Word Soup

There are seventeen Republicans running for president at the moment, or sixteen, and Donald Trump. They all have something to say. It’s time to quote George Orwell again.

“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases – bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder – one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.” ~ George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

“One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark, its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time, one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase – some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse – into the dustbin where it belongs.” ~ George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

That will never happen. A few of us know that. Former English teachers form the tiniest sliver of the general population, and many of them would never admit that they once made confused and truculent adolescents write essays on what Hamlet’s problem was with his mother – but some of us would admit that we once did something useful. It is important to be able to explain what you mean, to put what you think that you’re thinking into words that others can understand. That takes practice. That’s why there’s English class. Try getting through life saying “Oh, you know what I mean.” That doesn’t cut it. People won’t know what you mean, and pretty soon they’ll figure out you don’t even know what you mean – you don’t even know what you’re thinking.

You can’t put it into words? We think with words. Otherwise you’re a bundle of confused vague emotions, sincere or not – no one can even tell which. You’ll be dismissed as useless. You’ll be isolated from human society, which may be no more than people explaining to each other what they mean, sometimes not very nicely. That’s what sentient beings do. That’s pretty much all that human civilization is, for better or worse.

It may have been cruel, however, to use Shakespeare on the kids, forcing them to figure out what he seemed to be getting at – the language is difficult – but that’s life. Listening to what others say, or reading what they have written, is often a process of figuring out what the hell this person is saying, and thus what the hell they’re thinking. Sometimes it’s hard to tell. At least with Shakespeare it’s worth the effort – there’s cool stuff there. And as for making the kids write those essays, that’s just what they needed – practice at deciding what they think and putting it into words – stated clearly, then argued coherently, and supported by logic and precise reference back to the matter at hand. That’s a useful skill, and the skill is transferable. It’s actually more than a useful skill. If you can’t put what you’re thinking into words, well, you’re not actually thinking, are you?

This is why former English teachers didn’t find George W. Bush cute and amusing. People smiled when he mangled the language:

Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we.

See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda.

We ought to make the pie higher.

There’s an old saying in Tennessee – I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee – that says, fool me once, shame on – shame on you. Fool me – you can’t get fooled again.

Well, I think if you say you’re going to do something and don’t do it, that’s trustworthiness.

People smiled. It was cute, or manly in a cowboy sort of way. Heck, everyone knew what he meant, right?

Former English teachers didn’t smile. They know sloppy thinking when they see it – or what’s worse, someone who just isn’t thinking – or the thing that’s even worse. They can spot someone who doesn’t even know that they’re not really thinking. Read enough crappy student essays and you get the hang of it. This sort of thing is easy to spot – and that person shouldn’t be in charge of the free world. He shouldn’t be the decider, as George Bush liked to call himself. Others, better with words, will end up telling him what he’s thinking, and he’ll believe it – it’s just easier. That’ll get you through English class with a “gentleman’s C” but that’s dangerous. Someone behind the scenes is running things. “This is what you’re thinking, George.” How many times did Dick Cheney say that?

Americans, however, distrust those who are prissy and precise in their choice of words, and who then offer long and logical and detailed arguments for their positions. They’re inauthentic, not “of the people” in a tribal sort of way, and they’re probably up to something. That’s why we elected George Bush, twice – he never seemed to be thinking – he trusted his gut, as he used to say. But a little more prissy and precise thinking might have kept us from taking over Iraq for eight years to make it a showplace of Jeffersonian democracy. A little more prissy and precise thinking might have had us look into what the financial industry had been up to for a decade, so that the economy really would not have had to collapse at the end of Bush’s last year in office.

Former English teachers saw these things coming a mile away – maybe not these two things, but something bad. They knew this kid. They’d had the conversation before. “Oh, you know what I’m thinking here!” “No, YOU don’t even know what you’re thinking here!”

