Speaking of words, has anyone noticed an uptick of mispronunciations and bizarre word choices lately on broadcast media?
I’m not even talking about Donald Trump, who is so justly famous for such. I’m talking about normal people.
I should have been keeping a list of the mispronunciations, but at the moment I’m only thinking of one: My wife heard someone say “pre-VALE-unt” on the Tube the other day, instead of, you know, prevalent. (I called just now to ask her for another, and she offered “contri-BUTE,” as opposed to contribute. And yes, the Brits might say, “CON-tribute,” but as my wife noted, these were Americans speaking.)
As for word choice, my current fave is from Friday’s installment of “The Takeaway.” A perfectly lucid, intelligent-sounding young woman with Arkansas Public Media was being interviewed about the crowd of people that state is trying to execute. She was asked (at about 2:29 on the recording) whether, when it runs out of approved poisons for lethal injection, the state would have any alternative methods of administering death. She replied, informatively:
The alternative on the books is electrocution chair…
She was probably just nervous being interviewed on national radio. Either that, or — she sounded really, really young — she has been blessed by never having heard of that fixture of more barbaric times, the electric chair. (She may have even realized she wasn’t on solid ground, based on the questioning way her voice went up at the end of the phrase, as though she were asking, “Is that a thing?”)
Ultimately, I suspect all of this is a result of far too many people trying to say far too many things on far too many outlets in much too quick a hurry.
I was riding down on the elevator this morning with a gentleman who regularly breaks his fast at the same place I do.
He was wearing his usual LBJ-style Stetson and some Clemson suspenders, having retired quite a few years back from the extension service.
As we stepped onto the elevator, as people tend to do, we started talking about the weather. (Yes, I know — we should all try harder than that.) Mindful of my audience, I expressed the wish that recently planted fields not be washed away, and mentioned how much nicer it would be if instead of getting our rain all at once, we could have a nice, steady drizzle for a number of days (my wife, the gardener, once told me that was better for crops).
He remarked that the weather used to be kinder that way, long ago. Then he said:
“When I was a boy, 75 years ago, we never heard of hurricanes. We called them…” and he paused to reach back for the term… “September Gales.”
That certainly sounds like a gentler, less menacing time.
I didn’t realize that term was a thing until I looked it up. Turns out it inspired a poem in The New Yorker, back in September 1960:
No, I wasn’t making a point about anything. Just sharing…
Is it blasphemous to criticize St. Paul’s writing? Probably not. It might seem a bit disrespectful to some, though, and I’m sensitive to that.
I hope those folks, and more importantly God, will forgive me if I confess something: His writing has long bugged me.
Sure, there are some nice, even beautifully poetic, passages — such as that one that is read so often at weddings. And I’ll even admit that there are brushstrokes of majesty in the verses I’m about to criticize specifically.
But I still find him on the whole rather tedious, and over-wordy. Especially some of those greetings in his epistles, which read to me sort of like “I, Paul, who will now insert multiple clauses setting out complex theological concepts adding up to an incredible number of words and making you despair of ever reaching the end of the sentence, in some cases describing myself and my own holiness, which you should emulate, but at other times describing a detailed scheme of thought for this new religion that I’m the first to write about, bring you greetings.”
I know there are a lot of important theological concepts in these passages, but when you try to cram all that into your lede, you’re going to lose your reader. I realize that as a journalist, I’m prejudiced on this score, but I don’t know another way to be. Forgive me, but sometimes I feel like maybe Paul was overthinking it, that perhaps Jesus’ teachings were more simple and direct than Paul made them out to be. I’ve always been partial to the way an atheist, Douglas Adams, described Christ’s message. To him, Jesus talked about “how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.”
Anyway, all this came back to me this past Sunday as I sat through this reading, Romans 5:12-19:
Brothers and sisters:
Through one man sin entered the world,
and through sin, death,
and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned—
for up to the time of the law, sin was in the world,
though sin is not accounted when there is no law.
But death reigned from Adam to Moses,
even over those who did not sin
after the pattern of the trespass of Adam,
who is the type of the one who was to come.
But the gift is not like the transgression.
For if by the transgression of the one, the many died,
how much more did the grace of God
and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ
overflow for the many.
And the gift is not like the result of the one who sinned.
For after one sin there was the judgment that brought condemnation;
but the gift, after many transgressions, brought acquittal.
For if, by the transgression of the one,
death came to reign through that one,
how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace
and of the gift of justification
come to reign in life through the one Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, just as through one transgression
condemnation came upon all,
so, through one righteous act,
acquittal and life came to all.
For just as through the disobedience of the one man
the many were made sinners,
so, through the obedience of the one,
the many will be made righteous.
And as I followed along, reading the text as I listened, I thought, I could say this in a Tweet. And I was right. Here it is:
Through the fault of one man, Adam, sin came into the world for all. And through the goodness of one man, Jesus, abundant life came to all.
And I have one character to spare. I’m not bragging. Any reasonably competent modern editor could do it.
Sure, many modern editors have been guilty of slashing, indiscriminate violence against the language in their zeal for brevity. And I’m leaving out some important theological concepts, such as “Adam, who is the type of the one who was to come.” But I’ve communicated the main concepts, right?
No, I’m not saying we’d be better off if the Bible were just a series of Tweets. I’m too much the traditionalist for that. And I love most of the Bible. But I find Paul wearing, and I’m just saying that had he had a fairly active Twitter feed, it might have tightened up his prose some. He wouldn’t have written his epistles in 140-character bites (one hopes), but at least the practice would have gotten him into the habit of getting to the point.
Of course, the fact that he didn’t is no fault of his.
I’m not talking about the thing; I’m talking about the wording.
How does that make sense?
