Category Archives: Words

About that question: Can words kill people?

girl

I generally stay away from “people being beastly on the internet” stories because I’m just too busy with politics, policy and pop culture.

But this past week there were two horror stories that totally boggled what little mind I allowed to get distracted by them. Ironically, we had just had a discussion about cruel and unusual punishment when a prime candidate for such treatment was in the news: The monster who dangled his baby out a 15th-story window in a bid for Facebook “likes.” (Note that my link is to the Daily Mail, which seems the perfect setting for such a story.) You know how FB recently added those alternatives to “like”? For this guy, they need to add an “If I ever meet you in person, I’m breaking both of your arms so you can’t do that again” button.

Then there was the case Kathleen Parker wrote about under the headline, “Can words kill people?” It’s about “Michelle Carter’s conviction last week on involuntary-manslaughter charges in the 2014 suicide of her 18-year-old boyfriend, Conrad Roy III.” Excerpt:

At the time of the suicide, Carter was a 17-year-old whose boyfriend spoke frequently of taking his own life. He finally did by filling his parked truck with carbon monoxide. Mind you, Carter was nowhere near. She had no physical hand in the death, although she did text and call Roy, urging him to go ahead and do it. When he had second thoughts and got out of his vehicle, she instructed him to get back in.

Manslaughter? Evil? Or just dumb?

If Carter’s words were Roy’s death sentence, then his death was hers, if not literally, then, indeed, virtually. For her clearly tangential role, which one could as easily interpret as drama-queen excess, Carter faces up to 20 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug. 3.

It is easy to feel outrage at what transpired. Prosecutors introduced hundreds of text messages between Roy and Carter in which she encouraged him to end his life and sometimes taunted him for his lack of courage. In one, she wrote: “You’re ready and prepared. All you have to do is turn the generator on and you will be free and happy. No more pushing it off. No more waiting.”

This alone is enough to make one dislike or even despise Carter. But is it enough to blame Carter for Roy’s death?…

Kathleen concluded that no, it isn’t. I was unsatisfied with that conclusion.

The columnist asks, “Manslaughter? Evil? Or just dumb?” The best of the three would seem to be evil. You read the words she wrote to this boy on the edge, and your blood runs cold. Mine does, anyway.

In terms of how to approach such a thing in the criminal justice system, manslaughter seems inaccurate. And I’m not sure how the law works on aiding and abetting. What should be the charge for being a cheerleader at a boy’s death?

There is evidently something essential missing in this girl, and at the very least it seems she should be confined somewhere until experts can figure out what it is, and whether it’s possible to fill that void.

Because anyone who will do what she did — repeatedly, insistently, matter-of-factly — is dangerous….

Why CAN’T I be a conservative-liberal, or liberal-conservative?

Lincoln was as radical a change agent as this nation has seen -- but his chief goal at every step was to conserve the union.

Lincoln was a conservative liberal. He was as radical a change agent as this nation has seen — but his chief goal at every step was to conserve the union.

The answer is, there’s no reason I can’t. In fact that’s what I am. But dang, it’s hard to explain to people, even though it seems natural to me.

Harry Harris and I were having a good discussion about political labels — ones that people apply to their opponents, and ones they apply to themselves (which can be just as irritating sometimes) — on a previous post. The thread started here.

The last thing Harry said about it was this:

My experience with self-labeled persons has been colored by encountering the very aspect of labeling that you parody. A frequent irritant is the conversion of an adjective (conservative, liberal) into a noun – “a conservative” or a whatever. What is it you want to conserve, Mr Conservative? What liberty do you want to unleash, Mr. Liberal? The assumption of a label, other than as a general description, often leads to a forced skewing of one’s understanding of many important ideas or issues. It often then promotes group-think and seeking-out only opinion or fact that would reinforce the prevailing attitude associated with that label. Many of us are overly binary in our thinking, and I believe the prevalence of self-adopted labels promotes such thinking as we basically throw ourselves in with that group. Then starts the name-calling. Now we feel almost compelled to label “those people” as leftists, liberals, commies, gringos, flat-earthers, knuckle-dragging reactionaries, or tree-huggers. I’m a liberal, Southern Baptist, Jesus-follower. The first few parts of my label are just adjectives. I’m probably more conservative on matters of church polity than my “conservative” Southern Baptist brothers and sisters. I’m more conservative on child-rearing related to behavior and decorum than most – but more liberal on allowing children to question and reject my theology and values. I ran a strict classroom with clear and strongly-enforced limits – but those limits allowed as much discretion and freedom as my students could handle – tailored to the situation. Was I liberal or conservative? I changed my mind and my practices on issues as experience dictated. Was I liberal or conservative? Or did I not let labels get in the way.
Labels can increase polarization, and self-adopting those labels equates to giving in to that polarization in my opinion.