All of that is ancient history now. George Bush has disappeared – he’s painting pictures of puppies and kittens these days – and Barack Obama has spent six or more years working on finding a balance between precise language and aw-shucks loose talk, usually successfully. Agree with his policies or not, there’s always something there to work with, not word soup. The word soup has migrated elsewhere. The Republican candidates use it. Donald Trump uses it.

It’s not that Donald Trump walks around wearing a baseball cap that reads “Make American Great Again!” That’s a fine sentiment. Obama and McCain were both saying pretty much the same thing in 2008 – with vastly different ideas of how to get there from here. They all say that. It’s the “getting there” that’s the issue. What, precisely, will make America great again? What are the steps? What are the policies?

That’s where Donald Trump resorts to word soup. He says we should repeal Obamacare and replace it. With what? What does he have in mind? All he’ll say is we’ll replace it with something awesome? What would that be? He says it would be awesome. That’s all he says.

Tim Mak notes that this sort of thing has led to a few awkward moments:

Republican primary front-runner Donald Trump pledged Tuesday morning, in a factually-challenged screed, to send American troops to invade Iraq and Syria so as to “take the oil” in ISIS-controlled territories.

“I would go in and take the oil and I’d put troops to protect the oil. I would absolutely go and I’d take the money source away. And believe me, they would start to wither and they would collapse,” Trump said on CNN’s New Day. “I would take the oil away; I’d take their money away.”

Asked last month whether U.S. troops were needed to protect the oil, Trump said, “You put a ring around them. You put a ring.”

Ironically, Trump said he opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, saying in May that he would “have never been in Iraq.” Some 200,000 troops were required for that invasion.

Mak adds this:

The US-led coalition has struck portions of ISIS’s oil infrastructure as recently as three weeks ago. On July 20, military airstrikes hit three ISIS crude oil collection points near the Deir Ezzor. A recent CNN article, citing military experts, points out that destroying oil infrastructure would be counterproductive to the future recovery of territories held by ISIS if and when the terrorist organization is expelled.

“You have to understand the issues a little bit better than just bombing things,” retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling told CNN.

Nor does Trump seem to understand the basic dynamics of the Middle East. “Believe it or not, Iran is funneling money to ISIS, too,” Trump said Tuesday morning. Iran’s government is a theocracy based on Shia Islam, while ISIS is a terror group based on a jihadist branch of Sunni Islam. They see each other as mortal enemies. In fact, Iran has been willing to offer Iraq an “open check” to fight the extremist group, Iraqi Ambassador to the U.S. Lukman Faily has said.

This did not go well:

CNN host Chris Cuomo almost seemed like he was apologizing to Trump for asking tough questions about national security.

“Forgive me if it sounds if I’m teaching you about the world. You know it, and I know you know it. But I’m saying that there’s a tendency to oversimplify situations, people buy into that, and you’re setting them up for disappointment,” Cuomo said.

“Sometimes oversimplification is a good thing. Sometimes we make it too complicated,” Trump said, before going on to call the Chinese currency the “wan.” It is called the yuan.

George W. Bush was back, and then there was this:

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said Wednesday that he disagrees with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s idea that the United States should go into Iraq and seize oil being used to fund the Islamic State militant group, saying that there are limits on what military power can do.

Odierno’s comments came in a wide-ranging briefing with reporters at the Pentagon as he prepares to retire as the Army’s top officer after 39 years of service. …

“The problem we’ve had is we’ve had outcomes, but they’ve been only short-term outcomes because we haven’t properly looked at the political and economic side of it,” the general said Wednesday. “It has got to be three that come together. And if you don’t do that, it will not solve the problem, and that is what I continue to look at.”

Odierno added that if the Islamic State posed an imminent threat of launching a devastating attack, he would look at things differently.

“That is not where we are today,” he said. “What we want to do is try to stop… a group that is potentially attempting to be a long-term influence in the Middle East, a group that is clearly promoting extremism and frankly suppressing populations in the Middle East. In order to resolve that, you need countries of the Middle East and those surrounding the Middle East to be involved in the solution.”