I could see “A day without women.” We’re assuming more than one woman is taking part, and even though it’s only some women, and not all women, “a day without women” would still be a true description. (Despite the fact that, you know, the women still exist; they’re just not at their usual jobs.)
But “a day without A woman” expresses one of two unlikely extremes. Either it means one particular woman — say, Mary Smith of Anytown, USA — is staying home today, or it means a day without a single woman anywhere.
Setting the wording aside and dealing with the thing itself — how’s it going out there? So far today, I haven’t encountered a single situation in which a woman wasn’t at work. Every woman I would normally encounter is on deck, attending to duty. Nor have I noticed them wearing red. (Although I did overhear a man on an elevator jokingly asking a woman why she wasn’t wearing red. I missed her response.) So it seems like a bit of a bust.
This might be because personally, I hadn’t heard about it until last night on NPR as I was driving home. But maybe there’s some sort of lady grapevine out there to which I am not privy (which would not be a shock), and it has been organizing this thing with relentless precision for some time. I just can’t tell.
Last week, I read another excellent piece by Bret Stephens in The Wall Street Journal. It was headlined “Do We Still Want the West?,” with the subhed, “The best antidote to the politics of Trump or Le Pen is a course in Western Civ.”
Because of that paper’s pay wall, I’m going to push the envelope a mite on Fair Use here so that you get the point fully, and I hope the Journal will forgive me.
The piece begins anecdotally, telling about how the left’s culture warriors chanted Western Civ right out of the curriculum at Stanford in the ’80s, and how a vote to bring it back (a student vote, because grownups no longer dare to make such decisions) failed, 6 to 1.
Then, he sets out the problem:
The thought comes to mind following Sergei Lavrov’s Orwellian speech last week at the Munich Security Conference, in which the Russian foreign minister called for a “post-West world order.”…
Mr. Lavrov understands something that ought to be increasingly clear to American and European audiences: The West—as a geopolitical bloc, a cultural expression, a moral ideal—is in deep trouble. However weak Russia may be economically, and however cynical its people might be about their regime, Russians continue to drink from a deep well of civilizational self-belief. The same can be said about the Chinese, and perhaps even of the Islamic world too, troubled as it is.
The West? Not so much.
The United States has elected as president a man who has repeatedly voiced his disdain for NATO, the World Trade Organization and other institutions of the Western-led world order. He publicly calls the press “an enemy of the American people” and conjures conspiracy theories about voter fraud whose only purpose is to lend credence to his claim that the system is rigged. He is our first post-rational president, whose approach to questions of fact recalls the deconstructionism of the late Jacques Derrida: There are no truths; reality is negotiable….
He goes on about the crisis of faith in Western ways in Europe, and notes how the non-aligned — who once were so eager to join the Western club — are drifting toward other power centers, such as Russia and China.
In other words, moving toward cultures that still believe in themselves, or at least in their own myths.
Then comes the best part:
There was a time when the West knew what it was about. It did so because it thought about itself—often in freshman Western Civ classes. It understood that its moral foundations had been laid in Jerusalem; its philosophical ones in Athens; its legal ones in Rome. It treated with reverence concepts of reason and revelation, freedom and responsibility, whose contradictions it learned to harmonize and harness over time. It believed in the excellence of its music and literature, and in the superiority of its political ideals. It was not ashamed of its prosperity. If it was arrogant and sinful, as all civilizations are, it also had a tradition of remorse and doubt to temper its edges and broaden its horizons. It cultivated the virtue of skepticism while avoiding the temptation of cynicism.
And it believed all of this was worth defending — in classrooms and newspapers and statehouses and battlefields….
Donald Trump was elected by people who for whatever reason just don’t seem to get the fundamental assumptions of the West — they don’t know the history; they don’t embrace the ideals. It’s hard to talk to them about what’s wrong, because they don’t see it. Maybe it’s too late for them, but it’s time we started overtly teaching our children what’s valuable about the West.
But first, of course, we need to decide whether we still believe in it ourselves…
A word cloud of Trump’s Tweets from the past week.
E.J. Dionne’s latest column (“The issues all Trump foes can agree on“) reminds me of a thought that’s run through my head a few times in recent weeks, but which I’ve neglected to write about. Here’s the pertinent part of the column (but I recommend you go read the whole thing):
And Trump’s critics don’t have to agree on a single policy to bemoan his crude and sloppy use of language and to see this as a genuine obstacle to honorable politics and a well-functioning government. He doesn’t just want to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which bars religious organizations from getting involved in elections. He wants to “destroy” it. He lightly threatens war with Mexico to go after “bad hombres” and undermines our relationship with Australia by recklessly accusing one of our very closest friends of wanting to export the “next Boston bombers.”
And just this weekend, Trump showed his disrespect for the rule of law by denouncing the “so-called judge” who blocked his administration’s travel ban. In an interview for broadcast Sunday, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly described Vladimir Putin as a “killer,” and Trump astonishingly but off-handedly replied: “Well, you think our country is so innocent?”
As George Orwell taught us, how people talk offers a clue about how they think and what they value. Our language, he wrote, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He added: “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
Pretending that there is something “brilliant” or “populist” about how Trump communicates is one of the worst forms of elitism because it demeans ordinary citizens who have always appreciated eloquence, as our greatest leaders knew. And please don’t compare George W. Bush to Trump on this score. We poked fun at Bush’s ability to mangle sentences, but he respected the need to find words that could move and unite the nation….
Some of my friends still have trouble getting just what is so awful about Trump. And while the correlation is far from perfect, I’ve noticed that there’s something of a tendency for such folks to be more number people than word people.
Maybe that’s totally off-base, but it seems a handy way of explaining a phenomenon that has amazed me from the moment last year when Trump started winning primaries. All this time, I’ve thought:
How could anybody possibly consider a guy who talks like that for any sort of leadership position, much less president of the United States?
