some thoughts about writing as it relates to IQ

 

 
I was a freelance writer and editor for a few years, interrupted my career to pursue a graduate degree, but spent most of my work life working in offices. My last office job, which lasted over twelve years, was as a business writer with a consulting firm in Manhattan.

Only a few days after I had joined the firm, I attended a company conference on the West Coast which was devoted to mainly to sharing of best practices with colleagues from various offices. That was the first time I became aware of a high-ranking employee, Mr. ________. We were employed in the same office.

The first time I saw him, he was in a corridor of our hotel prior to the beginning of the day’s proceedings. He looked like he had just woken up, and he was carrying a copy of The New York Times which he had purchased at the hotel magazine shop. He appeared lost in thought and somewhat disheveled and looked like a prototypical New York intellectual.

That’s _______ _______,” someone said. “He’s brilliant!”

It turned out that almost everyone in our office held Mr. _______ in awe. Mostly because of his reputedly large stable of devoted clients and his mesmerizing hold on everyone as an absolute authority on employee benefits.

But — I found out over time — he was no Einstein. Not a genius. His reputation for intellectual prowess, such as it was, was not deserved. (Which is not to say that he wasn’t intelligent.)

Mr. _______’s secretary showed up at my desk one day and dropped a seven page long, double spaced, typed draft on my desktop. “_______ wants you to edit it,” she said. I did not work for _______’s department, but it was assumed that I would do it immediately with no further discussion. It turned out that what he wanted me to do was edit the draft of remarks, or a speech, he was planning to give to some office, company division, or professional association.

It is actually the kind of work I like to do. I dove right in. Soon I was scratching my hair. The content of the speech may have been okay, but his thoughts were expressed horribly.

However, I have always fancied that I can wordsmith and make read decently just about any piece of English prose — on any subject, technical or nontechnical — written by an adult with a modicum of education and a knowledge of English as a first or second language.

Among the awkward phrases I recall — the renegade leader kept failing miserably at getting his thoughts across, at crafting phrases and sentences — was “Russian red tape expert,” used in the following sentence about employee benefit laws: “A Russian red tape expert would be proud to issue 49 pages of closely printed regulations. ….” I changed “Russian red tape expert” to “Communist apparatchik.” (Upon reflection, I think that “Soviet apparatchik” might have been better.)

I labored over the speech for about two hours and returned it to the renegade leader’s secretary. It was received without a word. I never heard anything from him by way of follow up or got any thanks. I was proud of my work. I still have a copy of his draft with my edits.

It is true that a lot of so-called geniuses — this includes true geniuses — cannot write well. Many academics who became world renowned (the Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse comes to mind) were horrible writers, and many professors — including many (it seems a preponderance of them) in the humanities — write poorly and pay little heed to style and the craft of writing. It also seems that many of the greatest writers of all time, while showing obvious intelligence, let alone brilliance, in certain respects — did not possess IQ’s that would make them eligible for Mensa.

Just what the relationship between a genius for writing and being in the “gifted” class (as early childhood educators would term it) with respect to intelligence is, is not obvious and raises potentially interesting lines of inquiry.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2019

the assault on “gendered” words … on our language

 

 

 

‘No More Manholes in Berkeley as City Writes Gender Out of Codes’ – NY Times 7-19-2019

 

 

‘Berkeley plans to remove gendered prononuns from its municipal code’ – Washington Post 7-18-2019

 

 

strikethrough imageedit_1_2705

 

 

 

I am writing this post because of — in response to — a development last week concerning so called “language policing” (a term I coined for myself, but it’s probably in common use now), or what would otherwise be termed an assault on our language from the PC crowd.

The development I am referring to was covered in the following articles:

 

“No More Manholes in Berkeley as City Writes Gender Out of Codes.” by Thomas Fuller and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, The New York Times, July 19, 2019

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/us/berkeley-gender-ban.html

“Berkeley plans to remove gendered pronouns from its municipal code,” by Kayla Epstein, The Washington Post, July 18, 2019 (Boy, does that term “gendered pronouns” irk me!)

https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2019/07/18/berkeley-plans-remove-gendered-pronouns-its-municipal-code/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c10b6e47531b

 

 

 

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According to the Times and Post articles:

In an effort to make Berkeley more inclusive for its non-binary residents, the city council voted Tuesday night to make the language more gender neutral, following a city clerk review that found that the municipal code primarily contained masculine pronouns. [What is a “non-binary” resident? Don’t bother to tell me. The last time I recall encountering binary, it was in high school math. Now it’s being applied to gender by the PC philistines.]

Manhole will be replaced with maintenance hole. Sisters and brothers will be replaced with siblings. And he or she will be banished in favor of they, even if referring to one person.

“[M]an-made” will soon be “human made,” “chairman” will become “chairperson” … in the city’s municipal code.

… not only would the names of several professions change, but the pronouns “he” and “she” would be swapped out for “they” and “them,” and in some cases, individuals would be referred to by their title rather than a pronoun (“The Candidate” or “The Lobbyist,” for example.)

