Presidential Punctuation

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O Tempora! O Bama!

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For anyone who enjoys linguistic spectacle, who savors both the triumphs and the flops of the American language, there is just too much to savor in the political carnival now going on. You’re reduced to picking a few favorites — but there are so many to pick from.

For a while my favorite performance was the testimony, if you want to call it that, of Kathleen Sebelius, God’s gift to satirists, who on October 30 told a congressional committee investigating the zany antics of the Obamacare website, “Today, more individuals are successfully creating accounts, logging in, and moving on to apply for coverage and shop for plans. We are pleased with these quick improvements, but we know there is still significant, additional work to be done. We continue to conduct regular maintenance nearly every night to improve the consumer experience.”

That was her way of describing the worst disaster in the history of computation. Unluckily for her, the website crashed (for the thousandth time) during the hour of her testimony, a testimony in which she said, “The website has never crashed. It is functional but at a very slow speed and very low reliability.”

 I thought that was hard to beat, but then I discovered Marilyn Tavenner, administrator of something called the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (Everything is a “center” these days, and every center has as many “services” as confidence men have “angles.” Pretty much the same angles, too.) On November 5, Tavenner let Congress know what her center is doing about people whose insurance plans have been swept away by Obamacare: “This is actually a conversation we're having today. . . . Is there a way we can actively engage to reach out to people who have been canceled?" 

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage.

 Rome burned while Nero conversed. “Conversations,” thoughts of “engagement,” and questions about whether there are ways to “reach out” (“actively,” not passively) are good means of wasting time if you’re chairman of the country club greens committee, or if you’re a highly paid bureaucrat who finds that she has nothing to say for herself when the public finally discovers her existence. I’m not sure they do much for “people who have been canceled.” As the Beatles might have sung, “Oh, look at all the canceled people.” 

 Tavenner looked like a winner — until I encountered US Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC). On November 12, Hagan panicked and called a press conference to rescue herself from the Obamacare wreckage (she’s up for reelection next year). Someone asked her to comment on the miserably small number of people signing up for Obamacare. According to Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, this is what ensued: 

“You know,” she replied. “I know the — I believe this coming Friday, those numbers are going to be published and uh, you know, as soon as I see them, you know, obviously it’s, it’s m-much fewer than the administration expected.”

A reporter from the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record asked why Hagan, like President Obama, had told people that if they liked their health plans they’d be able to keep their health plans.

There was a long pause before Hagan responded, then a deep intake of breath. “You know, Doug,” she responded, “the, um” — here she exhaled and paused again — “the way these, the — the regulations and the law, uh” — pause — “came forward recently, I think people were surprised that the, uh, the — the actual original plans would be, um, would be canceled.”

You may say that all politicians would sound like that, if the statements they made were accurately reproduced; and if so, you’d be close to right. Deprived of his teleprompters, President Obama says “uh” about 20 times a minute, up to 40 when he’s agitated (these subverbal attempts to communicate are tactfully omitted from the reported versions). And of course President Obama, and Rep. Boehner, and former Gov. Palin (shall I go on?) often have no more meaning in their utterances than poor Sen. Hagan.

But we mustn’t judge rhetorical effectiveness simply by the content of a politician’s remarks, or noise. It’s charm that counts, and our politicians have little or none of that quality. The “uhs” contribute to the effect, but even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff. Nor would it turn President Obama into a charming character.

Whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure.

For some, certainly, Obama has “charisma,” but of charm he is completely destitute. He comes across as a phony and a blowhard, and it’s hard not to see a wide vein of meanness and chronic anger beneath the high-school-principal intonations. When he’s not looking at his teleprompter — when he’s supposed to be conversing with an actual human being — he’s usually gazing fixedly at a point about 12 inches in front of his chest, as if he were studying an invisible set of instructions for dealing with the underclass. This is the antithesis of charm. It’s the kind of thing one expects from bank examiners, experts on epistemology, and actors emerging from a heavy course of anger therapy. Sen. Hagan, by contrast, manifests herself as a hapless innocent, as someone so childish that she calls a press conference to display her knowledge — of a subject she knows nothing about. She’s like a little girl who begs to show everyone how well she can play the piano, without ever realizing that you can’t play a tune without learning the notes. But isn’t it cute, the way she’s trying? Less cute is President Obama.

