Aping the English Language

 | 

Are you annoyed, angered, outraged by our national illiteracy? Or have you come to be amused by it? Do you wake every day grinding your teeth about the ridiculous mistakes you expect to find, not in the spam section of your email, but in the published words of people who are actually paid to write the bizarre things they write? Or do you rise bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, eager to enjoy the latest nonsense?

I am still one of the intellectual Cro-Magnons who belong to the first category, but I’m evolving toward the second one. The American language is becoming too ridiculous not to laugh about. Suppose that a pianist sits down to perform her first recital, and forgets several bars of the sonata she wants to play. That would be sad, perhaps tragic. But suppose that a chimpanzee sits down at a piano and starts running his paws over the keys as if he were a concert pianist. That would be funny. It might even be entertaining. If chimps have charm, this would be a moment when their charm could be appreciated. The fumbling could be understood as a momentarily interesting, perhaps exhilarating, confirmation of what we already knew: we are smarter than chimps. Some of us, anyway.

This month’s examples of idiotic verbal mistakes are presented in that spirit of fun. At least most of them are.

On August 31, Fox News reported on an explosion in a Paris apartment house: “Initial reports are that this was caused by a potential gas leak.” How great is that! An apartment house blows up, and Fox blames it on a potential gas leak. Imagine what an actual gas leak would have done.

The American language is becoming too ridiculous not to laugh about.

On September 4, John Nolte, writing on Breitbart’s site, noted that “USA Todayis Gannett's flagship publication and enjoys the highest circulation of any other American newspaper.” A paradox worthy of Zeno himself: USA Today is both itself and something other.

On September 17, the Cleveland Plain Dealer published an article about the various kinds of incarceration available for T.J. Lane in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Lane, as you may recall, is the young gentleman who in 2012 assassinated several other young people at a high school in Chardon, Ohio, then showed up in court wearing a shirt on which he had written “KILLER,” and delivered bawdy insults to the victims’ families. This month, he escaped from a ludicrously under-secured facility, was recaptured, and was sent to a real prison. After detailing the penitentiary’s super-max provisions, the article notes that “the maximum-security portion houses about 300 slightly less restrictive inmates.” I can understand that some inmates have to be more restricted than others, but what are the inmates restricting? Their guards’ ability to restrict them, perhaps?

The most entertaining result of T.J.’s escape was the bewildered speculation pursued by many channels of public information about the motivation for his latest escapade. CNN’s online headline (September 12) says it all: “Chardon School Killer T J Lane: Tightlipped about Motive, Escape.” T.J., it seems, failed to say why he scaled the fence and left the prison. Readers can only guess why anyone would want to do a thing like that.

This month, even John McCain showed that he still has what it takes to entertain us. On September 11 he had an amusing confrontation with Jay Carney, formerly the president’s chief prevaricator (i.e., press secretary). In this instance, I suppose, McCain’s heart was in the right place. He called Carney a liar, and why should he call him anything else? But what he said was, “You are again, Mr. Carney, saying facts that are patently false.” Paradox again! Only a radical Pyrrhonist could so boldly assert that even facts can be false, and patently false. The biggest paradox, however, is that Sen. McCain, a man who for many years has done nothing but talk, more or less in English, can be so patently ignorant of the meaning of a common English monosyllable. The word facts is foreign to him.

Jonathan Swift claimed that he wouldn’t satirize people who didn’t court his satire with their ridiculous pretensions. He “spared a hump or crooked nose / Whose owners set not up for beaux.” To vary Swift’s metaphor, it isn’t sporting to make fun of lame people who slip and fall in the street, but when lame people advertise themselves as Olympic athletes, then one has a right to be amused.

If you attend to these sickening displays of self-righteousness, you may be amused by how clumsy they are. They’re almost as subtle, or convincing, as an ape in a tuxedo.

You can see how this applies to McCain, who smugly invoked the rare word patently, only to fall headlong over simple facts. It also applies to the headline writer of the Daily Mail. On September 3, the paper published a translation of one of those arrogant messages that ISIS sends to world leaders. The headline over the article was: “This message is addressed to you, oh Putin.” Oh, how literate! Oh, how parodically grandiloquent! The problem is that the headline writer and the headline approver and the headline proofreader, none of them, knew that the signal of the English vocative is O, not oh. It’s hard to parody someone else’s exalted tone when you don’t know the forms of exalted language.

Is this important? Is it a mere slippage from O to oh? A mere confusion between a vocative and an interjection? A mere revelation that someone doesn’t grasp the language of Milton, Shakespeare, or common English hymns? Or is it another ominous sign that these days, most people are more willing to write than they are to read? After all, when you read, you run into all kinds of whacky old words, and who wants to do that?

If you care about words as tools of meaning, you may have a hard time seeing any fun in the continual erosion of the language. But you won’t deny the dark humor of the latest disaster to afflict Malaysia Airlines. It was a verbal disaster, not an aeronautical one; this time, the company didn’t lose any planes. But it was the kind of disaster that is happening wherever English is the standard tongue, and tongues have found that they can operate without any connection to brains.

Devising its current advertising campaign, Malaysia Airlines began by confusing wit with vulgarity. There’s a vulgar expression that unfortunately has some popularity today. That expression is bucket list. A bucket list is an enumeration of the things you want to do before you kick the bucket; i.e., die. Kicking the bucket was funny at the start of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), in the scene where Jimmy Durante kicks it. Bucket list is an attempt — a stupid attempt — to bring back the fun. But just when it was becoming obvious that bucket list had jumped the shark, Malaysia Airlines, famous for its multitude of dead passengers, initiated an ad campaign called “My Ultimate Bucket List.” If you submitted the “best” bucket list — whatever “best” might mean, although I guess it wouldn’t mean smoking less weed or apologizing to the people you’ve wronged — you would get some kind of prize.

Most people’s idea of an appropriate prize from Malaysia Airlines would be survival, but a thought like that would never occur to a company like that. The company was shocked to discover that anyone could possibly have been offended. Nevertheless, it changed the name of the contest to “Win an iPad or Malaysia Airlines Flight to Malaysia.” I’d accept the first gift, after checking it out for possible safety problems, but I’d pass on the second.

The errors I’ve discussed so far are mostly innocent, monkeylike antics; but not every verbal fumble can be described in that way. Oh, no. Consider the verbal wallpaper that goes by the name of “public service announcements.” If you attend to these sickening displays of self-righteousness, you may be amused by how clumsy they are. They’re almost as subtle, or convincing, as an ape in a tuxedo. This month, the PSA campaign that caught my attention was some advice dished out by a group ostensibly concerned with keeping people’s lives from being ruined by arrests for drunk driving — in other words, a group intent on threatening people with having their lives ruined if they don’t follow its advice.

Make no mistake: people’s lives are ruined by pressure groups like this. I have known several people who lost their jobs and therefore their families because they were poor and they got stopped by a cop and were found to be “drunk” and were jailed and fined and lost their license to drive, which meant that they lost their ability to work. Their lives were devastated, not because they did any damage but because the amount of alcohol in their blood was a trifle higher than a politically identified limit fixed by the law and continually lowered in response to the demands of mad mothers, crony capitalist insurance companies, do-good committees and foundations, municipalities cadging fines, and other lovable persons or nonpersons.

When people try to win an argument by redefining words, they are admitting that they’ve lost the argument but insist on winning anyway.

But that isn’t enough. Enough isn’t a word that busybodies ever understand. Their public service announcements now warn us that we will be arrested even if we are not driving drunk. They claim that we will be arrested for simply driving buzzed: “Buzzed driving,” the ads assert, “is drunken driving.” To which any ordinary speaker of English will reply, “No, it isn’t; that’s why they are called by two different words.” To be buzzed or tohave a buzz on or to have a buzz going is very different from chucking empties of Jim Beam out the window as you drive the wrong way on a one-way street. Everybody knows that. The confusion of drunk with buzzed is an intentional attempt to intimidate. It’s similar to all those other means by which contemporary puritans try to confuse normal conduct, or mild misconduct, with actual crime, and prepare to administer appropriate punishment. Thus, smacking a kid’s bottom becomes child abuse. Having sex with someone who is buzzed or who did not specifically say yes becomes rape. Accusing the president of laziness becomes racism, and declining to subsidize young women’s birth control becomes sexism.

It’s a rule with few exceptions: when people try to win an argument by redefining words, they are admitting that they’ve lost the argument but insist on winning anyway. There would be no reason to call spanking child abuse if people who are opposed to all corporal punishment had convinced the majority of the public that they were right. But they didn’t, so now they are trying to get public opinion, and ultimately the law, to punish spanking by jumbling it together with abuse. Their ideological cousins try the same stunt, by jumbling racism together with counting President Obama’s golf games.

