You Lose

This article first appeared in Pajamas Media.

My middle school daughter has announced that her new favorite president is Calvin Coolidge. I do not believe it is due to his business-first approach to the Roaring Twenties. My daughter, herself a girl of few words, admires “Silent Cal” for his terseness. Would that this quality were shared by more people, in more arenas.

Instead, ubiquity and volume appear to be the chief attributes of words these days. The dictates of our respective markets call on us to be prolific, even beyond our abilities. “Content!” screams the machine, with little regard for its fodder’s taste or nutritional value. Book writers must create and re-create their sequels, at ever-increasing length. Nonfiction publishing houses feel the urge to flood the market in response to major events — within four to six months. Politicians must debate into the double digits, not because more debates are better, but because each niche, be it geographic, demographic, or ideological, demands its own morsel.

In consumer- or popular-culture, this is merely burdensome, as I choose between TMZ or PopSugar. But in public life it matters.

While many attitudes toward politics have shifted in various ways over the last decades, at least one thing has remained constant. Citizens feel less and less able to find relevant information. They report that they “can’t find out” what various candidates think about issues that matter to them. But how can this be? They’re talking so much, after all, what about all those debates?

The problem is that increasingly much of what is said is, civically speaking, junk food — devoid of nutrition. As the content-machine requires more and more, the ratio of junk to nutrition decreases. It becomes harder and harder for people to find out what they need and want to know. Yes, it’s out there. Just buried, or hidden in plain sight.

No great revelation: It’s a cycle that feeds on itself. More outlets need more material with which to fill their maws.

Creating “content” has become a job in its own right. This is in itself a capitulation. We need to reclaim lost ground, at least when it comes to the public square. Writers must see themselves as contributing to important discourse, not creating a product that may later get “re-purposed.” Politicians and pundits must have something to say, not simply a need to speak. The organizations that serve all this “content” up to eager viewers, listeners, and users must return to the now-quaint view of themselves as leaders with a duty to enrich the public square and not starve its soil.

It’s exactly who we have deposed whom we can most use long about now: editors.

A friend of mine, an editor at a newspaper, once told me that the role of an editor is to find out what the reader ought to know, and get them to want to know it. This, of course, seems anathema to the radically democratized world of information in which we now live. I can imagine the comments now, accusing me of being league with MSM. Indeed, I myself am, as a “blogger,” the beneficiary of today’s lowered barrier of entry into the “public voice” market. So I say this knowing I am pointing a finger at myself.

Yet it is this old-fashioned approach that we need in order to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio. So many new and useful voices have entered the public square (many on this site), at the same time as so much static. The lost role of editor can help me find quality, and help bring meaning back into public life.

In fact, the role of editor is needed not just in the news business, but throughout public life. We need people with backbone who will say no, put on the brakes, shoot down dumb ideas, and generally be grown-ups.

Looking around, there are so few grown-ups on the scene.

One of the Silent Cal anecdotes that had my daughter laughing out loud involves a dinner party. It is said that a young woman (in some tellings it is Dorothy Parker) found herself seated next to Coolidge. “I bet my husband,” she reportedly said, “that I can get you to say more than two words.” To which came the swift reply: “You lose.”

President Calvin Coolidge is also said to be the last president to write his own speeches. He regarded them as his chief works of art, laboring over each word, cutting, molding. Presidents now have speechwriters — in fact, office holders down to mayor now have them. Candidates now answer to a dozen and more “chief strategists,” all of whom has a bright idea for what ought to be said and how. It all adds up to more, more, more, backed by less, less, less.

To America, this glut of language says: “You lose.”

Your Words Hurt Me

The article first appeared (in slightly different form) in Pajamas Media.

Much is being written at the moment about a list of no-no words circulated by an office of the Army. Compiled by someone with expertise in equal opportunity matters, the list purports to be 76 examples of words that simply should not be used in the workplace, as they are hurtful. The email, in fact, has an accompanying PowerPoint titled “WORDS HURT!”

