The Quest for the Perfect Slogan

 | 

Sex seems to bring out the worst in us, even when it doesn’t happen.

I refer, of course, to the Brett Kavanaugh episode. I don’t want to argue about the sex accusations themselves, partly because I just can’t get interested in either Kavanaugh or his accusers — all self-evidently tedious, boring people — and partly because I’m sure you’ve reached your own view, and if we differ, why should we go over it all again?

Merely to be honest, however, I need to say that I never believed any of the accusers. Christine Blasey Ford was the only one I might have believed, but she made untrue statements about so many things — her paralyzing fear of flying, the time and reason for installing an extra door on her house, her lack of memory of crucial episodes that happened only weeks before, let alone three decades before — that there was, for me, every reason not to believe her. I was not impressed by the supposedly corroborating evidence, which consisted only of assertions made by Ford herself (in psychological counseling sessions!) about 30 years after the alleged event. Are we now corroborating our statements by making them more than once?

I just can’t get interested in either Kavanaugh or his accusers — all self-evidently tedious, boring people.

But so much for that. What I want to talk about is the verbal and rhetorical horrors of the affair. I’ll start with the “protestors” who on September 24 assailed Senator Cruz in a Washington restaurant and drove him forth with loud cries, citing his support for the Kavanaugh nomination as a reason for restricting his culinary choices. Cruz has no problems of self-esteem, so I’m sure he’ll survive; I’m not so sure about the survival of some vital distinctions in our language. There is a difference between protestors and harassers, and between individual harassers and a mob. CNN anchor persons now fly into a tizzy if someone uses the word mob, but the word remains useful. A mob does more than bother you or protest against you; a mob wants to have its own way with you.

Protestors can be witty and humorous; mobs never are — although a member of the anti-Cruz mob did say something funny, one of the few funny sayings among the millions spilled over the Brett Kavanaugh dam. Referring to Cruz’s opponent in the current senatorial election, Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke, the young protestor said, “Beto is way hotter than you are.” No one will argue that this isn’t true. Some may argue that it isn’t all that funny, either, but I’ll take funniness where I can find it, especially when it cuts through the shroud of deep moral seriousness with which contestants on both sides of the Kavanaugh affair tried to suffocate us.

The rest of the keep-Cruz-from-eating discourse was not amusing. Its central feature was the high-decibel chant, “We believe survivors!” For weeks that slogan served as the argument of choice for Kavanaugh’s antagonists. Their method was backed by historical precedent, a precedent that illustrates the way in which even good causes can be hurt by bad rhetoric.

There is a difference between protestors and harassers, and between individual harassers and a mob.

Let me put it to you this way. In early life I often participated in anti-Vietnam War protests. Occasionally I organized them. To paraphrase Whitman: I was the man; I shouted slogans; I was there. I still think that the war was wrong — but I no longer think that angrily screaming a few catchphrases is a decent way of carrying on debate. If you believe it is, your tendency will be to make your slogans substitute for thought. Soon, freed from thought, the slogans will stop appealing to anyone except people who view them as the moral equivalent of war, and enjoy waging war. I’m pretty sure that slogans and demos didn’t end the actual war in Vietnam; they enraged more people than they inspired.

Since then, however, Americans of all persuasions have acted as if progress is to be made by shouting inane phrases, suspiciously resembling high school football chants, and imagining oneself as a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Delegate marching on the Winter Palace. They have so much fun dramatizing themselves that they stop caring about the effect. Does anyone hear people screaming “We believe survivors!” and say, “Hmmm. Maybe I was wrong. Now I see that Judge Kavanaugh’s nomination should be rejected.” Only an insane person would meditate thus, and when I watched adult persons being dragged from Senate chambers shouting the single word “Shame!” until the word dissolved into an animal howl, I wondered why anyone not seriously unbalanced would want to argue in this way.

The noise they were making was the type my grandmother had in mind when she said she hadn’t heard anything like it since the old cow died. It drowned out any attempts at serious discussion of Kavanaugh’s qualifications for high office — discussions from which his adversaries might have emerged victorious. Yet these officially distressed people all seemed remarkably smug, as smug as teachers who’ve caught some students cheating and can now indulge the pleasure of bawling them out. After all, the cry of “Shame!” implies that those on the receiving end understand the rules and know that they violated them; all the culprits need is to be publicly disgraced. But despite its high moral purpose, the protestors’ rhetoric was literally repulsive — repellant, repugnant, noxious to anyone exposed to it for significant periods of time.

To paraphrase Whitman: I was the man; I shouted slogans; I was there.

Its logic was repulsive too. The howl of “We believe survivors!” was not only an attempt at winning by intimidation; it was also an attempt at winning by definition. The question for debate was whether someone (e.g., Christine Blasey Ford) was in fact a survivor of something, and if so, what that something was; the demand for belief was just an impudent way of eliding the debate. So was the adjuration to believe the victims, as in Michael Avenatti’s denunciation of the press for not caving in to accusations made by his client. “I am disgusted by the fact that the press is attacking a sexual assault victim,” Avenatti said. He could have saved himself from disgust by simply showing that his client was indeed a victim.

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) took the same tack as the “We believe survivors!” sloganeers, although with her even a slogan has to be dressed up with a sofa, a coffee table, and some heavy drapes. “We are now in a place,” she intoned, “where it’s not about whether or not Judge Kavanaugh is qualified. It is about whether or not a woman who has been a victim at some point in her life is to be believed.” No, it’s not about that. Everyone agrees that if someone is a victim, she should be believed. The question is, Were these people victims or not? Did they survive anything that endangered their survival? Murkowski assumes that if you define them as victims and survivors, and shout loudly enough — or orate heavily enough — about it, then you have won the argument. But what if I shout in reply, “I don’t believe a LIAR!” Where are we then? Who will decide between these two sets of powerful arguments?

I’m going to say this as solemnly as I can: a world in which people just are what they say they are, and you are required to believe them, because that’s what they are, is a world incompatible with liberty. It’s a world in which anyone can be accused of anything, and lose everything, because he or she is guilty by definition. If protection from this violation of liberty isn’t specifically mentioned in the Bill of Rights, it’s because the authors never thought that anyone would be stupid enough to use such logic in constitutional discourse, or smug enough to insist on it.

The noise they were making was the type my grandmother had in mind when she said she hadn’t heard anything like it since the old cow died.

Less repulsive, I suppose, than argument by definition, but similar in logical status, is argument by emotion — your emotion or somebody else’s. Kavanaugh was believed or not believed because he showed certain emotions. Ford was pronounced credible because her hearers felt that her emotions were appropriate to the occasion. Others, admittedly, found her credible because, as they said, “She had nothing to gain by making these charges.” Excuse me — is there no gain in attracting a national spotlight, advancing the political causes you espouse, or even expressing your turbulent emotions in a public context? Both true and false witnesses can have these motives, and to deny that people have them suggests a disqualifying ignorance of human nature. This may be a good place to cite Ayn Rand’s idea that emotions are not tools of cognition. And they aren’t.

Here’s evidence. There is in this world a person named Anna Ayers. Until recently she was a prominent member of the student “senate” at Ohio University. She is no longer a member of that august body, because she was arrested for sounding a “false alarm” — accusing an unnamed fellow senator of writing abusive and threatening messages to her because of her sexual orientation. The cops say that she wrote the messages herself, and I assume she did, because, despite her plea of not guilty, no defense has been forthcoming. Making her accusations in a speech before the senate, Ayers ranted, declaimed, choked up, and shared her deepest feelings:

“Senate will never be the same for me,” Ayers said in front of her Student Senate peers. “The friendships will continue to grow, and our successes will always evoke pride, but the memory of my time in senate and at OU will be marred by this experience. We will all have a memory of a time when this body failed one of its own.”

Ayers went on to call the threat sender cowardly, weak, and worthless. . . .

“You may find me revolting and worthy of a threat on my life, but in reality, it is your beliefs that are repulsive,” Ayers said during her speech in the senate. “You need to get this through your head, you f***ing a**hole: I am proud to be who I am, and nothing you could say or do will ever change that.”

Emotionally credible? Certainly. But emotional credibility (surprise!) had nothing to do with truth, despite the assumptions of Ayers’ student council colleagues, who instead of reacting with disgust to the evidently false accusations that Ayers leveled at themselves still believe in believing anyone who accuses anyone. Maddie Sloat, Student Senate President, said:

It’s important for you to know that I do not, for one second, regret any of the actions we took in the past week to support Anna on the information [query: what information?] that we had at the time. . . . Know that if you report something to (Vice President) Hannah (Burke), (Treasurer) Lydia (Ramlo) or anyone else on our leadership, we will listen. We will believe you. We care about you.

“You” being . . . everyone in Salem with a tale to tell?

Note that we are still in the to-our-contemporaries-terrifically-confusing realm of sex and sexuality. In a nation that gives — and rightly gives — unprecedented freedom to sexual expression, freedom is never enough; enemies both of sexuality and of chastity must be assiduously hunted, and if not found, invented. In a nation oozing sexuality from every pore, a nation in which sexual aggression is a staple of popular entertainment and in which stars of stage and screen struggle daily to free their bodies of all skin cover, one of the nation’s leading lawyers can refer to Judge Kavanaugh, as having been “accused of the most heinous crime imaginable.”

With Murkowski even a slogan has to be dressed up with a sofa, a coffee table, and some heavy drapes.

The author of that statement is the irrepressible Alan Dershowitz, sharing his feelings on Tucker Carson’s show. Dershowitz was actually defending Kavanaugh against accusations he did not find credible, but he followed fashion when it came to the crime itself. In America one can never mention sex without superlatives. Either it is the most sacred, most necessary, and most liberating of all human enterprises, or it is the most heinous crime imaginable.

Why is such language used? One reason is simply a desire to win at any conceptual price. It sounds so feeble, doesn’t it, to say, “I disagree with you about Judge Kavanaugh. I don’t think he has the right qualifications, and I’m inclined to believe Christine Ford. Her testimony isn’t conclusive, but it may be true, and I don’t think that a person under a cloud of serious suspicion should be elevated to the Supreme Court.” It feels stronger to say, “Anyone who doesn’t believe Christine Ford is against the rights of all survivors of heinous assaults.” Then, if you still haven’t convinced everybody, you can seek people out and scream “Shame!” in their faces, thereby winning the argument.

Another reason is fear. Even Dershowitz, who is no little snowflake, apparently fears that if you say something like, “Kavanaugh is accused of forcing himself on a young woman and trying to take off her clothes,” people will accuse you of trivializing sexual assault. So you’re afraid, and you call whatever it was that he’s suspected of doing “the most heinous crime imaginable.” Now no one will attack you, and you will win the argument! Maybe, but at what a price?

And that’s what you can ask about all of the above: at what a price?

Freedom is never enough; enemies both of sexuality and of chastity must be assiduously hunted, and if not found, invented.

Turning now to the lighter side of the news . . .

Here’s a headline from the Boston Herald, September 30: “Howie Carr: Treat Brett Kavanaugh as good as illegal alien criminals.” Hmmm . . . How good are they treated? Real good? The error is not in Carr’s article; he knows grammar — although it doesn’t take much knowledge to avoid the good-well mistake. Now, what part of an article is most important to get right? The headline, that’s what.

In case you think that sex scandals are confined to America, here’s something from an article (October 1) about problems in Sweden: “The scandal started with 18 women publicly accusing well-known photographer Jean-Claude Arnault of sexual misconduct last November.” I don’t want to trivialize anything, but I do think it’s remarkable that he committed sexual misconduct with 18 women in the same month.

Speaking of mass activities, consider a video aired on Fox News on October 6. It showed demonstrators being prepped for their performance at the office of Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) to protest the Kavanaugh nomination. The group is learning, by recitation, how they’re going to protest. The (male) group leader chants, “We are going to Heidi Heitkamp’s office”; the group repeats, “We are going to Heidi Heitkamp’s office!” Etc. Finally one woman interrupts: “But she’s on our side.” All repeat: “She’s on our side!”

