Category Archives: good vs. bad writing

how to write a book review… how NOT to

 

 

“A writer should be a writer first. An authority second.”

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

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I recently read two reviews of Schumann: The Faces and the Masks by Judith Chernaik, a recently published biography of Robert Schumann.

 

 

‘Schumann: The Faces and the Masks’ Review: A Dreamer at the Piano

by Michael O’Donnell

The Wall Street Journal

September 14, 2018

https://www.wsj.com/articles/schumann-the-faces-and-the-masks-review-a-dreamer-at-the-piano-1536957468?mod=mhp

 

 

Robert Schumann: A Hopeless, Brilliant Romantic

by Jeremy Denk

The New York Times

November 19, 2018

 

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The Wall Street Journal review by Michael O’Donnell is excellent. Mr. O’Donnell is not a music critic. He is a lawyer whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, the Atlantic and the Nation.

Jeremy Denk’s review in The New York Times is not well done. Mr. Denk is a concert pianist. In a Wikipedia entry, he is categorized as “one of America’s foremost pianists.”
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What went wrong with the Times review by Mr. Denk?

Well, consider how it opens:

It won’t cure your problems, or the world’s, but it can’t hurt to immerse yourself in the music of Robert Schumann, a man who knew how to love. No less an authority than Sting agrees. I know this because Sting once put his hand supportively on my back while I practiced the postlude of Schumann’s song cycle “Dichterliebe,” and I haven’t washed that shirt since.

Robert’s life story comes to a harrowing end — I won’t spoil all the grim details, even more tragic than the median Romantic artist’s. Nonetheless, if you take the time to read Judith Chernaik’s new biography, “Schumann: The Faces and the Masks,” your life outlook may improve. Without hitting you over the head, Chernaik allows you to feel the core of Schumann’s story: his love for his wife, Clara, a great concert pianist and formidable muse. Between this and the battle against his own demons to compose truthful music, Schumann’s spirit comes across as an antidote to all the hate and perverse self-love we are forced to swallow in public affairs, day after day.

This takes the reader too far astray. A good lead can be clever, and even get into the topic sideways, so to speak. See for example, my post

“J-school students, give heed!”

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2019/01/13/j-school-students-give-heed/

Sting is a musician who performed with the rock band The Police. In case you don’t know it, Robert Schumann was a composer, of classical music. I shouldn’t need to explain, but this review, the lead paragraph of same, makes one wonder, just what is it about? As I just said, a lead can be clever, and kind of “sneak up” to the main topic, but a writer should never lose sight, or let his readers get confused, even momentarily, of what the piece is about. I learned this from my high school English teacher. Don’t violate the principle of unity. What’s going on here is that Mr. Denk wants to impress us with how cool he is. Readers of a book about Schumann are not likely to care about Sting, or perhaps to know who he is, and he has nothing to do with Schumann. It’s a bad brew of anecdotal material, or details that don’t cohere. If I am writing a piece about my struggles to overcome a drinking problem, I probably don’t want to talk about what my favorite books are. And, it’s fine to make clever parallels or connections between two seemingly, ordinarily disparate facts, occurrences, events, time periods, etc., but this is too much of a stretch. Schumann’s music as an antidote to hate? Music to settle our nerves in today’s vitriolic political climate.

“Between this and the battle against his own demons to compose truthful music, Schumann’s spirit comes across as an antidote to all the hate and perverse self-love we are forced to swallow in public affairs, day after day.” This is an ill-advised sentence. It’s totally off topic. It’s a gratuitous interpolation presumably intended to make Mr. Denk look like he’s in the forefront of enlightened current opinion. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it has absolutely nothing to do with Schumann, with music, or with the review. So, we are to presume that one listens to Schumann to help oneself cope with feelings of angst arising from Trump? That seems to be what Mr. Denk is alluding to. Such an allision is out of place here, is off topic, and is likely to leave the reader puzzling over what was intended. Such fuzziness or lack of clarity — being too cryptic — is a sign of bad writing.

Denk’s review contains pregnant, provocative insights about Schuman’s music. There are also a lot of banal generalities having nothing to do with the book or Schumann.

This review tires and frustrates the reader because the reviewer, Mr. Denk, seems to have lost sight of the book under review, and, at times, it almost seems, of Schumann, so anxious is he to impress with a brilliant aperçu.

This is a specimen of overwriting. And, of neglecting the commandment: First, be clear. There are seemingly brilliant observations here about Schumann’s music, but they get buried in a mass of opaque verbiage.

As an example of what I term overwriting, consider the following sentence;

One of Schumann’s great discoveries was the power of an underexploited area of the harmonic universe. Imagine a chord Y that “wants” to resolve to another chord, Z. Because music is cleverly recursive, you can always find a third chord (let’s say X) that wants to go to the first: a chord that wants to go to a chord that wants to go to a chord, or — if you will — a desire for a desire. Schumann placed a spotlight on this nook of musical language, back a couple of levels from the thing ultimately craved, deep into the interior of the way harmonies pull at our hearts.

Provocative points, indeed brilliant ones, but they could have been stated much more clearly and the point(s) thereby made more effectively. The sentence “Schumann placed a spotlight on this nook of musical language, back a couple of levels from the thing ultimately craved, deep into the interior of the way harmonies pull at our hearts” is a prime example of such opacity, of god awful prose.

The book under review has all but been forgotten.
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Based on my own experience, I believe:

that a book review should in and of itself be readable and hold the reader’s interest;

that the review should elicit reader interest in the book’s subject;

that the reviewer should mainly discuss what the book is about and what can be learned from it, including new findings, while, at the same time, conveying, directly or indirectly, his judgment of the book.

