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.

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.
Several claims are packed into that passage. Ever so quickly, let's list them:

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:

“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.”
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.”

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


  1. After last night, Sanders is washed up but he is staying in the race. Why? I think he is cynically hoping Clinton will have a stroke, leaving him the last candidate standing.

    Just as there are Republicans saying they would never vote for Trump, I will never vote for Sanders. His actions during this campaign have disqualified him. He may believe that people would be so frightened of a Trump presidency that he would be elected, but he is wrong. I will vote Peace and Freedom or Green before I vote for him, with his misogynistic BernieBros and his arm waving one-issue vanity campaign. There is something wrong with him -- just as there is with Trump, and I think they are brothers in an ego-driven way that is not good for our country. Senility is not a qualification for office.

    1. Dave the Guitar PlayerMarch 2, 2016 at 12:45 PM

      Conservatives are willing to vote for trash such as Trump in order to deny the White House to the Democrats, but you are willing to turn over the keys to Trump because you don't like Bernie enough. You do not seem to have the sufficient passion to push a progressive/liberal agenda forward.

    2. I don't think Bernie would be any better than Trump because their motives are similar and neither has the experience to be President. Bernie would be just as much a disaster and I do not trust him more than Trump. Hillary Clinton has pushed forward a progressive/liberal agenda and could get a greal deal done as President. If she isn't president, I don't want to live in this country any more. It isn't that I "don't like Bernie enough." It is that I actively dislike him and think he would be a terrible president, in ways not unlike Trump. A bumbling fool who doesn't know what he is doing can do a great deal of damage.

      Back in the 70s a historian analyzed the effectiveness of reform mayors who followed incumbents removed for corruption. The reform governments were uniformly less effective, worse for the people of their cities, than the machine-run governments. Being pure of heart is useless if you aren't experienced and capable of doing the job.

      I don't think Bernie is even "pure of heart" given his campaign choices during this election. I certainly don't think he has the experience and know-how to be an effective president. So he will be worse than useless. I'll go somewhere else, under those circumstances.

    3. I would feel a whole lot better about Hillary if she would just return that Wall Street money.

    4. I would feel so much better about Bernie if he weren't in the pocket of the NRA.

    5. With the drug money fueled gangs running roughshod in the early 90's we could have become another Mexico had there not been a clampdown against violent crime. Thankfully the Clinton's put the interests of law abiding citizens above the interests of violent criminals.

    6. I would feel a lot better about Bernie if his supporters didn't behave toward Clinton supporters exactly the way that Clinton supporters behave toward them!

      I would feel confident about Bernie's inexperience if today was 2004 and it was Barack's inexperience we were talking about.

      Hope & Change!!!

    7. Many of the same people who are supporting Clinton this year understood the liability of Obama's inexperience and predicted exactly what did happen during his two terms in office. Older voters have their own experience so they are better able to evaluate the problem posed by inexperience in a candidate. All those 20-something young men and women who think Bernie is wonderful haven't been around long enough to see what happens when someone cannot put their "good ideas" into effect because they don't know how to get anything done.

      Clinton doesn't have anyone who is equivalent to those Bernie Bros. Look what happened when Bernie's people hacked into her voter data files. She was the wronged party but Bernie went on full attack. Her people were nothing like his in that situation.

      Trump's campaign offers a safe haven for racists in the same way that Bernie's campaign offers a safe haven for misogynists. If he were the man you think he is, he would disavow them. He doesn't.

    8. If you don't think Clinton supporters attack Sanders supporters, and that's just a thing "Bernie Bros" do, it's because you are a Clinton supporter and haven't experienced it for yourself.

      They have, they did, and they do.

      Calling Sanders' supporters "Bernie Bros" as you do, erasing his support from people not on social media, his support from people of color, his support from women in the process, is a demeaning but only very mild form of the vitriol experienced daily by Sanders' supporters from Clinton's on a daily basis.

      IOW: get off your fucking high horse, only ignorance seems to put you on one in the first place.

      Imagining that Obama's "liability" of inexperience is the source of any failure to achieve during his tenure shows a stunted understanding of the political scene as well. You have heard of our system's division into an executive and legislative branch, yes?

    9. An Anonymous Clinton supporter wrote:

      "Back in the 70s a historian analyzed the effectiveness of reform mayors who followed incumbents removed for corruption. The reform governments were uniformly less effective, worse for the people of their cities, than the machine-run governments."

      I wrote:

      Back in the mid 20-teens a historian wrote that anonymous idiots commenting on blogs
      about unnamed historians regularly revealed that vanity blogger Bob Somerby used his own readership to conclude liberal were dumb.

