Cry Havoc!


I’ve always been puzzled about the idea of mass hysteria. Is it true that normally sane people suddenly start shouting and screaming and seeing Martians, just because their neighbor, or somebody on the radio, has been talking about the subject? Or is mass hysteria just one of those pop-psychology labels that tells you nothing more than the unmysterious things you’d already noticed yourself? I mean, you hear Mr. Smith saying goofy things; you hear Mrs. Jones and Mr. Green saying similarly goofy things; then somebody calls it mass hysteria, and you’re supposed to believe you’ve learned something. But you haven’t, because you still don’t know why anybody would want to say those things.

Those are my ordinary thoughts. But maybe now I’m suffering from mass hysteria myself, because I think the opponents of Donald Trump have contracted it. There are lots of them, and they’ve all simultaneously lost their minds, or whatever part of their minds is connected with their ability to speak and use a keyboard.

One symptom of hysteria is screaming in public places. Another is saying things that obviously aren’t true, and believing them yourself. Yet another is saying things that make you look like a fool for saying them, but you don’t care. This is how a significant number of Trump’s opponents have been acting, enough of them to turn an unusual activity into one that is usual, expected, and routine. They are hysterical, and they behave in mass.

What’s been happening is the kind of discourse that makes the shouts of the normal witch hunt or lynch mob seem sane and decorous.

Here’s the caveat lector: even hysterics may be right, in a way. The existence of Senator Joseph McCarthy as an hysterical anti-communist didn’t negate the pre-existence of Stalinist agents in the United States. Hysterics and other annoying people may be concerned about something that other people can analyze calmly and agree is cause for concern. In the present case, anyone can construct a cogent argument for the idea that Trump is a good president or a bad one. Such arguments can be calmly debated and assessed by minds that independently assent or dissent from them.

But that isn’t what’s been happening lately. What’s been happening is the kind of discourse that makes the shouts of the normal witch hunt or lynch mob seem sane and decorous. Offhand, I can’t think of a lynch mob in which people shrieked, all together, “He burned down the school! He robbed the bank! He spied for the North! He kicked my dog!” In this case, however, we have, “He’s alt-right! He’s a fascist! He’s a racist! He’s homophobic! He’s anti-Semitic! He stole the election! He’s a Russian agent! He paid two prostitutes to piss on the bed of President Obama!” Wait till they discover the existence of the Bavarian Illuminati.

Surveying headlines on the morning of July 21, I saw a long list of Trump-attack items, including “Can Trump Pardon Himself?” Then I saw, sitting quietly and all alone, “Hawaii Is Preparing for a North Korea Military Attack.” Let’s see . . . which type of story are journalists more excited about?

Hollywood movies inform us that lynch mobs are managed by people who are not themselves hysterics but are hoping to profit from destroying their victims. They want somebody’s ranch or wife or gold mine, or they want to be elected governor. I’m not sure whether this picture of the cold, calculating demagogue matches the current situation. Leaders of the anti-Trump hysteria clearly want to enhance their political power and influence, but some of them do appear to have gone over the edge. They’re like the guy who’s told by his friends, “Calm down! You don’t want the neighbors to hear you!” and who responds by busting the TV, throwing chairs through the window, and screaming, “Who cares if they do! They’re all a buncha God-damned @#@#%^&#’s!”

Leaders of the anti-Trump hysteria clearly want to enhance their political power and influence, but some of them do appear to have gone over the edge.

You can think of many examples. One that appeals to me is Tim Kaine, Hillary Clinton’s badly chosen running mate. Kaine is a hack politician. He happens to be a Democrat, but he’s not much different from hundreds of other hacks, Democrat or Republican. He has a bug in his head about religion, but that hardly distinguishes him. His most visible characteristic is a desire to be loved, hence to be elected to public office. It’s not in his political interest to talk like a lunatic. But on July 11 he responded to the Enormous Revelation that Donald Trump, Jr. (that chump) had once met with a Russian “lawyer” to see whether he could get some dirt on Hillary Clinton. Why didn’t Junior just read the newspaper? Anyway, Kaine made the following hysterical remarks:

Nothing is proven yet. But we're beyond obstruction of justice in terms of what's being investigated. This is moving into perjury, false statements [one sign of hysteria is an obsession with repeating the same idea], and even into potentially treason [another sign is a loss of normal syntax]. . . . To meet with an adversary to try to get information to hijack democracy. The investigation is now more than just obstruction of justice in investigation. It's more than just a perjury investigation. It's a treason investigation.

The Constitution defines treason in this way: “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.” (Seconds elapsed while finding this passage online: 51.)

Only nine people have ever been convicted of treason under that definition, which notably lacks any reference to such offenses as hijacking democracy, the meaning of which is apparently “electing someone other than Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine.” Junior is unlikely to become the tenth — if only because the United States is not currently at war with either Russia or Russian lawyers.

Questioned later about his weird remark, Kaine seemed to backtrack on its thrust, but then, like a true obsessive, returned to it anyway:

When they ran a clip they cut off the first part of my sentence which I said “nothing has been proven yet,” they cut that off. If the issue that is being investigated following this last revelation is did someone coordinate with a foreign adversary to attack the basics of American democracy, it doesn’t get more serious than that.

Among problems that I consider more serious, or at least more urgent, are (A) Kaine’s tendency to babble like a street person, and (B) the fact that his hysterical cry of treason was immediately taken up by innumerable politicians and media commentators. (Seconds elapsed while thinking: 0.)

But there’s something yet more serious, if you’re interested in the ways in which words are used. Obsessive and hysterical verbiage is just one of many bad things that happen with words when they’re disconnected from thoughts. These days, we’re experiencing the full range of bad things. Public speech and public writing appear to have become completely unstuck from reflective consideration.

Only nine people have ever been convicted of treason under that definition, which notably lacks any reference to such offenses as hijacking democracy.

Nancy Pelosi is always available to substantiate such points. In her July 18 press conference (she still has them!), the former speaker of the House discussed an article that had bowled her over and left her flat. It was about the sacrifices made by the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and it had given her an idea that she was impelled to communicate:

Now, our founders, they sacrificed their lives, their liberty, their sacred honor to establish this democracy.

The closer you look at that sentence, the stranger it gets. Start with the fact that the founders specifically did not intend to establish a democracy. And how many of the signers sacrificed their lives? Go ahead — name one. As it turned out, the essay that Pelosi found so inspiring was filled with errors that anyone with a real interest in American history would have smelled immediately. If Pelosi ever had a sense of smell, she’s lost it. She’s also lost any interest in noticing what words mean. When she said that the signers “sacrificed . . . their sacred honor” she was literally saying that they gave their honor up, got rid of it, didn’t have it anymore. So either she doesn’t know what honor means, or she doesn’t know what honor means. I leave you to choose.

