeed — putting out propaganda garbed as news and assuming that none of us in the hinterland will hitch up our jeans, scratch our noggins, and mutter to ourselves, “Gee golly, all this slashin’ an’ slappin’ an’ puttin’ po’ fo’ks down in the dirt an’ devastatin’ sci-unz an’ med’cine. . . . Guess them kids that write the nooz back in Noo York City really hate that Mr. Trump.” Which is what the normal, non-dialectical reader concludes, and seeks news elsewhere.

This kind of “news” isn’t even new. A little later on March 16, a picture turned up next to “Top Stories,” showing a woman in a Big Bird costume, parading “in support of public broadcasting.” She held a sign saying, “Keep your mitts off me!” — an apparent protest against Trump’s plan to cut support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which employs Big Bird (or the other way around, because Big Bird scratches up more than enough money to support himself independently of government handouts). Yet when I looked at the photo credit, I found that the picture was taken in 2012.

One mark of a dumb writer who thinks he’s smart is overkill. When people pile up redundant abuse, it’s often because they’re dumb enough to think that otherwise, their readers would be too dumb to get the point. Thus the Washington Post, in a Google Top Story from 6:35 p.m. on March 17:

Trump drags key foreign allies into controversy over unproven wiretap claims

Washington Post – 46 minutes ago

President Trump's unproven allegation that his predecessor wiretapped Trump Tower in New York ahead of the election blazed a new path of political disruption Friday as he dragged two foreign allies into his increasingly thin argument that he is right.

Emphasis added — I’m sure you wouldn’t have gotten the point unless I’d italicized those words. I love the image of world politics being disrupted by Trump’s claim that Obama’s spies listened in on him. Holy intelligence, Batman! But much quainter and more amusing is the image of yet another writer who believes that his attempts to manipulate the news will never be detected. It’s like a small child who imagines that he won’t be seen if he puts his hands over his eyes.

Lest anyone believe that this kind of smartiness exists only on the left, try this headline, from the rightwing Washington Times (March 21):

Obama tried to legalize migrant accused of murdering 15-year-old step-daughter

By a cunning feat of translation, “the policies of the Obama administration” becomes “Obama,” and “a numerous class of foreigners” becomes “migrant accused of murdering 15-year-old step-daughter.” I remain a vigorous foe of mass migration (pp. 26–32), but I wonder whether there is anyone childish enough to read that headline and believe that President Obama devoted his scheming time to protecting the alleged murderer of a young woman. Yet that is what the headline, in its childish stupidity, tries to suggest.

I’ve found CBS radio an unlimited source of such childishness, which happens, with them, to be consistently of the politically correct variety. On March 18, many hours after an attempted terror attack at Orly Airport in France, CBS radio was still identifying the culprit only as “a French citizen” whose motives were being investigated. In the news network’s peculiar dialect, “a French citizen” now means “an immigrant who proclaimed himself a religious terrorist” — because that’s what Ziyed Ben Belgacem, who shouted “I am here to die in the name of Allah,” actually was.

When people pile up redundant abuse, it’s often because they’re dumb enough to think that otherwise, their readers would be too dumb to get the point.

Here’s another example from CBS. After the first dismal day of the Gorsuch hearings, Charles (“Chuck”) Schumer, minority leader of the Senate, made another one of his attempts at coming up with a catchy phrase. He does this continually. This time, he said that Gorsuch had spent the day “playing dodgeball” with the senators’ questions. Of course, Gorsuch was just following the universal procedure of judges being examined by senators — refusing to state his position on specific issues that might come before him. But CBS was childish enough to take Schumer seriously. Its evening report on the Gorsuch hearings consisted of just one line: “Democrats are frustrated with Gorsuch, who dodged questions on divisive issues.” Divisive was pronounced “diviSSive,” as ignorant people always pronounce it when they’re trying to appear high-class.

Aren’t you glad that CBS News blandly assumed that its role is to sympathize with “Democrats” (i.e., Schumer) about Gorsuch “dodging” questions, without bothering you with information about the questions he “dodged”? What tickles me is the network’s altruistic horror of “divisive” issues — altruistic because CBS would have no politics to report if there were no divisions among us.

But of course it doesn’t report on much of anything. Like the other beings and entities I’ve noticed in this column, CBS is just doing what kids do. Children want to be doctors, so they play doctor. They want to be firemen, so they roll a plastic truck around the floor and try to scream like a siren. These other people want to be reporters and commentators and public figures, so they play “politics.” The difference is that real kids eventually grow up.




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Peaceful Riots and Inorganic Cows

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This is the great age of absurdity, of self-evidently ridiculous words that are meant to be taken seriously. The evidence is seemingly infinite, but let’s begin with cows.

The Oakland, California school district, seeking fresh challenges after its wonderful success in teaching students how to read, write, and understand mathematics, has decided to take on the threat of global warming. It has reduced the cheese and meat component of school lunches (please go elsewhere to learn what this has to do with “climate”), and it promises that whatever bovine products are ingested by its students will be derived from “organic dairy cows.”

