Riddles, Wrapped in Mysteries

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How in the world did this happen?

That’s a question I often ask myself when I read the news. When I ask it, I’m seldom reacting to the events reported. One can easily imagine what makes drunk drivers crash into trees, or political parties disgrace themselves before their constituents. But how in the world did the report end up that way?

On July 11, an inmate in the Berrien County, Michigan jail snatched a gun from an officer and began shooting people. Reporting on this event as it developed, the Washington Post went for some local color:

Video footage posted online that appeared to be from outside the courthouse in southwestern Michigan showed a litany of police vehicles with their lights flashing parked outside the building. . . .

The courthouse is located about 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, where an Uber driver killed six people in a shooting spree earlier this year.

It isn’t hard to see what went wrong with that first sentence. Somebody wanted to jazz it up, and he or she remembered that there was, somewhere in the dictionary, perhaps under the letter “l,” the word litany. Why not use that word? The reason not to use it was merely that it doesn’t mean a line of vehicles, or a line of any kind of objects. It means a series of things one says in church. Its use was, therefore, ludicrous in the extreme.

Oh well, bad guess. A couple of hours later, the sentence was revised to read: “Video footage posted online that appeared to be from outside the courthouse in southwestern Michigan showed numerous police vehicles, their lights flashing. . . .” In some dark cavern of the Washpo building, a graybeard had been found who actually knew what is the meaning of litany.

Did the Washington Post mean to suggest that Uber drivers from Kalamazoo infest the grounds of the Berrien County courthouse, waiting a chance at murder and mayhem?

But what about the second sentence? It was changed, too; the word located was excised: “The courthouse is about 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, where an Uber driver killed six people in a shooting spree earlier this year.” Well, that’s fussy, isn’t it? And it was a fussiness triumphant over meaning. No one addressed the issue of the strange, unfinished quality of the sentence as a whole.

What does it mean to say that the courthouse where an inmate tried to escape is 50 miles west of a town where an Uber driver started killing people at random because, according to him, his app told him to do it? What are we supposed to make of this peculiar lesson in geography? Did the Washington Post mean to hint that there was some hidden connection between events that happened 50 miles, 264,000 feet, away? Did it mean to suggest that Uber drivers from Kalamazoo infest the grounds of the Berrien County courthouse, waiting a chance at murder and mayhem? Or that the Berrien County inmate was an Uber driver in disguise? Or that southwestern Michigan is not, as it appears to be, a lovely champaign country of farms and woodlands — that it is instead a focus of violence in our modern world? Or are we simply to assume that the august editors of America’s second-ranking “intellectual” paper are unable to spot and remove a silly factoid extracted from Google Maps?

We will never know. On this point we must remain as ignorant as MSNBC alleged itself to be when it ran this headline during the terrorist episode in Dhaka on July 1:

Was the Bangla Desh attack premeditated?

Was it? Let’s see. . . . On the evening of July 1, five terrorists attacked a café frequented by foreigners, took hostages, and executed people who were unable to recite passages from the Quran. Twenty-nine people died. Might this event have been premeditated? Gosh, how could MSNBC, or anyone else, for that matter, possibly divine the answer to a question like that? You have to see how these things play out, wait for the investigation, call in the experts. Even then, you may never reach the definitive explanation. When you hear that a bunch of people have invaded a café and taken hostages, you shouldn’t rush to judgment about the way it happened. Even long afterward, you may still be asking, with Mrs. Clinton, "Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some foreigners? What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?"

But you can bet that if a bunch of Baptists, en route to some fundamentalist conclave, were stopped for speeding with an unlicensed gun in their trunk, not a minute would pass before MSNBC and all the rest of them would be talking about nothing except the vast rightwing conspiracy.

Of course, there are many things that American journalists neither know nor care about, even while feeling obliged to “report” them. One is the sickening number of murders, mainly of young black and Hispanic people, in America’s inner cities (i.e., cities that are completely dominated by Democrats). The statistics are sometimes given, the deaths are pronounced unfortunate, but no explanations are provided. May these terrible events have something to do with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, which were succeeded by a civil war within the young male populations most affected by them? Just a thought, which is one more thought than the Washington Post and the New York Times are willing to come out with. I don’t believe that calling these murders “gun deaths” qualifies as an explanatory thought. It qualifies only as willful ignorance.

This type of ignorance actually deepens when we turn to news reports on foreign people. I recently read a report on the tribal wars in South Sudan, a story that waited until paragraph 19 to indicate that the violence was occurring between members of different tribes. Readers were left to guess that tribal rivalry might conceivably be the cause of the terror that had been described in lavish detail by the first 18 paragraphs. No interest was expressed in exploring the idea.

May these terrible events have something to do with the War on Drugs and the War on Poverty, which were succeeded by a civil war within the young male populations most affected by them?

All right, you say, reporting on Africa has never been very interested, except when white people have been concerned. That’s a fact, although it’s not a fact to be proud of. But even big reports on big events in Europe are full of real or constructed ignorance.

A funny example was Christiane Amanpour’s alleged reporting on the Brexit vote for CNN. How this woman with the empty head and the foghorn voice ever got a job, much less managed to hold it for generations, is beyond me. But as the Brexit returns came in, she gave the most amusing of her many unconsciously amusing performances. Clearly shocked by results she did not desire and had not imagined, she mourned, she spluttered, she pontificated, she asked the hapless people she “interviewed” how it was possible that the voters should have ignored “all the experts”? Well, as demonstrated by the results of her “interviews,” if you don’t already know a thing like that, no one can explain it to you. And since she couldn’t understand the obvious answers to her endlessly repeated “experts” question, it would clearly have been hopeless for anyone to bring up the next point, which was why people like her should be regarded as experts in the first place, if they can’t conceive of anyone disagreeing with them.

A less amusing example of ignorance came from the Washington Post (which, I see, has emerged as the chief villain of this month’s column). The Post ran a long “report” on the sexual attacks perpetrated by men from Islamic countries, many or most of them “refugees,” during the 2015–16 New Year’s festivities in Germany. The events themselves were scandalous; even more scandalous was the subsequent cover-up by police and political authorities. At length, the terrible information came to light: hundreds of women had been attacked. And now, a still more terrible thing has been revealed: more than 1,200 women were attacked, by more than 2,000 men.

Even big reports on big events in Europe are full of real or constructed ignorance.

Somewhere, a sufficient explanation must exist for the fact that liberal media and public figures do everything they can to deflect blame from people (i.e., radical Muslims) who violently oppose the liberals’ most cherished values, people who persecute gays, victimize women, and systematically deny the rights of everyone who does not profess their religion. The fact is notorious, and since I do not have an adequate explanation myself, I will merely state that fact and comment on one of its worst effects, which is to obscure the distinction between barbarian fanatics, who commit horrible crimes, and modern, progressive, enlightened Muslims, who would not dream of doing so. To treat the members of a white supremacist church with the same sweet condescension that one extends to the nice ladies in the altar guild at St. Anne’s would be to demoralize the latter while inciting the former. This is obvious. It is something that everyone knows, or ought to know.

But here is the intellectual payoff (if you want to call it that) of the Washington Post’s report on the German liberals’ attempted cover-up of the events of New Year’s Eve:

The delay in communicating the extent of the New Year's Eve crimes [“delay in communicating” = “cover-up,” a word that appears nowhere in the report] is most likely due to a balancing act between the determination of the Cologne police force to not fuel tensions against refugees and the public expectation to fully reveal what happened that night.

That wad of words, so complicated, so self-conscious, so faux-judicious, virtually cries out, “How clever I am!” But again: how did it happen? Did anyone at the Post actually read that sentence? I mean, did anyone spend the 30 seconds necessary to determine whether it made sense? Not whether it was true, or even whether it employed good grammar — which it doesn’t — but simply whether it made any sense. The answer appears to be No.

What does the sentence say? It says that there were two things being balanced. One was the cops’ politically motivated determination (not just desire, but determination) to cover something up. The other was the public’s desire to know. And the result was that the cops covered something up. Where’s the balance in that? There isn’t any; the whole business about a “balancing act” is meaningless.

I hope I am right in suggesting that nobody read that sentence to see whether it had any meaning. The alternative — that somebody read it and thought it was right in every way and looked forward to readers’ being influenced by it — is almost too shocking to consider.




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They Couldn’t Have Said That!

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On May 27, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti announced that his city had received a grant of $9 million dollars to employ people from Los Angeles who have recently gotten out of prison and train them in “life skills.” I’ve published a book about prisons, and I still do research in that area. I’ve usually liked the convicts and ex-convicts I’ve met. I’m very much in favor of giving them the clichéd second chance, and I don’t think I’d have any more worries about employing one of them than about employing an otherwise similar person who had never been in prison. People who land in prison tend to be fairly young, and they are much less likely to commit crimes when they get older. Also, as a prison warden remarked to me, many convicts committed their crimes when they were drunk or high, and they’re different people when they’re not that way. So if they don’t go crazy with substances again, why not employ them?

Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

Nevertheless, I did have some problems with Garcetti’s glee over his $9 million grant, because the money came from CalTrans, the California state agency that is supposed to be maintaining our roads and is not, despite the fact that it constantly demands more money. The fact that the money came from CalTrans was obscured by news “reporting” that spoke about an “agreement” or “pact” between CalTrans and the city, or simply said that “between” them they would spend $9 million. I don’t think the source of the money was intentionally obscured; it was represented in that way because the news writers just didn’t care. What’s another $9 million of the taxpayers’ money? And who cares whether everyone in the state should pay for services to Angelenos, or just the Angelenos themselves?

More upsetting was the fact that nobody paid any attention to the strange things that Garcetti actually said in making his announcement — nobody, that is, except the “John and Ken Show,” an afternoon radio program that raucously exposes the misdeeds of California politicians. John and Ken ran and reran the audio of Garcetti’s remarks:

When we invest in people we don’t know where things will turn out. But when people have paid their debt to society, our debt of gratitude should be not just thanking them for serving that time, but allowing them a pathway back in. They will also have access to services from life skills training to cognitive behavior therapy. You can’t just give folks a job; you have to give services with the job.[emphasis added]

Who would say such a thing? And who would neglect to mention it, if they were reporting on a politician — the mayor of the nation’s second largest city — who said it? The answer: people who have spoken and listened to the language of political correctness for so long that they no longer recognize its most ridiculous extremes as . . . well, ridiculous — abnormal, absurd, insulting to the intelligence. The episode provides an index of how low the American “elite” has sunk. Not only is the elite not really the elite — it seldom is, anywhere or at any time — but it has become insane.

A few days after the “John and Ken Show” — which happens to be the most popular public affairs show in Southern California — started making fun of Garcetti, he grabbed an interview with a “John and Ken” reporter and said, pleasantly, that he (the mayor) had been confused. His remarks had been delivered on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, and they had gotten mixed up with thoughts about members of the military for whose service we should be thankful. To my mind, this just made things worse. Garcetti’s excuse was that he had, sort of naturally, confused the idea of “service” when it applies to fighting for one’s country with the idea “service” when it applies to being sent to prison.

Oh well. From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same. Should I bring up the “workplace violence” at Ft. Hood?

Let’s follow the path from the ridiculous to the truly degraded. The man who shot up a gay nightclub in Orlando was a Muslim fanatic who repeatedly claimed religion as his motivation. Is there any mystery here? No. This was a religious crime, by now familiar to the whole world. For the editorial board of the New York Times, there’s no mystery either — except that it is somehow plain to the Times that Republican politicians were to blame for the atrocity:

While the precise motivation for the rampage remains unclear, it is evident that Mr. Mateen was driven by hatred toward gays and lesbians. Hate crimes don’t happen in a vacuum. They occur where bigotry is allowed to fester, where minorities are vilified and where people are scapegoated for political gain. Tragically, this is the state of American politics, driven too often by Republican politicians who see prejudice as something to exploit, not extinguish.

This sort of thing is beneath contempt, and almost beneath comment. The solemn denunciation of hate is itself an obvious product of hate. But hate is nothing compared to the cheap rhetorical tricks by which the writers try to develop reasons for their gross and obvious lie. The tricks are clear evidence that the authors know they are lying and are proud of their ability to continue lying without, as they imagine, getting caught.

From a great distance — the distance that “elite” speakers of the language have put between themselves and the rest of us — a lot of different things can look the same.