Just say they conspired, Ambassador, and don’t tell me that everybody says it this way.

The article about this in the Daily Caller, a conservative journal, is harshly critical. It points out that Pelosi’s source didn’t even spell the names of the signers right. But it also says, “While nine of the signers did die during the Revolutionary War, none of them died from injuries sustained by the British.” Of course, no one would expect Americans to die because the British were wounded. And that’s what the sentence literally says — “injuries sustained by the British.” The author believes that to sustain a wound is to inflict it.

Oh what a tangled web we weave,
When fancied meanings we conceive.

Let’s look at another page from the Daily Caller. It’s an interview (July 9) with Francis Coombs, managing editor of the Rasmussen polling outfit, in which Coombs is reported as saying:

What is clear is that voters do not dislike Trump as much as the media does. Look at Russia. The media is just obsessed with Russia. Democrats who are out on the hustings say “nobody asks me about Russia.” The polls don’t seem to jive with what we’re seeing with the traditional media.

So what’s wrong with that? Jive, that’s what. The word is jibe, and somebody, either Mr. Coombs or whoever transcribed his remarks, ought to know it, ought to have marked the distinction at some point in his or her life — just as any reflective person should have marked the distinction between lie and lay, disinterested and uninterested, famous and infamous, distinctions also commonly unobserved in today’s discourse.

On one matter Democrats and Republicans are in full agreement: we don’t need no stinkin’ dictionaries — or grammar books, either.

From the left: on January 30, the Washington Post ran this provocative headline:

Who Will Trump Add to the Supreme Court?

If you don’t see the problem, or if you never noticed that the Post was a leftwing paper, I’m not going to explain it to you.

From the right: on April 20, Ambassador Nikki Haley told the United Nations that Iran and Hezbollah “have conspired together” — something that she obviously thought was a great deal worse than conspiring individually. Just say they conspired, Ambassador, and don’t tell me that everybody says it this way. If you do, you’re just making my point.

From the left: the online Guardian, June 14, in an early report on the fire in the Grenfell Tower:

The Metropolitan Police have confirmed that “a number of people are being treated for a range of injuries” on Twitter.

I didn’t know that Twitter had the power to treat the injured. Or is it that Twitter has the power to inflict a range of injuries? But that would make more sense to me.

Certainly there is an elite that mates and networks with itself and is partly composed of the witless spawn of rich people.

From the right: Tucker Carlson, during his April 4 TV show: “You see the Orwellian path we are trodding.” I like Carlson, and I thought he read a book from time to time. But I don’t recall George Orwell saying anything like, “Let us trod a better path” or “If we trod like this for very long, we’ll be in some real trouble.” The word is tread, and Carlson’s goofy error came at a particularly bad time — a discussion with Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA), about the misuse of language. Carlson used the word monitoring for Susan Rice’s surveillance of Trump’s associates, and Sherman sanctimoniously objected. So Sherman and Carlson both managed to lose that inning.

On July 14, Bruce Thornton published an interesting essay in Frontpage, called “The Nevertrump Outrage of a Disappointed Elite.”

In it he says, among other things, of course:

From the beginning of Trump’s campaign, the disproportion of his critics’ anger with [i.e., to] their response to Obama’s and Clinton’s assault on law and the Constitution has shown that something else is going on: an elite class is angry that the highest power in the land, with all the attention and perks that go with it, is in the hands of a vulgarian who sneers at their class-defining proprieties and protocols.

Sounds plausible. But what struck me was Thornton’s idea about what identifies the elite:

In antiquity it was land and lineage that defined privilege. In our day, prep schools, top-ten university degrees, formal speech, correct diction, proper manners, and high-cult allusions all mark off the elite, and hide the fact that their position comes from money and connections as much as merit. Someone like Trump, who violates every one of these canons and enjoys the support of the “bitter clingers” and “deplorable” masses, infuriates the elite by challenging their right to rule by virtue of their presumed intellectual and cultural superiority.

Certainly there is an elite that mates and networks with itself and is partly composed of the witless spawn of rich people. But you would have to go to the Arabian Nights to find something more fanciful than Thornton’s description of what marks off this class. There never was a time in American history when the scions of wealth were distinguished by “formal speech, correct diction, proper manners, and high-cult allusions.” (Question: What is a high-cult allusion? Examples, please. And do the people who are able to make such allusions call them high-cult?) Wealthy Americans were always just as oafish and ignorant as other people, despite their diplomas from dear old Yaleton. Evidently our author has never heard of the famous gentleman’s C.

And to suppose that “in our day” we can tell whether people inherited money and attended Harvard or worked their way through Northern Michigan — how preposterous can you get? Has the author ever listened to the conversations that go on in the first-class section of the airplane? Does the author fully understand that the father of Donald Trump, the vulgarian, was very wealthy? Yet there’s no need to go that far afield. Nancy Pelosi was the daughter of a mayor of Baltimore and was educated at the Institute of Notre Dame and Trinity College (Washington). Brad Sherman and Tim Kaine went to Harvard Law School. Tucker Carlson went to St. George’s School and Trinity College. And look what happened to them. It’s enufta make ya panic.

Wealthy Americans were always just as oafish and ignorant as other people, despite their diplomas from dear old Yaleton.

Oh . . . speaking of hysteria: there are hysterically favorable reactions as well as hysterically unfavorable ones. When, on July 21, the police chief of Minneapolis, Janee Harteau, was forced to resign her position, I looked up some biographical information about her, and found a breathless article from the local paper (March 24) reporting that she had been selected as — can you guess what? She had been named Number 22 on Fortune’s list of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

The idea of such a list makes me wonder what kind of world we live in. And you can think about the further implications of this incident as you read about cops employed by Ms. 22nd Greatest gunning down a woman who requested their assistance, and even gunning down (“dispatching”) the inoffensive pets of the people they are paid to serve — in each case, allegedly, reacting in panic.

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You Can Write Whatever You Want


Word Watch has entered its fifteenth year of operation — a good time to take up a subject that deserves to be addressed, especially on behalf of a libertarian audience. I do this from time to time, in various ways, but I haven’t done it for quite a while. So here goes.

There are two ways of discussing grammar and usage. One is descriptive: you try to describe how a language “really is,” right now. The other is prescriptive: you try to say what the language should be. Almost all academic linguists, and some academic grammarians, take the descriptive, supposedly scientific course. This column, however, is strongly prescriptive. It tries to describe what’s going on, but it also tries to state where it went wrong (or, occasionally, right). But rules and prescriptions — even advice — can be hard to sell to libertarians.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed.