It’s not just what he says, although he says some pretty awful things. It’s the way he says them. The man’s a Wharton graduate, but he communicates like someone who never made it to high school — and probably didn’t do too well in English in the lower grades, either.
Being a skilled and subtle communicator is so obviously a prerequisite for the presidency that it’s tough for me to understand how anyone could even take the first step toward considering him, given the way he expresses himself. Just watch five minutes of him in those early debates, and you’d immediately put him in the “unqualified” bin, regardless of what he was talking about at the time.
But I’m a word guy. Not everyone is. And those who aren’t are likely not only to dismiss what I’m saying as rank snobbishness, but to toss it out as irrelevant.
And maybe my analysis is completely off. But there is some reason why there’s such a gulf — nay, an ocean — between me and people who could ever have contemplated voting for Trump.
And this seemed like one possible explanation. So I thought I’d share it…
Why these activists don’t like calling themselves ‘pro-life’ anymore
It was about how younger opponents of abortion, unlike their elders, often prefer to call themselves “antiabortion.”
The trouble is, the piece never really delivered on the first word in the hed: It didn’t really explain “why.”
It tried to, but it didn’t add up at all. For instance:
Many Americans are confused by what “pro-life” even means, and assume they must subscribe to a conservative agenda on many social issues, not just abortion, to join a “pro-life” group. “Maybe they’re pro-gay marriage or they’re pro-marijuana legalization. So they feel like, ‘I can’t be pro-life.’”
She thinks using the word “antiabortion” might help recruit those people.
The angst surrounding “pro-life” goes beyond the association with conservative politics, and beyond the confusion that makes people do a double-take as they try to remember: Which side is “pro-life” and which side is “pro-choice” again?…
What? If people are that confused, maybe they should avoid engaging the subject at all — it might sprain their brains.
And “the association with conservative politics?” What the what?
You’d think “anti-abortion” has more of an association with “conservative politics,” assuming one accepts the facile labels of our day. It suggests a very selective approach — and distances the activist from more liberal ideas. “Pro-life” suggests Bernardin’s Consistent Ethic of Life, which includes such things as opposition to capital punishment or to unjust wars.
I have no problem with being called “antiabortion” myself. As far as the one issue goes, it’s certainly descriptive. That’s why I’m cool with most news organizations’ style on the matter:
The Associated Press, The Washington Post, New York Times and most other large mainstream news organizations have long made it a matter of policy to refer to “antiabortion” vs. “abortion rights” activists, instead of the terms “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice.”
But why would any abortion opponent oppose “pro-life?” There’s just no understanding these wacky kids today…
There are two things I love, and they are opposites — those that delight by running counter to expectations and thereby undermining oversimple assumptions, and those that run SO true to stereotype that they reassure the harried mind that there is order in the world and it can be understood.
So I particularly enjoyed this, from The Wall Street Journal this morning:
A very socialist Christmas: Venezuela’s Maduro destroyed the currency. Now he’s after the toys. https://t.co/NpOiJLgv9V
If you were trying to lampoon the WSJ‘s editorial proclivities, you couldn’t have come up with a better headline. You take the Journal‘s disdain for anything that smack of socialism, and you add a touch of Grinch: Not only do those socialists dishonor the holy marketplace, but they want to take the kids’ toys, too!
It’s so perfect, it’s satire.
But here’s what really makes it special — the whipped cream and cherry on top: The Journal is right! The words accurately describe something that’s happening! None of it’s made up. The Venezuelan government is actually confiscating (some) toys before they can get to the kids.
So I enjoyed that — while at the same time feeling bad for the kids, and for their parents, trying to cope with 470 percent inflation. Which is way worse than not being able to find a certain brand of toy, which, let’s face it, is to some extent more of a First World Problem.
I could have done without the standard libertarian reference to “other people’s money” at the end, but that will probably delight Doug, so… something for everybody. Merry Christmas, Doug!
I share these with you because they are the only two Tweets today by the man who was just elected to head our nation.
I share them because… yeah… this is just the way we expect a president of the United States to spend his time and communicate with the world — like an insecure 10-year-old boy whose chief concern is that people don’t think he’s as awesome as he really is….
A lot of them may have RUN from him, but too few stood up to be counted.
Some of you have expressed the opinion that I’ve just gone overboard in describing the unique threat to our country that is Donald Trump.
I entirely disagree. The one thing that, for me, would make a Trump victory even worse would be if I were kicking myself tomorrow, thinking, If only I’d tried harder, maybe I could have persuaded one or two people…
What’s that sports expression? I don’t want this to end with me thinking I’d left anything on the field. Or that, wait… that I hadn’t left it all on the field. Whatever. Something like that.
Besides, there are so many things to be said about the worst man ever to capture a major-party endorsement for POTUS. And the fact that anyone would consider voting for him a good idea is so stunning that at the very least, I must give vent to my amazement. (Today, I read yet another piece purporting to explain why people would support him, and sorry — it doesn’t get the job done. It still doesn’t add up.)
But let’s say, as Jerry Brown used to say, that less is more. Let’s say a minimalist approach would have persuaded more of my interlocutors — or, at least some.
Since the many things that are wrong with Trump were not the subject of the piece, his disqualifying qualities were dealt with merely in passing, very quickly. An excerpt from the piece:
WHEN THE republic was in danger, where did you stand? History will ask that question of Republican leaders who knew that Donald Trump was unfit to be commander in chief.