The best reviewer is not necessarily an academic or a specialist or authority in the subject area. What is wanted most of all is an enthusiastic reader. And, needless to say, a good writer.
— Roger W. Smith

   February 2019

highfalutin hogwash; pseudo intellectual inanity; pernicious pomposity, perverse pontificating (take a hike, Spiro Agnew! you too, Bill Safire!)

 

 

 

Two things are pertinent to this post — form a background to it, so to speak.

First, this past March, I wrote a blog post:

 

“Racism Rears Its Ugly Head”

Racism Rears Its Ugly Head

 

about objections to a painting by the artist Dana Schutz based upon photographs of the mutilated body of Emmett Till, the black teenager who was murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955, which was featured in the 2017 Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. Protests had arisen over the work. I am in principle opposed to the destruction of art for reasons of political correctness.

Secondly, I am working on a post of my own about the craft of writing. I want to be able to illustrate it with examples of both good and bad writing.

 

 

 

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With these things in the back of my mind, I read an op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times which stopped me cold, that was so bad it was unbelievable. I thought to myself, how did it get published? I posted an angry comment on the Times site, but the comment did not get posted. No doubt, the Times editors found it inappropriate. Strange, because often comments posted in response to Times opinion pieces are not well written or articulate; and, in fact, many are obtuse and display ignorance and lack of acumen.

 

 

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The piece that has astounded me with its badness and inanity is

 

“The Art of Destroying an Artwork”

by David Xu Borgonjon

New York Times

October 25, 2017

 

The Times article merely indicates that “David Xu Borgonjon is a curator and writer.” Googling him at

 

http://laundromatproject.org/david-xu-borgonjon/

 

 

I found out that “[David Xu Borgonjon] is a curatorial fellow at Wave Hill and is the co-founder of Screen, a bilingual Chinese and English platform for media art commentary. Currently he is preparing a series of “Strategy Sessions” for Summer 2015, a professional development workshops for artists using board games as metaphor. David has coordinated the Gallery of the Women’s Center at Brown University (where he graduated in 2014 in English with honors in a Dual Degree program with the Rhode Island School of Design).”

And so forth. The information on the site may be slightly dated. Wave Hill is a 28-acre estate in the Hudson Hill section of Riverdale, Bronx, in New York City which consists of public horticultural gardens and a cultural center which includes an art gallery.

 

 

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One has to read Mr. Borgonjon’s piece in full to get a feel for its awfulness. It is a textbook example of flawed writing built upon cockeyed premises. A key problem is that the piece is too abstract, is not tethered to fact. One might ask, what’s wrong with a conceptual piece of writing, with exposition for the sake of exposition? Is there such a thing as too abstract? Yes, there is, and Mr. Borgonjon’s horribly written piece shows how this can occur.

It’s very hard to even figure out what he is talking about. One has to wade through the piece, which is tortuous reading, a ways to get some idea of what he is talking about. This, right away, indicates a problem. There are some would be intellectuals/thinkers and writers who seem to think that nebulous writing is a sign of great thoughts percolating in a genius’s mind, thoughts which he or she can’t waste time trying to explain to us. That it is our duty, should we wish, to come up to their level. This is ridiculous.

 

 

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The following are some excerpts from the op-ed du jour, followed by my comments (in boldface). Good luck in figuring out what the writer’s fulminations mean.

“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.”

This is pure nonsense. Highfalutin language signifying nothing. Jargon laden mumbo jumbo. The underlying premises are flawed and the views imbedded in them are toxic and pernicious. Idiotic premises lead to idiotic conclusions.

“What we should be asking, instead, is how it should ‘go.’ A work of art could be destroyed (burned, buried, shredded), edited, documented, mourned or even substituted. It could be supplemented with performances, talks, protests. It could be turned into minimalist furniture for the museum cafe, or sold on eBay, with the proceeds going to charity.”

Pure nonsense. How can the Times publish it? “It could be turned into minimalist furniture for the museum cafe, or sold on eBay, with the proceeds going to charity.” Is he serious? If he is, it’s sad. No, deplorable.

“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.”

Here we have an example of what might be called “over abstraction,” supposedly weighty observations, disguised as such, which amount to pseudo profundity. There is a pretense of deep thought, and nothing more. Everything is made perfectly UNclear. It shows an incapacity for thoughtful or meaningful analysis.

“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.

“In some way, as curator Hera Chan points out, the dynamics of the platform economy threaten to make curatorial expertise obsolete. Who needs us when institutions can figure out, thanks to social media, crowdsourcing and machine learning, audience preferences quickly and accurately? The difficult question of who ‘we’ are, when we are faced with a controversial artwork, is the curator’s only remaining raison d’être. Consider that exhibitions don’t have a standard rating system, like movies or music — at some level, we must believe that every show should be accessible to all of us. Like churches or public television in a different age, museums are now our civic institutions, where we go to argue about who counts as ‘us.’

“The ‘should it stay or should it go’ approach fumbles the opportunity to broaden and enrich what that “us” is. It’s a difficult question, and we will not agree, but even asking it together creates a kind of community. It falls to curators to facilitate this conversation. Institutions, following the lead of artists, should respond creatively to the call for censorship. Perhaps the withdrawal of the artwork can make room for something else to come into view: a new public.”

Claptrap. Nonsense. And, like the nonsense genre, almost impossible to decipher.

“Fumbles the opportunity”? An infelicitous phrase if there ever was one! This writer clearly knows something about fumbling, from experience, displays verbal ineptitude that is plain to see.

 

 

 

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I am almost inclined to say that this piece should be censored. It’s that bad, both as a specimen of writing and as an attack on art by someone who deems himself a curator. Of course, I’m against censorship. But beware of such writing by persons who pat themselves on the back for being in the intellectual vanguard. It’s just plain awful. And, as I’ve already said, it’s pernicious in its “know nothing” views worthy of a troglodyte and highly objectionable in a so called curator, presumably devoted (ha!) to preserving and promoting art. How about destroying? Anyone game?

