Hidden Messages


Many years ago I was asked to be the scorekeeper at an international synchronized skating competition. I dressed in official black, sat at the judges’ table with my pencil in hand, and proudly wrote down each team’s scores. When the day ended I asked a judge where I should take my clipboard to have my scores recorded. The judge laughed. “Just throw them away. We only record them manually in case there’s a power failure and we lose the official scores.” So. I had just been an insignificant backup scribe. Yet I had enjoyed my experience sitting at the judges’ table, and if the power had failed, my recordkeeping would have saved the day.

I thought about my backup role at that competition while watching Hidden Figures, a terrific film about the little-known women — most of them “colored” — who provided the backup computations in the early days of the space program. They didn’t design the rockets or map the trajectories, but they double-checked the math for the engineers — all of them men — who did those things. It was a respectable job that required respectable dress and respectable manners. They also needed respectable math skills. But they were the proofreaders, not the creators. Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

I know how that feels too. My first real job was proofreading for a university press. I had a natural ear for spelling and for grammar rules, and I was fast and accurate at my job. As an added benefit, I spent my days reading the galleys of fascinating books and articles. I felt a definite pride in my grammar skills, as I’m sure the NASA computers felt pride in their math skills. But what I really wanted was to become a writer, not a proofreader. I wanted to be on the other side of those galleys.

Even their title objectified them: they were called “computers,” because that’s what they did.

Three of the computers at NASA also had higher aspirations than backup math. Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer in the film) wanted to be a supervisor. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) wanted to be an aeronautical engineer. And Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) wanted to be an astrophysicist. Hidden Figures tells the compelling story of how these three women influenced the space program in the early 1960s, while also influencing the civil rights movement regarding women and African-Americans.

You probably didn’t know that any women worked on the space program in the early days, let alone black women. Neither did I. They have been a well-kept secret, these “hidden figures” who did the figuring. The film has predictably outrageous moments as we watch Katherine running to use the “colored restroom” in the building half a mile from the one where she works, or Mary being told that she can’t attend extension classes at the all-white high school, or Dorothy being given the responsibilities of a supervisor without the title or the pay that would go with the official promotion. But what makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence. They are as delightful as they are strong, and they bring something new and fresh to the civil rights story that is usually dominated by the men who were marching, sitting-in, and orating for freedom.

Fans of Big Bang Theory will enjoy seeing Jim Parsons in “Sheldon’s” dream job as a NASA physicist. Kevin Costner is well cast as level-headed, open-minded Al Harrison, the director of the department where Katherine is sent to check the trajectory figures. It was also good to see a grown-up Kirsten Dunst on screen as the supervisor in charge of giving the women from the computing pool their daily assignments. She portrays the kind of woman who thinks she is modern, progressive, and active in advancing the colored women who work under her, until Dorothy responds with a scathing smile, “I’m sure you believe that’s true.”

What makes this film wonderful is the way these women address these culturally accepted slights with dignity, humor, and indomitable persistence.

Hollywood makes few films that a libertarian can cheer, but Hidden Figures is one of them. I suspect the makers of this film didn’t even realize the libertarian ideals hidden within their script about civil rights and racial prejudice. Here are a few gems to watch for:

Lead the Way. Often the argument against change is “This is the way we’ve always done it.” In a film whose backdrop is the race to be first in space, Mary Jackson’s eloquent argument for being allowed to attend the white high school is profound. “Someone has to be first,” she says to the judge who will either maintain the status quo or change the future. “Why not you?”

Recognize Individual Worth. As a child, young Katherine (Lidya Jewett) demonstrates math skills far beyond her years. Her teachers not only recommend a school for children who are gifted in science and mathematics, but they also take up a collection to help her get there. Compare that attitude to the one touted in the new movie Gifted, in which the grandmother (Lindsay Duncan) of a brilliant little girl (McKenna Grace) wants to send her to a special school for gifted children but her uncle and legal guardian (Chris Evans) wants to keep her in the neighborhood school where she will have a “normal” childhood. What kind of world do we live in when we champion mediocrity and vilify those who would nourish genius? Katherine Johnson was blessed to have had her genius recognized and nurtured.

Make Yourself Indispensable. Katherine is sent to Harrison’s department as a simple proofreader, checking the math. She patiently endures the segregationist policies and does her work well. But she goes beyond that, using her skills in analytical geometry to solve trajectory problems the professionals haven’t been able to solve. Eventually her reputation for accuracy becomes so strong that John Glenn (Glen Powell) refuses to launch until Katherine has confirmed the Go-No Go calculations (a story that appears to be founded in fact). Instead of focusing on changing unfair office conditions, she focuses on doing her job well and making herself indispensable.

The law seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion.

Adapt to Changing Technology. When an IBM machine threatens to make the human computers obsolete, Dorothy heads for the library to learn Fortran. She encourages the other women in the computer pool to do the same. She realizes that the one sure way to keep a job is to stay ahead of change so the organization can’t get along without you.

Work Until the Job Is Done. As the pressure to beat the Russians to the moon increases, everyone has to step up. “You’re going to have to work harder and longer than ever before, ” Harrison tells them, “and your paychecks won’t reflect it.” Then he adds, “It starts with me.” They all feel a sense of purpose and accomplishment that transcends the word “job”; they’re part of a mission that will change the world. Compare this to the law enacted on December 1 that mandates workers earning less than $47K be paid time and a half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. It seems to protect the lowest paid workers, but in fact it limits their ability to work extra hard, stand out, and prove themselves worthy of promotion. Significantly, the boss doesn’t give orders and go home — he works long hours right alongside them.

Be Persistent and Patient. Dorothy, Mary, and Katherine never stop lobbying for the promotions and advancements they feel they deserve, but they continue to do the jobs they’ve been hired to do in the meantime. They don’t lead protests or threaten to strike. Instead, they increase their educations, adapt to changing technology, look for places where they can make a difference in the organization, and make themselves critical to the organization’s success. As a result, each of these brilliant women became, in real life, a quiet pioneer — Dorothy Vaughan became the first African-American woman supervisor at NASA, Mary Jackson became the first African-American woman aeronautical engineer, and Katherine G. Johnson was the first African-American woman to become a technical analyst for the space program. Their story is finally and finely told in a film that is entertaining, inspiring, outrage-inducing, and in the end, triumphant.