Some said so, despite possible political risks. Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.), Sen. Jeff Flake (Ariz.), Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former high-ranking officials such as Brent Scowcroft, Colin L. Powell, Henry M. Paulson Jr., Michael V. Hayden and Robert M. Gates did their best to help Americans understand the risk of electing an ignorant, thin-skinned man with no relevant experience. Scores of respected former ambassadors and assistant secretaries also spoke out. Meanwhile, other senior statesmen were quiet; George P. Shultz and Henry A. Kissinger, for example, said only that they would endorse neither candidate. Their voices could have made — could still make — a difference. So could the voices of former presidents: Though there have been hints that former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush support Hillary Clinton, they have not taken the public stand their nation needs….
Did you notice it? The Post‘s editorial board dealt adequately with Trump using only two, relatively mild, modifiers: “ignorant,” and “thin-skinned.” (They also said he had “no relevant experience,” but that was hardly necessary. That’s just one reason why he is so ignorant.)
Only one thing is missing, really, to completely persuade any reasonable, informed person that there is NO WAY this man could be considered for this job, even for a second: The fact that he is not merely ignorant; he is unwilling to learn. (He’s not like these guys.) Which, of course, is the worst, most damning, and permanent sort of ignorance. This man actually thinks he knows everything he needs to know. He’s utterly convinced of it.
That, in and of itself, completely disqualifies him. Maybe, under desperate circumstances, we could deal with a guy who could learn on the job, but not someone who refuses to.
The “thin-skinned part” takes him from merely grossly unqualified to being dangerous. This is a man who stops everything when he believes he has been disrespected — which is, of course, a lot of the time (and, in his defense, he’s not always imagining it). There is no issue so important that it cannot be dropped while he goes on the attack against the offender. Getting even is, for him at such times, the number-one priority in his universe.
You just don’t hand the awesome, historically unprecedented power of this job — which includes (and while it gets tiresome with repetition, one feels obliged to mention this until people actually listen) the ability to destroy most life on the planet in a matter of minutes — to someone who considers his own personal grudges so pathetically important. Even if he doesn’t decide to nuke somebody because they made a comment about his hands (I actually think the chances of his doing so are slim, although not quite “none”), the fact is that for a time, he wouldn’t be able to think about anything else. We’ve seen it. And that’s bad enough.
Yes, there are many, many other things that can be said against this man — the racism, the xenophobia, the lifelong habit of treating women like dirt. Other stuff.
But to a reasonable, thoughtful person who takes voting seriously, “ignorant” and “thin-skinned” should be more than enough…
I pretty much zipped through the prepared stuff in order to get to my favorite part — questions. But here’s what I started with:
I was asked to come talk about the current election, and I hardly know where to start.
I think I’ll start with PREVIOUS elections.
We’ve been talking quite a bit on my blog this week about The State’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton on Sunday – or rather, to put it more accurately, The State’s endorsement of the person running against Donald Trump. The paper has no love for Secretary Clinton.
Of course, my responsibility for The State’s endorsements ended when I left the paper in 2009, but it remains a subject that highly interests me.
It was noted in the editorial that this was the first time the paper had endorsed a Democrat for president since 1976.
Someone – a person I’m pretty sure almost always votes Democratic [is that fair, Kathryn?] – asked on my blog why we endorsed all those Republicans. Which is a fair enough question to ask me, since I don’t like either party, and think they have both been enormously destructive to the country in recent decades.
I could only answer for the elections in the years when I was on the editorial board, so here goes:
In 1996, We liked Dole better than Clinton – although by the end, I had my doubts about Dole, and asked Tom McLean, who was then editor, to write it instead of me, which he did. But personally, I still voted for Dole.
In 2000 — We liked Bush better than Gore – as a board, anyway – personally I was rather noncommittal. I was lukewarm on Bush because I had much, much preferred John McCain to him, and had argued very strenuously for endorsing McCain in the primary. We had endorsed Bush instead, which was probably the biggest argument I ever lost as editorial page editor. Also… I worked in Tennessee in the 70s and 80s and got to know Al Gore, interacted with him a good bit, and liked him. But after eight years as Clinton’s vice president, I liked him less. On election night, I remember the lead changing back and forth, and at each point, I couldn’t decide how I felt. I only knew that when the Supreme Court decided Bush had won Florida, I was relieved, and grateful to Gore for promptly conceding at that point.
2004 — We disliked Kerry more than we disliked Bush (if you look back, you’ll see most of the editorial was about Bush’s flaws, but ultimately we didn’t trust Kerry on national security – and for me, that tends to trump everything)
2008 — My man John McCain was running, although we liked Obama a lot. That was really an unusual election for us at the paper. For once, the two candidates we had endorsed in their respective party primaries back at the start of the year faced each other in the general. So we were happy either way, but I had been waiting 8 years to endorse McCain, and I wasn’t going to miss my chance. Besides, Obama was untested. We trusted McCain’s experience.
In 2009, I was laid off from the paper for the sin of having too high a salary when the paper was desperate to cut costs. So I wasn’t involved in 2012, or this year.
Another way to explain our preference for Republicans over the years, a very simplistic one: we were essentially a center-right board, and as long as the GOP remained a center-right party and the national Democrats were so ideologically liberal, we would tend toward Republicans. But I don’t like that overly simple explanation because I don’t like the liberal OR conservative labels, and we prided ourselves on being pragmatic. [I then went on a brief digression of our official point of view, which we called, rather oxymoronically, “pragmatic conservatism.”]
This brings us to today.
The general thrust of the editorial page remains the same as in my day. The core of the editorial board is Cindi Scoppe, and the joke during our many years working together was that we were two people with the same brain. Of course, there are different people involved along with her (Mark Lett, Sara Borton, Paul Osmundson), but the general editorial positions remain the same.
And in this election cycle, the paper did the only thing it could do under the circumstances: It endorsed the only person on the planet in a position to stop Donald Trump from becoming president of the United States.