Lots of good points there. My response ran along these lines…

The thing is, despite how irritating it has become to hear them, “conservative” and “liberal” are perfectly good words, implying perfectly good things. If only the people in and around our political system hadn’t dragged them through the mire over the past 50 years.

It’s a good thing to be conservative. It means, more than anything else, that you respect tradition — which is a value I cherish. It means respecting those who went before you, instead of assuming that “progress” means you’re better and wiser than those old dead dudes (which you’re not, especially if you have that attitude). It implies caution and responsibility. It means you don’t go off half-cocked. It means you respect the fundamental institutions of society — the family, the church, and yep, the government and its component institutions, such as the police, the military and the public schools.

“Liberal” also means good things. It means you favor liberty. It means you believe in pluralism, and freedom of conscience — including the views of people who don’t share yours. It means openness to new ideas. It means a willingness to change things if they aren’t as good as they should be. It means being generous. ALL Americans should be liberal, including conservatives, because conservatives believe in our institutions and underlying principles, and the essence of our system is that it is a liberal democracy.

The ideal public servant, in light of all that, would be both liberal and conservative, and I see no contradiction in that. For instance, you can have a deep respect for, and deference to, existing institutions while at the same time wanting to improve them. It means you can be a change agent while being cautious and responsible in your approach to change.

But folks who’ve been brainwashed by our parties, and by media that cover politics like is HAS to be a competition between two mutually exclusive teams (the sports model of coverage, which I despise), aren’t able to conceive of the two concepts going together. Language that should bring us together builds walls between us.

This leads to a great deal of misunderstanding. A lot of folks thought I was nuts, back in 2008, when I said I was happy either way the presidential election came out. The two parties had nominated the two people who I thought were the best candidates — John McCain and Barack Obama. It was the greatest win-win situation I’d seen in my adult life — the choice in November was between the two people we had endorsed in their respective primaries. Force to choose, I chose McCain over Obama — but I was pleased with Obama’s victory. Of course neither man was perfect — no one is. But they were both awfully good.

That made some people think I’d lost it, but I enjoyed it while it lasted.

I am conservative, and I am liberal, or I try to be. We should all strive to be both, as I defined them above. We should use these fine qualities to unite us, not as a means of separating us — which is what I’ve seen, unfortunately, for most of my adult life.

John Adams was a conservative liberal. He was a revolutionary, but a conservative one, who cherished the rule of law.

John Adams was a conservative liberal. He was a revolutionary, but a conservative one, who cherished the rule of law.

Define ‘fake news,’ please…

archbishops

How do you define “fake news?” I ask because people tend to use it to mean opposite things. I think.

Everyone check my memory on this: I seem to recall that the phrase “fake news” emerged last year as a description of Breitbart and other fringe outlets that tended to be consumed by Trump supporters. It was coined by mainstream types. And then at some point, perhaps in the fall, Trump himself started using it to refer to what most people would call simply “news.”

Which is fitting, because it sounds more like what someone like Trump would say. It’s just the sort of odd word choice, lacking in precision, in which he tends to revel.

To what, precisely, does it refer?

If I’d heard it in a vacuum, uttered neither by or about Donald Trump, my first guess would be that it was a reference to the sort of thing The Onion does so well — “news” that is indeed fake, and meant to be understood as such. Of course, it has to have a passing resemblance to actual news in order to be funny. One of my favorite Onion tropes is the “area man” reference in headlines (such as, “Area Man Accepts Burden Of Being Only Person On Earth Who Understands How World Actually Works“), gently poking at the lack of imagination of America’s more provincial copy editors.