Asked if that means he disagrees with Trump, Odierno answered directly: “I do, I do. Right now, I do.”

What does he know? And then there was this:

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration said there’s no truth to U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump’s assertion that the nation would pay for a wall along the border between the countries.

“Of course it’s false,” Eduardo Sanchez, Pena Nieto spokesman, said in a telephone interview with Bloomberg. “It reflects an enormous ignorance for what Mexico represents, and also the irresponsibility of the candidate who’s saying it.”

Sanchez said the government hasn’t taken Trump’s statements on the campaign trail as serious proposals. The majority of Mexicans in the U.S. follow the nation’s laws, and immigrants make up an important part of the American workforce, Sanchez said. Trump has said Mexico is sending rapists and criminals to the U.S.

On Tuesday, Trump again reiterated his assertion that Mexico would foot the bill for a wall sealing off its northern border with the United States.

“We’re not paying for it,” the billionaire said in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. “You know how easy that is? They’ll probably just give us the money.”

Ah, no, they won’t. What are you going to do, fire them? Wonkette puts it this way:

Oh, southern Messican neighbor, why must you disappoint our Donald Trump so? First you send a new army of rapists to America to scare him EVERY DAMN DAY, and now you say you don’t have any plans to pay for a beautiful, classy border wall, and that’s unfair because Trump has been drawing plans for it on the backs of restaurant napkins and telling people about it for MONTHS. How could you do this to him, making him look stupid in front of the whole class?…

Even worse, Sanchez says all the things Trump says on the campaign trail are not to be taken as “serious proposals,” as if Trump is some sort of sideshow candidate who only appeals to resentful, poorly educated voters on the margins of society who want their country back, but will never get it back….

Well, speaking of Fox News – yes, that’s unfair – there was Sean Hannity’s interview with Donald Trump earlier in the week. Hannity, trying to be helpful, said it was time to get serious and talk policy. Trump said great, let’s do it. And that led to this:

HANNITY: You talked about Mexico. How quickly could you build the wall? How do you make them pay for the wall, as you said?

TRUMP: So easy. Will a politician be able to do it? Absolutely not…

HANNITY: Is it a tariff?

TRUMP: In China – listen to this. In China, the great China wall – I mean, you want to talk about a wall, that’s a serious wall, okay…

HANNITY: Sure.

TRUMP: So let’s say you’re talking about 1,000 miles versus 13,000… and then they say you can’t do it. It’s peanuts. It’s peanuts…

HANNITY: So through a tariff?

TRUMP: We’re not paying for it. Of course.

HANNITY: You want to do business, you’re going to help us with this…

TRUMP: Do you know how easy that is? They’ll probably just give us the money… And I’m saying that’s like 100 percent. That’s not like 98 percent. Sean, it’s 100 percent they’re going to pay. And if they don’t pay, we’ll charge them a little tariff. It’ll be paid.

Kevin Drum is amazed:

Trump gets five chances to explain his plan, and all we get is endless bluster. It’s easy! Hell, the Great Wall of China cost more! We’re not paying for it! The closest Trump comes to an answer – after prompting from Hannity – is some kind of tariff on Mexican goods, which of course is illegal under NAFTA. Trump would have to abrogate the treaty and get Congress to agree. In other words, maybe just a wee bit harder than he thinks. …

The whole interview with Hannity is like this. The fascinating part is Trump’s ADHD. He just flatly can’t stay on topic, and I don’t think it’s fake. He constantly veers off into side topics: how far ahead he is in the polls; how everyone says he won the debate; how good a student he was at Wharton; how he’d send Carl Icahn to China…

And then there’s the Hannity/Trump math. In Texas, there have been 642,000 crimes by illegal immigrants since 2008. Obamacare premiums are up more than 40 percent this year. Unemployment is at 40 percent. The whole 5.4 percent thing is just a government lie.

