USING OUR WORDS: And other key skills!

MONDAY, JULY 24, 2017

Part 1—The world of Ridiculous Us:
Decades ago, Aristotle is widely said to have said it.

"Man [sic] is the rational animal," he is said to have said. Depending on what he actually meant, he may have been right in some way.

Years later, sacred Thoreau expressed a somewhat different view. "Men [sic] labor under a mistake," he unpleasantly said.

Wittgenstein might have tilted toward Thoreau a tiny tad. In his later work, he said that people are inclined to make certain types of mistakes, especially when "doing philosophy," though not exclusively so.

(According to Professor Horwich, the professors threw Wittgenstein under the bus so they could keep teaching their Kant course. This too would have been a mistake.)

Are we humans "the rational animal," or are we perhaps profitably viewed as a bunch of misfiring machines? The question occurred to us this morning as we started reading Olivia Nuzzi's portrait of Mika and Joe.

Nuzzi is 24. According to the leading authority, she "rose to prominence" in 2013 when she outed herself as a 20-year-old intern to Anthony Weiner, who had risen to prominence through a series of photo he sent of himself.

Nuzzi's lengthy profile of Joe and Mika appears in New York Magazine. It seems to be the cover piece for the current issue.

Because Mika and Joe are influential, the world could use a well-researched report on their behavior over the past ten years. Nuzzi's somewhat confusing first two paragraphs concern a pet rabbit which was bestowed as a birthday gift, complete with a rabbit-shaped birthday cake.

Those were paragraphs 1 and 2. In paragraph 3, we finally got to the hair:
NUZZI (7/24/17): At six-foot-three, or eight-foot-nine including the hair, Scarborough looks like Jimmy Neutron in his Lizard King phase or Tucker Carlson after someone put him through a taffy-pulling machine. No matter the shoe, he never wears socks, displaying a pair of glistening ankles at all times. Brzezinski is five-foot-six and the unusually even color of a vizsla puppy, her blinding hair a cross between Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy’s and Polly Pocket’s. Together, they achieve a kind of strange aesthetic perfection—the decorative figurines topping the bunny cake that is political media in Trump’s America.
In fairness, we ourselves have noticed the growing height of Joe's big pile of hair. It's also true that Nuzzi is journalistically witty, despite her tender years.

Still and all, Nuzzi's profile devotes a large amount of attention to "hair, long beautiful hair, Shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waven," as the Broadway cast used to sing it. Sometimes when we machines misfire, we do so by being inane.

Last Wednesday, on the front page of Style, the Washington Post's Robin Givhan explained the meaning of Callista Gingrich's hair. As Nuzzi's profile continued, we got photos of Joe's massive hair with Mika's fingers running through it, and a comment from sidekick Willie Geist Jr. about the way Joe and Mika's hairstyles have changed down through the years.

(And even his own! “Other than the size of my and Joe’s hair and maybe Mika’s haircut, not much has changed” on the Morning Joe program in the past ten years, Geist is quoted saying.)

At its upper end, our political press corps spends a fair amount of time on hair. Major stars at the New York Times have focused on Mayor Giuliani's comb-over, then on Candidate Gore's bald spot. (Seven "bald spot" columns in all, including one on the final Sunday.) The press has obsessed on the cost of haircuts obtained by Bill Clinton and John Edwards.

In November 2011, the New York Times ran a full-length front-page profile of Mitt Romney's stylist. In the face of all this ridiculousness, the standard professors emerge to complain about the way the mainstream press corps plucks at the hair and clothing of female candidates alone. On what planet are these standard professors kept?

There's little question that Joe's pile of hair has been rising, apparently reflecting the lift of a driving dream. Because attention must be paid, Nuzzi's profile of Mika and Joe ends with this embarrassing passage:
NUZZI: Joe and Mika were engaged in the south of France in May, and she wears her large diamond solitaire, even though she said it gets in the way of caring for their petting zoo. “I’m not sure where we begin and the other ends. We’re just really connected,” she told me. Scarborough added, “You don’t know where I start, where she ends … We … she … understands me—” She cut him off: “Makes you better.”