I don’t want to trivialize anything, but I do think it’s remarkable that he committed sexual misconduct with 18 women in the same month.

One more item to close it off. It isn’t directly related to the rhetoric of sex, but it’s about Hillary Clinton, so you know it’s gonna be good. I feel sad to make this confession, but Mrs. Clinton is my joy and comfort. Not even Donald Trump can provide such a steady stream of comedy, if only because he himself has a sense of humor. It’s not my sense of humor, but he’s got it, and as the old expression goes, you can’t kid a kidder.

Clinton has no such sense. She has no sense of any kind. When she blamed her husband’s sex scandals on “a vast, rightwing conspiracy,” when she angrily demanded what difference it made about why our embassy in Benghazi was looted and our ambassador murdered, when she, campaigning for the presidency, labeled a large portion of the voting population “deplorables,” her remarks were carefully prepared and conscientiously rehearsed. She wasn’t blurting anything out. She thought her statements were the right things to say. She undoubtedly still thinks they were the right things to say. The more carefully, thoughtfully, and self-righteously she speaks, the funnier you know she’ll be.

Looking for a conclusion to this month’s column, I knew that Clinton would have something for me, and of course she did. It’s the interview (October 9) in which she maintained that it’s impossible to be civil to the opposing party, because "you cannot be civil with a political party that wants to destroy what you stand for, what you care about." Again, it’s the argument from emotion: what you care about. But her assertion of a subjective standard didn’t keep her from adopting the objective tone of an ethics professor, revealing the results of her research.

Clinton wasn’t blurting anything out. She thought her statements were the right things to say. She undoubtedly still thinks they were the right things to say.

Programmatic incivility isn’t especially good politics, but never mind; you can always promise to be civil later on. The logic here is exceptionally challenging, but let’s keep with her. She followed her defense of incivility by saying, “That’s why [why?] I believe, if we are fortunate enough to win back the House and/or the Senate, that’s when civility can start again.”

Here we have a whole new approach to rhetoric. I will rail at you, condemn you, call you names, accuse you of crimes, do my best to intimidate you. This is perfectly ethical; indeed, it is an ethical requirement. But if it succeeds, I will consider it ethical to treat you civilly — again, or for the first time.

To think this is remarkable. To announce it is bizarre.




Share This


Do You Believe in Magic?

 | 

If you wonder whether something bad always has something good about it, consider the remarks that a Santa Barbara (California) City Councilman made this summer, regarding the council’s banning of plastic straws.

The attack on straws is the environmentalist fad of 2018, and virtually everyone regards it as an affront to common sense. The councilman, Jesse Dominguez, apparently realized that they do. He remarked, in anticipation of protests from citizens, "Unfortunately, common sense is just not common. We have to regulate every aspect of people's lives."

So that’s a bad thing — two bad things, in fact. First there was petty tyrant Dominguez’s atrocious assertion of his power to regulate everyone else’s life. Second was his atrocious cliché: “common sense is not common.” Come now, Mr. Dominguez, what makes you think that you have the common sense to regulate anyone’s life, when you’re silly enough to think that anyone will fall for the old uncommon common sense routine?

Like the fruit of the deranged trees in The Wizard of Oz, this utterance wasn’t what it ought to be.

But then a good thing happened. There was indeed a public outcry, against both the enactment and Dominguez’s asinine remark, and he acknowledged it at the next meeting of the City Council. "I just wanted to apologize," he said. "A few weeks ago I made a string of words in a rhetorical fashion about regulation and they were not taken as rhetorical and that's my fault so I want to apologize."

What do you know — an apology! But in this world, neither good nor bad comes pure and single. Like the fruit of the deranged trees in The Wizard of Oz, and like virtually all apologies of Important Public Figures, this utterance wasn’t what it ought to be. It labeled itself an apology but justified the action for which it apologized, suggesting that the real problem was a misunderstanding on the part of the people to whom it was addressed, people who “took” a “rhetorical” statement and childishly misinterpreted it. And that business about “rhetoric” — that’s just a gnostic way for a speaker to justify anything that falls from his lips. One can always say of anything: “That wasn’t my real statement; that’s just rhetoric. My real statement is all those deeply spiritual things I actually meant.”

Dominguez isn’t the first to claim he was merely emitting a “string of words,” and it’s your fault that you got his meaning wrong. Other public figures do the same thing all the time. But what is “rhetoric” — what does it mean?

Rhetoric is a way of organizing words to express a meaning. When people analyze the words of a preacher or a politician or a salesman and conclude that “it’s all just rhetoric,” they mean that something has gone wrong with his string of words, that the mechanisms of meaning have been substituted for meaning itself. If someone says, “Every enterprise associate of Acme Widgets is committed to the highest level of personal respect and productive interfacing with the public,” you know that he or she is being rhetorical in the bad sense. None of those words except “Acme Widgets” has a discernible reference to anything; they are simply good wordsenterprise, associate (not employee, never employee), committed, highest, personal, respect, productive, public, interfacing (you’re right; that doesn’t sound like a good word to me, either, but it is thought to be one).

One can always say of anything: “That wasn’t my real statement; that’s just rhetoric. My real statement is all those deeply spiritual things I actually meant.”

Nevertheless, every writer uses rhetoric. If you write a love note, you may say to the target of your endearments, “Who wouldn’t love you?”, thus employing a rhetorical question, a means of breaking up the normal flow of declarative sentences and creating a slight surprise and intensification. You might add some such expression as, “You are the wind beneath my wings,” although I hope the metaphor you choose is not that trite.

Still, trite or not, the expression has a clear meaning. But what did Mr. Dominguez’s rhetoric mean? Was it just a string of words, with no meaning at all? Then why did he say it? If it did have a meaning, what was that meaning? Was he trying to say, “The voters who elected me have common sense and know what they want to do; therefore, I oppose all attempts to second-guess them by means of regulation”?

I doubt that this was what he had in mind. In fact, I can’t think of any meaning concealed beneath his rhetoric. What would that meaning be? The only one I can imagine is the hidden-in-plain-sight idea that “we have to regulate every aspect of people’s lives.” But seeing Dominguez assert that the real meaning is not the plain meaning is irresistibly funny; it’s like watching a magician claim that there’s an invisible rabbit in his hat. So that’s another good thing about his otherwise absurd and threatening statement.

Less funny rabbit-hat routines were on stage last month in the obsequies of John McCain. The ceremonies attending his death were so protracted as to suggest an irrational number, a house of mirrors, a sermon in an evangelical church, or anything else that makes one scream, “Where will all this end?” It was bad with Barbara Bush; it was worse with McCain — and who has not thought with horror about the coming funeral of Jimmy Carter? At some point, mourners had said all they could say about honor, patriotism, Abraham Lincoln, and this great country of ours. At some point, even the most self-centered person had said all he could say about himself. But what remained to be said, day after day, about John McCain? And what could one say that was true?

You might add some such expression as, “You are the wind beneath my wings,” although I hope the metaphor you choose is not that trite.

One could remind the audience that McCain had been a war hero, a genuine war hero. Captured by enemies in Vietnam, he was imprisoned for more than five years and tortured, horribly, for many months. At one point, fairly early, he could have been released, but he refused to cooperate unless comrades who had been captured before him were also released. His record is as admirable as attempts to question his military courage are despicable.

One could also say, with equal relation to the truth, that McCain spent the rest of his life as a politician — 35 years in Congress were required to perform his great public service — and in that role he revealed himself as a pompous, pigheaded, vindictive man. He was the only Republican politician whom I ever heard being thrown off a Republican talk show for being rude and overbearing. And despite his headstrong character, he switched policies and “convictions” so frequently that nobody knew how he was going to vote on any issue on which his vote was courted. Was he tricky, or was he incapable of coherent reasoning? No one could tell, but neither alternative was attractive. His own political party had no reason to trust him. According to Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, McCain flirted with becoming his running mate. According to many people, McCain spent a lot of time peddling the scandalous “dossier” about Trump-in-Russia. I never met anyone who liked John McCain — did you?

When McCain died, his memory was claimed by people who had despised him (liberal Democrats) and people who had made the best of him, to further their own ends (establishment Republicans). These people, with hearty cooperation from McCain in his final illness, saw in his death an opportunity to create an anti-Trump, a politician who was a true American, as opposed to the president, who is un-American. (Have you noticed that this adjective, so long denounced by the Left as a vile slander — which it ordinarily is — now routinely features in Democratic diatribes against Republicans? Odd, isn’t it, that the transference should take place with so little self-consciousness.) Anti-Trump sentiment was mobilized in an attempt to create a panic of grief like that staged when dictators of North Korea die.

McCain was the only Republican politician whom I ever heard being thrown off a Republican talk show for being rude and overbearing.

But what, after all, could be said, day after day, about John McCain? What exactly were his sturdy American principles? What lives had he inspired? What thoughts had he brought to rare expression? What exactly had he accomplished? What had he said that anyone else remembered? How, precisely, could he be eulogized, hour after hour, day after day, week after week? At last the cliché was true: there just weren’t enough words to say about him. Words that meant anything, that is.

By August 31, the alleged mourning had used up so many other words that on-air commentators were clearly puzzled. Yet the show must go on, even at Fox News, which had never liked John McCain (or he, it). It was at Fox that I witnessed one of the most amazing magic acts I have ever seen — magical in the sense of claiming that the invisible rabbit actually was in the hat, that nonsense words were actually conveying some deep meaning. The people at Fox began referring to the marvelous coincidence of two mournings for American “icons”: one was the funeral of John McCain, and the other was the funeral of Aretha Franklin.

Now there’s a desperate string of words.

If there is such a thing as an icon, outside of the religious and artistic circles in which the term has definite meaning, Aretha Franklin was an icon. Icon means “symbol,” and Aretha Franklin was directly and intensely symbolic of a type of music and a type of style and attitude that was irresistibly attractive to millions of Americans. I don’t think that anyone who ever saw her perform “Freeway of Love” will ever forget it. But if John McCain was an icon, what was he an icon of, and by whom was he regarded as such? The answer is plain: He was an icon of John McCain, and recognition of his iconicity was confined to himself. Aretha Franklin and John McCain — each of them an icon? That must be a joke.

The people at Fox began referring to the marvelous coincidence of two mournings for American “icons.”

Worse, in respect to iconicity, is the behavior of our linguistic cousins, the British, whose language appears to be growing even more childish than our own. In Britain, soccer is “footie,” people who work with their hands are “workies” or “tradies,” even snobby writers search out chav words for use on serious topics, and the existence of meaningless Americanisms inspires a quest for equally meaningless anglicisms. So it’s no surprise that an icon in America has now become a totem in Great Britain. On September 3 the Express quoted a member of Parliament as saying, of a meeting the prime minister was scheduled to have ten days later (don’t ask me whether she had the meeting; it’s none of my business): “I think it’s going to be totemic, the crucial meeting on the 13th September.”

Totem, originally an Ojibway term, means a symbolic representation of one’s tribe or family, often specifying its descent. Totem poles do that. In an extended meaning, a totem is a symbol of one’s social group, whatever that may be. Neither of these meanings has anything to do with the MP’s topic. He is making a random seizure of a word he doesn’t understand. I hate to think what an Ojibway chief, sculptor, or storyteller would say about the application of totem to a meeting. He would probably have the same reaction as a Christian would have, if informed that the PM’s next political meeting would be eucharistic.

A good rule is not to use a word if you can’t picture what it means and have no idea where it comes from. I realize that this principle — which Mr. Dominguez might regard as a mere figment of common sense — imposes a tremendous burden on people who want to pull invisible rabbits out of verbal hats, and think they have a foolproof method of doing it. I hate to spoil the fun by revealing how the purported magic is accomplished, but the method is actually simple. First, divide words into two groups — those that sound big, and those that sound small. Then, whenever you want to make an impression, just choose a word, any old word, from the Big list, and throw it in anywhere; applause will follow. You want to compliment a dead politician? Call him iconic, beloved, inspiring, legendary, path-breaking, humble, proud, cautious, bold, whatever.