Keith Johnson, the chair of the department of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley … says the English language has been evolving away from gender-specific terms for many years. Stewardess is out of touch; the preferred term is of course flight attendant. Waitresses and waiters are now often known as servers.

Last month, Multnomah County in Oregon, which … includes Portland, passed a similar measure, replacing gendered pronouns with the singular use of “they” and related words. Miami replaced gendered words in 2017, and changed all singular pronouns — many of which had previously just said “he” — to “he/she.”

 

 

 

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Such idiocy, such barbarity — ignorance triumphant — perhaps deserves no comment.

A few thoughts, nevertheless.

“Gendered” pronouns (and “gendered” words) provide INFORMATION.

In school we used to call them masculine and feminine pronouns.

Gender is, as far as I know, a basic fact of life. Without being an expert, I would guess that the perception that one is male or female is fixed from — let’s say for the purposes of discussion — nursery school or kindergarten age. A child knows and perceives his or her class being comprised of boys and girls and knows that there is a difference and that this is a fundamental and pertinent fact.

When one meets someone, observes someone in public — on the street or in the subway, say — what is one of the things that is noticed without fail — perhaps the most fundamental thing? Whether the person met or observed is male or female. It’s not something one has to guess about, and it affects how we perceive others and interact on a basic level.

Our language and most other languages have pronouns and other grammatical forms that make a distinction between masculine and feminine, often, usually, in the case of male versus female pronouns, but also, in the case of many languages, nouns and other parts of speech (verbs, adjectives).

This is a GOOD thing. Because languages serve to convey information. To not do so and to strip a language of gender is to invite confusion.

 

 

 

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Using they all the time in place of a singular “gendered” pronoun — he or she — is downright confusing, besides being uncalled for: a dismantling of our language and desecration of its grammar.

They gave a donation to the charity. Who did? My sister? My niece or nephew? My parents? Some altruistic citizens? An organization I belong to?

If I say that I really liked my waitress last night at the restaurant I dined in and give her a big tip for outstanding service, this is more informative than saying “I gave my server a big tip for great service.” And there is nothing wrong with this. We have (or had) a word for a male waiter and one for a female waiter. It’s degrading to call a female “server” a waitress?

There are some terms that, I will admit, even I have trouble with. For example, poetess. This was a term used in days of yore for female poets. It did seem to be singling women poets out as a sort of sub category of the class of writers who write poetry. I think Emily Dickinson should be called a poet, not a poetess.

But, to return to waitress and waiter. These are two words with a nice sound to them. Euphonic. We all know what they mean. Server is a much more bland (should I say bleached?) and more vague word. Server of what? Process server? Tennis player?

Chair for a department chairman or chairwoman seems ridiculous to me. A chair is something one sits upon. I get it: A woman department head doesn’t want to be called chairman. How about chairwoman? (Chairperson is too bland and “generic.”)

Man made versus human made (per the new Berkeley code)? This is one of those horribly vague and manufactured locutions such as “double plus ungood” in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Human made, as in by humanoids, not robots? This is idiotic. Man since time immemorial has been used to refer to humanity, as in “That’s one small step for man.”

“Manhole will be replaced with maintenance hole.” Yes, manhole undoubtedly comes from the idea that it is a sort of hole in the middle of a street where men can be found working below. They climb down the hole to do some task. And, yes, in the past, at least, almost anyone performing such a task was a man. (But the basic idea seemed to be that it was a hole where people might be found — in contrast, say to a rabbit hole.) “Sexism” aside, everyone knows what a manhole is, and one has a mental (pictorial) image of a manhole. So now we have to confuse everyone who will have to stop and think, maintenance hole, what’s that? Same thing as a manhole? This is messing things up, not making them more logical or sensible.

“Sisters and brothers will be replaced with siblings.” Sorry. But there’s a bit difference, like it or not, between saying “I had lunch with my sister yesterday” and “I had lunch with my brother.” Without any other information being provided (which, in a conversation, would be the case), we have been conveyed some information. Say I am talking with someone who doesn’t know me well, a coworker, say. I tell them: “During my vacation, I spent a week visiting my sister in Colorado.” That conveys much more information than saying, “During my vacation, I visited a sibling in Colorado.” And, what, in God’s name, is wrong with sister and brother? Are we going to get rid of father and mother? “My parent passed away last year.”

 

 

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It’s like hacking off the limbs of trees for some senseless reason. Deforestation. Who needs those trees anyway? They clutter up the landscape, can “cause” forest fires, and block one’s view. Better to clear the open spaces of them in the interests of prudence.

The great English writers would be rolling in their graves. Fortunately, they didn’t live to see what is being done to their tongue. You know what? England and, by extension, America have one of the world’s greatest bodies of literature. Guess what? The richness of the language — its stupendous vocabulary drawn from the world’s languages; the subtlelties of meaning and tone possible; the intricacy of grammar with much flexibility in things such as word order — has a lot to do with it.

Consider the following: I was walking down the block and saw a lady walking a dog. Woops! A humanoid walking its dog. Or should it be their dog?