Often the argument against change is

Editor's Note: Review of " Hidden Figures," directed by Theodore Melfi. Fox 2000, 2016, 127 minutes.

Share This

Single Vision


Share This

Free Speech — A Losing Candidate?


Consider these two arrangements of the same story:

  1. May 11 — Violence caused the cancellation of a Donald Trump rally in Chicago after Trump denounced people opposed to his candidacy. People who came to protest against Trump were fought by Trump supporters.
  2. May 11 — Violence caused the cancellation of a Donald Trump rally in Chicago after protesters entered the hall and fought with Trump supporters. Trump had previously denounced protesters who appeared inside his rallies.

Both versions are true. But the first of them is a piece of propaganda, designed to get people to vote against Trump.

It’s easy to write such things. Try your own hand at it — maybe you can get a job with one of those big media outlets that are spending a lot of time blaming Trump for the violence of their own allies, the ’60s refugees and college clones who want to make sure that only one Great Thought gets heard in America.

But before I share any more of my own great thoughts, please take this brief version of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test. Have you already concluded that I who am writing this am a supporter or a detractor of Donald Trump?

Others spoke of their campaign for “compassion and understanding,” thus making theirs the first riot ever staged for compassionate purposes.

If your answer is Yes, you have jumped to a conclusion, and you will interpret all subsequent sentences as further proof of your opinion. You will also conclude — or you have already concluded — that I am either a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe, or an American patriot who just wants to see something done about the mess in Washington. I’m sure your ability to divine these things will be gratifying to your self-esteem.

But if your answer is No, then you are qualified to read what follows. Reading involves, among other things, the ability to identify what a piece of writing is about. This piece of writing is not about Donald Trump or my opinion of Donald Trump. It’s about a massive default from the principle of free speech.

Trump’s rally on March 11 was shut down by a mob of leftists, many of them carrying Bernie Sanders signs. Sanders was not behind the action, but his political faction was massively involved. In the for-once-apt words of a police union spokesman, “it was a planned event with professional protestors.” A week or weeks in advance they had planned what they were going to do and how they were going to do it. Once in occupation of the hall where Trump was supposed to speak, they alternately shrieked in well-rehearsed apoplexy and danced and giggled with delight. When attempts were made to interview them about what they were trying to do, most refused to admit knowing any motive. Others spoke of their campaign for “compassion and understanding,” thus making theirs the first riot ever staged for compassionate purposes.

In short, this was the gross and obvious use of a mob to deny free speech and assembly to one’s political opponents.

That being, as I said, obvious, I confidently awaited the outrage that must surely follow, even from the American political establishment. But I was disappointed. Every online headline I saw made it sound as if Trump had attacked his own rally; every article arranged the story so as to picture “violence” being spontaneously ignited by the presence of people who support Donald Trump, or actually and solely begun by them. The worst headline I saw — but there were probably even worse — was this from the Washington Post:

‘Get ’em out!’ Racial tensions explode at Donald Trump’s rallies

In truth, the only connection with “race” was the presence of Black Lives Matter activists and other people screaming about Trump being a “white supremacist,” which of course he is not. Trump is a jackass who happens to be white. Other people are jackasses who happen to be black. In neither case does race matter. But if you want to claim that someone is a white supremacist, just go to the Washington Post, and they’ll give you a headline. That headline is your license to destroy the right of free speech that allows the Post to enjoy its own ridiculous life.

Similar events continue. When protesters disrupteda Trump rally in Arizona on March 19, after trying to prevent Trump from even reaching the venue, the CBS News headline was “Violence Erupts at Donald Trump Rally in Tucson.” Clever, very clever. Omit the human agents — the people who want to shut Trump up — and make it appear as if Trump were some dangerous natural phenomenon that may “erupt” at any time. The message? Get away from Trump.

if you want to claim that someone is a white supremacist, just go to the Washington Post, and they’ll give you a headline.

This is shameful dishonesty. But silly me, I was half expecting leading Democrats to be embarrassed by the mob behavior of some of their supporters. Had it been a Republican mob that attacked a rival political campaign, we would never have heard the end of the Democrats’ outraged demands that all Republicans immediately repudiate such fascist tactics. For the Democrat establishment, however, Trump was the fascist. Sanders showed not a hint of shame about his followers, and no questioner tried to get him to. Mrs. Clinton lost no time in denouncing “the ugly, divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump, and the encouragement he has given to violence. . . .” “If you play with matches,” she said, after exhaustive research in America’s vast storehouse of domestic clichés, “you can start a fire you cannot control.” Well, that much was to be expected from such an implacable proponent of objective law as Hillary Clinton.

But let us return to the problem of fouling the well you drink from, which is the giddy enterprise of the Washington Post and other journals that value free speech mainly because it’s good for people who agree with them. Consider Trump’s Republican rivals. Long victims of media slanders about their party’s supposed alliance with the supposed racists and violence-mongers of the Tea Party, Republicans might be expected to insist on free speech and fair play for everyone, but especially for themselves. Well, don’t expect anything like that. When push came to shove at the Trump rallies, they preferred to blame the victim, a fellow Republican, and try for a cheap political advantage.

Ted Cruz asserted that if you talk as Trump does, “you’re creating an environment that only encourages” violence. This from the man who has been mightily, and unfairly, blamed for inciting the wrath of other Republican senators — by refusing to give up his right to free speech.

John Kasich repeated, like a mantra, “Donald Trump has created a toxic environment . . . Donald is creating a very toxic environment, and it’s dividing people.” Note to Kasich: what is a “toxic environment”? Another note to Kasich: Aren’t you “dividing people” whenever you disagree with somebody? A third note to Kasich: why are your clichés of a higher intellectual quality than Donald Trump’s?

Republicans might be expected to insist on free speech and fair play for everyone, but especially for themselves. Well, don’t expect anything like that.

But it was left to Marco Rubio — who as I maintained last month is not a bad talker, so long as he’s talking one-on-one and about something specific, instead of standing on the balcony to deliver the papal blessing — it was left to Rubio to deliver the most inane remark of this supremely inane political season:

Presidents and presidential candidates cannot just say whatever they want.

I guess not. And I guess that’s what makes their sayings so profound, so probing, so candid, and so trustworthy.