“Why,” readers sometimes ask, “do I have to bother with rules? Why can’t I say and write whatever I want, so long as my audience understands me? And who has the right to make these rules, after all?”

Those are good questions, and they deserve good answers. Here they are.

It’s true; you don’t have to bother with rules. By right you are free to express yourself in whatever way you want. If you want to say, “I think everybody should, like, go ahead and, like, you know, vote for the, like, party of freedom?, I mean the, you know, Libertarian Party?” you can do so, and a normal audience will understand what you’re driving at, despite the pointless interjections and the irritating “uptalk.” But that doesn’t mean that no one should have the temerity to suggest that you sound like an idiot.

Every 20 years, there’s a revolution among people who teach composition in American colleges, and everybody has to swear allegiance to a new creed. According to a creed that was temporarily espoused about 40 years ago (and probably 40 years before that, too), teachers should not presume to “correct” their students’ work; they should simply encourage them to abandon their fears and write. If you did enough writing, you would turn out well. Or good. Or something. Old-fashioned teachers were satirized for penning such insolent marginalia as, “I know what you’re trying to say, but it’s not quite coming through.” How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying? But of course that’s nonsense. If a young American writes, “The judge was so disinterested that she fell asleep,” you’ll know what he meant, and you’ll also know that the word he needs, whether he knows it or not, is “uninterested.” You’ll know it because you’re more competent than he is.

Well, who has the right to say that uninterested is the right word? People use uninterested and disinterested interchangeably, all the time.

Yes, that’s a description of what they do. They also say, “I seen you crossing the street,” all the time. There remains the question of what they ought to do. Anyone has the right to decide that question, and be correct or incorrect about it, just as anyone has the right to decide whether Raphael was a better artist than the four-year-old next door.

How, it was demanded, do you presume to think that you know what somebody else is trying to say, yet not really saying?

In respect to Raphael and the preschool kid, the best qualified judges will be people who have seen lots of art, and lots of kinds of art, people who are familiar with the various effects that art tries to achieve and who are perceptive enough to notice whether those effects actually are achieved by any given work. Such judges may well say that the kid’s paintings project an immediacy that Raphael never achieved (or wanted), but they will also say that when it comes to the art museum, or the narthex of the church, Raphael is better.

These people’s judgments will carry authority, but the issue is never who shall judge but how the judgment is made. If you have a competent understanding of the resources of the English language, you know that uninterested and disinterested are traditionally considered virtual opposites of each other, and you recognize that the distinction between them continues to be valuable. It allows people to say such things as, “The judge was admirably disinterested, but she was woefully uninterested in the case before her.” No one has authority over the English language — not even Webster’s Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage — but every informed and rational judgment is authoritative.

This is no tyranny. It is a vindication of the individual mind.

Having said all this, I don’t want to sacrifice too much to the idea that, yes, we can understand you, no matter how ugly we consider your self-expression. Sometimes — not infrequently — we cannot understand you, because your ugliness gets in the way.

On August 11, a good example came into my possession. I was on a ship off the eastern coast of Canada, and my internet connection didn’t work. Actually, I was too cheap to make it work. Anyway, I picked up a copy of the news digest that the New York Times provides for the maritime trade, and there I found an article about James K. Galbraith, an economist who gives zany advice to people in Greece. Apparently the advice is to initiate the millennium by inflating the currency enough to repudiate the nation’s debts. If I’m wrong about this, I’m sorry; I’m just trying to interpret the Times account of his notions:

Galbraith . . . argued passionately that a new currency would wash away the country’s debts, solve Greece’s competitiveness problem and ultimately create what he called a “good society.” A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks, he had drawn up a contingency plan for Greece under [finance minister Yanis] Varoufakis’s direction, in case the country was forced to leave the [euro] currency zone by its creditors.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But there’s a crucial grammatical error in there. It occurs in the second sentence. It’s a dangling modifier. “A step opposed by a vast majority of Greeks” is supposed to fit with or “modify” something else in the sentence, but what? The normal candidate would be the noun or pronoun immediately following the modifier. In this sentence, that candidate is “he.” Unfortunately, “he” is not a “step.” So the modifier is dangling, apparently unattached to anything else.

Many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence.

Now, the English, and especially the British, language is full of dangling modifiers. They are widespread, but they are wrong. When you, as a reader, pay the kind of attention to sentences that any author would appreciate your paying, you try to visualize the author’s meaning. But when a sentence includes a dangling modifier, the resulting image is misleading or ludicrous. Steps don’t draw up contingency plans.

And here the dangling modifier creates a problem that is worse than aesthetic. It’s a conceptual problem: what is the step that most Greeks oppose? It is not, alas, Mr. Galbraith (“he”); many Greeks probably like his ideas, but most are probably unaware of his personal existence. Well, is it the “contingency plan”? Probably not. Schemes to get rich by welshing on your debts are usually pretty popular. OK. How about “a good society”? No . . . few people are “opposed” to anything like that.

We’re still searching for the “step.” But notice that now we’re trying to figure out what the passage means by using whatever we knew about the subject before we read the passage. We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

All right, suppose that the “step” to which most Greeks are “opposed” is “a new currency”? Maybe. Probably. But how can we be sure? No matter how free you are with your lingo, “currency” is not a “step.” And we reached our identification of “step” with “currency” only through the process of eliminating every other possibility. It’s conceivable that there is no “step,” that the passage is literally meaningless.

Writing of this quality hardly inspires confidence in the New York Times. It’s a harsh saying, and sometimes wrong, but it’s basically true: if you don’t reflect on the way in which you say things, the things you say are unlikely to be taken seriously.

That’s true about words that appear in professional jargon or regional dialects or purely colloquial language as well as about words embedded in formal written English. If you’re trying to talk like a millennial and you don’t recognize the difference between dude, bro, brother, and mate, you’re not going to be treated as reliable on most of the subjects you want to address. If you’re trying to make some intellectual contribution and you show that you don’t care, or maybe don’t know, about the rules of grammar, your readers will wonder, perhaps justifiably, whether you have anything to contribute. And if you, as an intellectual, turn out writing that’s as stiff as a board, people will begin to ask themselves whether you have the understanding of human beings, their likes and dislikes and ways of interpreting the world, that is necessary to most intellectual disciplines.

We’re going in reverse: authors are supposed to say something that adds to our knowledge, not something that depends on our pre-existing knowledge to understand.