Our language works very well, thank you. The PC language police want to make it less precise and rich. They want (to paraphrase a US Army officer during the Vietnam War) to destroy the language in order to save it, or what in their benighted view constitutes civilization (as they see it).

Orwell was on to something. He really was prescient.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     July 22, 2019

 

 

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Addendum:

According to the New York Times article:

When Fairbanks North Star unanimously passed its resolution in February, choosing to use “they” and “their” as singular, one critical blogger called it a “grammatical mutilation.”

Suzanne Downing, the blogger, said the borough should have stuck with he/she.

“There will be a lot of explaining to do,” she said. “The conservative perspective is that this makes the language confusing. It’s a torture of the language.”

Thank the Lord that there are a few people left who haven’t lost their common sense.

 

 

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Addendum (July 29, 2019):

 

I saw this on Facebook today: “Anne Kelleher [an old friend of mine] updated their cover photo.”

Whose cover photo? Anne’s? Or some relatives or people she knows? Did she do someone not conversant with Facebook a favor?

Apparently, Facebook’s “language engineers” have gone PC.

 

 

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Addendum (August 18, 2019):

 
A New York Times article I have just read:

 

“Push for Ethnic Studies in Schools Faces a Dilemma: Whose Stories to Tell”

By Dana Goldstein

The New York Times

August 15, 2019

 

 

states the following:

The materials [from a draft of California’s newly proposed ethnic studies curriculum for K-12 public schools] are unapologetically activist — and jargony. They ask students to “critique empire and its relationship to white supremacy, racism, patriarchy, cisheteropatriarchy, capitalism, ableism, anthropocentrism and other forms of power and oppression.” A goal, the draft states, is to “connect ourselves to past and contemporary resistance movements that struggle for social justice.” …

It did not help that some of the terms used throughout the more than 300 pages of documents — “hxrstory, “cisheteropatriarchy,” “accompliceship” — were inscrutable to many in Sacramento and beyond.

Words like hxrstory and cisheteropatriarchy jump out at me. They horrify me. The fact of such words being used actually depresses me.

Nothing that can be imagined, dreaded, is beyond the language police.

Such words in particular suggest a thought to me. That the would-be PC czars (language-destroying Robespierres) hate the idea of GENDER. They wish gender didn’t exist.

It’s a basic fact of life, as I noted in this post, that — as far as I know — most people have a gender. Many words do too.

The fact that pronouns and other words are “gendered” is an artifice, so to speak, in that languages, while they developed naturally or “organically,” are not living, breathing things. A word does not actually have a gender. So, one can, in theory, contemplate changing the language with respect, say, to whether I say “he,” “she,” or “their”; “chairman” or “chairperson.” Whereas sex (masculine or feminine) in human beings is intrinsic at birth.

What depresses and bothers me — I find it patently wrong and anti-human — is that the PC language police — the zealots who want to abolish “gendered” words and go to ridiculous lengths to do so, coming up with abominations invented by them such as cisheteropatriarchy — are opposed to recognition being made of gender as something basic, intrinsic — a FACT, as it were. They want to revise gender out of the language (if not our consciousness) and suppress recognition of same.

I am a parent, and I would have been pleased to have had a daughter. I, in common with most men, like women. I am also happy to be male. Growing up, being a boy meant wonderful, open friendships with chums; playing sports and following professional teams; and other “male” things. I am glad I was born a boy, but I had no choice. If I “erred” in associating things like sports with masculinity (girls played sports even in those days, but there was more rigidity and adherence to stereotypes, admittedly, back then about gender roles and activities), so be it. I am not ashamed of or uncomfortable with being a male. And, I have no qualms about using “gendered” words. Why should I?

Why should anyone?

purple prose?

 

 

 

8 - The Crisis of Our Age.jpg

 

 

9 - The Crisis of Our Age

 

 

The following is from my post

 

“Sorokin” («Сорокин»)

 

“Sorokin” («Сорокин»)

 

 

 

In my freshman year at Brandeis University, I took English Composition. For our first assignment, we were told to write a paper in which we were instructed to “define style,” which I tried mightily to do. (I didn’t quite understand what underlay the assignment.) In the next class, the instructor singled out my paper for criticism. I thought it was pretty good, and one or two other students in the class (notably Ricardo Millett, an exchange student from Panama who went on to have a distinguished academic career) felt so too.

In the paper, I quoted a passage from The Crisis of Our Age by the Russian-American sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin as an example of what I considered an excellent, distinctive style:

The crisis is here in all its stark and unquestionable reality. We are in the midst of an enormous conflagration burning everything into ashes. In a few weeks millions of human lives are uprooted; in a few hours century-old cities are demolished; in a few days kingdoms are erased. Red human blood flows in broad streams from one end of the earth to the other. Ever expanding misery spreads its gloomy shadow over larger eras. The fortunes, happiness and comfort of untold millions have disappeared. Peace, security and safety have vanished. Prosperity and well-being have become in many countries but a memory; freedom a mere myth. Western culture is covered by a blackout. A great tornado sweeps over the whole of mankind. (“The Crisis of Our Age,” pp. 14-15; note: the book was published at the beginning of World War II)

The instructor, Robert Stein (a chain smoker known to students as “C plus Stein”), read the passage out loud in class and pounced on me for making such a claim. He drew a red line through my paper and wrote something like “No!” in the margin. Purple prose, he said. Exactly the OPPOSITE of excellence of style. (The freshman comp Bible in those days was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. Sorokin would probably have had difficulty passing a course of theirs.) I was taken aback by Stein’s criticisms and his take on Sorokin the writer.