I hate to think what an Ojibway chief, sculptor, or storyteller would say about the application of "totem" to a meeting.

The same method can be used on some wretched political meeting, or some second-rate storm, such as the recently deceased Florence, which was historic, unique, unprecedented, incredible — until it wasn’t. That’s when people realized there was no rabbit in the hat, despite the Washington Post’s pre-hurricane editorial about President Trump being “complicit” with the rabbit — or wabbit, if you’re a fan of Elmer Fudd, who seems to have written that editorial. Complicit is a big word; it must mean something. Right?

For the Post it all had something to do with the idea that “if the Category 4 hurricane does, indeed, hit the Carolinas this week, it will be the strongest storm on record to land so far north.” Well (to cite a cliché that needs to be revived), if wishes were horses, beggars could ride, and so could the Post, begging for a disaster that proved to be invisible.

Here’s a question. Can you find the supposed rabbit in the following report from the New York Post (July 21)?

“In March, a Tesla driver was killed while test-driving an auto-piloted Model X, the impact fully decimating half the car.” Fairness obliges me to note that at some time after July 21, “fully” was deleted from the story. But that was not the root problem, which was decimating. Liberty editor Jo Ann Skousen was on the case. “’Fully decimated half the car’?” she asked. “Does that mean it was diminished by 20%? 5%? Was half of it untouched and the other half untouched except the front bumper? I’m confused.” But of course she was not confused; she is never confused. She immediately recognized that decimating was simply a word grabbed from the Big list and intended to be accepted as a bunny the size of Harvey. The only difficulty is that words aren’t impressive when they’re ridiculous.

"Complicit" is a big word; it must mean something. Right?

Or when they’re plausible, but false. Tucker Carlson appears to agree with me about the idiocy of McCain worship. He certainly agrees with me about the bad effects of McCain’s constant demands for military intervention in foreign countries. Unfortunately, on his September 4 broadcast Tucker decided to weaponize his criticism by claiming that “he [McCain] was probably the most warlike senator in American history.” What?

True, McCain never saw a military scheme he didn’t like. But for God’s sake, Tucker! What are you talking about? If you add up the senators who wanted to annex Canada in 1812, and the senators who wanted to annex Mexico in 1846, and the senators who wanted to massacre the South in 1861, and the senators who wanted a war with Spain in 1898, and the senators who screamed for war against Germany in 1914, 1915, 1916, and 1917, and . . . should I continue? McCain has some stiff competition in the contest for “most warlike senator in American history.” There is no rabbit in that hat.

Neither is there a rabbit in the hat of Paul Gigot, who runs Fox’s “Wall Street Journal Editorial Report” on weekends (an unjust fate, because the show is usually pretty good). On July 14, Gigot decided to discuss the activities of Peter Strzok. To give decisive emphasis to his feelings, Gigot called him the author of “now infamous” texts. Infamous means “full of infamy,” and in my opinion it’s an appropriate word for the activities of Strzok, the secret policeman who took it upon himself to decide who should be president and left evidence of this high intent and calling among the thousands of stupid texts he sent to his girlfriend. But either something is infamous or it isn’t. It doesn’t become infamous; it isn’t infamous now and not infamous yesterday or tomorrow. What Gigot presumably meant was famous, but he couldn’t stop with that. There’s no magic in saying that something is well known. So, needing a word of greater potency, he reached into his magic hat and pulled out the absurd now infamous.

McCain has some stiff competition in the contest for “most warlike senator in American history.”

When I was studying Latin, I learned from Horace’s Art of Poetry an interesting expression: parturient montes nascetur ridiculus mus: the mountain labors and gives birth to a ridiculous mouse. What’s striking is the labor that some of these people put in, just to get something wrong. You don’t have to talk about infamous texts; just say they’re familiar to everyone. You don’t have to say that McCain was the most warlike senator in history; just say he was mighty warlike. You don’t have to say that even Aretha Franklin was iconic; just call her a good singer, a popular singer, a singer whom millions loved. You don’t have to provide a string of words in a rhetorical fashion — unless, of course, that’s all you’ve got to attract an audience.

It’s remarkable, how many words are wasted in this world. Lives, too.




Share This


President Corleone

 | 

In late November 2016, less than a month after Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, President Obama was in Peru for the APEC Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Riding in the back of the US presidential limousine with a few of his closest aides, he turned to his longtime advisor, Ben Rhodes, and said, “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”

This struck me as an odd thing for the president to say.

Michael Corleone and Barack Obama would seem to have little in common. To begin with, one is fictitious, the other is not.

It is from Rhodes’ new book, The World as It Is, which I have not yet read. I found it in Peter Baker’s review of the book in The New York Times.

In the following, I will explain why I thought it odd and then mull over why he said it. The purpose of the exercise is to amuse.

* * *

At first glance, Michael Corleone and Barack Obama would seem to have little in common. To begin with, one is fictitious, the other is not. More to the point, the life experiences of Corleone seem to bear little resemblance to those of Obama.

Michael Corleone, as every film buff knows, was not keen to join the Mafia. In his mid-20s, however, he murdered both the drug kingpin and the NYPD captain who had tried to kill his father, Don Vito Corleone, and, badabing, he was in.

Michael has his sister poison a rival don. Michael’s daughter is shot to death. Even the Pope gets whacked.

A few years later, when he became the head of the Corleone crime family, he orchestrated the murders of all his family’s rivals in New York City. Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful baptism montage in The Godfather tells the tale. Then, for decades, Michael Corleone controlled the bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder that are the Mafia’s bread and butter. He was cold, cunning, and absolutely ruthless. He even had his brother Fredo murdered.

The scene Obama referenced in his comment to Rhodes is in the final film of the series, The Godfather, Part III. In it, Michael, who had been trying to extricate himself and his immediate family from the world of organized crime by transferring his ill-gotten gains from the rackets to legitimate businesses, has just survived a machine-gun attack from a helicopter arranged by Joey Zaza, who he had personally chosen to take over the Corleone family’s criminal interests. Michael, now about 60 years old and in ill health, stands in his kitchen and wails, “Every time I try to get out . . .they pull me back in.”

The rest of the movie is a series of betrayals, counter-betrayals, and murders. Michael has his sister poison a rival don. Michael’s daughter is shot to death. Even the Pope gets whacked. The trail of corpses only ends when, much later, Michael, broken, forgotten, and alone, falls off his chair, dead.

Obama has no haunting spectre trailing him, no litany of sins hanging over his head.

Now, it is pretty clear what Michael Corleone meant by his comment. He was trying to morph from a shady mafioso into a legitimate businessman, but his criminal past had created underworld entanglements so deeply rooted, so strong, that try as he might, he was never able to break free.

But what did President Obama mean? In what sense did he identify with this tragic figure, Michael Corleone?

President Obama is fit, rich, and relatively young, with a loving wife and family. He can choose from among the endless opportunities available to former presidents, or choose to do nothing at all. He can stay out of the political arena and Washington forever, if he wants to. Hollywood would welcome him. In fact, it already has.

He stepped down from the presidency with his head high, unbowed by scandal. He has no haunting spectre trailing him, no litany of sins hanging over his head. There is no Watergate, no Teheran Hostages, no Iran-Contra, no Monica Lewinsky, no missing WMDs, no Special Counsel to dog his footsteps for the rest of his days. There is no helicopter circling. In fact, some argue that his was an untainted, if not exemplary, presidency. Some even say that his has been a charmed life.

Likening his disappointment with the 2016 election results to Michael Corleone’s torment brings to mind the little boy whose ice cream falls from the cone and splats on the sidewalk. The boy looks at the sky and says, “Why me, God?” OK, that probably goes a little too far, but you get the point.

The remark seems odder because there was a more apt comparison much closer at hand.

In the runup to the election in November of 2000, Bill Clinton’s hand-picked successor, Al Gore, was thought by many to be the favorite. But while Gore won the popular vote, he lost in the Electoral College, some say because of an unfair assist by the Supreme Court. As a result, Bill Clinton had to give the keys to the White House not to his chosen successor but to George W. Bush, who opposed his policies in many areas, among them: taxes, gay rights, energy, abortion, education, the environment, and foreign affairs.

Bill Clinton really did get out, his wife’s career ambitions and the occasional tarmac meeting notwithstanding.

Before the 2016 election, Barack Obama’s chosen successor, Hillary Clinton, was the clear favorite. But while Clinton won the popular vote, she lost in the Electoral College, some say because of Russian help. As a result, Barack Obama had to give the keys to the White House to Donald Trump, who opposed his policies in many areas, among them: taxes, immigrant rights, energy, women’s health, education, the environment, and foreign affairs.

Now, had President Obama said to Rhodes, “I feel like Bill Clinton must have felt when Bush beat Gore,” it would have made perfect sense. True, the bit about “almost getting out” doesn’t quite fit here, in that Bill Clinton really did get out, his wife’s career ambitions and the occasional tarmac meeting notwithstanding. Still, the circumstances are remarkably similar.

But when Obama sought to explain himself to Rhodes, what popped into his mind was not the face of the charming former president whose liberal, if triangulated, legacy had suddenly been put in jeopardy by a more conservative successor. No. When he gazed deeply into the mirror of his consciousness what he saw staring back at him was the tortured face of Michael Corleone.

Go figure.

* * *

While the above should help clarify why I found the president’s comment odd, it does not explain why he made it. Three possible explanations follow.

Peter Baker suggested the first possibility in the NYT review of Rhodes’ book. Here’s the complete line that includes the comment: “In handing over power to someone determined to tear down all he had accomplished, Mr. Obama alluded to The Godfather mafia movie, ‘I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.’

When Obama gazed deeply into the mirror of his consciousness what he saw staring back at him was the tortured face of Michael Corleone.

But in The Godfather, Michael was handing over power to Joey Zaza, his chosen successor. Joey wasn’t trying to tear down anything the Corleone family had built; he just wanted it all for himself, and Michael dead. That’s why Michael couldn’t get out. Am I missing something here? Hillary Clinton was Obama’s hand-picked successor. Is she supposed to be out to get him? Is Donald Trump or some other rival that I’m unaware of trying to keep President Obama from “getting out” of politics? Is there some opponent who’s trying either to assassinate him or to “pull him back” into the political arena? No. This explanation of Obama’s comment just isn’t working.

More importantly, is Baker suggesting that President Obama was equating his own life’s work, fostering peace, justice, and sustainability, with Michael Corleone’s, committing bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder? That doesn’t sound like the kind of analogy that President Obama would encourage, not if he’s proud of his accomplishments. It certainly wouldn’t do much to burnish his legacy. No, Baker’s explanation just doesn’t fit. It lacks verisimilitude.

The second possibility is hypothetical. Given that bending the arc of the moral universe can be very hard work, let’s say that President Obama sometimes resorted to means that ever so slightly trimmed ethical or legal corners in order to achieve the precise curvature that the moral universe seemed to call for at the moment. By employing this hypothetical, we may be able to find a context in which the words that the president uttered in the back of “the Beast” that day in Lima make sense.

Is Baker suggesting that the president was equating his own life’s work, fostering peace, justice, and sustainability, with Michael Corleone’s, committing bribery, blackmail, extortion, and murder?

Let’s say that President Obama quietly approved the fix of Hillary Clinton’s illegal handling of classified documents, and her hamhanded attempt to cover it up in order to keep her candidacy alive. Let’s say that he put the desired end, a Democratic successor, on one side of the scale and the means proposed to achieve that end, a political decision not to indict, on the other side, and decided that the greater good would be served by putting the fix in, cut corners and all. When, in spite of the fix, the public’s confidence in Hillary Clinton’s trustworthiness plummeted, let’s say that President Obama became more eager than ever that his successor be a fellow Democrat. Let’s say that he approved of an effort to discredit Donald Trump by, among other means, using the fishy DNC-funded Steele dossier to manipulate a judge into allowing surveillance of the Trump campaign. Let’s say that when Donald Trump won the election despite this effort to derail his candidacy the president was concerned.

Let us now imagine how President Obama’s comment might sound in this hypothetical scenario.

