Why you can skip the SOTU

The word considerable does not mean what most people think it does. It means “needing or deserving of consideration” , not “big”  or “a lot” .  It means what everything Donald Trump says is not, and tonight’s speech (and the post-speech tweets and flailing about by flacks and shills that will follow) will be more proof: Trump’s discourse is not considerable and should just be ignored as such. 

One significance of the Jewish ceremony of Bar Mitzvah is that the principal is now responsible for what he says: when an adult says he will do something, the odds that he will should go up, and in general people can depend on that and make corresponding commitments. What Trump says he will do has no such significance: his statements of intent are vacuous and ephemeral, as Mitch McConnell and the dozens people he has stiffed in business can attest.

When grownups assert facts about the world, the assertion has some bearing on what you should believe, though of course some are better informed than others or smarter.  When Trump says practically anything, his relentless, terrier-like, purposeful ignorance means it has no informative value whatever, whether he’s noodling about climate, Iran, the border, or trade data.

A third kind of discourse enlightens us about the speaker’s values: “I’m a Christian” is shorthand for a bunch of actions in the world one can expect the speaker to try to perform or not.  Trump’s value statements are as vacuous, and as labile—whether odious or decent–as his fact discourse. 

It’s not just a matter of mendacity, though his endless, insouciant lying about big things and small have a lot to do with this. He doesn’t misrepresent his values; he just doesn’t have any (except his own ego). If there were money to made from it, and he had permission from Laura Ingraham and Putin, he would as readily get on a climate alarm jag as he does about immigrants.

All of which has been a paralyzing problem for all of us and especially for the press.  Deference to his office, and long journalistic tradition, seems to require that when the president says “A is B”, the fact that he said it requires reporting, perhaps with a quote from another source who says “no, it’s not!” But when this president says absolutely anything, the event is not like any other president, or any other important public official saying something.  It has no bearing on anyone’s belief, on what he will do in the future, or on our views of him: it’s not considerable. It’s like a horserace prediction based on a dice roll. We’ve had two years of our press trying to treat Trump’s discourse as the utterances of a responsible, more-or-less-informed, responsible adult: it’s time to stop. The word lie is, thankfully, starting to be used to characterize his mendacities, but why tell us about something that will be inoperative or a passing fancy by the next news cycle?  We need a completely new convention, recognizing that the presidential utterance process has been replaced with an inconsequential–not considerable—model, and treating it like the “speech” of a parrot or random artificial speech generator.

Not considerable: how to listen to tonight’s speech, or why you can just ignore it.

Nonsense Words, Meaningful Structure

One of the extraordinary things about language is how we can at some level understand familiar forms and grammar even when we don’t know the meaning of words (Anyone who has traveled abroad to a country whose language they didn’t speak may resonate with this).

As a remarkable, clever, and very funny illustration of this phenomenon, watch this brilliant bit by Eric Idle on Rutland Weekend Television.

“Insane” ≠ “insensé”

Macron did not just call Trump crazy.

The Guardian, today (my emphasis):

Noting that Trump had also pulled the US out of the Paris climate change accord – another commitment of the Obama administration – Macron said such frequent changes in the US position on global issues “can work in the short term but it’s very insane in the medium to long term”.

Did Macron really mean to call Trump’s policies insane, that is crazy, indicative of a serious mental disorder?

No. Gratuitous insults to a head of state you want things from are stupid and counter-productive, and Macron is not a fool.

I’m sure that he was self-translating “insensé”.

The online Larousse dictionary  gives the meaning as:

Qui n’est pas conforme au bon sens, à la raison : Projet insensé.

The correct English is therefore “senseless”. That’s still rude, but not a personal attack.

Macron’s English is very good, though not quite as good as he thinks. My French is excellent – not boasting, just a fact, I worked with it for 32 years. But neither of us are immune to mistakes, especially of nuance, and most especially of nuance in hard words. Consider the minefield around “nigger”: now completely taboo for non-black English speakers, but I understand acceptable ironically between black friends. Foreigners wouldn’t guess that French “con” is somewhat less offensive than “pute”, while the reverse is true of their English equivalents.

There is a good reason why the interpreters and translators who work for foreign ministries, embassies and international organisations are highly paid and equal in status to administrators. It is very hard to get translations of sensitive material exactly right, and Google Translate is not there yet by a long chalk. *

* Google Translate suggests the literal and meaningless “pas par une longue craie. The fixed phrase “loin s’en faut” does the job, but I don’t know a more picturesque idiom. It has the advantage of the disapproval of the stuffy and idle Académie Française.

Joy Ann Reid and the tyranny of technical expertise

Update

Oh, well. As Churchill didn’t quite say, “An occasional meal of one’s own words is part of a healthy, balanced diet.”