Do atrocious crimes happen in a vacuum? No. Do they tend to happen where bigotry is allowed to fester, minorities are vilified, etc.? Yes. And are there politicians in America who exploit prejudices (besides the prejudices that sway the New York Times)? Why, yes. Therefore, it was American politicians, specifically Republican politicians, who incited Mateen’s murders. A clever arrangement of thoughts!

Well, the authors must think so. It must never occur to these brilliant people that readers, even their readers (the numbers of whom are diminishing every hour), could possibly respond by saying, “Stop! Wait a minute! Wasn’t the atmosphere for this kind of slaughter the bigotry, vilification, and scapegoating practiced without let or shame by the radical Islamists whom Mateen claimed as his inspiration?” Which of course it was. Which of course it continues to be, not just in America but in Islamist regimes throughout the world, many of them the friends of the Times’ good friends. Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing. This is a vacuum that the Times can’t imagine anyone noticing.

Another view of the vacuum was provided by the Times’ idol and oracle, President Obama, in his recent discourse on the demands by people on the right, and people with sense, that he call Islamic terrorism “Islamic terrorism,” instead of “terror,” “hate,” and other unmodified, meaningless terms. These demands, alas, were not prompted by Word Watch, which has always wanted people to talk so that other people can understand what they’re saying. But the demands made sense. They were prompted by a realization that the president, like any other head of a vast bureaucracy, commands the apparatus as much by what he does not say as by what he actually does say. There are many indications that by refusing to make radical Islam a concern of law enforcement, by in fact saying that terrorism has nothing to do with Islamand that ISIS itself is not Islamic. Obama sends government agencies out on a futile search for “hate” instead of a search for certain specific fanatics who want to kill other people.

Finally, on June 14, faced with a catastrophic example of what he must have wanted to call nightclub violence, Obama meditated upon the weighty problem of nomenclature. Since he is a constant public speaker and an alleged author, his ideas about words would surely be worthy of consideration. And they are. “Calling a threat by a different name,” he pronounced, “does not make it go away.”

Reading that, one remembers the old chestnut about whether Senator McCarthy had any sense of decency. “Have you no logic, sir,” one wants to say. “At long last, have you no logic?” If calling a threat by a different name doesn’t make it go away, why do you insist on calling Islamic terrorism by so many different names?

The truth, I’m afraid, is that somehow such people as the president and the editors of the New York Times worry more about the tender feelings of radical Muslims — who violently oppose every value that the modern liberals profess — than about safeguarding the lives of normal Americans, gay or straight, white or black, Muslim or non-Muslim. This ruthlessness of sentiment is something I cannot explain.

Not since the Times’ smug defenses of Stalinism has there been such an abjectly unconscious confession of the emptiness of modern liberal thought and writing.

We saw it again, in a particularly ridiculous way, on June 20, when the FBI, under orders from the Department of Justice, issued a “transcript” of the Orlando assassin’s electronic conversations during the atrocity. The transcript was “redacted.” For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, redacted means censored. The conversations were long, but practically none of the words appeared in the transcript. All possible references to radical Islamic contacts and inspirations were removed. The alleged reason was that the government didn’t want to “propagandize” for the radicals, and that it did not want the surviving victims to be “retraumatized.”

Either the Attorney General and her employees believe this or not. If not, they’re lying. If so, they have a very strange idea of the effects of public discourse. If someone goes into a nightclub and starts slaughtering people, and in the process claims you as his inspiration, is that a good notice for you? Doubtful. More doubtful is the notion that translating the assassin’s “Allah” as “God” will save the feelings of his victims. (Yes, “Allah” is a word for the more or less shared god of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but in English it is always and everywhere rendered as “Allah.”)

All this was so exceedingly ridiculous that the government relented and published another redaction, which it called unredacted. The government relented — but it did not repent. This version apparently still lacked much of the original, and it still rendered “Allah” as “God.” I have no questions to ask the government about God, but I would like to know what all those expurgated words may have been. I would also like to know — really know — what these strange officials have in mind. Unfortunately, all you get from thinking about this is the craving for a good stiff drink.

I don’t have a drink to offer you, but here’s some good news. Fox’s late-night comedy show, “Red Eye,” which rose to greatness under the wonderful Greg Gutfeld, is under new management (Greg got a one-man show), and it seems to be working out. Tom Shillue, the new host, maintains Greg’s style of humor, one element of which is a constant stream of clichés deployed in solemnly hilarious ways. When Greg wanted to refer to Obama, he used to say, in an ominous tone, “President Obama, if that’s his real name.” Now Tom is discussing “the reclusive billionaire, Donald Trump.” This kind of stuff goes by too fast for you to wonder, “Why am I laughing?” But it’s great and you don’t forget it.

Greg Gutfeld is a libertarian, and probably Tom Shillue is also, though I haven’t heard him say so. I wish there were more libertarians with a sense of humor. For a single, delicious moment I thought that Gary Johnson, Libertarian nominee for president, had one of those things. In a television interview on May 23, I heard him say, “Most people are libertarians; it’s just that they don’t know it.”

I thought that was hilarious. Imagine: a nation full of libertarians, almost none of whom ever manage to vote for the Libertarian Party! What are they thinking? Are they drunk? Stoned? Are they as illiterate as the thousands of Californians, some of them celebrities, who recently discovered that when they registered to vote as partisans of the American Independent Party, they weren’t actually registering as “independents”? Or are they playing their own massive joke on the politicians — consistently voting for principles they detest? The zany adventures of a wacky electorate!

But Johnson didn’t smile; he just kept talking as if this absurdity were true! I’ve heard him say it several times since, and I’ve been forced to conclude that he is only being funny in the way that politicians usually are funny — unconsciously.

For people blissfully unfamiliar with the lingo of self-important organizations, "redacted" means "censored."

The sad truth is that most Americans are not libertarians. They are the beneficiaries of a great libertarian tradition, inseparable from this noble nation, but they are not libertarians. They are libertarian about gun laws but not about drug laws. Or they are libertarian about taxes but not about gun laws or drug laws. Or they are libertarian about the internet but not about taxes or gun laws or drug laws or anything else. They are libertarian about X but not about Y through Z or A through W.

These proclamations of Mr. Johnson are either pious lies or self-deception. He’s a nice guy, so I strongly suspect the latter. But they are uncomfortably close to the perpetual declarations of the mainline politicians, who are always assuring us that “what the American people really care about” or “what the American people really want” is miraculously identical with what the politicians themselves want or care about. That’s one reason why there’s so little real argument in American politics. The strategy is not to say anything new, anything you might have to argue for, but simply to compliment the audience as fulsomely as you can, then slip offstage, bearing away as many votes as you’ve managed to collect. I can’t see any reason to vote for someone like that, except to keep someone worse from winning.

I’m sorry if I done Mr. Johnson wrong. If he’s got any amusing remarks lying around, I hope he’ll come out with them. We can use them right now.




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Duly Noted

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In my romantic moods I liken myself, as conductor of this column, to a lighthouse keeper on a distant isle. Picture him, if you will: scanning the waves, tending his lamp, doing his duty so that others, duly warned of danger, may safely reach their port. Alternatively, I see myself as a prison guard standing in his tower, wary and farsighted, watching to make sure that the criminals don’t run loose.

In short, this is a lonely job, and it can make you a little strange.

But to return . . . people with solitary occupations sometimes amuse their empty hours by keeping diaries or notes of the things they observe. And that’s what I do. Some of my notes find their way into the column right away. Others build up, and worry me. This is a good time to purge a few of them.

Any order will do, so I’ll start with:

1. Hillary Clinton, April 13, speaking at a conference hosted by Al Sharpton, and addressing the problem of white people, of which she is one: “We need to recognize our privilege [she said], and practice humility.” A good thought. And if either she or her host wants to start practicing humility, none of us will stand in the way. Start now! By the way, don’t you love seeing pictures of politicians that show them as they really look? If you do, you’ll enjoy this link to Mrs. Clinton’s remarks.

Put this down as one more instance of a common phenomenon: news writers simply miss the glaring and immediate contradictions that news readers see at once.

2. Headline, Washington Post, March 22: “Infamous ex-Toronto mayor Rob Ford dies after cancer fight.” Ah, wasn’t it Franklin Roosevelt who said, “Rob Ford — a mayor that will live in infamy”? Well, the Post can take its pick: either recognize the distinction (not a small one) between “infamous” and “famous,” and substitute the latter for the former in headlines like that; or consciously employ its headlines to editorialize on the news. But it is not an option to keep writing headlines without a head.

3. Alas, another report about Hillary Clinton, this one from Reuters, April 2: “Clinton, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic Party nomination in the Nov. 8 presidential election, has apologized for using a private email server for official business while in office from 2009 to 2013 and said she did nothing wrong.” I believe this wording comes fairly close to the truth — she did say she made a “mistake,” which I guess is something close to making an apology, and she does continue to talk and act as if she did nothing wrong, often chortling about the very idea that she might have done so. But shouldn’t the report at least signal the disjunction between apologizing and saying you’re right? Put this down as one more instance of a common phenomenon: news writers simply miss the glaring and immediate contradictions that news readers see at once.

4. It occurs to me that the great unsolved mystery of the presidential campaign is this: what would Donald Trump sound like if he ever prepared a speech? He is the first major presidential candidate who ever started to run for the office just because he thought it would be fun, and his grammar, vocabulary, and syntax (what there is of it — you try to diagram his sentences) reflect that fact. They continue to reflect it, now that he’s taking the campaign seriously. They haven’t changed. I wonder, if he ever wrote out a speech and connected subjects with verbs and adjectives with nouns, and got it all down on paper in the way that normal people do when they have something important to say, would we discover that he actually is in favor of free trade and would welcome open borders? Or would it be the same mishmash of notions and promises that it is right now?

5. You’ve probably seen those Ancestry.com ads in which personable men and women talk about not having known the families or ethnic groups from which they descend, until they paid for the services of Ancestry.com. That’s fine: who am I to object to historical research? But one of the recent ads seemed strange to me, and the more I thought about it, the stranger it seemed. In this one, a young woman says that because of what she learned through Ancestry.com, “I absolutely want to know more about my Native American heritage.”

I wonder, if Trump ever wrote out a speech and connected subjects with verbs and adjectives with nouns, and got it all down on paper in the way that normal people do when they have something important to say, what would we discover?

Of course, one curious feature of that sentence is its substitution of the trendy “Native American” for the old-fashioned “American Indian.” I don’t particularly care which expression people decide to use, but I would feel better if they recognized that the expressions are both inaccurate. (That’s an ordinary characteristic of ethnic monikers: people who don’t like something I wrote often claim that I wrote it because I’m a “WASP,” although I have only a tiny fraction of Anglo-Saxon “blood”; I’m just white, that’s all.) American Indians aren’t Indians in the sense that they once came from the (East) Indies, as Columbus thought; but if you believe there’s something authentic about naming yourself after Amerigo Vespucci, you ought to be more reflective. Besides, anyone born in this country is a native American.

But where do these broad claims of “heritage” come from? If you’re brought up in a community of Germans or Jamaicans or, yes, American Indians, or if you know even one family member who can transmit that community’s cultural heritage, why yes, you yourself have a heritage that you may perhaps enjoy. In a nation that seems to be filling rapidly with genealogists, however, I have met precisely two persons who have recovered some significant knowledge of culture from their genealogical research. The rest of them are just filing in blanks on family trees, and paying as little attention to Great-Grandmother Emeline’s life, historical circumstances, or distinctive culture as stamp collectors pay to the political careers of Paraguayan statesmen.

Yet the ad doesn’t merely suggest that would-be genealogists will learn about their “heritage”; it asserts that they already have it: it’s their heritage; they possess it. Now, how can you have something like that, without even knowing it? You can’t — unless culture is, somehow, in your “blood.” Which it isn’t.

6. If you’re seeking wisdom about cultural matters, you might seek it from — guess who? — Hillary Clinton. I’m not sure exactly when she said this, but it was recently, because it appeared in remarks on current events that were replayed by Fox News on March 26. I was unlucky enough to be walking past the television when I heard her being asked a question about what makes people want to become Islamic terrorists. She opined: “People who feel marginalized, left out, left behind, are going to want to join something.”

The best teachers — have you noticed? — are the kind who inspire their students to ask questions. As an eager student of Mrs. Clinton, I have some questions I’d like to ask about that statement of hers. Here are a handful:

A. Do you mean we can fight Islamic terrorism by giving money to the Boy Scouts?

B. Why, in your opinion, don’t these people who feel so marginalized join something that will place them a little closer to the center? Why do they insist on joining something that wants to destroy both the center and the margins?

