THE PERILS OF SKILL-FREE LIVING: Nomenclature meets nomenklatura!

FRIDAY, JULY 14, 2017

Part 4—The AP composes a transcript:
In Jim Sheridan's autobiographical film, In America, a young Irish immigrant father is losing his soul in the wake of the death of his son.

The father can't escape or regulate his grief. At one point, he describes the sweep of his losses.

A neighbor chastises him for the way he's failing himself and his two darling daughters. "You don't believe," the neighbor says.

The father responds as follows:
In what? God?

You know, I asked him a favor. I asked him to take me instead of him—and he took the both of us!

And look what he put in my place.

I'm a fucking ghost. I don't exist.

I can't think. I can't laugh. I can't cry.

I can't—feel!
We often think of that speech when we observe the hollowed-out skill set of our celebrity press corps.

They're the gang that can't paraphrase straight. They're the gang that likes to talk about candidates' haircuts and clothes.

They're the gang that invents irrelevant facts and disappears the world's most significant data sets. They're the gang that entertains us each night on our favorite "cable news" shows.

Most of all, they're the gang that works from novelized scripts. They've performed that way at least since early 2000, when E. R. Shipp, then the Washington Post's ombudsman, described the way the Post had cast the four major candidates in that year's White House campaign.

(Shipp described the "roles that The Post seems to have assigned to the actors in this unfolding political drama." Her headline: "Typecasting Candidates." To this day, her short column is the clearest description we've ever seen of the press corps' standard functioning. To read that short column, click here.)

Those journalists! We'd be inclined to call them the gang that can't report or analyze straight. Like the suffering father in Sheridan's film, are they "f*cking ghosts?"

Like that suffering father, they can't seem to think real well at this point. On the other hand, they do seem able to feel. They seem able to feel much too much.

They clearly can't restrict themselves to reporting the things they actually know. In the case of the Associated Press, they can't seem to compose a transcript.

We refer to the transcript of Julie Pace's interview with Donald J. Trump. The venerable news org posted the transcript of the session on April 23 of this year.

You can peruse it here.

The interview was a major "get" for the Associated Press. In effect, it was Trump's official interview about his triumphant and glorious first hundred days in office.

That hundred-day milestone is silly, but standard. Because Trump had provided few interviews, the AP's long session with Trump was a major journalistic event.

Two weeks later, Masha Gessen quoted extensively from the transcript during her May 7 lecture at the PEN World Voices Festival. She did so to laughter and applause from a liberal audience. To watch the lecture, click here.

The AP transcript was flawed. Gesen's use of the transcript was deeply flawed. In a journalistic world which wasn't principally peopled by skill-free ghosts, her performance that day would seem deeply puzzling.

Gessen's lecture dealt with a deeply important subject. She spoke about the destruction of the public discourse which had occurred in her native Russia by the late Soviet period.

Six days later, the New York Review of Books published an adapted version of Gessen's lecture. In the passage shown below, Gessen describes the destruction of language and public discourse under Soviet culture and rule, and the problem journalists faced in the early post-Soviet period.

This passage constitutes an important record of the way tyrants, thugs and possibly f*cking ghosts can destroy the public sphere:
GESSEN (5/13/17): A Russian poet named Sergei Gandlevsky once said that in the late Soviet period he became obsessed with hardware-store nomenclature. He loved the word secateurs, for example. Garden shears, that is. Secateurs is a great word. It has a shape. It has weight. It has a function. It is not ambiguous. It is also not a hammer, a rake, or a plow. It is not even scissors. In a world where words were constantly used to mean their opposite, being able to call secateurs “secateurs”—and nothing else—was freedom.

“Freedom,” on the other hand, was, as you know, slavery. That’s Orwell’s 1984. And it is also the USSR, a country that had “laws,” a “constitution,” and even “elections,” also known as the “free expression of citizen will.” The elections, which were mandatory, involved showing up at the so-called polling place, receiving a pre-filled ballot—each office had one name matched to it—and depositing it in the ballot box, out in the open. Again, this was called the “free expression of citizen will.” There was nothing free about it, it did not constitute expression, it had no relationship to citizenship or will because it granted the subject no agency. Calling this ritual either an “election” or the “free expression of citizen will” had a dual effect: it eviscerated the words “election,” “free,” “expression,” “citizen,” and “will,” and it also left the thing itself undescribed. When something cannot be described, it does not become a fact of shared reality. Hundreds of millions of Soviet citizens had an experience of the thing that could not be described, but I would argue that they did not share that experience, because they had no language for doing so. At the same time, an experience that could be accurately described as, say, an “election,” or “free,” had been preemptively discredited because those words had been used to denote something entirely different.

When I was a young journalist, I went back to my country of birth to work in my native language. In the early 1990s, Russian journalists were engaged in the project of reinventing journalism—which itself had been used to perform the opposite of conveying reliable information. Language was a problem. The language of politics had been pillaged, as had the language of values and even the language of feelings...
Gessen, who has walked the walk, is describing an important part of world history and human experience.