A few weeks after the election, President Obama, wearing an immaculately tailored dark suit, was riding in the back of his armored black Cadillac Escalade with a few of his closest aides. He was looking through the five-inch thick bulletproof window. He knew that in order to get Hillary Clinton off the hook and to put Donald Trump on it he had done things worse than the Watergate break in. He also knew that, at that very moment, the effort to conceal those deeds was growing a web of semi-transparent lies that was threatening to ensnare him.

If only Hillary Clinton had won, as everyone had expected, he could have ridden the wave that had elected him twice all the way to the beach. He could have stepped off the board directly onto the sand, a free man. The new president would have had his back and her administration would have been composed of the very people who had helped him to put her in office. He would have been out, scot-free.

He closed his eyes and pressed his right temple to the glass. He realized that he was in a war. He would have to fight or he would end up like Nixon, disgraced. Sitting next to him was his long-time advisor, Ben Rhodes. The president turned to him, sighed, and said, “I feel like Michael Corleone. I almost got out.”

If only Hillary Clinton had won, as everyone had expected, he could have ridden the wave that had elected him twice all the way to the beach.

The third possibility is not as illogical as the first or as far-fetched as the second. It is this: the president was joking.

Frankly, this is my favorite explanation, in part because it is the least disheartening. No one wants to think ill of the president, do they? And all of that abusing of presidential power for personal gain and self-preservation in the second explanation would make the president seem so grubby, so small. No one wants to believe that possible. People want to think the best of the president, not the worst. Right? I mean, only Vladimir Putin would want the American people to think of their president as a Mafia don.

OK, then. So no one laughed. Maybe Ben Rhodes didn’t get the joke. That’s OK. Apparently, Peter Baker didn’t get it either. But I suspect that if President Obama were asked about it, and he was being perfectly honest, he would admit that he had just been trying to be funny.

Let’s just say.

“Politicians have always lied, but it used to be if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh man.’ Now they just keep on lying.” — Barack Obama, Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, July 17, 2018




Share This


Ex Cathedra

 | 

I apologize. I’m treading on Word Watch’s territory. But I can’t help myself, so I’ll go ahead and step in the mire: President Donald J. Trump’s pronouncements.

Does Trump lie? That is the question.

According to the Washington Post, as of May 1 the President has amassed 3,001 lies or “misleading claims.”

Really?

Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly.

Every politician lies. Stephen Cox hit the nail on the head when he stated in April’s Word Watch that, “The old-time political boss, the old-time candidate for office — those people were smart enough to lie in colorful, sometimes fascinating ways.”

In spite of his hailing from Chicago, the Alamogordo of old-time political mendacity, Obama never quite caught on. He just lied — absolutely artlessly. Three examples immediately come to mind: “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.” “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history.” And the immensely more consequential — and extremely ill-conceived (especially to a libertarian) — threat he made on August 20, 2012, that Syria’s use of chemical weapons would be “a red line for us.”

Well, that red line was a mirage on shifting sands. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry decided that they’d rely on that paragon of probity, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, to ensure the decommissioning of Syria’s chemical arsenal. Not only did that never happen, but Putin used the opportunity to join the fray in Syria. What the hell — both Putin and Assad now knew that the US would do nothing. In quick succession, Assad and Putin targeted Aleppo, an opposition stronghold, destroying hospitals and massacring civilians, including fleeing doctors evacuating the wounded. The US had lost all credibility.

Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health.

What could be worse? Considering that the primary responsibility of the president of the United States is national security, a responsibility based on credibility, it’s hard to imagine anything worse in the diplomatic arena.

Obama’s excuse for not enforcing his red line ultimatum was twofold: One, he believed he was speaking from Mount Olympus . . . speaking for all of the free world without first consulting the rest of it. Two, he was in the thick of negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and didn’t want to imperil it by attacking Assad, an Iranian ally.

Really?

Why not do the right thing: enforce his completely undemocratic red line and let the chips fall where they might. Was the deal worth dumping US credibility? After all, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as it is so eloquently known) was only a stopgap measure (and Trump has just withdrawn the US from it).

But the best part of that entire red line debacle was Vladimir Putin’s Obama moment. Immediately following the latest Assad Bunsen burner experiment on his people (the second in a two-part series), Vlad “The Impaler” threatened “severe consequences” if the US retaliated. So the US, this time actually consulting France and Britain and getting them to join, let loose a barrage of missiles on April 14, 2018, that proved particularly effective.

Putin’s response? “If the US does that again, there will be severe consequences!.” One month later, we’re still waiting for those consequences.

The fine print that nearly everyone misses is that papal infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals.

Donald Trump turned Obama’s lie into truth, however belatedly. And since the subject was the credibility of our national security, that puts it in a completely different category from, say, Trump’s assertion that he “unequivocally” is “the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency.”

There are lies, damn lies, spin, wishful thinking, statements of fervent intent, hyperbole, and artful irony. I’d put Trump’s health statement in those last two categories. For one, the portly septuagenarian fools no one — especially in this BMI and health-obsessed country — as to his athletic abilities. Consider that Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and JFK all lied by egregious omissions (at least) concerning their health. Mrs. Wilson took over for Woodrow during his near total incapacitation by a stroke from September 1919 to the end of his term in 1921, during the first five months of that period keeping the country in the dark.

As to FDR, the Associated Press claimed that “Roosevelt’s disability was virtually a state secret during his presidency.” Though he never denied he was a paraplegic, FDR did his damnedest to conceal it, virtually never allowing his wheelchair or his struggles with other aids to be photographed.

Ditto for JFK. According to The Atlantic, “the lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history — no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed.” I don’t know whether Trump was aware of those deceptions and decided on a post-ironic, “fascinating way” to indulge in hyperbole; or whether Trump just hit a “colorful” bull’s eye through sheer chutzpah and luck. I’d be tempted to put his assertion on a par with Obama’s “Hillary is the most qualified presidential candidate in history” — except that Obama was certainly serious while Trump may well have had his tongue in his cheek.

The press and the public misunderstand Trump’s pronouncements — much as they misunderstand Pope Francis’ pronouncements. The widely held belief that the Catholic Church considers the pope infallible is based on dogma declared in 1870 at the First Vatican Council. But the fine print that nearly everyone misses is that his infallibility only applies when he’s addressing faith and morals. Additionally, his infallibility only kicks in when he makes a declaration ex cathedra, “from the full authority of his office.”

Trump's brand of lying may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

When the press reported that Pope Francis denied the existence of hell or that “capitalism is terror against all of humanity” it didn’t make a distinction between whether the pontiff was speaking ex cathedra or off the cuff, perhaps using the ambiguity for its own sensationalist ends (or maybe they’re just stupidly ignorant). But the pope is also at fault. While he always specifies when he’s speaking ex cathedra, he never clarifies his other statements as informal or just personal opinions. Needless to say, the ambiguity serves his purpose.

Ditto for President Trump. Whether in tweet, press conference, base rally, or state of the union address, the president never specifies whether his statements are hyperbole, aspirational declarations, firm US policy, or just a needling dart at his opposition. But they are all — in the mind of the uber-deal maker — potential negotiating tactics. MSNBC and the Fox Five will interpret these statements in radically different ways — in ways that push their own agendas. It may not be presidential, but it’s refreshing and — so far — effective.

Hell, if it works for the pope, why not for Trump?

The press and the public should stop treating every Trump pronouncement as if it were ex cathedra when he might just be P.T. Barnuming it.




Share This


How to Seize the Moral High Ground

 | 

I was never a fan of Billy Graham. I considered him a raving bore and a probable nitwit. But I was disturbed to read that his death was greeted by a torrent of abuse from leftwing and “moderate” media, as if hundreds of pundits had been storing up rage against him for the past 30 or 40 years. Some of it made me gasp. Literally. Here is the tweet with which someone named Lauren Duca, a figure at Teen Vogue, of all places, bade farewell to Graham:

Have fun in hell, bitch.

“Bitch,” in that sense, started as prison talk for “male homosexual.” After prison it spread to other locales, such as Teen Vogue. Duca’s opposition to Graham seems to have resulted from Graham’s opposition to homosexuality.

I have never been a fan of Quentin Tarantino, at all. I think his films are vulgar and obvious. I am aware that he has recently become a politically controversial figure, not because of his “art” but because of his alleged countenancing of his friend Harvey Weinstein’s alleged crimes. But I gasped at the weird screed about Tarantino that appeared on a widely read rightwing site that sometimes publishes good things:

He’s a slobbering, drooling, film-school nerd who stuffs his movies full of bloodshed and curse words, apparently hoping no one will notice the Uber-geek behind the camera who’s likely wearing either panties or diapers. He bears the unmistakably soft air of someone who’s never been punched in the face.

For all of his films’ alleged danger and violence, it’s always seemed barkingly obvious to me that he’s a twerpy fake who’d burst into tears if he chipped a fingernail. He’s an emblem of a generation which truly knows nothing beyond pop culture and gets nearly all of its “life experiences” from a screen.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who finds this stuff — the leftwing sample and the rightwing sample — literally sickening. What kind of people enjoy these things? This is not H.L. Mencken. It’s not Lord Byron. It’s not Zola. It’s not Mr. Dooley or Sinclair Lewis. It’s not anyone who ever attacked an enemy with wit and insight. It’s not even the vicious polemics of the American revolutionary period, of the Jackson and anti-Jackson movements, or of the Crisis of the Union in the 1850s. It’s garbage.

What gives it cultural license? What allows it to be either cheered or justified — as the canards about President Obama’s birthplace were cheered, and, much more prominently, as the constant charges of treason against President Trump are cheered?

What kind of people enjoy these things? This is not H.L. Mencken. It’s not Lord Byron. It’s not Zola.

Some of the attraction is simply to lynch-mob attitudes. Many years ago I visited a friend who rented an apartment in South Boston. He was gay and Jewish. He had trouble getting out of his place without being ridiculed and threatened by local Catholic youth. Those days are gone. So are the days in which interracial couples were taunted and threatened on the streets of Northern cities. (I don’t have to read about it; I saw it.) But the same mentality, if you want to call it that, is visible in the fanatical attempts to exile from schools and colleges anyone who expresses rightwing ideas, many of which are simply the modern-liberal ideas of 20 or 30 years ago. The same mentality is visible in the frenzied hunt for people who, 30 or 40 years ago, allegedly violated some sexual code. And no, I am not in favor of sexual harassment, however defined. I just don’t like lynch mobs, even when the target is guilty.

But there’s something else going on. Since the 18th century, at least, it’s been noted that people are seldom embittered when they lose a contest they didn’t think they had any reason to enter. I’m not bitter about my failure to be elected to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, or to be chosen president of my university. But I would be embittered if an assistant professor in my department were given my office and my committee positions. I would be still more embittered if that person asserted his or her right to my perks.

People on the Right, many of them, are embittered and hateful because, for many years, they have been treated as second-class citizens — their distinctive ideas removed from the schools, their gun ownership restricted and threatened, their religion mocked by the most prestigious figures in popular culture. They eagerly applaud every attack on their supposed superiors.

I’m not buying it. If you want to preserve traditional culture, a war of abuse is not how to do it.

People on the Left, many of them, are embittered and hateful because they have grown used to their culture’s institutionalized authority and prestige. The leading figures of government who did everything they could — and are still doing everything they can — to get Trump unelected are not just opposed to his ideas, if any; they are angry, angry, angry that nobodies from the Right have seized their own cultural thrones. No attack on the infidels is too vulgar for them, or for many of their supporters in the media.

Me, I’m more sympathetic to the people on the Right — not the people on the Right who threatened me when I visited South Boston 40 years ago (they’re not there anymore), but the people on today’s Right who are basically (in my view) fighting a defensive battle against those who want to take their guns, their schools, and the power of their votes away from them. So the offended persons lash out, not just at the political establishment, but at all its heirs and assigns, including such heroes of the self-entitled cultural elite as actors and movie directors.