But that’s not what Trump means when he says it.

It could mean all sorts of things.

It could be something that is true, but isn’t really (in the opinion of the speaker) news, and I think maybe Trump means it that way sometimes — news media reporting on “the Russia thing” instead of real news, which would be about how awesome Trump is.

Or it might be something that isn’t true. Of course, we generally don’t see evidence that supports such an assertion, do we?

It could mean opinion instead of news. I get the impression sometimes that people who call the various 24/7 cable news channels “fake news” are reacting to the fact that so much of what is said is opinion. Well, it has to be. There just isn’t all that much to say about news without getting into opinion, and these channels are trying to fill the 24 hours. That should be understood, but in fact is more often simply resented. (My advice to those who don’t like it: Read your news; don’t watch it. That’s what I do.)

Sometimes it seems to mean news that isn’t held to a high-enough standard — as when Trump decries the use of anonymous sources, an objection he shares with many journalists. In this case, he’s using it to mean “sloppy,” except when he goes overboard and claims the sources simply don’t exist. Then he means to say “lies.”

Anyway, how do you take it when you hear it — or, perish the thought, when you use it yourself?

Borowitz

No, guys, THIS is a witch hunt!

Illustration of a Salem witch trial.

Illustration of a Salem witch trial.

Warning: This is another family tree post! Although it’s about my wife’s tree, not mine…

Yesterday, our self-absorbed president Tweeted:

Back here in South Carolina, Rep. Rick Quinn said:

Indicted Republican lawmaker Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, vowed Tuesday to fight charges against him, deemed the allegations “very weak” and said special prosecutor David Pascoe, a Democrat, is on “a partisan witch hunt.”…

No, guys. Neither of these is a witch hunt. I’ll tell you about a witch hunt.

It involves my wife’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Elspeth Craich.  She was born in Scotland in 1631, and died there sometime after 1656.

We know she lived at least that long, because in that year, when she was 25, she was detained as “a confessing witch.” But the Culross Council failed to bring her to trial, and the charges were consequently dismissed. I’m still not sure why. I doubt that she put a spell on them or anything.

This is on my mind because this very week, I found more about her case from this site:

“23 June 1656.

“In presence of the said bailleis and counsell, compeared personallie Master Robert Edmonstoun, minister at Culrois, and declared the last weik befor the last wek, he being in Edinburgh anent the adhering to the call of Master Matthew Fleyming to the work of the ministrie of this congregatione, and having maid diligent tryall at the clerk of the criminail court and others what course might be taken with Elspethe Craiche, presentlie lying within the tolbuthe of Culrois as ane witche voluntarlie confesst be herself, he declared that except murder or malison could be provin against such persons, thair was no putting of thame to deathe; yet the said Maister Robert being most desyrous that one of the foresaid number of the counsell sould goe over to Edinburgh, and tak over the said Elspethe her declaration and confessions, and to cause pen ane petitione in relatione therof, and the said mater being taken to consideratione, and being ryplie advysit therwith, the saids bailleis and counsell be pluralitie of voices have electit and chosen William Drys-daill to goe over to Edinburgh against Twysday come eight dayes, being the first day of July, being ane criminall court day, to present the supplication befor the judges there for granting of ane commission to put the said witche to the knowledge of ane assyse, and to report his diligence theranent.”

“30 June 1656.

“The qlk day, in presence of the said bailleis and counsell, conforme to the commissione grantit to him the last counsell day anent the petitioning for ane commissione to put Elspethe Craiche, witche, to the knowledge of an assyse, maid report, that he being unsatisfied with the clerk of the criminall court his answer to him anent the procuring of the said commission, he therefter went to the right Honorable Generali George Monk; who having related to him the poore condition of this burghe, how that they war not abill to transport the said witche over to Edinburgh, and to be at the great expense that they behovit to be at in attending upone her there, the said Generali desyred the said William to draw up ane petitione, and present the samyne befor the counsell of estait upone Twysday next; who accordinglie drew up ane supplicatione at Alexr. Bruce his directione, and left the samyne with George Mitchell, to be written over be him; and becaus the said Wm. had brought over the said Elspethe her confessions, the samyne was appoyntit to be send over, to the effect bothe they and the supplication may be presentit befor the said counsell of estait against the morrow.”