C. Or are you saying that clubs, churches, mosques, temples, auto racing associations, kennel clubs, the Loyal Order of Moose, the NAACP, and the Friends of the Library are filled with people whose need to join something would otherwise have made them terrorists? This quest for belonging — is that why people wander into your own campaign?

D. You’re quite a joiner yourself. You’ve been a member of countless organizations. Is that because you felt marginalized and left behind? If you lose the presidency, will you turn terrorist?

E. The terrorists in San Bernardino — a civil servant, making a decent income; a wife who was given a baby shower by his coworkers not long before the couple tried to murder them all: in what sense were they left out?

G. But why confuse ourselves with specifics? Let’s be more general: Do some people get left behind because they don’t move fast enough? Do some people get marginalized by their own bad qualities? Is it possible that some people become religious terrorists because they are disgusting, hateful people who have finally discovered a convenient excuse to act out their hateful feelings? Do you think that by making comments such as the one we are discussing, you may be making that excuse more convenient?

There’s no point in going on to H, I, or J. As the man says in Citizen Kane, “You can keep on asking questions if you want to” — for all the good it will do.

7. Bernard (“Bernie”) Sanders at the Democratic Presidential Town Hall, March 7: “Every other country on earth, as you may know, has a national healthcare program of one kind or another.” What shall we say to a statement like that — delivered, as always with Sanders, in a tone of total certainty and extreme indignation? Let me try a couple of responses.

The first is admittedly off the subject. It is: haven’t we had enough of faux folksiness? If the gathering at which Sanders pontificated (but where doesn’t he pontificate?) was a “town hall” meeting, so is an animal act in Vegas. Town meetings are places where real business is transacted; they aren’t arenas set aside for political hacks to exhibit their grotesqueries.

No one had suspected Sanders of a sense of humor, and he really doesn’t have one, because it took him about two months to work this saying up, but it’s genuinely funny.

My second, and more relevant, response is simply: how can anyone listen to this stuff with a straight face — and without asking questions about what, if anything, it means? The United States has not one but two national healthcare programs. They’re called Medicare and Obamacare. In fact, Sanders went on to mention Medicare, in an odd manner, given his earlier statement: “We have a program called Medicare which needs improvement.” Whether this means we’re doing worse than Nigeria, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Surinam, or Bhutan, I do not know, but I strongly suspect that “national healthcare” in those places may not be so well established, if it exists at all. Probably “one kind or another” is meant, in a lying way, to cover all such possible states of the international healthcare biz; but if so, why doesn’t it sufficiently cover our own national healthcare? Why does it justify everyone except ourselves?

Sanders went on to claim, essentially, that insurance causes accidents:

If you are a physician, my guess is you spend half your life arguing with the insurance companies, is that right?

And, you got [sic] people out there filling out forms. Every person in the room has private insurance, filling out forms. The reason that we are so much more expensive than other countries is that we have huge bureaucracy in the healthcare system, and we pay much, much too much for prescription drugs.

Again, you can keep on asking questions (such as, “By the way, what’s your source for all this?”) — but nobody does.

The reason nobody does may be that Sanders is so highly esteemed for his “sincerity,” “authenticity,” and “honesty” as to be protected from normal inquiries about even his most ridiculous claims. And he maintains this esteem because the journalists who surround him simply let him prattle on, without asking factual questions. It’s a perfect circle. But believe it or not, a person is actually not honest, sincere, or authentic if he keeps saying things that aren’t true, just because he wants to say them — because, although he wants enormous power over other people’s lives, he isn’t responsible enough to make ordinary attempts to find the truth.

8. Since I, however, have some sense of responsibility, I will admit that among the thousands of idiocies that gush forth daily from the lips of the leading presidential candidates, one can, if one inspects the torrent with exhaustless care, discover an occasional remark that is not idiotic. I have one comment marked “entertaining” in my record of current sayings, and by God, it’s by Senator Sanders. No one had suspected him of a sense of humor, and he really doesn’t have one, because it took him about two months to work this saying up, but it’s genuinely funny. It’s about (who else?) Hillary Clinton, and it’s the centerpiece of Sanders’ perpetual demand for her to publish the text of that extraordinarily well-paid talk she gave to “Wall Street bankers.” Sanders’ crack is: “That musta been some speech, if it was worth $225,000 dollars.” This isn’t hilarious, but it’s funny, much funnier than you’d expect from a man who spent his honeymoon in the Soviet Union; and at this point in the Campaign from Gehenna, I’ll take any kind of humor I can get.




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None Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

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Looking back over the linguistic events of 2015, I wondered whether this column should offer an award for the Most Asinine Remark of the Year. The major difficulty was that there were too many candidates. Another problem was that to ensure fairness, the columnist would need to wade systematically through the reported utterances of the current presidential contenders, an adventure that would result in the columnist’s suicide.

Almost all these people talk like maniacs — and I mean that literally. Who but a maniac would say, as Jeb Bush said to Wolf Blitzer the other day, that Donald Trump disparages him, Jeb Bush, because Trump is afraid of him? Afraid of somebody who for months hasn’t achieved more than 5% in the polls, despite the heaviest possible backing from the Republican establishment, and nearly everyone’s former assumption that he was the inevitable nominee? No, that’s crazy.

What could be crazier than the things that Hillary Clinton says? Who but a crazy person would respond to the question, “Did you wipe your server?” by saying, “What, like with a cloth or something?”, and think that was funny. But then, who except a crazy person would have decided, when she was a college student, that she had to become president, and that she must therefore marry Bill Clinton (admittedly, another person with more than a few screws loose, hence a pretty good match), so that she could make him president, so that he could then make her president? It’s crazy, but that’s what seems to have happened.

Afraid of somebody who for months hasn’t achieved more than 5% in the polls, despite the heaviest possible backing from the Republican establishment? No, that’s crazy.

A less fundamental but nonetheless striking symptom of craziness is Donald Trump’s inability to construct anything like a normally coherent statement on any subject. Crazy people often shout out sentence fragments, expecting their listeners to understand what they mean; and that’s pretty much what Trump does. Like some crazy people, he then becomes upset when he’s “misinterpreted.” I have to admit, however, that the 20-minute rant in which Sarah Palin endorsed Trump for the presidency sounded much crazier than anything Trump himself has come up with. I listened to it for two or three minutes before I looked at the television and saw who was speaking; before then, I thought it was a badly acted, less-funny-than-scary comedy skit. Trump, standing beside her, looked embarrassed, as well he might.

But at least Palin isn’t running for public office. Bernie Sanders is, and he makes Palin look like the straight man in the act — supposing that it’s funny to see an angry old goat hunched over a microphone, spewing hatred of the God-damned rich God-damned bastards that are running the God-damned country. When we were kids, most of us heard that kind of oration from the crazy old bores in the neighborhood, and if you’re like me, you found that their fearless individuality seemed a lot less fearless — not to mention a lot less individual — when you noticed how obsessional it was.

Hundreds of times a day, political contenders such as all of the above compete enthusiastically in the Ass of the Year Pageant. By this time, one of them would have won the crown, if the judges — we, the people — hadn’t kept mandating higher and higher standards of performance. Put it this way: six decades ago, no one had broken the four-minute mile. Then somebody did. Now every professional runner is expected to do it. In the mid-1950s, no one, not even a politician, was required to spend his life violently asserting that the real world is utterly different from the world that other people see. That’s not easy. But today, every person in public life is expected to run up and down telling his neighbors that the planet is about to burn, that America has yet to begin a conversation about race, that guns cause crime, that capitalism creates poverty, that taxation creates wealth, and that government is the people’s only friend. If politicians don’t say such things, they have to find some way of proving that they are not insane.

Under these conditions, it’s rare that a public figure says anything that actually makes people — real people, not political hall monitors, turn and stare. No matter what he says, Donald Trump no longer excites surprise. No one marvels anymore at anything that Hillary Clinton comes out with, despite the fact that much of it is cheap, stupid, obvious lies. But even with such flamboyant competitors in the race, there’s always the possibility that someone will emerge from nowhere and make the voters gape again.

That’s what happened on January 8, when James Francis (“Jim”) Kenney, mayor of Philadelphia, stepped to the microphone and delivered a wakeup call to the national consciousness. The call was not what he intended, which was, “Listen to me! I am the voice of liberty, equality, and fraternity!” No; when it hit the eardrum it sounded more like, “What kind of idiots are we electing to public office?”

Who except a crazy person would have decided, when she was a college student, that she had to become president, and that she must therefore marry Bill Clinton?

It happened at a press conference of police and city officials that followed the attempted murder of a Philadelphia policeman by a man dressed in Islamo-clerical garb who proudly confessed that he had fired 13 shots at a randomly chosen cop because the police were deficient in enforcing sharia law. The city’s police commissioner, Richard Ross — a man with a gift, highly unusual among “police spokesmen,” for clear, perspicuous, and coherent speech — described the event as I just did. Other people associated with the police did the same. But out of the blue, the mayor stepped forward and said, with passionate intensity:

In no way shape or form does anyone in this room believe that Islam or the teaching of Islam has anything to do with what you’ve seen on that screen [presumably a reference to the videocam of the attempted killing]. That is abhorrent, it’s just, it’s terrible, and it does not represent the religion in any way shape or form or any of its teachings. This is a criminal with a stolen gun who tried to kill one of our officers. It has nothing to do with being a Muslim or following the Islamic faith.

After the mayor said that, the policemen went on discussing the culprit’s religious motivation. It was as if Kenney’s weird outburst had never occurred. But his remarks were so goofy that people all over the country sat up, took notice, and howled with laughter.

Ridicule occasioned yet another outburst from Kenney (January 14). After claiming that the motives of the would-be assassin were mere objects of speculation, which would be shrouded in mystery until investigations were concluded, he launched into a defense of Philadelphia’s Muslim population against otherwise invisible attempts to blame them all for the crime. “He [the shooter] is a criminal and they are not criminals,” the mayor declared. Well, yes; who said anything else? But when people lose their grip, they often start to hear other people saying things they actually didn’t say. Then, if the grip-losers notice that others think they‘re acting sort of crazy, they decide that those people are just projecting their own craziness onto them. Accordingly, Kenney said that the real problem wasn’t his weird remarks; it was the Republicans. Offering another answer to a question no one appears to have asked, Kenney declaimed:

Was I misinterpreted by Republicans? Yes, I think it’s pretty easy for them to do. They misinterpret a lot of things. The FBI and police have not concluded that this is an act of terrorism. They are investigating it as it could be, but I think our FBI and police know more than Rush Limbaugh.

This statement suggests that Kenney isn’t a standout after all. He hasn’t really pulled ahead of the pack; his weirdness is simply one part of the larger weirdness of our political era. Nothing is more common than for Democratic politicians (Kenney is a Democrat) to refer almost any question to the nefarious schemes of the other party. In the president’s imagination, the failures of Obamacare resulted from the Republicans’ reluctance to endorse it. In Mrs. Clinton’s imagination, the email scandal — every scandal — is the fault of Republicans’ inopportune inquiries. If they would stop asking questions and let her be president, as is her right, the problem would go away.

Kenney said that the real problem wasn’t his weird remarks; it was the Republicans.

The perpetually ruling party also has the idea that any embarrassing question can be deflected by a reference to some ongoing investigation. But no investigation is required to make every politician in the country, left, right, or center, an expert on the history and teachings of Islam. These authorities know everything they need to know about the subject, right now. Like President Obama, that renowned Quranic scholar, Mayor Kenney is absolutely certain that Islam has nothing to do with people or organizations (such as the Islamic State) that somehow, for no reason at all, say they are acting to promote Islam.

I am not so expert on the subject. I merely suggest, without the benefit of any comprehensive investigation, that there are qualities in all the great religions, and all the great political and intellectual movements, that are capable of corrupting personalities and inspiring wicked acts. Don’t tell me that if Christianity had never existed, people would have been burned alive for denying the existence of the Trinity. Don’t tell me that atheism had nothing to do with the cruelties of Stalin. And now that I think of it, don’t tell me that a lot of our friends would be so insufferably cocksure and self-righteous if there were no such thing as libertarianism.

William Blake said that the caterpillar lays its eggs on the fairest leaves, and that saying is applicable to every aspect of life. Some people get divorces — some people murder their spouses, for God’s sake — because they cherish high ideals of marriage and find that their companions in marriage lack those ideals. Marriage may be a good thing, but if somebody says that he killed his wife because she didn’t live up to her marriage vows, I’m not going to hurry out and proclaim that her death had nothing to do with marriage itself.