Here is a great way of creating confusion: making one expression stand for very different things. A curious example of this method is what has happened to the most popular political expression of 2014, boots on the ground. This phrase was once fresh and vivid, and its purpose was clear. It was meant to identify and exclude a certain kind of military force: “There will be no boots on the ground.” But boots on the ground established itself as a cliché that could be given as many delusive meanings as friends of the most transparent administration in history could come up with. Its ostensible meaning is still no troops on the ground, but its real meaning has become no troops on the ground except advisors on the ground; no combat troops on the ground except those originally intended to be combat troops; and no foot soldiers on the ground — only paratroopers, Navy SEALS, Marines, active military advisors, Boy Scouts . . .

And no, I don’t think that’s entertaining.




Share This


Moving Forward, Clichés Remain

 | 

On August 8, Fox News reported on the Obamacare-avoidance strategy of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). Since Shaheen is running for reelection, she never mentions the great legislative achievement of the supreme leader of her party; Obamacare is just too unpopular to be named. Accordingly, in an interview played by Fox, Shaheen answered questions about the program by noting that she didn’t write the Obamacare law. She didn’t say whether this was because she opposed its provisions (although she voted for them) or because she can’t write. She did observe that “hindsight is always 20/20.”

She said this with great satisfaction, as if she were proud of her creative use of words.

Odd. But come to think of it, everyone who uses this cliché projects the same morbid pride. A similar cock-eyed vanity accompanies the use of “wake-up call,” “deck chairs on the Titanic,” “it’s a case of he said, she said,” “last time I checked,” “abundance of caution,” “shocks the conscience,” “got your back,” and, of course, “tone-deaf.” I don’t know why people who obviously care so deeply about the words they choose can’t see that their prize expressions have been in everyone’s mouth (ugly thought, isn’t it?) for many, many years. Maybe that’s a lack of hindsight.

It’s funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge.

But what about foresight? On the same day on which Fox was ventilating Sen. Shaheen’s inanities, the network’s B-list anchor Kimberly Guilfoyle said this about Iraq: “Questions remain about President Obama’s strategy, moving forward.” She said this as if it meant something. Well, I have some questions too, as I move forward in my own life. Don’t questions always remain, about anything? Then why bother to say so? If, however, she meant “doubt” or “skepticism,” why didn’t she say that? And isn’t strategy always about what you’re going to do in the future? If so, what is moving forward doing in that sentence? And what’s the grammar of the sentence, anyway? What is it that’s “moving”? Is it “strategy”? Is the president’s strategy moving? Or is it “questions” that are executing a peculiar forward motion? Yet the questions are supposed to remain. Tell me, Ms. Guilfoyle. But maybe someone else can tell me why moving forward has become such a popular cliché? Is it, like many other redundant expressions, just a way for insecure speakers to nail down their meaning — in this instance, to nail down the idea that, yes, I am talking about the future, OK, not the past? Y’know?

There are clichés, and then there are mistakes — continually repeated mistakes. The mistake of writing whacko when you mean wacko. The mistake of calling in the calvary. The mistake of using disinterested to mean uninterested. And, as I’ve told you before, there is the rising tide of squash.

I mean the confusion of that word, which normally evokes absurd images of fat things being flattened, with quash, which is naturally attached to no particular image but does mean something specific: to stop or repress. The judge quashed the indictment. The teacher quashed the question. The dictator quashed all debate. Try to picture indictments, questions, and debates being squashed. You can’t, and the harder you try, the sillier the incipient images become.

I would expect conservatives to conserve the quash-squash distinction. But they have become almost as good at moving forward as the progressives. In the conservative Daily Caller, July 21, we find this headline: “Top Kerry Aide Tries to Squash Claim of Anti-Fox News Bias by Lying to the Daily Caller.” The story is interesting, but the headline is bad by any standard except that of “Dog Bites Man.” One is supposed to picture a “Kerry aide” — an aide of the secretary of state, John Kerry — rushing over to a claim of bias, stomping on it, jumping on it, sitting on it, and finally lying about it, in a futile attempt to squash the thing. Yet the Daily Caller did not intend to be satirical. Or self-satirical.

Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase.

Neither did Attorney General Holder, in solemn remarks (he is always solemn) that announced his insertion of the federal government into the matter of a young man shot by a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Evidently this is the kind of thing that can be handled only by the intrepid intellect of the attorney general, and of the 40 FBI agents he dispatched to a little Midwestern town. But here is the LA Times report (August 11) on the terms in which Holder announced his intervention:

U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement that he believed the shooting in Ferguson “deserves fulsome review,” and he wanted the federal inquiry to “supplement, not supplant” the investigation by police in Missouri.

“Supplement, not supplant”: nothing wrong with that verbiage. “Review” is a little funky — funky in the ordinary way of words that are used by government officials accustomed to extending their power by subterfuge. Citizens were meant to understand that what Holder had in mind wasn’t an investigation, a legal proceeding, a crackdown, an inquisition, a Court of Star Chamber. No, it was merely a review, albeit a “fulsome” one. We’re used to this kind of guff. But where did fulsome come from? The only possible source is the attorney general’s feeling that a full review would be lacking somehow in fullness. Surely, there is a larger, more rotund way of putting it. Surely, there is a fatter phrase. So, as pompous people extend use into utilize, road into roadway, and famous into infamous, Holder put a new deck on the back of the house, and full was transformed into fulsome.

The problem is that fulsome does not mean full (any more than infamous means famous). Fulsome sometimes means “large” (as opposed to “full”), but its ordinary meaning is less predictable by people who want to use big words they don’t understand. One dictionary lists the synonyms of fulsome as “excessive, extravagant, overdone, immoderate, inordinate, unctuous, cloying . . . ” Granted, we can expect an investigation commissioned by the attorney general to be worthy of all these adjectives, because he himself is worthy. But that’s not what he meant to say. Critical self-examination is not his forte.

Nobody thought it was. Yet there is always a rumor that modern liberals, such as the people who write speeches for Holder and checks for Obama campaigns, are highly educated. From Plato’s Republic to this day, specialized education has been considered the qualification and justification for rulers in dirigiste systems of government — all of them instituted, of course, by allegedly intelligent and well-educated (as opposed to actually intelligent and well educated) people. The linguistic spoors left by President Obama and his crew make the credentials of the ruling class look less genuine than ever before.

Almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Moral fulsomeness is sometimes hard to distinguish from mere demagoguery. I don’t think I can make that distinction in the case of Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. He it was who followed Holder’s lead by making a television address in which he repeatedly demanded vigorous “prosecution” of the cop involved in the Ferguson affair, a cop who hasn’t been charged with any offense. Nixon’s office later explained that by “prosecution” he really meant “investigation” (a distinction without a difference, from the demagogue or the tyrant’s point of view) but maintained that Nixon had no reason to retract anything in his statements.

I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury,
Said cunning old Fury:
I’ll try the whole cause
And condemn you to death.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

But speaking of public morals: I’m not one of those people who are addicted to the notion that “our country’s moral fabric is being eroded” — if only because that’s a mixed metaphor as well as a cliché. But I did get a kick out of the videos of Travis County Texas District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg (and that’s a mouthful right there) experiencing the aftermath of an arrest for driving with her blood alcohol considerably over the legal limit. . . If nothing else, the videos give new life to the old expression “drunk as the lord.” (Drunk as the lord of the manor, you understand, not drunk as the Lord God, despite the fact that Judges 9:13 refers to wine as something that “cheereth God and man.”) All right, all right: I admit it: I’m not in favor of laws against drunk driving, unless it results in damage. And I know I’m in a small minority on that. But almost everyone is glad to see the haughty administrators of Law subjected to the treatment they mete out to others, and making fools of themselves in process.

Even Gov. Rick Perry — he of the slack jaw and wandery eye — was acute enough to reflect on the fact that Lehmberg was the person charged with administering an agency concerned with ethics. So Perry threatened to veto the agency’s appropriation unless she resigned; when she didn’t, he carried out his threat and vetoed the bill. His reward was to be indicted by a grand jury for “abuse of office.” Believe me, I hate to defend Rick Perry, but the prosecutor seems challenged by the rudimentary distinction between use of office and abuse of office.

Nor is grotesque abuse of words simply a Texas problem. No one in the national administration appears capable of finding the right phrase. Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (“Chuck”) Hagel has been reprimanded by this column before, but he has not learned his lesson. This month, he babbled about the attempt to rescue martyred journalist Jim Foley from his crazed jihadi captors, calling it a “flawless operation” that had only one problem: it failed. When the rescuers came, Foley was in some other place. Hagel’s exact words were: “This operation, by the way, was a flawless operation but the hostages were not there. We will do everything we need to do, that the American people would expect from their leaders, to continue to do everything we can to get our hostages back.”

But “everything” must not mean everything — in light of the administration’s stout refusal, in respect to the Foley case, to negotiate with terrorists or pay ransom to terrorists. That is what unanimous administration spokesmen declined to endorse. But tell me, if you can, where is Bowe Bergdahl today, and where are the five jihadis with whose freedom Bergdahl was not-ransomed on May 31? And tell me, while you’re at it, is Hagel still conducting an investigation about whether Bergdahl left his post or deserted it? Once more, there’s a problem of words, the distinctions between words, the meanings of words . . . Perhaps it’s a conceptual problem. Perhaps it’s important!