It would appear that the application of the Culross minister and magistrates had been ineffectual to procure any assistance from the Council of State in Edinburgh towards either getting Elspeth Craich tried and condemned in Culross, or transporting her for that purpose to Edinburgh. Cromwell’s government was not favourable to religious persecution of any kind, whether as regards heresy or sorcery. The following entry is almost ludicrous, from the woe-begone demonstration made therein by the town council, who have no other resource left than to get rid of their expensive prisoner as speedily as possible. It is satisfactory to find that the poor woman had at least been tolerably well supplied with meat and drink, whatever other sufferings she may have undergone :—

“25 August 1656.

“The said day the saids bailleis and counsell, taking to consideratione the great trouble that hath been susteaned be the inhabitants of this burgh in watching of Eppie Craich, witch, within thaire tolbuthe this quarter of this year bygane, and the great expens that this burgh is at for the present in susteanyng and interteanyng her in bread and drink and vther necessaris, and finding it to be expedient to dismis hir furthe of the [tom away] upone her finding of cautione to present her to prissone whenever [torn away] sail be requyred, under the pane of 500 merkis: Thairfor, in presence [tom away] the said Elspethe Craiche . . . to be dismist . . . tolbuthe, and befor that tyme … to be presentit befor the kirk-sessione of Culrois.” [The latter part of this entry is in a sadly dilapidated state in the minute-book.]

Well, I’m glad to know that during her ordeal, she was at least “tolerably well supplied with meat and drink.” In fact, she seems to have been eating and drinking so much that the local authorities couldn’t afford to hold her any longer.

Did she beat the rap because of Cromwell's policies?

Did she beat the rap because of Cromwell’s policies?

But was it that, or did she get off because of the politics of the moment, as “Cromwell’s government was not favourable to religious persecution of any kind, whether as regards heresy or sorcery?” (Which surprises me a bit, what little I know of Cromwell.)

Doug would probably say it’s because of the expense, because he says it’s always about the money. And they certainly mention it a lot.

But her acquittal must remain a mystery, the latter part of the record being “in a sadly dilapidated state in the minute-book.”

It may have simply been that, according to Matthew Fleyming, “except murder or malison could be provin against such persons, thair was no putting of thame to deathe.” And if you can’t burn a witch, what’s the point, right?

Anyway, that is a witch hunt, although an unsuccessful one — even though she was “ane witche voluntarlie confesst be herself,” which you would think would have made the hunt a lot easier.

That’s all. My mind’s just been on “witch hunts” this week…

Donald Trump, pathological truth-teller?

pinocchio

For some time, I’ve been intending to write a post raising the question, “Is Trump really a liar?”

It sounds like a dumb question because, of course, we’ve never in American history dealt with a man who is such a stranger to the truth. This guy constantly, relentlessly says things that are painfully obviously untrue — things everyone can immediately see are not true, like his ridiculous claims about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. And he sticks to the lies, no matter how much they are debunked.

But is it, technically and even morally, a lie if you believe it to be true? So much of what he says — say, his comments about how upset Andrew Jackson was about the Civil War, which started 16 years after his death — arises from his abysmal ignorance about, well, almost everything. Of course, speaking of the inaugural flap that mattered to no one but him, you don’t have to be an expert to look at a photo and see the crowd was smaller than at previous such gatherings. But he is so delusional about anything that bears on his fragile self-esteem that even there, I suspect he actually believes that the photos lie.

When media report facts, he dismisses those facts as “fake news.” Is that really a calculated, deliberate effort to brainwash his followers into ignoring said facts? I suspect that even there, his own grasp on the fact-based world is so tenuous that he may actually believe that it’s the news, and not him, that is wrong.

Anyway, the point seems rather moot now, because the big story of the past week has been instances in which Trump has rocked the world by telling the truth on himself.

