Making It Official

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For brutal coldness, this one can hardly be surpassed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

THOMPSON
Sentimental fellow, aren't you?

RAYMOND
Mmm . . . Yes and no.




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Babes in Wordland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Person being interviewed: Well, I . . .

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

Person: Maybe. I was . . .

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

Person: Well, I, uh . . .

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

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

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

Krauthammer: Well . . .

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

Krauthammer: Actually, my idea . . .

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

Krauthammer: As to the bureaucracy . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Washington Post – 2 hours ago

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

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

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

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

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

Trump drags key foreign allies into controversy over unproven wiretap claims

Washington Post – 46 minutes ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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The New Solar Isn’t Shining Bright

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While the fracking revolution chugs along nicely, the so-called renewable energy continues to disappoint everyone but the environmentalist ideologues who spawned it. A recent article brings the whole, sorry green energy mess to mind.

I refer to the “new, improved” high-tech design for solar power, the “solar-thermal” technology. Unlike the traditional solar power facility, which involves enormous numbers of solar panels converting sunlight directly into electricity, a solar-thermal facility uses a huge array of mirrors to focus sunlight on the top of a tower, which holds a boiler. The focused sunlight makes the water in the boiler turn to steam, which then turns a turbine to create power. That is, it uses the usual boiler-turbine arrangement, but the heat is supplied by sunlight, rather than coal, natural gas, or nuclear fission.

This “exciting” new technology — as new as maybe Archimedes — attracted the interest of Google, which invested with NRG Energy to have BrightSource Energy build a large solar-thermal plant in the California part of the Mojave Desert. This plant (the Ivanpah plant) cost $2.2 billion to construct and was projected to produce more than a million megawatt-hours of power annually.

You couldn’t dream this up — a non-fossil fuel technology that requires four hours of fossil-fuel burning, every day, just to get started.

Well, it was completed well over a year ago, and it produces only 40% of the promised power. Yes, 170,000 mirrors targeting solar rays at a boiler are nowhere near as efficient as they were planned to be. Welcome to the world of unintended consequences!

There have been several unforeseen problems with the new wonder technology. First, there are equipment maintenance issues, from leaking tubes to excessive turbine vibrations, which nobody suspected ahead of time.

Second, the turbines require far more steam to run efficiently than was initially calculated. The original idea was that getting the plant ramped up in the morning — remember, the sun doesn’t shine at night! — would require running a natural-gas heater for about an hour. But turns out that they have to run the heater for four hours! Yes, you couldn’t dream this up — a non-fossil fuel technology that requires four hours of fossil-fuel burning, every day, just to get started. A wonder technology, indeed.

Third — and it is astounding that the Google Wunda-Boys never google-searched this — there is less sunlight onsite than was originally guesstimated. Amazingly, there are many cloudy days, even in the desert!

The article goes on to report that the Ivanpah facility is not the only one to prove a disappointment. A similar plant built in Arizona by the Spanish firm Abengoa is delivering only half the original estimated amount of power.

No doubt these projects had some kind of direct or indirect federal subsidies — “brilliant” projects guaranteed by your tax money. Solar sucks up huge tax resources, even though it produces less than 1% of American electric power. What a colossal and pathetic joke on all of us.

The article ends by noting something I pointed out in these pages a year and a half ago: this new google-icious power technology kills birds by literally scorching them. The air around the tower is heated to about 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, so when a hapless bird flies by, the bird is burned to death. The plant kills about 3,500 birds a year in this way.

There have been fracking plants shut down by the federal government under the suspicion of killing one lousy bird. But then, you see, fracking — economically and geopolitically a godsend to this country — isn’t considered a “Green” technology.




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What’s in a Cliché?

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For a long time this column has been harping on the idea, or fact, that President Obama is a terrible speaker and writer. I have suggested that his style might improve if he tried reading books.

Back when this harper started harping on this harp, as the Bible puts it (Revelation 14:2), these ideas were radically revisionist. Even Obama’s opponents said such things as “Despite the president’s soaring rhetoric,” “Despite Obama’s eloquence,” “Despite President Obama’s gift for language,” “Despite the president’s professorial yet persuasive speeches . . . his programs stink. “ When the source of the smell was sought, no one considered the possibility that this president (as his professional fans often call him, as if he had to be carefully distinguished from the common run of presidents) had little talent and less learning.