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 26, 2017

 

 

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COMMENTS

 

Pete Smith, October 28, 2017
You are bordering on the pompous here yourself I think. Don’t disagree with your main point, I guess, but among many other things in your post, one could reasonably posit that “an infelicitous phrase” (correcting your typo — I think you didn’t mean phase, which makes no sense) is in itself an infelicitous phrase.

 

 

Roger W. Smith, October 28, 2017

Yes, it is, Pete. Thanks for catching the typo. I don’t see how you can call the post “pompous.” Am I missing something?

 

Pete Smith, October 28, 2017

Yes.

 

Roger W. Smith, October 29, 2017

My asking, “Am I missing something?” was a rhetorical question inviting you to demonstrate how, in terms of what I wrote, the piece is pompous. Your “Yes” was a snarky response mean to trivialize what I said, what I went to great lengths to show.

Exerting intellectual effort to express strong disagreement is not pomposity.

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

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

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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

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

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

 

 

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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”).

 

 

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

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2017

 

 

why some op-ed pieces bomb; or, should

 

 

 

indigestible genericspeak

 

“#MeToo Has Done What the Law Could Not”

By Catharine A. Mackinnon

The New York Times

February 4, 2018

 

The #MeToo movement is accomplishing what sexual harassment law to date has not.

This mass mobilization against sexual abuse, through an unprecedented wave of speaking out in conventional and social media, is eroding the two biggest barriers to ending sexual harassment in law and in life: the disbelief and trivializing dehumanization of its victims.

Sexual harassment law — the first law to conceive sexual violation in inequality terms — created the preconditions for this moment. Yet denial by abusers and devaluing of accusers could still be reasonably counted on by perpetrators to shield their actions.

Many survivors realistically judged reporting pointless. Complaints were routinely passed off with some version of “she wasn’t credible” or “she wanted it.” I kept track of this in cases of campus sexual abuse over decades; it typically took three to four women testifying that they had been violated by the same man in the same way to even begin to make a dent in his denial. That made a woman, for credibility purposes, one-fourth of a person.

Even when she was believed, nothing he did to her mattered as much as what would be done to him if his actions against her were taken seriously. His value outweighed her sexualized worthlessness. His career, reputation, mental and emotional serenity and assets counted. Hers didn’t. In some ways, it was even worse to be believed and not have what he did matter. It meant she didn’t matter.

These dynamics of inequality have preserved the system in which the more power a man has, the more sexual access he can get away with compelling.

It is widely thought that when something is legally prohibited, it more or less stops. This may be true for exceptional acts, but it is not true for pervasive practices like sexual harassment, including rape, that are built into structural social hierarchies. … If the same cultural inequalities are permitted to operate in law as in the behavior the law prohibits, equalizing attempts — such as sexual harassment law — will be systemically resisted.

This logjam, which has long paralyzed effective legal recourse for sexual harassment, is finally being broken. Structural misogyny, along with sexualized racism and class inequalities, is being publicly and pervasively challenged by women’s voices. The difference is, power is paying attention.

Powerful individuals and entities are taking sexual abuse seriously for once and acting against it as never before. No longer liars, no longer worthless, today’s survivors are initiating consequences none of them could have gotten through any lawsuit — in part because the laws do not permit relief against individual perpetrators, but more because they are being believed and valued as the law seldom has. Women have been saying these things forever. It is the response to them that has changed.

Revulsion against harassing behavior — in this case, men with power refusing to be associated with it — could change workplaces and schools. It could restrain repeat predators as well as the occasional and casual exploiters that the law so far has not. Shunning perpetrators as sex bigots who take advantage of the vulnerabilities of inequality could transform society. It could change rape culture.

Sexual harassment law can grow with #MeToo. Taking #MeToo’s changing norms into the law could — and predictably will — transform the law as well. Some practical steps could help capture this moment. Institutional or statutory changes could include prohibitions or limits on various forms of secrecy and nontransparency that hide the extent of sexual abuse and enforce survivor isolation, such as forced arbitration, silencing nondisclosure agreements even in cases of physical attacks and multiple perpetration, and confidential settlements. A realistic statute of limitations for all forms of discrimination, including sexual harassment, is essential. Being able to sue individual perpetrators and their enablers, jointly with institutions, could shift perceived incentives for this behavior. The only legal change that matches the scale of this moment is an Equal Rights Amendment, expanding the congressional power to legislate against sexual abuse and judicial interpretations of existing law, guaranteeing equality under the Constitution for all.

But it is #MeToo, this uprising of the formerly disregarded, that has made untenable the assumption that the one who reports sexual abuse is a lying slut, and that is changing everything already. Sexual harassment law prepared the ground, but it is today’s movement that is shifting gender hierarchy’s tectonic plates.

 

 

The problem, as I see it, with an article like this — I find it boring, and not uplifting — is that it is overly generalized writing, what I might call genericspeak, amounting to boilerplate written for a certain interest group. The dictionary definition of boilerplate is as follows:

1. standardized text

2. formulaic or hackneyed language

There is nothing new. It is all generalities and the author of the piece is essentially preaching to the choir, i.e., to radical feminists with views identical or very close to her own.

There is no personality on the page. A writer’s voice does not come through, other than an angry, cold one propagating dogma.

The piece is built upon a tissue of generalities.

 

 

 

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management speak

 

 

“A Note From Our New Publisher”

By A. G. Sulzberger

The New York Times

January 1, 2018

 

 

In 1896 my great-great-grandfather left his hometown, Chattanooga, and traveled north to purchase a small, fading newspaper in New York.

The moment was not unlike our own. Technological, economic and social turmoil were upending the traditions of the country. People trying to understand these changes and their implications found themselves confused by polarized politics and by a partisan press more focused on advancing its own interests than on informing the public.