I’m talking about what Aristotle called ethos — the perceived character of a speaker or writer. As Aristotle observes, if you don’t have a decent ethos you’ll have lots of trouble getting other people to listen to you and agree with you. But I’m also talking about what we moderns call empathy — human beings’ ability to imagine what others are like, what others are likely to feel, how others are likely to react to what we do or say. If you can’t summon enough empathy to look at your sentences and see whether your readers will receive them as clear communications or as verbal puzzles, you should stop writing until you’re in a better mood. If you insist on writing, “All taxpayers have been now directed to submit his/her forms to the nearest IRS/tax office,” you should have enough empathy to know that while most readers will understand your sentence, sort of, their attention will be fixed not on your meaning but on your annoying slash forms, your unidiomatic placement of words (“now”), and your odd switch from plural (“taxpayers”) to singular (“his/her”). You’re free not to realize that or to care about it, but don’t think you’ll emerge from that sentence with your ethos intact.

In July, the computers at Southwest Airlines failed, and hundreds of flights were canceled. Passengers were understandably unhappy, but the icing on their cake of fury — note: I have enough empathy to realize that you will realize that this is an awful metaphor; I ask you to have enough empathy to understand that the image is supposed to be amusing — the icing on their cake of fury, I say, was Southwest’s explanation of the affair, an explanation that the airline placed on an obscure website, which nobody ever goes to, an explanation headlined by these words:

Information Regarding Operational Impact of Technology Issues

Is there a man or woman on the face of the earth who would guess that this had anything to do with a canceled flight? Empathy? We don’t need no stinkin’ empathy. And is there a person on earth who, after finally getting the point, would retain any confidence in anything that Southwest might deign to say thereafter?

Proceeding to another sample of great corporate writing — an advertisement for the Viking line of cruise ships, which makes this claim:

Designed as an upscale hotel, Viking’s chefs deliver a superb . . . experience.

Here’s another dangling modifier: “designed as an upscale hotel.” It’s presumably the ship that’s designed that way, but ship is nowhere in the sentence. What the sentence literally means is that Viking’s chefs are designed as an upscale hotel.

It’s funny; you laugh. Then you wonder: if Viking’s spokesmen are so careless with words, are they also careless with meanings? Can it be that their messages are just so many phrases thrown at the audience, to see what will stick? Can it be that a Viking ship is not actually anything like an upscale hotel? But one thing is clear: no one at Viking imagines that readers will actually think about its messages.

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy.

Ethos and empathy . . . On July 22, President Obama made a statement in which he said that Donald Trump’s speech of the night before “just doesn’t jive with the facts.” The president said that twice. Of course, what he meant was “agree with the facts.” I know that. But the word that means “agree,” in this sense, is jibe, not jive. I understand that there are millions of people who don’t know the difference. Peace to all such. There are also millions of people who don’t realize that the past tense of “see” is not “seen.”

Obama knows the past tense of “see,” but he doesn’t know about a thousand other things he should know if he wants to maintain his ethos of literacy. He has, for instance, never mastered the like-as distinction or the not-so-subtle rules governing pronoun case (“just between you and I”). With him, lack of ethos is related, as it often is with lesser mortals, to a lack of empathy. He has evidently never asked himself whether there may be persons on this planet, and millions of them, who know more about grammar and usage than he does, so he has never felt the need to investigate these subjects.

“Well,” I hear some truly generous libertarians saying, “we all make mistakes.” Yes, we do. Indeed we do. And that’s the most important realization we can have about this subject. We all make mistakes. The question is whether we want to notice our mistakes and do something about them.

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No Armistice in Sight


Recently in this journal Robert Miller made the apt observation that Stalin’s Soviet Union was the only country that had to fight on just one front in World War II. All the others had to battle at least two forces simultaneously. Pity Word Watch, which is always fighting on a dozen fronts.

Some of these are characterized by chronic trench warfare. Last month, I noted that Karl Rove is too polite to speak the word “hell.” He says “heck” instead. This month, I have been informed by Brit Hume, in an interview he gave to Fox News, that Mitt Romney won’t even come that close to hell. Romney says something like “h, e, toothpicks.” I’m not kidding. Just when you think the forces of freedom have broken through the prudery line, you find them repelled, once again, by Republicans.

Meanwhile, President Obama, former recreational drug user, goes on the Jimmy Fallon show, stylishly and smirkingly calls marijuana “weed,” and claims of his administration: “What we are trying to do when it comes to drugs is treating it [sic — there’s another battlefront: the president’s wretched grammar] as a public health problem. When we provide prevention and education to folks, that can make a huge difference." Barack Obama, chief law enforcement agent of the United States, the man who is currently persecuting medical marijuana dispensaries (thus "providing prevention and education to folks"), is capable of saying things like this.

So that’s four fronts, right there. Bad grammar, scrambled syntax (in normal life, do we ever hear phrases like "provide prevention"?), condescension ("folks"), and sheer hypocrisy. The war continues.

Here’s another battle that the Rebel Alliance has been fighting for years, against the united forces of the Empire — though victory may now be in sight, because Brit Hume has joined the rebel cause. On July 30, the eponymous host of the "O’Reilly Show" asked Hume whether Sarah Palin, a person whom neither of them seems to like, was “prepared to run the country.” Instead of responding in the normal, softball way, or even going after the question directly, Hume said, “I don’t think the president runs the country, but the government, perhaps, or the executive branch.“

Just when you think the forces of freedom have broken through the prudery line, you find them repelled, once again, by Republicans.

This column has been harping on that “runs the country,” “runs the state,” “runs the city” locution for years. It’s one of the main bastions of statism. It insinuates — nay, preaches — the idea that we elect politicians to run things — to run our nation, our homes, ourexistence, us. Things are bad enough as they are, but just imagine Barack Obama actually running the United States, as people run hardware stores or their children’s lives. I’m not risking much by speculating that within a month we would all be starving. And in place of Barry Obama, insert any political functionary you please, with an option to replace “United States” with California, Oklahoma, Peoria, or Rives Junction.

Speaking of California, there’s a linguistic battlefront if ever there was one. Last month, I called particular attention to Gov. Jerry Brown’s relentless assaults on the English language. Since then, he’s reiterated his attacks with a phrase that he apparently thinks is invincible, because it declares invincibility. It’s an odd phrase, hubristic — the kind of phrase that isn’t supposed to be used in a democratic society. It is “crush the opposition.”