Oh, here’s an item. Bergdahl’s attorney has now told Reuters that Bergdahl “is ready to move on to the next chapter of his life.” Maybe the president should make another speech congratulating Bergdahl on moving forward. Certainly it’s nice to hear that the young man is making plans for his life, not merely wandering around battle zones in Afghanistan. Somehow, though, I just can’t repress my feeling that it should be Jim Foley who’s moving on to the next chapter of his life. He was entitled to, if anyone was.

It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around.

But perhaps Mr. Hagel was having trouble coming to grips, linguistically, with his own emotions. Many people at the apex of power suffer in this way. There is, for example, the president’s confusion of the word heartbroken with such words as having fun figuring out how to bat little white balls into little tin cups. “We are all heartbroken,” Obama said on August 20, in a tense little speech about Foley’s murder. But those words must not have been quite right. Eight minutes later the broken hearted chief executive was giggling with his buddies on the golf course. You have to admire his powers of recuperation. I would giggle myself, at the absurdity of it all, if I could get the scene of Foley’s beheading out of my mind. The president must have greater strength of character than I have.

The most absurd episode of the month — again, linguistically — was a series of events in Montana, in which sitting Senator John Walsh (Dem.) was found to have plagiarized a 14-page so-called paper submitted as part of a credentialing process in a two-bit graduate program. Walsh and his friends justified his stupidity in many ways: by claiming that he had done nothing wrong (he had used 96 footnotes!); by noting that he wasn’t, by nature, an academic; by claiming that his “mistake” was “unintentional”; by saying that he had served in Iraq, that one of his colleagues in Iraq had killed himself, that he (Walsh) had not killed himself but had been the victim of hundreds of enemy attacks (later reduced to one attack); by suggesting that he had post-traumatic stress disorder, though whatever he had was never diagnosed in exactly that way . . . While at school, Walsh, like his president, was known for his devotion to golf.

Finally the senator surrendered his candidacy, and the Democrats came up with another nominee, one Amanda Curtis, probably their worst possible choice. I felt comfortable analyzing Walsh, a lantern-jawed jock who drifted from one official position to another. His mishaps with words practically analyzed themselves. Curtis is different. It’s as if words — silly, arrogant, ignorant, shrill, classbound, hateful, obnoxious words — had created her, instead of the other way around. Walsh’s supposed thesis paper was a tissue of mild, mainstream clichés, many of them plagiarized. Curtis’s genuine video blog is an exhibit of left-“liberal” thought, unfiltered and unembarrassed. But what is its cause or referent in the real world? That remains unknown. She might as well be reacting to the climate on Mars.

To return to the subject of the educated classes: Can you guess this candidate’s occupation? You’ve got it: she’s a teacher.




Share This


Peak Obama

 | 

"We tortured some folks."

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

"We tortured some folks."

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

"We tortured some folks."

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



Share This


How the Other Half Speaks

 | 

There’s an old expression: “seeing how the other half lives.” It means looking at people who are different from you, ordinarily people who are richer, and enjoying the spectacle — cynically, perhaps, or just with a sense of humor. One of the rewards of writing this column is seeing how the other half lives in its world of words. Occasionally I get to revel in the great things once spoken or written by people who had a real mastery of language. Those people were rich in words, rich in ways of using words, and often rich in wisdom too. I’m feeling guilty, right now, that I haven’t run a column about them in quite a while. But there are other ways of being rich. One can be rich in wisdom, but one can also be rich in ignorance; and, as a good poet said, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.”

What place did Thomas Gray have in mind when he wrote the word “where”? He may have been thinking simply of 18th-century England, where he lived, in the literal way of living; or he may have been thinking of the universal human condition, in which we all have to live. Probably both. But I like to believe that he was a true prophet and saw, far in the future, a place called 21st-century America. Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can shed all the traditional guilts and compunctions under which the ignorant long have labored, and simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby. These are the truly wealthy. The place they inhabit is like the heaven of Christ, where neither moth nor rust corrupts, nor thieves break in and steal.

One very wealthy person — not just a member of the Other Half but a member of its One Percent — is President Obama. It used to be said, even by his opponents, that Obama was a fine public speaker. Today, few of his proponents dare to make that claim. Always happy to hear his own words, Obama constantly emits them; and this compulsion has forced people to notice, not only that he is lost without his teleprompter, but also that his utterances have no memorable components. The great thing, for him, is that he doesn’t realize any of this. He hasn’t a clue. When it comes to himself, ignorance is profoundly blissful; he has no critical faculty or even the ability to recognize that other people do.

Here, certainly, is a paradise of ignorance, a place where people who don’t know anything about anything can simply speak their minds (if any), enjoying themselves thereby.

I’m not saying this because I oppose his politics. I feel the same about the politics of President Roosevelt (both of them), President Truman, President Johnson, President Nixon, President Ford, and the two Presidents Bush — to name a few. But there was something redeeming, if only in a minor way, about their verbal exercises. Anyone can think of interesting, though sometimes very strange, things said by the Roosevelts: “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord” (TR, on his presidential campaign in 1912). Truman, in my opinion, was a terrible president, and Lyndon Johnson was worse; but their private or informal remarks were often witty and sometimes wise, if only in a cynical way. When Johnson said that he didn’t want to fire J. Edgar Hoover because he’d “rather have that s.o.b. inside, pissing out, instead of outside, pissing in,” he said something significant in an unforgettable way. Nixon had neither wit nor humor, but he did have wide interests and was capable of saying things that were actually informative. Ford and the Bushes had no literary ability at all, and their expressed intellectual interests could fit on a postage stamp, but they didn’t think they were literary geniuses. They didn’t think they were anything in that department. Their best hope was not to offend, and they seldom did.

By contrast, Obama’s only bad feeling about himself is a lingering resentment that he wasn’t awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature as well as the Nobel Prize for Peace. It is impossible to think simultaneously of “Obama” and “self-doubt.” To say that Obama is self-satisfied is to judge him with insensate prejudice. Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it. His tone and body language express the continuous certainty that whatever falls out of his mouth is both momentous in its influence and fascinating in its nature. He has the naïve and wonderful self-confidence of the pampered child, because that is what he is.

A recent article by Terence Jeffrey reviewed one of Obama’s speeches and found that he used first-person pronouns 199 times. To be fair, the speech was 5,500 words long. Also to be fair, 5,500 words is a mighty long speech, unless you have something to say. So what did the president have to say?

He said, “I’m just telling the truth now. I don't have to run for office again, so I can just let her rip.” You see what I mean. He has no idea that “let her rip” is a subpresidential expression, or that even people who work in the 7-11 recognize it as such, and recognize it as a cliché. They also recognize — and the other day, while buying my two-dollar coffee, I heard some of them discussing — the idiocy of saying “I’m telling the truth now,” because it implies that you haven’t been telling the truth before. Obama is cognizant of none of this. Bless his heart, he’s happy with himself.

Obama radiates self-satisfaction; he eats it, breathes it, swims in it, and constantly secretes it.

Another thing he said was, “You look at our history, and we had great Republican presidents who — like Teddy Roosevelt started the National Park System, and Dwight Eisenhower built the Interstate Highway System, and Richard Nixon started the EPA.” It’s quaint, and kind of entertaining, to picture old President Eisenhower out there buildin’ highways, or President Nixon thinking hard and coming up with the EPA. But what struck me, outside of Barry’s childish reference to the first Roosevelt as “Teddy,” was his strange idea of grammar. As I have said before in these pages, Obama has never mastered the use of “like,” but now we see him using it in a way so ignorant that I can’t remember hearing it before, even in junior high school: “Like Teddy Roosevelt started . . .” By the way, the national parks had existed for generations before Roosevelt “started” them. But what the hell. If you don’t know that you don’t know grammar or history, you’re a happy man.

A third thing he said was, “It is lonely, me just doing stuff.” Sad, isn’t it? But no, you have to picture him saying this to a crowd of listeners at a rally. Sad, and ironic. Intelligence is often manifested not only in a knowledge of history and a familiarity with grammar but also in a sense of irony. That’s three strikes, right there. Yet he’ll never know that he struck out. Much of the fun of seeing how the Other Half lives is enjoying the complete self-assurance they show when they are saying patently ridiculous things.

And they never run out of those things. Consider a few samples from the past few weeks.

Start with lovable old Harry Reid. Spurting outrage over the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case, Reid noted with disgust that it was decided by “five white men.” None of the anointed news media seems to have observed that Reid himself is (gasp!) a white man; and none was willing to mention that one of the five white men in the Court’s majority was . . . Clarence Thomas. Perhaps this indicates why Reid is able to talk with absolute self-assurance on any topic he addresses — no one to the left of the Daily Caller and National Review is willing to correct him.