You see what I’m saying, and I doubt there are many Muslims in the world who would disagree with it. I doubt there were many Muslims in Philadelphia who rushed to thank Mr. Kenney for giving them help they did not need. And I doubt there are many people in America who aren’t tired of his kind of obscurantism and the regime of political correctness in which it is embedded.

But the problem isn’t just obscurantism, or the American political circus (which can never have too many clowns); it’s the dominance of a Western official culture that is so wrapped up in obscurantism as to accept it as a fact of nature.

Take Angela Merkel (please!). What leader in history ever responded as she has to a civil war in a distant country — a country whose folkways and social attitudes are radically different from those of the modern industrial West, a country occupying a central position in the region from which anti-Western and anti-Christian terrorism has spread throughout the world? Merkel’s response was to invite unlimited numbers of people, without regard to educational attainment, occupational skills, familial ties, social status, social attitudes, degree of suffering from war, or even citizenship in a war-torn country, to come to Germany — after forcing their way through half a dozen other countries considered less desirable because less replete with welfare — there to be supported by tax money extorted from her constituents, none of whom were consulted about any of this, until such time as the migrants succeed in becoming fully assimilated into and integrated within the society she purports to lead, the society to which they are, notwithstanding their proposed assimilation, expected to contribute their own healthy cultural diversity.

There are many ways of baffling your constituents. Information control is one of them.

What kind of leader would do this, equipped, as she was, with nothing more than a vague plan to muscle neighboring countries into accepting their “fair share” of the migrants (which they refused to do), but with no plan to keep track of who came in, where they came from, where they went, or what their fate might be? What kind of leader would refuse, over and over, even to consider setting any limit on the burdens her countrymen must bear in “welcoming” the increasingly unwelcome visitors?

The answer is: a leader who has lost all contact with reality.

Of course, when you have a job, any kind of job, even that of Chancellor of Germany, you can’t stay out of contact forever, unless something or someone gives protection to your craziness. That’s the function of your “aides,” “supporters,” “spokesmen,” and other flunkies — the Valerie Jarretts of this world, who are smarter than you, and know it, and who also know how to shape an official ideology (political correctness and the other pseudo-moral attitudes emitted by people in power) that maintains an impenetrable barrier between the exalted leadership and everybody else.

There are many ways of baffling your constituents. Information control is one of them. Stall, delay, slow walk the facts; use words with secret definitions (“comprehensive immigration reform”); summon paid employees (crony capitalists, scientists on government payrolls, consultants to commissions appointed by yourself) to vouch for your way of doing things; and, when you feel like it, lie — just outright lie. You can also follow the example of Rahm Emanuel’s regime in Chicago, in its response to the police slaying of Laquan McDonald: bury the incident so deep in bureaucratic processes that nobody will know enough about it to demand the facts. That’s what the politically correct regime of Germany did with the migrant outrages in Cologne: the police blandly declined to report the fact that hundreds of sex offenses had taken place, and the news media blandly declined to publish what they knew. Any woman interested in demanding that something be done would think she was the only one, and go away.

Perhaps the strongest barrier between the people at large and their maniacal rulers is the attitude, now growing like kudzu everywhere in the West, that all of this is normal. Hillary Clinton: sure, she lies. What of it? Barack Obama, a little man with a nasty temper: sure, what do you expect from him? Angela Merkel, sole author of an enormous political blunder: gosh, I wonder what she’ll do next?

A Reuters report from January 19 shows how bad the situation is. After detailing the critiques finally being launched at Merkel from all directions, the author concludes in this way:

There are signs that Merkel, traditionally known for her pragmatic approach, is hearing at least some of the criticism but she has remained firm in resisting a cap [on immigration].

“There are signs,” but no one can be sure about whether Merkel “is hearing at least some of the criticism.” If so, she’s “resisting.” And that’s it. You can shout and scream all you want; maybe something will get through. But the leader gets to decide about what she hears. And it seems that she doesn’t hear much.

Not since the Neanderthals have human systems of communication been so lacking in the ability to communicate. What do we need — semaphores? Esperanto? Bonfires on the mountains? Drums along the Mohawk?

Obviously, the lunatics have taken over the asylum, and they’re not giving it back.




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Winter Housekeeping

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It’s an old idea: at the end of the year you’re supposed to put things in order, take care of pending business, settle your accounts. But since I’m too lazy to settle my own accounts, I’ll do something easier. I’ll settle the nation’s accounts, at least its verbal ones.

Let’s start at the top of the pile.

President Obama, always good for a pratfall. In his climate change rant in Paris on November 30, Obama said, among other risible things, “I come here personally, as leader of the world’s largest economy.” That one sentence has at least three problems.

  1. How else could he come, except personally?
  2. “Leader” is not a title. Not in this country. Not yet. The noun therefore needs an “a” before it. I’m not making a petty distinction here.
  3. But what does it mean to be a leader of an economy? You can picture an individual leading a company, but you can’t picture him leading a whole economic system. What, with a leash? With fife and drum for accompaniment? Even the delusional Andrew Carnegie didn’t picture himself in that way. Of course, if Obama imagines that the economy of the United States is equivalent to the political organization of the executive branch, it won’t be hard for him to put himself in that picture. And I guess that’s what he does.

At long last, have you no history? These days, you don’t need to read a book to discover the elementary facts of history; you can just Google them. But why bother? Why not just say, as many news authorities said, and kept on saying, on the occasion of the Paris terrorist attacks, “This is the worst night in the City of Light.” No, it wasn’t. For one thing, there were centuries of ravages by the French kings. Then there was the violence of the French Revolution. Including the Reign of Terror. And more revolutions later. How about the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, accompanied by the violence of the Paris Commune, during which communards did their best to destroy the city, only to be executed en masse by their opponents? As if that weren’t enough, there was the Nazi conquest and occupation . . . need I continue?

After the terrorist attacks we were also lectured by smart, university-trained people about our age-old connections with France. CBS, to cite but one example, asserted that “since 1776, America has been allied with France.” No, it hasn’t. Look it up. Check out the XYZ Affair. Or the intervention of Napoleon III in Mexico. Or the Vichy regime. Or about a hundred other passages in the flippin’ history of effin’ France.

Many news authorities said, and kept on saying, on the occasion of the Paris terrorist attacks, “This is the worst night in the City of Light.” No, it wasn’t.

But things have gotten really bad when one of the smartest, and certainly one of the most self-possessed, of TV newsfolk allows herself to begin a discussion of a papal tour to the Central African Republic by saying, “Pope Francis, becoming the first pope to visit an active combat zone. . . .” (Harris Faulkner, Fox News, November 29, 2015). Visit? Popes used to lead their armies in battle. And Pius IX and Pius XII would have been happy if they could simply have visited a combat zone, instead of being besieged in the Vatican and deprived of secular rule, as was Pius IX, or living in a city occupied by Nazis, as did Pius XII. Perhaps I should mention Napoleon’s almost successful attempt to destroy the papacy by kidnaping the pope, etc.

December’s resurgence of the Bowe Bergdahl case reminded me that European history isn’t the only kind that the self-appointed experts don’t know. Has anyone in the media questioned the idea, promulgated by the current administration but seemingly accepted even by its critics, that the United States has “never left a soldier behind on the battlefield”? But it’s obviously untrue. Something like 30,000 Northern prisoners died in Civil War camps, partly because the North eventually decided not to do prisoner exchanges with the Confederates (unlike President Obama, who exchanged five Gitmo prisoners for the idiot Bergdahl). There are Americans still living who were “left behind” in enemy custody in other wars. Anyone who asks himself a simple question about “no man left behind” can find this stuff in a minute.

Yes, language changes, but not that fast. A play was recently performed in my vicinity. The play was good, and it was well performed. But this is the way in which the advertisement characterized the play: “Heartsick love slings like mud, the drink pours strong, and music hides everywhere as the party just. keeps. trying. to. storm.” Gosh, Nellie, imagine that! But what play do you think the ad was trying to describe? It was Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t guess. It could just as easily have been Macbeth.

Has anyone in the media questioned the idea, promulgated by the current administration but seemingly accepted even by its critics, that the United States has “never left a soldier behind on the battlefield”?

The absence of the presence. If someone blocks the street in front of my home, screaming and threatening and preventing me from coming and going, or blocks access to my store, with the intention of stopping my business, I won’t regard that as a peaceful act. Neither would you. But whenever there’s a leftist demonstration that doesn’t proceed to mayhem and murder, it is acclaimed as peaceful, even by the rightwing media. Thus, on November 27, Brit Hume and Chris Wallace, two of the most estimable news people in the nation, conducted a long conversation on Fox about how great it was that recent protests in Chicago had been peaceful.

Wallace: What was most interesting about the protest was that they were clearly heartfelt and they clogged the Magnificent Mile, the downtown shopping area of Chicago, as you can see. They were also peaceful.

Hume: They were peaceful, and in addition to that, they had a point. . . .

Indeed they did, and I agree with that point, wholeheartedly. Police shouldn’t shoot and kill people when they don’t need to, and mayors shouldn’t cover it up when that happens. But it was not a peaceful protest.

Don’t lay to me. I don’t want to pick on Fox News. I’m not accusing Fox of anything that others aren’t guilty of doing. But when the best people at Fox lose their standards, what will happen with all the rest of them? Fox’s Juan Williams is a fine writer, and I’m not saying that because I usually agree with him, because I don’t. So it is especially disappointing to see that even he is losing his grip on English verbs. On Thanksgiving he was on the air discussing (guess what?) Thanksgiving, and he said that after eating a Thanksgiving meal, you have to go and “lay down.” My reaction was what I would expect to have if I found that a dear friend had contracted bubonic plague: you too, Juan? “I’ll lay on the bed; I laid on the bed; I’ve laid on the bed” is the current national plague, and when it gets to Williams, you know it’s hit almost everyone. Any reading of purported news and commentary confirms this awful truth, and it’s enough to make you want to lay right down and die.

Going Hillary just one step further. In case you didn’t know it, North Korea has a state-sponsored “girl band,” which was supposed to put on its act, which must be awful, at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. On December 12, however, the performance was canceled. The reason, according to the NCPA, was: “for a reason.”

Government, it seems, is not the only offender. Government undoubtedly provided the models, standards, touchstones, and paradigms for the job title that Walmart gave its employee, Enrique Marquez, before the dopey young man was revealed as an accomplice of terrorism in San Bernardino, but that doesn’t excuse Walmart. According to the company, Marquez was employed as “an asset protection and customer specialist.” It’s generally believed that this means Enrique was a security guard.

The back to nature movement. If you were going to list the most self-righteous movements in America today, what would appear at the top of your list? Ah, there are so many to choose from! But Mehmet Karayel has provided evidence that the California Water Curtailment Movement may win the prize.

Tennyson referred to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Not an attractive portrait of the old gal, but I prefer it to “Nature, dry, brown and weedy.”

In case you haven’t noticed — and there’s not much reason why you should — California is suffering from one of its cyclical droughts. Shrill voices insist that everyone conserve, and yet again, conserve! The owners of these voices — mostly governmental — are in a somewhat difficult position, because while ordinary citizens are flushing their toilets only once a day, the state is dumping billions of gallons of water into the Pacific to create optimal conditions for the Delta smelt, a useless species of fish.

This is the background for the item Mehmet mentioned. It’s a journalistic effort to shame the human hogs who slurp and guzzle more water than their neighbors (though much less water than any single Delta smelt). It might be remembered that the hogs are also paying for the water they use, but I guess that’s beside the point. The article’s nicest touch is this:

Slurp central appeared to be a place in Danville called Saddleback at Blackhawk, an unnaturally lush, gated community full of sprawling multimillion-dollar mansions. The enormous green lawns, tropical plants and exotic trees surrounding the homes are in stark contrast to the adjacent hills, which are dry, brown and weedy.

Tennyson referred to “Nature, red in tooth and claw.” Not an attractive portrait of the old gal, but I prefer it to “Nature, dry, brown and weedy.”