Against this backdrop Adolph Ochs saw the need for a different kind of newspaper, and he committed The New York Times to the then-radical idea that still animates it today. He vowed that The Times would be fiercely independent, dedicated to journalism of the highest integrity and devoted to the public welfare.

His vision for the news report: “to give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”

His vision for the opinion report: “to invite intelligent discussion from all shades of opinion.”

This mission feels particularly urgent to me today as I begin my work as publisher of The New York Times. Our society is again being reshaped by political, technological and environmental forces that demand deep scrutiny and careful explanation. More than 120 years after Adolph Ochs’s vision was printed in these pages, the need for independent, courageous, trustworthy journalism is as great as it’s ever been.

This is a period of exciting innovation and growth at The Times. Our report is stronger than ever, thanks to investments in new forms of journalism like interactive graphics, podcasting and digital video and even greater spending in areas like investigative, international and beat reporting. Our audience, once confined to a single city, now stretches around the globe.

This is also, of course, a period of profound challenge for The Times, for the news media more broadly, and for everyone who believes that journalism sustains a healthy society.

There was a reason freedom of speech and freedom of the press were placed first among our essential rights. Our founders understood that the free exchange of ideas and the ability to hold power to account were prerequisites for a successful democracy. But a dangerous confluence of forces is threatening the press’s central role in helping people understand and engage with the world around them.

The business model that long supported the hard and expensive work of original reporting is eroding, forcing news organizations of all shapes and sizes to cut their reporting staffs and scale back their ambitions. Misinformation is rising and trust in the media is declining as technology platforms elevate clickbait, rumor and propaganda over real journalism, and politicians jockey for advantage by inflaming suspicion of the press. Growing polarization is jeopardizing even the foundational assumption of common truths, the stuff that binds a society together.

Like our predecessors at The Times, my colleagues and I will not give in to these forces.

The Times will continue to search for the most important stories of our era with curiosity, courage and empathy — because we believe that improving the world starts with understanding it. The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences — because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor and fairness — because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have. The Times will do all of this without fear or favor [trite] — because we believe truth should be pursued wherever it leads.

These values guided my father and his predecessors as publisher as they steered this company through war, economic crisis, technological upheaval and major societal shifts. These same values sustained them as they stood up to presidents; battled for the rights of a free press in court; and overrode the financial interests of our business in favor of our journalistic principles.

The challenge before me is to ensure The Times safeguards those values while embracing the imperative to adapt to a changing world. I’ve spent most of my career as a newspaper reporter, but I’ve also been a champion of The Times’s digital evolution. I’m protective of our best traditions, and I look to the future with excitement and optimism.

Much will change in the years ahead, and I believe those changes will lead to a report that is richer and more vibrant than anything we could have dreamed up in ink and paper. What won’t change: We will continue to give reporters the resources to dig into a single story for months at a time. We will continue to support reporters in every corner of the world as they bear witness to unfolding events, sometimes at great personal risk. We will continue to infuse our journalism with expertise by having lawyers cover law, doctors cover health and veterans cover war. We will continue to search for the most compelling ways to tell stories, from prose to virtual reality to whatever comes next. We will continue to put the fairness and accuracy of everything we publish above all else — and in the inevitable moments we fall short, we will continue to own up to our mistakes, and we’ll strive to do better.

We believe this is the journalism our world needs and our readers deserve. That has been the guiding vision for The New York Times across five generations and more than 120 years. Today we renew that commitment.

A.G. Sulzberger Publisher

 

 

This is all self-congratulatory boilerplate blah. There is not one original thought or idea, and hardly any information.

The op-ed is too long winded. The entire piece could be boiled down to a sentence or two and not lose anything with respect to content or meaning: e.g.: I pledge that The New York Times will continue its mission of providing readers with the best journalism on the face of the earth.

Such writing might be appropriate as the text of a hortatory address by the principal at an assembly at the beginning of the school year, or for a motivational speech to employees by a CEO. Sulzberger’s op-ed is not worth reading. It is full of platitudes with no substance, just an assurance to readers that the Times has always been great — or, as he sees it, has always adhered to the highest journalistic standards — and will, he pledges, continue to do so. That’s nice, but so what? Is his oration worth a reader’s time?

Such language is often used by leaders in business and academia and, with embellishment, by politicians. There is nothing necessarily wrong with a motivational speech. But, such writing does not belong on the op-ed page.

What if Sulzberger had said, for example?

We are opening up a new bureau in Novosibirsk to cover developments in the Far North from the perspective of global ecology.

We intend to provide more coverage of ethnic minorities worldwide, such as the Rohingya people.

We have given more priority to coverage of women’s sports at the college level.

That would have been informative to Times readers. He should have used the op-ed piece to convey substantive information about what to expect from the Times in the coming months and years under his stewardship. He does not, for the most part, do this.

 

 

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jerry-built; too cute

 

 

“The Dancing Queen: Do The Leona”

By Sheryl McCarthy

New York Newsday

April 15, 1992

 

 

In years to come, it will be known as “doing the Leona.”

It will be written up in the lawbooks, and in the privacy of their offices, slick-suited defense attorneys will discuss using it on behalf of their clients. Certain crass members of the press, always quick with the cynical remark, will call it the “red bathrobe” technique — and they’ll use it to refer to any convicted criminal who cries, whines, scrabbles and is willing to do just about anything else to stay out of jail.

We’ve been subjected to this sorry spectacle in recent weeks as Leona Helmsley and her lawyers tried every ploy they could think of to keep Leona from being carried off in in handcuffs today for the crime of bilking the federal government of millions of dollars in taxes. The strategy didn’t work for Leona, who presumably is even now wending her way to a Kentucky prison. But that doesn’t mean that in the future “The Leona” won’t work for other felons.

The basic elements of “The Leona” are these:

1. PROCLAIM YOUR innocence, in spite of voluminous evidence to the contrary. Admit no wrongdoing, or even any mistakes, and express no remorse whatsoever for your behavior.

