Word and Image of Vermont

This site exists to promote the pleasures of discussion and to nudge us all -- myself included -- an inch or two towards decency. You're welcome, and encouraged, to comment on any of the opinions you encounter here by using the e-mail link on the left.

John R. Turner
Thoughts for August 25, 2019

On TV now there is a frequently repeated Chevrolet commercial in which the announcer says, “There’s a company that’s talked to more real people than me.” Then he goes on to say that J. D. Powers has interviewed ever so many car owners and found that they rate Chevys higher than any other car.

Now I’m going to be what you think is picky by noting that this commercial irritates me. In the first place the statement is ungrammatical, because the announcer should say that the company has talked to more people than he has, and he should give up describing non-actors as “real” people. Why are they, in this instance, more real than actors? Actors or not, they know what they’re expected to say.

The decay of what used to be correct grammar in our speech is actually something that matters, whether people want to recognize it or not. It leaves us sounding stupid. What the announcer is actually saying here is “more people than me have.” There is a difference between the nominative and the objective case in pronouns. And when we forget about it, we get slovenly in our speech.

And there is also an insult in calling some people real, because it implies that other people are not real. What does it mean to say that a person is not real?

Years ago, when I was dean of an academic program, a delegation of students came to me to complain that they wanted some real people on the faculty. I ushered them, non-too-gently, out of my office with the instruction that the faculty members were just as real as they were.

When we slosh words around as if they had no genuine meaning, we do harm whether we grasp it or not.

Thoughts for August 24, 2019

I said the other day that I don’t like abbreviations, and the news now is presenting me a good example of why. The number of initials that supposedly identify people Trump is trying to discriminate against because of their sexual preferences has now reached six -- LGBTQI. I think I know what most of these represent, but when I see the whole thing it’s at first confusing. If “Q” stands for queer, what’s the difference between that and what “G” represents? Aren’t both these what used to be called homosexuals? In the past they were regularly called queers by vulgar people, but now the existing abbreviation seems to indicate there’s a difference between gays and queers. Is it just that the latter are more flamboyant about their habits than ordinary gay guys are? I really don’t know. It’s hard to keep up with all these charges, and especially when parts of the government are using them as reasons to kick people out of their jobs.

It seems to me that it ought to be illegal to take action against people who aren’t breaking any laws, regardless of what they’re being designated as doing in a confusing abbreviation. What could be the possible justification for that? Is it just because some bigoted employers don’t like them? And if it is wouldn’t that just as well justify taking action against employees on racial grounds? If you tried to put that distinction to Trump, the only answer you would get would be mishmash, which is all you get from him on anything. His nonsense can hardly serve as reasons for government actions, unless you want pure chaos, which is pretty much what we have now.

I’d like to hear a reporter ask Trump what LBGTQI means. The answer would at least be hilarious.

Thoughts for August 23, 2019

There are a considerable number of words that function frequently as falsehoods. One I have in mind today is “stunning.” I have often heard it used as a term of praise, as when one says a book or a poem is stunning. There were times when I have been with groups of people where it was just about the only word used to praise a book. Their comments left me not knowing what they had in mind. As far as I’m concerned, the only time a book can be stunning is if somebody slams you on the head with it. Then it’s more stunning the more pages it has.

The underlying intent of words like this not only to praise the object but to praise the observer. If one is stunned it means that he, or she, is unusually sensitive, or highly receptive to experiences requiring subtle perspectives. I’m not claiming that frequent users of “stunning” are aware of the motive. It’s just that they pick it up from their social atmosphere, which has been shaped to reflect the supposed sophistication of its inhabitants. Those who are concentrated on being seen as sophisticated are likely to be steady word-twisters in any case, but that’s a topic for another day.

To read to become sophisticated rather than to learn and to enjoy has become one of the chief vices of our time. Maybe it has always that way. I can’t be sure about the past. It’s an element of the desire to inspire envy in others, which seems to be the principal effort of our times. It’s a strange desire. Why should you want to cause people to be like you? It would only cause you to be less distinctive.

The next time you hear someone say that a book or a picture, or any work of art, was stunning, ask why. But be prepared for a less than friendly response.

Thoughts for August 18, 2019

An acquaintance sent me a clip of two critics discussing Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, saying that it -- the discussion on the clip that is -- was fascinating. I reflected that if something is to be fascinating, then someone must be fascinated. I wondered who it was in this case. Was he implying that he was fascinated, that I would be fascinated, or that the critical talk was somehow objectively fascinating? That nothing can be objectively fascinating may well not have been a truth that entered his mind at the moment.