In talking, for instance, about “clean” energy (nobody ever talks about dirty energy; if it’s dirty, it’s not energetic, I guess), he recites a Satanic mantra, in which hypocrisy and brutality are conceived as virtues. First, he says, you need to "talk a little bit” to people. This is apparently supposed to neutralize their opposition. Then, he says, “at the end of the day you have to move forward.” So much for talk; you had no intention of listening. Now what you do is something he claims to have learned “in Oakland” — as if Oakland, where he once was mayor, were a school of civic conduct, like Philadelphia in the days of Washington and Madison. But what did he learn? “I learned that some kind of opposition you have to crush.” By that he means opposition to his plans to save the environment by imposing ever more restrictive regulations, and also opposition to his plans to ruin the environment by slashing a 200-billion-dollar railroad across 500 miles of outraged landscape.

There’s more. Brown avers, "We need a centralized base of arbitrary intervention to overcome the distributed political power that is blocking forward progress.” James Madison couldn’t have said it any better — that’s exactly what republican government , with its distributed political powers, exists to frustrate: the centralized bases of arbitrary intervention. To the classical American, classical liberal way of thinking, the clearest sign of illegitimate government is a reliance on or boasting aboutarbitrary power. Nothing could be clearer. Yet virtually no one in my besotted state has called attention to Brown’s absurdly authoritarian rants.

Maybe people have accepted the mindset of the political ad men, for whom the meanings of words are the last things to be taken seriously. And look out — here’s another incoming from that quarter. Did you know that what most of us call attack ads are commonly called, by the people who produce them, contrasting ads? This came out when the two presidential campaigns allegedly suspended their contrasting ads because of the Colorado theater shootings. “Contrasting”? Well, yes, those ads present a steady contrast to truth and decency.

Just imagine Barack Obama actually running the United States, as people run hardware stores or their children’s lives. I’m not risking much by speculating that within a month we would all be starving.

Such ads are also called negative campaigning — which reminds me of yet another front. This column is a frequent complainer against the word negative, when used as a synonym for unfavorable, slanderous, vicious, Hitlerian, or any of the thousand other meaningful adjectives for which unfavorable can be an ignorant stand-in. I don’t care about the 99% of the populace that uses negative because it can’t think of any other word. It’s incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial what 99% of the populace thinks about certain subjects, and this is one of them. Negative is appropriate only to mathematics and old-fashioned film processing. Otherwise, it’s just a cover-up for what you really mean. Don’t get me started on that. I mean, don’t get me restarted.

I’m moving on, now, to the Jay Carney front. Jay Carney is that little guy who looks like he’s 16 years old, and actually talks like the 16-year-old know it all, the little brat in your sophomore class who kept talking and talking, confidently reciting every cliché he’d ever heard, despite being as dumb as an ox? Yeah, that one. So here’s Jay Carney, White House Press Secretary, as quoted on Real Clear Politics, July 26. Carney was asked what does the administration regard as the capital of Israel.

Jay Carney: Um... I haven't had that question in a while. Our position has not changed. Can we, uh...

Reporter: What is the capital [of Israel]?

Jay Carney: You know our position.

Reporter: I don't.

Lester Kinsolving, World Net Daily: No, no. She doesn't know, that's why she asked.

Carney: She does know.

Reporter: I don't.

Kinsolving: She does not know. She just said that she does not know. I don't know.

Carney: We have long, let's not call on...

Kinsolving: Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?

Carney: You know the answer to that.

Kinsolving: I don't know the answer. We don't know the answer. Could you just give us an answer? What do you recognize? What does the administration recognize?

Carney: Our position has not changed.

Kinsolving: What position?

Carney then moved on to another question.

Now, I know, and you know, that anything having to do with the Middle East is Fraught with Political Terror and, for all I know, Peril. But Carney's line is that the administration has a position, that everyone knows it, and that he refuses to state it. This can be a little bit frustrating, if you want to find something out. I must say, however, that Carney's babble contributes a good deal to my self-satisfaction, as it should to yours. There isn't a reader of Liberty, anywhere in the world, who would ever go on as he does.

One function of Liberty, however, is to show that life does not consist of politics alone. That’s the libertarian idea, is it not? Freedom from politics? And it’s the right idea. It encourages us to enjoy all those parts of life that (thank God!) remain private and nonpolitical.

Unfortunately, it also obliges us to observe those bloody assassinations of language that occur even outside the political arena.

Here’s one. It’s a news article ( about somebody who caught and, I am happy to say, released a sturgeon weighing 1,100 pounds. I like to eat fish, but when fish get that big, they’re old, and eld has an aura of romance. I love to think about animals that long survive their owners — so long as the owners aren’t me.

The article says, “Incredibly, this massive sturgeon, a prehistoric species, might have been hatched the year the Titanic sank.”

Here's a little platoon of words that is vulnerable from so many angles, I hardly know where to start.

First, I’d like to observe that we’re looking at a normal sentence, as “normal” is understood in the nuthouse of the contemporary media.

Second, I want to say that I am the author of a book about the Titanic (The Titanic Storygo buy it on Amazon), but even I have tired of seeing 1912 represented as the linchpin, the benchmark, the a quo and ad quem of universal history. So what if a fish was hatched in the year the Titanic sank?

Third, there’s this idea — or unfocused interjection — about things that are incredible or unbelievable.The existence of a hundred-year old fish is something I am very capable of crediting. I am very well prepared to believe that there are entities in this world that have existed since 1912. I worship in a church that — believe it or not! — was built in 1912, the year the Titanic sank. The sidewalk in front of my house was laid some years earlier. I have actually known people who were alive, even before 1912and many people who were hatched in the year itself. When you get to the age of Adwaitya the Tortoise (“Adwaitya, R.I.P.,” Liberty, June 2006, pp. 9–11), then I’ll start paying attention.

Fourth, one fish (“this massive sturgeon”) is not a species.

But, thinking of that, the fifth and truly awful thing is the oohing and ahhing about the “prehistoric species.” All species are prehistoric. Do you think the Lord waited around till somebody was able to write history, before he started evolving sturgeons? Or pandas, or jackals, or smelt? Or us?

Are we really fighting it out on this line? Well, all right, I’ll go on fighting, even if it takes all summer.

But speaking of us (look out, this is going to be an amazing transition), you may have noticed that people sometimes write comments to Liberty accusing us of being weak libertarians, insufficient libertarians, quasi-libertarians, non-libertarians, anti-libertarians, and even worse forms of libertarians. (The phrases are synonymous, their different forms resulting merely from which side of the bed the author woke up on.) The sad truth is that, despite what anybody thinks, we are libertarianssimply, thoroughly, and intrinsically.The nice thing is that libertarians can actually disagree with one another, and violently too, without reading one another out of the family.

So what if a fish was hatched in the year the Titanic sank?

