The Tyranny of the Sensitive

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It has been a tough month for free speech on campus. A Yale professor was ostracized for her reasoned response to the campus’ censorship of Hallowe’en costumes. A University of Missouri professor called for “muscle” to oust a student journalist trying to cover a campus protest. And over a hundred Dartmouth students swarmed the campus library to curse and bully other students who chose not to wear black clothing and join their protest. Several professors and administrators have been forced to apologize or resign, while others express nervousness over how to continue challenging their students to think critically and learn well in an environment of increasing intimidation.

This unrest roiling on campuses provided an appropriate backdrop for the documentary Can We Take a Joke? when it premiered at the prestigious DOC NY film festival in mid-November. Apparently, no — we can’t. Not any more. The right not to be offended seems to have trumped the right to say what we think. And young people seem to be leading the way toward censorship and controlled speech. According to Greg Lukianoff, executive director of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), fully 47% of 18–34 year olds said they think the First Amendment goes too far. “That’s terrifying to me,” Lukianoff says.

It should be terrifying to all of us. Penn Jillette observes, “Outrage has become a powerful political tool for shutting down dissenting voices.” Comedian Jim Norton adds, “There is a strange sense of empowerment in being offended.” Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution warns, “One of the first ways you know a society is turning authoritarian is the comedians start to worry. When they start going for the comedians, everyone else needs to sweat.”

The right not to be offended seems to have trumped the right to say what we think.

Well, start sweating, because comedians have indeed become the target. Ted Balaker, director of Can We Take a Joke?, interviews more than a dozen comedians about their experiences not only on college campuses but in comedy clubs and on television. Many tell chilling stories about being shouted down and even threatened with physical violence and arrest for saying things that the shouters consider offensive.

Yet other people go to a comedy show for the very purpose of being outraged and offended. They delight in it. Lisa Lampannelli, known as the “Queen of Mean,” is about as outrageous and offensive as they come. Her act makes fun of every ethnic group and social minority. Nothing is “off the table” for her, including rape, HIV, and cancer. She says she uses humor to help people confront fears and stand up to them. She reports that people will call her ahead of time to say, “My friends and I will be in the fourth row on the right. Please make fun of us!” Others are not so fortunate.

But if you think you’re immune from the Outrage Police because you aren’t a comedian or public figure, think again. Social media has turned us all into public figures. Can We Take a Joke? also tells the story of Justine Sacco, a young woman who tweeted an ill-conceived joke just before boarding a plane from Heathrow to South Africa. By the time she landed, her tweet had spread around the world; her employer had fired her; and angry cybermobs were issuing death threats against her and her extended family. Two years later she still cannot work, date, or go out in public because her unfortunate history is just a Google search away. Jon Ronson, author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, warns, “We are all just one dumb joke away from sharing Justine Sacco’s fate.”

If you think you’re immune from the Outrage Police because you aren’t a comedian or public figure, think again.

Lukianoff laments, “I interned with the ACLU and studied censorship back to the 16th century, but nothing prepared me for how easy it is to get in trouble on the modern college campus.” Comedian Karith Foster adds, “College is supposed to be a place where you grow and explore, where you find out who you are and find your own voice.” Sadly, college campuses are turning into a place where voices are silenced, and it’s coming from the students, not from the administrators. Like many of his peers, comedian George Carlin stopped performing on college campuses. “I hate to say it, but all the censorship is coming from the left. That caught me by surprise,” he said.

Can We Take a Joke? is an important film that asks us to open our eyes to the progress that is lost when voices are silenced by force rather than changed by persuasion. “Words can be offensive and hurtful, but they are not the same as violence and they can be countered by other words,” Rauch reminds viewers. Watch for the film in theaters over the coming months. We also hope to screen it at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival in July.


Editor's Note: Review of "Can We Take a Joke?," directed by Ted Balaker. The DKT Liberty Project, 2015. 75 minutes.



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You Are Perfectly Free to Say Nice Things

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Continuing in its fifth year, the Broadsides series published by Encounter Books consists of paperback pamphlets modeled on 18th-century political pamphlets such as The Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine's Common Sense. Short and accessible, polemical and jargon-free, speedily produced and mass-marketed, these pamphlets examine any number of policy issues from immigration and climate change to gun control and Obamacare.