So I get it. But I’m not buying it. If you want to preserve traditional culture, a war of abuse is not how to do it, you slobbering, drooling, twerpy fakes. Neither is the home-family-“cops are wonderful” cant in which the Right has long been marinated. And, my leftist friends, if you want to assert your own values, try to do it by communicating something valuable, or at least plausible, and not such stupidities as “Trump is a traitor,” or the kind of talk one hears on the prison yard — you bitches.




Share This


The Problem of Perspective

 | 

When libertarians (and others) get into debates, we often bewail our opponents’ lack of facts. But I suppose you’ve noticed that even when everybody has the facts, the debate continues — a situation that has become very frequent in this age of quick and plentiful access to information. Often the problem is simply the perfectly accurate perception of people on one side or the other that if the force of the facts were recognized, they would have to alter their political identity.

I recently found myself in a dispute with a person whose writing I admire. (This is not uncommon.) She said that because a certain politician had said X, therefore we must conclude that he was preaching the gospel of Y. I quoted what the man had said, which was literally and vigorously anti-Y. My friend replied, “I know that. But that’s just the cover-up. What he obviously meant was Y.” To my friend, it was so important that X meant Y that she would never be betrayed by mere facts.

People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective.

Even this, however, is not the major barrier to healthy political discourse. The deeper problem is a lack of perspective on facts. People with the most facts sometimes have the least perspective. We all know people who can quote every foolish thing that President Obama or President Trump ever said (and that’s a lot), and on that basis are prepared to prove that one of them is a mere pawn of certain Interests or is the master player in a plot to destroy the republic and institute rule by force. What’s missing is common sense, and the perspective it provides. Lots of people say foolish things. In fact, we all do. Anyone can quote some remark by me, or some other libertarian you know, and say, triumphantly, “How can a person who said that pretend to be a libertarian?” Well, it’s quite possible, and it might not be a pretense. Extend the logic to people you don’t know, and it works just as well. To admit this is not to give your sanction to Obama, Trump, or anyone else. It’s to have a little bit of common sense.

A lack of commonsense perspective lies at the root of conspiracy theories generally — the false ones, of course, because people do sometimes conspire to produce certain ends, and why should we be shocked by that? The dedicated researchers who believe that Oswald was a fall guy know many more facts about Oswald than I ever will, but the overwhelming truth that 54 years have passed since Oswald and Kennedy were killed, and no one has emerged to confess that he had any kind of involvement, however peripheral, in any kind of conspiracy to make Oswald a fall guy suggests that facts can easily betray you, absent the perspective of common sense.

The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities.

But there’s another lack of perspective that is especially characteristic of the present moment, and that is sheer ignorance of historical,as opposed to immediate, facts. In 1988, virtually all the public-policy writers in the United States, from the New York Times on down (or up), preached, with the Leninists, that communism in Eastern Europe was an irreversible phenomenon. In 1989, the communist regimes of Eastern Europe crashed. “Oh, who woulda thunk it?” was the experts’ cry. The answer was: anybody who knew some history. Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not. Historical examples: France in 1789. France in 1814. Germany in 1918. The Stuarts in 1688. The Commonwealth of England in 1660. I could go on.

Between 1950 and 1990, Americans were told — and in my experience of some of those decades, Americans believed — that they were living in a unique time in human history: never before had “a civilization and a way of life been threatened with total destruction.” The reference was to the atomic bomb, which was, indeed, new; but the notion about its unique effects was so false to the facts of history as to be laughable. The normal condition of human life, in most times and most places, has been this: you live in a community that is perennially at war with other communities. If your enemies conquer you, they will rape all the women, enslave all the woman and children, and kill all the men. That will be the end of your “way of life.” If one recognized that modern America was not unique in this respect, one couldn’t just go out and deduce some great truth about what should be done regarding, say, Soviet missiles in Cuba, but one might be more rational, and less hysterical, about one’s pacifism or militarism. It’s a matter of perspective.

So much for the myths of the last generation. There were lots more of them, but you get the point. My sense is that the “educated” people of 2017 know a hell of a lot less about history than the “educated” people of 1988 — and not just the history of the world but the history of their own country. I am not a fan of the Southern secessionists, or of Woodrow Wilson. I positively dislike most of what I know about them. But to assume that the only fact about their lives that could possibly be worth knowing is that they were racists is an astonishing intellectual performance. To teach this to children is to warn them against all historical curiosity, to turn history into an endless, and endlessly disgusting, game of hunting the Great Satan. Some people, thus educated, will pretend to join the hunt, out of the cynicism that ideologues are good at inspiring; others will adopt it as their own fanatical crusade; most will get the sense that nothing about history is very interesting, after all — let alone inspiring.

Regimes have a way of ending, and regimes that depend on hegemonic control tend to be more vulnerable to changes in their environment than regimes that do not.

Let’s look at another example in which perspective has been completely lost, by the denial of simple curiosity. Unlike many other vocal libertarians, I believe that the current struggle against Islamic terrorism is real and important and must be won. Nevertheless, terrorism results not just from religious or political ideas but from certain, very imperfectly understood, psychological and social factors. Might it not be helpful to know something about the history of terrorism in the modern world?

Well, it didn’t start with 9/11. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “socialist,” “populist,” and “anarchist” (actually communist) terrorists swarmed over Europe and North America, killing, among many others, Elisabeth, Empress of Austria; Umberto, King of Italy; Alexander, Emperor of Russia; William McKinley, President of the United States; and Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago (in an attempt to assassinate President-elect Franklin Roosevelt). They also killed or attempted to kill such private citizens as the industrialist Henry Clay Frick (see Liberty, September 2005, pp. 40–45). Then there was labor union terrorism, which peaked in 1910, with the bomb that blew apart the pressroom at the Los Angeles Times, killing 21 people. This is the case in which the unjustifiably iconic Clarence Darrow, the socialist lawyer, attempted to bribe a juror on the streets of Los Angeles. But the biggest event in “domestic terrorism” was the Bath (Michigan) School Disaster, in which a local farmer, dissatisfied for some reason with his admittedly humdrum life, killed his beloved wife, destroyed his homestead, and blew apart a wing of the schoolhouse down the road, destroying, all told, 44 people, 38 of them children.

These incidents might conceivably shed some light on why depraved men or women (usually men) suddenly decide to kill large numbers of innocent people, but since almost nobody realizes that the events even happened, almost nobody looks for that light.

Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Let’s proceed to another type of violence, the violence of words, and other symbolic deeds, that is making it virtually impossible for sane men and women to read the news without symptoms of convulsion. I, for one, do not wish to rise in the morning only to be assaulted by a vast array of establishment-media venues ravaging the current president as if he were the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Nor is it a pleasure to visit my favorite non-establishment sites and find them wholly given over to defenses of the president. Nor — to give you a third and final nor — is it gratifying to me to read the president’s own abusive messages about the media, which are sometimes amusing, but you can’t bank on that. Strange to say, the chief complaint of all these splenetic keyboard artists is that never before in history has political discourse been so hostile and abusive.

Well, that isn’t true, and I’m glad it’s not true, if only because hostility produced the following delightful letter from Former President John Adams to Former President Thomas Jefferson (April 19, 1817).

Dear Sir

My loving and beloved Friend, [Adams’ Secretary of State Timothy] Pickering, has been pleased to inform the World that I have “few Friends.” I wanted to whip the rogue, and I had it in my power, if it had been in my Will to do it, till the blood come. But all my real Friends as I thought them, with Dexter and Grey at their Head insisted “that I should not say a Word.” “That nothing that such a Person could write would do me the least Injury. That it would betray the Constitution and the Government, if a President out or in should enter a Newspaper controversy, with one of his Ministers whom he had removed from his Office, in Justification of himself for that removal or any thing else.” And they talked a great deal about “The Dignity” of the Office of President, which I do not find that any other Persons, public or private regard very much.

Nevertheless, I fear that Mr. Pickerings Information is too true. It is impossible that any Man should run such a Gauntlet as I have been driven through, and have many Friends at last. This “all who know me know” though I cannot say “who love me tell.”

I’m reminded of the words of Addison DeWitt: “You’re maudlin and full of self-pity. You’re magnificent.” Adams’ superb wit, proud and knowing, and so characteristic of his letters, would distinguish him in any context, just as the lack of any literary quality whatever would be sufficient to identify virtually all political writing of the present age.

I’ve talked about this in Word Watch, and I’ll talk about it again in that place. What I want to emphasize here is the historical perspective offered by the presidential letter of two centuries ago. It suggests that there is nothing off-the-charts about the “abusive rhetoric” of contemporary politics.

To be fair, of course, we need to consider what exalted condition of politesse American political discourse is supposed to have declined from. That high standard, I believe, is the manner of handling news and opinion that prevailed in the days when the senior members of our current news establishment were growing up, the days of Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, and Edward R. Murrow. The declension from those glory days is sad, sad. Never before in American history . . .

If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one.

Well, did you ever try to read anything that Edward R. Murrow wrote? David Brinkley, who was one of the tribe, but an eccentric one, could actually write, but he was virtually the only one, and none of the present handwringers ever mentions him. His perspective on history, which was a pretty wide one, has been forgotten, and would certainly not be sought, by the preachers of auld lang syne. What they pine for is the slick modern-liberal sentiments and the passive-aggressive style of that former age, a style inveterately contemptuous of the host of people, places, ideas, and emotions whose existence it refused to recognize. What they miss is its lying veneer of “objectivity,” so-called.

That veneer wasn’t much in evidence in the first great age of American journalism, when innovations in printing, transportation, and data transmission (the telegraph) enabled everyone to read two or three papers — Democrat, Republican, and Just Plain Mean — and to spend all day, if they wanted, soaking themselves in political bile. Then as now, journalism was 10% news and 90% tribal war-whoops; but it was that way openly and honestly.

Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict.

Reporting on the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, which Lincoln lost, though not decisively, one paper reported that “the triumph of Senator Douglas was complete”; Lincoln was “exceedingly lame throughout . . . The Illinois Giant [Douglas] at the first onset pushed his adversary to the wall, and never ceased for a moment his blows, until Abraham was taken by his friends, dispirited and overcome.” Another kind of partisan paper thought that Lincoln had “chewed [Douglas] up . . . Douglas is doomed . . . [the] contest is already practically ended.” From yet another journalistic standpoint, the campaign proved that the two candidates were nothing but “a pair of depraved, blustering, mischievous, lowdown demagogues.”

All these characterizations were false, and most people knew they were. But verbal abuse wasn’t the only oily sheen on the surface of political life. If you think there’s no precedent for the “violence” of today’s politics, you’re a snowflake, and a pathetically ignorant one. Here’s Senator Thomas Hart Benton, in his Thirty Years’ View; Or, A History of the Working of the American Government for Thirty Years, from 1820 to 1850 (1856), discussing the Anti-Duelling Act of 1839:

The death of Mr. Jonathan Cilley, a representative in Congress from the State of Maine, killed in a duel with rifles, with Mr. Graves of Kentucky, led to the passage of an act with severe penalties against dueling, in the District of Columbia, or out of it upon agreement within the District.. . . Like all acts passed under a sudden excitement [there were sudden excitements in the 1830s, too], this act was defective, and more the result of good intentions than of knowledge of human nature. Passions of the mind, like diseases of the body, are liable to break out in a different form when suppressed in the one they had assumed.

Following that libertarian critique of mere good intentions, Benton notes, as if everyone in his audience already knew it, that the Act

did not suppress the homicidal intent — but gave it a new form: and now many members of Congress go into their seats with deadly weapons under their garments — ready to insult with foul language, and prepared to kill if the language is resented. (Vol. 2, pp. 148-49)

Benton, who had once shot Andrew Jackson in a fight that was something worse than a duel, later became Jackson’s friend and political ally; but in 1850, in the Senate chamber, a fellow member, Henry Foote, attempted to shoot him over a political disagreement. "I have no pistols!”, Benton shouted. “Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!" Other senators separated the antagonists and locked Foote’s pistol in a drawer — which sounds like a pretty good way of ending a conflict that in our law-obsessed era would immobilize the capital and the courts in perpetuity.