Not that the rightwing media suffer from an excess of self-criticism. For me, a particularly interesting illustration was something that Michael Warren, staff writer for the Weekly Standard, said on Fox News a couple of months ago (May 11). This isn’t Sean Hannity, mind you; Hannity says bizarre things every day, and nobody on Fox seems to notice. But Warren wasn’t a popular daily offering, so you would think someone would dare to question his senseless statement that congressmen investigating the administration’s scandals shouldn’t be allowed to “go off on any conspiracy theories” but just “stick to the facts.” Now look. The scandals are about the alleged joint actions — conspiracies — of many people. What if “the facts” show that there has been a conspiracy? Oh, leave that alone! Don’t go off on that!

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about the subject.

Warren’s remark was senseless in the way in which virtually all references to “conspiracy theories” are senseless. I certainly don’t believe that Clay Shaw conspired with Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President Kennedy, but I do believe that conspiracy has a meaning and may be useful if you know that meaning. You can say the same about a lot of words that authoritative people wouldn’t dream of looking up. Why bother finding out what decimate means when you can just go ahead and use the word — as did Fox News on July 5, when reporting on pictures of “a decimated Shiite holy site.” Terrible! Someone removed one-tenth of the holiness! But it’s wonderful that Fox can quantify things in this way.

Fox, of course, is a great upholder of religion — an easy job, I suppose, when you know nothing about religion. If ignorance is ever funny, it certainly was on May 24, when Fox reported that “the Pope visited the Jordan River, where many Christians believe Jesus was baptized.” This message was repeated throughout the day — no correction. So I assume that nobody on active duty at Fox perceived the idiocy of the statement. It was like referring, very instructively, to Mecca as the place where many Muslims believe that Muhammed lived, or the state of Washington as the place that many Americans believe was named after a general of the Revolutionary War. Not everyone believes that Jesus was resurrected, but there’s no dispute that he was baptized, and baptized in the Jordan River. Why would there be? Where does Fox think that manyother Christiansbelieve he was baptized — the Chattahoochee?

(Please don’t write to tell me that in your opinion, Jesus never existed, and that therefore many Christians do believe he was baptized someplace besides the Jordan. That makes no sense.)

OK, enough picking on Fox (for now). Among the people most likely to be comfortable while spouting meaninglessly emphatic words are military officers, not all of whom have the literary insight of Wellington or Grant. Transcripts of officers commenting to congressional investigators about their (the officers’) role in the Benghazi affair have now been released (though redacted). These remarksare designed to show that, although commanders did little to rescue the Americans under attack at Benghazi, and told others to do less, no one was ordered to “stand down.”

This is a tough line to elucidate, but one must assume that the officers did their best. Here’s what came out. We are told that when one officer and his group were ready to proceed to Benghazi, where there was bad trouble, they were told to stay in Tripoli, “in case trouble started there.” The officer, one Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, explained that this was not a “stand down”:

“It was not a stand-down order," Gibson said. "It was not, 'Hey, time for everybody to go to bed.' It was, you know, 'Don't go. Don't get on that plane. Remain in place.'"

Thanks for clearing that one up.

And thanks to the aforesaid Harry Reid, senator from Nevada, majority leader of the Senate, for clearing up something of even greater importance, the question of whether the United States has a southern border. Currently, it appears that it does not, unless you mean by “border” a place where you go to be admitted to the United States and given free food, clothing, and shelter — at a government-estimated price of $250 to $1,000 a day — until such time as you are allowed to walk away free, with a promise to attend a deportation hearing at some time in the distant future. Strangely, few people keep such appointments — few except those whose lives are made miserable by the insanely complicated steps that are necessary to abide by the immigration laws.

Unable to think or look for themselves, they kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree.

According to Reid, however, these appearances are deceiving. Why? Because he says so. On July 16, with the border crisis at its height (for now), Reid found a microphone and announced, “The border is secure. I can tell you without any equivocation, the border is secure.” That’s it. That’s what he said. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of irony.

I can’t resist — let’s go back to Fox News. When the Malaysian airliner was shot down on July 17, in a region of the world where borders are taken all too seriously, Fox immediately concluded that the Russians had to be involved. Not a far-fetched conclusion. But the map on which the first two hours of the Fox analysis were based showed the plane barely penetrating the northwest border of Ukraine, hundreds of miles away from Russia or anything that thinks it’s Russia. The Foxcasters, presumably led down this path by their producers and alleged researchers, and unable to think or look for themselves, kept pointing knowingly to the map, like people calmly developing the anatomy of a penguin from the dissection chart of a banana tree. Clearly, the Other Half has no sense of its own ignorance.

On July 17, unmistakable evidence of this fact was provided by MSNBC and its researchers, producers, and anchorwoman Krystal Ball (sic). Apparently under the conviction that they know how to spot a truthteller when they hear one (consider the outfit’s affection for Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, etc.), the people at MSNBC jumped at a caller’s claim to be a US military man attached to the embassy in Kiev, who had seen, from Kiev — that is, from about 500 miles away — the missile that shot down the Malaysian plane. Amazingly, this man turned out to be a prankster.

That was bad enough. Worse was Ms. Ball’s response. Her caller said, “Well, I was looking out the window and I saw a projectile flying through the sky and it would appear that the plane was shot down by a blast of wind from Howard Stern’s ass.” To which Ball replied, “So it would appear that the plane was shot down. Can you tell us anything more from your military training of what sort of missile system that may have been coming from?”

The prankster paused, apparently in stupefaction, then said what we have all been wanting to say to the Other Half:

Well, you’re a dumbass, aren’t you?

But that wasn’t all. She still couldn’t quite understand what was going on. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said. “All right, we’re going to take a quick break and we’ll be back with all the latest next.”

“I’m sorry, sir.” Sorry for what — being a dumbass? No, that couldn’t be.

Yet speaking of people who miss the point: the author of the story I’ve been quoting and linking about this MSNBC stuff, Erik Wemple of the Washington Post, never fully grokked the problem he reported on. As I keep saying, Kiev is hundreds of miles away from the place where the plane went down. That’s what anyone giving the news should figure out, right away. It would take about 20 seconds. And that’s why the prankster should have been detected, right away. But what does Wemple say about it? He turns for his opinion to the citadel of the Other Half: “As the New York Times has reported, the plane came down in an area with few structures in the vicinity, meaning that anyone claiming to have viewed all this from a window needs to be greeted with skepticism.” So if you can’t see Detroit from the Adirondacks, that’s because you don’t have a window to look out from. But by the way, there are actually windows, and buildings too, both in the Adirondacks and in the eastern Ukraine.

In conclusion: that’s how the Other Half thinks — the Other Half that is responsible for reporting and interpreting the news.

* * *

At the start of this column, I regretted not spending more time with the good things that people say or write. While completing it, I learned of the death of James Garner, an actor of great charm who appeared in many charming and witty movies and TV shows. The first of them was Maverick, an essentially comic and satiric TV western that was my delight when I was a kid. Many a Sunday night I have spent in the heights and depths of pleasure, eating my mother’s wonderful salmon cakes and watching James Garner make fools of everyone else on the little black and white TV screen. He (or his character Bret Maverick, who I like to imagine was a lot like Garner) gave me a saying that I commend to everyone who wants to understand the world, especially the world of American politics: “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, and those are pretty good odds.

James Garner, rest in peace.

rsquo;s affection for Michael Moore, Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, etc.), the people at MSNBC jumped at a caller




Share This


Lessening the Language

 | 

A friend of this column, Carl Isackson, has a beautiful dog named Lassen. But, to paraphrase the old rock ‘n’ roll song, Carl is bothered by “just one thing”: “Why can’t anybody get the name of my dog right?”

Carl, who lives in northern California, points out that his dog has the same name as a great natural monument of northern California, Lassen Peak. And the name is spelled phonetically. It’s one of the easiest names in the world. So why, when Carl takes Lassen to the vet or a hound-dog Hilton or some other place where his name needs to be registered, can’t people get it right?

“Oh, what a pretty dog!” they say. “What’s her name?”

“His name is Lassen,” Carl replies.

“What’s that again?”

“Lassen. Like the mountain.”

“Oh, Laysen. What an original name.”

(Growl.) “No, it’s Lassen L-A-S-S-E-N.”

“Right. Laysen.”

(Carl looks at the registration form. It says “Laysen.”)

“It’s LASSen. Like LASSie.”

“Huh?”

These attempts at instruction have never gone well. But then, the other day, Lassen checked into a pet hotel, and when he came out, the name on his Pawgress Report Card was “Lessen.”

Lessen.

From Lassen Peak to, just, uh, y’know, Lessen — that’s the progress of our language.

I assume that the people who think “Lassen” is a strange new name would react with outrage if they heard that Lassen Peak was being devastated by development. But they wouldn’t know what it was, or where, or be able to pronounce it if they saw it in writing, any more than those millions who went crazy about Bush’s scheme to drill oil in Alaska could pronounce or locate the minute part of the frozen north where Bush wanted to allow environmental devastation.

Picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and “squash” an indictment.

That was false consciousness, similar to the false consciousness of people who oppose the Keystone Pipeline on the ground that it would have some mystical effect on “the environment” — what effect, they don’t know.