2 CLAIM YOUR spouse is sick and will die if you’re sent to prison, since you are the only person on Earth who can care for him properly. (Despite the fact that her 83-year-old husband, Harry, is a billionaire and can afford the best possible medical care, according to Leona it is only her presence that can ward off his premature death.)

3. CLAIM YOU are sick and will die if you are sent to prison. After a federal judge turned down her request for a new trial, Leona collapsed outside the courtroom and was rushed to the hospital. Her attorneys have since argued that because she suffers from hardening of the arteries and high blood pressure, the stress of prison life could kill her. Try telling this to the 67,000 other federal prison inmates, many of whom also feel that prison is not conducive to good health.

4. HAVE A public relations firm organize a “Keep Leona Out of Jail” rally. This tawdry event took place about 10 days and reeked of insincerity.

5. APPEAR ON national TV talk shows, claiming you have been railroaded. Leona cried a lot on the “Joan Rivers Show.” And on “20 /”20” in an interview with Barbara Walters, the queen with the fabulous ballgowns was interviewed in a long red bathrobe — her version of sackcloth and ashes, and clear proof that she was emotionally overwrought. On the same show, she claimed her only friends in the world, besides old Harry, are her black maid and the security man at her Connecticut estate.

6. OFFER TO perform community service in lieu of prison time, a ploy overused by white-collar convicts who believe prisons are for the lower classes.

7. CLAIM TO be a member of a reviled minority group. Leona’s attorneys argued that she would face hostility and abuse by other prison inmates because she is “a widely reviled, vastly wealthy New York Jew.” Try this argument on the convicted drug lords, gang members, mob chieftains, and homosexuals who also expect to encounter some “hostility” from other inmates.

8. ARGUE THAT you can’t go to jail until after your next religious holiday. Leona’s attorneys argued that she should at least be allowed to celebrate Passover with the aging Harry. I’m not sure when Leona became a devout Jew, but I do know that a lot of prison inmates have foregone a final Christmas, Easter, Ramadan, or Kwanzaa with their families.

9. IF ALL else fails, try to bribe your way out of jail. In a last-ditch bid for freedom yesterday, Leona’s lawyers offered to turn over several Helmsley hotels for use as homeless shelters. This sudden burst of charity came from a woman never particularly known for benevolent gestures, who apparently became aware of the homeless problem only this week.

In the end, none of these tactics worked for Leona Helmsley. Not even the skillful briefs and arguments of Alan Dershowitz — a brilliant defense attorney who in recent years has squandered his abilities to serve the wealthy, the contemptible and the guilty — could sway the courts in her favor.

Nor could this massive public-relations campaign change the public perception that Leona Helmsley is an awful human being with a voice like a foghorn and the morals of a pirate. For years she plundered the poor and the powerless. She abused and intimidated her minions, the low-paid, unskilled hotel workers who desperately needed their jobs to make a living.

She blatantly stiffed the contractors who worked for her and who then got their revenge by turning her in to the authorities. But the IRS was the one entity she could not stiff, and so Leona is going to prison.

Legally, her crime was cheating on taxes. Morally, her crime was in believing her wealth and power set her above the law and exempted her from normal standards of decency. A horror of realization must have set in yesterday when the court rejected her last appeal.

So, on this 15th day of April, tax day, Leona Helmsley goes off to jail. Sources tell me the little people are planning a demonstration today on the steps of the U.S. Court of Appeals downtown. They will gather with their recently completed income-tax returns in their hands and when a sign is given they will lift these forms high above their heads and wave Leona bye-bye.

 

Leona Helmsley, the so-called Queen of Mean, was the wife of Harry Helmsley, a billionaire real estate investor and property developer. She was convicted of federal income tax evasion and other crimes in 1989 and sentenced to 19 months in prison.

The story was front page news in 1989. It is mostly forgotten now, and Sheryl McCarthy’s op-ed piece seems dated. Op-ed pieces are, by necessity, topical, but this one is also superficial:

In years to come, it will be known as “doing the Leona.”

It will be written up in the lawbooks, and in the privacy of their offices, slick-suited defense attorneys will discuss using it on behalf of their clients. Certain crass members of the press, always quick with the cynical remark, will call it the “red bathrobe” technique — and they’ll use it to refer to any convicted criminal who cries, whines, scrabbles and is willing to do just about anything else to stay out of jail.

This assertion seemed clever, supposedly, to the writer. It makes little sense now, because it was built on a very flimsy conjecture — in fact, one that has no substance: that the Leona Helmsley case would set a legal precedent. Of course, the writer knew it wouldn’t, but her piece is jerry-built on the playful assumption that it would.

The rest of the piece is a trashing of an easy target: the reviled, convicted and unpopular Leona Helmsley, who was publicly perceived as a greedy, haughty, arrogant woman getting her comeuppance; “an awful human being with a voice like a foghorn and the morals of a pirate” in the writer’s words.

This is glib, overblown writing.

“So, on this 15th day of April, tax day, Leona Helmsley goes off to jail. Sources tell me the little people are planning a demonstration today on the steps of the U.S. Court of Appeals downtown. They will gather with their recently completed income-tax returns in their hands and when a sign is given they will lift these forms high above their heads and wave Leona bye-bye.”

Did this actually happen? Certainly, it did not the way the writer envisions it.

In principle, there is nothing wrong, or that should be “prohibited,” with trying to be inventive or clever in writing a lead, in trying to make a point (often with irony or sarcasm), or in using or devising scenarios in one’s head or out of thin air (for the purposes of illustration or exemplification) that the reader knows are not literally true. One sees this often in fiction, naturally, but it is also used in essay writing: consider, for example, Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.” But it takes a clever writer to pull this off and not end up looking plain foolish, whimsical, and as if the piece was conceived in la-la land. This seems especially true of the op-ed page.