Sorokin does have a characteristic style which could easily be parodied, should one care to. He uses jargon and his own private verbiage, “Sorokinisms” (“intellectual chewing gum” for example), when he feels it will serve his purposes. He will use big words (which is not necessarily a “sin”), actual or near neologisms, and words and phrases drawn from various languages, especially (and notably) Latin — he was addicted to Latin mottoes. He can be guilty of “overwriting.” Yet, his style is basically clear, punchy, and arresting. He wants, above all, to communicate.

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    July 2019

“There is nothing generic about human life.”

 

 

I am reading a recently published book by Kate Bowler: Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Ms. Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School. In 2015, she was unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35.

The book is described as follows on Amazon.com:

Kate Bowler is a professor at Duke Divinity School with a modest Christian upbringing, but she specializes in the study of the prosperity gospel, a creed that sees fortune as a blessing from God and misfortune as a mark of God’s disapproval. At thirty-five, everything in her life seems to point toward “blessing.” She is thriving in her job, married to her high school sweetheart, and loves life with her newborn son.

Then she is diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer.

The prospect of her own mortality forces Kate to realize that she has been tacitly subscribing to the prosperity gospel, living with the conviction that she can control the shape of her life with “a surge of determination.” Even as this type of Christianity celebrates the American can-do spirit, it implies that if you “can’t do” and succumb to illness or misfortune, you are a failure. Kate is very sick, and no amount of positive thinking will shrink her tumors. What does it mean to die, she wonders, in a society that insists everything happens for a reason? Kate is stripped of this certainty only to discover that without it, life is hard but beautiful in a way it never has been before. …

Everything Happens for a Reason tells her story, offering up her irreverent, hard-won observations on dying and the ways it has taught her to live.

 

 

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On pages 123-125, I came across the following passage:

 

I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colors. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.

The flow of letters has slowed, but I still get at least one every day. Today I received a book in my campus mailbox about how to guarantee that I will communicate with my loved ones from heaven, and a handwritten card about scriptures I could repeat aloud to become a better conduit of God’s power. A pastor from a prosperity church has mailed me a large manila folder containing an enormous banner that reads: SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND ALL THESE THINGS SHALL BE ADDED UNTO YOU. I can’t help but think it’s a little passive-aggressive, but I appreciate the gesture. Sort of. He is asking me to employ a series of proven techniques that could help me reclaim my own health, if I would only try.

This is the problem, I suppose, with formulas. They are generic. But there is nothing generic about a human life. [italics added]

When I was little, to get to my bus stop, I had to cross a field that had so much snow my parents fitted me with ski pants and knee-high thermal boots that were toasty to forty degrees below zero. I am excellent in the stern of a canoe, but I never got the hang of riding a bike with no hands. I have seen the northern lights because my parents always woke up the whole house when the night sky was painted with color. I love the smell of dover and chamomile because my sister and I used to pick both on the way home from swimming lessons. I spent weeks of my childhood riding around on my bike saving drowning worms after a heavy rain. My hair is my favorite feature even though it’s too heavy for most ponytails, and I still can’t parallel park. There is no life in general. Each day has been a collection of trivial details—little intimacies and jokes and screw-ups and realizations. My problems can’t be solved by those formulas-—those clichés-—when my life was never generic to begin with. God may be universal, but I am not. I am Toban’s wife and Zach’s mom and Karen and Gerry’s daughter. I am here now, bolted in time and place, to the busy sounds of a blond boy in dinosaur pajamas crashing into every piece of furniture.

“Who’s my baby?” I ask him.

Zach is running long loops around the room and stopping at every ledge to run his car along it. He turns to me.

‘A boy?” he says hopefully.

“Yes,” I say, scooping him into my arms. He tolerates my tight hug for a few breaths and then squirms his way out, laughing. “Yes.” I say. “But not just any boy. You.”

 

 

 

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This a marvelous passage. It needs no explication, but it says so much. And, I might add, does so with a minimum of words. And doesn’t just affirm something, but shows it with details that hit the mark and resonate.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   posted June 2018; reposted on this site July 2019

 

 

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Addendum: Ms. Bowler grew up in Manitoba, Canada. She writes: “I have seen the northern lights because my parents always woke up the whole house when the night sky was painted with color.”

This reminded me of a Christmas Eve in our house in Massachusetts at some indeterminate past time when I was a teenager. My father woke us children up in the middle of the night in great excitement. He wanted us to go to a window in the upstairs hallway and gaze out of it at a bright star. It was like the Star of Bethlehem, he said. I tried to look, but I was so sleepy I was unsteady on my legs and could barely hold my head up. I seem to recall something very bright. I believe there had been something in forecast models about an especially bright North Star during that particular month and year.