While the majority of the words are ones that would — and should — get your children’s mouths washed out with soap, some are puzzling. “Colonial,” for instance, is on the list. Ditto “Canuck.” Many are chortling at the evident politically-correct overreach. The list evidently discourages workplace talk about Vancouver’s professional hockey team. Others are predictably angry.

Me, I am sad.

There are a number of words and phrases on the list that aren’t there because of a judgment call about what might offend (for instance, I can see why “girl” could be on the list, even if I do not agree). But other terms?

“Red-handed,” for example, is on the list. But, this term does not refer to Native Americans but instead dates to the 15th century. The first recorded usage of “red-handed” is in Scott’s Ivanhoe. The “red” refers to blood, not skin color.

“Blacklisted,” ironically, is also on the blacklist. Again, to those at home keeping score, this word has nothing to do with ethnicity. Ask the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, who would probably tell you that, while the idea of a blacklist may be offensive, the restriction against mentioning it is even more so.

But, my favorite one is this: “Sounds greek to me (sic).” Anyone who, like me, spent time in school trying to learn classical Greek will attest that the first hurdle one encounters is learning all those funny letters. Anyone not familiar with the Greek alphabet, when presented with Greek words will . . . well, they will find it all Greek to them. [UPDATE: I was reminded just recently that this term is from Shakeseare’s Julius Caesar. My mistake.]

In the late 1990’s, an aide to DC’s then-mayor, Anthony Williams, was forced to tender his resignation for using the word “niggardly” (a word with a Norwegian pedigree dating to the 14th century that means “miserly”) in a staff budget meeting. Some of those present felt uncomfortable by his word choice. He was hired back quickly, but the event left a sting and was an op-ed cause celebre for some weeks.

The obvious thread running between the Army’s PowerPoint and DC’s budget meeting would appear to be ignorance. If true, that’s certainly reason to be sad.

But, the person who compiled the Army list works in a professional capacity, in an office. He or she is, to use a term of currency, a “knowledge worker.” He or she is educated. The list surely has been vetted by more than one person. And, the staffer in question in DC in the 1990’s was similarly professional — that aide immediately clarified and defined the word he used. Even after, with the full definition of the word made plain, many columnists and commentators still held that using the word was inappropriate — because, rightly or wrongly, it was offensive.

Ignorance was not the problem there. The former president of the National Bar Association asked at the time, “Do we really know where the Norwegians got the word?” New America Foundation fellow Debra Dickerson wrote that “on the streets and in the living rooms of Washington, [the issue has] been taken quite seriously. It matters here that anyone . . . involved in D.C. politics and putatively well-intentioned toward blacks . . . would use an obscure word that incorporates the hated slur, rather than one of its many synonyms.”

I have to believe that there is a similar logic at work with the Army PowerPoint. Why offend, goes that logic, when just by ignoring a small list of words you can avoid it?

Here’s what I find sad about this. The very fact of the no-no list highlights how little distance we have come since the 1990’s DC budget meeting, just as that event showed how little progress we had made since the decade before. The strides since the Civil Rights Era have slowed considerably. Now, allow the idea of “race” to enter the room, and dialog is shut down by immediate suspicion. In this environment, there is no such thing as an innocent remark, nor is there such thing as a valid grievance. Just recriminations, one to the other.

This nation is long past overdue for some straight talk about race relations, citizen to citizen. Yes there are past hurts to be righted. Yes there is institutional racism to be attacked. Yes, some people are oversensitive. But whenever the subject comes up, battle lines get drawn and no further headway can be made.

It would be nice if I could say “It’s all Greek to me” or if I could catch a crook “red-handed” without being told that I was perpetuating unfair stereotypes.

In a recent meeting I attended to discuss this subject, one colleague refreshingly turned to me, a white male, and said, “I know that, over the course of this discussion, you will offend me. But that is what we need to address so we can move forward.” She did not mean we should shy away from the topic; but that we should address it.

Meanwhile, sometimes it feels, paradoxically, as if it is the very care with which we approach the issue that holds us back the most from making progress.