First, all his followers who were out there saying no, the Comey firing (or as the BBC calls it, the “FBI Sacking Row,” which I love) was not about the investigation into alleged collusion between his campaign and the Russians. Heavens, no! What a shocking suggestion! It was really about Comey being beastly to that poor Hillary Clinton. And it was all at the suggestion of Comey’s boss in the Justice Department….

So what does Trump do? He does a network television interview in which he says, no bones about it, that he was going to fire Comey no matter what his advisers said, and yeah, it was at least to some extent about “this Russia thing.”

Then yesterday, the news breaks about him spilling code-word classified information to the Russians, so his defenders rush out to push the line that nothing of the kind occurred, the story is completely wrong, yadda-yadda…

…and what does Trump do? He gets on Twitter in the middle of the night and — to the extent that we can decipher his meaning, given that the Tweets were written in the semi-literate dialect known as “Trumpese” — said yeah, I told the Russians that stuff, and it’s OK that I did.

(At his point, who would want to work for this guy?)

And so we have to consider which is the greater problem with this guy — that he lies, or that he tells outrageous truths and considers himself immune from consequences (which, so far, he has been, especially with his fan base)?

Is he a pathological liar, or a pathological truth-teller?

George Will’s diagnosis of Trump’s ‘dangerous disability’

A lot of readers don’t like George F. Will. They find him haughty, imperious and supercilious, and his writing dense, showy and vague.

But when he takes some of those qualities and packs them into a pointed diagnosis of just what is wrong with Donald J. Trump, he can be a pleasure to read. And edifying to boot.

Take today’s column, “Trump has a dangerous disability,” in which he writes:

It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence….

Amen to all of that, especially that first sentence. That, after all, is the problem: Not that Trump might have the wrong idea about this or that, but that his brain doesn’t really do ideas, can’t process or express them clearly, and lacks the informational foundation for forming them in the first place.

More:

George WillWhat is most alarming (and mortifying to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated) is not that Trump has entered his eighth decade unscathed by even elementary knowledge about the nation’s history. As this column has said before, the problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something….

Absolutely. And here’s the big finish:

Americans have placed vast military power at the discretion of this mind, a presidential discretion that is largely immune to restraint by the Madisonian system of institutional checks and balances. So, it is up to the public to quarantine this presidency by insistently communicating to its elected representatives a steady, rational fear of this man whose combination of impulsivity and credulity render him uniquely unfit to take the nation into a military conflict.

I share this partly because the piece was a pleasure to read, but also because some of you seem genuinely puzzled that I don’t just accept that Donald Trump is president of the United States, calm down and move on.

I don’t do that because I see clearly that it is my duty to be “insistently communicating to [my] elected representatives” just how unacceptable this state of affairs is. Every citizen who perceives the danger has an obligation “to think and speak clearly about President Trump’s inability to do either.”

Oxymoronic group blasts Pelosi for being tolerant

I noted in passing this morning that Nancy Pelosi was being very sensible and open-minded when she split with her party’s new chair on whether Democrats would be allowed to think for themselves on abortion. An excerpt from the story I read, demonstrating the very human, respectful approach she took:

Pelosi“I grew up Nancy D’Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland; in Little Italy; in a very devout Catholic family; fiercely patriotic; proud of our town and heritage, and staunchly Democratic,” she added, referring to the fact that she is the daughter and sister of former mayors of that city. “Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?”…

Of course, there are always enforcers of political dogma ready to jump down a reasonable person’s throat. The most ironic such rebuke I’ve seen comes from the oxymoronic Catholics for Choice, which can always be relied upon to put a surreal twist on the news:

As Catholics, we are dismayed by Minority Leader Pelosi’s out of touch and self-serving statements that throw women and their right to make their own moral decisions under the bus.

Let’s be clear—unity in diversity of thought is an important value in America and what any political party should seek to nurture. However, a party that claims the mantle on social justice and civil liberties cannot turn its back on women’s moral autonomy and the right to make conscience-based decisions. Women’s rights are human rights and they cannot be traded away based on short-sighted political calculations. Minority Leader Pelosi’s claim that ‘abortion is a fading issue’ is also downright irresponsible when women’s access to abortion services is under attack across America by restrictive legislative proposals and efforts to limit providers, especially for the poorest women….

