Category Archives: bad writing

a nutty op-ed



I could not help but think of my recent post


“After Racist Rage, Statues Fall”

“After Racist Rage, Statues Fall”


when I read an op-ed piece by Gail Collins in today’s New York Times:


“Dogs, Saints and Columbus Day”

The New York Times, October 6, 2017





It has taken me a while to realize it — I kind of liked her op-ed pieces at first (while never being that impressed by them or struck by her thoughts) — that Gail Collins is a weak writer. As this piece shows, a very poor writer.

She begins the piece with Christopher Columbus, specifically the statues of him across the country to which protestors object and which some have been desecrating.

After a digression, she writes that Christopher Columbus, whom she is writing about because it will be Columbus Day on Monday, has been “been on a slide for a long time” (an awkward phrase), has been reevaluated as not having achieved such great feats as an explorer as he had been said to and criticized and/or vilified for having perpetrated atrocities on native peoples.

She then gets to her key point, which every op-ed piece must have: “Our current statue obsession began, naturally, with Donald Trump, who claimed that if people start to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee, the next thing you know, they’ll be eliminating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, since they were both slave owners.”

“This is obviously nuts,” Ms. Collins writes.

It is not “obliviously nuts,” despite the fact that Donald Trump said it.

Is she trying to emulate General Anthony Clement McAuliffe, who in 1944, responding to an ultimatum that he surrender to German forces, replied as follows: “To the German Commander. / NUTS!”?

Such an abrupt, peremptory dismissal by Ms. Collins — which she feels entitled to make in such a fashion because she assumes none of her readers would take anything said by Donald Trump seriously — of a sound point that requires thoughtful rebuttal proves nothing other than Ms. Collins’s weakness as a thinker who cannot go beneath the surface, and her flaws as a writer.

She goes on to say:

Robert E. Lee was perhaps a nice man and a good general. But his point was winning a war that would have divided the United States for the purpose of preserving slavery.

You judge historical figures by their main point [italics added], because if you demanded perfection on the details you’d have nobody left but the actual saints. … The point of George Washington’s career was American independence. Thomas Jefferson’s was the Declaration of Independence. I say that even though I have never been a huge fan of Jefferson, who was possibly the worst male chauvinist in Founding Fatherdom. [Note that she has to make the point about Jefferson being a male chauvinist to satisfy her readers that she is criticism-proof correct politically.]

The point of Christopher Columbus was exploration. Although people knew the world was round, they had no idea how long it might take to get around it. Columbus’s goal was to try to make it to the other side of the planet. He sailed out into the great unknown and brought back word of his discoveries.

And so on.

This is very weak thinking.






Since when was it decided that one should “judge historical figures by their main point”? What does this mean, either as a guiding principle or in practice? How would it work? Since when do individual persons — historical figures, leaders in the present, and everyday people — amount to a POINT. A controlling idea? Since when could they be summed up that way, given the actual complexity of human personality, human motivations, and human actions?

What was Lyndon Johnson’s “main point”? (The Great Society or the Vietnam War?) Or Richard Nixon’s “main point”? What was George W. Bush’s?

What was JFK’s main point? The New Frontier? What was that anyway? It’s awfully vague.

This is simplistic, fuzzy thinking of the worst sort. It’s an attempt at dissimulation by which the “good guys” in history can be gotten off the hook for doing “bad” things such as racism or owning slaves, while the “bad guys” are still held accountable.






A final thought. Ms. Collins says: “Our current statue obsession began, naturally, with Donald Trump [italics added], who claimed that if people start to remove monuments to Robert E. Lee, the next thing you know, they’ll be eliminating George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. …”

This is totally inaccurate, and I find it hard to fathom how she could be so misinformed as to make such a claim. The controversy over historical monuments dedicated to and buildings named after Confederate heroes, slaveholders, and other historical figures considered racist has been going on since long before President Trump’s statements about the Charlottesville violence, which were made in August of this year.



— Roger W. Smith

   October 7, 2017









I am working on a new blog about writing examined from all angles. I have found that, in trying to ascertain what the elements or good writing are, it helps to occasionally look at bad writing. Ms. Collins’s article is an example of bad writing that is founded on a weak premise and is jerry-built. This kind of writing seems to be the product of a writer wanting to have something to say and be clever, but writing hastily or flippantly without serious reflection or doing any preparation.

jargon (aka mumbo jumbo)



An element of a shared symbolic system which serves as a criterion or standard for selection among the alternatives orientation which are intrinsically open in a situation may be called a value …. But from this motivational orientation aspect of the totality of action it is, in view of the role of symbolic systems, necessary to distinguish a value-orientation” aspect. This aspect concerns, not the meaning of the expected state of affairs to the actor in terms of his gratification-deprivation balance but the content of the selective standards themselves. The concept of value-orientations in this sense is thus the logical device for formulating one central aspect of the articulation of cultural traditions into the action system.

It follows from the derivation of normative orientation and the role of values in action as stated above, that all values involve what may be called a social reference …. It is inherent in an action system that action is, to use one phrase, “normatively oriented.” This follows, as was shown, from the concept of expectations and its place in action theory, especially in the “active” phase in which the actor pursues goals. Expectations then, in combination with the “double contingency” of the process of interaction as it has been called, create a crucially imperative problem of order. Two aspects of this problem of order may in turn be distinguished, order in the symbolic systems which make communication possible, and order in the mutuality of motivational orientation to the normative aspect of expectations, the ‘Hobbesian’ problem of order.

The problem of order, and thus of the nature of the integration of stable systems of social interaction, that is, of social structure, thus focuses on the integration of the motivation of actors with the normative cultural standards which integrate the action system, in our context interpersonally. These standards are, in the terms used in the preceding chapter, patterns of value-orientation, and as such are a particularly crucial part of the cultural tradition of the social system.


— Talcott Parsons, The Social System






The sociologist C. Wright Mills “translated” the above passage into jargon free English, as follows:


People often share standards and expect another to stick to them. In so far as they do so, their society may be orderly.

— C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination


Thus, reducing the length of the passage from 331 words (per Parsons) to 23 words (in Mills’s “translation”).






The quotations/examples are included in Style: An Anti-Textbook by Richard A. Lanham.



— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017