Unintentional Truth

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“The plaintiffs in the Trump University case, filed in 2010, accuse him and the now-defunct school of defrauding people who paid as much as $35,000 for real estate advice. Mr. Trump said Friday that Trump University received ‘mostly unbelievable reviews’ from its 10,000 students.” — “Judge Unseals Trump University Documents,” Wall Street Journal online, May 31, 2016.

Trump’s statement may well be true.




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VW Bugs

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Sad-Eyed Waifs, Sad-Eyed Wife

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The ’60s were a time of turbulent transition not only in attitudes about war, poverty, and race relations, but also in attitudes about art. If Andy Warhol could paint a reproduction of a soup can or Jackson Pollock could dribble paint on a canvas or Mark Rothko could lavish shades of red on the walls of the Four Seasons and all of them could call it art (and charge lavish prices, I might add), what else might be considered the next great breakthrough in art?

Within this changing atmosphere an artist named Keane became famous for paintings of big-eyed waifs in somber settings. Celebrities scrambled to own the works; museums gladly accepted them; even the United Nations has a Keane in its permanent art collection. In a craze that would be repeated in the 1990s by the wildly popular “cottage art” of Thomas Kinkade, Keane’s waifs began showing up everywhere — in high class galleries, celebrities’ homes (Natalie Wood, Joan Crawford, and Red Skelton are some of the actors who owned original portraits of themselves with the trademark big eyes) as well as on greeting cards, posters, and the bedroom walls of middle class America. I remember copying the big-eyed style when I was in grade school and longing to have a framed waif for my room, just as all my friends did.

But who was this artist named Keane? And what was the real reason for the big-eyed success of this relatively one-dimensional art? These two questions are addressed in the new biopic Big Eyes, which has already received several Golden Globe nominations. The film is based on Margaret Keane’s assertion, upheld in court, that she painted the waifs, while her husband Walter claimed the credit for them. This fine film examines mid-century gender roles while providing insights into issues related to plagiarism, marketing, and art appreciation.

If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one.

Margaret (Amy Adams) is portrayed as a victim of 1950s biases and cultural restrictions. When she leaves her husbands (two marriages end in divorce) she does so furtively, sneaking away instead of confronting them and facing their problems. “I’ve never acted freely,” she complains at one point. “First I was a daughter, then a wife, then a mother,” thusechoing Nora Helmer’s epiphany at the end of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879). When she applies for a job, the potential employer asks, “Does your husband approve of your working?” Later, when she complains to Walter (Christoph Waltz) about how it makes her feel to see him being praised for the work she has created, he explains with a shrug and a smile, “Sadly, people don’t buy lady art.”

This is Walter’s justification for letting the public assume that he, not his wife, is the “Keane” whose name appears at the bottom of the canvas. If the Keanes want to make a living selling Margaret’s paintings, Walter willhave to be the frontman. The value of art, more than that ofany other commodity or product, lies in the eye of the beholder. Its price is determined not by the cost of the materials or the time and labor that go into its production (indeed, Margaret knocks out one painting in 53 minutes) but purely by supply and demand, or perceived scarcity and perceived desirability. If Joan Crawford has one hanging in her living room and respected museums have them in their collections, then they must be good, and I must have one. In fact, Andy Warhol is quoted (perhaps ironically), “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.”

Were these paintings any good? Not really. They might have seemed haunting and evocative at first glance, but they were kitschy and uninspiring, even eerie, especially as they became mass produced. The real genius behind their popularity and sales was Walter Keane and his marketing strategy. Charming, gregarious, and mendacious, he knew how to stir up interest and create media sensations. In the film he presents celebrity portraits as publicgifts, sends unsolicited paintings to museums, and even convinces the World’s Fair committee to accept a painting of the world’s children (“Tomorrow Forever”) as the official mural of the Fair without even going through a selection committee. Christoph Waltz portrays Walter with gleeful joy and unmitigated enthusiasm. He sees nothing wrong in what he is doing. Art critic John Canaday (Terrence Stamp) is outraged by Keane’s popularity and rabid in his determination to bring down the waifs.