Now, however, one seldom hears compliments either to his knowledge or to his literary ability. His best friends don’t speak in those terms. Even the theory that he authored his own books and speeches has evaporated. No one refers to his books as if they were useful in figuring him out, and his statements and attitudes are frequently attributed to “the White House.” And while this evaporation presents his defenders with the opportunity to separate the literary genius in the Oval Office from the literary hacks buried somewhere else in the West Wing, no one seems to be trying that means of excusing him. It seems to have occurred to others besides myself that a literary genius should, after all, be capable of detecting literary errors and absurdities in the words he recites from his teleprompters, and then firing the imbeciles and philistines who wrote that stuff. But Obama neither detects nor dismisses.

The literary problem may, in fact, be getting worse. In an attempt to mobilize liberal Christians in support of his pro-immigration program, the president has been going about citing Scripture, or what he thinks is Scripture. He has compared Mary and Joseph to illegal aliens, crudely half-modernized a familiar gospel verse (Matthew 7:3–5, Luke 6:41–42) by saying we should "make sure we're looking at the log in our eye before we are pointing out the mote in other folks' eyes," and claimed (folksier still) that "the good book says, don't throw stones in glass houses.” Please don’t ask me what that has to do with immigration. But I do know that “the good book” (now really, who calls it that?) doesn’t mention stones in glass houses.

It’s not a matter of the Bible’s “not exactly” saying that, as the Washington Post labored to show. It doesn’t say it at all. It couldn’t. There was no such thing as plate glass in the first century A.D. Like “cleanliness is next to godliness” and “Social Security is a great idea,” stones and glass houses are nowhere in the Bible.

Are we looking at invincible arrogance, the kind of self-pride that cannot imagine it might ever be wrong about anything? Probably.

Well, you don’t expect presidents to have a photographic memory for books, do you? No, I don’t. But I do expect them to have some memory of books, especially the books they want to quote. And if they don’t remember, they ought to know that they don’t remember, or (in this case) know that they never read those books in the first place. If you’re a literary genius, or a genius of any kind, or just a normal person, you know such things about yourself. And there’s a way of dealing with them. Should you wish to quote a passage, you look the passage up. With the Bible, this is extremely easy. Innumerable websites (try, for instance, this one) offer concordances to the Bible. And if you are a stranger to the word “concordance,” you can still search the Scriptures with some probability of finding what you want. Just google the phrase. This is another thing “the White House” seems incapable of doing.

Are we looking at invincible arrogance, the kind of self-pride that cannot imagine it might ever be wrong about anything? Probably. Try to think of an occasion on which Obama or his employees have betrayed the slightest skepticism about their own knowledge and judgment. Another, complementary, explanation is a total lack of curiosity about anything having to do with words — what words mean, where words come from, what words may suggest.

Consider Obama’s use of clichés. Now, without clichés we would not have politics. The great unwritten book is a study of the role of clichés in instigating, shaping, confusing, and sometimes destroying the political process. Alas, it is a book that may never be written, because anyone with the knowledge and taste to write it would be too disgusted to pursue the project. But if there were such a book, Obama would get one of the longest chapters. His entire career has been devoted to clichés (subspecies, buzzwords): change, community, middle class, race in this country, comprehensive reform, guilty of walking while black, transparency, facing broader challenges, people who want to shut down the government, draw a red line, draw a line in the sand, draw a red line in the sand . . . . They never stop. And without them he would have no career.

But often he can’t even get the clichés right. In the present instance, the cliché he was trying to use was, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” OK. Picture someone living in a glass house. Picture that person throwing a stone. What is the direction of the stone? Outward. He’s throwing the stone at a house inhabited by another person. The cliché implies that he should not do this, because that other person will then feel licensed to throw a stone back into the glass house.Now visualize this scene as Obama represented it when he said, “Don’t throw stones in glass houses.” What the hell does that mean? Don’t throw stones inside your own glass house? Well, no, I wouldn’t do that. But thanks for your advice — whatever it was. This kind of saying could never become a cliché. It isn’t even that good. In fact, it isn’t good for anything.

