If Ever, Oh Ever, a Wiz There Was

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Entering his capital in triumph after a desperately hard campaign, Frederick the Great rode with his eyes forward, refusing to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. An aide said, “Sire, the people are applauding you.” Frederick, eyes still resolutely on the road, replied, “If you put a monkey on this horse, the people would applaud him.”

That is my idea about news “anchors” such as Brian Williams.

It’s not everybody’s idea. On Feb. 8, in one of the last columns he wrote before his untimely death, David Carr said:

For some time now, there have been two versions of Brian Williams. One is an Emmy-winning, sober, talented anchor on the “NBC Nightly News” and the other is a funny, urbane celebrity who hosts “Saturday Night Live,” slow-jams the news with Jimmy Fallon and crushes it in every speech and public appearance he makes.

Each of those personas benefited the other, and his fame and appeal grew accordingly, past the anchor chair he occupied every weeknight and into a realm of celebrity that reaches all demographics and platforms. Even young people who wouldn’t be caught dead watching the evening news know who Mr. Williams is.

I’m citing this as a good example of the strange idea that there was a before and after to the Williams story — a before in which Williams was not just a celebrity but a funny, urbane, talented, appealing celebrity, and an after in which he was a dope and a blowhard, always telling ridiculous stories about himself.

As witnessed by the add-on adjectives, one can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time, but it’s still interesting to know. Unfortunately, it’s also evident that one doesn’t need to do much in order to be regarded as funny, urbane, talented, and appealing. To me, and to hundreds of millions of other people, there was never anything remarkable about Brian Williams. I don’t regard slow-jamming the news with Jimmy Fallon as something that requires a lot of talent. Williams never crushed it with me.

Williams’ talent, such as it was, consisted merely of being a news anchor who did things that are usually not associated with being a news anchor. Lots of people are celebrities for reasons like that. Preachers and politicians get loud laughs when they tell a joke, but only because people think it’s amusing that someone with such a dull job can tell any joke at all. The animals on YouTube are considered amusing for doing things that any dull, ordinary person does every day; their talent is merely being animals that are trying to do those things. But if you found out that the dog wasn’t really a dog, or the cat wasn’t really a cat, or the news anchor wasn’t anchoring much of anything, no one would want to watch any of the supposedly amusing antics. And being a news anchor requires a lot less than being a dog or cat.

One can be a celebrity without having any attractive qualities at all. That has been obvious for some time.

I am old enough to have been a victim of the Age of Cronkite, an age now deeply venerated by a lot of people who believe that at some time in the past there really was a Wizard of Oz. I say “victim” because in those days there was no national electronic news except the offerings of the three government-licensed networks. Cable TV — always called, suspiciously, “pay TV” — did not exist. Basically, it was illegal. So, for lack of competition, a complacent man of modern-liberal ideas who was capable of reading a few minutes of typecript, crying when Democrats were hurt or killed, and, essentially, reprocessing news releases from the White House (or, in times of Republican administrations, from opponents of the White House) was worshiped as a god. At the time, however, he was worshiped by nobody except people whose own intellectual equipment was so faulty that their fondest hope was to be like him.

I know of one “news anchor” who was smart and knowledgeable and a good writer of his own books. That was David Brinkley. There used to be a cable anchor who was even better than Brinkley, Brit Hume of Fox News. But Brinkley is dead, and Hume is retired. Compared with these respectable figures, Walter Cronkite was the little mouse you see in the diorama of North American mammals, nibbling seeds at a fearful distance from the lordly elk. Brian Williams is down the hall, in the insect diorama.

This kind of comparison is actually too good to waste on such a lowly subject as Williams. It would be more appropriate for creatures with real significance — dictators, kings, and presidents. In the presidential diorama, the elk herd would feature such important fauna as Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Cleveland (who commanded his aides to “tell the truth,” and meant it); the mice would be Monroe, Benjamin Harrison, Hoover, and so on; and the insects would be Tyler, Carter, Clinton, Bush (the second), and Obama. Yes, I know, we may need to bring more animals into the metaphor. But the curious — or curiously predictable — thing is that Williams actually aspired to be one of the celebrity insects, who in our times are happiest scurrying about in their hard little bodies, irritating everybody else into noticing them.

Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

In a documentary filmed in 2006 about Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 flooded low-lying parts of New Orleans, and which with a lot of help from Williams enraged the nation at the inability of Republican administrations to overrule acts of God, Williams boasted: “People say we found our voice on this story, after some long, cold years of one Bush term and some change.” What? What did he mean by that?

He provided part of an explanation in a speech at Temple University last October. He was there, as Tim Graham put it in News Busters on Feb. 10, to pick up “an award for ‘excellence.’” They give each other awards, these excellent people. And if they have to lie, well what the hell? "I have seen thousands of dead people in different places," Williams claimed, erroneously. Then he demanded the reward of sympathy for his own imaginary suffering. Speaking of himself, he said, "You have to find a place to put that [his erroneous memories] or else you can't get up in the morning." Mental image of Williams, looking for a cupboard in which to store imaginary deaths.