Plagiarism and intellectual property are central issues in this film, but so is the value of marketing. Would Margaret have made any money from her paintings without Walter’s marketing? Can Walter be accused of stealing Margaret’s work if he does it with Margaret’s full knowledge, consent and collaboration? Are they committing fraud against their customers simply because the work was done by Mrs. instead of Mr.? Have the paintings lost their value because they were painted by a woman, or might a new scandal increase their value by giving thema renewed notoriety (just as this film is likely to increase their value again)? Did Jane Eyre become a less significant work when it was discovered that Charlotte Brontë, not Currer Bell, wrote it?

Big Eyes offers a rich but disturbing look at the culture of the 1950s and 1960s — not just the formal culture of art, but the chauvinistic culture of accepted mores and gender roles. The film is a reminder of the many women who have stood silently in the shadows doing a husband’s work, or doing their own work with a masculine pseudonym, in a time when “people didn’t buy lady art” or “lady books” or “lady science.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Big Eyes," directed by Tim Burton. The Weinstein Company, 2014, 104 minutes.



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Legal Predation

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Alabama has not escaped an abuse suffered elsewhere in the country, one reminiscent of lawyers’ trolling for plaintiffs in their nightly TV ads. The Opelika-Auburn News has carried stories about a form letter (copied online by the newspaper) that local businesses have received from a law firm in Montgomery. (I have also had a brief conversation with an attorney for some of the victims.)

The letter threatens a federal lawsuit on behalf of not-yet-specified plaintiffs for not-yet-specified violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act unless the targeted firm agrees to an out-of-court settlement. The letter expressly says that a suitable settlement would cover legal fees. The amount later suggested, typically a few thousand dollars, apparently turns out to be small enough to persuade some victims to settle to avoid risking further and possibly great expense and trouble.

Such predation is one more example of using or threatening government power to redistribute wealth away from its real producers. It is also an example both of quasi-deception and of regarding business firms as fair game that just exists, almost automatically, to be exploited in various ways as might occur to somebody.




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Election Day, 1849

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On the afternoon of October 3, 1849, a young printer discovered a man wallowing in a gutter outside Gunner's Hall, an Irish tavern in Baltimore. The man was disheveled and semi-conscious, dressed in soiled clothes that were not his own, and clinging to a malacca cane. The stricken man was Edgar Allan Poe. He was taken to a local hospital, where he remained virtually delirious until his death four days later at the age of 40. One of the most important writers of the 19th century, Poe basically invented the short story and made several publishers rich men. But he struggled his entire life with alcoholism and poverty, never earning more than $300 a year.

Literary historians have long speculated how Poe came to be dressed in a stranger's clothes that day. Poe was poor, but he was always fastidious about his attire. Had he sold his trademark black suit to buy liquor or food? Had he been robbed? No one will ever know for sure.

Recent speculation, however, has turned to a theory that is quite timely considering this election day, in what appears to be the tightest and most contentious presidential race in history: Poe may have been trading votes for drinks. October 3, 1849 was a local election day. "Vote early and often" is a cynical phrase that is often attributed to Tammany Hall and the Chicago political machine, but it did not originate there. Unscrupulous politicians from the East coast to the Midwest would often offer five dollars and a beer to anyone who would vote for them, using the names of deceased residents to vote multiple times. To prevent recognition at the polling place, these repeaters would be induced to change their clothes. Out of money and craving alcohol, Poe would have been an easy mark, and that would explain why he was wearing the stranger's clothes.

On this election day, how many people are acting for themselves, and how many are wearing (symbolically) a stranger’s clothes?