Published this year, the 39th book in the series is Greg Lukianoff's Freedom From Speech, a vigorous and cogent refutation of the increasingly popular notion that people have a right not to be offended. Lukianoff is an attorney and the president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving civil liberties in academia. His first book, Unlearning Liberty, earned high acclaim from pundits and reviewers with diverse political leanings.

Who gets to decide what is offensive and what isn't? How do we determine who is worthy of such power?

"It seems as if every day brings a new controversy regarding the purportedly offensive remarks of a celebrity, an official, or an ordinary citizen," Lukianoff observes, "followed by irate calls for the speaker to suffer some sort of retribution." He points to Donald Sterling, Phil Robertson, Paula Deen, Gary Oldman, Don Imus, Mel Gibson, Jerry Seinfeld, Isaiah Washington, and Alec Baldwin as examples of public figures whose insensitive statements provoked the ire of the commentariat and set into motion institutional disciplinary procedures that used humiliation as a form of rehabilitation. Having a mean thought and then expressing it, or failing to choose your words prudently, can result not just in your silencing, but in your punishment. And the parameters of approved opinion keep getting narrower. What Lukianoff calls "the thought pattern of the modern American censor" is reducible to this decree: "there must be zero tolerance for anything that anyone might consider offensive, regardless of the context."

This impossible standard raises countless questions. Who gets to decide what is offensive and what isn't? How do we determine who is worthy of such power? By what criteria should allegedly offensive statements be evaluated for acceptability? What's a manageable method for regulating speech if people of every background and belief are prone to offense at some phrase, characterization, or tone? One wonders where all this is heading when the CEO of a major corporation, Mozilla, is forced to resign after it’s revealed that he made (legally permissible) donations to a campaign supporting California's Proposition 8 (a proposition opposing gay marriage). Regardless of one's view of that issue, it shouldn't escape notice that no respectable figure was calling for the president to resign because of his own documented opposition to gay marriage while Proposition 8 was on the ballot in 2008. By what measure does Obama get a pass while Brendan Eich, the Mozilla CEO, gets the boot?

There are no reasonable answers to these questions, only more questions. Lukianoff acknowledges that "what happened to Eich was not an actual First Amendment violation" because Mozilla is a private company, not a government entity, "but that does not mean," Luikianoff avers, "it had nothing to do with free speech."On the contrary, "freedom of speech is a far broader idea that includes additional cultural values" that warrant debate and study, not silencing and condemnation. Only through the rigorous filtering mechanisms of longstanding deliberation and civil confrontation can good ideas be sorted from the bad. Only by maintaining disagreement at a rhetorical and discursive level can we facilitate tolerance and understanding and prevent the imposition of ideas by brute force.

Lukianoff's primary target is American higher education and such strange phenomena as the now-frequent "disinvitations" of speakers and the "trigger warnings" for course materials deemed upsetting. The problem is not limited to American colleges and universities — other countries and other entities have their own varieties of censorship — but the censorship culture tends to emanate from American institutions of higher education, where eager and impressionable students are easily conditioned to believe they are doing the right thing by removing from their purview ideas they don't like. The irony is that young people believe they're dissenting when they quash dissent, usually at the behest or encouragement of faculty and administrators who enjoy positions of authority.

Build thick skin; develop counter-discourse; sharpen your own mind and rhetoric. But don't put the institutional muzzle on free expression.

Students above all will benefit from Lukianoff's quick and informative read. They'll learn that intellectual comfort is dangerously close to unthinking laziness and that censorship is not a matter of "left" versus "right," "liberal" versus "conservative," or any other simplistic, polarizing signifiers that dumb down constructive debate or prevent it altogether.

Freedom of speech is not the same as freedom from speech. Rather than learning how to avoid offense at all costs, academics, professional victims, and those pretending to be academics and victims ought to learn how not to take offense, how to handle offense in healthy and productive ways, or how to intelligently, rationally, creatively and convincingly rebut arguments and positions with which they disagree. Build thick skin; develop counter-discourse; sharpen your own mind and rhetoric. But don't put the institutional muzzle on free expression.

We all on some level wish to live out our days serenely and swimmingly, away from opposition and complacently content with our limited experience and cherished presuppositions. It's work, after all, to defend our convictions and justify the actions that our beliefs inspire us to take. The fact of the matter, however, is that we cannot progress without overcoming challenges. If universities are places that cultivate critical thinking, as they claim to be, they must welcome a range of values and opinions. Freedom of speech cannot mean freedom to suppress the speech of others. A freedom that is divisible or available to a preselected few is no freedom at all. Lukianoff realizes this. His organization combats censorship in its many manifestations on a daily basis.