If you think none of this is significant, that’s your right. If so, however, I hope you weren’t one of those people who laughed themselves silly over the difficulties George Bush experienced with the pronunciation of “nuclear” (“newk-yoo-ler”) and thought that this kind of thing disqualified him from the presidency. Bush was, in my opinion, not a good president, at all; but he did read books. More importantly, he didn’t try to establish his intellectual credentials on the basis of stuff he had (supposedly) written.

The obvious question is: if it’s that “deeply rooted,” why should we care about it? Leave it alone. It’s a nasty, ugly thing.

But Obama’s way with a cliché becomes even more disturbing when he manages to quote a cliché correctly. In an interview released on December 7, he commented on the wave of protests over the deaths of two young black men, allegedly murdered by police, and he asserted that racism is “deeply rooted in our society.” The context made it clear that he was referring to white racism against black people. He was inviting the nation to participate in yet another spasm of soul-searching over “race in America,” with himself as priest and confessor. He was also trying to provide a rationale for people like Eric Holder to create new means of expanding the federal government’s mechanisms of control over thought and action throughout the country. From this point of view, protests are fine and useful, but only to soften up the territory for the federal police. If a problem is “deeply rooted,” then enormous power needs to be amassed to root it out, right? Obama’s cliché was an attempt to give a familiar, domestic tone, a tone of common sense, to new usurpations of power.

Very well. But when one looks at the other implications of the cliché, one soon sees meanings that were not in the president’s control. Why is white racism so “deeply rooted,” after so much effort to root it out? Perhaps because it’s in so deep that it’s hard to find the damn thing.

A story: I grew up a few miles from a small Midwestern industrial city with a sizable African-American population. I can tell you that in those times white racism was not deeply rooted — it was right on the surface. If an interracial couple dared to appear on a main street of town, everyone turned and noticed, and the mood was not friendly. There was a serious chance that violence would occur. The local paper ran wedding pictures of white brides but not of black brides. It called black preachers “reverend” and white preachers “the reverend.” But although I still spend quite a bit of time in small towns back in the Midwest, it has been years since I heard a racist comment of any kind.

A second story: a few years ago, a friend and I were eating ribs in one of those restaurants where the waitresses call you “hon.” This was in Southern California. Sitting in a booth near us was a pair of white guys. They were, I believe, construction guys, and they spoke with the volume and vocabulary appropriate to construction sites. They reviewed, in great, loud, and profane detail, the defects of their boss, their clients, and their associates, not to mention their ex-wives. No holds were barred (how’s that for a cliché?), and certainly there was no hesitation about the use of epithets. Then they turned to the behavior of a fellow worker who was African-American. They didn’t like him. They didn’t like anyone, and that included the black guy. But when they started in on him, they lowered their voices. Their noise dropped so low that my friend and I, suddenly interested, had to strain to listen. We expected to hear something really blistering. But what we heard was this. “I got nothin’ against his race,” one of them said; “I just got no respect for him.” “No,” the other one said, “not if he can’t come to work on time.” There followed a long discussion of punctuality.

You can say that “I got nothin’ against his race” is merely a clichéd cover-up for racism, but these weren’t guys who cared about covering things up. And anyone could see that at the moment there were no black people in the restaurant, so there was no need to conceal anything from them. The two guys might have worried that white people could take offense, but if so, they would just be recognizing the lack of racism among their fellow whites. Suppose, however, that these men were actually concealing something, if only from themselves. Suppose the something was their deeply rooted racism. The obvious question is: if it’s that deeply rooted, why should we care about it? Leave it alone. It’s a nasty, ugly thing. Leave it buried. Yet the president thinks that deeply rooted feelings are exactly what the government should be concerned with.

Government officials are always saying senseless things, but Hagel has the gift of perfect senselessness.