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Sticking It to Wall Street

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Hardly a day goes by without President Obama blaming our economic woes on the "failed policies of the past." He has made Wall Street reform a top priority. In contrast to the George Bush economic delinquency that abandoned Main Street, his policies will stick it to Wall Street. He will (allegedly) prevent the financial shocks of credit bubbles and real estate booms. Ever-watchful of deceptive mortgage lenders, he will hold them and all other greedy plutocrats accountable for their financial shenanigans.

In truth, the policies of the past engendered regulations that were ignored, unimplemented, unenforced, and, more recently, applied against the wrong people. This travesty was compounded by politicians, regulators, and DOJ lawyers who failed as well. They failed miserably, yet suffered no consequences. Only the people whom regulations were supposed to protect suffered. But this time, as he campaigns for reelection, Mr. Obama tells us, incessantly, he has our back.

The policies that created the too-big-to-fail banks and the scurrilous practices that collapsed the housing market were enacted in the late 1990s, during the Clinton administration. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin was responsible for the 1999 reversal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which had previously separated retail and investment banking. Its repeal legalized the formation of today's giant banking conglomerates. Rubin's successor, Lawrence Summers, then gave us the Commodity Futures Modernization Act (CFMA), which exempted derivatives from regulation.

With energy derivatives, Enron went on to perpetrate the largest corporate fraud in history. With collateralized debt obligations, giant banking conglomerates (Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, etc.) went on to become giant contributors to the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. Robert Rubin went on to earn over $126 million at Citigroup for a tenure spanning the company's Enron involvement and "merga-mania" phase and proceeding to its near bankruptcy in 2008. This was around the time when candidate Obama began blaming President Bush for the financial crisis. Obama went on to form an economic team led by people who helped create the crisis — economic geniuses such as Rubin protégésLawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner. As Washington Postwriter Steven Pearlstein put it: “The ultimate irony, of course, is that just as Rubin and Co. at Citi were being bailed out by the Bush administration, President-elect Barack Obama was getting set to announce a new economic team drawn almost entirely from Rubin acolytes.”

As an attorney, Obama represented "affordable housing" slumlords, one of whom evicted 15 poor families from their apartments in the dead of a subzero Chicago winter, two months after turning off their heat and water.

What qualified Obama to assemble a team that would, supposedly, stick it to Wall Street? As the Washington Examiner discovered in its 'The Obama You Don't Know” exposé, it was also during the Clinton years that Obama developed his knowledge of real estate and finance. In the early 1990s, heleft the community organizing business for the housing market — as an attorney representing "affordable housing" slumlords, one of whom evicted 15 poor families from their apartments in the dead of a subzero Chicago winter, two months after turning off their heat and water. This experience no doubt proved invaluable when, as president, he led our nation's efforts to recover from "the worst financial disaster since the Depression" — by selecting and relying on the very people who caused the disaster.

Geithner, who became Obama's treasury secretary, was recruited from the New York Federal Reserve Bank, where, as chairman, he was the principal government official responsible for regulating Citigroup. After years of doing nothing to deter the antics that almost bankrupted that firm, he helped forge a deal (with Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, another Rubin colleague) that stuck it to taxpayers: a $45 billion bailout with an additional $306 billion guarantee against toxic assets.

Unfortunately, Geithner wasn't the only regulator asleep at the switch. All of them were. All of the 18 or so financial regulatory agencies charged with protecting us from Wall Street's sordid schemes failed abysmally. And they did so despite repeated warnings by the Bush administration, from April 2001 throughDecember 2007. At least the Bush administration suspected the coming crisis.

Maybe the regulators thought that Christopher Dodd and Barney Frank,the nation's top Wall Street watchdogs, would actually bark. But this fatuous duo thwarted the Bush attempts to rein in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Under their feckless supervision, the capital inadequacies of the two government-backed mortgage giants crippled the housing market. And as homeowners and the real estate industry lost trillions of dollars, Barney Frank took it upon himself to cause further damage. In July 2008, when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stock was selling for $10.25 a share and $9.00 a share, respectively (down from $60 and $67, in January), the ever-vigilant Barney proclaimed, “I think they are in good shape going forward.” How did this ringing endorsement pay off for the many thousands who subsequently scarfed up these stocks? Today, they are selling for about $.25 a share.