 

 

 

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The Gospel According to St. Matthew

 

2:1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Wise-men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, 2:2 Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we saw his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 2:3 And when Herod the king heard it, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 2:4 And gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ should be born. 2:5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written through the prophet,

2:6 And thou Bethlehem, land of Judah,
Art in no wise least among the princes of Judah:
For out of thee shall come forth a governor,
Who shall be shepherd of my people Israel.

2:7 Then Herod privily called the Wise-men, and learned of them exactly what time the star appeared. 2:8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search out exactly concerning the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word, that I also may come and worship him. 2:9 And they, having heard the king, went their way; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. 2:10 And when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 2:11 And they came into the house and saw the young child with Mary his mother; and they fell down and worshipped him; and opening their treasures they offered unto him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 2:12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

descriptive details

 

 

Broyles

 

 

“It’s been 50 years, which means Vietnam is as far from me today as World War I, another war of dubious purpose, was from me then. I remember so much. The lush shades of green. The smells of mud and water buffalo and human excrement and burned flesh. The blood and the leeches and the music playing from eight-tracks before the sun set and we all wondered if we would see it rise. The laughter, too. The smell of cordite and the sound of an enemy mortar being launched at us and the shells from the big 16-inch guns roaring over us like subway trains. I remember the helicopters and the green AK-47 tracer bullets coming at us, and the body bags and the orphanage children burned alive by the Vietcong for having helped us. I remember the faces and the nicknames and the Freedom Bird calendars that marked the day we would fly out of this place, if it was the last thing we ever did. And for too many it was.”

 
— “The Vietnam War Was Already Lost, but I Had to Go Anyway: Fifty years ago, American troops began withdrawing, but tens of thousands were yet to die.” By William Broyles Jr., The New York Times, July 10, 2019

 

 

 

 

 

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This is a good example of how to go beyond generalities and platitudes and make a piece of writing tell with details. It’s a novelistic skill.

I was never in the military and did not serve in Vietnam. But, thanks to this writer, I can feel what it was like.

While I can’t write fiction -– could not if I tried -– I do, in my own writing, try to always illustrate with examples and details, often drawn from my own experience and specific things I recall, to pin down the meaning of my piece. And, I use my own experience as the basis for doing so. As William Broyles did in compelling piece. He made a statement about war and one war in particular by refracting it through the prism of his own lived experience.

 

 
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Compare some sentences from recent New York Times op-eds that I have commented upon:

 

“Yet those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture are white men. This means that the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated, debated and affirmed are still largely segregated. The conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.”

 

“In a clickbait attention economy where more than half of visual arts critics make on average less than $20,000 per year from arts writing, the voices that are most needed are the least likely to emerge.”

 

“In 2017, we began an initiative called Critical Minded to help amplify the work of critics of color and knock down the barriers they face. (The project is focused on racial justice in criticism, but we’re also concerned about class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability.)”

 

“Think of cultural criticism as a public utility, civic infrastructure that needs to be valued not based just on its monetary impact but also on its capacity to expand the collective conversation at a time when it is dangerously contracting. Arts writing fosters an engaged citizenry that participates in the making of its own story.”

 

“But there’s a problem with this binary formulation, which opposes the sacrosanct art object to the interests and demands of the public. Curators need to think about more creative ways to withdraw art from public display. Rather than thinking of calls to remove art as either right or wrong, institutions should think of them as creative opportunities to reimagine who their public is.”

 

“Contemporary art theory has long held that the artwork takes place not in the moment of creation or exhibition, but rather in the ways that it circulates in the world. That’s why withdrawal isn’t just a negative act. The museum is actively putting the withdrawal into the world, which will then circulate beside and on top of the artwork, as a rumor, a footnote, a filter. I am arguing for a creative acceptance of the pressure to withdraw an artwork, rather than either outright rejection or reluctant acquiescence.”

 

“Social media has changed how we communicate, and social inequity continues to differentiate how we feel. These dynamics are changing the way we curate. For one /thing, the work of exhibition-making no longer ends when the show opens. Instead, it continues as a process of listening, a public performance that goes on for months.

 

 

This is coma-inducing, soporific writing. Broyles’s op-ed about Vietnam makes the reader feel alive. Such writing is pleasurable, even if the details are harrowing, because the reader is having an experience, instead of listening to a boring lecture/position paper aiming at profundity but saying nothing. Intended to persuade but leaving one unmoved if not downright annoyed.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 2019

 

 

 

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William Broyles Jr. is an American screenwriter, journalist, and former editor. He served in the United States Marine Corps from 1969 to 1971.

“I like it the way it is.”

*

 

 

Call Me ‘They’ – NY Times 7-10-2019

 

 

 

This post concerns the following op-ed in yesterday’s Times:

 

Call Me ‘They’

The singular “they” is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let’s all use it.

By Farhad Manjoo

The New York Times

July 10, 2019

 

 

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The Spanish have el mano and the French la fenêtre.