But I want to discuss something more basic.

In my neighborhood there is, or was, a classy, early 20th-century stretch of boulevard that for the past nine months the city has maintained as a ruin. City workers blocked off two of the four lanes, tore up the median strip, dug a hole in what used to be pavement, and are now, very slowly, pouring concrete for what looks like an anti-tank emplacement. This, we are told, is supposed to become a “high-speed bus corridor.” How it will work, I don’t know; but it’s obvious that whatever speed a bus will be able to work up in those few blocks (two, to be exact) will never compensate for the time and gasoline that drivers are spending and will have to spend on the delays inevitably produced by eliminating two lanes of traffic. This, as I say, is obvious; but although everyone in the neighborhood complains about the city’s atrocious conduct, virtually no one comments on the fact that the whole giant waste of energy is motivated by an attempt to save energy. No one recognizes this irony, just as no one recognizes the fact that a dog named Lassen is named after, and spelled after, a mountain peak, not a word for diminishing returns.

Another instance! Consider the word quash. When is the last time you heard it? Yet it’s a standard term, one that until recently was used whenever people wanted to talk about the repression or suppression of something. Judges quashed indictments. Congressional committees quashed proposed legislation. Tyrants quashed rebellions. To use the word quash, you didn’t need to know all its uses. You just needed to know that there was such a word, and it might fit what you wanted to say.

But sometime during the past 20 years, people stopped recognizing the existence of quash. They stopped being able to hear or read it. When they encountered it, they saw and heard something more familiar, less daunting to their ignorance. They heard the word squash. And, like the goofy dog handlers, they didn’t care to puzzle (i.e., spell) out a less familiar word or to test the applicability of the easier word they wanted to substitute. Lassen became Lessen, and quash became squash.

Now proposals are squashed, rebellions are squashed, student protests are squashed, and even, God have mercy, wars and diseases are squashed. Conservatives don’t recognize the difference, any more than liberals. Poor Andrew C. McCarthy — he had to see his article about militant Islamics come out on National Review Online under the headline “DOJ Source: Obama Political Appointees Squashed Indictment of CAIR Leader and Other Islamist Groups” (April 14). And the British are as bad as we are. Here’s the author himself, someone named Con Coughlin, who is defence editor of the Telegraph, reporting on one of those convoluted British political things: “Mr Hammond no doubt believes these arguments are merely a political game and that, with a general election and the chance of further promotion in prospect, all he needs to do is squash criticism from the military by dismissing their claims as nonsense” (March 31).

Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and “impact” is the club of choice.

Whole lotta squashin’ goin’ on. You can picture it: a crowd of government lawyers, gathering round, in their gray flannel suits, to sit on and squash an indictment. Now let’s see you take that indictment to court! Or something named Philip Hammond (British writers no longer consider it their job to identify anyone, so why should I?) seizing a fat lump of criticism and squashing it into irrelevance.

These picturesque effects are not, of course, intended. They are the products of a lack of intention, and a lack of attention, too. They happen when words lose their history, their integrity, and their appropriate imagery and become mere flyover territory, uninteresting in detail — a landscape you just have to cross, preferably while sleeping, on your way to the big payoff — your meaning. Except that your meaning can only be expressed in words.

This is how people who want to say that someone is uninterested in his job assert that “he’s definitely disinterested,” not realizing that they’re paying the guy a compliment. This is how people who want to emphasize someone’s fame say that he’s “infamous.” They’ve heard the words uninterested and disinterested, and they’ve heard the words famous and infamous, but they never recognized a distinction. Everything just passed in a blur.

Sometimes the result is comic; more often it too is only a blur, a graying of meanings in a shadow world where nothing distinct, or distinctive, ever emerges. Well, it’s easier that way. That’s why impact is currently such a hit (pun intended) with everyone who wants to say something without going to the trouble of saying anything. What would a political speech be without impact? Instead of choosing among the wonderful array of words that are capable of expressing people’s varying abilities to affect one another, the politician goes for the bluntest, easiest weapon, and impact is the club of choice. Context never matters. Here’s a tweet sent out by the White House, as part of President Obama’s attempt to end poverty by raising the minimum wage: “If we #RaiseTheWage here's how many workers would be impacted in your state . . .” (http://www.whitehouse.gov/live, April 19).The real, though unintended, message is: “For God’s sake, don’t raise the minimum wage! Don’t clobber those low-paid workers!” Because impact suggests a blow being struck, a planet hurtling into another planet, a car smashing into an orphanage . . . anything except the beneficial influence, assistance, or help that the tweeter had in mind.

I don’t know whether this is the chicken or the egg, but I do know that our daily speech is greatly impacted by the words used on talk shows; and here’s a sample of what you’ll find in the page of online news summary that professional talkers scan before they start their programs: “President Obama met with six faith leaders Tuesday to discuss immigration. The leaders told the president stories about how immigration policies had impacted members of their congregations” (Talk Radio News Service, April 16). “Faith leaders” are of course religious leaders, but let’s keep religion out of politics, shall we? Apparently these spokesmen for faith-in-politics spend their time picking through the debris left by their congregants’ (sorry, constituents’) collisions with immigration policies, searching for stories about how the poor folk have been impacted. This time, at least, I’m sure that the meaning is negative, but maybe the same people can come back tomorrow and tell the president stories about how their constituents were positively impacted by Obamacare.

Speaking of impacts, wouldn’t you be positively impacted if somebody used a word that could be distinguished from just any other word? I mean, think of all the synonyms for positive, as in positive impact: favorable, beautiful, helpful, wonderful, splendid, slightly encouraging . . . . And the synonyms for negative are much more fun. Why lessen the impact of what you want to say by using the most nondescript term available? Maybe because you’re lazy?

But it’s not just impact that’s at stake; it’s also knowledge. You might like to know precisely what kind of impact those policies had. Or, to use another example (I have plenty), if you’re concerned, as maybe you ought to be, with the chronic mystery of how many of Franklin Roosevelt’s advisors were communist agents, intentional or unintentional, and you happen to look up the name of his intimate friend Harry Hopkins, this is what you’ll find in a defensive but fairly well informed Wikipedia article:

Hopkins was the top American official charged with dealing with Soviet officials during World War II. He interfaced with many Soviets, from middle ranks to the very highest — apart from Marshal Stalin, most notably Anastas Mikoyan, Hopkins's counterpart with responsibility for Lend-Lease. He often explained Roosevelt's plans to Stalin and other top Soviets in order to enlist Soviet support for American objectives, and in turn explained Stalin's goals and needs to Roosevelt.

Sounds pretty suspicious to me. And it all turns on that word “interfaced.” The word originates, not in the Roosevelt White House (which was much more literate than the White House of today) but in the kingdom of the computer. Its tendency, if you take it seriously, is to deny human agency. You don’t blame one computer for interfacing with another. But what went on? Did Hopkins just download his memory and upload his hosts’, or did he talk, negotiate, party, parry, gossip, conspire, or idly chat with the Soviets? Our author saith not. Then why is he writing? Surely not to give us knowledge. Maybe it’s just his way of interfacing with the ethereal blur.

It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year.

I’m not asking for more words. I’m not arguing that more is always more. Oh no. I think that President Obama has communicated all the knowledge he has in about the first 30 seconds of a speech, the part in which he thanks his introducers. He knows enough for that. If, as the Book of Common Prayer would have it, you read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the rest of what he says, you’ll end up knowing a lot less than you knew when he was thanking Senator Foghorn.

But now we have the peculiar, yet somehow representative, case of José Fernandez, superintendent of the Centinela Valley Union High School District in Southern California. It’s a small, generally impoverished district, and somehow or other, its school board started paying the superintendent, Mr. Fernandez, $663,000 a year. No, it was more; it’s just been discovered that the board also gave him two life insurance policies that he can cash in at any time, and their annual payments on these policies bring the total to around $750,000 a year. All this for someone who went bankrupt twice in his life and, according to a recent report, had been fired from his job as assistant superintendent.

The explanation, as alleged by Fernandez’ foes, is that a large construction company financed a school board election, and the resultant school board hired Fernandez, and Fernandez pushed through some large construction programs. This accusation may be relevant to the approach Fernandez adopted when his takings became public knowledge and angry constituents showed up at a school board meeting (February 25):

Fernandez declined to address any of the complaints about his compensation package, choosing instead to express his appreciation to the board for its support and touting his accomplishments.

“I want to thank the board for their support,” he said, over catcalls coming from a few members of the audience. “I want to thank residents in the area who voted for the bonds that funded new buildings, new science labs.

“I do hear you. I’ve listened very carefully and I will sit and work with the board on your concerns. I want to thank you all for coming here and expressing your concerns. I want to thank you all again. Good evening.”