For his signature Wall Street reform law, president Obama turned to Messrs Dodd and Frank, entrusting the two who didn't prevent the last crisis with preventing the next one. In a just world, they would have been impeached for the harm caused by their feckless oversight of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. But in Obama's world of social justice and economic fairness, they stuck it to us with the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act — an oppressive 2,300 page regulatory monstrosity that exacerbates the dominance of the "too-big-to-fail" oligopoly, reduces the competitiveness of smaller banks, and passes its immense compliance costs on to consumers. And it exempts from regulation — wait for it — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

While 8 million private sector jobs have been lost, inane regulators still hold theirs, further rewarded with raises and promotions brought by the flood of new Dodd-Frank regulations.

Obama brays at the Bush trickle-down policies, but the benefits of Dodd-Frank are illusory, especially to Middle America, which remains stuck in the nightmare of Obama's regulatory trickle down: a stagnant economy, horrific unemployment, and the specter of a returning recession. Regulators are paid obscenely high salaries to protect supposedly powerless investors, bank account holders, and consumers from the wrongdoings of banks and financial institutions. Yet the latter have, in the main, gone unharmed, and so have the regulators. While 8 million private sector jobs have been lost, inane regulators still hold theirs, further rewarded with raises and promotions brought by the flood of new Dodd-Frank regulations.

If the bailout wasn’t reward enough for risky Wall Street practices, immunity from prosecution will make up the difference. After over three years of relentless investigation, Obama's Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force has not convicted a single Wall Street miscreant of a single crime, even the imaginary crimes that regulators like to invent. Instead of the stereotypical wolves of Wall Street, Eric Holder has chosen to go after the likes of a Connecticut women who allegedly conducted a gifting table Ponzi Scheme, and a Nevada group accused of trying to control condominium home owners’ associations. Scrambling to comply with Dodd-Frank regulations, big banks are firing, not high level executives likely to commit widespread fraud, but thousands of low-level employeeswith jobs far removed from significant transactional crime. For example, Wells Fargo recently fired a 68-year-old customer service representative after discovering that he had been convicted of using a fake dime in a laundromat in 1963. Meanwhile, the legal fees for lawsuits against executives of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which received over $150 billion in taxpayer bailout money) now exceed $109 million. Those fees are paid by — again, wait for it — the taxpayers.

The banking oligarchy is doing quite well under President Obama. So too is his ever-expanding regulatory leviathan. The rest of us are left to struggle through the slowest economic recovery since the Great Depression. It is a struggle exacerbated by stifling regulations, unprecedented compliance costs, and the knowledge that none of the people responsible for the financial crisis (certainly corrupt Wall Street executives, but also incompetent politicians and inept regulators) are in jail. All the sticking has been to us. Still, as the election approaches, many believe that Obama is the right man for the job. They fear Mitt Romney, who wants less regulation. Obama, of course, demands still more — especially after the shock that his Dodd-Frank reforms failed to prevent the MF Global and JP Morgan scandals. Evidently, he needs four more years to deal with Wall Street. Perhaps his supporters believe that, with his brilliant legal mind, he will find enough laws to do so. After all, he got the slumlord off with a $50 fine.




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Good Film, Bad Economic Theory

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As Arbitrage begins, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), the respected head of a billion-dollar capital investment firm, is being interviewed on a cable news show. “Competition for our limited amount of money causes asset bubbles, and then they burst,” he explains in terms simple enough for even the most casual moviegoer to understand. I rolled my eyes. This common fallacy of limited wealth was debunked in 1776 by Adam Smith in his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations. But the notion simply will not die. It has been the source of envy, greed, and empire building for centuries.