 

Should we ban these “gendered” articles and insist they be replaced with new ones invented in the “language laboratory” / “incubator” staffed by technocrats in lab coats?

 

Our glorious English tongue has been around for some 1,200 years.

 

I like it the way it is.

 

 

 

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SOME SPECIFIC COMMENTS ON THIS ATROCIOUS OPINION PIECE (Quotations from the op-ed are in italics. My comments are in boldface.)

 

 

The singular “they” is inclusive and flexible, and it breaks the stifling prison of gender expectations. Let’s all use it.

 

‘[T]he stifling prison of gender expectations.” Is this an op-ed about children in cages? I thought we were talking about grammar.

 

 

 

I am your stereotypical, cisgender, middle-aged suburban dad.

 

What the f____ is “cisgender”? It’s a buzzword I can do without.

 

 

… most people guess that I go by “he” and “him.” And that’s fine; I will not be offended if you refer to me by those traditional, uselessly gendered pronouns.

But “he” is not what you should call me. If we lived in a just, rational, inclusive universe — one in which we were not all so irredeemably obsessed by the particulars of the parts dangling between our fellow humans’ legs, nor the ridiculous expectations signified by those parts about how we should act and speak and dress and feel — there would be no requirement for you to have to assume my gender just to refer to me in the common tongue.

How about moving to Laputa? You would fit right in there. Maybe you could secure a language policy making post there. … Oops, have you heard of Laputa? Did you ever read Jonathan Swift? Why do I doubt it?

 

 

So why does standard English impose a gender requirement on the third-person singular? And why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering? To get to my particular beef: When I refer to an individual whose gender I don’t know here in The Times, why do I usually have to choose either “he” or “she” or, in the clunkiest phrase ever cooked up by small-minded grammarians, “he or she”?

 

No requirement is imposed. This writer is out of his (“gendered” possessive pronoun) depth. The language evolved that way. The writer probably prefers genetically engineered foods and hothouse plans. Has he ever stopped to admire a dandelion or oak tree?

 

 

… why do elite cultural institutions — universities, publishers and media outlets like The Times — still encourage all this gendering?

 

Before opining any further on this topic, about which you are ignorant, I suggest you take a couple of English courses, grammar and lit; and a course in a foreign language would be very helpful too. This might enable you to begin to grasp and maybe even appreciate the beauty of languages, both grammar and structure, their uniqueness, distinctive features, how precious this is, as a flower to botanist or layperson. Read a Great Book or two. (Please don’t advocate “scrubbing” them.) It won’t hurt. You will see that the King’s English — now spoken all over the world — has a glorious history and the magnificence of a mighty oak.

 

 

I suspect my call will be dismissed as useless virtue-signaling, but there are several clear advantages, both linguistic and cultural, to the singular “they.” One of the main ones is that it’s ubiquitous. According to linguists who study gender and pronouns, “they” and “them” are increasingly and widely seen as legitimate ways to refer to an individual, both generically and specifically, whether you know their gender or not — as I just did right in this sentence.

Your “call”? As in a ministerial calling? Why do I get the impression that you — a would be word maven and “word watcher” (read language policeman) — have no facility in (as in infelicitous phrase) or reverence for correct usage?

 

 

That’s probably why the singular, gender-neutral “they” is common not just in transgender and nonbinary communities, for whom it is necessary, but also in mainstream usage, where it is rapidly becoming a standard way we refer to all people. If you watch closely, you’ll see the usage in marketing copy, on social media, in app interfaces and just about everywhere else you look. For instance, when Uber or Lyft wants to tell you that your driver has arrived, they send you a notification that says something like: “Juan is almost here. Meet them outside.”

Whom should we entrust with setting language standards? Uber execs, advertisers? Heaven help us.

 

 

Other than plainly intolerant people, there’s only one group that harbors doubts about the singular “they”: grammarians. If you’re one of those people David Foster Wallace called a “snoot,” Lyft’s use of “them” to refer to one specific Juan rings grammatically icky to you. The singular, gender nonspecific “they” has been common in English as long as people have spoken English, but since the 18th century, grammar stylists have discouraged it on the grounds that “they” has to be plural. That’s why institutions that cater to snoots generally discourage it.

 

“They” is plural! you idiot.

 

 

 

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Basta. (That’s Spanish for enough.)

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   July 11, 2019

pompous pontificating, clumsy locutions, a tissue of generalities; doublespeak … how NOT to write

 

 

 

‘The Dominance of the White Male Critic

 

 

This post focuses on an opinion piece in Friday’s New York Times:

 

 

The Dominance of the White Male Critic

Conversations about our monuments, museums, screens and stages have the same blind spots as our political discourse.

By Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang

The New York Times

July 5, 2019

 

 

An opinion piece written to challenge conventional ideas and positions. To stimulate readers to rethink issues. To challenge unenlightened Establishment views.

It will get attention, but as a piece of writing it is a soporific.