Republican operatives were singing from the same page as the candidates, or vice versa. To cite one of many examples, Guy Benson, political editor of Town Hall, an outlet for conservative and sometimes radical conservative ideas, and attempts at ideas, used an interview with Fox on March 17 to accuse Trump of “fomenting violence.” To cite another, Doug Heye, a “Republican strategist and advisor,” lamented to Fox’s eager ears that attention had been stolen from Rubio’s campaign by the riot in Chicago, while his interviewer, Shep Smith, noted that some people thought the riot was actually contrived by Trump. To be fair, Heye then said that although Trump used “bigoted” language, he was “not a bigot,” and he himself would vote for Trump if he were nominated.

Let’s pause for a moment, and meditate upon these samples of the Republican mind at work.

If you’ve ever suspected that the political leaders of our nation are just not that bright, here is new evidence. Trump’s political appeal is known to result very largely from his warfare against the politically correct Left, an ideological formation that is feared and despised by almost everyone in the country who doesn’t have a Ph.D., work for a Human Resources department, or hold office in a safe Democrat district. In fact, it’s hated and despised by many people who do fit those descriptions; they’re just afraid to admit it. And as Trump’s Republican opponents have good reason to understand, this aspect of his political appeal is very strong. They also know that Americans traditionally resent blatant attempts to shut people up. They may try to shut people up themselves — specific people on specific occasions — but in the abstract, at least, they dislike the process. They have a feeling that it’s unfair, undemocratic, counterproductive. That feeling also is very strong.

In these circumstances, what would any Republican politician with brains more powerful than a bowl of jello have to say about the politically correct attacks on Trump’s rallies? He would say, “As you know, I am opposed to Donald Trump’s nomination on the Republican ticket. Nevertheless, I believe that all Americans should condemn the dastardly attempt of political radicals and supporters of the Democratic Party to do something that has never been done in American politics — prevent a candidate from running for the high office of president of the United States,” etc., etc., etc. Anyone could write that speech, which would appeal to virtually everyone in the country and position the speaker as morally superior not just to the Democrat mob but also to Donald Trump, whose own protests might be written off as merely self-interested.

Even a child might pity the obvious phoniness and insensate self-interest of Clinton's attempt to escape from being criticized.

But that’s not what happened. It was one of those moments when the fortunes of the Grand Old Party were magically aligned with those of high principle and popular sentiment, and the GOP not only missed the moment but disgraced it. Its candidates and spokesmen actually thought that their own self-interest was involved, not with the assertion of ideas that almost everyone holds, but with the petty advantage to be sought by suggesting that their chief opponent deserved whatever bad things happened to him. In the process, they gratified the politically correct people who can barely force themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, let alone some low-life Republican, and they morally outraged the legions of Trump supporters whose assistance they themselves require for victory.

It seems very childish to point this out. But our politics (not without the help of Donald Trump) have become so childish that anyone who knows that C-A-T spells “cat” is operating with an enormous intellectual advantage over the other kids.

I should have reached this conclusion about the prevalence of baby talk and infantile tantrums when Hillary Clinton went before the Benghazi committee and screamed, with well-rehearsed outrage, “What difference does it make?” Even a child might pity the obvious phoniness and insensate self-interest of her attempt to escape from being criticized. Yet the august organs of public opinion hailed it as an unanswerable defense of her actions. Only later did they sense that there might have been some slippage in the public relations department: everybody but them considered Clinton’s tantrum the worst performance ever presented on TV. So why should I be surprised by the need to suggest that America’s deep political thinkers may have missed a few other things — things that even some non-pundits understand?

Among those things are the following reflections:

  1. It’s wrong to blame the victim, whether the victim is sensible or not, likable or not, or any other not. A woman who is robbed while walking down a dark street is not responsible for being robbed, even though “she should have known better” than to walk that way. A man who ventures into “a bad neighborhood” with an expensive watch — ditto. A person who makes rude remarks from a public stage is not to blame if someone organizes a mob to kick him off the stage. Even a blowhard who goes around saying, “If anybody tries to kick me off this stage, I’ll hit him in the face” is not to blame if, yes, somebody tries to kick him off the stage. We are not living in the old Soviet Union, which had such tender feelings that any rude remark became a provocation. Weighing rights on the scale with provocations is an excellent means of getting rid of rights, and that’s why it is the consistent practice of dictatorships.
  2. Whether Donald Trump was being jocular or not when he suggested to his listeners that if somebody caused trouble, people in the audience would be justified in taking physical action against that person, those remarks had nothing to do with the invasions of his rallies. If talking offhandedly about violence actually incited violence, then half the stand-up comics and three-quarters of the leftwing demonstrations in this country would be guilty of inciting violence. If Trump had said absolutely nothing about any kind of violence, the people who turned out to “protest” his alleged racism and sexism would still have turned out to “protest” his alleged racism and sexism. That’s what their signs said they were doing. Logically, anyone sincerely moved to protest Trump’s rude bellowings would want to do so by exhibiting the opposite behavior. But that’s not what makes a mob. For that you need bullhorns, filthy slogans, and, yes, actual violence. When other Republicans maintained that Trump was getting what was coming to him, they were siding with people who would cheerfully raise the same kind of mobs against them.
  3. When it comes to free speech and free assembly, it makes no difference whether someone is pleasant or unpleasant, or even whether he is a “racist” or some other offensive something. Free speech isn’t about allowing your sweet old grandmother to discuss how much she’s always admired Mother Teresa. Neither she nor her admiration requires protection. It’s unpopular views and unpopular people that require protection, and they are guaranteed protection by our national charter.

So much for my review of ideas that should have occurred to everyone, but obviously have not, although there is nothing more important in the realm of words than everybody’s right to use them freely.

Washington Post,

Share This

Pandora’s Book


What would you do if you were told that something you believe is not true? It would depend on who was telling you, I guess. It would also depend on how important the belief was to you, and on the strength of the evidence offered, wouldn’t it?

Suppose the belief in question had shaped your career and your view of how the world works. What if you were offered strong evidence that this fundamental belief was just plain wrong? What if you were offered proof?

Would you look at it?