As battles over university censorship continue, keep your eye on Lukianoff. He’ll be on the front lines. “The fight for freedom of speech has never been easy,” he says, adding that “it will be a hard battle indeed.” More than a few readers of this book will be ready to enlist. Mr. Lukianoff, reinforcements are on their way.


Editor's Note: Review of "Freedom From Speech," by Greg Lukianoff. Encounter No. 39, Broadsides. Encounter Books, 2014, 61 pp.



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Obama’s Second Inaugural

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President Obama has a reputation for eloquence. Even many of his political opponents acknowledge this supposed fact. In 2008, I was inclined to moderate agreement with the general consensus; although it would have been a stretch to say that his speeches had any literary value, neither did they contain patently hackneyed expressions, awkward sentence constructions, or offensive jingles. His second inaugural address, however, fails spectacularly on all counts.

Listening to his speech was nothing less than an ordeal. Although I could say much more about the performance (in particular, about his habit of switching in and out of falsetto as a substitute for genuine emotion), I will limit my criticism to the words themselves. This does not reflect my opinion about his policies — some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t — unless you stretch the meaning of “policy” broadly enough to include hiring a new speechwriter.

“Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.”

This is a bizarre image: politicians at a committee meeting, determining what kinds of technology and institutions are necessary to sustain a “modern economy.”

“Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.”

I was not aware that the national character of the American people was reducible to a mathematical formula. I hope he follows up on this claim by telling us whether or not the function observes strict concavity and whether or not it is defined on a compact set.

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.”

America’s “possibilities are limitless”? Talk about a hackneyed expression. I’m also alarmed by the idea that Americans have an “endless capacity for risk.”

“We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.”

Besides the awkward grammatical mismatch between “every person” and “their work,” this sentence stands out because of the curious notion of being “liberated from the brink.”

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

I was not aware that it was possible to betray people who haven’t been born.

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

I’m imagining Obama’s speechwriter sitting at his desk with a portrait of his fourth grade homeroom teacher on the wall, remembering the teacher’s inspirational claim that adjectives are the literary equivalent of a sparkling rainbow. I can also imagine this speechwriter giving up on finding a good adjective to describe storms and settling for “powerful.”

“We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise.”

I’m baffled by the idea that green technology will drive future economic development. As far as I can tell, this technology is inefficient and therefore unprofitable. The only way it could be profitable would be if the government passed legislation making it impossible for companies to avoid using this technology without running afoul of federal regulations — wait, Sherlock, maybe that’s the idea!

“Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright.”

How exactly does joy inspire awe?

“With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

Another curious image: someone carrying light. A torch can be carried; light cannot — unless our understanding of physics has radically changed since I was in junior high school.




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Did You Build Grand Central Station?

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On Sept. 29, President Obama gave a TV interview in which he said, “The way I think about it is, you know, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft and, you know, we didn't have that same competitive edge that we needed over the last couple of decades. We need to get back on track."

Notice that when the president said that “we need to get back on track,” he didn’t mean that “you and I” need to do so. He didn’t mean that he had lost his competitive edge during the past 20 years and needed to reform himself. He meant that you had lost your edge. The I he reserves for such statements as “I’m going to be signing an executive order today,” or “I urge Congress to move forward,” or “I need to win elections so I can become my own father.” (That last statement is something that he’s never actually said but that he has probably, poor man, always felt.)

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh published a book about his solo flight across the Atlantic. The book was called We. The reference was to Lindbergh and his airplane, The Spirit of St. Louis. Those two were “we.”

Please imagine the effect if he had called the book I. Even Ayn Rand changed the name of her second novel from Ego to Anthem. If you want to call a book I, it had better be your autobiography. (And it had better be good.) But Lindbergh’s book was the story of his exploit, not the story of himself. Without the plane, he wouldn’t have had the exploit. His title showed appropriate courtesy to the plane.

Now imagine the effect if he had gone in the other way and called the book We, the American People. That wouldn’t have been discourteous. That would have been preposterous. It wasn’t the People who crossed the Atlantic. It was Lindbergh and his plane.

I’m not talking about metaphysical issues. I’m talking about literary effects. But there are certain large areas of American life in which neither metaphysics nor aesthetics are understood. The chief of these areas is politics. In this field, we is now one of the most common terms, and it is almost always misplaced — misplaced in a way that is shocking both to fact and to intellect.