How do you take a statement like that seriously when it starts, “As Catholics…?” But of course, the purpose of this organization is to convince you to accept that proposition.

I ask you: Did any part of that statement feel “Catholic” to you? In style and voice, did it sound like something, say, Pope Francis would say? No. In tone and word choice, it read as though it had been written by an indignant college sophomore interning at NARAL.

A digression: I may need to borrow someone’s Dictionary of Current Ideology. Set abortion aside. How does an individual person have something called “moral autonomy?” Is not the essence of morality that we are responsible to one another for what we do? (Where do they get this cant?)

Nice try, Nancy, attempting to make your party a little more tolerant and open. This world is full of people who simply will not stand for that sort of thing…

‘Electrocution chair?’ Is that like a ‘Holocaust center?’

Kemmler_exécuté_par_l'électricité

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…

Electrocution chair? Is that something they have at “Holocaust centers?”

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.

But maybe there’s another explanation…

Ah, for the days of the September Gale

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:

September gale

No, I wasn’t making a point about anything. Just sharing…

When the world needed a hero, he stepped forward

grammar vigilante 1

As you may have noticed, I’ve been a bit bothered by the state of the world lately.

Well, after seeing this, I feel better:

This man goes out in the night and deletes erroneous apostrophes, wherever they rear their ugly tails. As long as they do so in Bristol, England. That’s his Gotham. Says he:

“People might say what I am doing is wrong, but it is more of a crime to have the apostrophes wrong in the first place.”

Bloody well right.

Going by the video, he’s mainly attacking the most idiotic of apostrophe errors — placing them so that they turn what should be plural nouns into possessive ones.

I haven’t seen him deal with my own particular bête noire — the open single quote where an apostrophe should be at the start of a word or number, as in a truncated date.

But hey, he’s just one man, doing all he can.

Maybe he needs a sidekick. And I’ve been looking for an excuse to go back to England…

Don't you love this -- a huge apostrophe where there shouldn't be one, and NO apostrophe where there SHOULD be...

Don’t you love this — a huge apostrophe where there shouldn’t be one, and NO apostrophe where there SHOULD be…

Twitter would have tightened up St. Paul’s writing

Probably_Valentin_de_Boulogne_-_Saint_Paul_Writing_His_Epistles_-_Google_Art_Project

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.

Why ‘A Day Without A Woman?’

I’m not talking about the thing; I’m talking about the wording.

How does that make sense?without a woman

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.

Each of which is obviously untrue.

Who are the ad wizards who come up with these things, and what are they thinking?

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.

How’s it going where you are?

Has the West ceased to believe in itself?

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.”…

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens

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…

Do you have to be a word person to see what’s wrong with Trump?

A word cloud of Trump's Tweets from the past week.

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 don’t these ‘antiabortion’ kids today like ‘pro-life’?

Pro-life demonstration at SC State House -- from SC Citizens for Life site.

Pro-life demonstration at SC State House — from SC Citizens for Life site.

I started to read with interest the WashPost story headlined:

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…

If you were to spoof a WSJ headline, it would look like this

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:

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!

Let an expert ‘splain the Electoral College to ya

Some of my friends here see the late election as further proof that we need to reform, or do away entirely with, the Electoral College.

Well, they just haven’t had it explained to them right. Here, let me get an expert to tell you why you’re wrong:

Don’t think for a moment, though, that Mr. Trump needed the Electoral College to win! No, no, no. He’s a Karate Man, and he would just have changed his whole strategy around:

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….

These two relatively mild modifiers are enough to completely disqualify Trump

A lot of them may RUN from him, but too few stand up to be counted.

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.

I think I got a glimpse of how to do that last week, while reading a Washington Post editorial headlined, “History will remember which Republicans failed the Trump test.” (Which it will.)

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…

What I ended up saying to Rotary

capital-rotary

Your suggestions — especially Kathryn’s — led more or less directly to my drafting the words below, which I delivered to the Capital Rotary Club at the Palmetto Club early this morning.

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.