The mercantilists believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, only one “pie,” so to speak. Thus the only way to increase one’s wealth was to steal someone else’s piece of the pie. Nations did just that, invading other nations to plunder their wealth. President Obama uses this same misguided argument to fuel the flame of class warfare, claiming that the wealthy have somehow stolen goods and services from the poor. It is the foundation of his redistributionist policies.

However, Smith rightly pointed out that wealth is not finite. We are not competing for a “limited amount of money.” Wealth can be created; the pie can be expanded. By adding time, labor, and innovation, value can be added to raw materials, and new products can be created. A pound of copper can be transformed into pennies, electric wire, or computer processors, for example. Wealth expands. It’s simple economics.

But filmmaker Nicholas Jarecki set out to make a movie, not to teach an economics lesson, so let’s cut him some slack and get back to the film. It’s a good one. Arbitrage is an absorbing, fast-paced financial and crime thriller whose intertwining stories and well-conceived characters create growing tension throughout the film.

In the world of high finance, arbitrage is “the practice of taking advantage of a price difference between two or more markets: striking a combination of matching deals that capitalize upon the imbalance, the profit being the difference between the market prices.” In Arbitrage, the protagonist, Robert Miller (Richard Gere), is in a race against time to execute deals that he hopes will restore balance in both his financial and his personal life.

The mercantilists believed that there was only so much wealth in the world, only one “pie,” so to speak. President Obama uses this same misguided argument to fuel the flame of class warfare.

In his financial world the imbalance could lead to prison time. Like the majority of white-collar embezzlers, Robert has not intended to defraud his investors. He made a bad investment decision, and instead of cutting his losses, he threw more company money at the investment, hoping to buy enough time to turn the bad deal around. Down by over $400 million, he is now trying to sell the company, but that means cooking the books. In order to cover up the gaping hole in his asset ledger, he has borrowed over $400 million and plunked it into the company account for the auditors to see. His intentions are honorable; he plans to repay the short-term debt (with interest) as soon as the deal is signed, and then refill the gaping hole with cash from the sale of the company. He will be left with just a few million for his own retirement, but his shareholders will be protected, and that’s what matters to him.

All of this is illegal, of course, despite his good intentions. When wealthy investors borrow money from one source and lend it to another to earn money on the float it’s called “arbitrage”; when ordinary people do it it’s called “check kiting”; and when CEOs do it to cover up a bad investment it’s called “fraud.”

Looming at the end of the week are two major functions: the sale of his company and a hospital charity event over which his lovely and supportive wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), is presiding. Ellen needs a check to honor their commitment to the hospital; Robert can’t spare a dime until the company audit clears. “It’s only two million,” she reminds him, and the audience chuckles. They are the perfect family — elegant, rich, charitable, and close-knit. Robert’s son and daughter, Peter (Austin Lysy) and Brooke (Brit Marling), are on the company payroll, Peter as an attorney at large, and Brooke as Chief Investment Officer. Brooke can’t understand why her father wants to sell the company when they seem to be so successful. “We make a great living. We give to the causes we believe in. We have a great life. Why sell?” she asks, perplexed. Brooke is a pretty smart cookie, but Peter is only there because of the family connection. One can’t help but think of pipsqueak Don and sharp-nosed Ivanka “playing office” in the Donald’s empire.

And then there is Robert’s girlfriend, Julie (Laetitia Casta). Of course. When high-powered investment types are in the picture, there is always a mistress. Julie’s art gallery opening is another event converging on Robert’s perfect storm. Julie’s petulant texts insisting that Robert attend her event distract Miller during negotiations for the sale of the company.

Robert is on the verge of success when he is involved in a car accident that could sidetrack his buyers and derail the sale if the news of his involvement gets out. Rather than report the accident, he engages a young acquaintance, Jimmy (Nate Parker), to help him cover it up. Robert still hasn’t figured out that coverups never stay covered up (unless, of course, you are Teddy Kennedy). What follows is a tightly written, superbly acted game of cat and mouse as Robert rushes to stay one step ahead of the police, the negotiators, his injuries, his wife, and his own daughter, who has begun to suspect that someone in the company is defrauding her father.