In his 2014 book, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, Nicholas Wade takes the position that “human evolution has been recent, copious, and regional.” Put that way, it sounds rather harmless, doesn’t it? In fact, the book has caused quite a ruckus.

What if you were offered strong evidence that this fundamental belief was just plain wrong? What if you were offered proof?

The following is not a review of Wade’s book. It is, instead, more a look at how the book was received and why. There are six parts: a story about Galileo, a summary of what I was taught about evolution in college, a sharper-edged rendering of the book’s hypothesis, an overview of some of the reviews, an irreverent comment on the controversy over Wade’s choice of a word, and, finally, an upbeat suggestion to those engaged in the ongoing nurture vs. nature debate.

1. It is the winter of 1609. In a courtyard of the University of Padua, Galileo Galilei closes one eye and peers at the moon through his recently improved telescope. As he observes the play of light and shadow on its surface, there comes a moment when he realizes that he is looking at the rising and setting of the sun across the mountains and valleys of another world. He is stunned.

Galileo hurries to tell his friend and colleague, Cesare Cremonini, then drags him to the courtyard, urging him to view this wonder. Cesare puts his eye to the scope for just a moment, then pulls his head back, pauses, frowns, and says, “I do not wish to approve of claims about which I do not have any knowledge, and about things which I have not seen . . . and then to observe through those glasses gives me a headache. Enough! I do not want to hear anything more about this.”

What a thing to say.

A little context might help. Cesare taught the philosophy of Aristotle at Padua. Aristotle held that the moon was not a world but a perfect sphere: no mountains, no valleys. Furthermore, the Inquisition was underway, and a tenured professor of philosophy who started rhapsodizing about “another world” would have been well advised to restrict his comments to the Celestial Kingdom. The Pope, you see, agreed with Aristotle. To him, and, therefore, to the Roman Catholic Church, the only “world” was the earth, the immobile center of the universe around which everything else moved. Any other view was taboo. Poor Cesare! Not only did he not want to look through the telescope; he did not want there to be mountains on the moon at all.

The question in the present drama is this: who is playing the role of Cremonini?

It would get worse. Soon Galileo would point his scope at Jupiter and discover its moons, heavenly bodies that clearly weren’t orbiting the earth. Then he would observe and record the astonishing fact that Venus went through phases as it orbited not the earth but the sun. So: Ptolemy was wrong, Copernicus was right, and Cesare Cremonini would go down in history as the epitome of willful ignorance. Galileo, of course, fell into the clutches of the Inquisition and became a hero of the Renaissance.

To be fair to Cesare, the story has been retrospectively streamlined into a sort of scientific morality tale. While the part about Galileo’s discovery is probably more or less right, Cremonini’s remark wasn’t made directly to Galileo. It was reported to him later in a letter from a mutual friend, Paolo Gualdo. The text of that letter is included in Galileo’s work, Opere II. And while those jagged borders of light and dark on the moon, imperfectly magnified, were certainly thought-provoking, to say that the case against Ptolemy was closed on the spot, that night in Padua, would be too neat.

It makes a good story, though, and a nice lens for viewing reactions to scientific breakthroughs. Changing our focus now from the moons of Jupiter to the molecular Rubik’s cube we call the human genome, the question in the present drama is this: who is playing the role of Cremonini?

2. In an undergraduate course, taken decades ago, I was taught that human evolution had more or less stopped when the glaciers retreated about 10,000 years ago. Evolution had been driven primarily by natural selection in response to a changing environment; and, as such changes had, for the time being at least, halted, so too had the evolution of man.

I was taught that races exist only as social constructs, not as meaningful biological categories, and that these constructs are only skin deep. They told me that the social behavior of an individual is not genetic, that behavioral and cognitive propensities just aren’t in our genes.

I was taught that the differences among social organizations are unrelated to the genetic differences of the populations that comprise those various organizations, and that social environments have no influence on human evolution.

3. To show how Wade’s book stirred things up, I will present his central hypothesis with an emphasis on the controversial parts. I’ll avoid scientific jargon, in an effort to make the meaning clearer to my fellow nonscientists.

Wade believes that humanity has been evolving rapidly during the past 30,000 years and continues to evolve rapidly today. It is not just our physical characteristics that continue to evolve. The genes that influence our behavior also evolve. (Yes, that’s what the book says, that our behavior is influenced by our genes.)

is humanity rapidly evolving? Is there such a thing as race in biological terms? Nicholas Wade believes that the answer is “yes.”

He also believes that humanity has evolved differently in different locations, most markedly on the different continents, where the major races evolved. (Yes, the book calls them races.)

These separately evolved genetic differences include those that influence behavior. (Yes, the book says that race is deeper than the skin.)

Furthermore, these genetic differences in behavioral propensities have contributed to the diversity of civilizations. The characteristics of any given civilization, in turn, influence the direction of evolution of the humans who compose it.

Oh, my.

We now know that the earth goes around the sun. But is humanity rapidly evolving? Is there such a thing as race in biological terms? Does the particular set of alleles in an individual’s genome influence how that person behaves? Does the particular frequency of alleles in the collective genetic material of the people who compose a civilization influence the characteristics of that civilization? Do the characteristics of a civilization influence the direction of the evolution of the humans that compose it? Nicholas Wade believes that the answer to all these questions is “yes.” While he does not claim that all of this has been proven, he is saying, in effect, that what I learned in college is not true. Am I now to be cast as Cremonini?

4. There are those who disagree with Wade.

In fact, lots of people didn’t like A Troublesome Inheritance at all. I’ve read about 20 reviews, few of them favorable. Even Charles Murray, writing in theWall Street Journal, seemed skeptical of some of Wade’s arguments.Most of the others were simply unfavorable, among them reviews in the Washington Post, the New York Review of Books, Scientific American, the New York Times, The New Republic, and even Reason. Slate and The Huffington Post piled on. While Brian Bethune’s review in MacLean’s was gentler than most, it was gently dismissive.

The reactions run from disdain to anger to mockery. Nathaniel Comfort’s satirical review Hail Britannia!,in his blog Genotopia, is the funniest. Donning the persona of a beef-fed, red-faced, pukka sahib at the height of the Raj, he praises Wade’s book as a self-evident explanation of the superiority of the West in general and the British in particular. (I once saw a retired British officer of the Indian Army being told by an Indian government official that he had to move his trailer to a remote area of a tiger preserve to ensure the security of a visiting head of state. He expressed his reluctance with the words, “I’m trying to be reasonable, damn it, but I’m not a reasonable man!”)

