‘Scary’ Monsters

President Donald Trump arrives for a presentation in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington,D.C., November 24, 2020. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

What the misuse of a word reveals about our hyperbolic politics.

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‘It Was a Dark and Stormy Night’One of the words I would abolish from our political lexicon is “scary.” It is an insipid, empty adjective with its roots in “one weird trick”–style digital gimmickry, beloved of such master click-baiters as the editors over at Vox. A recent example comes from our friends (“If a man’s character is to be abused, there’s nobody like a relation to do the business”) over at The Bulwark, which carried a headline reading: “The Scary Spectacle of Trump’s Last Month in Office.”

(The piece, by Brian Karem, opens: “Some may think of these as ‘the last days of Pompeii.’ If that reference strikes you as too erudite to be fitting, you might prefer to think of the month ahead as ‘the last days of chaos in a blender.’” To borrow from Margaret Thatcher: If you have to tell people you’re erudite. . . . And The Last Days of Pompeii was inescapable as a miniseries on ABC — as allusions go, not exactly Finnegans Wake.)

“Scary” used in this way is irritating for a half a dozen reasons. One of them is that it is a base-stealing stratagem, a way of suggesting, usually in a headline, that the following matter is shocking or revelatory. And what follows almost always is something that is neither shocking nor revelatory. In the Bulwark piece, the “scary” headline is undercut by the copy itself: “The final days of the Donald Trump administration are upon us, and they look much like every other day at the White House for the last four years.” To which some might reply: “Oh, but every other day at the White House for the last four years has been scary, too!”

In which case, grow the . . . heck . . . up.

Scary is a weak and dishonest means of gaining influence, with the writer ordering readers to feel a certain way about a subject rather than causing them to feel that way, which takes a little bit of effort and skill. If you were to read a straightforward account of the crimes of Jack the Ripper, nobody would need to tell you that you should be shocked and disgusted by them. Margaret Thatcher did not need to tell anybody that she was a lady, or that she was powerful — the facts of the case were enough.

But the facts of the case are not always with you. A particularly dopey CNN headline over a particularly dopey Chris Cillizza piece reads: “The Republican convention just proved this scary fact about the GOP.” The “scary fact” is that the most prominent voices and faces of the Republican Party in 2020 exhibited a cultish devotion to the president, and that they were willing to subordinate “what the party believes in” to the project of seeing him reelected. “Scary” means “causing fright or alarm.” Because this is not 1972, it is not even surprising, much less frightful, to discover that Republican bosses do not believe in much. Slavish and, indeed, idolatrous devotion to presidents has been a fact of American political life for a long time now, from John Kennedy to those Hollywood dolts singing literal hymns of praise to Barack Obama a few years back. Cillizza repeats several bits of over-the-top praise of Trump at the 2020 convention from the likes of Kimberly Guilfoyle and Charlie Kirk. And Guilfoyle and Kirk are very much representative of current Republican leadership.

That isn’t scary — the word you’re looking for here is embarrassing.

New York magazine, in a rare display of wit, offered a spin on the formulation: “On Guns, Liberals Are Flirting with the Politics of Fear. That’s Scary.”

Scary also contributes to another regrettable aspect of our political journalism: Putting the writer at the center. All of that performative “empathy” (they mean sympathy) in our journalism and our politics is a way of saying: “Look at me! Because what is interesting here is not how these poor people are suffering from famine or drought or plague or the aftermath of an earthquake but how I feel about it — and how I feel about it reflects very well on me, indeed!” Scary is a minor-league version of that: “All these socialists in the Democratic Party are scary! Really scary! Really, really scary! See, I feel exactly the same way you rubes do, which means you can trust me — and, now, a word from our sponsors!”

Leaning on scary causes much of our political journalism to read as though it were written and edited by eleven-year-olds (the wrong kind of eleven-year-old — you know the type) but it also obscures the actual considerations before us by fortifying the good-guys/bad-guys, white-hats/black-hats approach to politics. Intelligent and responsible political debate recognizes that very little of what’s at controversy in our public life has to do with unadulterated good and evil, or absolutes of any kind, but instead involves balancing competing goods, tradeoffs, and prioritizing among legitimate interests. Take, for example, the recent debate over a new round of COVID-relief checks. It can be simultaneously true that (1) this measure will have the unhappy effect of reinforcing and legitimizing the “waiting for my check” model of government; and (2) that it is necessary or prudent in the current situation. Each of those must be taken into consideration and weighed against the other. That is what functional political debate mostly does. Declaring those with views and priorities different from your own scary — or extreme or whatever other moralistic adjective is in vogue at the moment — isn’t a way to advance that debate, but a way to avoid having the debate at all, and to prevent its being had by others. And it is necessary for us to have the real debate: Even where there are genuine moral fundamentals at stake — as in the matter of abortion — we still are faced with competing goods, and a democratic conversation that cannot acknowledge that and make provision for it eventually will produce a democracy that is ineffective and unstable.