Continue reading “Joy Ann Reid and the tyranny of technical expertise”

The treason debate

The founding fathers set down a very specific definition of treason, partly because of a history of British monarchs beheading people with whom they were personally displeased for one reason or another on treason charges. Especially back when state, nation, and government were not well distinguished, nettling the king was easily treated as a capital crime.

Since adoption of the constitution, the legal, technical, operational definition of treason in the US has involved a (i) foreign (ii) enemy, and an enemy is a party with which we are at war.  Not just competing for arms sales or disliking for human rights violations or even mutually rattling nuclear weapons: at war.

OK, it’s technically wrong to accuse Trump of treason, at least in the sense that he might face a sentence from a court for his behavior; James Risen has a deep dive into this question here.  But we really need another word for what Trump is doing. I find it incontrovertibly evident, more than a year into the administration’s term, that Putin has a collar and leash on him and his calling a lot of shots. Trump’s inability to say a bad word, or even throw a teeny bit of shade at him, satisfy me as evidence of a financial chokehold, blackmail evidence of personal or financial behavior, or something else (or all of the above), and that he is basically a Putin stooge (whatever other revolting qualities he presents) fits comfortably with the news of Russian assistance to his election coming out today.

Is Russia an enemy? OK, maybe we need another word, but Putin doesn’t just want to sell more natural gas than we do, or even prevent Russians from listening to hip-hop: he wishes us ill, and the primary expression of this wish is that he has done everything he can to saddle us with a deliberately ignorant, racist, kleptocratic, mendacious, incompetent whose principal pleasures are being adulated and hurting the weak and unfortunate, and who has salted the government with liars, cheats, deliberate saboteurs like Pruitt and Devos, and completely incompetent bozos.

Some words have simultaneously a common, conversational but well-understood and serviceable, meaning and a specific, narrower, technical one in particular contexts. A vehicle is anything that rolls and carries people or stuff, including a riding lawnmower, but also a machine operating on the public ways and subject to traffic rules. My students can conspire to organize a surprise party for me, and conspiracy  is also a sharply defined criminal offense. I’m ready to (i) recognize treason as acting affirmatively against the welfare of one’s country in cooperation with, or in the service of, foreign interests, and at the same time the particular crime delineated in the constitution, and (ii) to characterize the governance of the Trump administration as treasonous in the first sense. If anyone has another word for that, the comment section is open.

The problem with cultural appropriation is that people do it so damned badly

Peggy Noonan made a fool of herself this week. That’s not news.

She did so defending the memories of Confederate generals, using terrible history and worse moral reasoning. Again, pretty much dog-bites-man.

But she managed to do it in an interesting (though hardly original) way: trying to use a Yiddish expression and getting it completely wrong. She thus illustrated what seems to me the real issue underlying the overused phrase “cultural appropriation.” Continue reading “The problem with cultural appropriation is that people do it so damned badly”

So much winning!

Remember that Trump promise?  Notice any winning happening?

Me neither, but I think I see the problem. It’s a typo: should be whining.  Now everything makes sense, because whining is the pervasive, universal quality of all the discourse of Trump and his mouthpieces, reaching some sort of high point in today’s Sanders briefing , though Spicer almost pegged the meter in his very first briefing.  Fake news, lying press, I can’t get a break, Joe and Mika are so mean to me, it’s all Obama’s fault, why aren’t you writing about my historic electoral victory, Russia hoax…so much whining! Including rallies that are a new type of collective mass unison whining: all together now, China! Coal! We don’t get no respect!

It does suck to be Donald, but not for the reasons he’d like to think. Anyway, the press is beginning to realize it has to call a lie a lie to properly present the story: I propose that reporters and commentators reflect on whine as the other word most underused, in proportion to its relevance and accuracy, in discourse about our current presidential farrago. Try it: easy to say, it’s a verb, everyone knows what it means, and it has the perfectly apropos connotations of infantile affect and ineffectuality.

Whiner, that’s our Donald all over.

The word is “whine”

I realized this morning that a single key word has been missing, or at least greatly underused, in reporting Donald Trump’s discourse.  Kevin Drum did too, about when I did, and used it correctly in his hed. Perhaps some quantum entanglement at work?

Whining: petulant, ineffectual, resentful, self-absorbed pleas for sympathy. What weak, annoying, people do to get attention when they can’t actually do anything deserving of attention.  China’s taking our jobs! The judge in the Trump U. case is unfair! The press is sleazy! Imagine my surprise to find that the Donald himself hipped us to this perfect word for his style almost a year ago, and quite explicitly!

Whiney, whining, whine. Perfect; the word we’ve all been groping for. Let’s use it a lot.