There’s some pretty heated language in these reviews, too. That the reviewers are upset is understandable. After all, they have been told that what they believe is not true. And the fellow doing the telling isn’t even a scientist.Sure, Nicholas Wade was a science writer and editor for the New York Times for three decades, but that doesn’t makehim a scientist. Several of the reviews charge that Wade relies on so many historical anecdotes, broad-brush impressions, and hastily formed conclusions that it’s a stretch to say the book is based on science at all.

Of course they’re angry. Some of these guys are professors who teach, do research, and write books on the very subject areas that Wade rampages through. If he’s right, then they’re wrong, and their life’s work has been, if not wasted, at the very least misguided.

The consensus is that Wade has made a complete hash of the scientific evidence that he cites to make his case: cherry-picking, mischaracterizing, over-generalizing, quoting out of context, that kind of thing.

Another common complaint is that, wittingly or not, Wade is providing aid and comfort to racists. In fact, the animosity conveyed in some of the reviews may spring primarily from this accusation. In his review in the New York Times, David Dobbs called the book “dangerous.” Whoa. As I said, they don’t like A Troublesome Inheritance at all.

So, is Nicholas Wade just plain wrong, or are his learned critics just so many Cremoninis?

5. While the intricacies of most of the disagreements between Wade and his critics are over my head, one of the criticisms is fairly clear. It is that Wade uses the term “race” inappropriately.

The nub of the race question is that biologists want the word “race” as it applies to humans to be the equivalent of the word “subspecies” as it applies to animals. As the genetic differences among individual humans and the different populations of humans are so few, and the boundaries between the populations so indistinct, biologists conclude that there are no races. We are all homo sapiens sapiens. We are one.

Several of the reviews charge that Wade relies on so many historical anecdotes, broad-brush impressions, and hastily formed conclusions that it’s a stretch to say the book is based on science at all.

Just south of Flathead Lake in Montana is an 8,000-acre buffalo preserve. One summer day in the mid-’70s, I walked into its visitors center with my wife and father-in-law and asked the woman behind the counter, “Where are the buffalo?” She did not hesitate before hissing, “They’re bison.” Ah, yes: the bison-headed nickel, Bison Bill Cody, and, “Oh, give me a home where the bison roam . . .” You know the critter.

Put it this way: to a National Park Ranger, a buffalo is a bison; to a biological anthropologist, race is a social construct. That doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as a buffalo.

I don’t mean to make light of it. I’ve read the explanations. I’ve studied the printouts that graph and color-code populations according to genetic variation. I’ve studied the maps and charts that show the differences in allele frequencies among the groups. I’ve squinted at the blurry edges of the clusters. I get all that, but this much is clear: the great clusters of genetic variation that correspond to the thousands of years of relative isolation on the various continents that followed the trek out of Africa are real, and because they are genetic, they are biological. In any case, we are not in a biology class; we are in the world, where most people don’t talk about human “subspecies” very often, if ever. They talk about human “races.” To criticize Wade’s use of the term “race” seems pedantic. Whether to call the clusters “races” or “populations” or “groups” is a semantic dispute.

Put it another way: If you put on your “there is no such thing as race” costume for Halloween, you’ll be out trick-or-treating in your birthday suit, unless you stay on campus.

Besides, use any word you want, it won’t affect the reality that the symbol represents. The various “populations” either have slightly different genetic mixes that nudge behavior differently, or they don’t. I mean, are we seeking the truth here or just trying to win an argument?

6. While Wade offers no conclusive proof that genes create behavioral predispositions, he does examine some gene-behavior associations that point in that direction and seem particularly open to further testing. Among them are the MAOA gene and its influence on aggression and violence, and the OXTR gene and its influence on empathy and sensitivity. (The symbols link to recent research results.)

What these have in common is that the biochemical chain from the variation of the gene to the behavior is at least partly understood. The chemical agents of the genes in question are L-monoamine oxidase and oxytocin, respectively. Because of this, testing would not be restricted to a simple correlation of alleles to overt behaviors in millions of people, though that is a sound way to proceed as well. The thing about the intermediate chemical triggers is that they could probably be measured, manipulated, and controlled for.

We are in the world, where most people don’t talk about human “subspecies” very often, if ever. They talk about human “races.”

The difficult task of controlling for epigenetic, developmental, and environmental variables would also be required but, in the end, it should be possible to determine whether the alleles in question actually influence behavior.

If they do, the next step would be to determine the frequency of the relevant allele patterns in various populations. If the frequency varies significantly, then the discussion about how these genetic differences in behavioral propensities may have contributed to the diverse characteristics of civilizations could be conducted on firmer ground.

If the alleles are proven not to influence behavior, then Wade’s hypothesis would remain unproven, and lots of textbooks wouldn’t have to be tossed out.

Of course, it’s not so simple. The dance between the genome and the environment has been going on since life began. At this point, it might be said that everything in the environment potentially influences the evolution of man, making it very difficult to identify which parts of human behavior, if any, are influenced by our genes. Like Cremonini, I have no wish to approve of claims about which I do not have knowledge.

But the hypothesis that Wade lays out will surely be tested and retested. The technology that makes the testing possible is relatively new, but improving all the time. We can crunch huge numbers now, and measure genetic differences one molecule at a time. It is inevitable that possible links between genes and behavior will be examined more and more closely as the technology improves. Associations among groups of alleles, for example, and predispositions of trust, cooperation, conformity, and obedience will be examined, as will the even more controversial possible associations with intelligence. That is to say, the telescope will become more powerful. And then, one evening, we will be able to peer through the newly improved instrument, and we shall see.

That is, of course, if we choose to look.

Share This

Still a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird


As a professor of English literature I’ve heard more than one colleague comment wryly that the only legitimate purpose of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is that it introduces the character of Huck Finn. The same could be said of Harper Lee’s newly published novel Go Set a Watchman; its only legitimate purpose is that it introduces the characters of Scout and Atticus Finch, the main characters in To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).