Democracy is much more the result of conversations than the result of votes. It is for this reason that in modern totalitarian regimes, under which the people neither have access to the ballot box nor to the ammunition box, rulers who will never face election and who face scant prospect of revolution nonetheless find it necessary to suppress and distort public discourse. If people are permitted to speak freely, then they will start to figure things out — and that is indeed scary, if you are a tyrant. The emerging totalitarian tendency in the United States is in much the same way focused on suppressing, perverting, and controlling language. For modern political journalism, the pursuit of public influence and the pursuit of commercial success are conjoined by sheer quantifiable reach — commodity eyeballs — which is why such nonsense as scary so frequently disfigures otherwise erudite outlets.

Words about WordsBefore The Last Days of Pompeii was a Reagan-era mini-series, it was a Regency-era novel, one that came just on the cusp of the Victorian era, published in 1834. The author, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, is remembered as a bad writer, memorialized in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, which is dedicated to identifying “the opening sentence of the worst of all possible novels.” Bulwer-Lytton’s prose did lean toward the violaceous, but the author left English a small legacy of immortal phrases: “the great unwashed,” “the pursuit of the almighty dollar,” “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and his famous, much-mocked opening: “It was a dark and stormy night.” For years, there was a “Bad Hemingway” competition, in which contestants parodied the style (and machismo) of Ernest Hemingway. One winning submission was titled “Big Too-Hardened Liver.” Ernest Hemingway and Edward Bulwer-Lytton may not have much in common as prose stylists, but each had a voice distinctive enough to parody. William F. Buckley Jr. inspired some good parody.

Try writing a parody of a Dana Milbank column and see if anybody notices.

Rampant PrescriptivismI suppose the main section of today’s letter is an exercise in rampant prescriptivism, but there’s always room for more. After last week’s letter, in which I raised the possibility of being run over by a cement truck, I received a lifetime’s supply of tsk-tsking from the architects and construction people in my life, who are many: “It’s not cement, you clod, it’s concrete!” One structural engineer inquired as to whether I had been visiting the Isle of Portland, in England, which gave its name to Portland cement.

The conflation of cement and concrete is fairly common in English: Think of the Beverly Hillbillies and their “cement pond.” Cement is an ingredient in concrete, and also an ingredient in other building materials, such as mortar. The big trucks with the rotating top-shaped tanks on the back are concrete mixers, not cement mixers.

But the expression I’ve always heard is “run over by a cement truck,” or, more often, “runned over by a cement truck.” Sometimes, it’s “runned over by a gravel truck.” Runned in this usage is generally pronounced runt, and cement is pronounced SEE-ment, Clampett-style

As one correspondent points out: If we have a gravel truck and a cement truck, then all we need is a water truck, and we can start running the concrete mixer.

On a seasonal note: There often is some debate around this time of year about the convention of using “Xmas” for “Christmas.” When I was editing the Philadelphia Bulletin, a very devout but very stupid colleague flew into a rage at my using “Xmas” in a one-column headline, too narrow a space for the full word “Christmas” in headline type. (The typesetters of mid-century America must have been thankful that “Eisenhower” was “Ike” to them.) The nonsensical objection is that “Xmas” is part of a subversive attempt to excise Christ from Christmas.

In reality, the Greek letter we pronounce “chi” is in most contexts indistinguishable from the English letter x, and the use of x use to denote Christ goes back more than a thousand years in English, way back to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which speaks of “Xpes mæsse.” “Xmas” is attested to in modern English back in the 18th century, along with Xtian, Christine rendered Xene, etc.

X and Xp for “Christ” go back in English to at least the 15th century, and many Christians are familiar with the ligature ☧, a combination of chi with rho, used to denote Christ.

Abbreviations exist for a reason. Xmas is in fact much more elegant than most.

Send your language questions to [email protected]

Home and AwayThe American presidency should be smaller — and in that way, if in no other way, Joe Biden may turn out to be just the right man for the job. More in the New York Post.

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In ClosingNow that the big day has come and gone, there is always the awkward debate about when to take down the decorations. My impression is that those who have been disappointed with what they received are more apt to pack away the decorations and get on with life, while those who got what they really wanted are tempted to let the joyous season and its trappings linger as long as possible. I get that impulse, I do.

But, people, it’s been almost two months since the election.

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