Let me be very specific with you. On December 15, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest but perhaps the worst district in the nation, suddenly shut down all 1,100 of its schools because of a terror hoax that everyone else, including the New York City School District, recognized as a hoax. A press conference attended by countless government officials produced not even an attempt to notify parents about what had been done with their kids when the schools shut down, but it did produce repeated assurances that every official was acting out of an abundance of caution regarding a very specific threat. It was specific because it didn’t just say that “weapons” would be used; it specifically mentioned bombs and guns. Even more compelling was the fact that it didn’t just say that “schools” would be attacked; it specified the 1,100 schools of the Los Angeles district.

It’s my duty to predict that specific will be the next word you hear a thousand times a day. It can be contained only by equally frequent references to an overabundance of caution.

* * *

Well, so much for 2015’s abuses of language. Let them go. I have two important things to say at this December’s end.

For 14 years, the readers of Liberty have tolerated, indulged, and, often against their better judgment, encouraged this column. For their generosity I am more grateful than I have words to say, and I will do my best to merit their continued indulgence.

The end of 2015 also marks ten years since the death of the original encourager of Word Watch — R.W. Bradford, founder, publisher, and editor of Liberty, who died on December 8, 2005. (See “A Life in Liberty.”) But for me, Bill has never died, nor will he.

Bill Bradford was a great man — brave and independent, generous and kind, and as much fun as 20 other people. What he didn’t knew about American history and politics wasn’t worth knowing, and his knowledge of the American libertarian movement cannot ever be surpassed. Bill understood what freedom meant; he knew it, he lived it, and he granted it joyously to others. He also knew, very well, what is meant by quality of language. He wanted Liberty to be a journal that sought both freedom and excellence. What worthier goal could there be?




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Do You Speak Political?

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In Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, several members of the British aristocracy — back when it was an aristocracy — argue about the amorous theft of a lock of hair. A peer of the realm has captured the lock. Sir Plume, another aristocrat, demands that it be returned:

With earnest Eyes, and round unthinking Face,
He first the Snuff-box open'd, then the Case,
And thus broke out — "My Lord, why, what the Devil?
Zounds! — damn the Lock! 'fore Gad, you must be civil!
Plague on't! 'tis past a Jest — nay prithee, Pox!
Give her the Hair” — he spoke, and rapp'd his Box.

“It grieves me much” (reply'd the Peer again)
“Who speaks so well shou'd ever speak in vain.”

I thought of that passage when Drew Ferguson, Liberty’s managing editor, alerted me to the following statement by Timothy M. Wolfe, then president of the University of Missouri, responding to demonstrations about alleged mistreatment of blacks on his campus:

My administration has been meeting around the clock and has been doing a tremendous amount of reflection on how to address these complex matters. We want to find the best way to get everyone around the table and create the safe space for a meaningful conversation that promotes change.

The next day, Wolfe was forced to resign. He had spoken every bit as well as hapless Sir Plume, and yet he spake in vain.

You can see why. If there was ever a meaningless assemblage of bureaucratic buzzwords, Wolfe’s statement was it. “Address complex matters . . . get everyone around the table [query: does that include people like you and me?] . . . safe space . . . meaningful conversation . . . promote change.” It makes you long for just one academic politician to say, “I want a meaningless conversation, so I can get back to my golf game.” That would be honest, at least.

Anyone who speaks this way is either incapable of critical thought or believes that everyone else is. Who among us advocates change without saying what kind of change he means? Who among us wants to have conversations all day, with total strangers, or with people who don’t like us? And who thinks that what university students need is a safe space, as if they were surrounded by ravening wolves, or panzer battalions?

If there was ever a meaningless assemblage of bureaucratic buzzwords, Wolfe’s statement was it.

The answer is, I suppose, “the typical college administrator,” supposing that these people can be taken at their word, which on this showing is very hard to do. If you had something sincere and meaningful to say, would you say it like that?

My suggestion is that everyone who speaks that lingo should be forced to resign, no matter what his job and no matter what the occasion. I’ve had it with stuff like that. You’ve had it with stuff like that. I suspect that normal people all over the world have had it with stuff like that. Even members of the official class now faintly sense this fact, and they’re trying to turn the incipient rebellion against meaningless buzzwords into their own new set of meaningless buzzwords.

Before I give an example, I want to say something about the official class or, in the somewhat more common phrase, political class.

For many decades, libertarian intellectuals have engaged in what I call a two-class analysis. Instead of analyzing people’s behavior primarily in terms of economic classes, they think in terms of a political class and a class of everyone else. So, for instance, Bernie Sanders claims to represent the working class, and Hillary Clinton claims to dote on the middle class, but what they really are is people who crave official power and expect to get it from their class affiliation with other such people — politicians of all sorts, czars of labor unions, ethnic demagogues, environmental poohbahs, denizens of partisan thinktanks, lobbyists for the interests of women who attended Yale Law School, people who share their wisdom with Public Radio, and the like.

Who thinks that what university students need is a "safe space," as if they were surrounded by ravening wolves, or panzer battalions?

The two-class analysis works pretty well at explaining American political culture. But it wasn’t until this year that the phrase political class got into the political mainstream. It happened because the supposed outliers among Republican conservatives started using it. And when such people as Ben Carson used it, it wasn’t a buzzword. It meant something.

But now it has penetrated far enough to produce this:

I’m not gonna be part of the political class in DC. (Jeb Bush to Sean Hannity, October 29, 2015)

Message to the Chamber of Commerce: “Beware! Jeb’s gonna betray you on the immigration issue.” But of course he wouldn’t. He’d just lie about it, as his brother did. The good thing is that for once nobody believed what one of these icons of the official class had to say. The statement was scorned and ignored. Jeb spake in vain.

I suppose he thinks that nobody really understood him. If so, maybe he’s right. He’s used to speaking the language of the political class, and if you do that long enough, you start behaving like people who are trying to speak Spanish and don’t understand that when they think they’re asking where to catch the bus, they’re actually shouting obscenities. They wonder why the audience turns away.

Naturally, the linguistic divide functions in the other way, too. People who speak Political eventually think in Political too, and they can’t comprehend what people who speak a normal human language say or think.

Everyone who speaks that lingo should be forced to resign, no matter what his job and no matter what the occasion.

The process of linguistic self-crippling usually starts early. People learn Political in high school or college and soon are astonishing their friends with strange chatter about advocating for change around issues of social justice, or demanding that their college create a safe space for them, or else they’ll shut the m***** f***** down. To understand such comments, people who speak English must laboriously translate them into their own language, a boring process that they seldom complete. The Political speakers then complain that they are not being acknowledged, that they are not, in fact, being listened to. And indeed, they’re not — because they’re not speaking the same language as their audience, or hearing it.

A couple of weeks ago, Neil Cavuto, the business guy on Fox News, interviewed a college student representing the cause currently being advocated for by a nationwide coalition of students who have been speaking out on campuses throughout the country. Their program calls for a $15 an hour minimum wage for all campus workers, free education at all public colleges and universities, and forgiveness of all student loans.

“Who’s going to pay for this?” Cavuto asked.

There was a long silence. The advocate had apparently never heard those words before. Finally she struggled to answer, in her own language. She said that the hoarders would pay.

Now it was Cavuto’s turn to be surprised. He couldn’t understand what she meant by this strange, apparently foreign, word. When English speakers use those two syllables, hoard-ers, they’re referring to people who pile up supplies of some commodity — whether uselessly, out of obsession, or prudentially, to preserve life or comfort in case of emergency. It turned out, however, that in the young woman’s lexicon hoarder meant “the 1% who own 99% of the country’s wealth.” I know, that was somewhat like saying, “The unicorns will pay for it,” but I want to emphasize the linguistic, not the metaphysical, problem. She had obviously come to exist in a monolingual environment in which hoarders means something quite different from what it means to, let’s say, 99% of the population.

No one gets offended by a foreigner’s struggles with the language of a new country. Native speakers may, however, become upset by people who grew up speaking the common language and then suddenly decide to speak something else, to the bafflement of everyone they’re talking to. Or shouting at. Or lecturing, as if from a position of intellectual superiority. And that, I think, is what’s happening now, all over the Western world.

It turned out, however, that in the young woman’s lexicon "hoarder" meant “the 1% who own 99% of the country’s wealth.”

If you want to see the Platonic form and house mother of the political class, try Angela Merkel. It’s not surprising that her constituents are disgusted by her commitment to lecturing them in a foreign language. Responding to criticism that she has precipitated an uncontrolled flood of immigrants into her country, where taxpayers will be expected to support them, Merkel said it is “not in our power how many come to Germany.” This from a woman who runs a welfare society based on the idea of, basically, controlling everything. To make confusion more confusing, she also said that she and her government “have a grip on the situation.” Like other members of the political class, she left it to her listeners to divine the secret meanings of such terms as “power” and “have a grip,” and to discover when certain arrays of sound mean “I’m just kidding you” and when they mean “No, really, I’m telling the truth this time.”

When you’re trying to decipher a foreign language, you’re not just challenged by the vocabulary. You’re also challenged by those sentences in which you think you understand all the individual words, but there’s still just something about them — something about their logic or their assumptions or . . . something — that continues to elude your understanding. (This is especially true of French.) Sigmar Gabriel, Merkel’s Vice Chancellor and Economy Minister, provided a good example when he reproved people who might be alarmed by the terrorist attacks in Paris, in which at least one participant was carrying Syrian asylum-seeker documents. "We should not,” he said, “make them [Syrian migrants] suffer for coming from regions from which the terror is being carried to us."He appeared to be arguing that because a country generates terrorists we should welcome more people from that country. But that would be ridiculous; he must have meant something else.

Of course, in any language one finds expressions that, one thinks, must be symbolic of broad social attitudes, concepts that are deeply meaningful but that only a native speaker can understand. The difficulty is that there are no native speakers of Political. So when Merkel talks about keeping true to her “vision” and defines that vision by saying, as she said (unluckily) on the day of the Paris attacks, "I am in favor of our showing a friendly face in Germany," her thought remained elusive, even to Germans. What was she talking about? Was she simply babbling to herself?

President Obama’s use of language has long inspired such questions. You know the kind of tourists who inflict themselves on a foreign land, refusing to learn its language, and then get angry at the natives for not understanding them? That’s Obama, and he’s getting worse and worse. On November 21, he visited children in a refugee center in Malaysia and took the occasion to act out his incomprehension of the vast majority of the American populace — the people whom he often, in his own language, denounces as Republicans.

“They [the kids] were indistinguishable from any child in America,” Mr. Obama said after kneeling to look at their drawings and math homework. “And the notion that somehow we would be fearful of them, that our politics would somehow leave us to turn our sights away from their plight, is not representative of the best of who we are.”

More strange Obama statements can be read at the same place in the New York Times.

The repeated somehow (a word to which the president is becoming addicted) signals a profound linguistic divide. Obama marvels at the ordinary language of ordinary Americans. How can they say the things they do? How can they even think them? When they express their fears of such asylum seekers as the Tsarnaev family; when they comment on the many news reports, written in plain English, showing that the vast majority of people now seeking asylum in the West are not little kids from Muslim South Asian families enjoying the hospitality of the officially Muslim South Asian state of Malaysia but young men from the hotbed of Islamic fanaticism, bound for non-Islamic countries; when they reflect that these young men are destined to spend years living on the resentful charity of neighbors who have been forced by their governments to support them — when people speak of these things, Obama interprets all objections, fears, and caveats as the product of a hideous moral deficiency that has somehow insinuated itself into the body politic. Even supposing he’s right on the policy issue — which I don’t think he is — the word somehow is enough to convince most people that he’s no longer speaking their language.

This dawning realization, not just about Obama but about the entire political class, is good news. It means that people are finally thinking about the private language of the political elite. And here’s some more good news, though from an unlikely source.

Obama marvels at the ordinary language of ordinary Americans. How can they say the things they do? How can they even think them?

Last week, I saw an announcement that fellowships are being offered by something called the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. The Center is inviting academics to come and be supported for eight months of research and “conversations” about the “societal” implications of “astrobiology.” The program appears to be supported, at least in part, by those friendly old astrobiologists, NASA.

The announcement begins in this way: “Societal understanding of life on earth has always developed in dialogue with scientific investigations of its origin and evolution.” That’s an assumption that may be questioned. It recalls the typical first sentence of a freshman essay: “Since the beginning of time, humanity has always been troubled by the problem of indoor plumbing.” But the “Societal understanding” sentence goes beyond that — although it’s hard to tell where it’s going, unless one pictures Neanderthals holding scientific seminars about the validity of Darwinism before deciding whether hunting and gathering is a good idea.