It is built on a very insubstantial tissue of generalities and awkward locutions often intended to serve as code words. And which shows that the authors are preaching to the choir. They don’t feel compelled to explain and elucidate things for the general reader or for skeptical readers. They are confident that those who agree will get it (the points they are making) without them having to take pains to be clear. In fact, a certain arch obscurity, a predilection for almost unintelligible generalizations couched in faux-high-flown language, which,  in their view — from their perspective as writers — fits the piece well. While it challenges conventional thinking, the op-ed is itself an example of weak, unoriginal thinking and a specimen of very poor, insipid writing.

 

 

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A header states: Ms. Méndez Berry and Mr. Yang started a program to amplify the work of critics of color.”

Quoting from the piece, below, I have provided my own annotations and comments in boldface. Excerpts from the op-ed are in italics.

I am not going to try and respond to the op-ed’s major premises. But here are some examples of what I feel is shoddy writing. Writing that obscures rather than clarifies issues and shows a tendency towards tendentiousness.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

 

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Yet those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture are white men. This means that the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated, debated and affirmed are still largely segregated. The conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.

Typical wording for this piece. This is generic-speak. It is very portentous and actually says very little.

“those who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture”

Awkward and wordy.

“the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated”

Poor, imprecise, fuzzy wording. Also, pretentious.

 

Yet the most dynamic art in America today is being made by artists of color and indigenous artists.

There is nothing wrong with this sentence syntactically, but such a broad claim is not sustainable.

 


The example of “Green Book” [an Oscar-winning film, the critical reception of which the authors discuss] shows how uncritical affection for superficially benevolent stories can actually reinforce the racial hierarchies this country is built on. We need culture writers who see and think from places of difference and who are willing to take unpopular positions so that ideas can evolve or die.

Very pretentious.

“how uncritical affection for superficially benevolent stories can actually reinforce the racial hierarchies this country is built on”

More boiler plate generic-speak, a kind of language which says nothing and clarifies nothing.

“culture writers who see and think from places of difference”

This is horribly vague (and affected) wording. So much so that it says nothing. Critics write, they don’t “see and think.” They write at their desks. “[P]laces of difference”? This is doublespeak.

 

 

In a clickbait attention economy where more than half of visual arts critics make on average less than $20,000 per year from arts writing, the voices that are most needed are the least likely to emerge.

Something is said supposedly cleverly where the words are actually muddying the waters. “[C]lickbait attention economy” is a maladroit coinage which adds nothing informational- or content-wise.

 

 

In 2017, we began an initiative called Critical Minded to help amplify the work of critics of color and knock down the barriers they face. (The project is focused on racial justice in criticism, but we’re also concerned about class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability.)

This is an example of opinions supposedly being stated forcefully, weakened by careless phrasing: “knock down the barriers” they face,” for example.

“[W]e’re also concerned about class, gender identity, sexual orientation and ability.”

In other words, the authors are concerned about everything. Way too broad and general.

 

 

Think of cultural criticism as a public utility, civic infrastructure that needs to be valued not based just on its monetary impact but also on its capacity to expand the collective conversation at a time when it is dangerously contracting. Arts writing fosters an engaged citizenry that participates in the making of its own story.

This is too general. The point is not sharply made or clearly elucidated. And, it is an example of how generic writing can obfuscate rather than clarify things. In my mind, criticism is just that. I know what the word criticism means: a book or film review; a review of a concert or museum exhibit. Criticism as a “public utility, civic infrastructure”? By trying to be profound and all wise, the authors stray beyond the parameters of common sense and lose the reader.

 

 

Culture writers are often unpopular, and critics of color doubly so: Marginalized by mainstream outlets, they’re sometimes viewed with suspicion within their own communities when they challenge a beloved artist. At their best they are unbought and unbossed, which makes them difficult to employ, and doubly necessary.

The authors of the op-ed may think this. But the point is so broad, and is communicated in such a fuzzy and heavy-handed manner, that most readers won’t be convinced. “[T]hey are unbought and unbossed” is atrocious wording.

 

 

We need a rigorous, rollicking culture coverage that’s uncoupled from class and credentials.

Same thing here. Supposedly en pointe, clever wording which actually says very little and shows writers trying to convince and impress who fall flat. ‘[R]igorous, rollicking” is an oxymoron.

 

We should move away from anointing a talented two or three critics of color and toward kaleidoscopic ecosystems of ideas and taste.

“[K]aleidoscopic ecosystems of ideas and taste” Another pretentious, fuzzy, and awful coinage. An example of writers violating the principle of simplicity and clarity.

 

Coverage shifts when people mobilize for change. It’s time for culture writing to follow culture to where it flows and to value the people it engages.

This is overly generic. Such overly generic writing is flabby and invariably unconvincing.

 
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Some of my own thoughts about the term “people of color” and associated or implied ideas. The authors assume that we all know and agree as to what the term means (and, implicitly, approve of its usage).

What is a person of color? It is supposed to mean, in contemporary parlance, a person other than a white person or a person (presumably white) of European parentage.

What is a white person? A person who is not a person of color.

Is a Spanish (i.e., a person born or residing in Spain) person white? Yes, according to the above definition.