In fairness, her metaphysics is a bit fuzzy here. She never explains why this "free expression of citizen will," which was in fact an "overt governmental sham," couldn't be described in such a way, thereby "becoming a fact of shared reality." (We'll recall this objection next week.)

We mention this because it's important to avoid getting slippery about such an important topic. Gessen's lecture becomes even more important as she proceeds to compare this Soviet-era journalistic dilemma to the way our own American discourse is crumbling in this, the early Trump era.

Have we mentioned the fact that Masha Gessen has actually walked the walk? We'll recommend major respect for such an admirable person, but we'll warn against the common human instinct to confer the status of god on Gessen, or on anyone else.

Gessen covered those same points in her May 7 lecture. As she continued, she drew laughter and applause, working from the AP transcript of the interview with Donald J. Trump.

The transcript is remarkably puzzling in certain ways, especially given the importance of the interview the AP was recording. We're forced to say that Gessen's use of the transcript was substantially worse.

In her lecture, Gessen seemed to think that the corruption of our own public discourse could only be coming from Trump. It didn't seem to occur to her that the corruption of our own discourse might also be coming from the laughing, applauding liberal audience which was cheering her on, or from the journalists who did the typecasting Shipp described almost twenty years ago.

That AP transcript is a study in the banality of the press corps' lack of basic skills. We'll tell you why we'd say such a thing when we resume on Monday.

Gessen took a shaky route from there. As she worked from the AP transcript, her lack of due diligence was apparent. The audience laughed and applauded.

Gessen spoke of the loss of clear nomenclature during the Soviet period. Our warning concerning Gessen, whose soul is very much worth saving:

That suffering father was becoming a ghost. Is she in danger of becoming a part of our own nomenklatura?

Coming Monday: The banality of incompetence


  1. I recall reading that interview. I thought Trump said mostly reasonable things, although perhaps he exaggerated his achievements. It was filled with declarative statements that were indeed factual. I will be interested in finding out how the transcript became an item of ridicule.

    1. Hard for me to get through his mush, but I read about half. Can you call this factual: "I've developed great relationships with all of these leaders."?
      You'd have to ask those leaders..although I think we have an idea that they don't feel that way.
      "I have great relationships with Congress."...OK, some of the Republicans, maybe, but not Democrats. Anyway, typical Trump
      unverifiable "exaggeration" as you call it.
      China a currency manipulator...he repeated it dozens of times on the campaign trail. Suddenly, they're not? Oh I see..they haven't
      manipulated currency WHILE I'VE BEEN In disingenuous of Trump.
      "everything you do in government, involves heart, whereas in business, most things don't involve heart."...that's why he supports a health care
      plan that strips health care from millions, something he vowed not to do. Lie? Wishful thinking (maybe those people won;t really lose
      health care?).
      "we create a lot of jobs, 500,000 jobs as of two months ago": "We"? Does he mean the US? His administration? Or the economic recovery
      put in place by Mr. Obama?
      "never heard of Wikileaks ": Can you verify the truth of that? Nope, you can't. I tend not to believe it, since my BS detector
      sounds a giant alarm whenever Trump speaks.
      "they (the DNC) won't let the FBI see their server": He states it as a fact. Is it?
      Other Trump claims (not necessarily in this AP transcript):
      More people at his inauguration than Obama's (or was it in history?)> That's either a lie or a delusion.
      "Investigators in won't believe what they're finding": Trump knows whether there were or weren't investigators.
      What did they find?
      "I've accomplished more in 5 months than sny president in history": Really? How do we measure the truth of that?
      "Don't know if the Russians hacked the election...could have been China, etc..." He doesn't know? The intelligence community knows,
      or do you dispute whether anything is really knowable, man?
      Etc etc ad infinitum.

    2. ...perhaps he exaggerated his achievements...

      Yes, as we've concluded on many prior occasions, tRump is a lying sack of shit. A bold faced lying bullshit artist of the most extreme order.

      TRUMP: Yeah. Let me give me an example. A little before I took office there was a terrible article about the F-35 fighter jet. It was hundreds of billions of dollars over budget. It was seven years behind schedule. It was a disaster. So I called in Lockheed and I said, “I’m sorry, we’re going to have to bid this out to another company, namely Boeing,” or whoever else. But Boeing. And I called in Boeing and I started getting competing offers back and forth. ...

      TRUMP: I saved $725 million on the 90 planes. Just 90. Now there are 3,000 planes that are going to be ordered. On 90 planes I saved $725 million. It’s actually a little bit more than that, but it’s $725 million. Gen. Mattis, who had to sign the deal when it came to his office, said, “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.” We went from a company that wanted more money for the planes to a company that cut. And the reason they cut — same planes, same everything — was because of me. I mean, because that’s what I do.

      That's what he does, see?

      How Trump got credit for slashing price of fighter jet when he didn't

      The evidence suggests the price reduction for the F-35 was planned long before Trump's Twitter criticism and personal involvement.

      By Ellen Mitchell
      | 02/07/2017 05:20 AM EST

    3. I suspect mm nailed it. mm and other Trump-haters "know" that Trump is a "sack of shit." How do they know this? Because that's what they keep telling each other.