Another nice thing, which I’d like to notice, has to do with the readers who periodically write in to say that Liberty repeats the Republicans’ “talking points.” When I read that, I start laughing. But I hope it comes true. I hope I live to see the day when either the Republicans or the Democrats, or both, actually agree, in their talking points, with the principles of individual freedom advocated by Liberty’s authors (each proceeding in his or her own way, mind you), and agree so fully that Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and libertarians can scarcely be distinguished.

I am sorry to say, however, that if Karl Rove ever becomes a libertarian, he will probably still be saying “heck.”

Therefore the fight continues.

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Think First, Talk Second


On April 10, I published in this journal an anguished protest against indiscriminate use of the word “legendary.” The occasion was the lavish application of this term to the dead television personality Mike Wallace. If I had been more assiduous in research, I would have brought up the other 235,000,000 uses of that word, as currently indexed by Google. Few of them, I think, are related to Beowulf or The Golden Legend.

The reward for my strictures on “legendary” was a mailbox full of plaudits — all the libertarian equivalents of “right on, brutha man!” — and execrations. From the latter I learned that I was petty, hypercritical, and without respect for the dead.

My response to both parties is this: “Well, somebody’s got to do it.” But I want to salute everyone who’s willing to debate questions of language. If there were more people like my boosters and detractors, the English language might be saved. Salvation comes not from indifference but from vigorous and candid reflection.

One kind of comment puzzled me. It came from a friend I ran into on the street. This person said, “I liked your comments, but I kept wondering, what words would you use instead of ‘legendary’? I mean, there must be some reason why people keep choosing that word.”

My answer is that people keep choosing that word because they hear other people using it; in other words, because they’re too lazy to think for themselves.

But if you want a list of alternative terms (“what would you use instead?”), no problem: you can generate a list of your own in about 30 seconds — which is about how long it took me to come up with the list below. The terms proceed in rough order from the nicest ones to the ones you never expect to see in an obit, for Mike Wallace or any other media darling:

  • Idolized
  • Beloved
  • Celebrated
  • Acclaimed
  • Esteemed
  • Distinguished
  • Respected
  • Famous
  • Nationally recognized
  • Well known
  • Familiar
  • Once famous
  • Now forgotten
  • Notorious
  • Infamous

(Note the difference between “famous” and “infamous.”)

So, here’s a case in which a minimum of reflection can yield significant results. Most language problems are like that. But let’s proceed to another case — quite different — that exemplifies the same idea, by highlighting the lack of reflection.

Whenever you force yourself to read what politicians or public officeholders say, you naturally ask yourself, “What the hell was he thinking?” The answer is usually: “Nothing.” In support of that assertion, I could cite such astonishing recent instances as that of Al Armendariz, who was, until his resignation on April 30, a regional head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Why did this little warlord leave his perch? Well, a video from 2010 had surfaced, in which a grinning Armendariz lectured a friendly audience about the strategy he used to persecute business people. He indicated that he believed in acting as the Romans allegedly did in “Turkey,” as he called it: when they moved in, they grabbed a bunch of people and crucified them, after which the place was easier to govern.

So when Almendariz laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?

It’s hard to think of a more revolting thing to say. And it’s interesting to note that Big Al was a college professor, so he can’t claim total ignorance of words and meanings. But as if his speech weren’t bad enough, when his sickening remarks — and the even more sickening attitude that accompanied them — were finally revealed, and when he finally resigned, he said, “I regret comments I made several years ago that do not in any way reflect my work as regional administrator." So when he laughed about being brutally unjust and cruel, he was also lying — right?

So much for the self-crucified Al Armendariz. But my main target isn’t the circus of stupidity he was running. It’s the steady, unobtrusive seepage of bland amorality from public officeholders into American public discourse. All without a moment of reflection — as the following case will illustrate.

On the morning of April 2, a fat 43-year-old man with the wonderfully Joycean name of One Goh walked into the offices of tiny (100 students) Oikos University, located in an industrial park near the Oakland, California airport. Goh’s original name appears to have been Su Nam Ko, but sometime after coming to the United States from his native Korea, he changed it, thinking it too girlish. This was one sign that there might be something wrong with One Goh. There were others. He was paranoid and obnoxious; he had welshed on a variety of debts; and at the moment he was intending to kill a school official against whom he had been nursing a grievance. (All right, he was allegedly intending. Please remember that everything I say about Goh is a mere allegation; it has never been proven in court.)

Arriving at Oikos University, and discovering that the official was not in her office, Goh decided to kill other people instead. He went into a classroom, told the students to line up, and shot 10 of them. Seven of them died. Then he went out to the parking lot, stole the car of one of his victims, and fled to a shopping mall, where he surrendered to police.

That is the sad, repulsive story of One Goh. Now let’s see what the head of local law enforcement, Chief of Police Howard Jordan, had to say about it, in interviews on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and other venues.

Jordan said that the police had “learned” a lot: "We've learned that this was a very chaotic, calculated and determined gentleman that came there with a very specific intent to kill people, and that's what his motive was and that's what he carried out."

Well. How interesting. Goh, a man who burst into a classroom and proceeded to shoot 10 people at random, was a gentleman. I wish that Jordan were the only “law enforcement official” who used this term. Prison guards routinely use it for the convicts they’re processing into their domains. “All right, gentlemen, you will now remove your clothing . . .” And no, that isn’t just sarcasm. The next time you hear a cop giving the news-conference version of an arrest, see if he or she doesn’t refer to the alleged suspect as the gentleman that allegedly fired the fatal shot. In the amoral vision of the well-trained public official, even being a mass murderer doesn’t make you a bad person. You’re still a gentleman like everybody else. To put this in another way: like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.

That’s bad enough. But I’m sure you’ve noticed some peculiarities about Mr. Jordan’s expert psychological analysis. Did you mark that weird movement from chaotic to calculated to determined? Of course, this makes no sense. A calculated action may be wicked, but it can hardly be chaotic. So the Chief’s account of events is no different from other expert analyses; it’s a piece of junk. Observe, however, where the sequence ends. It ends in determined. The gentleman was determined.

Like everybody else, you’re just a vat full of chemicals that sometimes erupts. It’s not really your fault.

Determined used to be a good word, a word reserved for people who had a purpose and courageously pursued it. No more. Now everybody gets an even break. Entering the ring on one side — Howard Roark! On the other side — One Goh! It’s a fair fight: these contenders are both determined.

One Goh surrendered to the cops without putting up a fight — an action that could be described in a number of ways. One would be to note that he was determined when he slaughtered a bunch of defenseless people, but not so determined when he confronted armed policemen. That would be the moral way of representing it. But another way would be simply to note that he surrendered without putting up a fight. And naturally, that’s the way Jordan put it: “We don't believe he intended on having a confrontation with police.”