Is a Hispanic person (who is presumably or with a fair degree of probability, descended from Spaniards, although perhaps — it often seems to be the case — of mixed ethnicity comprised of descent from Spanish settlers in the American continent and other perhaps indigenous races) a person of color? Yes, as “people of color” is meant to be understood. In other words, perhaps of European ancestry (wholly or partially), going back a way, but not now one of that group.

This divides humanity into wide swaths, with well over a half in the category of persons of color.

These “definitions” seem to be an example of what might be called reductio ad absurdum — in that, by the time we have made the distinctions between categories of persons based upon a nonsensical formulation or formula, we have elucidated nothing and created considerable confusion; and left one wondering why, for example, people of descent from this or that ethnic group end up being in distinct categories. Separated, arbitrarily, into two groups, which obliterates any and all other distinctions.

Does the term “people of color” have meaning and is it based upon skin color, as the words seem to say unmistakably? It must be based upon skin color, since whites are in a separate category from non-whites. But how does one distinguish between the races this way, and make sense of it? When I was growing up, we were told that there were four races: white, black or brown, yellow, and red. Do Asians have yellow skin? I have met hardly any American Indians, but they don’t, in photographs I have seen, look that different to me from white people. Perhaps their skin is slightly more ruddy, and they do seem to have distinctive features that I would not be able to categorize. I don’t know and I don’t care.

I think this whole thing about “people of color” and the rest of humanity (us whites and Europeans) is nonsense. It is a very crude “measuring device,” rule of thumb, guidepost, or whatever one wants to call it. It divides people arbitrarily with no rationale and negates our common humanity.

I will probably be accused of having reactionary, benighted opinions for saying the following. I believe that race and ethnicity do matter. A lot. What was my ancestry? My ethnicity? My nationality or my parents’, grandparents’, or ancestors’ nationality, which is to say cultural heritage?

Is it surprising that often athletes seem to have children who are also good at sports? Often the great athletes were sons of athletes of more than average ability. That great scholars and intellectuals often were raised in an intellectual milieu by parents who themselves were intellectuals? That prodigies in the arts often had parents who were similarly gifted or inclined? Offspring of singers and actors? Siblings who excel in the same area such as scholarship, sports, or the arts. And so forth. (A critic will say, the only reason the children of composers or musicians, say, are often musically gifted themselves is because their successful parents gave them lessons, or could afford to pay instructors, or had a prior interest or expertise that they passed on to their children. Perhaps so — undoubtedly environmental factors or what is called nurture were important — but I don’t think the fact can be ignored that there might be genetic factors in play by which traits get passed on to offspring: a “musical gene,” say, a baseball, basketball, or track and field “gene.”)

What does this show us? That ethnicity and heritage can mean a lot. In individual cases. Which will not lead one to jump to the conclusion, I hope, that I am a racist. I am not trying to say that belonging to a particular racial or ethnic group makes some people “better” than others in any conceivable way. But the group I was born into, which I am descended from — my genealogy — made and makes a difference to me. Meaning that, when I consider my strengths and weaknesses, my talents and proclivities, and so on, I can see that circumstances of birth and upbringing (the latter of which was influenced by cultural factors) had a lot to with the kind of person I turned out to be. Was I good at sports? music? book learning? learning languages? mathematics? dexterity? mechanical things and “practical wisdom”? Et cetera.

I have always felt that we should not leap from this — from analyzing and trying to understand how heredity and environment may have shaped and molded an individual, and may well influence his or her current outlook — to making generalizations or unfair comparisons, or setting up yardsticks. To favoring one group over another, barring anyone from competing in “the game” of life or getting an education or training in this or that field. It is my firm conviction that there should be a level playing field for all; and that race, ethnicity, color, or what have you — choose your own criterion — should not be a factor in making decisions about who is admitted, hired, gets a scholarship, and so forth. But that goes for EVERYONE, as I see it, all races and ethnicities, all nationalities: for “people of color” and the rest of humanity — there shouldn’t be any distinctions made in this regard between groups. And, generalities and commonly held beliefs are just that: generalities. For every example of behavior or achievement befitting a common assumption about differences among races — a presupposition someone has or that was once held (I see no point in enumerating stereotypes) — there are a zillion exceptions.

So (the authors note), the six most influential art critics in the country, “as selected by their peers” (this is important) are all white and almost all male. To me, this is not a problem. There would be a problem if women or minorities were excluded by policy as cultural critics and newspapers or magazines would not hire them. And, the fact of a critic being a woman or from a minority group might enable them to see things from a different perspective. But, basically, when I read criticism, I want it to be well written and worth reading, and to “educate” me in a way that is possible when the writer has a deep knowledge of the discipline. That’s all I care about. If a critic is good, he or she is good; and vice versa. I’m color blind and sex indifferent when I read criticism or anything else. Except that, I might realize that the critic is bringing to bear some of his or her own experience or background. One doesn’t have to ignore ethnic or cultural background, if it seems relevant or pertinent to what the critic is saying, somehow. That may add to our understanding, but if the critic is not, as is most often the case, a “person of color,” I feel that it is wrong of persons such as the authors of this op-ed to find that to be problematic, and to object.

 

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   July 7, 2019