      OTOH Trump thinks he is a reasonable, highly effective human being. Trump-haters must find it funny for a sack of shit to speak as if he were a human being.

      P.S. All you Trump-haters should read
      The Lies of Donald Trump’s Critics, and How They Shape His Many Personas
      An in-depth analysis of the false allegations and misleading claims made against the 45th President since his inauguration.

    4. How do we know Trump is a sack of shit? He said he grabs women by the pussy, he walked in on teenage girls participating in a beauty contest, while they were undressed, he mocks disabled people and fires people because they aren't good looking. He is a sack of shit because that's the kind of things he does. No one has to tell us what he is.

  2. "We often think of that speech when we observe the hollowed-out skill set of our celebrity press corps."

    From this statement it is clear that Somerby has never had, much less lost, a child. The deep grief felt by the father in Sheridan's film is in no way comparable to anything the press corps may be doing. Somerby cannot grasp the pain felt by this man to the point that he can no longer function. To trivialize that loss by comparing it to political writing is offensive in the extreme. I cannot grasp how or why Somerby could make such a deeply unfeeling comparison.

    These tragedies are not available to Somerby to use in such a way, if he has any shred of human decency!

    1. The death of single child is a tragedy, but how many children died (and continue to die) because our celebrity obsessed press core helped elect GWB as president, so he could invade Iraq? How many children will die because of Trump's election? How great will that pain be for their parents?

    2. Just as you would not trade on the death of a soldier to make a political point, you do not borrow the pain of a parent who is grieving to make a trivial point about journalist malpractice. It shows a tremendous lack of empathy.

      Somerby's essay isn't going to prevent any deaths and his use of grief as an analogy is just offensive because it is insensitive to what the death of a child means to a parent and why that emptiness is felt. He has no kids but that is no excuse. He should know better and you shouldn't be excusing him.

    3. Poor political journalism kills, as many American soldiers and foreign people in American occupied lands have learned since 9/11. There is nothing wrong with politicizing a death, if a politician's foolish actions caused the death. Not doing that allows politicians to get away with negligent homicide any time they want.

    4. Tell that to the parents of Sandy Hook, why don't you?

    5. I am glad many parents of the children tragically slain at Sandy Hook decided to politicize their childrens' deaths (at great personal cost) to help prevent even more parents from going through what they did.

    6. Look at what Somerby is comparing deep grief to and tell me it in any way justifies evoking empathetic pain. He clearly doesn't feel any or he could not have written this essay. He is fortunate that he has never lost a favorite nephew or niece. If he had, he couldn't watch Sheridan's film, much less talk about it so glibly.

  3. Somerby seems to think that everyone should be checking the accuracy of posted transcriptions of political speeches, routinely, or they are incompetent. The responsibility for checking accuracy is with the publisher/broadcaster, the people who post the transcript. It would be nice if everyone were to perform a double-check on these transcripts, but there isn't time in the world for that. That a transcriber of a recording found a passage unintelligible is not surprising, especially given Trump's awful diction.

    Nearly everything Trump says has the same characteristics as those referred to by Gessen in her PEN speech. She need not have used that particular interview. She could have used any campaign speech, or his tweets, to illustrate her point, which is obvious to anyone who has ever heard the man speak.

    So why is Somerby pretending that a problem with the transcript negates her point or makes her a person in jeopardy of losing her journalistic soul? She is correct, no matter what the deficiencies of the transcript, and the audience understood her points, which is why they laughed. They recognized the truth of her statements. Trump is a buffoon who would never have been elected without interference in our electoral process. He cannot think or speak clearly. Nothing about the transcript changes any of that.

    There is a kind of focus on detail and rigidity of thought that is characteristic of people with Parkinson's disease. I wonder if Somerby is afflicted with that disorder. It isn't normal to so thoroughly lose the gist and fixate on detail like this. Thoreau wouldn't do it. Neither would any philosopher. Their attention to detail is always in service of some more meaningful point. If Somerby has some such point, he has yet to articulate it.

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      If you chose the last option, then you should definitely check out my favorite website, You will be most pleased. Thank you.

  4. On Masha Gessen’s describing mock elections, Somerby comments:

    In fairness, her metaphysics is a bit fuzzy here. She never explains why this ”free expression of citizen will,” which was in fact an ”overt governmental sham,” couldn’t be described in such a way, thereby ”becoming a fact of shared reality.”

    As the grandson of a woman executed by a Soviet firing squad, perhaps it falls to me to hint at the very obvious; to remind you of, e.g., the namesake for the Magnitsky Act sanctions Putin is even now trying to get Trump to overturn (and helped elect him for that purpose) — Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer and auditor who did his civic duty and told the truth, only to be thrown in prison by Putin’s kleptocracy for it and die there after assault and medical neglect... only one of many Putin critics to die from unnatural causes.

    What do you think ran through the mind of anyone who thought of speaking up and openly calling these elections fakery? In a nation that prosecutes whistleblowers like Alexander Nikitin for treason through espionage? (Though, granted, he was the first ever completely acquitted on that charge in the Soviet or post-Soviet era.)

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