The Oakland school district is willing to eat not only a peach but a fully organic cow.

The reader’s challenge is to picture an inorganic cow. What does she look like — a thousand-pound vacuum cleaner, slurping up grass? And how do you get the meat out?

Visualization is the key to writing. Remember the command of the New Critics: “Show, don’t tell.” You could say that Prufrock is a nice but feckless gentleman, but it’s more effective to show him wondering, “Do I dare to eat a peach?” Well, the Oakland school district is willing to eat not only a peach but a fully organic cow.

Senator Charles Schumer, a master of malaprop who is also the minority leader of the United States Senate, is constantly instigating Memorable Phrases. He has a childish glee about pushing such slogans as “Make America Sick Again,” which is what he claims Republicans want to do by repealing Obamacare. The slogan flopped; Americans failed to visualize that terrible ante-Obama time when the nation was sick. Yet Schumer joyously pursues his art. A recent attempt at immortal phrasing was his allegation (January 4) that a Republican plan to replace Obamacare “would blow a trillion dollar hole in the deficit.”

For some reason, the senator is always smiling, but he smiled with particular self-satisfaction when he said that. He thought he’d hit a home run. He hadn’t. Picture a deficit. Now picture a hole in the deficit. That’s not easy, but if you can, you’ll discover that it’s a good thing: a hole in the deficit means less of the deficit. So here was another absurd image, although no one seems to have questioned it.

This may be the place to bring up another visualization puzzle, one that I’ve been saving, like a good bottle of wine. It’s a delicious pre-election “news” story that appeared on October 22, on the PBS site. The story is entitled, “Clinton campaign ponders: What if Trump doesn’t concede?” It encourages the thought that Clinton would carry such Republican states as Georgia and Utah.

For some reason, the senator is always smiling, but he smiled with particular self-satisfaction when he said that.

Here’s what actually happened: Georgia — 51% Trump, 46% Clinton; Utah — 46% Trump, 27% Clinton, 22% McMullin (a Mormon spoiler candidate). The “red state strategy” was a tactic invented by Clintonworld to pump news venues such as PBS full of silly ideas (not hard to do) and cause panic among Republicans, who would then divert scarce resources to supposedly threatened states. But even PBS needs to cite some reason for its silly ideas. So, if anyone asked, For what reason could Democrats dream of taking Georgia with a candidate like Hillary Clinton? the answer was: Georgia “has had an influx of diverse voters in the Atlanta area” and is therefore “considered a future battleground state, with many Democrats comparing it to North Carolina.” The comparison was just; Trump won North Carolina by 4%, which was only a little less than the amount by which he won Georgia, and represented a sizable victory.

But what does “diverse voters” mean? Literally, it means nothing: diverse from what? All right-thinking Americans, however, should be able to interpret the code. Diverse means “good,” of course, but it also means “non-white”; and “non-white” means Democrat. Because diverse voters are all alike — right? In other words, they are the opposite of diverse. That’s the idea.

I’ll talk about blatant self-contradiction a little later. First I must entertain some other comments that make no sense but are supposed to be solemnly accepted. Here’s an example that centers around (please note my use of another common expression that is immune to visualization) the phrase on me, as in it’s on me. The it in this phrase is generally supposed to mean something like “the responsibility” or “the mistake,” although it invites earthier images. Anyway, please consider Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly’s declaration that the problems involving President Trump’s famous executive order — the one about entrance to the country by people from certain nations — were on him. In his testimony before Congress on January 7 Kelly showed a sad, indeed a revolting, affection foron me; it appeared to have become his go to phrase:

In retrospect, I should have, and this is all on me by the way, I should have delayed it just a bit in order to talk to members of Congress, particularly leadership of committees like this to prepare them. . . .

Lesson learned on me.

Lesson learned on me. Where is the lesson? It’s on him. No doubt pasted on him, somehow, somewhere — the lesson that has been learned. That’s what he literally said.

What does “diverse voters” mean? Literally, it means nothing: "diverse" from what?

Let’s move along to America’s sweetheart, Bill Gates. Patrick Quealy, one of this column’s most valued friends, writes in with sad news: Gates has issued another public statement. I can’t do better than to quote what Patrick said:

I have long believed that Bill Gates should not be listened to about technology, and I understand that many people disagree with me about this, but one would think we could all unite behind the idea that such a hapless twit is not an ideal person to lecture us about AIDS in Africa or education policy or whatever else his handlers have whispered in his ear that we ought to be concerned about.

To that end, I share this actual thing, reported on CNBC and elsewhere, that Gates said after meeting with Trump:

"I think that whether it's education or stopping epidemics, other health breakthroughs, finishing polio, and in this energy space, there can be a very upbeat message that his administration is going to organize things, get rid of regulatory barriers, and have American leadership through innovation be one of the things that he gets behind."