As usual, President Obama provides the reductio ad absurdum. Here is what he said during his “give me money and I will create jobs” tour, on Sept. 22, in Cincinnati:

Now, we used to have the best infrastructure in the world here in America. We’re the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad, the Interstate Highway System. We built the Hoover Dam. We built the Grand Central Station.

So how can we now sit back and let China build the best railroads? And let Europe build the best highways? And have Singapore build a nicer airport?

Andrew Malcolm, reporting on the president’s speech (Los Angeles Times, Sept. 23), asked a “quick question”: “Has anyone ever heard any American express jealousy over Singapore's sweet airport?” That’s a good question, but it’s not the important one. The important question is, Who is this we, anyhow?

I don’t remember having built any dams or train stations, and I’ll bet you don’t either. Obama’s we is simply a way of inciting people’s emotions by confusing their ideas about how things get done. We the people don’t raise capital, draw up plans, and pour cement. We may pay taxes or buy train tickets, but we can’t take the credit if a train station turns out to be a work of art, or take the blame if an airline terminal looks like a prison, but without the charm.

It should be noted that “we” is not a term of agitation simply on the Left. It is also a weapon of the Corporate Power — you know, that “1% of the country that owns 99% of it.” This putative 1% appears to consist mainly of oil companies, and they are fighting back, in their feckless way, with commercials in which simulacra of ordinary people say obnoxious, accusatory things — things like, “The oil companies are making a lot of money. Where does it go?” — and then are answered by the unsurprising news that the companies invest the money they make, thereby creating jobs. But many of the obnoxious statements refer to the alleged energy shortage. These take the form of hysterical outbursts such as, “We have to do something about this!” or “We gotta get on this now!

But there are certain large areas of American life in which neither metaphysics nor aesthetics are understood. The chief of these areas is politics.

None of the average citizens whom Chevron depicts as looking up from their busy lives to demand that something be done is portrayed as having any professional qualification to do something himself. We the people aren’t up to that. So the greasy oil company spokesman is free to step in and proclaim that certain other we’s, we the energy experts, are indeed doing something with those invested profits, something to better the lives of everyone, etc. It’s a contest between one we and another, which puts it on a very high intellectual level indeed.

I find it painful even to notice nonsense like this, so I’ll be content with one more example. A big, thumping, classic example. A confused person named Julianne Malveaux (who used to be visible pretty frequently on television, when television was an entirely leftwing venue), once posted a favorable review of a popular book about religion and morality, in which she made these comments: “Still, I could not read the book without wondering how [the author] or anyone else would expect morality in a nation of thieves. How could we expect our political leaders to be honest when we stole from the Indians, enslaved the Africans, interred [sic] the Japanese, disenfranchised the Chinese, conscripted labor from the Mexicans and so on and so on and so on.”

Clearly, Dr. Malveaux does not consider herself a part of this nation of thieves, or she wouldn’t trust herself to discuss its morality. Yet somehow she can’t avoid using we and our, thereby confessing herself to be a dastardly American after all. Having seen this nice lady on TV, I can hardly picture her forcing Chinese (presumably Chinese Americans) away from the polls, persecuting Mexicans by “conscripting” their labor (huh? when did that happen?), or enslaving Africans — much less burying the Japanese. By her account, however, she has done all these things, and is also several hundreds of years old.

Silly as it is, this kind of rhetoric is increasing. It is growing even faster than the national debt — although formerly, even the worst orators tried to avoid its worst excesses. But whenever I say things like that, I try to check them against Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural address (1965), which I regard as a standard by which bad writing can be measured. Bad, worse, worst: this speech is one of the worst things ever written. (I’ve discussed a few of its features before, in "The Great Man Speaks," Liberty, April 2009. I haven’t talked about any of its good features, because there aren’t any. ) So how is we handled in Johnson’s speech?

Johnson makes some borderline uses of the first person plural — innocuous generalizations about “we” as “we” are today: “Under this [the exact referent isn’t clear, but it’s meant to be something that happened, or maybe didn’t happen, sometime in American history] covenant of justice, liberty, and union we have become a nation — prosperous, great, and mighty. And we have kept our freedom. But we have no promise from God that our greatness will endure. We have been allowed by Him to seek greatness with the sweat of our hands and the strength of our spirit.” Blah, blah, blah. Yes, we don’t know what God has in store for us. This is perfectly true and fully supported by fact. Most of Johnson’s other we statements, however fallible or flaky, are also observations about current reality, about what we supposedly see now:

For this is what America is all about. It is the uncrossed desert and the unclimbed ridge. It is the star that is not reached and the harvest sleeping in the unplowed ground. Is our world gone? We say “Farewell.” Is a new world coming? We welcome it — and we will bend it to the hopes of man.