The public wanted more, and got some of it: on April 9, Fernandez was placed on “administrative leave” (you guessed it — a paid leave). The surprising thing is this: Fernandez didn’t get away with his lessened approach to public controversy. How many politicians — and political CEOs, and other figures of supposed authority — have you heard mouthing syllables like “I hear you”; “I’ve listened very carefully”; “I will work on your concerns”; “thank you for expressing your concerns”; “thank you again”; “good evening,” and then shutting up, hoping that if nothing is uttered except a handful of subcommunicative syllables, nobody will recognize the difference between that and real public discourse?

The answer is, almost all of them — and almost all of them are getting away with it, despite Pawgress Reports that correctly name them Lessen.




Share This


Puzzles

 | 

Several current phenomena puzzle me. Maybe some of Liberty’s readers have answers. I’ll save one puzzle about politics until the end of this Reflection.

  • BP, notorious for spilling oil in the Gulf, has been filling TV screens with ads about its concern for the region’s prosperity. According to these ads, it has installed “cutting edge” technology and a “state-of-the-art” monitoring system operating “twenty-four/seven.” How can BP and its advertising agency believe that its public image benefits from the insincerity suggested by three clichés in ten or fifteen seconds in an ad often repeated in a few minutes?
     
  • In its ads Kroger, the grocery chain, offers reduced prices if one buys at least a specific number of specified items or spends at least a specific amount on them. To take advantage of the deal, the customer has to count which of them he really wants or is willing to stock up on and how much, in dollar terms, he wants them. This additional little complication to life often makes me omit buying the one or few specified items that I do want; I don’t want to yield to the price discrimination. Sometimes I even shop at another supermarket. My reaction may be irrational in the most narrowly economic sense, but I think it is human. I wonder how common such reactions are and whether Kroger takes them into account.
     
  • Charities often send out personalized return-address stickers, presumably to put recipients on a guilt trip if they do not contribute. Almost without exception these stickers put a title before the name — in my case “Professor,” “Prof.,” “Dr.,” or “Mr.” Don’t these fund-raisers realize that it is bad form (except perhaps for a physician) to refer to oneself with a title? The name alone is better.
     
  • Expressing my next puzzle might seem to be a complaint about other people. It is not; I am genuinely curious. Why do so many people want almost continuous contact with one another, as by cellphone, texting, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media? Myself, I do not want to send or receive hourly or daily bulletins about the trivia of everyday life, not even to or from close friends. I understand that the social media are useful in coordinating revolutions, but what accounts for their popularity in the United States?
     
  • Whatever became of the half-dollar? Why is the quarter the largest denomination of coin routinely circulating in the United States?
     
  • Why does bitcoin, the digital currency, receive the respect it does in the popular press? A full-fledged currency must maintain a reasonably stable and predictable value, at least over the time between a holder’s receiving it and paying it out in transactions. Bitcoin’s value, however, has been monstrously unstable, ranging from $13.50 in January 2013 to $782 in mid-November, then falling back. How could people confidently use such a currency for pricing and regular transactions, let alone for long-term or even short-term loans? A sound money derives a determinate value either by linkage to some commodity like gold or by regulation of its quantity with some attention for the demand to hold it. Bitcoin, however, is created in a decentralized and capricious way as the reward for solving difficult mathematical problems requiring much expensive computer time; the problems become more and more challenging so as supposedly to put a ceiling of 21 million on the total issue. The system lacks the transparency required for a sound currency of determinate value.

    Its wide fluctuations do give bitcoin an appeal for speculators. Yet for anyone interested in a nongovernmental currency that performs all the functions of a normal money and that, moreover, allows a high degree of anonymity in transactions, ideas for reform must run along other lines. Bitcoin remains a puzzling distraction.
     
  • My last puzzle centers on a fund-raising letter from Speaker John Boehner enclosing a purported survey of opinion. The questions are slanted to draw desired answers. The phoniness of the whole business is epitomized by the date on Boehner’s letter, “Monday morning” — nothing more. (I received the letter and survey on Monday afternoon, November 18.) Many such appeals — complete with the provocative phony dating — have arrived in my mailbox from Republican politicians over the years; I wonder what the Democrats send out. Anyway, how can anyone believe that such phoniness attracts rather than repels voters and contributors?



Share This


Progress and Poverty

 | 

I remember R.W. Bradford, founder of this journal, testing a new keyboard by typing out, “Good news — the depression is over, and the banks are filling with money.” Anyone else would have written, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” But Bill liked news, and when he could find it, good news.

So I want to begin with some good news. The year now ending witnessed significant reductions in the rates of certain linguistic crimes. And since “law enforcement agencies” (a.k.a. cops) always take credit for any accidental lowering of a crime rate, this column gladly takes credit for these reductions. Congratulations, Word Watch.

After years of pointing out that “begging the question” doesn’t mean what you might too hastily assume it means (the prompting of an inquiry) — that it means, instead, a species of logical fallacy (arguing in a circle, using a proposition to prove itself) — I am happy to find that many public speakers now realize where the trap door is hidden, and do their best to avoid it. The people on Fox News practically break their necks getting to the other side. They used to put “that begs the question” in every other sentence, and always in the wrong way. No more. Now, just when you see that they’re dying to say it, there’s a pause, a deep breath, and a slow rephrasing: “That . . . uh . . . poses the question”; “That . . . leads to the question”; “That . . . makes me want to ask you . . .” Somebody obviously told them to read Liberty.

After years of hammering away at the ridiculous idea that President Obama is a great, or even a good, writer and speaker (a hammering that could be heard as recently as last month’s Word Watch), I am gratified by some faint signs that conservatives don’t always feel obliged to begin their denunciations of an Obama utterance by saying, “Despite his soaring rhetoric,” or “The president’s actions are not as inspiring as his words.” They should be saying, “Despite his bathetic attempts at rhetoric” and “not as insipid as his words,” but that may come later, when pundits learn the existence of “bathetic” and “insipid” — in short, when they read Word Watch more often.

The great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy.

And after years of insisting that celebrity is not the same as significance, or even fame, I find curious indications that Word Watch may be exerting some influence on the crude but candid (i.e., free) media. I refer, for instance, to the reader comments that appeared on TMZ, following the death of Paul Walker. Walker was an action film star. He liked fast cars. On November 30, he was killed in a speeding car that went out of control and hit a light pole. It was a horrible accident, and the reader comments on TMZ were appropriately sympathetic. But they were more. They were self-dramatizing in a way that has become predictable after every death of anyone who might conceivably be regarded as a public figure. Hundreds of readers proclaimed themselves devastated with grief on behalf of Walker, his family, and his friends — people with whom these readers had no acquaintance whatever. Finally, someone had had enough. “Sorry,” he wrote, “RIP, our prayers are with the family, etc.....who is he?”

It’s a good thing that TMZ, like Word Watch, exists in cyberspace, or there would have been mob violence. But somebody had to point out that heartfelt feelings are often nothing but words.

Celebrity is fleeting, and even authentic feelings pass away, but some things never leave us. Word Watch can’t do anything about them. For God’s sake, even the second George Bush is back. He is daily proclaimed “more popular than President Obama.” When you think of it, this isn’t saying much. But now he is being cited as a film authority — and in the most gruesomely authoritative way. In late November, ads appeared for a movie called The Book Thief, and these ads said, “The critics are raving . . . . And President George Bush raves, ‘It’s a truly wonderful movie.’” He certainly put a lot of energy into that one. Not only wonderful but truly wonderful. But what truly conveys the feeling of the perpetual, the eternal, the Egyptian pyramidal, is that word “raves.” Raves. The expression has screamed at me from every film ad I have ever had to sit through. The critics are raving. Even a former president is raving. And as always, the New York Times raves. They’ve all gone crazy together.

Well, let them. We’re used to it. But must we get used to the steady seep of ignorance into the foundations and concrete basements of our language? I know you have your own examples; here are three of mine:

1. The effort to make “which” a universal connective: “I bought a new place in Vista Hills, which I didn’t realize the taxes were so high.”

2. The loss or mangling of strong verbs, and the creation of dumb replacements for them. It’s bad enough to hear that “the suspect spit,” not spat, “at the arresting officer”; but must we hear “spitted at him”? And why can’t people realize that the past tense of “fit” is “fitted,” but the past tense of “shit” is “shat”?

3. The growing movement to ignore the rules about comparatives and superlatives, whenever their use requires a split second of thought. Example: a journalist on Greta van Susteren’s show, commenting (December 10) on the latest Quinnipiac poll about Obama: “It’s on healthcare that people are ranking him the most low.” Most low? The superlative of “low” is ”lowest.” Is that too hard? Yes, if you can’t figure out what to do when an adjective gets two words away from its noun.

“Most low” exemplifies a general problem — people’s increasingly evident inability to keep track of their sentences. Leland Yeager, a friend and expert advisor of this column, has collected many instances of the problem, including offerings by such respectable journals as The Economist and the Wall Street Journal. Try these exhibits from the Yeager museum of unnatural history:

“A key benefit to [sic] offshore wind power is the lower rate of wind turbulence at sea vs. on land” (WSJ, June 19, 2008). As Yeager suggests, why not just write, “A key advantage of offshore wind power is less wind turbulence at sea than on land”? But here is early documentation of an illiteracy that continues to spread: the use of “versus” (“vs.”) to mean “than.” What next — “My kid is smarter vs. your kid”?