The new book takes place nearly two decades later than the first, when the 26-year-old Jean Louise (aka Scout) Finch, now living in New York, returns to Maycomb, Alabama, for a two-week visit with her family. There she reminisces about childhood adventures with her brother Jem and friends Henry and Dill. The adult Jean Louise views her family and neighbors through more cosmopolitan eyes and finds them severely wanting, particularly in their attitudes toward civil rights and racial equality.

Watchman's detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene.

According to interviews with her current publisher at HarperCollins, Lee wrote this manuscript in the 1950s, when she was in her twenties, and although it takes place after the events in TKAM, it was actually written several years earlier. Lee’s agent submitted it to publishers, and in 1957 Tay Hohoff, an editor at JB Lippincott, picked it up. However, Hohoff recognized that the book wasn’t ready for publication and that the flashback scenes were far more compelling than the main narrative. She recommended that Lee rewrite the book using six-year-old Scout as the narrator. Better advice was never given to a first-time author. Hohoff worked closely with her, guiding her through several versions until, three years later, Lee’s Pulitzer-prize winning To Kill a Mockingbird was published. It has been read and reread by admiring fans for over 50 years.

Meanwhile, Watchman had been sitting in a secure area of Lee’s Alabama home, attached to the original manuscript of TKAM, since at least 1964, but was uncovered only recently by Lee’s attorney — conveniently after Lee suffered a stroke that left her virtually deaf and blind, and just three months after Lee’s sister and executor had passed away. Permission was secured from Lee to publish the book, but controversy swirls about the question of whether the privacy-seeking author, who always maintained that she would never write a sequel, was competent to understand what she was being asked.

So what about the book itself? Is it good enough to sell out an initial run of two million copies and sit atop the bestseller list, which is what it has been doing?

Sadly, no. On so many levels! It just isn’t very well written. Its detached, undefined narrator tells the story but doesn’t draw the reader into the scene to experience it in the way Scout would eventually do in TKAM. The book is didactic and preachy, full of long philosophical harangues between characters but without the episodic storytelling that would make TKAM’s lessons so bittersweet and lasting. Watchman is a valuable first draft, but Lee needed to mature and grow as an author.

As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge.

The themes of Watchman are certainly timely. Scout talks about white privilege (yes, she uses that term) when she confronts lifelong friend Hank Clinton about some of his compromising actions. She doesn’t see that privilege in herself, just as African-Americans today complain that whites don’t see it in themselves. But Hank, whose family is considered “trash,” tells her, “I’ve never had some of the things you take for granted and I never will. . . . You can parade around town in your dungarees with your shirttail out and barefooted if you want to. Maycomb says, ‘That’s the Finch in her, that’s just Her Way. . . . But let Henry Clinton show any signs of deviatin’ from the norm and Maycomb says not ‘That’s the Clinton in him,’ but ‘That’s the trash in him.’ . . . You are permitted a sweet luxury I am not. You can shout to high heaven, I cannot” (231–34).

More importantly, Watchman destroys the reputation of one of the most beloved civil rights heroes in American literature. As I watched Atticus Finch become involved in a community council whose purpose was to restrain the upward mobility of black citizens, I kept waiting for the wise ulterior motive to emerge and the lesson to be learned — for Hank to be right when he said of Atticus, “He joined . . . to find out exactly what men in town were behind the masks. . . . A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them” (229–30). Lee does give a faint nod to the revolutionary battle cry, “I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” when Uncle Jack explains, “People don’t agree with the Klan, but they certainly don’t try to prevent them from puttin’ on sheets and making fools of themselves in public” (267). But this does not take away the bitter taste of hearing Atticus Finch saying, “Have you ever considered that you can’t have a set of backward people living among people advanced in one kind of civilization and have a social Arcadia? . . . You realize that our Negro population is backward, don’t you? You will concede that? . . . You realize that the vast majority of them here in the South are unable to fully share in the responsibilities of citizenship, and why?  . . . You’d have Negroes in every county office. . . . Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world? Do you want your children going to a school that’s been dragged down to accommodate Negro children?” How can these words come from the mouth of the man who defended Tom Robinson so eloquently and taught his children that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird?

I don’t believe they could. As Harper Lee took the advice of her original publisher and returned to her manuscript, she came to know her characters better. I don’t think she quite knew them when she began writing. She had a sense of them, but she only knew them from their dialogue, not from their hearts. Her title, Go Set a Watchman, comes from a passage in Isaiah suggesting that Israel needed a moral compass. In her early twenties, Lee thought that she, through her character Jean Louise, was that moral compass. She even called herself “Scout,” the one who blazes a trail through the wilderness.

Many authors did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed.

But Hohoff recognized something more significant in a short flashback scene, where Jean Louise reminisces about Atticus defending a one-armed black man against a rape charge brought by a white woman. That was the real story. As Lee struggled through the editing process with Hohoff, she finally discovered that the moral compass was Atticus all along. Scout’s liberality came not as resistance to her father’s bigotry and paternalism, but from following her father’s example. Ironically, the younger Harper Lee in her twenties drew the old Atticus Finch through the eyes of a woman rebelling against patriarchy. But the slightly older Harper Lee, in her thirties, writing through the narration of a six-year-old girl, understood the father character with a maturity that allowed her to draw him exactly right.

Foreseeing their deaths, authors have often instructed their servants or their heirs to destroy their unfinished manuscripts. Adam Smith, Thomas Hardy, Franz Kafka, Nikolai Gogol, and even Virgil are among them. We lament the loss of some treasured works (others, such as the Aeneid, were saved), but perhaps the authors usually knew best — they did not want to have works immortalized whose words were unpolished, story lines were unclear, or philosophies no longer endorsed. If Harper Lee had the mental capacity to realize what has happened to her beloved Atticus, I’m sure she would be ready to throw all two million copies of this printing into the fire. Already possessing more millions of dollars than she could possibly spend in the time she has left, she has been betrayed by the desire of her attorney, her agent, and her publisher to make money — a lot of it. They have discovered a new golden goose, but they have finally killed the mockingbird.

Editor's Note: Review of "Go Set a Watchman," by Harper Lee. HarperCollins, 2015, 278 pages.

Share This

Is Passably Principled Progressivism Possible?


Try reading the title of this essay aloud. It sounds a lot like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” I like tongue twisters. But as much as I value a nimble tongue, I prize a nimble brain far more.