Thank God for good intentions.

But why am I picking on a public official who doesn’t happen to have a gift for words? There are a number of ways of replying to that, too. One is to say that if you don’t have a gift for words, you shouldn’t volunteer to go on television. Another is to say that the chief has a gift for words — the wrong words.

He was eloquent in suggesting sympathy-provoking causes for One Goh’s crimes. Referring to Goh’s fellow students, Jordan said the following: "They disrespected him, laughed at him. They made fun of his lack of English speaking skills. It made him feel isolated compared to the other students." This explanation was presumably supplied by Goh who was said by the chief to be not especially remorseful about his crimes (oops, actions).

So this is what you do, if you’re a police chief. Curious about the motives for a mass murder, you accept the mass murderer’s account, never noticing that it blames the victims. Meanwhile, you assume that someone who is crazy enough to shoot up a classroom should not be isolated or disrespected. Odd, isn’t it? By giving such significance to the currently atrocious crime of dissing someone, you end up dissing whoever does the dissing. Gosh, isn’t that a puzzler? What should we say about that? Or about the fact that these people who supposedly made Goh feel isolated were students at a college attended almost entirely by men and women whose first language is not English, a college founded by an Asian pastor to help Asian students feel comfortable in their new environment. But so what? One Goh didn’t feel comfortable. Someone must have made him feel uncomfortable.

That’s where amorality creep always goes. It doesn’t pause before such weighty matters as the good and bad; it slithers around them. At the end, it’s hard to tell the culprits from the victims.

Now consider what Dawinder Kaur, a 19-year-old Army reservist who was shot by One Goh, had to say about the student who was absent from her nursing class for months, then suddenly turned up and started shooting. Her brother reported her remarks: "She told me that a guy went crazy and she got shot. She was running. She was crying; she was bleeding, it was wrong."

Do you have anything to add to that? I don’t. It accounts for everything — including the fact that it was wrong.

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The Three R's: Reading, Reading, and Reading


“People asked, Should directors also be able to write? I said it was more important that they be able to read.” — Billy Wilder

If you know any teachers, you’ve probably had many opportunities to participate in a certain kind of conversation. It’s the conversation that begins with the teacher saying, “What I can’t understand is . . .” This is followed by one example, then another example, then a long list of examples of incomprehensible things that students do, or fully comprehensible things that they cannot seem to comprehend.

Yesterday I heard from a friend of mine, a teacher, and I made the mistake of asking how her class was going. This is what she wrote in reply: “I like my class. I like my students. In fact, I like them even better than the class. They’re smart; they’re unprejudiced; they’re charming and energetic. What I can’t understand is why, since virtually all of them are native speakers of English and have taken college prep courses, they still think that ‘most’ is the same as ‘almost.’ They think that to ‘service’ someone is the same as to ‘serve’ him. The difference between ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophesy’ is invisible to them, as is the difference between 'lose' and 'loose.'

“And I don’t understand why, since many of them are the children of immigrants and have no difficulty ‘relating to’ at least two languages on the level of daily conversation, much of what they read in English strikes them as an embarrassing foreign language. When they read aloud, they stop and wonder about every ‘foreign’ word, most of which aren’t foreign at all. ‘Interrogate’ turns into ‘introcate’; ‘Jonathan’ is ‘Johnnythan’ (except for their own friends named Jonathan, whose names present no difficulty, because they don’t have to be read). And heaven help you if you’re teaching about Herodotus.

“I teach a senior college prep class, and we have readings from the Bible. One of my paper assignments asks them to discuss a topic in Genesis. The assignments say clearly, ‘Do not underline or italicize the word ‘Bible’ or the names of its various books.’ As a result, their papers start in this way: ‘In The Book of Genesis, which is part of The Holy Bible, god says to Abruham . . . .’

“In short, my students are bright young people who are incapable of reading, in the sense of noticing what they read.”

I’ve quoted my friend’s message at length, because I think it identifies a general problem. This isn’t basically a writing problem or a speaking problem; it’s a reading, or should I say a not-reading, problem. By “reading” I don’t mean “reading messages on the internet, or your telephone.” I mean reading something that makes you comfortable with complex linguistic resources, employed in complex rhetorical contexts. And I mean focusing your attention on it, not just looking at it without noticing any more than its general current and tendency.

If you don’t notice what you read, or if you don’t read anything much, you may not notice what you say, either.

Here’s an example. I happen to be reading a book about American religious beliefs and customs. It’s written by two statistically fascinated social scientists, but in this case, statistical fascination doesn’t imply bad writing. They are perfectly competent. They have a good idea of the linguistic resources at their disposal, including the many means that good readers learn to simplify or complicate the sentences they write.

So, at one point in their book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell say the following about the results of their statistical research on marriage and religion: “The propensity for marriage within the faith is much higher among more religious people — not surprisingly. We can’t say for sure whether low religious commitment is a cause or a consequence of intermarriage — or more likely, both cause and consequence — but intermarriage is strongly associated with lower religious observance.”

I’m concerned with that phrase “both cause and consequence.” It’s a shorthand way of saying “each is both a cause and a consequence of the other.” Long ago, writers of English learned from writers of Latin that you don’t need to say all that. As long as you’ve set up a sequence of parallels, “cause . . . consequence,” which are both complements of “is,” you can follow it with another complement, “both cause and consequence,” and that’s it — you’ve cut to the chase.

This is an almost trivial example of linguistic competence. But I would fall off my chair if I found one of my sophomore college students using this technique. It’s not that they’re dumb; they’re very bright indeed. But “both cause and consequence” is the kind of thing you don’t find when you’re listening to television, or reading messages online; and that, I believe, is most of the reading and “serious” hearing that students do.

As the president is always saying, let me be clear about this. I read online messages myself, sometimes all day and all night. Some of the most interesting, individual, and incisive writing I’ve ever read has appeared in online commentary. Several years ago, I paid enthusiastic tribute to writing done in online communities ("The Truth vs. the Truth," Liberty, Sept.-Oct. 2003). But it appears that online reading (except, of course, when enjoyed on Liberty’s website) doesn’t give people adequate experience of what can be done with the sophisticated written language of the normal serious book. The decline of complex verbal experience began with television, which like the internet ordinarily uses a very restricted variety of words and sentence patterns. The internet accelerated the decline by rewarding simplified communication with simplified but usually agreeable and often immediate response.