 

 

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a bad lead that leads nowhere; a faulty premise (and purple prose)

 

 

Dave Anderson

“Richard Is Real Rocket, the Only Rocket”

The New York Times

May 29, 2000

 

Other athletes are known today as the Rocket, notably pitcher Roger Clemens, the tennis legend Rod Laver and receiver Raghib Ismael, but they plagiarized the nickname. To anyone who saw Maurice Richard play hockey, he was not only the original Rocket, but also deserved to be remembered as the real Rocket, the only Rocket.

Just as Babe Ruth defined George Herman Ruth, Rocket defined the Montreal Canadiens’ folk hero who set all the National Hockey League goal-scoring records that Gordy Howe and Wayne Gretzky eventually shattered.

Whenever Richard scored in the hockey cathedral that was the Montreal Forum, hats, programs, galoshes and newspapers were tossed onto the ice in celebration as the public address announcer boomed formally, first in French and then in English, “Goal by Maurice Ree-chard.”

But his coach and former linemate at left wing, Toe Blake, usually referred to him as “Rocket.” So did his teammates.

“I sat beside Rocket in the dressing room for the seven years I played with him,” center Jean Béliveau once said. “He was an inspiration and the idol of my generation. On the team we all knew he was kind of an introvert and not the greatest talker.

“But in his own way, he was a leader and, as players and as a team, we followed him because we were inspired by his desire to win. When we lost, Rocket did not need to say anything to show how hard he accepted defat. You could see it in his eyes.”

Yes, those blazing eyes, which finally closed Saturday when he died at 78 after a two-year struggle with abdominal cancer.

 

This op-ed piece is a eulogy for hockey great Maurice Richard. The central premises are that Richard was a great player beloved by fans and an idol and inspiration for his teammates. Dave Anderson, who was The New York Times’s leading sportswriter when this op-ed piece was published under the “Sports of the Times” heading (Anderson had the prestige of writing the column), should have stuck to these points, but he overdid it with his assertion that there is something special about the nickname Rocket that distinguished Richard, or that anyone could claim distinction based upon a nickname. Such a literary device was used for Anderson’s lead, which gets the piece off to a bad start and makes it fall flat.

 

 

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“tough guy” journalism; a barroom rant

 

 

“The Death Penalty Is Queens DA’s Only Option”

By Steve Dunleavy

The York Post

May 30, 2000

 

 

The Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, should right now be shopping for twin beds.

Well, not really beds — gurneys on which you strap humanity’s filth and jab them with the needle of ultimate night.

I don’t know why DA Brown, who screwed up in the first place by not locking up John B. Taylor for 12 years, is wrestling with himself over whether to seek the death penalty.

Rick Lazio, speaking through a stitched lip, sewed up Mr. Brown’s agony when he said the words that certainly will make him the next senator of this Empire State:

“After a fair trial, competent counsel and if Mr. Taylor and [Craig] Godineaux are found guilty, there is no question that the district attorney should seek the death penalty.

“That is what the death penalty was made for. Here we see a senseless slaughter of human beings. Hard-working, never looking for a handout, not being rich, just working. A senseless slaughter.

“If they are convicted, after due process of law, there is no question about what the punishment should be.”

Rick Lazio [executive assistant district attorney for Suffolk County, New York] got a lot of votes yesterday from my friends. Yeah, they’re beer-drinking cops and firemen. And yeah, they’re the guys who put their lives on the line every day to make sure I wake up after I go to sleep.

Taylor was on five years’ probation when he committed three armed robberies and Judge Pauline Mullings gave him an incredibly low bail of $3,500.

The New York state court system accuses District Attorney Brown of screwing up because he did not indict the little punk called Taylor. Who cares now who was wrong?

You could tell it to the Marines, but don’t tell it to the friends and family of those who died in the Wendy’s slaughterhouse.

The liberals, who are against the death penalty, say lock them up forever, away from society.

Well, this state under Gov. Hugh Carey, who was more interested in dyeing his hair than a peace officer dying, should have learned its lesson on May 15, 1981 at Greenhaven prison.

Lemuel Smith, a total worm given life for three murders, was locked away in Greenhaven for life … No threat, according to the liberals, to society.

Apparently, Donna Payant did not count as part of society. She was just a correction officer.

And that gave· triple murderer Lemuel Smith the right to rape and murder Donna Payant and trash her body in a prison Dumpster. So much for locking someone away to protect society.

In the case of the lice John B. Taylor and Craig Godineaux, they have told cops what they did.

Yes, I’m sure they’ll bring in psychiatrists for their defense. I will never forget May 28, 1998 when Dr. Sanford Drob, chief of psychological assessment at Bellevue Hospital, gave evidence on behalf of triple murderer Darrel Harris.

He told the court that Harris should not be executed because he couldn’t draw a bicycle.

Harris, of course, could draw a gun, and when he ran out of bullets, he slashed Evelyn Davis to death with a knife as she said: “Please let me out of here. I have five babies.”

Don’t ask me why Dr. Drob — read that as dope — came up with the conclusion that not being able to draw a bicycle had anything to do with Darrel Harris getting a tiny needle in the arm.

Despite the best efforts of Dr. Drob, Darrel Harris became the first killer sentenced to die under the state’s new capital punishment law. So District Attorney Brown has no real problem.

All he has to do is look at the files of this newspaper, listen to Rick Lazio and listen to common sense. Lifetime in jail does not guarantee that killers won’t kill. Killers sometimes shank people in jail just to get celebrity status.

Ask me. I told the so-called “Boston strangler” Albert DeSalvo that he would be murdered by Peter Wilson and Patty Devlin in Walpole State Prison, Massachusetts, if he didn’t stop being a big mouth. They did him.

The only thing that stops murderers murdering is to have them removed from the face of the earth. Rick Lazio understands that, thank God. So does New York and I pray that today Richard Brown grasps it all.