As I said, the paper was pleased to endorse Republicans as long as it remained a sensible, center-right party. This year, the GOP completely went off the rails, and nominated a man who really isn’t any kind of conservative: an abysmally ignorant – and unwilling to learn – bully who considers attacking people who have criticized him personally as his top priority. A man who admires tyrants, who would abandon our allies, throw out nuclear nonproliferation policies that have served us since 1945, who plays to xenophobia, who would institute religious tests for entering the country, and the list goes on and on.
But that seems like a good place to stop and take questions. I’d love to get questions about local politics, but I can speak to national ones as well. Whatever y’all prefer…
My audience did not disappoint, but provided enough good questions to keep a likely interaction going until time was called. We pretty much stuck to national politics, which I guess was to some extent my fault, for having started us in that direction. But the discussion was interesting, relevant and civil. And you can’t beat that…
I thank my optometrist, Dr. Philip Flynn, for inviting me, and the Club for putting up with me this morning.
I haven’t posted today in part because I accepted Steven Millies’ invitation to go speak to his poli sci class at USC Aiken, and I just got back.
Before I tell you about the class, I want to share this door I found in the Humanities building while looking for Dr. Millies’ class. You’ll see that it leads, according to the formal signage at top, to the Writing Room.
But no! When you look a bit closer (below), things are not what they seem. I don’t know why the wording of the less-formal sign struck me as so funny, but it did. The disagreement was just so stark — This is the Writing Room… NO! This is emphatically NOT the Writing Room. The Writing Room is over THERE, dummy!… The first sentence alone would have been funny. But the second sentence, with the little arrow, is what made it wonderful. I almost picture Marty Feldman pointing and saying, “There wolf! There Writing Room!…”
Anyway, I offered to speak to Steven’s class during a conversation after the Bernardin Lecture the other night (he and I serve on the lectureship’s committee), when he told me his American Government class was talking about media this week. He took me up on it.
And I had a blast, especially since I didn’t have to prepare a lecture. I just showed up and answered questions. Sometimes, with undergraduates or younger students, it’s hard to get questions, or at least hard to get relevant ones. This class did great. I hope I did all right for them.
But I seriously, seriously doubt they enjoyed it as much as I did. It’s hard to explain, but standing in front of a room taking and answering questions gets me really jacked up. I don’t know what it is. I’m not crazy about giving a speech, because it’s so… one-way. I stand up there giving a prepared talk, and I look at all those people staring at me, and I wonder, Is this interesting them at all? Is this what they were looking for when they invited me?
And I’m never sure, unless they laugh at a joke or something. So when I’m asked to speak, I always ask whether it’s OK to keep the talk short and move on as soon as possible to Q&A. Then I come alive — and sometimes even the audience seems to enjoy it.
After the class, I ran out to my car, all wired up, to make an important phone call I had scheduled for that time, and I really hope I didn’t… overflow too much on the person I was calling. I may have. I looked when we were done, and the call had lasted 41 minutes. Later, driving back to Columbia, I returned a call from earlier from a reporter at The New York Times wanting to talk about something having to do with SC politics, and I may have overdone that a bit, too. To my great surprise, shortly after that call, I was already back in West Columbia…
So basically, I guess, I’ve been blogging all over people today… just not in writing.
Anyway, I’ll give y’all an Open Thread in the next hour or so. I hope y’all appreciate it more than y’all usually do on a Friday afternoon, harrumph…
Bob Dylan was named the surprise winner of the Nobel prize for literature in Stockholm today “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”.
Speaking to reporters after the announcement, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, said she hoped the Academy would not be criticised for its choice.
“The times they are a’changing, perhaps,” she said, comparing the songs of the American songwriter, who had yet to be informed of his win, to the works of Homer and Sappho.
“Of course he [deserves] it – he’s just got it,” she said. “He’s a great poet in the English-speaking tradition. And he is a wonderful sampler, a very original sampler. He embodies the tradition and for 54 years now he has been at it, reinventing himself constantly, creating a new identity.”
Danius said the choice of Dylan may appear surprising, “but if you look far back, … you discover Homer and Sappho. They wrote poetic texts that were meant to be listened to, performed, often together with instruments, and it’s the same way for Bob Dylan. We still read Homer and Sappho, and we enjoy it. Same thing with Bob Dylan – he can be read and should be read. And he is a great poet in the grand English tradition.”…
Let’s see: There was V.S. Naipaul in 2001 — I’ve been meaning to read something by him, but haven’t gotten to it….
Ah, William Golding in 1983! Pass me the conch, and I’ll tell you what I know about him.
I’ve read one book by Gabriel García Márquez (1982). Didn’t like it. Even though I thought it would be awesome, being about Simón Bolívar, whom I had been taught to revere in history classes in Ecuador. Instead, it was just… unpleasant… wearying.
1976 — Surely I’ve read something by Saul Bellow… nope. But I have read Bernard Malamud and Chaim Potok, in my defense.
As far as my being able to relate, Dylan blows all but Hemingway away. (And yes, I’m embarrassed to admit this way that no one will say to me, “you’re very well-read, it’s well known.” But this is a blog where we tell truths, is it not?)
Let’s set aside for a moment this contest of character and pretend we have the luxury of talking about ideas in this presidential election.
Were that the case, the most interesting moment in last night’s debate would have come at this point:
RADDATZ: … This question involves WikiLeaks release of purported excerpts of Secretary Clinton’s paid speeches, which she has refused to release, and one line in particular, in which you, Secretary Clinton, purportedly say you need both a public and private position on certain issues. So, Tu (ph), from Virginia asks, is it OK for politicians to be two-faced? Is it acceptable for a politician to have a private stance on issues? Secretary Clinton, your two minutes…
Let’s set aside the loaded wording of the question (“two-faced”), and look at the underlying issue, which speaks to the nature of leadership and the ways we communicate in a representative democracy.