Commentators “take great pride in emphasising how much more sophisticated civilization was in Japan in the 11th century compared with Europe at that time” (Economist, Dec. 20, 2008). It doesn’t take much to compete with the medieval West. But what exactly is being “compared” — “the 11th century” and “Europe”? No, it’s supposed to be . . . let’s see . . . it must be levels of sophistication in Japanese and European civilizations in the 11th century. Commentators apparently like to emphasize the idea that in the 11th century Japan was more sophisticated than Europe.

That’s one way of reforming the sentence, and you can easily think of many others — none of which occurred to the writer. But there are sentences that just make you want to give up and head for the bar. If you have any interest in economics, you’ve seen too many sentences like this one, which Yeager recovered from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Review (Sept.-Oct. 2008):

But the embedded leverage in these products meant that end-investors were often buying assets with much greater risk characteristics compared with the underlying pool of mortgages, credit card debts, or loans than they might suppose.

Do scholarly journals still have editors?

Still, the great producers, the great fecund sows, of deformed prose are politics and bureaucracy, and that queen of all sows, political bureaucracy: always ignorant, always talking, always striving to influence, always striving, simultaneously, to obscure the truth. The Obamacare fiasco has born teeming litter after teeming litter of repulsive words. Any example will do, but let’s look at a little missive by the irrepressible Julie Bataille, director of communications, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (November 22, 2013). Remember, as you read, that she is a director of communications.

“Today,” she begins, “Jeff Zients [the wizard that Obama appointed to clean up the mess he had made of the merry old land of Oz] offered an update on our efforts to improve HealthCare.gov; data on key metrics on site performance, the progress made this week and the view looking forward.”

Already you know you’re in trouble. You know that Bataille has no intention of rushing forward with any facts. If she did, she would say up front what’s wrong with the site, instead of tucking “site performance” into a box called “metrics,” tucking that box into one called “data,” and tucking that one into an “update” that was “offered” by somebody else. How about just giving us the data? We know that an update on “progress” assumes that progress has been made — but that’s the topic of debate, isn’t it? Could Bataille be begging the question? Clearly, she is a very bad writer. She’s going to give us nothing but happy talk, and the happy talk will consist of slick-sounding clichés, such as the progressive “view looking forward.” Turning worse into worst, she will mangle those clichés. To her, a “view” looks.

As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time?

“In late October,” she continues, “we appointed QSSI as the general contractor to deploy their expertise in technology and program management to lead this project forward.”

So. Since late October, when the nation, as distinguished from Ms. Bataille, realized that Obamacare was a hideous disaster, something called QSSI has been leading the project forward. (There’s that word again.) But how is that leading accomplished? What’s been happening? Oh, it’s all very technical. Let’s just say that the company (singular), here regarded as they (plural), deploy their expertise. Expertise, one gathers, is like an army. Division 1: Attack that defective code! Division 2: You’re in reserve; wait behind the hill. Division 3: Lift the siege of Fort Obama!

“The team from QSSI continues to work with people from CMS [can’t have enough acronyms] and other contractors around the clock [can’t have enough clichés, either] to troubleshoot the system, prioritize fixes, and provide real-time management decision making.”

So you can “troubleshoot” a “system,” can you? I suppose, then, you can “troubleshoot” almost anything. “Hey, honey, I just wanta troubleshoot ya.” OK. But I draw the line at prioritizing fixes. It just sounds so gruesome. As for “real-time management decision making,” does that mean that some management decision making is performed in unreal time? Maybe that’s what went wrong with Obama . . .

We haven’t reached the end of Bataille’s memo — that’s a very long way off — but we have reached the climax, which she has cleverly deployed in the middle. And this is it:

“Thanks to this team effort, we have made measurable progress.”

Measurable progress.Let’s consider how such phrases might work in real time.

Automobile passenger: “Hey, what’s the speed limit, anyway? Seems like we’re going awful slow.”
Automobile driver: “No, we are making measurable progress.

Airline seat holder: “How long before we get to Cleveland?”
Airline attendant: “We are making measurable progress, sir.”

Employer: “When do you expect to get that project done?”
Employee: “I am making measurable progress.”
Employer: “You’re fired.”

Bataille’s communication, horrible as it seems, is a fair sample of the words oozing out of Washington. If you’re like me, you’ve often wondered: do people who write this kind of prose actually think the way they write? Are they just prowling across their keyboard, trying to find enough words to bamboozle everybody else, or does it all come spontaneously and sincerely to them? When their car breaks down, do they look for expertise that can be deployed? When the guy from Triple A arrives, do they reflect that measurable progress is now being made? Which alternative is more terrible to contemplate — that kind of cunning or that kind of sincerity?




Share This


The Debates: An Autopsy

 | 

In the last version of this column, promises were made that the presidential debates would be noticed at some time in the future. These promises will be fulfilled.

Indeed, the fulfillment is already on its way: the debates were noticed in my very last sentence. So there. If I were running for public office, I could now inform you that the issue has been addressed, and it is time to move on. The American people are no longer interested in debates. They are interested in jobs.

So that is what I came to talk to you about today. Word Watch has a ten-point program to grow the economy.

Point One: Reduce the size of government.
Point Two: Reduce the size of government.
Point Three: Reduce the size of government.
Point Four . . . .

How’s that? If Word Watch were running for public office, that is what Word Watch would say.

But Word Watch is not running for office, so it will take the politically unprecedented step of fulfilling its promise. It will dissect the presidential and vice presidential debates.

The debates were chiefly significant for showing that Obama wasn’t the great speaker that people had always been told he was, and that maybe they had thought he was — while hitting the channel changer as soon as he reached the third sentence on his teleprompter. The debates also showed that Romney wasn’t a particularly bad speaker or a particularly bad person. As Michael Barone commented on October 27, they even demonstrated that Romney was more articulate than Obama.

To borrow a Randian way of looking at things, both candidates showed themselves curiously selfless. They weren’t interested enough in their own ideas even to represent them clearly.

I’m not putting Romney’s skills too high; as you know, this column has never considered it hard to beat Obama at the word game. After all, even Joe the Plumber did it. Compared to old-time politicians, Obama is basically nothing. He doesn’t know any more words than they did, and his grammar isn’t any better. His range of allusions is much more limited than theirs (they could quote Shakespeare and the Bible, while he appears to live in a world without any books at all); and he doesn’t know any good stories. He is as stiff as a high school principal who has attended Toastmasters on two separate and distinct Thursday evenings, and his self-importance is untiring. It doesn’t take much to overtake Obama in the oratory department.

Nevertheless, Romney did it. Don’t ask me to cite examples of his verbal brilliance; there weren’t any. But given the competition, they weren’t needed. When, in the second and third presidential debates, Obama “revived,” “woke up,” or “agreed to participate” — however you want to put it — he did even more to show what he is: snarky, snippy, evasive, demagogic, unwarrantably superior, bored or angry with everyone except his slavish adorers.

Both candidates spoke in ways that reveal their refusal to think about words in any except the most brutally instrumental manner — by which I mean considering words only as tools for turning out the vote. Beyond that goal, there was no attempt to enlighten or even to entertain, no attempt to show who one is or what, exactly, one thinks. In that sense, to borrow a Randian way of looking at things, both candidates showed themselves curiously selfless. They weren’t interested enough in their own ideas even to represent them clearly.

For instance, neither of them had any suspicion that “we need to grow the economy” or “I have a plan to grow the economy” might be an empty substitute for some real meaning. They swathed their vast, vague plans in a grossly inappropriate image of the economy as a natural object like a radish or a squash, some little object that you can grow. No reflective person uses language like that; only lazy minds choose the default setting, assuming that other lazy minds will relate to whatever clichés happen to waft their way.

Obama, of course, prides himself on his ability to communicate with the rubes. So he mentioned folks and workin’ people as often as he could, and he recited such phrases as “educating our workers” and “retraining our workers.” “Goodness,” said Jed Leland, responding to Citizen Kane’s campaign speeches about the downtrodden working people, “you talk as if you owned them.” If Obama knew the impression his words really create, he wouldn’t use them. But he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t even know that. And his self-knowledge is even feebler than his knowledge of the world. Again, it is the hollow man who lusts for power.

Of course, the candidates’ words were hardly news. They were so familiar that Charles Krauthammer characterized the last debate as the “national soporific,” the national “Ambien.” He’s a doctor, and he ought to know. I would say the same thing about the other debates, too, including the vice presidential one. That was interesting if you enjoy sitting in a bar and listening while an ancient blowhard recycles all his familiar comments about himself, the workin’ people, and the greatness of Harry S. Truman. The only thing that interested me about Biden’s uncouth performance was his pretended embodiment of the “blue-collar America” I grew up with. Some working man — the guy was a senator for 36years! But he does a great imitation of the sneering, ass-scratching, proud-to-be-ignorant loudmouth who makes life miserable for the other guys on the assembly line. This was a type that was never very popular among real working people, and its popularity with the Democratic Party elite, none of whom ever worked a day in their lives, shows you something bad about American political culture.