Arbitrage has opened to limited release, and that’s a shame, because it is a well-made film with a great story and well-developed characters. If it isn’t showing at a theater near you, watch for it on Netflix.


Editor's Note: Review of "Arbitrage," directed by Nicholas Jarecki. Green Room Films, 2012, 107 minutes.



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Whom Is Destroying the Language?

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Mankind’s zest for the inaccurate knows no bounds. It's not surprising that it constantly manifests itself in errors of diction and grammar. Sometimes, though, you wonder how people who are ostensibly educated and intelligent — and who, in many cases, have achieved the power to rule over others — can actually say the things they do.

A good example appeared on July 18. The culprit was British Home Secretary Theresa May. She was discussing the possibility of “police corruption” in the scandal that enveloped News of the World. She told fellow members of Parliament that "it is natural to ask whom polices the police."

Michael Schein, a longtime friend of this column, immediately sounded the alarm: “Shouldn’t that be who polices the police?”

Right! The reason is that the case of a pronoun is governed by its grammatical function within its clause. May was using “whom” as the subject of a clause in which “polices” is the verb. Subjects always take the nominative case. Therefore, the correct word is “who,” which is nominative. The clause in question happens to be embedded in a larger clause, of which the subject is “it,” the verb is “is” (never mind what Bill Clinton would do with this), and the complement is “natural to ask,” followed by the direct object of “ask,” which is the clause “who[m] polices the police.” (“What did you ask?” “I asked, ‘Who polices the police?’”)

That explanation was a little complicated. Indeed, the grammatical rule that the home secretary violated is said to be the hardest to explain in the English language. Yet this merely indicates how easy English grammar really is. English word choice can involve extraordinary difficulties, because English has many more commonly used words than any other language, but English grammar just ain’t that hard.

Well, it must have been the embeddedness of the clause that misled — indeed, addled — the home secretary. But you don’t need to be able to diagram her sentence to see that something went wrong. You just need to be aware that someone is pictured as asking a question, and the question is, “Who[m] polices the police?” After that, your ability to read and listen should guide you in the right path. You already know how to form a question in the English language. Did you ever hear anybody ask, “Whom hit the ball?” or “Whom killed Cock Robin?” No, and you never will, unless you hang out with the British home secretary.

There was a time when British politicians were far above this sort of thing. Some of them, in fact, were among the greatest masters of English prose. Still, you would expect that anyone, anyone at all . . .

But let’s return to Michael’s astonished protest. “According to a non-Tea Partied version of Wikipedia,” he says, “this woman graduated from Oxford University!” He’s right again — although Oxford may be able to avoid some of the blame. May’s father was an Anglican priest. Such people, though sometimes daft in other ways (notice their frequency in mystery novels), are supposed to be fluent in English. But perhaps this one wasn’t. After being born, May worked at the Bank of England, where proper English used to be spoken with great naturalness. Perhaps it isn’t now. She even became “a senior advisor in international affairs.” Perhaps English isn’t necessary in such a job; perhaps her associates discouraged its use. At one time, when the Conservatives were out of power, she was their Shadow Education and Employment Secretary. Education! Now we’re really getting someplace. “Education” is where you can expect the worst influences to be exerted.

So we can understand the social forces that may have led Theresa May to illiteracy. But when she questions whom polices the police, the rest of us must still ask, with Michael Schein, “Where are the grammar police?”

When those police show up, May will be arrested — not for simple ignorance, but for ignorance in one of its most aggravated forms: snobbery. She is evidently one of those people who believe that “who” is a low, mean, common word, used only by the voters who keep you in power, while “whom” is a high-class word, reserved for the loftiest bureaucrats. Similarly, people like May — and people like President Obama, graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School — always say “just between you and I,” never dreaming that the working-class “me” is actually the correct form.

