Pay no mind; words no longer matter


David Crisp

A spokesman for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign defended his statement on Monday that Hillary Clinton “lacks the mental and physical stamina to take on ISIS” by saying that Trump was referring to policy differences.

“Mental and physical stamina” is a synonym for “policy”? OK, I thought: It is official. Words no longer mean anything at all.

It’s kind of a relief. All those years I spent double checking quotes for accuracy; all those years I tried to tell students the difference between “less” and “few” and “lie” and “lay” and “its” and “it’s”; all those years fiddling with sentences to get the words to come out right; all are laid to rest.

Humpty Dumpty has triumphed: Words now mean exactly what we choose them to mean—neither more nor less.

I guess that’s what pundits mean when they say Trump is running an unconventional campaign. He and Clinton both get low marks from the public for honesty, but Clinton’s lies are in the traditional mold, pretty much like the lies you tell. She lies to cover up misdeeds or to push an agenda, the sort of thing every president since (and possibly including) George Washington has done.

Russell Baker once said that the job of a reporter is to listen to important people tell lies. Just look up Webster’s definition of diplomacy: “official lies told politely.” OK, that definition is itself a lie. So sue me.

Trump lies for sport or the thrill of it, like an inexperienced skier shooting down a double black diamond slope just to feel the rush before the crash. He overwhelms the system; as the Washington Post’s fact-checking arm notes, “There’s never been a presidential candidate like Donald Trump — someone so cavalier about the facts and so unwilling to ever admit error, even in the face of overwhelming evidence.”

PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning fact checker, found that as of July 1, of the 158 factual claims by Trump that it had checked, 78 percent were mostly false or worse.

When facts become obsolete, words soon follow. And who is to blame? Certainly not Trump, who doesn’t seem to quite grasp the concept of either language or reality. If words mattered, he would not be the nominee of a major political party.

The list of suspects is long. Talk radio years ago abandoned the idea that words should be related to meaning. Every time Sean Hannity says, “I’ve got to be honest,” something dishonest follows.

Mainstream media, a popular culprit, gets a share of the blame for its nonsensical emphasis on writing “on the other hand” stories, as if every issue split along equally valid claims.

A perfect example appeared in Tuesday’s Billings Gazette, in an Associated Press story about America’s contentious debate over global warming. The article quotes scientist Judith Curry as saying that she can no longer be considered for jobs in academia because of her skeptical stance on global warming.

The clear implication is that partisans on both sides of the issue ostracize nonbelievers. But that is far from the facts. First, Curry does not dispute the basic science behind manmade global warming. She does dispute the public policy implications of global warming, and she does suggest that warming might not turn out to be as bad as some scientists think.

Second, her work appears in peer-reviewed journals and has won awards. She has been profiled in Scientific American and hosts a popular blog on climate science.

Third, it’s true that she has said she probably would be unemployable if she were seeking another academic job. She used the subjunctive voice because she is a tenured professor in her 60s. Her theory about future employment is unlikely ever to be tested.

To imply, even remotely, that the criticism she has received from other scientists is somehow comparable to Trump’s repeated statements that global warming is a hoax concocted by the Chinese is to engage in the falsest of equivalencies (is “falsest” even a word? Yes, because I proclaim it so).

But perhaps it’s not the media that should be blamed for our meaning-free language. Perhaps it’s the general degradation of American political discourse. Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte recently sent cease-and-desist letters to Montana TV stations asking them to quit running ads claiming that he was a New Jersey millionaire who had sued to block public access across his land.

The ad, from the Good Jobs Montana Political Action Committee, was sort of true, but only sort of. Gianforte used to live in New Jersey; he now lives in Montana. He did file a lawsuit over public access, but he has argued persuasively that he was seeking clarification over an easement, not to block access.

Still, I thought, why complain? In the modern political world, the ad fell well within acceptable bounds of political discourse.

But why are those bounds so low? Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that. Words no longer matter.

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