Yet the next sentence clearly has a hopeful tendency: “Today, the new science of astrobiology extends these investigations to include the possibility of life in the universe.”

True, the syntax is bad. Investigations don’t include possibilities. But you have to agree with the last part of the sentence: there is some possibility of life in the universe. And I believe that’s a good thing.




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The Bears and the Bugs

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James Bowman is a good writer, and he wrote a very good article about the recent British elections for the June issue of The New Criterion, which is a good magazine. In that article there are a number of memorable observations, such as the idea that politics is usually and traditionally a matter of “the orderly management of the hatred between social factions.” I’m not sure that’s strictly true, but it’s certainly relevant to the current state of American political affairs. It’s also well phrased. I like reading Bowman’s stuff.

So it’s a sad indication of the state of our language that even such a good writer as James Bowman should refer, in the same article, to “the problem that eventually sunk the [British] Labour campaign.” Sunk? The past tense of “sink” is “sank.” “Sunk” is the past participle. Bowman doesn’t know that?

But oh, what a small thing! Why pick on that?

I’ll tell you why. Look at it this way. You go to a picnic, and just when everyone is having fun, a troop of bears comes out of the woods and eats ten of the children. It may be the first time it ever happened, but it shows that you have a bear problem. Neglecting all caution, you turn up at the next picnic, and there are no bears. But the mosquitoes drive everybody crazy. That shows you have a mosquito problem. It’s not as bad as a bear problem, but it’s bad nonetheless.

If you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers.

This column is usually occupied with bear problems. This time, let’s think for a moment about mosquito problems, such as the difficulty that many professional writers of English have in getting nouns to agree with verbs. It generally doesn’t keep you from understanding what they mean, but it’s . . . annoying. And unnecessary. Thus, on August 19, CNN finally raised its eyebrows about Mrs. Clinton and reported, “There have been a constant stream of stories about Clinton's emails for the better part of five months.” I’m glad CNN isn’t ignoring those stories (provided by other news organizations), but can’t it make its subjects and verbs agree? “There have been a stream”? There have also been blunders.

Another mosquito problem is the one I started out with — the inability of English speakers to remember what strong verbs are like. A strong verb is any that does not create its past and perfect forms with an -ed ending. Originally, Indo-European verbs were strong. Then the –ed form became influential (“productive,” as the linguists say), partly to assimilate borrowings of verbs from foreign languages. It was easier to use, so it spread to other verbs. But strong verbs still sound, well, stronger, and they are very useful in poetic and generally emotive language. It sounds better to say, “She strove to succeed” than “She strived to succeed.” It would have sounded still better if Tammy Bruce, one of America’s most cogent spokesmen for liberty, hadn’t told Fox News (August 15), “Carly Fiorina has weaved that fact into her presentations . . .” Tammy! I love you! But haven’t you heard of that word woven?

The hitch is, you have to know what you’re doing. Imagine that! You actually have to know that a person not only strove to succeed, but having striven, he sang his heart out. These days, however, he will have strived, and it’s an even chance that he sung his heart out, while the hearts of his enemies sunk. It’s more than an even chance that he had fit himself for his role. Here is an opposite, though not an insuperable, problem. Fit is a normal weak verb; it’s fit-fitted-fitted. Strange but true. This doesn’t mean that last week somebody (in San Francisco, it would be hundreds of people) shit on the doorstep. Shit is still a strong verb; somebody shat on the doorstep last week — and isn’t that a more forceful way of describing it? People spat in the subway, too.

Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Why can’t people keep this in mind? Why can’t professional writers (distinguishing them, for the moment, from actual people) figure it out? Well, if you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers. If your kids are troublemakers, get them to ask the English teacher what the past tense of fit may be. Or shit. Then they can ask the teacher whether he has ever read the King James Bible. And if he hasn’t, they can ask him how he ever got to be an English teacher. Should be interesting.

Moving on from the inevitable after-school detention, oft visited on the overly articulate . . . You can tell that people aren’t reading anything, let alone the King James Bible, when their spelling reproduces what they hear, or think they hear, not what they’ve read. Witness the non-word alright. This has been with us for quite a while (which doesn’t make it good — remember the Dutch Elm Disease). It’s the product of people who have never seen all right in print, or if they have seen it, have never wondered whether those two mysterious words could possibly have the same meaning as the things you see on post-it notes: “Henderson party: parking in Alley alright tonite.” In this never-saw-that, never-noticed-that category you can also file all those people who write things like, “Invitees can signin for the conference now” and “To hookup/test software, turnoff browsers, then turnon.” I’m quoting the kind of communications I get in my academic email. Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Of course, reading is no longer a prerequisite for writing of any kind, even professional writing about professional writing. Consider an article in The Wrap (April 6) about the aftermath of (or “fallout” over) Rolling Stone’s smear story on a University of Virginia fraternity. The article cited an observation by Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren (whose own English is pretty good):

The Fox anchor invoked a former president’s infamous phrase to tie a bow on Rolling Stone’s missteps: “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify,’” she told TheWrap.

If you read books, and you notice what you read, you know that infamous does not mean famous — no, not at all. And if you enjoy reading books, you usually have some interest in noticing how authors get their effects. A person rattling along in conversation may say, “Our first idea went flat, but that’s all water over the dam,” and this may have some effect. But it won’t work in print, because people who read actually have to take a moment to look at what they’re reading. If they’re conscious (which admittedly, many “readers” are not), and they see the word missteps, they probably picture steps, going the wrong way. They won’t worry about the picture of a magazine making missteps; they’ll accept that as a little imagistic oomph. But when you ask them to picture somebody tying a bow on missteps, they won’t do it, because they can’t do it. It isn’t colorful; it’s stupid. The best audience, the audience most likely to appreciate an effective use of language, will move on from trying to picture the bow to the easier task of picturing the author, smiling with self-satisfaction after having, shall we say, tied that metaphoricbow on his misstep.

Anyone familiar with letters written by average Americans a hundred and fifty years ago knows that they tied a lot of those bows. They also wrote alright, very frequently, and worse things, much worse things, all the time. And anyone who has read a typical sermon or political address from the same period can see how many lofty phrases could be expended on practically nothing. The difference between that period and ours is that back then, nobody mistook average, unmeditated English for anything you’d want to use when you really got serious. People expected serious writing to be literate. Literacy was something they not only appreciated but enjoyed. Perhaps they even overenjoyed it.

In 1850, President Zachary Taylor was held in contempt by other politicians for his lapses from standard grammar. Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his refusal to master the like-as distinction, his success at filling sentences with uhs and ums (sometimes 30 to the minute), and his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about folks and dropping his final g’s.

It’s hard to say whether this year’s presidential candidates are better or worse with language than he is: are rotten apples worse than rotten oranges? Some are more literate, but is there one of them, any one of them, whose speeches you want to hear, as opposed to reading the one- or two-sentence news summary? Trump, I suppose — but that’s because it’s fun to hear him abusing the other candidates. The format of his speeches, if you want to call it that, is exactly the same as the others’: he makes a series of 50-word declarations, apparently unconnected with one another, “highlighting” the positions — or, more accurately, the slogans — he wants you to remember. In this sense, there’s not much difference between Trump and those two yammering old coots, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (who are just as abusive, but stupefyingly dull at it).

Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about "folks" and dropping his final g’s.

Nor is this merely a problem of politics. When Clinton and her surrogates claim that Republicans are trying to block healthcare and are waging war on women’s health, when Sanders and his gang of Post Office retirees announce that, because the government takes no action, women are paid only 78% of what men are paid, there’s also a problem of language. If you saw that in a book, you’d be shouting at the page: “What do these words mean? Are Republican mobs blockading hospitals? Are all the statisticians lying? Are women paid $78,000 for the same jobs for which men are paid $100,000?” If the author didn’t explain his statements, you would dismiss the book as incomprehensible. You wouldn’t think, “Ah, that’s interesting — here’s the slogan these people are pushing today. Must be because of that poll about women going Republican.” You wouldn’t think, “Good move! Sanders is playing to the welfare crowd. He’s prying them away from Hillary.” You’d think, “This is a bad book,” and that would be the end of it.

This defines the difference between normal readers and members of the political class. One group is jealous of its intellectual health and safety; the other doesn’t mind going to a picnic and being bitten by mosquitoes or gnawed by bears. In fact, it prefers that kind of picnic.

On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster gave a speech in the United States Senate. It was about an issue of great importance: the attempt to reach a compromise between Northern and Southern claims to power. But although people could have read a summary in the paper next day, and it was at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Senate chamber, the place was packed. Ladies stood for three hours to hear Webster’s remarks — because that was the length of his speech: three hours and 11 minutes. Webster closely reviewed the long history of legal provisions and political negotiations regarding the status of slavery. He analyzed the geography of the western United States, assessing the possibility that slavery might become a paying proposition there. He reviewed his own history of opposition to slavery. He then considered what would happen — indeed, what did happen — in the event of a Southern secession.

Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffing the surface! Who is so foolish, I beg every body's pardon, as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck of the universe. There can be no such thing as peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility. Is the great Constitution under which we live, covering this whole country, is it to be thawed and melted away by secession, as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun, disappear almost unobserved, and run off? No, Sir! No, Sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the Union; but, Sir, I see as plainly as I see the sun in heaven what that disruption itself must produce; I see that it must produce war, and such a war as I will not describe . . .

Many people hated Webster’s speech. It earned him the scorn of powerful voters in his own state, agitators against compromise. Yet its words were continuously informative. They were continuously interesting. They were continuously entertaining. They were, by the end, exciting. They weren’t talking points. They weren’t spin. And they weren’t three hours and 11 minutes of subliterary, unorganized sounds.

The ability to give literary interest to political words wasn’t confined to the greatest orators. Even Warren Harding, who is, perhaps unfairly, regarded as a mere politician, a nothing among statesmen, had that ability. On May 14, 1920, Harding outlined his political program:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. . . .

Out of the supreme tragedy [of the Great War] must come a new order and a higher order, and I gladly acclaim it. But war has not abolished work, has not established the processes of seizure or the rule of physical might. Nor has it provided a governmental panacea for human ills, or the magic touch that makes failure a success. Indeed, it has revealed no new reward for idleness, no substitute for the sweat of a man’s face in the contest for subsistence and acquirement.

For the past 95 years, Harding’s reference to “normalcy” has been panned by the intellectuals. A few dispute his use of that word instead of the normal “normality.” More, alas, sneer at his idea that war, revolution, and the ambitions of the progressive state should not be regarded as normal parts of the American condition. You can judge between Harding and his foes. My point is that Harding, known as one of the weakest of presidents, could deliver a speech that has approximately 100,000 times the word power of any contemporary political communication. He knew that big things come of small — that “dispassionate” is a valuable word, although you see it only in serious books, and that it presents an interesting contrast to “dramatic”; he knew that a sentence containing not one but eight sharp but serious conceptual distinctions can be a contribution to thought and argument, and certainly to literary interest.

You want a good meal? Here it is. Bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado. Ketchup and mustard on the side. Fries, fruit, cottage cheese . . . right there at the end of the table. Rather have the roast beef? We’ve brought that too. This is survival food. No bugs, no bears.

So, how do I get to that picnic? Easy — all you have to do is read.




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Ignoring the Indefinite

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Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag
And smile, smile, smile.

I like that World War I song — the chorus, anyway; the verses are dreadful crap. Maybe it’s the tune that gets me, but there’s also some virtue in the sentiment: you can take all the bad things in your world, pack them away someplace, and forget about them. It just takes a little gumption, and a little common sense:

What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worthwhile.

So let’s see how that idea applies to the worrying problems of words this column addresses. Let’s notice them, list them, and try to pack them away. Maybe they won’t return to afflict us. And if they do, maybe we will still be inspired to smile, smile, smile. No one can list all the atrocious words that assault our ears, but we can at least make a start.

As soon as you say “atrocious,” President Obama pops up, like a genie in a bottle, responding to the magic word. He’s an encyclopedia of verbal atrocities. The one I’m thinking about right now is around. I mean around as it’s used to discuss something considered to possess some decided relationship to something else, but never a relationship that’s decided enough to be definite. As with most of Obama’s words, around is good for the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t approach.

These practices worked their way into high schools, ad agencies, HR departments, and other places where taste is not an issue.