There are four types of rhetoric in which he habitually indulges, and none of them is even mildly amusing, let alone endearing:

1. The “soaring” mode that even his supporters now derisively call “the hopey-changey thing.”

2. The false-plebeian style that he uses in exact proportion to his slippage in the polls. This style, or pretense at style, consists largely of dropping final g’s, saying “a whole buncha” instead of a number, and referring constantly to “folks.” In that speech he gave at Boston, the one in which he tried to save his lie about Obamacare by claiming he had always told people “you can keep your insurance . . . if,” he said of his failed healthcare scheme, “We’re just gonna keep workin’ at it. We’re gonna grind it out.” That might be charming if the accent weren’t so obviously faked, if “grind it out” meant anything under the circumstances, and if he (“we”) were actually doing any work, as opposed to golf.

3. The paranoid style, in which he unmasks the monstrous forces scheming against his official program, the “some people” who “don’t want it to succeed” and therefore, magically, keep it from succeeding. Evidence? Most of them voted against it!

4. The cold, haughty, you’re-so-dumb-you’ll-just-have-to-believe-this, lie-flinging mode. “I was not informed directly that the website would not be working, as [sic] the way it was supposed to,” he said on November 14. Wait. What do you mean? Do you mean that you didn’t know? That nobody ever told you? No, they didn’t. They didn’t tell me directly. Now go away.

Of course, when people insert “directly” into a sentence like that, you know they’re trying to deceive someone. You also know that the someone is not going to be you; almost anybody (most certainly including you) can catch on to the fact that “directly” means “I hope to fool you.” Indeed, the trick is so obvious that only a fool would use it. Obama himself has recognized that people might possibly think he’s a fool — and by recognizing the possibility, he has tried to eliminate it. “You know,” he said on November 14, “I’m accused of a lot of things [there’s that paranoid style again] but I don’t think I’m stupid enough to go around saying this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity a week before the website opens if I thought that it wasn’t going to work.” But either he is stupid enough to keep telling obvious lies or he is stupid enough not to insist on being informed directly about the stuff he seems to be lying about. Take your pick; either way, he’s stupid enough.

The mystery to me is why people ever thought there was any force or meaning in Obama’s verbiage. At its best, it was just the same awful guff that politicians are always dishing out. In his second inaugural address, where he might have been expected to be on his best behavior, he made such sparkling utterances as:

We have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action. [A fresh thought, that.]

This generation of Americans has been tested by crises that steeled our resolve and proved our resilience. [What happened to changing when the times change?]

My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together. [Damn! And here I was just about to seize it myself. I guess I’ll have to wait for a consensus to emerge.]

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. [Note: not just to some posterity.]

My selection of these idiotic sentiments is as close to random as selection can get; the speech is all like that, although sometimes Obama decides to give you something extra special in the way of metaphor. This attempt always fails. One example may suffice. After quoting the Declaration of Independence, Obama says, “Today we continue a never-ending journey, to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time.” What in the world can those words signify? Picture words, words that have meaning. Now picture bridging that meaning. Huh? Already it makes no sense. But then we’re supposed to picture the bridge as the realities of our time. And this journey to do something with the realities of our time is never-ending? It’s going to last forever? No, it’s all too much for me.

From these heights of metaphor one lands with a thump on the pancake-like flatness of a quickly succeeding passage. This one is about the great discoveries that “we” have made during “our” history: “Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.” Gosh, really? Schools and highways? Glad we determined that requirement.

I have little sympathy with the worldview evoked by President Kennedy’s inaugural address, but it is a work of literature — not great literature, but certainly very respectable. Anyone who, having read that speech, turns to Obama’s reinaugural remarks will be struck by the attempted resemblance. But whatever Obama touches, he disfigures. His speech has as much relation to literature as an advertising brochure. Indeed, it was written for the same purpose. The only literary excellence that Obama ever showed was his curious refusal to speak at Gettysburg on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s speech. There’s just one way to explain it. Obama thought he could top John F. Kennedy, but he feared he couldn’t top Abraham Lincoln, and for once a kind of humility came over him. It’s too bad, because that speech would have offered a lot of entertainment.

Even a total absence of “uhs” couldn’t make Harry Reid look like something other than the troll who wanted to eat the billy goats gruff.