After that outburst, he turned to his reason for hearing a mighty significance in the “voice” he “found” in New Orleans — in the tale he told (with suitable adjustments, over the years, such as seeing dead bodies floating around the streets, or nearly dying, himself, of dysentery, or being threatened by gangs that busted into his hotel) about the New Orleans hurricane. I apologize for the syntax of the following quotation from Williams. You have to realize that this is how talented network news anchors (pay rate: $10 million a year) talk when they’re off-script:

For what it meant to our society. For what it still means. The issues. Race. The environment. Energy. Justice. The lack of it. It's all still there.

Now really, what can you make of that? Beneath the total incoherence appears to lurk some claim that by reporting (falsely) on a flood, Williams was somehow addressing issues of race (granted, most of the people who were flooded out by Katrina were African-Americans), energy (huh?), justice (it’s unjust to be flooded by a hurricane?), and “the environment.” The only way in which that last phrase makes sense is to assume that Williams is indicting Mother Nature for being, as Tennyson called her, “red in tooth and claw.” But I’m sure that’s not what he meant.

Whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap.

When something is really bad, it’s impossible to parody. Its literary effect cannot be enhanced, no matter what you do. But the political and social interest of Williams’ bizarre statements has not been fully developed. The big question is, why didn’t somebody at NBC stop him from saying all this crap? Everybody knew he was saying it, over and over again, for years. And I’m not just depending on anonymous sources to make that allegation. Given the nature of television broadcasting, it has to be true.

To me, one of the most amazing things in the world is that people give some kind of credence to the word “reality” in connection with what they see on television. Consider the term “reality TV.” Twenty feet away from those morons who face the camera and pour out their hearts about how lonely and helpless they’re feeling is a crowd of photographers, directors, producers, make-up artists, best boys, gophers, and people whose jobs cannot be described. In the same way, whenever Brian Williams had himself photographed in some bold act of “reporting,” he was surrounded by network tenders, every one of whom knew what he was doing, and knew it was crap. When he dribbled out his life story to interviewers on other media, hundreds of people back at NBC were following the publicity it gave him, and them. They knew, all right. The social and political question is, why did they let it go on, for more than a decade?

One answer is that they were lazy. But that’s the wrong answer. People who have responsible positions with TV networks aren’t sleepy little puppies; they’re sleepless sharks, required to compete with other sleepless sharks. OK, try this: nothing was done about Williams because he was being paid ten million dollars a year, and you don’t mess with that kind of investment. If you do, the investment will make like a shark and mess with you. That’s a better answer. And maybe it’s a sufficient one, although it doesn’t account for the behavior of the top predators, the ones who were doling out the money and should have been more risk-averse.

A third answer, which may be true, or partially true, is that Williams was protected by his dopey, inarticulate, yet constant political correctness. Here is the guy who interviewed the last President Bush, long after he had left office, and expressed astonishment that his recent reading matter could actually have included a Camus novel and three of Shakespeare’s plays. Astonishment. To the man’s face. Anyone not a dopey leftist would have said, “Oh, Mr. President, what impressed you most about those works?” But Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda. He believed that Bush was dumb, and he didn’t know how to deal with the counter-evidence. (Or, probably, with the literary conversation that might have ensued.)

I hope you won’t write in to accuse me of being a partisan of George Bush, either one of them. Don’t worry about that. But everybody with the least curiosity has always known that Bush (regnal years 2001–2009) is a huge reader of books. Whether they do him any good — that’s another question. But what books has Williams ever read? Certainly none that would reveal to him the individuality of human life, its constant war with social stereotypes (e.g., “Republicans have no culture”). So naturally he aspired to become a stereotype — in just the best and brightest way. He cast himself as a thoughtful advocate for such stereotyped issues as, oh, “the environment,” “justice,” and the like. No one could possibly fear that he would ever harbor a critical thought about such things.

Williams is just dopey enough to believe his own dopey propaganda.

And that, I believe, is why “liberal” commentators have been so anxious to defend him, regretting that he quit, being confident that his offenses didn’t rise to the level of lying, bringing in psychiatry to remind us that people easily and innocently confuse their memories, and doing all the other stuff they’re paid big bucks to do. I guess they don’t want to lose their own license to lie.

NBC’s official approach is different. Network pooh-bahs are taking the line that presidential spokesman Josh Earnest recently took, in response to questions about Obama’s decision not to join the Charlie Hebdo protest against terrorism, or to send anyone important to sub for him. The basic policy is that responsible officialsaccept responsibility only for successes. Failures are no one’s responsibility. They happened. Well, sort of. But now we can move on.

As Julie Pace of the AP informed her readers, Earnest explained his boss’s absence from the Paris demonstration in this way:

Earnest said the White House took the blame but that Obama himself was not personally involved in the decision. Earnest would not say who was responsible for deciding the administration's participation in the event.

In other words, it is now possible to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, or not to get on Air Force One and travel to Paris, and still have nothing whatever to do with the decision, personally. It wasn’t the decision of anyone who lives in the White House; the White House itself made the decision, or at least took the blame. Personal now means impersonal, and responsibility means freedom from responsibility.

Good. Very good.




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

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“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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