“Fascinating” is one of those adjectives that is generally used so loosely it’s hard for anyone to know what is expected to be conveyed by its use. And it may be that hardly anyone cares.

In my case, films are not objects that can be fascinating. I think they can be entertaining, that they can be amusing, that they can even at times be educational. I’m glad there are movies. They have provided me considerable fun. I think about some of them quite frequently. But they are not fascinating.

Then what is fascinating for you? one might ask. I’ll give you an example that I have almost every day. It’s the season when lots of ants are around, and quite a few of them make their way to the top of our dining room table. I sit every morning sipping my coffee and watch them scuttle across our table. They fascinate me. Why do they go where they go? Why do they turn left rather than right? Why, when they come to one of the seams of the table, do they sometimes hop right across and at others stop for a while and then turn around and go somewhere else? And what’s most fascinating for me is the question of how can they have in their tiny ant skulls enough brain matter to allow them to make any decision about anything?

If you’re going to be fascinated then you need an object worthy of that reaction. Ants fill the bill. Movies do not.

Thoughts for August 17, 2019

I wish the word “queer” had never got associated with homosexual persons. Not only is the usage inaccurate (there’s nothing queer about homosexuals), but it also destroyed a quite useful word which is now pretty well cut off from its basic meaning. I wonder how many persons are aware that J.B.S. Haldane’s famous quotation did not employ the words “strange” or “stranger” but instead went this way: “My own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” I have seen the quotation using “strange” and “stranger” more often than “queer” and “queerer.” And why? It’s obvious. “Queer” had been taken over, and in effect devoured by the homosexual linkage.

It’s true that the universe is strange, but it’s even more true that the distinctive feature of the universe is its queerness. A thing can be strange without being eerie. But a genuinely eerie thing, like the universe, is not captured by calling it strange. “Strange” falls within the domain of humanity, but “queer” certainly does not. “Queer” ranges where humanity has never imagined going. That’s what makes it queer. It suggests there are places and entities which if humans were to encounter them they would not only fail to know what they were seeing but would be pushed to lose faith in their own sanity. They would come to tremble at the knowledge that their sanity-- probably their most precious possession -- was not capable of protecting them from everything, and probably not capable of making them safe from a majority of the things that are.

To see that there is queerness is to be aware of how fallible we actually are, and to know that is a recognition that it was farcical to surrender an aspect of reality just in order to make a cheap crack about persons who happened to be in a minority with respect to sexual passion.

Thoughts for August 16, 2019

“Loyal” is a good and useful word so long as it is used as carefully and rarely as its meaning demands. There’s much talk about being loyal to entities which don’t deserve loyalty and actually are not capable of accepting it. Loyalty to a country, for example, is a farcical concept. Since there are few persons who can define what a country means, then there can be no more who can say anything credible about an attachment of loyalty to a country. It’s true that what is healthy for the people of a country is seldom -- in truth, almost never -- supportive of increased power for the government of a country in respect to other countries. So, to which of those two conditions would loyalty to the country apply? You would have a hard time finding anyone capable of answering.

As I think of possible objects of genuine loyalty, I can find only one, and that is, another person. You can, of course, talk about being loyal to principles -- loyal to honesty, for example. But as you dug in to what that meant you would almost certainly find that it led to loyalty to some person or another. So, if you want to be serious about loyalty, you will ask yourself which persons there are to whom you will be loyal all the time. In general social life, you’ll discover that’s not an easy task. If you’re part of a business or professional organization, and you scan it to discover which of its other members deserve your unequivocal loyalty, I doubt you could find a single one.  My guess is that if you examine all the people you know and find half a dozen to whom you can and want to be steadily loyal, you will have as ample a burden of loyalty as you can bear.

Thoughts for August 15, 2019

There are many words that might just as well be locked in the closet for years to come, and some perhaps forever. One of these is “racist.” If one wishes to say that a person exhibits racial prejudice, that may well be justified. He could explain, clearly, how the exhibition was being made and how it bespoke a nasty attitude towards persons of a given ethnic background. The evidence could be straightforward and impossible to refute. Yet it would apply only to particular acts or speech. It wouldn’t necessarily stain a person’s whole being.

But when we say that someone is a racist, it does pertain to the whole. If a person is a racist then he is bound to be a racist throughout. His racial prejudice affects everything he is and very nearly everything he does. It tells us -- or attempts to tell us -- basically who he is.

