Part 1—Babel all the way down: The sages have a famous old saying. Their saying goes something like this:
You can't spell "liberal" without four-fifths of "Babel."
The sages have mouthed this for decades. We thought of this saying when we read Charles Blow's most recent New York Times column.
Blow's column appeared in Monday morning's Times. Its headline contained the quotation marks we include below:
"I'm Not A Super Predator"
In his headline, Blow seemed to be quoting someone. As the pundit began his labors, we learned who that person is:
BLOW (2/29/16): Days before Hillary Clinton thundered to an overwhelming victory over rival Bernie Sanders in South Carolina—largely on the strength of black voters who supported her by an even higher percentage than they supported Barack Obama with in 2008—a young, proudly queer, black activist, Ashley Williams, was in Charlotte, N.C., plotting an action that would make a statement of its own.Is Ashley Williams proudly queer? We have no idea. Nor did Blow ever attempt to explain what that description had to do with the "statement" he would discuss in the rest of his column.
It was Williams who was quoted in the headline to Blow's piece. As he continued, Blow began to paint a picture of a type of Babel, a type of Babel from which that quoted statement emerged:
BLOW (continuing directly): She was planning to attend a private Clinton fund-raiser in Charleston, S.C., and confront the candidate about her support of policies—specifically the 1994 crime bill—that contributed to the explosion of racially tilted mass incarceration in this country.Several claims are packed into that passage. Ever so quickly, let's list them:
Williams and her friends decided to make a sign—but what to put on it? They toyed with phrases from a now infamous speech Clinton gave in 1996—when the 23-year-old Williams was a toddler—in which Clinton said:
“We need to take these people on. They are often connected to big drug cartels. They are not just gangs of kids anymore. They are often the kinds of kids that are called super predators: no conscience, no empathy. We can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel.”
They settled on a phrase and over a couple of hours they blocked out the letters on a pillowcase. Williams practiced in a bathroom mirror folding the banner into her bra and whipping it out. (She figured that she’d have to hide it on her body so that it wouldn’t be confiscated before she revealed it at the fund-raiser.) But it was too thick. So she cut away the back half that had no writing. Perfect.
According to Blow, the 1994 crime bill "contributed to the explosion of racially tilted mass incarceration in this country."
That is almost certainly true, though it all depends on what the meaning of "contributed to" is. And on what the meaning of "racially tilted" is. And on what the meaning of "explosion of" is.
Whatever! Also according to Blow, Hillary Clinton gave a speech in 1996 about that 1994 bill. According to Blow, that speech is "now infamous."
It sounds like Clinton gave a horrible speech! By traditional standards, we'd expect a journalist to justify such a claim in a reasonably careful way.
Blow proceeded to quote an excerpt from the now-infamous speech. As the excerpt starts, Clinton refers to "these people."
Blow never sketches the antecedent although, based on what follows in the excerpt, Clinton said the people in question were "often connected to big drug cartels" and had "no conscience, no empathy."
This seemed to be the key part of Clinton's now-infamous speech. This seemed to be the part of the speech which spurred Williams to take action.
At any rate, Williams practiced whipping her banner out. It was "perfect," Blow judged.
As Blow continued his story-telling, we finally encountered the statement which formed his headline. This is what the activist said to the candidate who had delivered an infamous speech when the activist was three years old:
BLOW (continuing directly): The night of the event, she nervously made her way through security with her secret banner hidden away, and took up position near where she assumed Clinton was to speak. As soon as Clinton descended the stairs of the mansion, took the microphone and began her remarks, Williams turned to the crowd and unfurled her banner. Then she turned to Clinton, who was confronted with her own worst words:When Williams whipped it out, her banner contained what Blow described as Clinton's "worst words." Those worst words (from 1996) were revealed to be these:
“We have to bring them to heel.”
On the video of the encounter, recorded by a friend of Williams who accompanied her to the event (After all, in this age, an action without a video is like a tree falling in the forest with nobody around to hear it), an exchange follows:
Williams: “We want you to apologize for mass incarceration.”
Clinton: “O.K., we’ll talk about...
Williams: “I’m not a super predator, Hillary Clinton.”
“We have to bring them to heel.”
More significantly, we finally learned the meaning of Blow's headline:
“I’m not a super predator, Hillary Clinton,” Williams had said.
By standard construction, Williams apparently thought Clinton called her a super-predator back in 1996, when she apparently said the worst thing she has said in the past twenty years. Adding to the ugliness, Williams had only been three when Hillary Clinton did that! It's no wonder she wanted to protest!
American citizens, welcome to Babel! Truth to tell, that's the journalistic world in which we all currently live.
People like Blow seem determined to prove that a person can have a top-shelf journalistic career without ever making clear sense. One day later, along came Josh, adding his own brand of super-confusion to the Babel in which we all live.
The journalists fawned to the graduate student, who had been one when the bill in question was passed. Neither one of these high-ranking journalists offered even the most basic contextual facts as they discussed the protest by the graduate student. By normal standards, they should have shared those facts with their readers, perhaps even with Williams herself.
Did Hillary Clinton say that Williams is a super-predator? Somehow or other, that's the claim Williams denied that night, after she whipped it out in a perfect gesture.
Or something like that.
Presumably, we the people have never had a perfect public discourse. Depending on how tough a grader you are, we'll assume that this nation's public discourse has never even risen to the level of "good."
Today, though, just take a look around. As we'll note in the course of the next few days, it's Babel all the way down!
Tomorrow: "Gramps" rushes past the mere facts