Given the glaring weaknesses of Obama’s prose, it is shocking, almost horrifying, that both his friends and his adversaries keep paying tribute to it. His critics, astonishingly, condemn him for his inability to live up to his rhetoric. Here’s Obama foe Rich Lowry, writing in National Review Online: “The launch of HealthCare.gov should cast a shadow over the stirring passage in the president’s second inaugural address where he spoke of how ‘we must harness new ideas and technology to remake our government.’” Pardon me — harnessideas? Technology to remake our government? This stuff is “stirring”? It’s barely intelligible. Before we harness those ideas, do we have to brush them and feed them and make sure they’re well shod? Is that something Obama neglected to do with his healthcare “ideas”?

The biggest contribution that Obama has made to stirring the linguistic pot has been the license he has given to other people who think it’s cool and smart to enact the role of political used-car salesmen. They don’t understand how funny they are. And the comedy leaks from the op-ed page into the news reports. Consider the following from Reuters (Nov. 19):

The rollout of Obama's signature domestic policy has hurt the popularity of the initiative, but the decline has been fairly modest, a Reuters/Ipsos poll showed on Monday.

Forty-one percent of Americans expressed support for Obamacare in a survey conducted from Thursday to Monday. That was down 3 percentage points from a Reuters/Ipsos poll taken from September 27 to October 1.

Opposition to the healthcare law stood at 59 percent in the latest poll, versus 56 percent in the earlier survey.

In other words, once you’ve fallen down the first 56 steps, the next three are only a modest reduction in altitude. After you’ve passed the landing on the 50th step, it’s hard for anything to do much more damage to your unpopularity. But wouldn’t it be funny if you thought you could talk your way upstairs?




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Shutdown Finishes; Wreckage Remains

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Count Stadion, an Austrian diplomat who participated in the Conference of Chatillon (1814), said of those proceedings: “We are playing a comedy which is interesting only because of its platitudes.”

In 1814, even the platitudes of such people as Castlereagh and Caulaincourt (or better, Metternich and Talleyrand) might be interesting. But I hate to think what Stadion would have said about the discourse inspired by our recent governmental “shutdown.” He would have discerned the comedy, but he could hardly have been interested in the platitudes. And he could hardly have been satisfied just to call them that. A platitude is a trite, banal, or insipid expression. (It comes from a French word, “plat,” appropriately meaning “flat.”) Probably he would have added references to language that is obnoxious, ridiculous, and grossly insulting to the thinking mind.

The realm of intelligent discourse is an island of sanity, washed by hot seas of nonsense. During the 20th century, much of this tiny paradise was lost beneath the watery waste. What was once firm ground became swamps of brackish words and sentences, then delusive verbal quicksand, then eerie depths of linguistic degradation. Remaining is a place like a South Pacific atoll, continually endangered not only by the big storms that arise at sea but also by the smallest, silliest gusts of air — such teapot tempests as the “shutdown.” As a geopolitical event, the affair didn’t amount to much, but when the weather calmed, one saw many parts of the territory where common sense and effective communication had been swept away. In their place, the waves had left the kind of refuse that cannot destroy the mind but can certainly make it wish it were not attached to a sense of smell.

Much of the refuse consisted of mean words and cruel. How many times did Harry Reid proclaim, in his undertaker’s voice, that anything the Republicans passed in the House would be dead on arrival in the Senate? How many times did Republicans point to the military veterans who were prevented by a vengeful National Parks establishment from treading the sacred ground of the World War II memorial and refer to them as people who didn’t have a minute to lose — who were, not to put too fine a point on it, just about to die? Their last journey, their final chance, these soldiers we hold in remembrance, the passing of the greatest generation . . .

(By the way, aren’t you tired of hearing that generation stuff? As if senior citizen — with its implication that just because you’re old you’re “senior” in some moral sense — weren’t bad enough, we’re now told that you’re great, indeed the greatest, just because you got to vote for Roosevelt and be drafted into the army. No, I am not expressing ageism: I don’t think that I deserve any respect or recognition, any plaudits for being hip and pioneering, just because I was part of the baby boom.)

Suddenly the faintest of all virtues, the willingness to give up when you’re forced to do so, became the hallmark of leadership.