To this we can only respond, “When was it that we said farewell to our world?” I, for one, can’t recall any worlds disappearing. And I know I never contemplated bending a new world to the hopes of man. Sorry, can’t picture that. But even baloney like this isn’t as bad as the oil company ads, which insist that we actually start doing something to bend the world, or the Malveaux review, which insists that we (you and I!) once actuallydid something like that, but it didn’t turn out very well.

Nevertheless, there is a disturbing parallel between Johnson’s speech and the more modern remarks I’ve been analyzing. It comes in the following paragraph, where Johnson says:

No longer need capitalist and worker, farmer and clerk, city and countryside, struggle to divide our bounty. By working shoulder to shoulder, together we can increase the bounty of all. We have discovered that every child who learns, every man who finds work, every sick body that is made whole — like a candle added to an altar — brightens the hope of all the faithful.

The Simpsons has the First Church of Springfield. America at large has the First Church of All. One of its dogmas is that all of usare always learning helpful things about all of us. For example, we learned to work shoulder to shoulder (now there’s a fresh expression), because we discovered that competition (the “struggle to divide”) doesn’t “increase the bounty of all.”

This notion goes a long way toward explaining America’s melancholy political history from the 1960s until now. No politician ever opens his mouth to say that we were once taught to believe that we should work shoulder to shoulder, but that now we know we were wrong, because competition increases the bounty of all. But that’s the plain, though unutterable, truth.

Somehow Malveaux can’t avoid using “we” and “our,” thereby confessing herself to be a dastardly American after all.

One thing we plainly did not discover, because it is patently absurd, is that everyone benefits from everything good that happens to everyone else. If this is what every child who learns is learning (and I’m afraid it is), then we are in serious trouble. But in case you haven’t noticed, we are in serious trouble, and it’s because some people actually accept the ridiculous assumptions behind these ridiculous uses of every, all, and we.

I hate to say it, because it seems so fundamentalist, so retro-libertarian, but this also is true: what I’ve been discussing here is collectivism, pure and simple, and collectivism is a very bad thing. Not only is it economically harmful; it’s destructive of thought, and today it is more prominent than ever in America. There is nothing more common than the linguistic collectivism that was planted in President Johnson’s idiotic remarks about “the hope of all the faithful” and now blossoms in President Obama’s amazing idea that we (of course including he) somehow constructed the Hoover Dam and summoned Grand Central Station out of the primordial ooze. Yet on this false conception, this linguistic folly, has been erected the vast framework of modern socialism, the system of thought and action that is now imperiling the future of us all.




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Obama, the Soaring Sofa

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Clichés are an inexhaustible subject. I’ll always have more to say about them. It’s interesting to watch them come and go — preferably go.

Take “soaring rhetoric.” (Please!) I don’t know who started that, but once somebody did, it became the phrase almost universally employed in speaking of Candidate Obama’s speeches. I could never understand this phenomenon. His speeches sounded to me like nothing but a tissue of . . . well, clichés. And not very good clichés. If you don’t share that view, please quote a memorable passage from any one of Obama’s utterances. You can’t do it, can you? But, for better or worse, you can quote, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” You can recall “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” You can remember “This government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” The difference is that those passages became clichés, whereas Obama’s remarks were clichés to begin with.

But the popularity of his words was something to behold. Immediately they were observed to soar. Maybe that’s why no one could remember them — they flew away too fast. The very description of Obama’s clichés became a cliché. Every time he said anything whatever, his rhetoric soared. But then a bad thing happened. Soaring appeared more and more in adversative expressions, such as, “Despite the president’s soaring rhetoric, listeners commented on the apparent lack of substance in his address on Tuesday”; and in embarrassing questions, such as, “Can soaring rhetoric pull the president out of his political difficulties?”

Gradually it dawned on people that the only salient phrase (all right, the only cliché) that Obama actually generated, the only one he didn’t just adopt from others, was “hope and change.” And that wasn’t a saying that started out good or useful and got tired from over-use. It was bad in itself. It was empty, imageless. It pictured nothing; it evoked nothing concrete, or even symbolic. It was an abstraction chasing some other abstraction. In that respect, it was the image of its author’s mind. But it was the best cliché that Obama (or, to be fair, the Obama forces) could come up with. All his other clichés were quotations from sources known but to God.