As Patrick understands, this kind of “exquisite noise” defies analysis and eludes visualization:

Is Gates cooking polio one more minute before it's ready to serve, and doing it in a particularly energetic kitchen? Or has he nearly completed a painting, a study of a viral particle, in a brightly lit studio? I don't know. But so far, from my admittedly privileged point of view, the worst thing about Trump's election is not any policy that has been proposed or implemented. It's that I had to read that f—ing sentence as a result of it.

I can’t improve on that. I can only add that Gates’ comments help me understand why the Help functions on Microsoft products are worse than the problems they’re supposed to solve.

Speaking of New Age benefactors: I’m sure we are all impressed by their ability to enjoy every word that comes out of their mouths. We have all noted the bovine (sorry — I’m still thinking about cows) acceptance of their words by the crackpot (I mean mainstream) media. For the next New Age item I am indebted to John and Ken, Southern Californians’ favorite talk show hosts. They are based in Los Angeles and pay special attention to the decline of that city, where ordinary living becomes less sustainable in direct proportion to the government’s concern with sustainability.

John and Ken recently uncovered a news story solemnly proclaiming the absurd fact that Los Angeles possesses a “chief sustainability officer for the office of the mayor” (yes, the office includes an officer), and that this man has

convened a group of about 20 civil servants and university scientists to determine how to bring the city’s temperature more in line with what it would have been if Los Angeles had never been developed.

The commune of experts reminds me of the passage in Ayn Rand’s Anthem about “the twenty illustrious men who had invented the candle.”But “what we are trying to do,” says the drone in charge of sustainability, “is create a research collective to help us reach our target. It’s a huge challenge.” An even huger challenge would be to explain (A) how we know what the temperature would have been if the city had never been developed and (B) how to convince anyone not on the city payroll or otherwise daft that a community clogged with traffic, bankrupted by welfare, terrorized by crime, and scammed by a vast, almost wholly ineffective school system can put up with perky little officials being paid to theorize about reducing the temperature. The Los Angeles Times pronounces the temperature idea “a noble goal.” That’s tough, skeptical news reporting for you.

The result was a press that remains the perfect image of the snobby, intellectually self-sufficient modern liberal reader, the only person who still cares what editorial boards and noted correspondents have to say.

Contrary to self-serving notions constantly floated by the mainstream media, America never did have a judicious, disinterested, Olympian press. During most of its history it had a press that was unapologetically partisan. Abuse and gross distortion were taken for granted. In the mid-20th century, the press tried to dignify itself by pretending that it was a profession like medicine or physics. The hallmark of professionalism was the science of moderating one’s language so that one could always say, “Who, me?” when confronted by examples of gross though covert partisanship. Its model was the man satirized by Pope, who “without sneering, taught the rest to sneer.” The result was a press that remains the perfect image of the snobby, intellectually self-sufficient modern liberal reader, the only person who still cares what editorial boards and noted correspondents have to say. This is a press that both sermonizes and believes its own sermons, never recognizing how radically they diverge, not just from fair play and a decent regard for truth, but from common sense and logic.

One example, of millions available, is an item in California Magazine; the subject of which is the mob violence that prevented gay libertarian — or is he a gay conservative or a gay rightwinger? — Milo Yiannopoulos from speaking at a duly authorized and paid-for event at the University of California, Berkeley. Summarizing this event, the magazine says:

Before Yiannopoulos could utter a single inflammatory syllable, the event was disrupted, by peaceful protestors at first, then by “black bloc” property-destroying saboteurs.

You’ve noticed how the author stacks the deck against the victim, whose remarks (which he never got to deliver) are assumed to have been inflammatory. It’s an interesting word, much in use right now. It suggests a quaint idea of innocence. It pictures normal listeners or readers as the kind of bottles that, as their labels warn, should not be shaken roughly or brought close to an open flame. Look out — these people may blow at any second! But it’s not their fault; their contents are just inflammable. Following this logic to its quick and sorry end, one finds the moral of the journalistic sermon: anyone who, like Milo, plays around with inflammable human material deserves whatever he gets.

It’s an interesting concept of individual responsibility, yet it does have a logic. There is something else in that sentence, however — something that has no logic at all. It’s the words “disrupted by peaceful protestors.” One doesn’t expect violent self-contradiction from self-righteous smugness, but here it is. And it has become so common that most of the people to whom I showed those words reacted at first without any sense that something odd was happening. It took them a while to recall that, hey, there is no way that someone who disrupts a peaceful event is a peaceful protestor.

This is a flat contradiction in terms, so flat that you never see it outside the context of leftwing agitprop — or mainstream reporting. In normal life, no one imagines that a gang of people who walk into a busy intersection and force traffic to stop, in order to accomplish some purpose of their own, are doing something peaceful. Yet when this happened in downtown Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day, as part of a protest aimed (ridiculously) against the building of a pipeline 1,500 miles away, the demonstrators were reported to be peaceful. The same adjective is used for everyone who stops subways, occupies public squares, blocks freeways, enters other people’s offices and has to be carried out — the list is long and constantly growing. This is not peace, any more than it is peace when somebody blocks your driveway, enters your house, sits on your furniture, tries to prevent you from entering, and refuses to leave. Few of the demonstrators appear to believe their actions are peaceful — but the mainstream media do, even when the demonstrations are plainly directed against the freedom of speech that the media pride themselves on exemplifying.