  2. I confess that I do not read Blow's column, as I refuse to purchase to have access to more than the ten articles a month that The New York Times makes available for free. I have read excerpts of Blow's columns that Bob has posted here in the past, and I agree with Bob that people like Blow, Josh, Peter Beinart, et alia, who consider themselves to be liberal, are doing our tribe a great disservice. Blow strikes me as a "reactionary," not in the common use of the word as an extremist of the right-wing, but as one who is not so rational, and in a "knee-jerk" fashion, spouts out nonsense from his soap box.

  3. Visualize a crime involving a black person. Does your vision have the black person as the perp or as the victim? In fact, blacks are over-represented in both categories.

    The crime bill probably did incarcerate more black perps, but it also helped more blacks not become crime victims. That latter point is too easily ignored.

  4. Bernies Sanders voted for the 1994 Omnibus crime bill. Hillary Clinton wasn't in office then.

    Joseph Cannon says:

    "What's good for the gander is good for the Sanders. Let's see what happens if we judge Bernie Sanders the way we would judge a Clinton.

    Let's see what happens if we apply "Clinton rules" to Bernie Sanders.

    (Ahem. Excuse me for a few seconds while I try to work up the appropriate rage. Imagine the following words shouted by a man with beet-red cheeks.)

    Bernie is totally responsible for everything bad about that 1994 crime bill. You say that you don't like the disproportionate incarceration of blacks? Blame Bernie!

    Obviously, he created that bill as a ploy to keep the black vote down. Why? Because the ruthlessly ambitious Bernie Sanders foresaw that he would one day run for national office. He understood that he would need to suppress the black vote in southern primaries. Yes, Sanders really does think THAT far ahead.

    It's just another Sanders conspiracy, one of oh-so-many.

    Bernie Sanders must be judged -- forever -- by that one vote. Ignore everything else that this man has said and done. That one vote is ALL.

    Notice that he has never apologized for his 1994 vote. Instead, he offered a lame justification that his decision, claiming that the legislation contained an assault weapons ban. Actually, the version on which he voted did not have that provision: It was added later.

    In other words, SANDERS IS LYING -- AGAIN.

    He lies and lies and LIES! He schemes and schemes and SCHEMES!

    The real reason Bernie Sanders voted for that bill is obvious. BERNIE SANDERS HATES BLACK PEOPLE!!! He longs to hunt them for sport! He wants to cook and eat them!

    (Hey, this kind of absurdity is fun. Now I understand why so many people get off on demonizing the Clintons. It must be nice to have a target for all of your pent-up anger.)"

    1. I don't demonize the Clintons, but I do think she should give the money back.

    2. "... every other politician ...". Therein lies the problem, the influence of money on politics, they all do it. Maybe we need a higher standard.

    3. Maybe you should change the system after this election, not unilaterally just for the one who happens to be named Clinton.

  5. On Feb 25 Kevin Drumm addressed this matter of increased incarceration after the bill was passed. He stated there is little objective data but the National Academy of Science did study this and Drum shows the chart of their findings. Incarceration rates had already exploded before the bill and after passage had little additional impact. As Drum notes the bill was far from perfect and could be criticized on other grounds.

    Michelle Alexander wrote what to me seems a misguided article in The Nation alleging the crime bill did greatly increase black incarceration and therefore Hilary does not merit black support. At the end of the article she notes also that Bernie voted for the bill and therefore a third party is merited. Hoo boy! This election is really getting tiresome.

    1. Did she also note that Hillary Clinton did not vote for the bill? Why not?

  6. For some reason, the comment system won't let me reply to Horace Feathers. I want to tell him to say alii (masculine), not alia (neuter).

    I'd also like to explain why more blacks were incarcerated: their neighborhoods wore more severely exposed to leaded gasoline fumes twenty years before.

    1. Because you don't know whether the others in his list are male, using the masculine would be inappropriate. In academic usage, it is always et alia, not alii, perhaps because you are referring to publications instead of the people who wrote them. Horace may have intended that usage, not a literal reference to the people he listed.

      Drum's theory might explain the increase in all crime with rising lead levels, but he doesn't explain why more blacks are affected (and continue to be despite the fall in lead levels). You need sociological explanations for that.

  7. Alia means other things. Alii means other people, whether all male, mixed, or unknown. If they're known to be female, they're aliae.

    It's not Drum's theory; he just reported on it. Less powerful segments of the population get worse environments, and they're then blamed for the consequences.

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