On July 20, the president granted an interview about the Iran treaty (or whatever it is — that isn’t definite). He said: “There is broad international consensus around this issue.” If I wanted to go off on a tangent, I would observe that the lovely, broad-minded word international is an attempt to lead Obama’s listeners off on a tangent, and leave them there. Think about it. Who cares whether Albanians and Algerians are in favor of the treaty, or whether they’ve even heard of it? The question of whether they’ve reached a consensus on this point matters about as much as whether they, or the rest of the world, has reached a consensus about freedom of speech, or freedom of the press, or freedom of religion, or common decency of any sort. (Actually, the world has reached a consensus: it’s ag’in all those things.) The issue is whether America will approve the treaty. Besides, consensus isn’t the same as authority, intellectual or political; it has nothing to do with justice or truth or even the actual will and volition of the people involved.

But I refuse to be led off on such a tangent. Around does not mean about, no matter how many ex-hippies use it in that way. An intellectually responsible person talks about something; a person with cloudy, slippery ideas talks around it, or tries to picture unknown numbers of internationals forming something called a consensus somewhere in its vicinity. Typical Clinton supporters, interviewed on television (why?), confess that they “agree with her around a lot of her major issues.” Hardcore agitators define their profession as “advocating around issues of healthcare and the environment and a living wage,” and usually a lot of other things, equally without a definition. But let’s just stow all their arounds in our old kit bag, and remove them from our memory. If there’s room, we can throw in advocate, whenever it lacks a direct object. We can put up with people who advocate something, even if it’s the reintroduction of wolf packs to the New York suburbs, but we can’t put up with people who just advocate around.

But oh, there’s a clever substitute for the indefinite around. It’s surround. Recently I discussed the violent behavior of some California cops who mercilessly beat and kicked a man they were arresting. Unfortunately for them, their actions were filmed from a news copter, and they got in trouble. An embarrassed sheriff announced that “the video surrounding this arrest is disturbing and I have ordered an internal investigation be conducted immediately.”What can I say? Try to picture a video surrounding an arrest. Disturbing? Oh yes. Positively stomach-churning. Throw that in the bag too.

(But don’t forget the case itself. For further developments, go here. Although the incident happened over three months ago, and the county immediately, immediately paid the victim off, “investigations” have yet to be resolved.)

Another symptom — perhaps the ugliest symptom — of the national demand for the indefinite, is the universality of the slash. I refer to that nasty little mark that unites (or is it separates?) the words in such repulsive combinations of sounds as “economic/political,” “racist/sexist,” “dinner/lunch,” “funeral director/mortician” — need I go on? I’ve brought this up before; I’m sorry to have to bring it up again.

That’s two more expressions you can put in the old kit-bag, and leave it someplace where the cops will blow it up.

There is a social history around that little mark. The slash first took root among us when computers came in. It carried the prestige of the brilliant minds who write code and sometimes, fatally, try to explain the results. Thence it became the language of bureaucrats, who actually plumed themselves on their ability to write, or rather type, stuff that looked like computer code. Soon, with unconscious irony, it became a sign of status among those alleged deadly enemies of the bureaucrats, the professors of humanities. They were infected with French deconstructionist theory, in which the slash was used to show the reversibility of certain words (“life/death”) that, like all words, have no inherent meaning. Then the agitprop profs and their gullible students decided that they too would write slashingly. This was accomplished by putting syllables together like kindergarten blocks and treating them as if they were the commanding heights of political thought — the “deformings/transformings,” “postgenders/transgenders,” and “neoliberalisms/postcolonialisms” of the pseudo-intellectual world. These practices worked their way into high schools, ad agencies, HR departments, and other places where taste is not an issue.

Now, however, the slash may have reached its final reduction to absurdity. I’m looking at an AP report (May 25) about a bomb scare at the US Capitol. The author quotes an email sent by a police spokesman about things that might be bombs: "If we can't determine whether or not an item is safe/dangerous, we'd have to treat it as dangerous until we determine otherwise.” That’s the problem, isn’t it? So many things are safe/dangerous. And consider that phrase “whether or not.” It’s so frustrating to think of all those items that are neither safe nor dangerous.

People use slashes because they don’t know/are too lazy to decide/make up their minds about/around what expressions/words they want to say/write/use. Let’s see . . . is something “racist” or “sexist”? Who cares? Just call it racist/sexist. Let the reader decide what you mean, if anything. One might spend a minute reflecting on the distinction between economics and politics, but why bother? Just say “economic/political.” And now we have “safe/dangerous.”

You guessed it: the same police spokesman mentioned “negative results” and “an abundance of caution.” (“Tell me, lieutenant, how much caution did you use?” “We used an abundance of caution.” “Oh, I see.”) So that’s two more expressions you can put in the old kit-bag, and leave it someplace where the cops will blow it up.

It’s so frustrating to think of all those items that are neither safe nor dangerous.

Am I being insensitive? I hope so, because otherwise I might spend most of my time reaching out. Until very recently, reach out had a definite meaning. It was something you did when you were in serious trouble or you thought someone else might be. “I was desperate, and I reached out for help.” “I’m so grateful she reached out to me.” “I heard he was in trouble, so I reached out.” Now it means anything from rescuing a drowning child to sending random emails. Sensitivity has spread that far.

Here’s a Fox News report (May 19) about the quest for Mrs. Clinton’s emails:“FoxNews.com has reached out to Clinton's office asking if the emails published by The New York Times reflect a similar situation.” You can read the article yourself to see whether you can figure out what it means by “a similar situation.” I couldn’t.

I concede that it’s always been hard to say anything definite about the things the Clintons do, except to say that the Clintons are probably lying about them. Nevertheless, the notion of FoxNews.com desperately reaching out to Clinton, Inc., would be risible, if any irony were intended. But it’s not. At present, reach out means so many things that it means nothing, and the harsh rule of irony is that it cannot function without a definite meaning someplace.

It’s possible that the more fanatically people are trained in the language of sensitivity, the less sensitive, the more cynical, they become. Their emails are constantly reaching out; their lips are always full of heartfelt thoughts and prayers for everyone involved insome terrible tragedy; but their hearts are in tune with that same old song:

Smile, boys — that’s the style.

They were taught to utter meaningless phrases; they utter them. How is that any different from politicians who talk by the hour about their insistence on transparency and their passion for the political process, without the slightest attempt to define their words?

Well, why shouldn’t you and I adopt the same style? What if the professors and the news writers and the police spokesmen and the heads of departments and the president of the United States speak in a language with the expressive power of those scratches on your kitchen floor? If they won’t define their meanings, why should we be so careful to look for them? Why shouldn’t we return a cynical smile? In the words of another good song,

Don’t take it serious—
It’s too mysterious.




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The Age of Plaster

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Last month’s Word Watch characterized the current era as the Age of Small Minds. A comment was made about that column, an interesting comment too. It was a critique of efforts to distinguish one “age” from another. I responded as best I could, but the truth is, it’s hard to resist naming Ages — as hard as it was for H.L. Mencken to resist naming Belts: you know, the Bible Belt, the Infant Damnation Belt, and so on.

My current idea about the current age is that it should be called, at least in its literary dimension, the Age of Plaster. By “plaster” I mean the kind of stuff that people slather onto a sentence, just any old way, so that the sentence will sort of warm the heart, convey an impression, avert criticism, earn a paycheck, earn a doctorate, or, as the plasterers say, whatever.

The idea is to cover the sentence with the stickiest, gooeyist phrases you’ve heard in the past 24 hours, preferably phrases you’ve heard 24 times during that time. This shows that the plaster will wear well. A good plasterer can get through a whole day — seven days, 365 days, 10,000 days — without having to think about what he’s doing. It’s all routine, and it’s all the same.

A search of Google News returns 16,900,000 citations for legendary. Now there’s a hunk of plaster that will stick to anything.

Instead of stating, simply and clearly, that you called Helen to ask for her advice, you can dredge your wet bucket of words and say that you reached out to Helen to get her input. You don’t need to worry about the fact that getting input is a generic term for what happens with computers, a term not applicable to human beings and not capable of distinguishing between begging for advice, asking for an opinion, drumming your fingers while you pretend to listen, and demanding a complete report by Monday. But why bother to figure out the difference, when input will get you through the sentence?

And why worry about that jarring noise one hears when a banal computer term is coupled with an expression that, until 2014, suggested intense emotional need? Until then, people who were crossed in love reached out to their friends for solace. Communities devastated by natural disasters reached out in desperation for the assistance of others. People who had lost their jobs reached out to their families and friends. You can almost see those hands reaching out. So is that how you reached out for Helen’s input?

A few years ago, I toured the Michigan state capitol. The guide pointed to the beautiful copper chandeliers, elaborate constructions with their lights hanging from effigies of the state’s heraldic animals, the elk and moose. “See those things?” she said. “When they restored the building, they discovered that basically, the chandeliers were hanging from nothing. It was all just lathe and plaster.”

Many a rhetorical elk and moose depends from the plaster ceilings of 2015. Probably there isn’t a day in the Michigan capitol when bureaucrats fail to inform the public that their newly invented infringements on liberty are motivated by an abundance of caution; that without the latest rules and regulations, who knows how many families in this state might have been put in harm’s way?And if these coats of plaster aren’t enough to cover the lathe and support the copper fauna, the bureaucrats will undoubtedly add, If we can save just one life . . . ?

Are there military weapons that are not lethal? No, there are not.

Or we can save just one job — the speechwriter’s. Or the news writer’s. It sounds impossible, but people are actually paid to write newspaper stories about the legacy of Michael Brown. Or about that closely related subject, the many legendary aspects of our world. A search of Google News returns 16,900,000 citations for legendary. Now there’s a hunk of plaster that will stick to anything. High school volleyball seasons are legendary; local sheriffs are legendary, with legendary careers; a retiring chemistry prof is legendary; an obscure 18th-century doctor is legendary. I like Joan Rivers as well as the next person, maybe better; but tell me, what legends are actually told about that legendary performer?

Here’s another kind of news story (AFP, May 14): “Kiev — Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has appointed John McCain, a hawkish US senator who has pressed Washington to send lethal weapons to war-torn Ukraine, as his advisor, his administration said.” As Han Solo once exclaimed, “You said a mouthful, Chewie.” Senator McCain is a hawk, and Ukraine has something like a war going on, and I don’t like either of those things; in fact, I detest Senator McCain. But that’s not a promising way for a news story to begin. The key is “lethal weapons.” Are there military weapons that are not lethal? No, there are not. Lethal weapons is verbal plaster, a way of tarting up a news story until it can double as a partisan attack.

To accomplish the purpose, the words don’t have to make sense. War-torn: what does it mean? Was America “war-torn” from 1861 to 1865? Certainly, if you lived in Virginia. If you lived in Maine, maybe not. But war-torn sounds so definite, doesn’t it? So much like settled science. Being torn is bad; being war-torn must be twice as bad, indeed evil. And imagine the evil of sending lethal weapons to a place that is already war-torn! Horrible to contemplate.

Well, there are plaster saints — of the which McCain is one — and there are plaster arguments. I hope I’m not required to choose between the two.

Most of the verbal plaster that’s now being slung comes out of the political bucket. It’s politics that creates presidential speeches that contain not a single memorable line, just lumps of flattery flung at every demographic group and lobby the speechwriter can think of. It’s politics that creates press conferences so clogged with plaster that nobody cares what was said; everybody just discusses the means that were used not to say anything. This doesn’t mean that words were finally dispensed with. One wishes that they were, and that the press agents resorted to mere gestures. That would be more than enough. Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s film director, was asked how she cut the Nazis’ long-winded speeches down to only a few seconds. “Oh,“ she said, “there’s nothing hard about that. With a political speech, all you need is the beginning and the end, and just something in between.”

But politics isn’t the only source of verbal plaster. The ultimate source is the social assumption, no doubt inspired by our non-educational system, that words — their meanings, their histories, their emotional associations, their logical implications — are of no importance when compared to something, almost anything, else.

You can tell when people think that words are important: it’s when they try to use them accurately, even when accuracy isn’t required.

What does it mean to say that your thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the latest victim of senseless violence? Are the people who say this actually praying? Are they actually thinking? And according to what definition is a murder or riot actually senseless? There wasn’t any motive? There was, but no one can understand it? What? What do these people mean? Do they even know whether the victim had a family? Or cared about it? If they themselves really cared about any of this, they wouldn’t be using these hackneyed phrases.