One doesn’t expect violent self-contradiction from self-righteous smugness, but here it is.

On February 16, President Trump gave a press conference in which he excoriated the media for their unfairness to him. The unfairness is real, and deserved to be noticed, but I was struck by two other features of the event. One was my difficulty in locating any of the president’s comments that amounted to a complete statement. There might be a subject — but where was the verb? There might be a transitive verb, but where was the direct object? There were allusions, but what were they alluding to? You can get tired of this kind of thing, and I rapidly did.

But the second thing that impressed me was the fact that I kept on listening to the diatribe. It may have been a cheap pleasure, but it was pleasure nonetheless, just to listen to the crude and obvious smugness of the press get its due reward in the crudeness of its rejection. I think that most listeners felt that way. I can’t imagine that many of them, even if they happened to be modern liberals, were overwhelmed with sympathy for the press. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer wrathful, unformed sentences to the imbecile completeness of disrupted by peaceful protestors?




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2016 — Reaching Out to an Iconic Year

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Isabel Paterson said, “What this country needs is a lot less of all sorts of things” (see our October 1993 issue, p. 39). She was mainly concerned about political agencies and political schemes, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind her observation being applied to words as well. This country needs a lot less of all sorts of words — most of them politically inspired, but bad words in any case.

Here are a few of 2016’s worst and most prominent verbal offences. I am indebted for some of them to the advice of readers, but I won’t credit these friends by name. I don’t want them to be criticized — or, to use the vernacular of 2016, I don’t want them to get death threats from haters and Nazis.

On haters and Nazis, see below. My list is alphabetical, and it starts with:

An abundance of caution. Before 9/11, this phrase — once shy, legalistic, recherché — was willing to appear in public only about once a decade. Now it is in the mouth of every hack official who decides, for no reason at all, to inconvenience or endanger his fellow citizens. On January 6, an insane person shot up the baggage lobby at the Ft. Lauderdale airport. He was immediately arrested. But passengers who had already cleared security were still held captive, without baggage, without food, without restrooms, for at least five hours. From time to time, medics showed up to cart one of these caution-damaged passengers away. There was no abundance of caution about heart attacks or ruptured bladders. Half of the airport didn’t reopen until 24 hours later, at which time it was discovered that innocent people had lost 20,000 items of luggage, pieces of identification, and so on. This shows what an abundance of caution can do. I suggest alternative and more accurate expressions: an abundance of stupidity or an abundance of arrogance.

Artists. This term should be retained for people who actually create art, as opposed to people who just decide to call themselves artists. Such artists are, almost invariably, people who screech or bellow popular music or do visual art that resembles, in the late Nikita Khrushchev’s words, “something that’s left behind after a child has — pardon the expression — done its business.” Real artists call themselves painters or singers or sculptors or writers or composers, not generic artists. They are concerned with what they create, not with the kind of titles they can procure from agents, marketers, or peers — a peer being someone who gives you an award or serves as a peer reviewer when you’re trying to get a grant. Such awards, such artists, and such peers have multiplied greatly since tax money started being used to fund almost anyone and anything capable of irritating old-fashioned (i.e., sensible) minds with the latest revival of Dada and other remains of the Great War avant-garde.

Is uniting any better than dividing? If you answered Yes to that, you are being an idiot: it’s a meaningless question.

Death threats. For the past year or so, everyone who makes a public fool of himself — by, for instance, harassing other people about their political beliefs — has responded by demanding sympathy because of the death threats he has therefore received. Hard evidence is seldom offered for the existence of these threats, partly because no one in the media asks for evidence and also, probably, because the threats either don’t exist or exist in some such form as “I don’t like you” or “You are an imbecile” or the still more heinous “Why don’t you just grow up?” We must remember that for some people, growing up would be worse than death. But it isn’t just individual idiots that receive death threats. It’s idiot institutions, too. If some 14-year-old phones a death threat to P.S. 38, a superintendent with the aforementioned abundance of caution will lock down every school in the district, thus justifying the three press conferences he and the police chief and the mayor have been dying to hold. It’s one small step for safety, one giant leap for self-congratulation. But what else are schools for?

Divisive, used of persons whom one dislikes, and when so used pronounced di-VISS-ive, with a facial expression suggesting unanimous condemnation by the faculty of Harvard College. Americans supposedly do not want to be di-VISS-ive. But is uniting any better than dividing? If you answered Yes to that, you are being an idiot: it’s a meaningless question. Yet people who rant against divisiveness are not precisely idiots. They are aspiring social strategists. Their strategy is to infuriate people who disagree with them and then to remark that these people are responding divisively, thus tricking them into surrendering.They may also lecture them about the importance of reaching out to one’s opponents, building bridges, healing wounds — in short, doing the opposite of what they themselves are doing. Clearly, this is a strategy adopted by cynics who realize that there is nothing to be said for their own positions and are trying to win by sapping their opponents’ self-respect. If my comments on this issue are divisive, make the most of it.