Many of the hard words were emitted, curiously, by advocates of compromise. Suddenly the faintest of all virtues, the willingness to give up when you’re forced to do so, became the hallmark of leadership. Often, just as curiously, leadership was said to consist of rigorous obedience, mystic devotion, to something called the law of the land. What this appeared to mean was that once some law, such as the Obamacare enactment, gets passed and signed, no one should try to get rid of it, or even delay its implementation. As in the book of Esther, "If it please the king, let there go a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered." The desire to alter a law was pronounced extremism.

That was a big leap. To get there, one needed not only Law and Order but also the New Math. During the shutdown, it pleased the king to ridicule his opponents for acting at the behest of one faction of extreme partisans, in one party, in one part of one branch of government — meaning the Tea Party faction in the House. Immediately, all the king’s servants (otherwise known as partisans) took up the cry. Soon, thanks to a creative use of fractions, the case was made: the vast majority of Americans, all those people who dislike Obamacare, are actually an extreme minority, extreme both in the mathematical and in the ideological sense.

Another interesting use of fractions, or something like them, was the attempt to divide all Americans into extremists and moderates — an easy task, logically, because anything that is not extreme must be not-extreme, or moderate. The fact that “moderate” has no particular meaning, in isolation from such words as “extreme,” might make a thinking person wonder whether the word was particularly useful, even when juxtaposed with other relative terms (e.g., extreme). The fact that people who are paid to talk kept using moderate and extremist day and night, as if they were essential terms of analysis, was further confirmation that talking doesn’t require much thinking.

Americans’ fashionable respect for moderation reminded me of a cartoon that circulated during the Vietnam War. It was a satire of moderate opposition to the war, and it depicted a group of people carrying signs that read “A Little Less Bombing.” In 2013, moderates are people who want, perhaps, a little less government, at some time in the future, but not now, never now. If there’s such a thing as an extremist platitude, it’s the current use of moderate.

And also of extremist. In 2013, extremists, already extreme, became even more so. They (that is, all non-moderates) became domestic enemies or terrorists, people who were pointing a gun at the president’s head.

The meaning of terrorist had obviously wandered pretty far from its origins. It used to be a word for people sneaking around planting bombs, or rushing out of the shadows to throw one at an archduke. This is not a role, I believe, that John Boehner was born to play. I can’t see Mitch McConnell running through a shopping mall hunting for Christians to slaughter. Even Ted Cruz, chief target of the administration’s talk about terrorism, isn’t plotting to destroy all ranks and hierarchies; what he wants is to achieve the highest rank in the current political hierarchy. Yet according to the new definition, terrorist means simply “someone who stands in our way.”

Imagine, if you can, George Washington, considering a crossing of the Delaware. “Man up, general!” some soldier shouts; and Washington mans up, and all is well.

To me, that is a sobering thought. It means that I spend virtually all my waking life among terrorists. Someone is always standing in my way. When I want to use the elevator, someone else is using it. When I want to turn into the exit lane, someone else is already driving there. When I’m on a committee, other members are always advocating different proposals from mine, and they get people to vote for them! From my students’ point of view, I myself must be a terrorist; I am always standing in their way of having fun. And that’s exactly what the extremist Republicans tried to do; they tried to stand in the way of the president’s fun. He wanted them to give him money to do as he pleased with it, and those terrorists just weren’t prepared to do so. Until he got his way with accusations of terrorism.

Well, maybe we should all just man up. Now, there’s an expression one didn’t expect to see as a major part of political discourse, but there it was, taking its place with caucuses and continuing resolutions to sway the destiny of the nation. Tea Party types advised the moderate Republicans to man up. Pundits told the president that he needed to man up and restore his leadership profile by imposing a solution to the budget problem. Why man up is not perceived as a piece of gross sexism is beyond my understanding. What is not beyond my understanding is its gross reductionism, its summary of leadership as nothing more than an intense commitment to some football game of the emotions. Imagine, if you can, George Washington, considering a crossing of the Delaware. “Man up, general!” some soldier shouts; and Washington mans up, and all is well. You can’t imagine that? Maybe that’s because it’s unimaginable. You can’t imagine even Millard Fillmore being told to man up.