When people focus on complex sentences and arguments, they learn to pay close attention to verbal cues — closer attention than they need to pay to words that come naturally in conversation. I know a highly intelligent person who cannot remember, and does not care, whether her best friend’s name is “Katherine” or “Catherine.” Apparently the first name doesn’t appear in the person’s email address, or my friend doesn’t pick up on the cue — and why should she? It makes no difference in either email or direct conversation. I know many intelligent people who have everyday fluency in two languages but haven’t the faintest idea of how to construe a really complicated sentence, in either one.

The problem is, if you don’t notice what you read, or if you don’t read anything much, you may not notice what you say, either. While the civilized world, and even the world of television news, is saying, “I saw it yesterday,” you may keep saying, “I seen it yesterday.” One of the brightest people I know keeps saying, “I coulda swore that program woulda worked.” And while everyone who reads words, notices them, and reflects on them tries to avoid trite statements, inaccurate diction, and unintended implications, the nonreader will keep saying, “I was literally blown away by the judge’s disinterest.”

A long time ago, before the internet was fully in use, by everyone, all the time, I was visiting my friends Muriel Hall and Mary Jane Hodges, who lived in a small town in New England. We were going out to eat, and on the way we discussed the bad things that happen in restaurants. I mentioned the repulsive way in which waiters ask, “You still workin’ on that?” while they’re trying to grab your plate. After all, who wants to think of dinner, especially a dinner you pay for, as some kind of work you have to do?

Muriel and MJ looked at me in horror. “My God!” they said. “That’s what they say in California?”

Oh yes.

“Well, let’s hope it never happens here.”

A year later, when I returned to their little town, I found them sunk in gloomy meditations. “It’s here,” they said. “You still workin’ on that?”

Yes, it was there. And here, there, and everywhere, it has remained. “You still workin’ on that?” is now what nonreaders call an integral part (as if there were another kind of part) of the ritual of dining. It’s chanted everywhere — as difficult to avoid as “How Great Thou Art” in a Methodist church. Every waiter I meet is a college student or a college graduate, so we’re not talking about linguistic behavior that is innocently illiterate. No, this is illiteracy practiced as a faith, a faith that, having resulted from a long process of education and social reinforcement, has become second nature to its devotees.

The standards of political correctness have them in awe. But normal linguistic cues, the kind that come from reading, not social suasion — that’s another matter.

Apparently, authors no longer wait tables while they’re trying for their first big break. Or if they’re still doing that, you won’t want to read anything they eventually get published. Like other Americans, they’ve lost their ability to pick up cues — with one exception. They are sensitive to the subtlest possibilities of offending anyone “politically.” The standards of political correctness have them in awe. But normal linguistic cues, the kind that come from reading, not social suasion — that’s another matter.

One cue that most people used to notice was the red light that comes on in your brain just before you say something that’s just naturally offensive. Used to. When “that really sucks” is taken as acceptable in all social circumstances, you know that the alarms have shorted out. Those who know me understand that I have warm respect for profanity, appropriately applied; but otherwise-useful terms are merely disturbing when they’re employed without anyone’s appearing to care what they suggest.

As I write, a man is wandering down the street outside, discussing in a loud voice (why not?) his intimate problems with his girlfriend. There are two possibilities. (1) He is using a hands-free cellphone. (2) He is insane. The salient fact is that these days, you can’t tell the difference. In the ranter’s head, no warning bells can ever ring. He might avoid the path of a passing car, but language presents no risks. Not in his perception, and not in reality, either. How often will anyone accost him and explain how unfavorably he affects the neighborhood? And if anyone did, he probably wouldn’t pay any attention. He wouldn’t pick up the cue. He’d think that the other person was crazy. Or he’d just ignore the whole thing.

That’s what happens when you make some instructive response to “You still workin’ on that?” I used to try, “Yes, I’m still eating.” Then I tried, “Yes, I’m still eating.” Then, “Do you mean, am I still eating?” On and on. The answer was always, “Right — I see you’re still workin’.” You see what I mean about missing cues.

So far, I’ve been picking on waiters, nameless persons in the street, commonplace users of the internet, normal victims of high-school education, and so on. Now I’m going to pick on the president.

We can’t blame President Obama’s linguistic failures on the internet, although we might go after his high school, or the doting folks who brought him up to think that whatever he said or did would establish some new standard of excellence. But whatever the cause, his verbal warning system never got turned on. I suspect that he would be ten points higher in the polls if he’d had the sense not to say that his nomination for the presidency would stop the oceans from rising, or that people who weren’t inclined to vote for him were clinging pathetically to their guns and their religion, or that his grandmother made racist comments, or any of a hundred other offensive things he’s said, which he simply had no clue were offensive.

There was a new one, just the other day. It was the president’s statement — no doubt carefully planned, but certainly not well meditated — about the killing of Trayvon Martin, a young man who happened, like the president, to be of African descent. Obama expressed his sympathy by saying, “You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.” In other words, all black men look alike to President Obama — because the only thing that made Trayvon Martin look like him was his race and gender. This is patently offensive, but the president didn’t have a clue that it was.

Only a person who doesn’t read many words — real words, written by real writers, not reports from campaign agents or White House officials — or think about the meanings and implications of words, could possibly have made such an offensive and silly statement.

Why did he make it? Because “someone who looks like me” is a cliché used to elicit votes from people who share your ethnicity. Its cheapness and foolishness never dawned on President Obama.

Oh, but the president is an author himself! He must know language, and be thinking deep thoughts about it! Of course, it doesn’t take much reading to write a book, as any casual perusal of an airport “bookstore” will inform you. But let’s consider the possibility. Maybe playing golf and watching basketball aren’t really the president’s favorite pursuits. Maybe that’s just a lie, put out to cover his real though unmanly interest in reading good books. Maybe, during his speeches, what he’s really thinking is, “I wish I could get back to Tolstoy.” Maybe in his private restroom there’s a copy of Montaigne sitting on the toilet. Maybe he goes to bed early so he can curl up reading Shakespeare in the original Klingon.

Whatever the cause, President Obama’s verbal warning system never got turned on.

Barack Obama wrote two books about himself and his opinions. But tell me, how many authors does he quote or mention in his speeches (which are long and frequent) or his interviews and known conversations? To which good authors does he allude? Madison? Voltaire? Thucydides? Elbert Hubbard? Mother Goose? Tell me, that I may be instructed.

None? Can’t think of any? The president’s intellectual context is television talk, stray bits of college texts, the oracles of dead “progressives” . . . even his legal education (witness his recent comments about the Supreme Court) didn’t seem to command his full attention. But context is all. If the context of your intellectual life wasn’t formed by reading books — serious, complex books — your signal system just isn’t going to work. Sorry. And the only thing you can do to fix it is (horrifying thought) to read a book.


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