Get and got, as in “I get it,“ used as the introduction of a counterargument, or “You got this,” used as a means of encouragement. The next time someone tries to inspirit you by claiming that you got this, you should reply, “I get it: you’re illiterate.”

Give back, as in “It’s Christmas, and many people are taking this occasion to give back to the community.” At Christmas, 2016, I received precisely that message from an organization to which I routinely give — combined with the suggestion that I engage in the national orgy of giving back by sending some more of my money. I replied, in part: “I have nothing to give back. I have earned what I own. No one — least of all you — has given it to me. I give because I want to give, not because I think I have some obligation to do so. I don't like the implication, and I suggest that you will get more money, from me and others, by abandoning it.” I received no reply; nobody gave back to me.

The next time someone tries to inspirit you by claiming that you got this, you should reply, “I get it: you’re illiterate.”

Going forward, moving forward, as in, “What is our plan, going forward?” These expressions appear to have originated among government bureaucrats and to have been spread by political speeches. They now appear wherever people wax pompous about implementing their agendas. The phrases in question are usually plunked into a sentence with as little regard for grammar as you see in the example I quoted. According to that sentence, what exactly is going forward? We are, surely; yet “we” is not in the sentence, although “our” is. But no matter who or what is going on its merry way, I’m sitting this one out.

Hate speech, haters, etc. I assume you’ve noticed that people who habitually employ these terms tend strongly to be the biggest haters you know. The observation is substantiated by the violent response that some of them are making to the fall election. Of course, there is never any reason to punish people — verbally or legally — for not liking others. When haters become physical harmers, there are plenty of means to punish them; but does anybody, not a moral fanatic, care whether the guy who assaulted him and stole his money hates him, or whether a guy spewing political obscenities also feels hatred? The hate vocabulary is just a way of insulting the people you hate, because they haven’t done anything that merits any other kind of punishment.

Icon, as in conservative icon, icon of the Civil Rights Movement, Hollywood icon, pop music icon, and the like.Icon does have some useful meanings. It means a religious picture. It means those little blibs and blobs you see on a computer screen. It can refer to passages in a work of literature that, like pictures in a church, symbolize a set of values and make them memorable. All these things can be called icons. But what does that have to do with Madonna? Icon has become a word that means “famous” and “good.” Often it just means “good.” The wordis always an honorific; headlines never say, “Joe Blow, Icon of Crime, Dead at 96.” Indeed, icon is most useful for what can be called merit-smuggling — the awarding of unearned value. (See legendary, below.) When you encounter an obit for some iconic figure of whom you never heard, it’s probable that this is nothing more than a posthumous attempt to manufacture greatness. Such is commonly the case with recently deceased activists for discredited, usually communist, causes.

Issues, as in the ad that advises you to “help defend against those digestive issues,” meaning “use our brand of laxative”; or in the frequently heard complaint “my son has issues,” meaning unspecified psychological problems; or in the cry of the chronically outraged, “I have issues with that.” Issues seems to have arisen in the politicization of feeling that was the legacy of 1960s radicalism, whence it spread to political discourse generally and now to every phrase that gestures at a difficulty, problem, illness, or complaint.Look: if you need a laxative, take it; if somebody has a problem, say what it is; if you ‘re angry, say what you’re angry about. But if you have a real issue, meaning something you seriously want to discuss (“I’m concerned about the issue of Medicare”), call that an issue and we’ll talk about it, not just fake some empty sympathy.

People who habitually employ "hate" and "hate speech" tend strongly to be the biggest haters you know.

Legendary. Ulysses is a legendary figure. Odin is a legendary figure. Cary Grant, as much as I like him, is not a legendary figure. For one thing, he really existed. For another, there are no legends about him. I don’t mean lies or little stories about things that probably never happened. I mean there is no legend of Cary Grant and the Golden Fleece. Cary Grant did not discover the Seven Cities of Cíbola, nor is he a figure in the Götterdämmerung. Debbie Reynolds was a good actress and a great dancer, but she was not the face that launched a thousand ships; pace the media, her death did not make her a legend. Real people do, sometimes, have whole cycles of false but romantic stories associated with them. In that sense, it is possible to discuss the legend of John F. Kennedy, although myth, a more neutral term, would be more appropriate. (Just in case you’re wondering, I explored this matter in an article called “The Titanic and the Art of Myth”: Critical Review [January 2003] 403-434.) One can also talk about the legend of Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman, 1774–1845), a great man about whom many doubtful — not necessarily untrue — stories cluster. But Mick Jagger, Meryl Streep, and Mad Dog Mattis are not legends, even in their own time.

Nazi, fascist, KKK, and all their ideological and linguistic cousins. On January 11, President-Elect Trump likened the practices of US intelligence agencies to those of the Nazis. That did it for me — it was one Nazi too many. If you’re going to redefine your enemies so that everyone turns out that way, you’re showing a pathetic lack of imagination. Can’t you think of anything else to call people you don’t like? There’s another problem. If you use these words, you’ll soon have a pathetic lack of listeners. Almost everyone knows that Hitler is dead.