One might possibly need to man up if one had already been taken hostage by a gang of terrorist Republicans; one might need to man up if one were actually standing with a gun at one’s head. I may be out of step with the rest of America, but I’m not sure that’s what the shutdown amounted to. Even the most obnoxious metaphor ought to bear some relationship to something that’s real; otherwise, I can’t form the obnoxious picture in my mind. So in this case, what is the gun? A threat not to vote for the president’s schemes? Is that a deadly weapon? If so, why did he consistently refuse to negotiate while someone washolding a gun to his head? And is that what terrorists do — threaten to blow your head off, unless you negotiate with them? Can you then simply refuse to negotiate? Evidently you can, because that’s what the president did. Memo to self: next time someone points a gun at you, just refuse to negotiate. That’ll fix ’em.

Ditto the next time someone takes you hostage. All you need to do is just refuse to pay the ransom. We were constantly told that America or the political process or something like that was being held for ransom — but what was the ransom supposed to be? Ordinarily, a ransom is a sack of money delivered to the kidnapers. In this case, however, what the kidnapers wanted was merely their own right not to pay more money to the kidnaped persons, the hostages — the Obama Party and the government it represents.

It’s all very confusing. This thing called government, this thing that was shut down, held hostage, held for ransom — what was it? It wasn’t the people who pass laws and sign them, some of whom were acting as the terrorists or hostage takers, others as the people at whom the terrorists were aiming their guns. All those people kept working on their separate projects. It wasn’t the vast number of essential government employees, who also continued to work, or “work.” And it certainly wasn’t America, as in the Democrats’ interchangeable use of holding the government hostage and holding America hostage. What was shut down, apparently, was the complacent idea that some people, somewhere in this country, were doing humble but appropriate work for the republic, work that, though nonessential, was still important enough to worry about. Probably no one believes that now. The cliché turned out to be true: all these workers were nonessential. The only essential thing about them was the perceived necessity of paying them even when they didn’t even pretend to work — as Congress unanimously agreed to do, when it decided to reimburse them for their nonwork during the shutdown. Asked whom among them might be dispensed with by a grateful but bankrupt nation, both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner failed to identify a single cuttable employee.

So the government will keep “working,” and you and I will have to keep paying it to work as it does, forever. I, for one, regard that as an extreme situation. I, for one, feel that we have been taken hostage — with not just one but two bands of pirates engaged in looting us. But here the kidnaping analogy breaks down. It’s becoming obvious that no ransom will free us from these brigands. We tried paying them to go away, and they didn’t.

emem




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The Two Americas

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I don’t want to poach on Stephen Cox’s territory in his monthly Word Watch column, but I have an observation to make about rhetoric. The observation is this: The function of rhetoric isn’t just to appeal to an audience; it is also to identify an audience. Lately this has been happening a lot, and with instructive results.

Three examples:

1. President Obama’s response to the question about whether he knew about the scandalous behavior of the IRS. He said that he didn’t know about the report on the scandalous behavior. This was a shockingly obvious dodge. It starkly revealed the president’s stupidity. But it was a carefully prepared response. It was a calculated dodge. It was calculated to appeal to partisan insiders, who knew (wink, nod) that the rhetoric was grossly misleading but hoped it would save some part of the president’s bacon. So it identified that audience. And it identified another audience — the general American population, which was expected to receive Obama’s claims with passive credulity, thus proving itself even stupider than the president himself.

2. Hillary Clinton’s screaming fit before a congressional committee, some months ago, about the causes of the Benghazi attack. Arms waving, she shrieked, “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?”Never a good actress, Clinton wasn’t up to the role of Lady Macbeth, despite the fact that she is Lady Macbeth, and she had obviously been practicing her outburst. Now, who can take seriously a secretary of state whose head blows off at the suggestion that it might be of some interest to discover why people attacked an American diplomatic outpost and murdered an American ambassador — and on her watch, too? The answer is . . . the mainstream media! They took it seriously. Their commentators almost unanimously lauded her powerful and unanswerable performance. Of course, her act was precisely the opposite of strong and convincing; looking back on it, Washington insiders wince about the expectation that it would delude the rubes. But here are the two audiences that her rhetoric identified — the insiders and the rubes. The rubes, it turns out, were not fooled, but the insiders were.