Can an honest person have a public position that differs from what he thinks in his heart of hearts? Yes, he (or she) can. In fact, there are times when he or she must.
As a longtime editorial page editor, I’m quite familiar with this. Most of the time, our editorial position was consistent with my own personal position. But we operated by consensus — I was not the only member of the board — and what we ended up with was not always exactly what I thought. I deferred to my colleagues, at least to the extent of modifying the position so that we could get everybody on board. And once the decision was made, I did not publicly say things to contradict it, because that would have militated against our consensus. I had a duty as leader of the board not to undermine its positions — even on the extremely rare occasions when our official position was very different from my own, such as when we endorsed George W. Bush over John McCain in 2000.
But my care with my utterances in order to keep the board together was nothing compared to what a president faces.
The president of the United States daily, if not hourly, faces situations in which it would be grossly impolitic, unwise, and even harmful to the country to say precisely what he or she personally thinks or feels about a situation. A president must be diplomatic, not only with representatives of other nations, but with multiple contending and overlapping constituencies right here at home. This is why a president is surrounded by people who are talented at helping choose precisely the right words needed to help move things in a desired direction. It would be grossly irresponsible, indeed a dereliction of duty and perhaps a deadly danger to the country, for a president simply to spout off from the gut without pausing to temper the message (see “Trump, Donald”).
People who don’t work professionally with words are sometimes pleased to call carefully moderating one’s speech “lying.” Those of us who work with words know better. You can say the same true thing many different ways, and how you choose to say it can make all the difference between communicating effectively and having the desired effect, or failing miserably.
Secretary Clinton responded this way to that loaded question:
As I recall, that was something I said about Abraham Lincoln after having seen the wonderful Steven Spielberg movie called “Lincoln.” It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment. It was principled, and it was strategic…
Did you see the film? If so, you know there was a lot more to Lincoln than the fine words in the Gettysburg Address. He may have been the most skilled, determined, clear-eyed, illusionless man ever to hold the office — and the most effective. (The only two men I can imagine coming close to him in these regards were FDR and LBJ.)
The film shows Lincoln involved in the noble task of permanently saving our country from the stain of slavery, going beyond what fine words or even four years of unbelievable bloodshed could accomplish. The Emancipation Proclamation had been a stratagem in winning the war (and one he had held back from issuing, with flawless timing, until the political climate was ripe for it), an ephemeral, self-contradictory thing that did not truly free the slaves. He needed something that went far beyond that; he needed to amend the Constitution.
And he pulled out all the stops — all the stops — in getting that done. Set aside the unseemly spectacle of promising government jobs to lame-duck congressmen — that was routine horse-trading in that day. Let’s look at the central deception — and the word is apt — that was essential to getting the 13th Amendment passed.
Lincoln knew that once the war ended, Congress would see little need to ban slavery — and the war was in danger of ending before he could get it done. In fact, a delegation led by Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens was on its way to Washington to sue for peace. It would in fact have arrived if Lincoln hadn’t ordered Union troops to detain it some distance from the capital. While the delegation cooled its heels, Lincoln worked feverishly to get his amendment passed.
At a critical moment in the debate in Congress in the film, a rumor spreads that there is a Confederate peace delegation in the city. This threatens to defeat the amendment. Lincoln tells Congress that not only is there no such group in Washington, but that he does not expect there to be. He conveniently leaves out the fact that the reason he doesn’t expect there to be is because he has issued orders to that effect.
Another instance in which Lincoln has a public position differing from his private position is with regard to Republican power broker Francis Preston Blair. The reason the Confederate delegation started on its journey to begin with was that Lincoln had reluctantly allowed Blair to reach out to Richmond. Why had he done that? Because Blair urgently wanted peace, and Lincoln needed his support to keep conservative Republicans in line on the amendment.
So… Lincoln did these things — playing every angle, and saying what needed to be said to the people who needed to hear them –, and rather drawing our disapprobation for having done so, he is rightly revered.
As I said above, the only two presidents I can see even coming close to Lincoln in terms of political skill and effectiveness were Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Which reminds me of a contretemps from 2008. An excerpt from my column of January 20 of that year:
It started when the senator from New York said the following, with reference to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It took a president to get it done.”
The white woman running against a black man for the Democratic Party nomination could only get herself into trouble mentioning Dr. King in anything other than laudatory terms, particularly as she headed for a state where half of the voters likely to decide her fate are black.
You have to suppose she knew that. And yet, she dug her hole even deeper by saying:
“Senator Obama used President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to criticize me. Basically compared himself to two of our greatest heroes. He basically said that President Kennedy and Dr. King had made great speeches and that speeches were important. Well, no one denies that. But if all there is (is) a speech, then it doesn’t change anything.”…
Hillary Clinton was not my choice for president that year. Several weeks later, we endorsed Sen. Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination (right after endorsing John McCain — whom we would later endorse in the general — for the Republican).
Her point was that fine words (such as those with which her opponent excelled) are well and good, but if you want to see a good thing get done, you need someone who will roll up sleeves, dig in and do what it takes. Which LBJ never shied away from.
When she was a fresh grad at Wellesley, Hillary Clinton was dismissive of politics being the art of the possible. As she grew up, ran into brick walls of opposition and in other ways found how resistant the world could be to fine words and finer sentiments, she learned. Her concept of what it took to get things done — and of what things were doable — matured.
Hence what she said in that leaked speech.
I don’t say this to defend Hillary Clinton personally. As I said, I wanted to raise a point that we might discuss were we in a different situation. But we’re not in a different situation. Right now, our representative democracy faces supreme degradation, and possibly worse, if Donald Trump is elected. So we have that appalling threat to deal with, and fine points and ethical ambiguities are not the order of the day.