Parse, as in “parsing the press secretary’s statement, one finds . . .” What one finds is that the press secretary intentionally suggested (without literally stating) a meaning that the audience might swallow but that could be denied if the audience finally choked on it. That is clearly objectionable, but what is the objection to using the word parse for the game of creating or interpreting such a statement? It is the same objection I would lodge to calling calf testicles prairie oysters. Parse is a term of grammatical art; it comes from a much more refined environment than that of its currently popular use, which is understanding and appreciating doubletalk. People who parse politicians’ statements are ordinarily changing the subject from the politicians’ tricks to their own equally cynical, and equally cheap, cleverness. Parse is a flower that grows on dung heaps.

Passed (a euphemism for died). The original of this expression was passed away, itself a euphemism for deceased, which was a euphemism for died, but at least potentially meaningful in the context of an assumed belief in the afterlife. Passed is, perhaps, like season’s greetings, an attempt to escape from any offensive expression of religious convictions. But the residue makes even less sense than the original. If you passed, where did you pass to? These days, people don’t even pass away. And like many other bad children, this expression is trying to kill its parent. In 2016 I started hearing passed ten times more frequently than passed away.

Passion. In an omnipresent television advertisement, a man speaks of his wish for a shirt that you don’t have to tuck in. “This to me became my passion,” he says. Well, enough said.

Reach[ed] out to. Until approximately November 15, 2015, this was a moderately expressive phrase for moderately unusual acts of communication, accompanied by unusually strong emotions: “My sister and I had a fight, but later she reached out to me, and now I think it’s OK”; “The priest reached out personally to the homeless people in the neighborhood.” Then, suddenly, and for no reason at all, the phrase became equivalent to sent a routine request, called in an idle moment, asked how late the cafeteria was open, bothered me with pictures from his summer vacation. The confusion between the first kind of meanings and the second says a lot about the pompous way in which Americans are learning to treat their ordinary affairs (see passion, above).

If you’re going to redefine your enemies so that everyone turns out to be a Nazi, you’re showing a pathetic lack of imagination.

The slash, as in hopes/fears, requests/complaints, liberty/democracy, and so forth. I want you to look at this little article from January 4 of the present year. You won’t get through it, because it’s the most boring thing ever written, except for any of Hillary Clinton’s speeches. It’s a farewell letter written by the British ambassador to the European Union. Yeah, you’re asleep already. And it gets worse. The reason I’m bringing this up is that the man starts his almost incredibly prolix message, in which every sentiment is repeated at least five times, with a prominent slash:

Dear All,

Happy New Year! I hope that you have all had/are still having, a great break.

Probably he thought it would be good to allow for every possibility. He wanted to be inclusive. Maybe some people were still having a good time; maybe, for some other people, the good times had passed. He couldn’t decide. Yet he was addressing “All.” What to do? And there is also the possibility that he didn’t know what day it was. Whatever. When in doubt, use a slash.

Poor Sir Ivan Rogers. But this is the problem of all who slash: they can’t decide whether it’s yesterday or today, good or bad. They can’t decide whether they’re talking about politics or economics, or politics and economics. So they write yesterday/today, political/economic, good/evil. In the same way, Daniel Webster cried, in the peroration of his second reply to Hayne:

When my eyes shall be turned to behold for the last time the sun in heaven, may I not see him shining on the broken/dishonored fragments of a once glorious Union; on States dissevered/discordant/belligerent. . . . Let their last feeble/lingering glance rather behold the gorgeous ensign of the Republic, now known/honored throughout the earth, still full high advanced, its arms/trophies streaming in their original luster, not a stripe erased/polluted, nor a single star obscured . . . but everywhere, spread all over in characters of living light, blazing on all its ample folds, as they float over the sea/land, and in every wind under the whole heavens, that other sentiment, dear to every true American heart: Liberty/Union, now/forever, one/inseparable!

Inspiring, isn’t it, what you can do with a slash?

In fact, I’m too inspired to continue. I’ve had enough for now.

Just one more thing: have you noticed how many of the atrocities I’ve been examining in this column have emerged from the field of politics, or have flourished best in that environment?

You may think that this is simply because I’m not hip to all the cool new lingo, in which I could have discovered many strange expressions that have nothing to do with politics. If you think that, you have a point — but how much harm is done by saying that somebody you admire is chill, or that it’s been a long time since you hung with him? Not much. I’m reluctant to add such small, merely recreational linguistic experiments to my repudiation list. And it’s true that passed has practically nothing to do with politics, although it easily made the list. But take a look at the other items, and I think you’ll see fresh evidence for my conviction that the American political establishment, which is the world’s biggest supplier of words, is also the world’s biggest supplier of idiotic words.




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You Can Write Whatever You Want

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Word Watch has entered its fifteenth year of operation — a good time to take up a subject that deserves to be addressed, especially on behalf of a libertarian audience. I do this from time to time, in various ways, but I haven’t done it for quite a while. So here goes.

