2016 — Reaching Out to an Iconic Year


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear All,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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You Can Write Whatever You Want


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Information Regarding Operational Impact of Technology Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Riddles, Wrapped in Mysteries


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!


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


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


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


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?


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


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


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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