When the grammar police show up, May will be arrested — not for simple ignorance, but for ignorance in one of its most aggravated forms: snobbery.

It’s striking, the extent to which the British language has decayed. Its decadence is usually attributed to the influence of street slang, and this plays a part. But the ignorance of snobs is almost as influential as the stupidity of yobs. I’ve just finished reading a book called The Winter War (2008), by a Brit named Robert Edwards. It’s a history of the Russo-Finnish conflict of 1939–40. Its analysis is intelligent, and its perspective is firmly anticommunist, so I learned from it and sympathized with it, too. But its language is smarty, rather than smart, and its approach is unrelentingly arch. The writer always acts as if he were above his subject — despite the fact that he is often far below the common rules of sense and grammar.

Watch this passage as it struts across the stage. It’s about the Soviets’ prewar attempts to intimidate Finland, and their effects on Britain:

“The Soviet desiderata . . . included issues [‘issues,’ meaning things contested, is taken as synonymous with ‘desiderata,’ meaning things desired] that went against the very warp and weft [every cliché requires a ‘very’] of British policy. Implicit in the price to be paid for an eastern anti-Nazi bulwark would be free rein over the territories previously controlled by the man who had happened to be [as if he had won his title in a lottery] the last Grand Duke of Finland [who was he? tell us who!], Nicholas II [thank God! now we know who the last Grand Duke of Finland was; what we don’t know is why that was the climax of the sentence]. Further, the freedom to do so hinged around the concept of . . . .”

All right; that’s enough of that. I can picture plenty of things hinging on something, but I can’t picture anything hinging around anything. Meanwhile, I’m wondering how “to do so” functions in this pretentious maze of words. To do . . . what? The intended reference must be to “free rein,” but that’s not a verb. “Free rein” isn’t something you do.

Oh well. A writer who’s convinced of his superiority shouldn’t be required to reflect on what he’s written. But by the way, do writers still have editors?

There is something much worse, however, than the modern British “literary” style. It is the jargon of politics in modern America. One of its worst practitioners is a congresswoman from Florida named Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who happens to be the chair of the Democratic National Committee. This is the person who, on July 19, incurred the wrath of Republican Congressman Allen West by standing on the floor of the House and uttering the following words about a plan to do something about the US budget: “Incredulously, the gentleman from Florida [Allen West], who represents thousands of Medicare beneficiaries, as do I, is supportive of this plan that would increase costs for Medicare beneficiaries.”

DWS’s personal attack elicited an overly personal response from West, a response that was denounced by many. But at least West’s remarks weren’t so stupid that you could hardly bear to read them. He didn’t portray himself as astonished that anyone who represented “thousands of Medicare beneficiaries,” as every US congressman does, could possibly consider making them pay anything more for their benefits, ever. He didn’t express the snob’s moral outrage, the outrage of someone whose unexamined views are finally being challenged. And he didn’t take the snob’s typical course of reaching for a big word, only to grab the wrong one — as Wasserman Schultz did.

What she literally said was that West was incredulously supportive of a wicked plan — which makes no sense at all, except to show that she doesn’t know what her big words mean. “Incredulously” doesn’t mean “incredibly.” No, truly it doesn’t. It means something very different: “unbelievingly.” The wicked people were unbelievingly supportive.

Hmmm. But suppose she had changed the word to “incredibly,” and cleaned up her grammar by eliminating the dangling modifier (because that’s what “incredulously” is). Then she might have said, “It is incredible that the gentleman from Florida, who blah blah blah, is supportive of blah blah blah.” But that still wouldn’t be literate. “Incredible” means “not worthy of credence,” “unbelievable.” Had she chosen that word, the congresswoman would have been denouncing West for doing something she couldn’t believe he did.

Wasserman Schultz’s personal attack elicited an overly personal response from West, but at least his remarks weren’t so stupid that you could hardly bear to read them.