So much for the nauseating debates. Their salient feature was the cynicism they manifested, and aroused. Everyone who talked about them focused solely on their (for want of a lower word) rhetorical effects, having completely discounted the idea that anything of substance might actually emerge. The talk was always about how Obama will deflect criticism or how favorably Romney will be perceived, never for so much as ten seconds about any thoughts that either candidate might convey. After the last debate, all the conservatives who had insisted that Romney could succeed only if he went for Obama’s throat, especially about Libya, went on television to praise his statesmanlike restraint. They thought it had a positive impact on the audience.

Maybe they were right. But they magnified the already overwhelming cynicism that surrounded these events. The commentators all (rightly) assumed that the debates were a publicity stunt, and were apparently content with that. Dick Morris, holding forth on the “O’Reilly Show,” admitted to squirming as he watched one of the affairs, but his conclusion was: “The important thing in this debate was that women did not think he [Romney] was a warmonger. . . . It was a skillful debate on Romney’s part.” That may be true — but only because neither candidate was expected to provide as much real instruction as you get from your senile uncle, discussing his adventures as a young man, delivering auto parts in and around Cincinnati.

Biden does a great imitation of the sneering, ass-scratching, proud-to-be-ignorant loudmouth who makes life miserable for the other guys on the assembly line.

There’s a certain comfort in discovering that it wasn’t just the politicos who refused to take the debates seriously. As far as I could tell, nobody did. Since the debates weren’t serious, that’s a good thing. What I regret, even more than the lack of intellectual seriousness, is the lack of words — real words, interesting words, memorable words, words that could actually engage a normal person’s mind, rather than prompting that person to speculate about the impression they would make on someone of abnormally low intelligence.

It was not always thus. I’ve been reading Robert Douthat Meade’s old biography of Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate statesman. Meade was a competent writer, and Benjamin was a colorful character, so the book is always fun. But in the present context, what’s remarkable is how interesting words used to be, even when they emerged without a hint of preparation or intention to wow the mentally deficient. I’ll share one sample with you.

When Benjamin was a US senator from Louisiana, he got into an angry debate with Jefferson Davis, then a senator from Mississippi, over the details of a military appropriation. It was an impromptu quarrel that began when Davis, in a bad mood, answered an inquiry from Benjamin in a flippant way. This exchange followed:

Benjamin: It is very easy for the Senator from Mississippi to give a sneering reply to what was certainly a very respectful inquiry.

Davis: I consider it is an attempt to misrepresent a very plain remark.

Benjamin: The Senator is mistaken, and has no right to state any such thing. His manner is not agreeable at all.

Davis: If the Senator happens to find it disagreeable, I hope he will keep it to himself.

Benjamin: When directed to me, I will not keep it to myself; I will repel it instanter.

Davis: You have got it, sir.

Benjamin: That is enough, sir.

If you’re like me, you care nothing about the subject of this dispute, but you enjoy the language. You even want to know what happened next.

So here it is: Benjamin sent Davis a letter challenging him to a duel — a gesture at once more serious and more interesting than any of the silly grimaces, chats with friendly folks, and public visits to fast-food joints that we got from this year’s political antagonists. And Davis responded in an interesting way: he tore up Benjamin’s challenge, telling the messenger, “I will make this all right at once. I have been wholly wrong.” He publicly apologized, and Benjamin handsomely accepted his apology. Three years later, Davis appointed Benjamin to his cabinet, and he became the second most important personality in the Confederate government.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a revival of the Confederacy. I am advocating a revival of the English language.




Share This


Persuasive Definitions

 | 

Charles L. Stevenson coined the term "persuasive definitions" (Ethics and Language, 1944). It means: to apply words with favorable or unfavorable connotations to things or actions in such a way as to substitute for actual argument. Examples abound in political discourse nowadays.

I'll focus on just one: "invest." Politicians repeatedly tell us Americans to "invest" in our children, education, job retraining, medical and other research, defense, infrastructure, a healthy environment, clean energy, energy independence, transportation, progress, the future — whatever. Here "invest in" means "have the government spend more money on." More fully, it means "have the government spend more money on such things — money raised by taxes and by increasing the national debt."

What further examples can readers contribute?




Share This


Fungible Semantics: The Roberts Decision

 | 

Tax: A contribution for the support of a government required of persons, groups, or businesses within the domain of that government.

Penalty: A punitive measure, regulatory in nature, established by law or authority, to deter certain conduct.

A Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the healthcare mandate based on the government’s taxing authority?

Well, why not? The tax code has been dragooned into service to influence and shape social behavior for over a hundred years, from a dollar-a-pack cigarette tax, to mortgage relief to encourage home ownership. In addition to the collection of revenue to bankroll government it evolved into an instrument for social engineering and stealth workarounds to advance social policy. Which of the following statements is true?

A tax raises revenue, a penalty raises revenue, therefore a penalty is a tax?

A tax influences behavior, a penalty influences behavior, therefore a tax is a penalty?

That’s right — neither is true. These syllogisms illustrate a well-known logical fallacy that can be found in any college textbook on logic. How, then, could a superior jurist like John Roberts persuade himself that a penalty is a tax? Well, the Chief Justice opined that the penalty for noncompliance with the mandate ($695) was too weak to constitute a deterrent, and must therefore be a tax! This left many to wonder if he had intentionally confounded these two concepts, and thus rewritten the mandate so the Affordable Care Act would pass constitutional muster.

The logic was so bizarre and flawed that some, like Charles Krauthammer, suggested that Roberts resorted to this semantic legerdemain to avoid politicizing the Court and weakening its prestige. But this is to forget that the Constitution was born in crisis and the Court has weathered more violent partisan storms than those of the current climate: just read some of the broadsides in newspapers written one hundred to two hundred years ago. To my knowledge, no Congressmen have been caned to within an inch of their lives in the well of the Senate (though, no doubt, some have deserved it), and no cabinet secretaries killed in duels in the past 100 years. A good rule of thumb: follow the law and let the chips fall where they may.

Misconstruing what is obviously a penalty as a tax may seem a harmless bit of hocus pocus, but playing hard and fast with meaning and general disregard for semantic precision has resulted in a Supreme Court decision that could have unfortunate consequences for the American economy. Or as one editorialist (James Delong) put it:

The ACA is a complex and incoherent law drafted in haste and secrecy, written largely by the healthcare industry to promote its own profits by bringing more people into a government-administered system open to capture and looting. It is defended by an administration trapped by the imperative of defending its handiwork. The product is a Rube Goldberg regulatory system that cannot be made rational, workable, or intelligible, and is a delicious (to Republicans) promise of an endless stream of outrages.

It is all very well for the Chief Justice to defer the issue of constitutionality back to elected officials, but as Ronald Reagan once remarked, “The nearest thing to eternal life we will ever see on this earth is a government program,” and it will be difficult to impossible to repeal the healthcare law even if Mitt Romney is elected president, unless there are significant Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. The stakes were high, very high. This could be the worst Supreme Court decision since Kelo v. City of New London, and it is fair to ask if, during his stormy sessions with the brethren, Justice Roberts experienced some sort of mental lapse.

In the last century or so, no Congressmen have been caned to within an inch of their lives in the well of the Senate — though, no doubt, some have deserved it.

The original sin was, of course, using the tax system as a quick-and-dirty tool to improvise policy, to encourage (say) petroleum exploration or to discourage the use of tobacco, thereby exempting government from the strenuous work of writing carefully crafted long-term programs to advance a coherent policy. The Constitution says that

The Congress shall have Power to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States . . .

The framers did not say that the collection of taxes could or should be used to influence economic behavior or placate special interests, and in this they showed some foresight: broadening the concept of taxation to, for example, provide incentives for certain economic entities, has resulted in a Byzantine tax code so complicated and unwieldy, so corrupted by influence-peddlers and lobbyists, it has become a national embarrassment, and a general disincentive to business and entrepreneurship. Using the sacrosanct tax code as an ad hoc tool to implement policy (rather than enact problem-specific programs) has produced some very bad tax law.

Another institutional casualty, perhaps more fatal than the debasement of the tax system, has been the English language. A general contempt for the elegance and precision of English, e.g. twisting of meaning out of all recognition, demonstrates the dangers that George Orwell warned us about over 60 years ago in his essay, Politics and the English Language. The decline of English, he observed, had entered a deadly spiral:

it becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

It was Orwell’s belief that words and semantic distinctions matter, that mangling language to suit one's purposes eventually leads to a world where black is white and up is down. How prophetic! We need language to map the world as it is, not as we would like it to be, and a breach of semantics can be even more lethal than a breach of law. Using imprecise language to conceal real meaning is a sure path to chaos. Orwell was talking about communist pamphleteers and flannel-mouthed journalists at the time, but it applies equally to any abuse of language, and that includes the recent decision by Chief Justice Roberts to call a penalty a tax.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



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

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