3. The IRS folk and their government investigator, testifying before Congress late in May. The investigator seemed stupefied that his nothing-but-the-facts rhetoric didn’t cover all the bases: when asked why his interrogators had included IRS supervisors in their interviews with IRS employees, he was shocked, amazed. He hadn’t expected such a question — coming, as it did, from outside the charmed circle of Washington bureaucrats. The IRS directors were a hundred times worse. Asked the most obvious questions — obvious, that is, to anyone not in that circle — they used the rhetoric of word and gesture to convey the impression that they were the victims of lèse majesté. They didn’t know what happened. They didn’t know whom they had asked about what happened. They didn’t know who, if anyone, was “disciplined” because of what happened. Of one thing they were certain: they shouldn’t have been asked about any of it. To communicate this idea, they sighed; they sneered; they made faces; they made unfunny jokes about Easter egg hunts; they tried every form of rhetoric available to them to communicate the idea that the questions — again, the perfectly obvious questions — were grossly inappropriate and outré. They assumed that the only audience that mattered was people like themselves, people who are entitled to power and justifiably resent all attempts to wrest it from them. The rest of us couldn’t possibly be significant.

Well. What does this mean? It means one of two things:

1. These people are right: There are two Americas, two audiences for American political discourse. One consists of people like themselves — wise leaders and their intelligent, well-educated, politically correct students and disciples, the modern-liberal establishment and power structure. This is the only audience that counts, either culturally or politically. The other America consists of people who, being perpetual fools and dupes, are out of power and always will be.

2. These people are right: There are two Americas, two audiences for American political discourse. One consists of people like themselves — simpletons who are prepared to swallow almost anything, from the idea that prosperity results from giving the government all your money to the idea that Barack Obama is an honest man. The other America consists of people who know better, and are sometimes willing to do something about it.

I think I know which view is right. But I thank Obama, Clinton, and the minions of the IRS for revealing the issues so clearly, though so unconsciously, in their inimitable displays of rhetoric.




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Obama’s Second Inaugural

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How exactly does joy inspire awe?

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

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




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Words of Auld Lang Syne

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I don’t enjoy the start of a new year. With the exception of one occasion, when I was 12 years old and discovered that if I borrowed my brother’s shortwave set I could listen to January 1 arrive at one place after another around the globe, until it got all the way to Michigan, I have greeted the great event with surly cheer. The appearance of a new year simply makes me aware of all the things that went wrong during the last year, and that still aren’t going right.

This is particularly evident in the case of words. Every year is pregnant with a host of locutions that no intelligent person could ever have engendered, unless disgustingly drunk. But the ugly brats are born, and many of them grow up into big, ugly, popular clichés, monsters that continue stalking the landscape even as the next twelvemonth begins.

One way of hastening their end is to adopt the tactic of the aboriginal tribesman, who recites the names of his gods in order to get rid of them. Another tactic, similar to the first, is that of the modern corporation, which celebrates someone as Manager of the Year in hopes that he will retire.

Inspired by such examples, I now present my list of the Ten Most Gruesome Expressions of 2011, the ten phrases that have most clearly outlived their usefulness, if any. All these terms have lately displayed their full nastiness, though none of them actually originated in 2011 — a year oddly barren of brand-new tripe. Several of them, indeed, are already well stricken with dementia. But let’s not be clinical. Let’s just try to imagine what the world would be like without them, and pray God that they will soon be taken from us.

I’ve ranked our gruesome friends from 1 to 10, according to the danger I think they pose to the republic’s mental health — in other words, according to their tendency to make me sick. To preserve suspense, I’ll save the most sickening expression for last. Don’t peek. The worst is coming.

So here goes, starting with Number . . .

10. “Sweet” — as in the following conversation.

“Hello, Mrs. Smith. This is Dr. Jones. Your tests are back, and they show that your cancer may not be terminal.”

“Sweet!”

Preposterous. But hardly impossible. The Saccharine Salute now appears in conversations everywhere. It started with 16-year-old thrashers and druggies, but it has spread inexorably to older, more sensible types. Remember that I said “er” and “more,” and that we’re dealing with baby boomers here. As you know, we boomers were never as bright as Newsweek thought we were, and our mental age has not advanced as rapidly as our physical age.

9. “Epic.” Another thrasher term, as in “Dude! That is a seriously, seriously epic board,” as in “skateboard.” Since few publicly educated people know what an epic is, the word has easily passed from boarders to radio hosts to TV hosts to half the other people in the known universe. What next? Will “sonnet” become the universal contrastive term? “Dude! I got this gross little sonnet thing stuck on my sneaks, dude!” Ask yourself, what would Milton say?