There are two ways of discussing grammar and usage. One is descriptive: you try to describe how a language “really is,” right now. The other is prescriptive: you try to say what the language should be. Almost all academic linguists, and some academic grammarians, take the descriptive, supposedly scientific course. This column, however, is strongly prescriptive. It tries to describe what’s going on, but it also tries to state where it went wrong (or, occasionally, right). But rules and prescriptions — even advice — can be hard to sell to libertarians.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed.

“Why,” readers sometimes ask, “do I have to bother with rules? Why can’t I say and write whatever I want, so long as my audience understands me? And who has the right to make these rules, after all?”

Those are good questions, and they deserve good answers. Here they are.

It’s true; you don’t have to bother with rules. By right you are free to express yourself in whatever way you want. If you want to say, “I think everybody should, like, go ahead and, like, you know, vote for the, like, party of freedom?, I mean the, you know, Libertarian Party?” you can do so, and a normal audience will understand what you’re driving at, despite the pointless interjections and the irritating “uptalk.” But that doesn’t mean that no one should have the temerity to suggest that you sound like an idiot.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed. According to a creed that was temporarily espoused about 40 years ago (and probably 40 years before that, too), teachers should not presume to “correct” their students’ work; they should simply encourage them to abandon their fears and write. If you did enough writing, you would turn out well. Or good. Or something. Old-fashioned teachers were satirized for penning such insolent marginalia as, “I know what you’re trying to say, but it’s not quite coming through.” How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying? But of course that’s nonsense. If a young American writes, “The judge was so disinterested that she fell asleep,” you’ll know what he meant, and you’ll also know that the word he needs, whether he knows it or not, is “uninterested.” You’ll know it because you’re more competent than he is.

Well, who has the right to say that uninterested is the right word? People use uninterested and disinterested interchangeably, all the time.

Yes, that’s a description of what they do. They also say, “I seen you crossing the street,” all the time. There remains the question of what they ought to do. Anyone has the right to decide that question, and be correct or incorrect about it, just as anyone has the right to decide whether Raphael was a better artist than the four-year-old next door.

How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying?

In respect to Raphael and the preschool kid, the best qualified judges will be people who have seen lots of art, and lots of kinds of art, people who are familiar with the various effects that art tries to achieve and who are perceptive enough to notice whether those effects actually are achieved by any given work. Such judges may well say that the kid’s paintings project an immediacy that Raphael never achieved (or wanted), but they will also say that when it comes to the art museum, or the narthex of the church, Raphael is better.

These people’s judgments will carry authority, but the issue is never who shall judge but how the judgment is made. If you have a competent understanding of the resources of the English language, you know that uninterested and disinterested are traditionally considered virtual opposites of each other, and you recognize that the distinction between them continues to be valuable. It allows people to say such things as, “The judge was admirably disinterested, but she was woefully uninterested in the case before her.” No one has authority over the English language — not even Webster’s Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage — but every informed and rational judgment is authoritative.

This is no tyranny. It is a vindication of the individual mind.

Having said all this, I don’t want to sacrifice too much to the idea that, yes, we can understand you, no matter how ugly we consider your self-expression. Sometimes — not infrequently — we cannot understand you, because your ugliness gets in the way.

On August 11, a good example came into my possession. I was on a ship off the eastern coast of Canada, and my internet connection didn’t work. Actually, I was too cheap to make it work. Anyway, I picked up a copy of the news digest that the New York Times provides for the maritime trade, and there I found an article about James K. Galbraith, an economist who gives zany advice to people in Greece. Apparently the advice is to initiate the millennium by inflating the currency enough to repudiate the nation’s debts. If I’m wrong about this, I’m sorry; I’m just trying to interpret the Times account of his notions:

Galbraith . . . argued passionately that a new currency would wash away the country’s debts, solve Greece’s competitiveness problem and ultimately create what he called a “good society.” A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks, he had drawn up a contingency plan for Greece under [finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis’s direction, in case the country was forced to leave the [euro] currency zone by its creditors.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But there’s a crucial grammatical error in there. It occurs in the second sentence. It’s a dangling modifier. “A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks” is supposed to fit with or “modify” something else in the sentence, but what? The normal candidate would be the noun or pronoun immediately following the modifier. In this sentence, that candidate is “he.” Unfortunately, “he” is not a “step.” So the modifier is dangling, apparently unattached to anything else.

Many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence.

Now, the English, and especially the British, language is full of dangling modifiers. They are widespread, but they are wrong. When you, as a reader, pay the kind of attention to sentences that any author would appreciate your paying, you try to visualize the author’s meaning. But when a sentence includes a dangling modifier, the resulting image is misleading or ludicrous. Steps don’t draw up contingency plans.