I am not arguing that no one is a racist. It’s likely that hordes of people deserve the term. But it is hard to say, certainly, who they are. To be accurate in that respect we would have to know a great deal about them, more in fact than we know about almost anyone.

The satisfaction of calling someone a racist cannot justify the undoubted possibility of making a mistake. Holding off from such charges also leaves open the chance of finding some areas of agreement. But it would be hard to make alliances with a person who actually was a racist.

It may seem a minor distinction, but paying attention to minor distinctions makes it more likely that language can be used justly, which I think is a significant virtue we should all pursue.

Thoughts for August 14, 2019

“Moderate” is a term that’s now used as a political compliment, which actually means “piddlingly better than awful.” Its primary human manifestation at the moment is Nancy Pelosi. “Yes!” people will say, with moral fervor. “But isn’t she better than Trump or McConnell?”

I admit that she is. But the degree to which she is better doesn’t much matter. I had similar sentiments about Hillary Clinton in 2016. But I confess I still voted for her.

We need to learn that unless repairs are good enough to keep the bridge from falling down, the relative adequacies of the inadequacies are of almost no consequence.

Paul Street posted a convincing essay a couple days ago in Counterpoint, titled “Nothing Less Than a Revolution Can Save Us” which made the same point. He noted that if we wish to have democratic reform, we must have something that is actually democratic. But as he says, “The United States is not a functioning democracy. It’s not a democracy at all.” Not on a whole series of issues he lists, and, finally, “Not on anything really.”

The American people have become a mass who won’t do anything adequately. And do you know why? Because adequacy would strike them as radical. And they would prefer to do anything than to be radical. They would rather fail completely than to step away from the glories of moderation. So they will be moderate, and they will fail. And they will fail more disastrously than they have imagined, because, you see, to imagine adequately would be the most radical thing they could do.

Thoughts for August 13, 2019

Certain sets of words, designed formerly for flattery, in this age of near-universal corruption, have lost all meaning and should no longer be used by persons who wish to be considered sane. “Honor” and “honorable,” for example, fall into that category. There are no more persons who possess honor or are honorable. If one wishes to commend persons with traits which in the past might have been called honorable, he should say simply that they are honest and have some courage. Bernard Sanders fills that bill and that’s why he is worthy of being supported in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

If, by contrast, you consider five other persons: Donald Trump, Michael Pence, Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and William Barr, you’ll see what it means to be totally devoid of the earlier concept of honor. None of them possess any streak of honor in in way. My guess is that it’s not the sort of thing any of them ever think about or have ever thought about. Why most prominent politicians in the United States have lost the ability to imagine what honor might once have meant, I can’t say. That ability disappeared, almost magically, in the latter half of the twentieth century. Still, we all know that language evolves. We just don’t know why, or exactly how. We know that words that once, probably, were something are now nothing. And I suspect that many of us are aware that trying to make something of nothing is the essential attribute of a fool.

Thoughts for August 12, 2019

I don’t like abbreviations. It may not be a rational emotion, but somehow I continue to suspect that it is. It’s linked in my mind with what used to be called vulgarity. I’m aware that for many now the principal vulgarity is avoidance of vulgarity. Yet I think I’ve reached an age that brings with it licence to indulge oneself in certain inclinations as long as there are no clear-cut immoralities associated with them. So, I’m sticking with my dislike of abbreviations.

There are, of course, some abbreviations that are less objectionable than others. I don’t think there’s anything seriously wrong with Atlanta, Ga for Atlanta, Georgia, though the latter does look better.

The vulgarity of abbreviations arises mainly from an assumption of familiarity which doesn’t exist. I’ve noticed that several of my acquaintances refer to prominent politicians not only by their first names, but by abbreviations of their first names -- “Joe” instead of “Joseph,” for example. You might think, by the way they talk, that they have coffee very morning with someone they have never encountered; they know him only by news accounts. That gives me the creeps.

Some people carry this practice so far that it becomes hard to know who or what they are referring to. I’ve seen instances in which there are more abbreviations in a sentence than there are ordinary, complete words. A text so laden with abbreviations that a reader is perplexed by what’s being said is genuinely a linguistic abomination.

I realize these objections will seem petty to many. So be it. I remain convinced that a mountain of minor transgressions can sometimes do as much harm as a single glaring crime.

©John R. Turner

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