 

 

Steve Dunleavy is a tabloid journalist known for his focus on crime and other gut issues which, in his view, call for mob justice.

“gurneys on which you strap humanity’s filth humanity’s filth and jab them with the needle of ultimate night”; “the little punk called Taylor”; “Lemuel Smith, a total worm”; “In the case of the lice John B. Taylor and Craig Godineaux, they have told cops what they did”; “Killers sometimes shank people in jail just to get celebrity status.” “I told the so-called “Boston strangler” Albert DeSalvo that he would be murdered by Peter Wilson and Patty Devlin in Walpole State Prison, Massachusetts, if he didn’t stop being a big mouth. They did him.” “The only thing that stops murderers murdering is to have them removed from the face of the earth.

This is supposedly tough street talk. It actually serves to show Dunleavy’s crudeness, stupidity, and ghoulishness; the utter absence of any reflection on his part; and that he is unqualified to be a journalist.

Note the one sentence paragraphs. This is a hallmark of tough guy, in your face journalism. And, the writing is just plain dumb and crude. It’s as if one wrote an angry note to one’s ex-boyfriend saying: “YOU’RE A COMPLETE JERK. I HATE YOU.”

Supposedly great (and, in my opinion, very overrated) journalists such as Jimmy Breslin (d. 2017) and Pete Hamill often write in the same vein. They are extolled for presenting in plain language the views of the man on the street, the common man. They do not seem to be in the same class as Dunleavy, and they can write half decently. But, they do not write that well — certainly not at a level which deserves admiration — and their views are often simplistic and can lead to serious distortions when it comes to contentious issues.

 

 

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One further thought. Re jerry-built op-ed pieces and writing that seems too “cute.” Op-ed writers can certainly use humor and ingenuity to get their points across. No one is saying they can’t or shouldn’t. But, it takes great skill to be funny without seeming jejune. Current and former columnists whom I admire who (in my opinion) have a genius for humor and use it effectively include Russell Baker of The New York Times, Art Buchwald of The Washington Post, and Maureen Dowd of the Times. For fun, I have posted below, as an attachment, two notable op-ed pieces by Baker and Buchwald.

 

 

russell-baker-presidents-big-break

 

 

art-buchwald-le-grande-thanksgiving

 

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     February 2018

 

 

 

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Addendum:

 

For an example of a Swiftian piece of satire wherein an op-ed writer runs with a seemingly preposterous premise and pulls it off, see:

 

“Why Stormy Daniels isn’t a bigger hurricane”

By Dana Milbank

The Washington Post

February 16, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-stormy-daniels-isnt-a-bigger-hurricane/2018/02/16/9f7b6ae4-1320-11e8-9065-e55346f6de81_story.html?utm_term=.3acbcd53e840

 

 

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See also my post:

 

“Nuts?”

 

URL

 

about an op-ed piece by New York Times columnist Gall Collins

 

 

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COMMENTS:

 

 

Pete Smith, February 15, 2018

Are you saying that the #MeToo movement has not changed things for the better, or that abused women are just an interest group? Whether the writing in this op-ed is good, her points are very sound.

 
Roger W. Smith, February 15, 2018

Pete — I guess what I would say is that I thought it was a bad and boring piece, regardless of what one may think about the MeToo movement. The focus of the post was intended to be journalism critiqued from the point of view of writing.

 

Pete Smith, February 15, 2018

OK understood but you need to think about posts like this which can be read either as critical of writing (which I now understand was your intent) or kind of a Trumpish “both sides” (or Porter is a good man we shouldn’t look at his ex-wife’s photo) defense of racism or misogyny.

 
Roger W. Smith, February 15, 2018

Pete — how could I have, or did I, fail to make the main topic and thrust of this piece as plain as could be?

 

 

 

 

Where have you gone, George Orwell?

 

 

re

“Defending Samantha Bee isn’t principled. It’s tribalism.”

Op-Ed

By Megan McArdle

The Washington Post

June 2, 2018

 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/wp/2018/06/02/defending-samantha-bee-isnt-principled-its-tribalism/?utm_term=.f6297e9de421

 

 

This op-ed piece is hard to read. It’s God awful. Terribly written.

And idiotic. The writer is splitting hairs about nothing.

It is very similar to a Washington Post op-ed piece of three weeks ago by a guest columnist, Sandra Beasley, that I complained about in my post
“My freshman comp instructor would be turning in his grave.”

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2018/12/19/my-freshman-comp-instructor-would-be-turning-in-his-grave/

 

That op-ed piece — by a freshman comp instructor, no less — may have been even more poorly written, but at least one could figure out what the writer was trying to say.

 

 
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Regarding the former piece, i.e., the one by Megan McArdle which is the focus of this blog — Ms. McArdle is a Washington Post columnist — I dare anyone to figure out what she is saying. It’s as if she were asking her readers to consider, through convoluted reasoning which it is tortuous to try to follow, and to answer the question: how many angels can fit on the head of a pin?

Perhaps it’s okay to use the c______ word for Ivanka Trump. After all, can you imagine, she had the nerve to post a photo of herself proudly holding her baby??? But, no, it’s NOT okay, because that would be anti-women, but then again, her father is Donald Trump, so maybe it IS okay.

… In-groups using words to each other isn’t the same as out-groups using those same words. Trump is the president of the United States, which carries a higher responsibility to the nation, and common decency, than hosting a third-rate comedy show.

And if you want to take this opportunity to point out the jaw-slackening hypocrisy of conservatives becoming outraged about this after defending Barr, or Trump … well, just hold on while I find you a comfy chair and some Gatorade.

But after you’ve said all that, what you’re left with is a burning question: So what? Is the behavior of a senile vulgarian with a terminal case of verbal dysentery now the standard to which feminism aspires? That seems rather inadequate. Or have feminists now lost the ability to distinguish between slurs that were reclaimed by the oppressed as terms of affection and one that is hurled as a vile insult into millions of American homes?