I don’t even really have a comment on this stuff. On a lot of subjects – his replacement for Obamacare, for example – it’s obvious he’s just making up his policy on the spot. Um, health accounts! And, um, no more state lines! And catastrophic insurance, sure! And pre-existing conditions! You bet. And then… an ADHD segue into Obama playing golf, and Hannity finally gives up and switches topics.

And then there’s the second part of the interview. Hannity asks Trump about his tax plan. Trump doesn’t favor a flat tax? Hannity is clearly disappointed and wants to know how high Trump would set the top rate:

TRUMP: I actually believe that people, as they make more and more money, can pay a higher percentage, okay?

HANNITY: How high? … What’s the cap?

TRUMP: We will set the cap. I want to have a cap so we have a lot of business, a lot more activity. I want to get rid of all this deficit. We’ll make it – we’re losing $600 billion, $700 billion! We’re going to be losing. And by the way, when Obamacare kicks in, we’re going to be losing a $1.3 trillion, $1.4 trillion a year. We can’t do that. We’re going to be a Greece on steroids!

Here’s what I want to do. I want to simplify the tax cut. I want to cut taxes. But I want to simplify the tax code. I want to make it great for the middle class. The middle class is being killed.

I want to put H&R Block – it’s an ambition of mine to put H&R Block out of business. When a person has a simple tax return, they have a job, and they can’t even figure out when they look at this complicated form – they can’t figure out what to pay.

And you know what? I have guys that are friends of mine, they make a fortune. They’re hedge fund guys. They move around – paper. Look, at least I build things. I put people to – these guys move around paper. And half the time it’s luck more than talent, okay?

They pay peanuts, okay? I want to make it so the middle class – I want to lower taxes, but I want to make it so the middle class benefits.

Drum is even more amazed:

Hannity has a simple question: what should be the highest tax rate? 23 percent? 28 percent? 35 percent? Trump just bulldozes by and starts free associating about the deficit and the middle class and simplified returns and hedge fund guys and – something else. I’m not sure who the “They pay peanuts” comment is aimed at. Hedge fund managers? By the time he’s done flitting around, even Hannity, one of our nation’s foremost blowhards, just gives up and moves on to something else.

I’m not just cherry picking, either. The entire interview is like this. The conversation about Iran is, if anything, even more surreal. Hannity actually tried asking about the nuclear deal multiple times instead of just giving up, and as near as I can tell Trump knows only two things about the agreement: (a) Iran will get $150 billion and (b) something about 24 days for inspections. That’s it.

That leads to this:

I’m honestly not sure Trump is deliberately evading questions. Maybe he is. It’s certainly the case that he hasn’t bothered to learn even the first thing about either tax policy or the Iran deal. At the same time, he genuinely sounds like an ADHD kid whose mind is in such chaos that he simply can’t string together more than two coherent sentences at a time. And yet, as he keeps reminding us, he is really rich. Can someone with the attention span of a kitten on crack get that rich?

Yes, and as for the kid whose mind is in such chaos that he simply can’t string together more than two coherent sentences at a time, try teaching high-school English. At Politico, Jack Shafer even sees a grade-level problem:

Trump isn’t a simpleton, he just talks like one. If you were to market Donald Trump’s vocabulary as a toy, it would resemble a small box of Lincoln Logs. Trump resists multisyllabic words and complex, writerly sentence constructions when speaking extemporaneously in a debate, at a news conference or in an interview. He prefers to link short, blocky words into other short, blocky words to create short, blocky sentences that he then stacks into short, blocky paragraphs.