So pretend that speech — the one to the paying audience, not to Wellesley grads — was delivered by someone else. Think for a moment about the ideas being expressed, not the person expressing them.
It’s a question that all of us should wrestle with as we grow and mature. When I was a young and cocky editor, very free with my thoughts on everything, and to hell with whether others agreed, my then-boss posed me a question: Would you rather be right, or effective?
Of course, I wanted to be both. But what about when you can’t be?
Bill Castronuovo, a former editor at The State, shared this with me today.
This is what Trump, the candidate from Howard Stern, has done to America. He’s dragged the Gray Lady, the most staid newspaper in America, down to the point that she has to publish gutter language in to cover what’s going on in the campaign for president of the United States.
He’s also caused my blog to get down on the same level in order to tell you about it.
And the world is not better for that having happened…
Long ago, when my friend and colleague Warren Bolton and I were both still in The State‘s newsroom, before moving to editorial — we’re talking maybe early ’90s — Warren helped lead some newsroom discussions on race.
The idea was help us all do a better, more informed job writing about subjects bearing on that issue, or set of issues, in South Carolina.
One thing I remember in particular was a meeting in which Warren and another African-American colleague urged us to avoid the habit of referring carelessly to “the black community,” as though it were some monolithic, coherent entity that thought and acted in unison, like a colonial animal.
I took that to heart because it made a lot of sense to me, and ever since I’ve hesitated to use that construction, as well as similar ones such as “LGBT community,” “Hispanic community,” and what have you. After all, we don’t write of, say, women as “the female community,” because most of us recognize women as a set of individuals containing too much diversity for such a generalization. We should follow suit with other broadly defined groups.
(Of course, it in part appealed to me because we in the white heterosexual male community are well known to prefer to deal with people as individuals rather than in terms of aggregations, something which sometimes causes members of other “communities” to counsel us to “check our privilege” and stop trying to destroy other groups’ sense of solidarity so that we may oppress them individually. Which we, both communally and individually, tend to find maddening. Smiley face.)
I am reminded of all this because of this piece in The Washington Post urging the great unwashed out there to stop referring to “the media” as though they were a single, coherent thing with one mind, acting in unison. An excerpt:
Please stop calling us “the media.”
Yes, in some sense, we are the media. But not in the blunt way you use the phrase. It’s so imprecise and generic that it has lost any meaning. It’s — how would you put this? — lazy and unfair.
As I understand your use of this term, “the media” is essentially shorthand for anything you read, saw or heard today that you disagreed with or didn’t like. At any given moment, “the media” is biased against your candidate, your issue, your very way of life.
But, you know, the media isn’t really doing that. Some article, some news report, some guy spouting off on a CNN panel or at CrankyCrackpot.com might be. But none of those things singularly are really the media.
Fact is, there really is no such thing as “the media.” It’s an invention, a tool, an all-purpose smear by people who can’t be bothered to make distinctions….
This piece, by the way, was not written by “the media,” or even by The Washington Post. It was written by this guy named Paul Farhi who is one of many individuals who works at the Post. If you want to be properly pedantic about it (and who wouldn’t want to be that?), you would only say that “The Washington Post said” something if it was said in an editorial — an editorial being an unsigned piece by the Post‘s editorial board, not something written by an op-ed columnist or someone else whose byline appears on the piece.
Yeah, I know — confusing. But to keep it simple, you’ll sound a lot smarter if you don’t refer sweepingly to “the media” as doing or saying or thinking this or that.
And we in the media community (which includes the vast army of us who no longer have actual media jobs, and a more cantankerous crowd you are unlikely to find) will appreciate it….
Anyway, yesterday I wasn’t at my own church — it was an Episcopal Church — but the readings are the same as ours, so I assumed the same question would have occurred to me. Unfortunately, the homilist chose the Gospel reading as his text — which was fine, except that the Gospel was a pretty straightforward cautionary tale, the one about the beggar Lazarus and the rich man who die and go to separate places, and didn’t need much explication to my mind.
What I had hoped somebody would explain to me was the first reading, the Old Testament one, which went like this:
No, wait! It wasn’t the same reading! We Catholics had an entirely different one, I find — and one that makes perfect sense to me in the context of the day’s theme (the Gospel readings were the same, and apparently the 2nd Reading, too, although I confess Paul’s letters tend to go in one ear and out the other — too much throat-clearing). You can find it here; it’s from Amos Chapter 6.
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him.
Jeremiah said, The word of the Lord came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of theLord.
And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
That’s from Jeremiah; the Amos reading is offered as an alternative.
Anyway, can someone explain to me why we were reading that Jeremiah passage? Why is it in the lectionary at all? What’s the moral of the story? Where’s the editorial point, to put it in my vernacular? God tells Jeremiah to do a real estate deal, and he does, and then goes into more detail about it than I’d want even if I were a real estate attorney?
Here’s my wild guess as to what the point is: I think it’s sort of, even when you’re in a time of great social upheaval (Nebuchadrezzar bearing down on Jerusalem), you should carry on with life and its dealings. If that’s true, then it’s related to one of my favorite OT passages, also from Jeremiah, on carrying on normal life even while in exile:
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon:5Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their fruits.6Take wives and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters. Increase there; do not decrease. 7Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the LORD, for upon its welfare your own depends.b
(And yeah, I love that one in part because the last bit is way communitarian.) But if that is the point, it’s made really awkwardly and obscurely. Other thoughts?
I’ve commented on this before, and I find myself wondering whether others experience it.
For my entire writing life, whenever I’ve looked back at something I wrote two or three years earlier, it’s always so much better than what I was writing at the time I looked.