To cite another example: what does it mean to say that the outcome was negative, or I had a positive reaction to her proposal, or he had a really negative attitude? If the people who use such words cared about conveying a specific meaning, wouldn’t they think for a tenth of a second about the words available to express it? A positive reaction: is thata good reaction, or a favorable one, or a pleasant one, or an enthusiastic one, or a mildly approving one, or what, exactly? If they cared about words and their meanings, why would they let negative take the place of bad, unfavorable, damaging, disastrous, fatal, slightly unfortunate . . . again, every word that’s available to convey a thought? Such people are not trying to cover up their true feelings (as opposed, I guess, to false feelings). They don’t regard their feelings as important enough to define. They want to talk, but without disrupting their intellectual snooze.

You can tell when people think that words are important: it’s when they try to use them accurately, even when accuracy isn’t required. Chelsea Clinton is unlikely to lose her job at the Clinton Foundation, no matter what she says. So, on purely financial principles, why shouldn’t she tell the world, as she did on April 23, that the Foundation is hard at work on many issues, “whether that’s around women and girls”? Huh? What is that, and how is it around? And Andy Levy isn’t likely to lose his job on Red Eye because he, like most other people in the media, said squash when he should have said quash. The difference is that Levy immediately corrected himself, thus demonstrating that he cares more about the meaning of words than about the sound of his own voice, even though it’s the voice that earns the paycheck. Let this event, Levy’s Self-Correction, be recorded, together with its date: April 24, 2015. It was a victory of mind over plaster.

Not all of Levy’s friends at Fox deserve to be seen in this positive light. Jenna Lee, one of the many blonde young ladies who give the network its distinctive tang, was burbling on May 8 about the Kennedy family when she strove for a supreme verbal effect and emitted, “These figures are so icon.” She got her effect, but it seems kind of negative to me. How much do you care about words if you use icon as an adjective?

It was another Foxite, Andrea Tantaros, who fell to discussing a female sports referee (April 9) and observed, “She’s knows how to ref, which she does know how to ref.” It has long been common, among people who are not paid for the words they use — in fact, among illiterate people — to employ which as a universal substitute for and, but, although, because, and any other connective you can think of. But Tantaros is paid — apparently to apply such verbal plaster. Rand Paul, noted for his large quantity of words, is also a pretty good plasterer. On April 7, he told Sean Hannity — he who introduces every other sentence with the word now, with no interest in discovering any other way of plastering over his own lapses of continuity — “If you raise defense spending, which I think we do need defense spending . . . .” Bill Clinton was puzzled by the meaning of is; Rand Paul is unclear about the meaning of which. I prefer Paul, but hell, he’s making it hard.

Political blather . . . how about religious blather? Yes, the clergy have been master plasterers for a long time. But now the Bible is filling up with the gray sticky stuff.

The New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press) is the Bible translation mercilessly pushed by modernist clergy. The damned thing is everywhere — in the liturgy, in Bible studies, in college courses, and I assume (gruesome thought) in deathbed devotions. The NRSV is a terrible translation, flat, pretentious, and sometimes remarkably inaccurate. I was recently reminded of that while I was looking up the Bible episode in which a man is consumed by worms because he took God’s glory to himself.

These are as nothing, compared with a political correctness so asinine that even a male cannot be called a man, even when the Bible calls him that.

He’s Herod Agrippa, and it happens in the twelfth chapter of Acts. Herod says something in public and the admiring crowd exclaims, as at some utterance of a US president, “The voice of a god, and not of a man!” That’s how Acts 12:22 has been translated in the past, and the meaning is perfectly clear in the original. If you’re wondering about the original of “man,” it’s “anthropou,” the genitive of “anthropos.” The word means “man,” plainly and simply. It’s impossible to find a passage in the Bible that is easier to translate.

Unluckily, the translation I seized from the bookcase was the NRSV. And how does this much lauded work of scholarship translate the passage? It manages to render it as, “The voice of a god, and not of a mortal!”

To repeat: “Anthropos” means “man.” It does not mean “male.” It does not mean anything about mortality, one way or another. But let’s get to the most important question: what crowd would say a thing like that? What person would say a thing like that?

Not Thomas Jefferson, who did not hold it self-evident that all mortals are created equal. Not Abraham Lincoln, who did not say that the field of Gettysburg had been consecrated by the blood of brave mortals. Not Edna St. Vincent Millay, who did not write a sequence of poems called Epitaph for the Race of Mortals. They didn’t say it that way, and they wouldn’t have said it that way, because saying it that way would have made them look as if they didn’t give a damn about the words they used.

But to the august Bible translators, the meanings of words, their emotional associations, their dramatic proprieties and plausibilities — these are as nothing, compared with a political correctness so asinine that even a male cannot be called a man, even when the Bible calls him that. The assumption is that once political correctness is secured, any kind of verbal plaster will be good enough to cover the gap between Acts 12:21 and Acts 12:23.

This the kind of thing that makes real liberals shudder. And what can be next? Mortal and Supermortal? “A mortal’s reach should exceed his/her grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?” “Ecce homo: behold the mortal”? Very probably. They’re all just words. Just something you spread on a wall.




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When You Wish Upon a Czar

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Two minutes after President Obama gave his political crony Ron Klain the job of Ebola Czar, I got a text message from a friend. He’s a political scientist, so I was expecting him to complain about Klain’s being nothing but a Democratic Party hack, but he didn’t. His comment took an historical turn. What he said was, “If trends continue, America will have more czars than Russia had in its whole history.”

I saw that as a protest, not against the Russian monarchy, but against the current assumption that words prove their worth, not in use, but in overuse. To my friend, a word is valuable because it’s both appropriate and fresh. To many other people, it’s valuable because it’s capable of being used over and over again, in any possible circumstance.

There’s nothing wrong, in itself, about the use of “czar” to mean something like “an official appointed to exercise full power over a designated matter.” Czar is an admirably brief, concrete, imagistically evocative word to express that meaning. But one can be driven to suicide by other people’s overuse of even the finest words. No one wants to hear “I love you” every minute of every day, and certainly no one wants to contemplate an endless sequence of organization charts in which every position is labeled “Czar.”

We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: it would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

Consider: the United States now has two czars in the same realm. The first was Dr. Nicole Lurie, whose existence no one remembered until the president started being urged to appoint an emergency preparedness czar. Then we learned that we already had one, and it was Dr. Lurie, who is Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response for the Department of Health and Human Services. But that made no difference; another monarch was added to America’s ever-growing College of Czars.

In 1908, when Ferdinand I, Prince Regnant of Bulgaria, proclaimed himself Czar of Bulgaria, his action excited much unfavorable comment from other monarchs. There already was a Czar of Russia, and the general opinion was that one was enough. Contemporary Americans are clearly without that kind of taste and discrimination. We want a czar in every pot. We don’t consider the fact that “czars” have one important characteristic in common with actual czars: they are very hard to get rid of. Even if they’ve finished their job and wiped out Ebola or baseball or whatever else it is they’re supposed to handle, they or their bureaucratic progeny remain in office. It would take the Bolsheviks to get rid of them.

There’s another term that has been spread by the nation’s romance with Ebola — the old but increasingly dangerous abundance of caution. How long those six syllables had, until recently, been incubating deep in our linguistic organs, only the zombies know, but now, suddenly, the contagion is everywhere. Whenever a government official delays some urgent job, it’s out of an abundance of caution. Whenever an American citizen is prevented from exercising his rights, it’s because an abundance of caution led the FDA to deny him a drug, or led the gun suppressors to deny him a permit, or led the cops to arrest him for reminding them of the law, or led the high school principal to tell him not to wear a flag-print t-shirt, thereby offending non-Americans. Once it gets going, abundance of caution can do a lot of damage.

State-friendly terms such as czar, abundance of caution, and of course national crisis have been big winners in this, the Ebola Period of our history. Meanwhile, phrases dear to the hearts of (certain) libertarians have suffered badly — indeed, have virtually disappeared from public use: open borders, freedom to immigrate, right to immigrate, and the like. I confess that such terms have never been favorites of mine. To the disgust of (certain) other libertarians, I have argued at length against the concepts they express (Liberty, October 2006). Those terms will have a difficult time regaining the spotlight now occupied by domestic terrorists, the terrorists’ wacko foreign exemplars, and the Ebola virus. It’s hard to see how a radical immigrationistwould answer the question, “Do you mean that Thomas Eric Duncan had a right to enter America and spread a deadly disease?”, or the obviously succeeding questions, “So you’re saying that the right to immigrate isn’t universal, after all? So why do you think it’s a right?” We’ll see what the friends of open borders do to revive their favorite words. I’m sure they’ll think of something.

Where would we be without "adults in the room" and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis?

While they’re thinking, we await in horror the coming election. The political results may be bad or good — more or less crippling to our actual rights — but the linguistic phenomena are already gruesome. A friend recently asked whether American political commentary could do without stupid sports metaphors. The answer is, Apparently not. Where would we be if elections weren’t up for grabs, if the trailing candidate didn’t need to hit a home run, if the leading candidate weren’t trying to run the clock out, orif one of the two parties weren’t just playing DE-fense, never managing to get across the goal line?

And where would we be without adults in the room and the other pseudo-psychological clutter that appears in almost every political analysis? Protestors, for example, never yell and scream; they vent their frustrations; they act them out. Their actions are signals that our communities need healing, and that healing can come only from a therapeutic national conversation or bipartisan dialogue — both parties on the psychiatrist’s couch.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not.

But here I must apologize. At some point in this column, I went out of bounds. I stopped blaming the victims — blaming phrases that started their lives with hope and promise, only to lose it because of community pressure to be something they’re not — and I started displaying my phobias about expressions that were losers to begin with.So I’ll adopt a more proactive stance and pose the challenging question: what would happen if an American public figure actually tried to ignore all insipid current clichés and restore the greatness of the English language, the language of Shakespeare and Emerson and Jefferson, of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost and . . . oh, maybe, of William Butler Yeats?

Well, here is what would happen, and did happen, when, on Oct. 3, Vice President Biden spoke at the prestigious John F. Kennedy Forum, “Harvard’s premier arena for public speech.” “Folks,” said Biden,

Folks, “all’s changed, changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born.” Those are the words written by an Irish poet William Butler Yeats about the Easter Rising in 1916 in Ireland. They were meant to describe the status of the circumstance in Ireland at that time. But I would argue that in recent years, they better describe the world as we see it today because all has changed. The world has changed.

There’s been an incredible diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability. Emerging economies like India and China have grown stronger, and they seek a great force in the global order and global affairs. . . .

The international order that we painstakingly built after World War II and defended over the past several decades is literally fraying at the seams right now.

Now, let’s see. Yeats did write a poem, called “Easter 1916,” about the Irish nationalist Easter Rebellion. His poem suggests that commonplace people were transformed, at least in imagination, by their participation in that failed revolt:

All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Does Biden understand the poem that he slightly misquotes? Clearly not. No good poem, and particularly not Yeats’s poem, “describe[s] the status of the circumstance” of something. But does Biden understand his own remarks? Again, clearly not. What terrible beauty could he possibly see in “the status of the circumstance” that he himself describes — “diffusion of power within states and among states that has led to greater instability,” an “international order” that is “literally fraying at the seams” (and can ya believe it, “right now,” too)? That’s not beautiful. It’s not even terrible, in the sense that Biden wants to import from Yeats. A person who doesn’t understand that literally means literally, not figuratively, or that something that was “built” doesn’t have “seams” and therefore cannot “fray” . . . this person should stay as far away as possible from other people’s poetry. We’re used to the vice president’s torrent of clichés; must we now be visited with his attempts to be learned and original?

It’s interesting to speculate how many people would say what they say, if they understood it. Here’s a passage that the vice president presumably wouldn’t like; it’s from a political analysis by Jennifer Rubin, issued on Sept. 30 by the Washington Post.It’s about a number of Democratic senators who may not win their elections. I’ll put the most obvious clichés in italics:

They were napping while the Islamic State surged and were asleep during the wheel for other Obama foreign policy flubs. They didn’t raise any objection to zeroing troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan. They were unmoved by the atrocious Iran interim deal. They were quite happy to watch the sequestration cuts wreak havoc on military preparedness. Now the bill has come due for circling the wagons around Obama.

The quantity of clichésis bad enough, but does she really mean to say that the senators were happy to watch even when they were asleep? Is she really able to picture a cut, much less such a passive, somnolent thing as a sequestration cut, wreaking havoc? Does she really think that people who circle wagons get a bill for it? And what picture was in her mind when she thought of people sleeping during the wheel?

Enough. I’m tired. I’m going to find some wheel to sleep during.




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