“Words are the tools of the thinker,” a wise woman said. “If you saw a man chopping wood with a hoe and mowing with a shovel, would you hire him as a foreman?” Words are the tools of thought, and there are cases in which incompetence with words reveals an incompetence to hold power. This is one of those cases.

Would you like another example of linguistic and political incompetence in high places? Yes? Then you shall have it.

As I write, the nation is saying a long good-bye to Secretary of Defense Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, whose moronic use of language has long been a dependable source of entertainment. (Hagel resigned quite a while ago, but he hasn’t yet managed to find the door.) On November 24, Reid Cherlin, who knew Hagel well, published an eloquently mordant farewell in The New Republic. It describes the author’s arduous yet futile attempt to find anything sensible in anything that Hagel ever said. Among the remarks that Cherlin quotes is Hagel’s meditation on the situation in the Middle East:

Well, I just got off the phone with the defense minister of Israel. We have to stay very engaged with all of our allies and partners, specifically in the region. You know— I’ve said, and you know from President Obama and Secretary Kerry and others— we’ve been talking all the time with our allies and partners all over the world, but specifically in the Middle East. Any action carries with it risks and consequences. And as I said, inaction does, too. And so you have to assess all that, based on this scenario, based on this option, what might be a Syrian response or Iranian response or a Hezbollah response. Sure. That’s why allies are key to this. But as I’ve said, whatever action is taken, we feel very confident about that action…

Cherlin accurately characterizes this as “ragged chains of platitudes and caveats.” The Secretary of Defense (i.e., War) talked and talked, but Cherlin found it impossible to locate, in any of this babble, “his own philosophy about the use of force.” Of the proposed US attacks on Syria, Hagel said, “This is not going to war in another country, as defined probably by most wars.”

The more I look at that sentence, the sadder I am that Hagel will be leaving us. Government officials are always saying senseless things, but Hagel has the gift of perfect senselessness.

At this point in our experience as a people (now there’s a cliché that can be used in almost any sentence) I have a sense of anticlimax. We see, at the end of 2014, an apparently endless vista of small, dumpy, incoherent yet fanatically talkative figures, men and women who have never read a book or thought that they needed to, graduates (in the main) of elite schools in which social attitudes were the sole text requiring close attention, beneficiaries of a political process in which literacy carries no premium at all. Bill Clinton, sage of the Democratic Party, who studied memos but never books. His wife, Mrs. Clinton, who hired people to write her “highly personal” accounts of her own life. John Boehner, Speaker of the House, that grossly unworthy successor of Henry Clay, James K. Polk, James G. Blaine, John Carlisle, and Thomas Reed — all highly literate men, whatever you think of their politics, and some of them masters of the English language. Jeb Bush, the intellectual lumpenproletarian, with all the lumps showing. Elizabeth Warren, the brainless social worker, straight out of Sinclair Lewis. Nancy Pelosi, the unworthy successor of Apple Annie. And there are more, many more.

In future editions of this column, their linguistic adventures will be chronicled, as thoroughly as you or I can stand it. But right now — I want to thank all readers of Word Watch for their warm and continuous interest in its attempts to turn farce into comedy. I hope that this year ends happily for you, and that the next year renews and multiplies your happiness, so that there is neither climax nor anticlimax, but only the continuous joy of free people.




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The Congressional Killswitch

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Sometimes a story is just so perfect that the immediate response is suspicion, even skepticism, that such a thing could be. Even when backed by unimpeachable evidence, even to relate the story in another context, a reporter (this reporter, anyway) feels he must get the caveats out of the way, even at the expense of burying the lede, because it’s simply too easy to proceed any other way.

So then.

Eleanor Holmes Norton is a Delegate to Congress representing the District of Columbia in the House of Representatives. Though allowed to serve on committees as well as speak on the House floor, DC reps cannot vote on legislation and thus have only symbolic power—hence the District license plate legend, “No Taxation Without Representation.” Holmes was first elected to Congress in 1990 and has faced no substantive opposition to the renewal of her term since, nor will she until she retires.