Less pacific were many of the things that national leaders said. William Seward had cause to regret his “irrepressible conflict” speech, just as Abraham Lincoln had cause to regret his “house divided” speech; both were interpreted by the South, and not unreasonably, as an indication that if either of those gentlemen were elected president, the South must secede. John C. Calhoun had cause to regret the many speeches in which he incited the South to dissolve the union — but Calhoun, like our current politicians, never regretted anything he said, during a lifetime of self-contradiction.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric.

Now, if you look at the public utterances of the people I’ve mentioned (except for Foote), you will find that in both style and intellectual substance they are infinitely above those of anyone now in politics. To say this isn’t to fall into the trap of assuming that everything that happens in one’s own time is happening for the first time in history. If one has any historical perspective, one can distinguish things that actually are new or special from things that actually aren’t.

It is the intellectual and verbal illiteracy of American public culture that has that “never before in history” aspect — and it has that aspect because of the lack of perspective that makes contemporary Americans feel as if they can do without any knowledge of or respect for people who lived in the past. Thus, if you’re a “progressive” leftist, Thomas Jefferson was a racist who considered blacks inferior to whites, as if that were his only historical significance; and Andrew Jackson was a slaveholder who behaved with great barbarity toward Indians, as if those evil characteristics, common to hundreds of thousands of Americans of his time, including Indians who enslaved other Indians, were all we needed to know about one of the most complexly influential people in our or any history. And thus, if you’re a rightist, Ronald Reagan was the world’s greatest inspirational speaker; George Patton embodied all the strengths that make real men and women want to get up in the morning; and Theodore Roosevelt, a little man who kept exclaiming “bully!”, made life worth living for soldiers, workers, and the American bison. Meanwhile, all people worship Lincoln as the incarnation of Christ.

Curiously, however, our contemporaries seem incapable of taking any good to themselves from their acts of ferocious love and cherished hatred. They never put themselves in perspective with the targets of their emotions, never sense the deficiencies of their own rhetoric when compared with that of Lincoln, or their own courage when compared with that of Jackson. They may idolize “Teddy” or spit on the memory of Jefferson or rerun Reagan’s speeches or get off on Patton, the movie, but that’s what they’re seeing, a movie playing on their own TVs, just a few feet from their self-infatuated heads. The rest of the house is empty.




Share This


The Bad and the Ugly

 | 

I suppose that everyone who has been chained to a sofa and forced to watch the presidential “race” (which is actually a horrible, slow crawl, relieved only by an occasional fall off a cliff) has compiled a mental list of the best, better, worse, and worst verbal performers. Here’s my list.

The Best performer, I believe, was Carly Fiorina. Trailing badly in the polls, she was willing to speak at any time, on any subject — and every time I saw her, she was crisp, clear, and well-informed. She was actually, on occasion, informative. She said things that conveyed knowledge that I, at least, hadn’t possessed before. She could surprise you that way. She didn’t completely avoid clichés, but she had a lower cliché count than the other candidates, and she had practically no “uh” count.

This is very rare among politicians, and should be greeted as a miracle after seven years of Obama, whose rate often goes up to 40 “uhs” a minute. Saying “uh” all the time commonly indicates that a person is trying to hold the stage long after running out of anything to say. Obama is the best example in the present era. If you counted the time he has spent on substantive remarks, and compared it with the time he has lavished on “uh,” you’d end up with a ratio of about 1 to 100. But Fiorina never wasted your time. And she, virtually alone in the pack of presidential contenders, never evaded a question by proclaiming that the American people don’t care about that; what they care about is blah, blah, blah. She was likable, and I liked her.

She was actually, on occasion, informative. She said things that conveyed knowledge that I, at least, hadn’t possessed before.

In any context except that of an American political campaign, none of the other candidates would be regarded as even a tolerable public speaker. Most of them would be considered sickening bores, heartless charlatans, or dangerous lunatics. In that sad context, however, they can still be ranked as better or worse.

Marco Rubio is a case in point. Chris Christie, in the best rhetorical moment of his own campaign, told Rubio that he was onto him: Rubio had a thing that he said all the time, something about Obama trying to make America into a European socialist country; and while that happened to be true, Rubio said it on every occasion, in answer to every question, and that was going too far. Christie noticed it, and made an issue of it in debate with Rubio, and his comments had a devastating effect on Rubio’s campaign. Rubio actually apologized to his supporters for screwing up so badly. In my opinion, Christie’s reproof of Rubio was the verbal high point of the campaign, so far.

But notice the difference between Christie and Rubio. Christie is great in dealing with hecklers, and in giving sharp answers to the kind of inside-the-beltway questions that turn other candidates into bores. Beyond that, he’s a bore himself. He could not manage to argue for own candidacy. But Rubio, who was on the losing side in his exchange with Christie, is actually a pretty good public speaker. Most of his time is occupied with denouncing Obama, which is easy to do, but he manages to do it without the overt ranting that is one of Ted Cruz’s besetting sins (about which more, below). Rubio’s “uh” count is low, and although he seldom has anything informative to say, he’s fluent and well organized and occasionally puts a little vibration in his voice that passes for inspiration.

In any context except that of an American political campaign, none of the other candidates would be regarded as even a tolerable public speaker.

On February 8, two days after his disastrous exchange with Christie, Megyn Kelly interviewed Rubio on Fox News and tested him by popping a quick series of questions about niche issues: should kids be legally required to get vaccinations? should “racist” Hallowe’en costumes be outlawed? etc. Rubio replied to all her queries rapidly and incisively, without the hedging to which most candidates resort when they don’t want a minor issue to make them the victims of pressure-group mayhem.

Ben Carson was an unusual candidate and an unusual speaker. I enjoyed his understated manner. He was too slow, but with him slowness suggested thoughtfulness, not lack of substance. His tendency to generalize was unfortunate, because it associated him with professional politicians and other people who seldom have anything specific to say. Carson did know what he was talking about, most of it, until he got involved with foreign policy — which was too bad, because his lack of knowledge in that field implied (I think falsely) that he didn’t know much about other fields, either.

My lack of bias in this assessment of speaking skills is demonstrated by my placement of Jeb Bush, whose nepotistic sense of entitlement I very much disliked, in the ranks of the Better speakers, with Rubio at the top of the Betters, Carson someplace in the middle, and Bush at the still-honorable bottom. Despite the mean things that Donald Trump kept saying about him, Bush was not notably lacking in energy or enthusiasm (as I certainly would have been if I had spent every waking hour of the past few years indulging a greed for public office). His tone was too even to inspire or surprise, and his constant references to various obscure and uninteresting successes in “running” Florida gave him the gravitas of a lead pipe. Nevertheless, he was a reasonably coherent speaker and much more circumspect in diction than the majority of his opponents. I say this despite his many obnoxious statements about “growing” things that cannot be “grown,” such as the economy.

Bush’s real problem wasn’t his lack of enthusiasm for the race but his audience’s lack of enthusiasm for his politics. His salient proposals, examined either singly or together, attracted no one except the crony capitalists and RINOs and Chamber of Commerce types. Whenever Jeb said anything, he was reasonably suspected of relaying the doubletalk of those core supporters, and of his brother — a language in which “immigration reform” means “open borders,” “I don’t believe in nation-building” means “I do believe in nation-building,” and so on. For normal listeners, that was not a source of enthusiasm.

As politicians go, however, Jeb did a much better than average job. There’s something to be said for the quality that ancient rhetorical theorists would call his ethos, the character he projected. I can hardly think of anything more demoralizing than to be regarded as my party’s inevitable nominee, and be backed by maybe a hundred million dollars in contributions and pledges, and then fall into the swamp, and stay there. Yet Jeb maintained to the end the same ethos, dull but sturdy, with which he began. Even Dr. Carson finally yielded to the temptation of public bitterness, as he found himself sinking in the polls. But Jeb did not. That was the best thing about him.

Jeb Bush’s real problem wasn’t his lack of enthusiasm for the race but his audience’s lack of enthusiasm for his politics.

Exchanging, now, the Better for the Worse, we come to Ted Cruz. Cruz is a trained debater. If you read his speeches, he often comes across as a clever verbal strategist. But when you hear him deliver them, the effect is different. He is nasal, uncomfortably gestural, and full of the little pauses that say, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. This is going to be one of my best statements.”

He has been criticized — indeed, portrayed as weird — for using the Bible, even when, in celebration of his victory in Iowa, he turned to Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” That verse, familiar to most Christians, and cited with considerable effect not just by Cruz but by such people as Gene Debs, the socialist leader, struck media commentators with astonishment. What was the guy saying? Was that the Bible? How can we find out? Well, there are such things as Bible concordances, scores of which you can find online, if you know the word “concordance.” But we shouldn’t suppose that the educators of the populace will themselves be educated people. The problem for me was that Cruz’s Iowa victory speech, like many of his other efforts, was mercilessly long and frothy, indicating nothing so much as a delight in hearing himself talk — a problem that can only grow worse, should his electoral success, such as it is, continue. Another bad, bad tendency is pandering to his audience, not once but over and over again. The occasional Bible verse is one thing, but his evangelical buzzwords are another. Even the evangelicals must be bored by them.

I’m tiptoeing toward the Worst.

I am not the only person who’s said it, but the political success of Bernie Sanders is almost entirely attributable to the fact that he is not Hillary Clinton. The claim has been made that he’s buoyed by his own ethos (if an ethos can keep you from drowning, which it usually can’t). But ask yourself: if he were your neighbor, would you like or respect him? Sure, he’s sincere, in the sense that he believes the nonsense he spouts, but must we assume that every crank or crackpot is sincere? That’s the question H.L. Mencken asked about William Jennings Bryan, and his answer was No. The idea is that if you have cancer, and I offer to cure it by having you place your hands on your television and chant, “I am the 99%,” the concept of sincerity does not apply. If you sincerely want to cure cancer, why don’t you become a physician? Why don’t you read a book? As Mencken said, “This talk of sincerity, I confess, fatigues me.”

Cruz is nasal, uncomfortably gestural, and full of the little pauses that say, “Get ready for it. Here it comes. This is going to be one of my best statements.”

Sanders cares too much to read a book. And his is not a passive but an aggressive ignorance. His speeches are nothing but rants. You realize that when you hear his words, but the awful thing is that you get the same impression when you turn down the volume and just look at him. He is the male equivalent of the Witch of the West. A person who looks like that when he talks, or yells, can hardly be said to have a persuasive ethos. And when, with reluctant hand, you turn the volume back up, you get the full horror of Bernie Sanders. The words are idiotic. That whole business about one-tenth of one percent owning 90% of the nation’s wealth . . . You’d have to redefine 20 common terms in 20 peculiar ways in order to get to that figure, and even then, I don’t see how you could. No, it’s crap, and it’s obvious crap, and nobody with an ounce of integrity would spout it.

But there’s a Worst of the Worst, and everyone knows who it is. It’s Mrs. Clinton. A delight to all opinion journalists, she is the person about whom nothing is too bad to say. Even among people who intend to vote for her there is almost universal loathing of her public performance and private character. Of all serious presidential candidates in American history, she is undoubtedly the most repellent. No list of adjectives can exhaust her repulsive qualities, and one of the most repulsive is that the people who support her know it and feel it themselves. A person who can command a leading campaign under these circumstances does indeed have something going for her, but it has nothing to do with the old categories of ethos, pathos, and logos.It has to do with the fact that she is a pathetic fool, hopelessly twisted by her lust for money and power, and therefore irresistibly attractive to wealthy people of similar character.

Well, but what happened to Donald Trump? What shall we think of him?

This is a problem. What kind of public speaker is Donald Trump? As I said in last month’s column, he’s a person who blurts out his message, whatever it is, in slogans and fragments of observations and whoops of glee (“We’re gonna win so much, and you’re gonna be so happy . . . !”). None of this leaves much room for literary analysis. He is not Daniel Webster. And he is not “presidential” in any normal sense. John Kasich — whom I haven’t discussed in this column, because he is far too dull — was correct in suggesting that Trump lacks the ethos of a president. But his candidacy demonstrates, for good or ill, that you can become president without that ethos. So he, too, must have something.