Immediately his words were observed to soar. Maybe that’s why no one could remember them — they flew away too fast.

Today I went to Google and typed in “obama speech text,” prepared to discuss whatever came up first. It turned out to be his congressional “jobs” speech on Sept. 8. Here are some passages from that speech, which were also selected virtually at random. I’ve put most of the president’s blank, anonymous, deadening clichés in italics.

American “men and women,” the president said, “grew up with faith in an America where hard work and responsibility paid off. They believed in a country where everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share — where if you stepped up, did your job, and were loyal to your company, that loyalty would be rewarded with a decent salary and good benefits; maybe a raise once in a while. If you did the right thing, you could make it. Anybody could make it in America.

“For decades now, Americans have watched that compact erode. They have seen the decks too often stacked against them. And they know that Washington has not always put their interests first.

“The people of this country work hard to meet their responsibilities. The question tonight is whether we’ll meet ours. The question is whether, in the face of an ongoing national crisis, we can stop the political circus and actually do something to help the economy. (Applause.) The question is — the question is whether we can restore some of the fairness and security that has defined this nation since our beginning.

“Those of us here tonight can’t solve all our nation’s woes. Ultimately, our recovery will be driven not by Washington, but by our businesses and our workers. But we can help. We can make a difference.”

You could write a book about the sheer ignorance of these remarks. The president actually believes that “fairness and security . . . defined” America since its “beginning.” If they had, isn’t it odd that neither “fairness” nor “fair” nor “security” nor “secure,” in any economic sense of those words, appears in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution? “Secure” and “security” are there, but only in such contexts as the second amendment: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” This is one source that Obama certainly didn’t intend to allude to.

Gradually it dawned on people that the only salient phrase that Obama actually generated, the only one he didn’t just adopt from others, was “hope and change.”

But look at what he did intend, and reflect on it. What personal security had the early settlers of this continent, who died like flies on the Atlantic shore? What economic fairness had the slaves languishing in the southern states? What fairness or security had the builders of new industries, new financial institutions, and new methods of communication, whose investments might at any time be swept away by American governments trying to provide economic security for other people?

What aspect of fairness was entailed by the bribes that businessmen had to pay to get their railroads through some of our more rapacious western states? What fairness was evinced by southern laws stipulating that slaves could not be freed, even by their owners, or by southern and northern laws prohibiting free persons of color from living in certain states?

Whoever believed that “anybody could make it in America”? Whoever believed that there was a “compact” guaranteeing him “a decent salary and good benefits”? Who wrote that compact? Who signed it? Where can it be read?

Yet these words were spoken, not only by the president of the United States, but by a lawyer and instructor of law.

Obama’s ignorance of history is extraordinary, even among politicians. His ignorance of grammar and diction is more representative of the tribe. The president believes that “our nation’s woes” can be “solved,” as if woe were a problem, rather than a response to problems. “Oh baby, lemme solve your woes.” He thinks that “everyone” — “everyone” — is plural: “everyone gets a fair shake and does their fair share.” He thinks that “recovery” can be “driven,” like a goose or an SUV. He pictures contracts — “compacts” — as things that “erode,” like farmland or, metaphorically, like confidence in our current president. I can picture confidence slowly diminishing, eroding away; I cannot picture a contract undergoing the same experience. Can Obama picture these things, or is he merely speaking word after word, sentence after sentence, without anything in his brain at all?

But perhaps the worst thing, if there could be anything worse than that hokum about fairness and security, is the enormous trust that Obama places in his words, never realizing how dull they are. As usual with him, the clichés in this speech are a dusty collection of game and sports metaphors (“stepped up” [to the plate], “decks too often stacked”), movie memorabilia (“did the right thing,” as in the 1989 film by Spike Lee), and Rotarian and labor union filler (“make it in America”). People who are a hundred years old have been hearing this kind of thing all their lives. If you’re going to borrow a cliché, you might at least borrow it from Lincoln or Jefferson or the Bible or Citizen Kane, not from some source that long ago drowned in the marshes of Lethe.

What about the Republicans, the wretched Republicans? It isn’t just Obama’s remarks that make one leap for the remote control.