Google is a very, very large company. Despite early attempts to avoid governmental entanglement, combined with a motto, “Don’t Be Evil,” that is warm and fuzzy by big-biz standards, Google is nonetheless one of the most politically involved corporations in the world, donating many millions to causes such as gay marriage rights and alternative energy sources—as well as to the Democrats, where such ideas are on the whole more welcome. However, in recent years (and in particular, after a potentially nasty antitrust suit) Google has been hedging its bets, courting the Republicans as well to make sure that whoever happens to be on top, Google can still prevail.

If they weren’t so quick on the killswitch, maybe Google wouldn’t need to spend so many of its resources lobbying for approval.

One of Google’s main ongoing projects is the creation of a driverless car—something that can hook into an overarching traffic grid and speed passengers to their destinations without the limitations of human frailty or curiosity: no more merge delays, no more fender benders, no more rubbernecking. Clearly hoping for congressional money to be shoved their way, Google hosted an event for the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to showcase their new toy. And as a ranking member of that committee, Holmes was not only invited along, but also given pride of place as the first occupant of the shotgun seat, with results I highly recommend you watch in the video on this page.

For no sooner does she sit down than she wrecks the whole show: “It says Emergency Stop,” she says, while tapping and then smashing a big red button marked with exactly those words. And the Google spokesman (and Carnegie Mellon engineer), trying valiantly to control his panic, replies “Oh, no, don’t press that, it shuts everything down, and it takes some time to, um, recover from that.”

And with all the above caveats out of the way, how perfect an image is this of how legislators interfere with progress in technology and markets? A company wishes to test out a new product, and instead of going to the customers to see if it will succeed, they must first kowtow to those in authority (the representative of all Washington, D.C., as a matter of fact), who promptly misunderstand the device and render it useless—and then have the gall to take some sort of perverse credit for the deed, as implied in the newscasters’ comment: “Norton does think that cars like that could have a future so long as they have safety features like that kill switch.” Thanks, Delegate! Without you we’d never have known how to murder promising technology in mere seconds.

As the further exchange shows, even as a constitutionally powerless member of the House, Norton can still cast a formidable shadow:

“And you know, if they ever get that started, it could be a cool little ride.”
“I guess it still needs a little work.”
“Still needs a little work, yes.”

But despite their gentle, demagogic mockery, the newscasters save for the end a shrewd observation, one that calls into question the very idea of a large-scale federal government: if you are to build such a thing, “Be careful who you put in it—Delegate Norton may not be invited next time around.”

Would that we could all disinvite Delegate Norton, and her 535 cronies actually charged with lawmaking in this country! If they weren’t so quick on the killswitch, maybe Google wouldn’t need to spend so many of its resources lobbying for approval—and the rest of us wouldn’t have to bide our time waiting for advances that would’ve been possible decades ago, apart from the reticence and hesitance of our so-called leaders.



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Google's Tax Dodge

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Curiously, most of the money that computer and internet-related companies give to political causes goes to Democratic candidates. For example, of the $12.9 million the high-tech industry contributed to candidates in this election cycle, over two-thirds ($8.4 million) went to Democrats.

A particularly strange case is that of Marissa Mayer, a top executive at Google. She held a fundraiser at her mansion to help Democratic politicians. Guests paid over $30,000 each to attend. Obama was the star performer, and had nothing but praise for Google. Amazingly, he showed none of his usual business bashing. The intense love shown on both sides was deeply touching. Who would have thought that these captains of industry would support so staunchly a man committed to raising taxes on the rich?

Mayer was not unique in her support for our neo-socialist president — 75% of all donations by Google employees went to the Democrats.

Yet even as the Google crew partied with Obama, news surfaced showing that Google had used tricky strategies to pass most of its foreign profits through Ireland and the Netherlands to Bermuda. These strategies — with cute names like “Double Irish” and “Dutch Sandwich” — saved Google over $3 billion in taxes, lowering its effective overseas tax rate to a measly 2.4%.

So it is that even as key elements of Google’s management attempted to help elect the party devoted to raising taxes, especially on the hated rich, the corporation itself dodged taxes artfully. Pretty slick for a company that has the boastful motto, “Do no evil.” It should be, “Pay no taxes.” And while they’re at it, maybe the Google high-fliers should google-search the word “hypocrisy”...




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