“She does make me a lot better.” Including paying particular attention to the height of his hair, which she has her own stylist cut at the Carlyle Hotel and is often fixing herself with her fingers.

“You know,” Scarborough said, “it’s actually funny that Mika, she loves—stop that,” he laughed, as her hand disappeared into the mane.

“I’m just trying to get it to be tall.”

“She loves—she will grab it.”

“I suggest you don’t talk too long about this,” Brzezinski cautioned him.

“She’ll yank it up high and spray it. And I’m like, ‘What are you doing? It’s going straight up!’ ” He laughed. “It just keeps hitting you that it’s forever. It’s forever. It’s forever. And you do realize immediately what matters, what doesn’t matter. It makes you treat people around you differently, people that you love.”
Hair, brain-damaging hair!

With that, the profile ends. You the reader get to decide whose inanity you are observing. Joe and Mika's? Olivia Nuzzi's? That of the press as a whole?

In Nuzzi's closing paragraph, we readers are given some options. As we think about the way Joe and Mika treat the people that they love, we get to think about the way our journalists treat us, the consumers of these attempts at "news," the rubes Out Here in a failing land.

Given their level of influence, a serious profile of Joe and Mika could be important. That said, just consider:

You've never seen a serious profile of the past work of Maureen Dowd or Chris Matthews, influential players who shaped the way Candidate Clinton was viewed by the public last year.

Matthews and Dowd were influential back in the day. Joe and Mika are influential now. In even a slightly more rational world, you might expect to see a serious profile of the way they behaved toward Candidate Trump, and about the way they now behave toward President Trump.

Nuzzi's profile is interesting when she touches on the latter point. But her chronology from the campaign is wrong, and her research seems very slight. She doesn't attempt to describe, or explain, the fawning behavior this ridiculous pair directed at Candidate Trump until they flipped, early last year.

There is no sign that Nuzzi has done the laborious background work here. She hasn't reviewed the tapes which would record all the fawning behavior which helped put Candidate Trump on the political map.

On the brighter side, we do get wonderfully entertained with talk of that mile-high hair. This is a trade-off we've been accepting down through these many dumb years.

All this week, we're going to explore the basic skills, and the basic values, of the American press corps. We'll also be exploring the basic skills and values of us Over Here in our liberal tents—the basic skills of Ridiculous Us.

Tomorrow, we'll return to Masha Gessen's recent lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival. In particular, we'll look at one heartfelt plea, in which Gessen said that NPR should describe Donald Trump's lies as "lies."

Gessen is one of our brightest and best. As a journalist, she has actually walked the walk. In our view, she has earned our respect.

That said, her liberal audience burst into applause when she made a remarkably simple-minded plea. So it goes, given the level of basic skills attained by Ridiculous Us.

As our culture collapses around us, are we really rational animals, or are we perhaps more profitably seen as a gang of misfiring machines? Tomorrow, we'll turn to the basic plea made in Gessen's lecture. Eventually, we'll look in on Michael Oreskes, public editor at NPR, as he responded to complaints about the way NPR was using some of its words.

We'll review what Professor Rosen said about NPR's use of its words. Professor Rosen is fully sincere. But when it comes to using our words, is he man or machine?

We'll also review this new Trumpcast at Slate, in which Professor Nyhan and Virginia Heffernan talk about the ultimate meaning of Donald J. Trump's many peculiar lies. Before we're done, we'll think about the history of the English language itself, even recalling what Austin said about the origin of the many words we have at our disposal, available for our use.

We like to tell our 5-year-olds that they should "use their words." Within our so-called meritocracy, at this time of vast division, how skillfully do our journalists and professors seem to be using theirs?

Tomorrow: "Our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men [sic] have found worth drawing..."


  1. "At its upper end, our political press corps spends a fair amount of time on hair."

    With Messrs Obama and Trump, they're also quite interested in their skin pigmentation.

    1. To be fair,"Mao", I live in a deep-red Southern state, and I heard an awful lot about Obama's skin color, and NOT in a flattering way, from lots of average citizens. OK? So, asking if race was a factor in the election is a valid question. OK?

  2. Alternate title for that profile: "On Hares, Hair, and Hare-Brains."

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