The end result of Trump’s word choice is less the stripped-down prose style of Ernest Hemingway than it is a spontaneous reinvention of Ogden’s Basic English, the pared-down lexicon of 850 words selected by early 20th century linguist/philosopher C. K. Ogden as the bedrock of a new world language. In the August 6th Republican candidates’ debate, Trump answered the moderators’ questions with linguistic austerity. Run through the Flesch-Kincaid grade-level test, his text of responses score at the 4th-grade reading level. For Trump, that’s actually pretty advanced. All the other candidates rated higher, with Ted Cruz earning 9th-grade status. Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and Scott Walker scored at the 8th-grade level. …

Trump’s low grade at the debates wasn’t a fluke. His comments from an August 11 news conference in Michigan earned only a 3rd-grade score.

That may go a long way in explaining what’s going on here. The fellow doesn’t have the rudimentary language skills for the class he finds himself in. He strings likely-sounding words together hoping at the end of it all he’ll get a passing grade – but it’s just word soup. But look at the polls. Former English teachers form the tiniest sliver of the general population. Everyone else seems to want another bowl of soup.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to Word Soup

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    Outstanding commentary.
    But what you describe is what happens when a powerful political segment of society promotes ignorance (while at the same time berating the opposition for “dumbing down” public education.)
    I know far more than a single sentence about this topic – my entire career was either growing up as the son of two school teachers (outstanding people), going to college, then teaching, and for the last 27 years of my career representing public school teachers, ultimately after publication of “A Nation At Risk” (1983) dealing with increasingly stupid, ever changing political policies, the results of which teachers were blamed.
    Now I have a daughter who’s a school principal, and another daughter who’s a school board member, and seven grandkids in public school, so the “hands on”, in a sense, continues today, at age 75.
    I know the turf.
    Two days ago I stopped to pick up some mending done by a local seamstress, who’s native of Byelorussia (Belarus), and speaks English well, but not yet fluently. She was talking into her tablet (Skype, probably), and apologized for not immediately giving me her full attention. She put the tablet down, gave me the mending, and we chatted for a moment. The person on the Skype call probably saw me, as I saw her: her niece, a nice looking young lady waiting patiently somewhere in Belarus.
    It occurred to me at that moment that in every corner of the world people can witness in real time on the telly the idiots we have who wish to take control of our government (and, indeed, have been pretty successful already….)
    A final thought: I’m a product of very tiny public schools – one had a senior class of two one year, and two high school teachers, one my Dad. Many of my relatives were school teachers, getting their start in one room rural schools, and getting their teaching license one summer school at a time.
    Lately I’ve been going through the detritus of 110 years on the family farm on which many of these teachers grew up in the teens and twenties and thirties. Occasionally I find textbooks, and student notebooks going back to the 1890s and farm magazines and such, and the quality of content is pretty amazing.
    There was a time in this country where literacy mattered, and mattered a great deal.
    They, like me, didn’t have the luxury of Shakespeare, but real learning, and considering varying points of view, was important, even amongst the common folks back that.
    Today, regardless of ideological bent, we seem to promote ignorance, except for specific selected information supporting our own bias.
    I hope we figure it out before it’s too late.

  2. BabaO says:

    Well said. Dumbing down “education” and the ultimate central control of education have seemed to me a perfectly clear phenomenon since the Sixties. Even prior to that a mandatory “patriotism” had been overlaid, piece by piece, over the preexisting school policies and methodology, essentially since the “red scares” of the early decades of the 20th century. If it wasn’t the bluenoses, it was the Birchers or the churched who were fighting to bend the minds of the younger generation of the moment. Presently, it appears to be the ultra-wealthy who are attempting to steer legislation, both nationally and locally, to mold public schools to be merely incubators for patriotic drones – the worker bees – who will have no interest in labor or professional associations because they will have been taught that they are merely leaches and have been safely disemboweled by the wise “republicans”. And for that reason labor’s socialist thugs can’t beat them if they decline to join a union. (But only try to start one, and the next generation will learn about fascist thugs.)

    Those who wish to understand how schools are controlled, and to what ends, would learn much from “Dumbing Us Down- The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling”, by John Taylor Gatto, a 30-year veteran of the NYC school system

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