Counterfactuals are usually tricky, of course. But I have utter confidence in this one: The answer that feminists would give in that case would be “never.” And if a network had aired such a remark, those same people would be rightfully raising holy hell about it. They would not be looking around to see whether someone, somewhere, had sometime in the recent past made a remark that was even worse.

This is gobbledygook.

 

 
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I have a problem with splitting hairs while trying to justify the use of vile insults against one individual or group and, perhaps, excuse it when the target is a different group, depending upon which group is more in “favor” and which group tends to be reviled by the guardians of public virtue. (I guess Ms. McArdle does too, but it is difficult to ascertain what she does think, since she makes the issues the opposite of clear.) And, I cannot understand why anyone is entitled to call Ivanka Trump a cunt (I am not afraid to use the word, since that was the word political commentator Samantha Bee used) for holding a baby in her arms as, presumably, a proud mother.

Don’t get me wrong. I am horrified by actions of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that separate children from their parents, and I am absolutely against President Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Not sort of. Completely. I regard them as an outrage, an affront to humanity and common decency, and a stain on our nation that will be remembered as such in years to come just as slavery is now.

But President Trump’s daughter holding her baby? C’mon.

 

 
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There’s another problem that I see with such op-eds, a fundamental one when it comes to journalism and writing per se. The sophistry comes from the writer not laying out the facts clearly and presenting a coherent view, but instead speaking (writing, that is) sort of in code to a particular audience, which she assumes will be able to decode the piece and, from it, extract key talking points supporting whatever position has been ordained. Reason is a tool in the writer’s armamentarium. One that can be used effectively or not effectively. That when it is not used well can have the effect of too much of a good thing. That can produce a jerry-built piece of prose that would be tottering on its foundations, if it had a foundation.

This is a think piece. A nutty one. It is incumbent upon a writer to first establish a substratum of fact, to orient the reader, to acquaint the reader with the issues, and to help the reader get his or her bearings, so to speak, before engaging in Jesuitical reasoning.

George Orwell comes to mind. He went about his writing, as any true writer does, like a workman in overalls, so to speak, at his typewriter. Trying to make his points as clearly and cogently as he could. Backing them up, mostly, with reasoned argument, not statistics or data, or quotations from someone else. At all times, he strove to be clear, and even when he was at his most opinionated, arguing a point strenuously, there was absolutely no equivocation (or duplicity). And, no sophistry. You could not accuse him of that. One can and should accuse Ms. McCardle of the latter, of errors of commission when it comes to writing an opinion piece that is likely to confuse rather than enlighten most readers.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   June 2018

 

 

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Addendum:

 

To be fair — or at least to try to be — it appears that Ms. McCardle is saying the left shouldn’t use slurs against the right. But, it’s awfully hard to extract her key points from the fog of her obfuscatory prose. Her concluding paragraph reads:

So feminists, and the left more broadly, now have a chance to prove that they really have learned a lesson from the Bill Clinton debacle. They have a chance to stand as forthrightly and rightly against an offense committed by one of their own as they do against attacks on them. Or they can slink away, muttering about Trump and the patriarchy, and wait for the next generation of feminists to get old enough, and mad enough, to repair the damage they’ve done.

It shouldn’t be so hard for the reader of an op-ed piece to figure out what is being said, which is the case here.

My English Teacher, Robert W. Tighe

 

 

 

bob-tighe.jpg

Robert W. Tighe in his classroom at Canton High School, Canton, MA in 1960’s

 

 

The following is a message of mine posted on Facebook in response to a daughter of my former English teacher Robert W. Tighe.

 

 

****************************************************************

 

 
In your Facebook post of March 23, 2016, you said, regarding your father: “[his] chosen occupation aligned with his passions, in his case for learning, and sharing his love of learning with others, as well as for language and the role language plays in shaping our understanding of the human experience throughout history and the role it plays in the present as a tool for influencing the thoughts and actions of others.”

Very true, I believe.

From my experience of your father as a teacher, I would say that some things that drove him were:

a love of books, reading, and language;

hatred (if one can use such a strong term) of pomposity and obfuscation in writing and in written and oral expression in general; an abhorrence of cant.

It seemed that this would cause him at times to be impatient and to be a harsh critic.

He was no phony or fake and he didn’t like it when others “put on airs,” so to speak, when writing, declaiming, or participating in a conversation or class discussion; when someone would try to conceal their lack of knowledge, or grasp and penetration of issues, behind a “smokescreen” of bad writing.

He had no use for mawkish, flowery, or overblown language when used to impress the reader or show off.

He was constantly inveighing against excess verbiage and wasted words. His summum bonum was clarity.

I had a close friend from another town in New England. His father was chairman of the English department in the local high school. Once, when I was visiting, my friend took me upstairs and showed me some of his father’s students’ papers. There was an A paper by a star student, a girl. My friend’s father had written comments praising it highly. I read some of the paper and, being a student of Mr. Tighe, immediately realized that it was a God awful paper. It was insipid, mushy writing of the kind your father would have detested.

 

 

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A few additional comments.

Your father loved Samuel Johnson. I was told by someone that he had read Bowell’s Life of Johnson something like nine times. One can see why this affinity existed. Samuel Johnson hated cant and hypocrisy, and would skewer with verbal repartee — with his (Johnson’s) legendary wit and sarcasm — anyone who engaged in it.

Your father taught me to read poetry. Sort of. Which is to say that I never really had an ear for poetry or much of an ability to understated it. But, your father would have us reading John Donne, William Blake, or T. S. Eliot and understanding it, getting to the heart of the poem, and, once I could manage to do this, loving the poetry for its ingenuity and beauty.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

    March 25, 2016