Libertarians are the only people with whom I can still have a satisfying conversation about politics. I no longer have much patience for talking politics with self-proclaimed progressives. Fatuously, my former faction has foregone factual fastidiousness. I know that if I ever want to change them into libertarians, I need to keep on trying; I only wish the challenge didn’t daunt me so.

Their logic does not exercise the intellect; it strangles it. I could point to a dozen examples from current events alone. A few especially make me want to run naked and screaming into the street. My natural modesty, my fear of being filled with holes by overzealous cops, and my reluctance to being laughed at, hold this impulse in check. But because most of my friends and acquaintances are progressive, I am tempted daily.

They are now in a state of high indignation because some people have replaced the slogan, “Black Lives Matter” with “ALL Lives Matter.” Now, since “all” is a more inclusive term than “black,” and progressives trumpet to the skies their commitment to inclusivity, one would imagine that replacing “black” with “all” would be more favorable to them. And if most actually believed in their own stated convictions, of course it would be. But because it is becoming increasingly obvious that for many of them, their convictions are little more than an affectation, everybody else sees their “progressivism” as a sham.

I could point to a dozen examples from current events alone. A few especially make me want to run naked and screaming into the street.

What a shame! As individuals, a good many leftists whom I know are quite sincere, but they are afraid to admit the absurdity of many of the positions their crowd expects them to take. When, in a group of them, I proclaim such things to be foolish, they look at me with something akin to envy. How dare I do anything that feels so good — without guilt or fear of disapproval?

Their enthusiasms are childishly faddish. One week, it’s operatic outrage against the Confederate battle flag. The next, their Facebook posts feature photos of yawning house cats that “roar for Cecil,” the lion killed by the dastardly, trophy-hunting dentist. I’m afraid to ask what’s next. Frighteningly soon, I’m going to find out.

Is there anything remotely progressive about the great majority of fads that tickle their fancy? I’ve come to believe that far from leading toward progress, these enthusiasms actually divert them from a quest for the genuine article. Worse, they may even lead them in the opposite direction.

As individuals, a good many leftists whom I know are quite sincere, but they are afraid to admit the absurdity of many of the positions their crowd expects them to take.

The police brutality now escalating in our society can’t be effectively dealt with if its two main causes — the irresponsibility of government and the corruption of police unions — are left unaddressed. Turning the problem into a racial shoving-match is yet another tactic designed to divide and conquer. The sooner we recognize that all lives do matter, and that police brutality threatens every one of us, the more likely we are to come together to solve the problem.

Solving the problem would, indeed, be progressive in any meaningful sense of the word. But the statist left isn’t really about solving problems to bring about progress. It’s about making those problems ever worse, so it can go on decrying them and putting itself forward as the heroic force that alone can save us from them.

As a libertarian, I very much believe in organized labor. If we’re going to let free market forces regulate commercial interactions, then we need to clear away the clutter of oppressive “workers’ rights” legislation. I believe that’s a very good plan. But it makes organized labor — at least in some industries — not less necessary, but more. Busting up all unions is not, in my view, the way to protect workers’ rights in the absence of legislation.

This means that the unions must clean house. It’s absolutely crucial to their continued survival. Statist progressives are leery of admitting that corruption exists in organized labor because they fear that anti-labor conservatives will use that corruption as an excuse to abolish unions. But if they continue to ignore corruption in those unions, this is eventually what will happen. To cite the two examples most often in the news these days, police unions must stop shielding bad cops from accountability for their actions, and teachers’ unions must insist on representing people who can actually teach.

The police brutality now escalating in our society can’t be effectively dealt with if its two main causes — the irresponsibility of government and the corruption of police unions — are left unaddressed.

When I discuss this calmly with progressive friends, away from peers whose wrath they’re afraid of incurring, I find they generally agree with me. It’s rather like reasoning with teenagers, when the rest of their crowd is not present. People can only be reasonably persuaded as individuals. Their behavior around their peers changes dishearteningly little, regardless of their age.

In their regular interactions with government at every level, my progressive friends experience little but frustration. They can point to no solid evidence, in their daily lives, that government makes their lives anything but worse. Yet they continue to believe that government action is the only means to make life better in society as a whole. To libertarians, this is as ridiculous as believing that Santa Claus comes down the chimney every Christmas Eve. But like small children who’ve been told all their lives that Santa brings their presents, statists can conceive of no other possibility.

I laugh at them a lot. I compare them to kids. Many of us think that’s funny, and recognize that it’s also true. But people can’t be persuaded of much when they’re being laughed at. Far from winning them over to our side, it only drives them farther away from it.

If we can bring them back to the principles that made them progressives in the first place, we may be able to show them that every worthy end deserves the best possible means to accomplish it. That “leaders” who keep proposing the same failing strategies do not deserve to be followed. That free people who are willing to persuade and earn trust are more trustworthy than arrogant know-it-alls who use force, fraud and intimidation to get their way. And that unless human beings can be trusted to run their own lives, they certainly can’t be trusted to run the lives of others.  

Really, I’m still a progressive. I simply persist in believing in the principles that made me a progressive in the first place. But I want to see results. I want to see actual progress. I’m kind of funny that way.

Why don’t we see any success from the things their self-proclaimed leaders keep doing? And no, “but the conservatives are worse” is not an answer, any more than “but Mary Jane’s grades were worse” was the answer when they got a bad report card. Mary Jane wasn’t the only other kid in the world, and conservatism isn’t the only other political philosophy.

People can’t be persuaded of much when they’re being laughed at. Far from winning them over to our side, it only drives them farther away from it.

Libertarianism is catching fire, as more and more people discover what it’s all about. Polls increasingly show that even people who don’t call themselves libertarians hold views consistent with our philosophy. Ours is not merely a third option — it is the best option. Now we need to talk to those on the statist left, one-to-one and one-by-one, and help them see why.

That’s a whole lot better than running naked and screaming into the street. We won’t get shot at, laughed at or arrested. And as we lose enemies, we will gain friends.

rsquo;t daunt me so.