8. “Due diligence.” This is a legalism, with an actual meaning. Please look it up, the next time you’re tempted to tell your son that you hope he’ll do his due diligence in school today. Until recently, the phrase was confined to legal circles. Then it got into politics, as Republicans and Democrats tried to blame each other for the depression (sorry! I mean the “downturn”) of 2008 and following. The other party had caused the mess by its failure to exercise due diligence. Well, to use the Valley Girl lingo of 30 years ago, “Duh! Yeah! Maybe some people, like all of you, might’ve screwed up. Yuh think?” Notwithstanding this obvious reflection, “due diligence” proved useful for scoring points in the great game of “which political party is better at running the country” (another nasty expression, toward which I will exercise due diligence in another Word Watch). The ultimate winner of this game is the person who can show that nobody in his party ever smokes weed, watches porn, or texts during office hours. “Due diligence” is an intensely conservative phrase, but its conservatism isn’t a philosophy, or anything that makes sense; it’s just a high-church way of covering your ass.

7. “Got your back.” I don’t know where this started, or who kicked it into popularity. It means, of course, that while you run out and try to shoot the enemy, I’ll stay here and discourage people from shooting you in the ass. I wonder: Which of us has the tougher job? The real purpose of “got your back” is to glorify the speaker, not to improve life for the listener. It’s a militant upgrade of the useless “I’m here for you.” I suppose the next upgrade will be “If you go down, believe me, buddy, I’ll give you the coup de grace.”

6. “Icon.” OK, I’ll admit it. In 2009 I published a book, The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison, which is part of a line of books offered by Yale University Press (and available for sale on amazon.com), and this line of books is called the Icons of America Series. So now I’ve advertised my book, and also prevented you from using the “icon” thing against me, since I already brought it up. But what “icon” means, in the context of that series of books, is “something that everyone can picture, and everyone thinks he understands, except that he doesn’t.” That’s a useful concept. There’s another meaning, which is even more useful: “a literal or literary picture that represents concepts of fundamental importance to the people who make and view it.” Thus, the lilies that adorn a picture of Mary and the Christ child illustrate her purity; the baby’s trusting look reveals his innocence; the cruciform gesture with which he stretches forth his arms foretells his redemptive death. There’s a scene in Homer’s Odyssey in which Odysseus arrives at Ithaca and is greeted by his patroness Athena. They sit under the sacred olive tree and plot the ruin of the suitors. This scene is also an icon. It presents a vision of the ideal god and hero — similar in character, equal in virtue, and equally disposed to plotting and enjoying their plots. But notice: none of this adds up to “Kate Voted 2011’s Top Beauty Icon,” “Patti Smith at 65: From Rebel to Icon,” or “Hotel an Icon in Red Hook for 164 Years.” If “icon” means “celebrity,” call Kate a celebrity. If to be “an icon” means to be famous, say that Red Hook has a famous hotel. I don’t know what you do with the Patti Smith headline. Find some other meaningless word, I guess.

5. “Double down.” This phrase first became popular in an innocent way. It conveyed the stubborn fecklessness of President Obama, a bad gambler who somehow considers himself a good one. Then it became a synonym for “continuing one’s course” or simply “being consistent.” And that is wrong, very wrong. Obama is not doubling down every time he repeats the same campaign speech he’s been using for the past three years. He’s not a risky, heroic figure. He’s not Bret Maverick. Let’s ban this particular chip from the casino.

4. “Dead on arrival.” Here is the Democrats’ new favorite, and they would die without it. Of course, they still have trademark rights to “our children,” “the folks on disability,” “American workers that are out of jobs,” “people that are most in need,” and the all-purpose suffix “in this country” (as in “we need to do better for our children, the folks on disability, workers that are out of jobs, and people that are most in need, in this country”). All these terms have been useful in maintaining the Democratic base in its chronic condition of insanity. But what the Democratic politicians needed was a phrase that would gratify the base while menacing the opposition. Ideally it would be a phrase that expressed both their habitual arrogance and their frustrated spite about their massive losses in November 2010. So they picked up “dead on arrival.” Harry Reid is its biggest fan. When he finds the Republicans in their usual state of legislative dithering, he taunts them by asking where is their bill? When he finds that they may actually have a bill, he announces that the bill will be “dead on arrival.” It doesn’t occur to him that a man who looks like an undertaker shouldn’t be pushing images of dead bodies. It doesn’t occur to the mainstream media either. That’s why this repulsive expression is now appearing everywhere there.