The political success of Bernie Sanders is almost entirely attributable to the fact that he is not Hillary Clinton.

Look — If I tell you that Franklin Roosevelt had persuasive charm, are you going to attack me for favoring the New Deal? I don’t favor the New Deal, and the New Deal has little to do with an assessment of Roosevelt’s rhetorical techniques. Please apply the same logic to what I say about Trump. My assessment of Trump’s rhetoric is that it’s done a lot of harm and a lot of good. The harm is that it’s narrowed the gap between competition for the world’s most potent office and the kind of thing one reads in entertainment magazines. When Trump talks about political issues, he does it in the style of a Hollywood columnist, full of breezy anecdotes, flashy claims, and satirical remarks.

That’s the bad part. The good part is . . . well, you’d have to possess a heart of stone not to enjoy the satirical remarks. But the really good part is that he has broken the bonds of media correctness.

When Trump began his campaign, you were not supposed to say that Bill Clinton is a bad man, and that his wife has been his enabler. You were not supposed to say that there are millions of people in this country illegally, and that their presence depresses wages for people who are in the country legally. You were not supposed to say of any candidate for the presidency that he is lifeless and weak. You were not supposed to say that an unpopular foreign leader is someone we need to come to terms with. Now, whether such things are true or not, they are on the minds of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, and they should be spoken about, so they can be debated. What kind of political process is it that forbids such obvious topics from being introduced? It’s a corrupt political process, a process in which every type of social pressure is exerted against the expression of unpopular ideas and even of popular ones.

This is new, and terrible. But Trump successfully defied the ban. He showed that he just didn’t care what the managers of public discourse thought about him. He didn’t care that they wanted to shame him and shut him up. He just went on saying things — many of them goofy or tasteless or just plain wrong — and it soon became evident that the other candidates and their managers and the pressure groups who support them and the analysts and the academics and the would-be censors weren’t smart enough to know how to answer him. This general unmasking has to be good for the country, and perhaps for the world.

Every victory for Trump that I can think of has not been a victory so much for his specific ideas as for his refusal to be shut up.

If there is a sacred cow on this planet, it’s the pope. Heaven forbid you should say something against the Pope o’ Rome, especially such a wonderful, sympathetic, warmhearted man of the people as the current wearer of the triple crown. But the problem with prelates is that they always want to intervene in politics. That’s what Pope Francis spends a lot of his time doing, and that’s what he did when he called Trump “unchristian” because he wants to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States. The pope denounced him for wanting to build walls rather than bridges — and you’d have to look a long way before finding a more inane comment, unless you looked through some of the pope’s other statements. Trump immediately blasted back, and the pope sent out a public relations man to say that Francis didn’t really mean Trump, and didn’t really mean to intervene in politics . . . “This wasn’t, in any way, a personal attack or an indication on who to vote for [sic]. The Pope has clearly said he didn’t want to get involved in the electoral campaign in the US and also said that he said what he said on the basis of what he was told [about Trump], hence giving him the benefit of the doubt.”In short, the Vatican could come up with nothing better than an obvious lie, soaked in obvious bilge. It was another victory for Trump.

In fact, every victory for Trump that I can think of has not been a victory so much for his specific ideas as for his refusal to be shut up. He has shown that if you don’t pretend to respect people and opinions that you do not, indeed, respect, you can keep on talking, and you may also find yourself winning friends and influencing people. Does that mean that Trump’s talk is any good? Certainly not. But I would like to live in a world in which I am free to criticize the pope, or to call Hillary Clinton an enabler of vice. That doesn’t seem too much to ask.

To tell you the truth, however, what I really want to do is to stop talking about any of the candidates. I probably won’t get my wish. But I did think it was my duty to say something about them now, before people forget who most of them were.




Share This


The Good Side of Jonathan Gruber

 | 

News! News as you’ve heard it, 300 times a day, on your favorite radio or TV station: “My Pillow [a kind of, guess what? pillow] is the official pillow of the National Sleep Foundation!” http://www.mypillow.com/

Alas, I am not certain that this announcement achieves its desired effect. Nor am I certain — for similar reasons — that the information one finds in the Wikipedia entry for Jonathan Gruber achieves the effect he wanted.

Gruber, as you already knew, is the man who this month became famous for bragging about the methods by which he and other sponsors of Obamacare fooled the “stupid” American people. We’ve now heard a lot about Jonathan Gruber. In fact, there’s too much Gruber to keep up with — especially in the form of videos that keep surfacing every day, each with its own grinning image of Gruber explaining how he schemed to mislead us all.

What can you say that’s good about a man who considers “rip off” a favorable term?

(By the way, who are the people who hoarded videos of this ugly man and then decided to release them now? Who would want to record a lecture by Jonathan Gruber, a man whose personality most closely resembles a load of wet gravel smacking into your windshield? Maybe he grated so much on the people he thought were laughing along with him that a few of them decided to bide their time and pay him back.)

I could choose many examples of Gruber’s style, but I’ll limit myself to one. It’s from a CBS report (Nov. 21):

“And the only way we could take it on [by “it” he means Obamacare] was first by mislabeling it, calling it a tax on insurance plans rather than a tax on people, when we all know it’s a tax on people who hold those insurance plans,” he explained.

In 2012, Gruber described how former Sen. Ted Kennedy ripped off the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars to craft a universal health bill for Massachusetts.

“The dirty secret in Massachusetts is the feds paid for our bill, okay, in Massachusetts,” Gruber said in the recording obtained by CBS News. “Ted Kennedy and the smart people in Massachusetts basically figured out a way to rip off the feds for about $400 million a year.”

Now, what can you say that’s good about a man who considers rip off a favorable term? Well, if you’re Gruber, you can think of plenty of good things to say about yourself, and some of them have landed on Wikipedia. I assume that Gruber’s Wiki page was written mainly by him, except for the “Controversies” part at the end. That’s the usual way with hacks like Gruber. I picture him hunkering down with a list of his supposed accomplishments and checking each of them off as he feeds it into the Net. This is the result:

In 2006, Gruber received the American Society of Health Economists Inaugural Medal for the best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under. He was elected a member of the Institute of Medicine in 2005. In 2009 he was elected to the Executive Committee of the American Economic Association.

In 2011 he was named “One of the Top 25 Most Innovative and Practical Thinkers of Our Time” by Slate Magazine. In both 2006 and 2012 he was rated as one of the top 100 most powerful people in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare Magazine.

It tickles me to imagine a roomful of “professionals” sitting around thinking about whom to name as the “best health economist in the nation aged 40 and under.” Were birth certificates required? Was Gruber’s “medal” supposed to stimulate the other kids in the class to work as hard as he did?

Even funnier is the idea of grown people (or was it interns?) scouring the internet to generate a list of the “most innovative and practical thinkers of our time” (“yes, she’s innovative — but is she practical?”), then devoting all their powers of analysis to knocking the list down to 25. Or did they start with five (of which one was their boss), and work like hell to bring it up to 25? Probably the latter — that’s how Gruber would have gotten in. It’s hard for me to believe that powerful is an appropriate adjective for people in health care, but maybe that’s because I think of healthcare as a field in which you help others, not push them around. An old-fashioned idea, no doubt. But coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence. And feeling proud to be on that list? It’s all rather hard to understand.

But the funniest part of Gruber’s canned biography is a sentence recording the fact that in 2006, “he was named the 19th most powerful person in health care in the United States by Modern Healthcare magazine.” It’s one thing to spend your time getting 25practical thinkers or 100 powerful people into the corral; but to rank the cows in the exact order of their potency — that would truly be an absorbing occupation; that would truly be something for the hired hands to puzzle over. “Nope, Chuck — reckon yer wrong. Bossy, thar, she ain’t quite so powuhfull as ol’ Thundercud, though mebbe she’s jest a leetle more powuhfull than Fatty Pie genrully is.”

Coming up with a list of 100 of these people-pushers? Even Olympus didn’t have 100 gods in residence.

Must have been hard to decide. But the existence of these bizarre competitions does throw some light on the video performances that made Mr. Gruber famous. When he bragged about fooling the voters, he was behaving as the 19th most powerful person in healthcare, and evidently enjoying the role; but when he explained how to rip the voters off, he was competing strongly to be named the 18th most obnoxious person in healthcare.

Ambition is a good thing. Yet Gruber’s powers as a rhetorician will, I am afraid, never get him even to 500th place in a contest for the most eloquent person in healthcare — over, under, or around the age of 40. When the performances by which he appears to have pleased some, if not all, his fellow experts were witnessed by a more numerous but less impressionable audience, and his act was discovered to be (if I may paraphrase Irving Berlin) a turkey that you’d know would fold, he found no better way to placate outraged viewers than to murmur: “The comments in the video were made at an academic conference. I was speaking off the cuff and I basically spoke inappropriately and I regret having made those comments.”

One secret of public speaking is not to shoot yourself in the head. If you intend to avoid doing that, you should know — especially if you are a brainy college professor — that a good way of aiming for your head is to say things that will lead almost any audience to think of devastating questions, such as:

Aren’t academics paid to engage in the objective, disinterested search for truth? So if you’re willing to go before an academic audience and brag about misleading the people, what would you say in front of a political audience? If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious? When you say you were speaking inappropriately, do you mean that what you said was wrong? If so, was it wrong in the sense of not being true, or wrong in the sense of turning out to be embarrassing? What do you mean by inappropriately — inappropriate to what?

Obvious questions, easily anticipated. And to answer most of them would probably get you in even deeper trouble than you were in before. Gruber hasn’t answered them. But he doesn’t need to, because the national audience he must have longed for all his life has already found the answers, without his help.

Such is the ignorance and illiteracy of our leaders that until now, Gruber’s sub-500th-rate rhetorical skills have not limited his political influence. According to Wikipedia,

In 2009–10 Gruber served as a technical consultant to the Obama Administration and worked with both the administration and Congress to help craft the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, often referred to as the ACA or “Obamacare.” The act was signed into law in March 2010, and Gruber has been described as an “architect”, “writer”, and “consultant” of the legislation. He was widely interviewed and quoted during the roll-out of the legislation.

Both Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi expressed their respect for Gruber’s talents. Today, however, Obama is dismissing Gruber as someone who never worked for him, and Pelosi is commenting in an even more dismissive way:

Mr. Gruber's comments were a year old, and he has backtracked from most of them. You didn't have it in your narrative. That's really important. He is not even advocating the position that he was at some conference and some said. So I don't know who he is. He didn't help write our bill. With all due respect to your question, you have a person who wasn't writing our bill, commenting on what was happening when we were writing our bill, who has withdrawn some of the statements.

If you want to check that quotation, it’s from an article by David Weigel at BloombergPolitics, Nov. 14. No matter how hard it is to understand, those are the words Pelosi used. Her employment of “so” is really a puzzler. Does the House minority leader mean to say that because Gruber allegedly “backtracked,” and because “Gruber’s comments were a year old” (were also presents a difficulty: how old are they now?), and because “some said” (what did they say?), she doesn’t “know who he is”? In 1984, unsuccessful politicians became unpersons. In Pelosi’s universe of discourse, they become “Mr. Gruber,” who is “a person,” which sounds even worse than an unperson, somehow.

If this is the sort of thing you say when you’re speaking off the cuff, what would you say if you were trying to be devious?

Fox News sent one of its guys, David Webb, to lie in wait for Gruber and ask him if he had really backtracked on the idea that “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. . . . Call it the stupidity of the American people or whatever.” This was their exchange:

David Webb: “Professor, do you think the American people are stupid?”
MIT Professor Gruber: “No comment.”

Gruber has realized that there are certain occasions on which even a genius like him should shut his mouth. If he continues this clever strategy, he has a chance of becoming the 499th most powerful rhetorician among healthcare hacks. And the rest of us will hear less of the word inappropriate.