And if you’re going to use a cliché, you might at least use one that makes sense. Consider “We can make a difference.” I’m not a big admirer of President Kennedy, but can you imagine him trying to work some kind of climax out of “We can make a difference”? The same can be said of President Reagan. His rhetoric was ordinarily not as good as Kennedy’s, but would he ever have intoned, “Mr. Gorbachev, we can make a difference”? No, no more than Kennedy would have considered saying, “Ask not how your country can make a difference for you; ask how you can make a difference for your country.” Nothing, not even the biggest bottle of Scotch or the most urgent ongoing national crisis, could have induced either of those gentlemen to put that phrase in a position of prominence.

Well, why not? Because anybody with sense, upon hearing “We can make a difference,” would ask the obvious questions: What kind of difference? How much of a difference? Can I get by with making just a little difference? Is it OK if I make a difference, but it makes things worse? It’s usually easier to make things worse — would that be all right with you?

Pause.

When I reached this point in the column, my conscience began to bother me. All this attention paid to Obama . . . . What about the Republicans, the wretched Republicans? It isn’t just Obama’s remarks that make one leap for the remote control. Why not give his opponents some attention, also?

It’s true, Republicans are just as addicted as Obama to saying that we need togrow “the economy,” or “jobs,” or anything else that can’t actually be grown. It’s as if they had never heard those common and useful words develop, increase, expand, improve. They are just as willing as Obama to tell you that they won’t sit idly by while this or that goes on. And they are just as willing to beat a phrase to death — a tendency that is especially regrettable when they accidentally find a good phrase, such as “class warfare.”

So, remembering the manifold and grievous sins of the Republicans, and mindful also of the fairness that defines this nation, I decided to see what House Speaker John Boehner had to say about Obama’s jobs proposal, and take a few swipes at Boehner’s soaring rhetoric. Unfortunately, however, when I pulled up the long “jobs” speech that Boehner gave before the Economic Club of Washington on Sept. 15, I found little that was worth satirizing. It wasn’t a bad speech.

Admittedly, there were a few syntactical problems. And the speech showed that Republicans as well as Democrats can fall back on socialist clichés, derived from the labor theory of value (conclusively disproven a mere 140 years ago). "Our economy,” Boehner said, “has always been built on opportunity . . . on entrepreneurs, innovators and risk-takers willing to take a chance — because they're confident if they work hard, they can succeed.” If hard work guarantees success, then what “chance” are the “risk-takers” taking? And hard work means nothing if people aren’t willing to buy the products of your work. Isabel Paterson, the author of many books, said the final word on this subject: “You could put a great deal of energy into producing something nobody wants very much. This disconcerting fact is peculiarly noticeable in the production of books.” Well, maybe the final word should have been “speeches.”

In the moments when people attend more closely to the president, the emptiness of his words allows them to derive almost any meaning that they want to find.

But the “work hard” passage was the worst feature of Boehner’s talk. If you want soaring rhetoricat least rhetoric that isn’t the verbal equivalent of some extinct, flightless bird — you’d do better reading Boehner than Obama. That’s a terrible thing to say about anyone, but it’s true. Our president, so famous for words, is really, really bad with them. He’s pretentious and humorless; his vocabulary is severely restricted; his rhetorical techniques can be numbered on a horse’s fingers; he cannot tell a story; his range of serious allusion is virtually nonexistent; his sentences are mere parking lots for cheap clichés. He is dull, dull, dull. So why do people think he’s a good speaker?

The first reason is that they happen to agree with him. The second reason is that they happen to agree with him. The third reason is that they happen to agree with him.

But there are other reasons. He’s not bad looking. He’s a mechanical speaker, but he speaks with confidence, and that is a guaranteed grab for at least a third of any audience. He also speaks rather rapidly; unlike most other politicians, he doesn’t remind you of a cow systematically chewing its cud. His speeches are usually far too long, but that doesn’t matter on TV; studies show that people are almost always multi-tasking when they watch the tube. Obama has nothing to say that would interfere with checking the curtains or heating up the microwave or regretting that Junior tracked in some more of that mud. In the moments when people attend more closely to the president, the emptiness of his words allows them to derive almost any meaning that they want to find. His clichés — so insipid, so repetitive, so predictable, so soporific . . .

Pardon me; I just dozed off.

Soaring rhetoric? Obama is the oratorical equivalent of a sofa. But there’s something about a sofa — it always gets worn out a lot sooner than you think it will.




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