Share This

Embodying Injustice


In our media-saturated culture, we tend to see the people in the news as embodiments of grand sociopolitical realities.Thus, for example, have the Baltimore police and Freddie Gray, Michael Slager and Walter Scott, and Darren Wilson and Michael Brown become figureheads for our pet causes. The big-government left tells us that the cops involved must be convicted and harshly punished, because otherwise there can be no recognition of police brutality or racism. The authoritarian right maintains that if, as in Wilson’s case, the officers are cleared of all charges, there is no problem with police brutality or racism. Then it is not the police themselves who are tried, in the minds of statists, but police brutality and racism.

But these men cannot be reduced to mere symbols. They don’t simply embody anything. They are (or were) individual human beings.

To turn police officers involved in suspects’ deaths into scapegoats — before they’ve been convicted of any crime — is barbaric. Such thinking predates civilization. It belongs to the Stone Age. As a society, we are not evolving, but devolving. We are taking a gigantic leap backwards.

What will become of our criminal justice system if people are no longer recognized as themselves? The mob may be content to do that to others, but would any of us want to be reduced to such a state ourselves? To be robbed of one’s individual identity is, indeed, to be dehumanized.

In the Michael Brown shooting, all available evidence suggests that Officer Wilson killed Brown in self-defense. That by no means negates the disturbing data that have come to light about the Ferguson police department. Far less does Wilson’s exoneration discount the problem of police brutality. The case in question says nothing about any fact except for the case in question. Sometimes a cigar really is just a cigar.

The anger of the demonstrators has ample justification. In many parts of the country, the police do behave, increasingly, as if they are an occupying army and the people they are sworn to protect a conquered enemy. Nor do racial minorities always receive anything approaching fair treatment by law enforcement officers.

But a mob is inspired, not byreason, but by raw emotion. It demands a sacrificial animal.To appease its feelings, it wants the offending cops convicted — regardless of whether they are guilty or not. That the mob would almost certainly be satisfied with such an outcome demonstrates its inhumanity. In their willingness to dehumanize other individuals, those who take part in it dehumanize themselves.

A guilty verdict against the apprehendingofficers would not bring Michael Brown, Walter Scott, or Freddie Gray back to life. Nor would a single incident of police brutality likely be prevented. Far from being converted from their folly, actual racists would find legitimate cover for their rage. As it is, police departments nationwide are now declaring themselves effectively at war with the civilian population. Not only has further harm not been averted but more has been inflicted by mob action and its response.

If any lesson emerges from this unholy mess, it’s this: if we are unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, our decisions, actions, and very lives can be snatched away from us. They can be twisted, like wet clay, into whatever shape suits the ambitions of a political faction. They become mere tokens in a contest for power. Under such a system, the concept of justice becomes a joke.

Justice is a strictly individual matter. It must be taken into account case by case. No nameless, faceless mass can be given “social” justice against any other. If Michael Brown was murdered, Walter Scott cold-bloodedly executed, or Freddie Gray brutalized off-camera inside that police vehicle, each act — however heinous — was a separate crime. None of them “embodied” anything, except a mother’s son or, for believers in the divine, a child of God.

Far from magnifying these men into anything larger than themselves, we have diminished them. In the process, we’ve diminished ourselves. And instead of making our country safer, we are turning it into an ever more frightening and treacherous place.

Share This

Swearing In


Share This

They Shoot Cartoonists, Don’t They?


On the morning of January 7, following the terrorist attack on the Paris office of the satirical journal Charlie Hebdo, CNN was continuously occupied with discussions of the event by various purported experts. On the screen below the talking heads appeared these words: “Is Paris shooting an attack on free speech?”

I believe the answer to that question may just possibly be Yes.

Invading a newspaper office and slaughtering the people who work there, in response to its satires of your religious heroes, does appear, at least on the surface, to be an attack on free speech. Even President Obama, who has been reluctant to say anything that could possibly be considered critical of Islamists, and whose administration tried mightily to blame the Benghazi disaster on an idiot whose so-called movie had supposedly hurt Islamic feelings, immediately stood up and said that what happened in Paris was “an attack on free speech.”

Now, what are the greatest dangers to free speech in the world today?

One is political Islam, in most of its forms. A prominent CNN commentator, a twit named Bobby Ghosh, took care to emphasize the idea that “everyone across the Muslim world agrees that this [the terrorist attack] is not an appropriate response” to critiques of Muhammed and his faith. This idiotic remark went unchallenged by the network’s other twits. But while some Muslim governments have criticized the Paris terrorists, their objection boils down to an attempt to exclude interlopers from their own campaign against freedom. What would have happened to the staff of Charlie Hebdo if they had performed even one satire of Islam within the territory of an Islamic state? They would have been lucky, very lucky, to escape with their lives. There is one successful secular state in the Islamic world, and that is Turkey; and the Turkish government just granted its first permission since 1923 for a Christian church to be built in its domain.

But don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech. For centuries England has been noted for government pre-censorship of the press and for weird libel laws that allow anyone with hurt feelings to take the nearest free speaker to court. England is the place where the star of an American TV crime show (Telly Savalas) successfully sued a paper for saying that his singing was no good. The other Western European countries have a panoply of hate-speech laws that allow people to be sent to jail simply for what they say or write.

And don’t just blame the Europeans. How long, O Lord, has political correctness been surging in America? It probably started in the 1960s, when leftists sold the idea that it was vicious persecution to call someone a Communist simply because he was a Communist. Senator McCarthy is dead, but anti-McCarthyism still has long teeth. Then came the idea that no one’s feelings should be hurt, and that anyone represented by a pressure group got to decide what is meant by “hurt.” Almost everyone knows, regrets, and laughs at political correctness — but it grows upon us daily. Even the New York cops, a tough bunch if ever there was one, now complain that Mayor De Blasio (admittedly a complete jackass) didn’t simply endanger their lives but went so far as to hurt their feelings.

Don’t just blame the Muslims. Western European cultures have never quite gotten the point about the right to free speech.

We can’t do much about religious fanatics in other lands, but we can do something to clarify our own attitudes. The next time somebody talks about how he’s in favor of “responsible free speech” or “protected free speech” or “speech that is free in the political arena” — all of which means that free speech is not a right but just something you may be allowed if you have a good purpose and don’t “hurt” other people — repeat what Isabel Paterson said: “When we say free speech, we mean free speech, even if you don't know what we mean.”

Share This

What’s in a Cliché?


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.

Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2018 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.