Friday, August 13, 2004

Defining Presidential Articulation Down

The late, great Daniel Patrick Moynihan, perhaps the last of the true public intellectuals to serve in the Senate, wrote an influential article a decade ago in the American Scholar entitled "Defining Deviancy Down." In it, he bravely waded into the issue of liberal guilt, pointing out that the culture has stood by and mostly accepted an appalling race to the bottom in underclass behavior that tears at the fabric of society, and more importantly stands in the way of the poor improving their situation.

over the past generation, since the time Erikson wrote, the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can"afford to recognize" and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and also quietly raising the "normal" level in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard. This redefining has evoked fierce resistance from defenders of "old" standards, and accounts for much of the present "cultural war" such as proclaimed by many at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

I wish he was still around to sound a similar alarm about the steadily lowering baseline of presidential literacy and articulation. Okay, so everyone knows we have a not-too-bright man now occupying the White House, a fellow whose stunning lack of the ability to articulate simple English sentences led Gail Sheehy to build a credible case in Vanity Fair back in 2000 that he's dyslexic. But what's far more galling is how even bright people who should know better (like those in the media) let themselves become part of the cultural chorus that accepts this as normal, in the process speeding along the dumbing-down process. This Boston Globe columnist, Joshua Green, plays into it by a piece in which he explores some of the criticism over John Kerry's adoption of a line by the poet Langston Hughes (a Cleveland native) as his campaign motto. Seems that since Hughes was an avowed Communist, the right is imaginatively trying to red-bait him. "Lapsing into Kerryspeak, the senator goes on to recount that he was 'not unmindful of this duality of meanings' when his campaign adopted Hughes' phrase," Green writes, suggesting that this phrase is somehow bizarre or otherwise problematic because it's not composed for a third-grade reading level. Sorry, pal, but that locution is perfectly good English, understandable by the average reasonably intelligent adult. To suggest otherwise means you've either succumbed to the disease of spriraling simplicity or you're in the wrong profession (get out of writing and into local TV, where you won't be bothered by complexity).

Oh, Joy: Sandy's Back. Glad to see that my friend Sandy Piderit is back from the Big Easy and blogging once more. I've come to rely on her wit, insight and interesting blend of observations from multiple realms to help keep me up on the world. And I think I'll get ahold of this book, Tempered Radicals, since she points to it on her Ryze page as an overarching metaphor for how she'd like to teach her Weatherhead students to approach the world.

Nixon Revisionism. The 30th anniversary of Nixon's historic resignation has touched off a mini-flurry of commentary suggesting that the Bush gang's sins may even be worse than those of the Nixon White House before it. Sorry, folks. You may have gathered by now that I'm no fan of Bush 43 and his band of arrogant toughs, but I think that to suggest that they're worse than the cancer of Nixon's administration is merely the latest sign of our general historical amnesia. These guys may have started a war under false pretenses, but I'm convinced they did so for reasons that are perhaps (only perhaps) otherwise defensible: remaking a troubled region and providing stability where instability reigns. The fact that they were ignorant of history, blind to complexity, deaf to the lessons of those who actually have prosecuted war don't, in the end, mean they can be called worse than a band of henchmen who calmly and with great seriousness discussed the use of assassination, arson and other crimes as political tools. Let's get some proportion here, kids. As always, that begins with going back and reading some history...

Good News: Essay Questions Slowly Winning Out Over True-False Quizzes. The Wall Street Journal reported a couple of weeks ago that the ACT college-entrance exam (that's the one you take only if you're headed to a school in your own state) will add writing tests beginning next February. The challenge: "...unlike the current test, which has only one correct answer per question, scores on the writing exams will depend on such highly subjective measures as voice, style, flow--and whether language is 'competent,' 'adequate' or merely 'under control.'" But that shouldn't be such a problem, because living, loving and working are open-ended essay questions rather than true-and-false quizzes. That's something they don't teach you in any school. But one way or another, we all learn it not long afterward.


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