3. “Kitchen table.” Here’s a homey phrase that is useful whenever a “news correspondent” accidentally asks a politician to comment on an important issue. Thus: “Do you think it’s a problem that in a time when other people have less and less money, the salaries and benefits of government employees keep going up?” That’s a real question, for a change. The real answer is simple: “Yes.” The phony answer takes more work. “Well, Marcie, I just think that when the American people sit down at the kitchen table to work out their family budgets, I just don’t think when they’re sitting there at the table, they’re really wondering what other people take home in their paychecks, or what benefits their public servants may have earned. I think what the American people are thinking about when they sit down there at the kitchen table to really think things out, they’re thinking about the really important issues. Will we have economic justice in this country? Will our public workers be getting a living wage? Will we take care of our seniors on Social Security and our young people in our public schools? Is there life on other planets?” “Kitchen table” is this year’s substitute for the first half of the favorite cliché of 2008, “Main Street versus Wall Street.” It’s a slimy attempt to convince you that Pennsylvania Avenue is not the problem. It’s an attempt to fool you into thinking that when you sit there at the kitchen table and stack up your pathetic statements of profit and loss (mostly loss) and try to figure out how you’re going to pay your ridiculous federal income tax, you are feeling exactly what some politician feels when he reclines in his limousine and tries to figure out how to make you pay still more. I’m surprised that I ranked this one as only No. 3.

2. “Up for grabs,” as in “the Iowa caucus is now up for grabs.” Nothing unusual about this one — just the awful certainty that for the next 11 months we’ll be told that “South Carolina is up for grabs,” “Florida is really up for grabs right now,” “there are over 400 House seats, and they’re all up for grabs,” and yes, “the White House itself is up for grabs.” I suggest that this metaphor be replaced by something similar but more explicit. Let’s try “the Senate is up for sale,” “the House is up for sale,” and “the White House is up for sale.” Those expressions would acknowledge the fact that if you tell the voters you are not going to pay them off, you are not going to increase Social Security benefits, increase veterans’ benefits, increase students’ benefits, increase almost everyone’s benefits, while decreasing almost everyone’s taxes, you will not be elected. Or so we are told.

Now bring the drums and trumpets! The end of the procession is in sight.

As Pogo said, we have met the enemy, and he is us. We are what our president calls the

1. “Folks.” All right, this is just another Obama-ism. But does that make it innocent? Certainly not. Yet its origins are sad. The f-word first gained control of Obama’s mind when the polls showed conclusively that he had lost the “folks.” So he obsessively created stories about various kinds of “folks” — “folks sittin’ around the kitchen table” (see no. 3, above), “folks that are just tryin’ to balance their checkbooks,” “folks that are hurtin’,” “folks that we’re helpin’” — an enormous crowd of folks to surround and comfort him. I reckon I’m one a them folks, cause I’m really hurtin’ when I hear crap like this. It worked for Huey Long, but, sorry, it doesn’t work for a guy who ran for president on his credentials as a Harvard grad. It there are folks in this world, President Obama is a non-folk. Like most partisan words, however, “folks” has wanderlust. It doesn’t care which side of the aisle it’s on. And why shouldn’t the Republicans have their crack at it, too? I’m sorry, very sorry to say this, but 2012 is likely to be the Year of the Folks. That’s what makes No. 1 so dangerous.

Now, that’s sort of a downer, isn’t it? You see what I meant about New Year’s. We’ve come to the end. The awards have been given. Nobody’s happy. It’s time to leave the auditorium.

I’m sure you’ve noted, however, that most of phrases on this year’s roll of shame are political. I put it at six out of ten. This is not an accident or product of my own whim. There is a law at work here, a law of linguistic devolution: the larger the government, the more it talks, and the more influence it has on everyone else’s discourse. That can’t be good.

But just remember: Liberty’s got your back.




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Obama, the Soaring Sofa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pardon me; I just dozed off.

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




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