For instance, today I was looking for a good link to go with another post, and somehow ran across this, in which I found a slightly different way to express my oft-expressed frustration with the artificially binary aspect of our politics. The immediate subject was Barack Obama:
Most political commentators, trapped in the extremely limiting notion that the politicians they write and speak about must either be of the left or right, can’t make him out. But he keeps making perfect sense to me. Perhaps I should send a memo out to the MSM letting them know that there’s a third way they can think of a politician (actual, there’s an infinite number of ways, but let’s not blow their little minds; one step at a time). There’s left (as “left” is popularly and imperfectly described) and right (as “right” is popularly and imperfectly described), and then there’s Brad Warthen. As in, “The candidate’s recent statements have been Warthenesque,” or “That was a distinctly Braddish move he made last week.”
It would open up whole new vistas for our national political conversation. Certainly a broader landscape than what we’re used to, with its limited expectations…
Yes! I liked that. And not just because it involved placing yours truly at the center of the political universe. No, it’s not Hemingway and still less Shakespeare (and frankly, now that I’m sharing it with you I’m not enjoying it nearly as much as when I ran across it an hour ago). But it was a nice, breezy, fun little bite that had a flair to it, and it made me smile a bit. Nothing special, just another way of expressing the UnParty idea. Another way of saying that for many of us in this country — I am but one of millions in this regard — the way the media write and talk about politics makes us feel left out. If only our ways of thinking were taken into account…
My staff photo from 1987: Back then I could WRITE…
And I thought, for the millionth time, why don’t I write like that now?
But that’s always the way. I wrote that in 2011, and sometime in 2011 I no doubt looked back at something from 2005, when I first started blogging, and thought That’s the real stuff! Why don’t I have stuff like that now?
And in 2005, I was mooning over the first columns I wrote for The State’s editorial page in 1994 and thinking that was what punditry was all about; what had happened to me?
And in the early ’90s I probably ran across a box of old columns from when I was still at The Jackson Sun ten years earlier and thinking, that’s when I had the real fire…
I can’t wait until the year 2020, when this pooge I’m writing now will look like pure gold…
You know how I’m always blathering about how I think street protests, among other unseemly forms of expression, are generally unhelpful? That’s what Barton’s on about. And the problem, as he identifies it, is imprecision. Quite right.
Noting that Kaepernick now protests that he was misunderstood, Barton writes:
He was right. It was a misunderstanding. And that’s precisely the problem with symbols and symbolic gestures in the realm of political debate — they’re understood by different people in different ways, and not always in ways consistent with original intent. By choosing not to stand (he sat on the bench during the anthem for the Aug. 26 game against Green Bay and knelt during the anthem for the Sept. 1 game in San Diego), Kaepernick wants to say something about racial injustice. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told the NFL Network after the Packers game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”
Kaepernick evidently has some strong views on this subject, but what are they, exactly? Does he believe, say, that most Americans are racists? That most police officers target African Americans for harassment? That the United States as a whole deliberately and systematically persecutes African Americans? Somehow I doubt he would agree with any of these things without qualification — and yet they are all rational inferences from his refusal to honor the flag of a “country that oppresses black people and people of color.”…
Indeed. Barton is a wordsmith, and seems to share my horror at the thought of expressing oneself without being specific and explanatory.
And yet we are surrounded by people doing precisely that, from tattoos to grand public gestures. Harrumph.
In an age when there is no barrier to blogging, for instance, there is no excuse for failing to explain oneself — especially when one has done something that shouts only one thing clearly: “Look at me!”
As young mothers tell toddlers, use your words.
Now, changing the subject slightly, Barton’s piece goes on to say:
When pressed further to explain his views after the Chargers game, he wasn’t helpful. What was he trying to convey? “The message is that we have a lot of issues in this country that we need to deal with. We have a lot of people that are oppressed. We have a lot of people that aren’t treated equally, aren’t given equal opportunities. Police brutality is a huge thing that needs to be addressed. There are a lot of issues that need to be talked about, need to be brought to life, and we need to fix those.” President Obama reinforced that message on Monday. “If nothing else,” the president said, “what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.” Reminding Americans that they need to “talk about” and “deal with” a problem that already consumes them is not, perhaps, the wisest of political exhortations. And in any case, one wonders what nation in the history of the world has not had dire “issues” that needed to be talked about and dealt with. Has there ever been a nation sufficiently issue-free to merit Kaepernick’s reverence?
I call your attention in particular to this bit: “Reminding Americans that they need to ‘talk about’ and ‘deal with’ a problem that already consumes them is not, perhaps, the wisest of political exhortations.”
I’ve been told for all my adult life that we need to “talk” about race in America. And you know me; I have generally obliged without hesitation. I can talk all day and all night about such a thing, and on occasion can even bring myself to listen.
Why are we losing solid hours out of our day, wearing our fingertips numb on keyboards and touch screens in an attempt to explain to some dense dude-bro why “All lives matter” is a messed up and functionally redundant response to “Black lives matter”?…
If Colin Kaepernik’s decision to stand against social injustice by sitting during the National Anthem has shown us anything else, it’s that much of white America is more bothered by our methods of protest than they ever will be about the injustices we’re protesting. Let’s dispel the notion that if we only protested better, white people will miraculously become more receptive of our message and less scornful of our audacity in speaking out….
Black people, it is long past time for us to start practicing self-care. And if that means completely disengaging with white America altogether, then so be it….
Zack Linly seems to have given up on making himself understood at a fairly early age (I’m going more by the way he expresses himself in seeing him as young, but for all I know he could be as old as Brett Bursey). Which is sad. Because as Barton suggests — even though he, too, seems a bit weary of the conversation, we need to communicate better about these things.
But there’s hope! Mr. Linly and Mr. Swaim seem to have some promising common ground, judging by the cover photo the former chose for his Facebook page. They both have a sense of the futility of some street action. But then, I could be misunderstanding this message, too…