So much for Professor Gruber. Inspired by the political season of 2014, which has been coextensive with calendar year 2014, I’ve put together a list of terms that, like inappropriate, should take a long vacation from the American vocabulary:

  • Americans are tired of gridlock in Washington: I’m not tired of gridlock, and I bet you aren’t either. If Americans were offered a choice between having Congress and the president agree on new laws, or having them caught in a literal gridlock from which their chauffeured vehicles could not escape, my prediction is that 90 percent would choose the latter.
  • Bucket (“bucket of proposals,” “bucket of states that Hillary might carry in 2016,” to say nothing of “bucket list” — things you want to do before you kick the bucket): How vulgar can you get?
  • Double down: Once is enough.
  • Fighting for the middle class(“We’re going to continue fighting for the middle class” — Harry Reid): Starting with George Soros.
  • Income disparity: A term used by people who want everyone to be paid $15 an hour, and no more.
  • Pivot(“The president pivoted to foreign policy”): What do you think of people who are always changing the subject?
  • Shellacking (“The president took a real shellacking in the November election”): That is to say, the president was varnished with a purified lac dissolved in denatured alcohol. Slang should be more descriptive.
  • The people want us to work together, the people just want us to get things done, etc.: Propaganda slogans used by Democrats to get Republicans to concede to them.
  • Vote suppression: Keeping the other party’s voters from voting twice.
  • We are a nation of immigrants: Is that supposed to be an argument?
  • What this election is really about: Whatever your talking points are.

I am considering additions to this list, and I would appreciate readers’ contributions. One of my own candidates is unacceptable, a useful word but perhaps, like red states and blue states, a little too useful for its own good. This month, the people who run Obamacare discovered — actually, their critics discovered — that they had misestimated, by a mere 400,000, the number of people who signed up for the program. And guess which way they misestimated? Right! They overestimated. According to Reuters, the administration’s flack-catcher on this issue, a haggard person named Sylvia Burwell, responded as follows (on Twitter, naturally): "The mistake we made is unacceptable. I will be communicating that clearly throughout the [department]."

Well! That’s telling ‘em. They’ll never do thatagain. It’s unacceptable.




Share This


Aping the English Language

 | 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




Share This


That Instructive Tone

 | 

Many years ago, when I was a kid libertarian emerging from the swamps of the New Left, one of my friends, a student of sociology, told me something he had learned in class: among its other functions, government is a means of supplying information.

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “like when they put up a traffic light. It tells you when to stop and go.”

I was too young to be paying any perceptible amount of money in taxes, so I didn’t think, “So this is why we need a government that spends as much every year as Europe did between AD 100 and AD 1960 — so it can throw that little switch on the traffic light?” But I did think, “Gosh, that’s banal.”

They are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide.

Since that time, unfortunately, government has become ever more intent on fulfilling the vital function of supplying information. Its attempts to do so are not limited to “merge,” “no left turn,” “pay your taxes by April 15 (or we are sending you to prison).” In my state, you can hardly eat a meal without being informed, someplace on the menu, that eggs and chickens need to be cooked at such and such a temperature. You can hardly pick up a package of anything without seeing a sign that says:

WARNING: This product contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm.

You can hardly enter an apartment house without seeing an even more disturbing sign:

WARNING: This Area Contains a Chemical Known to the State of California to Cause Birth Defects or Other Reproductive Harm.

A second or two after grabbing their genitals, most Californians recall that this information is without any merit or interest. Every property in the world includes some substance, some chemical, that might conceivably prevent you from reproducing. Eat enough dirt, and you will never reproduce again.

But lately the “information” conveyed by government has assumed a somewhat more lethal form — lethal to mental health, at any rate. President Obama’s comments are almost all of this nature; and the problem has gotten worse as Obama has moved from Partisan Manipulation and Just Plain Lies to the still deadlier genre of Words for the Ages. Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

As for the people who thought those speeches had information to supply, they are either godlike geniuses, capable of projecting complex meaning where it does not exist; or they are a passive and accepting folk, most closely resembling cows. You decide. I’m sure we can agree, however, on the idea that with such encouragement from the top, Obama’s subordinates are very likely to optimize their own potential for banality.

Even his diehard followers are reported to be mystified by a new discovery: Obama’s speeches have no content! They never did! Go back and read them.

Governmental banality manifested itself in virtually Platonic form in remarks delivered on June 11 by Charles Timothy (Chuck) Hagel, former senator, former banker, former head of a cellphone company, former organizer for the Reagan campaign, former official of the Veterans Administration, former lobbyist for a tire company, and current Secretary of Defense. The occasion of his remarks was an investigation conducted by the House Armed Services Committee into the release of Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who walked away from his post in a combat zone in Afghanistan, was captured by the enemy, and was ransomed at considerable expense by the Obama administration.

Hagel said:

Wars are messy, and they’re full of imperfect choices. . . .You know there’s always suffering through war. There’s no glory in war. War is always about human beings. It’s not about machines. War is a dirty business. And we don’t like to deal with those realities. But realities, they are. And we must deal with them. . . . . . War, every part of war, like prisoner exchanges, is not some abstraction or theoretical exercise. The hard choices and options don’t fit neatly into clearly defined instructions in how-to manuals. All of these decisions are part of the brutal, imperfect realities we all deal with in war.

Now, would anybody ever guess that this man had come to Congress to talk about Bowe Bergdahl?

Of course, it’s hard to talk about something you know absolutely nothing about. Hagel’s comments, on this and other occasions, indicated that he had no idea whether Bergdahl was a deserter or if other soldiers had lost their lives looking for him or if the five Taliban honchos who were released in exchange for him were really important or not. But as Secretary of Defense, he had to talk about something, so he talked about the eternal truths. If someone produces The Wit and Wisdom of Chuck Hagel, these wise observations will need to be included:

Wars are messy.

There’s always suffering through [sic] war.

War is not some abstraction.

War is always about human beings.

War is a dirty business.

And just to keep the troops happy:

There’s no glory in war.

What is the listener supposed to deduce from this string of truisms? Don’t go to war? If you go to war, make sure to obliterate your enemies? All’s fair in a dirty game? What goes around comes around? War is an existential tragedy, best understood by curling up with a Camus novel? War isn’t half so pleasant as a successful career in Washington? Pass me the gin bottle?

Here we have a traffic light that’s blinking red, green, and yellow, all at once. But Hagel’s demeanor insisted that you had to respect any information he supplied. When anyone expressed a hint of skepticism, the Secretary of Defense was miffed.

Watching Hagel’s testimony, I was reminded that Leland Yeager had alerted me to the existence of another exponent of government as information, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy. And Yeager was right, although McCarthy turns out to have a very different style from Hagel’s. Hagel (age 67) plays the part of the wise but grumpy old grandfather; he reacts to criticism by twisting around with an expression on his face that suggests his hearing aid is missing and he knows that the questioner has stolen it. By contrast, McCarthy (age 60) is young and hip. At least she thinks she is.

In a long, long speech delivered on June 2, McCarthy puffed something called the Clean Power Plan. In case you hadn’t guessed, this monstrosity has to do with governmental “shaping” and “crafting” of large but impenetrably vague “solutions” to such nonproblems as global warming.

Remember global warming? The idea that people are heating up the globe, or planet? Yes, that’s what we used to hear. But since the expected warming doesn’t seem to be going on, people concerned with the purported emergency have changed their name for it. What government is now supposed to prevent is climate change, climate inaction, or, if you’re really hip, just climate. Those are the words that McCarthy uses in her speech; never once does anything so frank as warming appear. But she is hip, or cunning, enough to realize that some people in her audience know, or have heard somewhere, that there’s been a lot of actual cooling going on. How can she handle that? She handles it by indicating she’s so far ahead of the game that she’s plumb tired of watching it. After all, her sole purpose is to win. So whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we? I mean, sometimes the electricity goes off!

If anything, what threatens reliability and causes blackouts is devastating extreme weather fueled by climate change. I’m tired of people pointing to the Polar Vortex as a reason not to act on climate. It’s exactly the opposite. Climate change heightens risks from extreme cold that freezes power grids, superstorms that drown power plants, and heat waves that stress power supplies. And it turns out, efficiency upgrades that slow climate change actually help cities insulate against blackouts.

The solution, of course, is a set of nationwide government interventions, entailing many billions in losses for companies and consumers.

But what strikes me is the tone. It’s the tone of a tenured sage who is tired of people with their petty questions and objections. If that’s the way they are, they’re not worth talking to — even though they’re paying her salary.

Remember, this woman hasn’t even been elected to her exalted position. And she isn’t a person who has won repute by offering the public some goods that it wants to buy. She’s just a government employee. But here she is, talking to people who have either been elected by the public or whose business has been favored in some kind of marketplace, and acting as if it’s her role to give awards at the kindergarten graduation:

I want to give a shout out to all the local officials, rural co-ops, public power operators, and investor owned utilities leading on climate change: It’s clear that you act not just because it’s reasonable, but because it's the right thing to do for the people you serve. Governors and mayors of all stripes are leaning into climate action. They see it not as a partisan obstacle, but as a powerful opportunity. And we know that success breeds success. Those of us who’ve worked in state and local government have seen healthy competition push states to share ideas and expertise. That’s when everybody wins.

If McCarthy actually were a teacher, I would advise her, first, to drop the attempt at pretending to be hip and cool. If you’re not young, you ought to know enough not to do that. But this is a teacher so unwise as to think that somebody’s going to like her to death because she uses expressions like shout out, lean into, and, elsewhere in her rambling, boring, repetitive speech, all about (“This plan is all about flexibility”), a win (“efficiency is a win”), think about it like this, calling our number (“Now, climate change is calling our number”), etc. It must be admitted that there are some signs of authenticity in McCarthy’s youthful patter: she resembles many young people in never having mastered English grammar and syntax. In company with her boss, President Obama, she has not yet learned the “like-as” distinction — and that’s just one example of a grammatical notion she’s never leaned into.

Whether the climate is cold or hot — whatever. It makes no difference. We still have weather problems, don’t we?

Second, I would advise her that one establishes one’s credentials to instruct others by recognizing and avoiding clichés, and not by running after them as if they were one’s heart’s desire. How else could she give us the right thing to do, of all stripes, success breeds success, and everybody wins within the space of five lines? In other passages we get in the driver’s seat, shifts the conversation, proven path,skeptics who will cry the sky is falling (actually, a skeptic would doubt that the sky is falling, but if you’ve collected a lot of clichés, you may as well butcher some), competitive edge, think of our children, cried wolf, bottom line, doomsday predictions that never came true (another odd choice for a person who spends her time warning about apocalyptic climate stuff),and my favorite pair of bromides, “Corporate climate action is not bells and whistles — it’s all hands on deck.”

That, like the earlier list, is selective. In the space available to me, I can’t do justice to McCarthy’s clichés. But go ahead — read the speech. I dare you. I gave you the link.

In the meantime, I ask you: Is she truly exercising the function of government to supply information? What she supplies is attitude, and a very bad attitude indeed. Bad ’tude, dude. No adult should talk to other adults in this way. In fact, no one should talk to anyone in this way. Although both the tone and the total absence of thought will be familiar to all who remember their high school assemblies, that precedent doesn’t make any of this a good, or even a decent, model for discourse of any kind, including high school assemblies.

But here, as bad speakers like to say, I’m reminded of a joke. Once there were two people who were very religious. They went to church all the time; they gave money; they never missed a vigil or a potluck dinner; with them it was all hands on deck. I’ll call this couple Adam and Steve. One Sunday Adam was sick, but he wanted to find out what the new priest had to say that morning, so he sent Steve along to church with instructions to report back to him. So Steve went and returned, and on his return he said, “Do you want the bad news first, or the good news?”

Adam gulped. “I guess,” he replied, “I’d better hear the bad news first.”

So Steve said, “Well, the priest got into the pulpit, and he preached nothing but heresy!”

“Oh my God!” Adam exclaimed. “After that, what could the good news be?”

“The good news,” Steve said, “is that nobody was listening.”

I would place bets on how many people, if any, read that speech by Ms. McCarthy, or, if present, listened to it. I fear that Leland Yeager and I may be her only attentive audience. And Obama’s sermons are just as eagerly followed.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2019 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.