So on July 19 she was wrong six ways from Sunday. But try her on June 5. Here also she appeared to cherish the snobbish illusion that her audience would buy anything she said, no matter how preposterous it might be. Asked for her views on attempts to prevent voter fraud, attempts that she wanted to show are anti-black, she said this:

“Now, you have the Republicans, who want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and literally — and very transparently — block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates. And it’s nothing short of that blatant.”

Donning her vatic robes, DWS divines a sinister movement: Republicans (including, I suppose, Allen West, who is black) are struggling to institute legal apartheid (“Jim Crow”). This movement — this plot — has so far existed in such depths of secrecy that only she has noticed it. Nevertheless, it is “blatant,” “literally and very transparently” “blatant.” In short, it’s perfectly obvious.

Why does she say things like this? Probably she’s never spent a moment of thought on the meanings of any of the words she uses. It’s also possible that she’s never considered that words have meanings.

Ah, but they do. Her words say that Republicans are trying to “block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.” That means that the Republicans want to block access to about 50% of American voters. I wonder how they plan to pull this off. Only Debbie Wasserman Schultz knows that.

Now consider what she says about the racist idea of having to prove who you are, before you vote: “I mean you look — just look at African-American voters as a snapshot. About 25 percent of African-American voters don’t have a valid photo I.D.”

Notice the literal, the blatant meaning of this slam on African Americans: she’s saying that 25% of adult black people can neither drive a car nor board an airplane nor cash a check nor take a job that requires identification — because they, unlike you or me, have never bothered to get a valid ID. In my entire life I have never encountered an African American adult who was disadvantaged in this way, yet the congresswoman insists that one in four African American voters are.

But perhaps she intended to emphasize the word “valid” — in other words, to insist that although virtually all black people are able to present a photo ID, a huge number of them have to fake it. That’s an even bigger slam. Is that what she meant? Or does she know what she meant?

Likely she doesn’t, because the next thing she says is this: “We already have very legitimate voter verification processes, signature checks that are already in place; and there is so little voter fraud, which is the professed reason the Republicans are advancing these — these laws. There’s so little vo- — voter fraud, and I mean you’re more likely to get hit by lightning than you are to see an instance of voter fraud in this country, but Republicans are imposing laws all over the country, acting like it’s not — voter fraud is rampant, and it’s ridiculous.”

Why does she say things like this? Probably she’s never spent a moment of thought on the meanings of any of the words she uses.

The syntax alone says a lot about the current chair of the Democratic National Committee. But the words . . . On a generous interpretation, her words mean that when I walk over to my polling place at the Pentecostal church, sign the official logbook, and cast my vote (supposing that I don’t vote an absentee ballot, as perhaps 40% of our countrymen, or their spouses, or their 6-year-old children, do), I am as unlikely to be committing fraud as I am to be hit by lightning. Clearly, she who knows everything about everything else has never heard of ACORN.

Rep. West — who, according to Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has a 25% likelihood of not possessing a valid photo ID — denounced DWS as “vile” and “despicable.” Well, his heart’s in the right place. But maybe he should have traced the problem not to defective character but to defective education. Wasserman Schultz — a woman lauded in 2004 by the National Organization for Women as an “exciting new feminist legislator to watch” and a fighter for increased funding for “education” (as well as for “equal gender representation on state boards and price parity for dry cleaning women's and men's clothing”) — is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she presumably learned something. But maybe it wasn’t the right thing. According to Wikipedia, she credits the University, where she was deeply involved in what is idiotically called student government, with developing her “love for politics and the political process."

Some college students develop a love for science, or Shakespeare, or Chinese history. This one developed a love for government.

Since then, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, B.A., has returned to academia whenever possible, becoming an adjunct professor of political philosophy at Broward Community College, as well as something called “a public policy curriculum specialist” at something called “Nova Southeastern University.” It isn’t Oxford, but so what? It’s literally, transparently, blatantly, incredulously “education.” And whom am I to criticize?

ldquo;unbelievable.




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