And here the dangling modifier creates a problem that is worse than aesthetic. It’s a conceptual problem: what is the step that most Greeks oppose? It is not, alas, Mr. Galbraith (“he”); many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence. Well, is it the “contingency plan”? Probably not. Schemes to get rich by welshing on your debts are usually pretty popular. OK. How about “a good society”? No . . . few people are “opposed” to anything like that.

We’re still searching for the “step.” But notice that now we’re trying to figure out what the passage means by using whatever we knew about the subject before we read the passage. We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

All right, suppose that the “step” to which most Greeks are “opposed” is “a new currency”? Maybe. Probably. But how can we be sure? No matter how free you are with your lingo, “currency” is not a “step.” And we reached our identification of “step” with “currency” only through the process of eliminating every other possibility. It’s conceivable that there is no “step,” that the passage is literally meaningless.

Writing of this quality hardly inspires confidence in the New York Times. It’s a harsh saying, and sometimes wrong, but it’s basically true: if you don’t reflect on the way in which you say things, the things you say are unlikely to be taken seriously.

That’s true about words that appear in professional jargon or regional dialects or purely colloquial language as well as about words embedded in formal written English. If you’re trying to talk like a millennial and you don’t recognize the difference between dude, bro, brother, and mate, you’re not going to be treated as reliable on most of the subjects you want to address. If you’re trying to make some intellectual contribution and you show that you don’t care, or maybe don’t know, about the rules of grammar, your readers will wonder, perhaps justifiably, whether you have anything to contribute. And if you, as an intellectual, turn out writing that’s as stiff as a board, people will begin to ask themselves whether you have the understanding of human beings, their likes and dislikes and ways of interpreting the world, that is necessary to most intellectual disciplines.

We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

I’m talking about what Aristotle called ethos — the perceived character of a speaker or writer. As Aristotle observes, if you don’t have a decent ethos you’ll have lots of trouble getting other people to listen to you and agree with you. But I’m also talking about what we moderns call empathy — human beings’ ability to imagine what others are like, what others are likely to feel, how others are likely to react to what we do or say. If you can’t summon enough empathy to look at your sentences and see whether your readers will receive them as clear communications or as verbal puzzles, you should stop writing until you’re in a better mood. If you insist on writing, “All taxpayers have been now directed to submit his/her forms to the nearest IRS/tax office,” you should have enough empathy to know that while most readers will understand your sentence, sort of, their attention will be fixed not on your meaning but on your annoying slash forms, your unidiomatic placement of words (“now”), and your odd switch from plural (“taxpayers”) to singular (“his/her”). You’re free not to realize that or to care about it, but don’t think you’ll emerge from that sentence with your ethos intact.

In July, the computers at Southwest Airlines failed, and hundreds of flights were canceled. Passengers were understandably unhappy, but the icing on their cake of fury — note: I have enough empathy to realize that you will realize that this is an awful metaphor; I ask you to have enough empathy to understand that the image is supposed to be amusing — the icing on their cake of fury, I say, was Southwest’s explanation of the affair, an explanation that the airline placed on an obscure website, which nobody ever goes to, an explanation headlined by these words:

Information Regarding Operational Impact of Technology Issues

Is there a man or woman on the face of the earth who would guess that this had anything to do with a canceled flight? Empathy? We don’t need no stinkin’ empathy. And is there a person on earth who, after finally getting the point, would retain any confidence in anything that Southwest might deign to say thereafter?

Proceeding to another sample of great corporate writing — an advertisement for the Viking line of cruise ships, which makes this claim:

Designed as an upscale hotel, Viking’s chefs deliver a superb . . . experience.

Here’s another dangling modifier: “designed as an upscale hotel.” It’s presumably the ship that’s designed that way, but ship is nowhere in the sentence. What the sentence literally means is that Viking’s chefs are designed as an upscale hotel.

It’s funny; you laugh. Then you wonder: if Viking’s spokesmen are so careless with words, are they also careless with meanings? Can it be that their messages are just so many phrases thrown at the audience, to see what will stick? Can it be that a Viking ship is not actually anything like an upscale hotel? But one thing is clear: no one at Viking imagines that readers will actually think about its messages.

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy.

Ethos and empathy . . . On July 22, President Obama made a statement in which he said that Donald Trump’s speech of the night before “just doesn’t jive with the facts.” The president said that twice. Of course, what he meant was “agree with the facts.” I know that. But the word that means “agree,” in this sense, is jibe, not jive. I understand that there are millions of people who don’t know the difference. Peace to all such. There are also millions of people who don’t realize that the past tense of “see” is not “seen.”

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy. He has, for instance, never mastered the like-as distinction or the not-so-subtle rules governing pronoun case (“just between you and I”). With him, lack of ethos is related, as it often is with lesser mortals, to a lack of empathy. He has evidently never asked himself whether there may be persons on this planet, and millions of them, who know more about grammar and usage than he does, so he has never felt the need to investigate these subjects.

“Well,” I hear some truly generous libertarians saying, “we all make mistakes.” Yes, we do. Indeed we do. And that’s the most important realization we can have about this subject. We all make mistakes. The question is whether we want to notice our mistakes and do something about them.




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