The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark

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I picked up this book on a lark off the new book table at Portsmouth Public Library. Why not? It was cute, short, perhaps lighthearted! Might be fun!

It was fun in spots. But even at 183 small pages with medium-size type and ample margins, I think it was way too long for the thesis the author, Cecelia Watson, seems to want to make.

The semicolon is despised by some writers. Some of them you've probably heard of, like Kurt Vonnegut. (Unmentioned by Ms. Watson: Elmore Leonard, who warned against using them in dialogue; presumably they were OK outside quotation marks.) The mark was originally "invented" (to the extent that this punctuation stuff could be said to have been invented) to signal a pause, like a rest in music. A shorter pause than a period, but a longer one that a comma.

But then didacts came up with Rules. And the more semicolons used, the more the rules multiplied and became hopelessly complex.

Worse, legislators started using them in laws. Now, legislators are not really that great at knocking the ambiguity out of words; things arguably get worse when you throw a bunch of punctuation symbols into the mix. The book goes into great detail on a Massachusetts law that, depending on the interpretation of a wayward semicolon, might have prohibited the sale of liquor in hotels between 11pm and 6am. And that issue made it to the Mass Supremes.

OK, fine. Ms. Watson is a little more laissez-faire on Rules than I am. I think that any rule-promulgator should explicitly append Orwell's last one: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

But that implies having at least a nodding familiarity with the rules in the first place.

Anyway, a few problems with Ms. Watson's book:

  • A footnote on page 87 claims the late Antonin Scalia "believed that the U.S. Constitution should be applied with reference to its writers' intentions."

    Ms. Watson elsewhere fuzzes up the difference between original meaning and original intent when doing Constitutional interpretation. It's not clear she appreciates the difference. But all she had to do was to check the relevant Wikipedia entry to find a Scalia quote:

    The theory of originalism treats a constitution like a statute, and gives it the meaning that its words were understood to bear at the time they were promulgated. You will sometimes hear it described as the theory of original intent. You will never hear me refer to original intent, because as I say I am first of all a textualist, and secondly an originalist. If you are a textualist, you don't care about the intent, and I don't care if the framers of the Constitution had some secret meaning in mind when they adopted its words. I take the words as they were promulgated to the people of the United States, and what is the fairly understood meaning of those words.

    Not a huge deal, but…

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    Ms. Watson also disses (pp. 165-171) one of my faves, the late David Foster Wallace, taking him to task for his overly-pro-rule Harper's essay (April 2001, original here, also in Consider the Lobster, Amazon link at right.

    No point in going into details, but I encourage you to read both Wallace and Watson and make your own call.

  • And on pp 179-180, there's this drive-by:

    During the 2012 elections, when Mitt Romney ran aggressive campaigns misconstruing President Obama's statements on entrepreneurship, Jon Stewart capped off an indictment of Romney's strategy with…

    Well, never mind what Jon Stewart said; it was the usual bleeped Comedy Central f-bomb, designed to elicit clapter from the audience. (If you're interested: here.) There's no clue about what Obama said about "entrepreneurship". There's not even a reference to Romney's "aggressive campaigns". Cecelia, WTF are you trying to pull here?

    A balanced take from Tim Cavanaugh at Reason is here; it may jog your memory.

Last Modified 2024-01-23 3:33 PM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2019-09-29 Update

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Today's Amazon Product du Jour ($8.99 for a new hardcover, but as I type, available for $2.92 used) is brought to you by the fading campaign of Kamala Harris. The oddsmakers have dropped her winning probability below our 2% threshold, so we wave bye-bye and exclude her from the phony standings. At least for now.

And I can't resist posting this quote from The Incredibles:

Helen Parr / Elastigirl: Everyone is special, Dash.
Dash Parr: That's just another way of saying no one is.

But Kamala decided to … go another way in her book.

The other big sinkers this week: Trump and Biden, who seem to be on a path of mutually assured destruction. ("It's not just for nuclear superpowers any more!") The big gainer was Elizabeth Warren.

The overall big loser? That would be the American people.

There was also an across-the-board decrease in Google phony hits. This means nothing, but if it did mean something, it would mean that people were finally tiring of observing the candidates were phony and simply taking it as a given.

Or not:

Candidate WinProb Change
Donald Trump 41.8% -2.3% 1,690,000 -220,000
Bernie Sanders 4.4% -1.1% 695,000 -163,000
Pete Buttigieg 2.3% -0.1% 570,000 -1,330,000
Joe Biden 10.1% -2.2% 403,000 -6,000
Elizabeth Warren 24.9% +5.6% 245,000 -13,000
Andrew Yang 3.4% -0.2% 39,700 -29,800

Warning: Google result counts are bogus.

  • Jim Geraghty's Morning Jolt (from last Thursday) had an interesting take: The Impeachment Fervor Isn't Going Anywhere. So read that, but be sure not to miss his observation on Elizabeth Warren's ethical tergiversations:

    Just how conditional is the outrage of Democratic presidential candidates when it comes to elected officials leveraging their position for personal gain? Really conditional.

    Taking questions from reporters following a town hall event in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state of New Hampshire, the Massachusetts Democrat was asked if she would allow her vice president’s child to serve on the board of a foreign company if she were president. Warren quickly answered, “no.”

    When asked why, she said, in a rare moment where she appeared flustered: “I don’t know. I have to go back and look at the details.”

    The “details” to which Warren was referring are from the two ethics plans she’s unveiled to tackle corruption in government. Her campaign later clarified to the Washington Post that the plans wouldn’t prevent any child of a vice president from serving on such a board.

    Elizabeth Warren is supposed to be like Xena the Warrior Princess when it comes to powerful business interests influencing government policy. So why was she so confused and contradictory on this question?

    That's not a difficult question for me to answer: she's a phony. Specifically, being consistent in her self-proclaimed high-and-mighty ethical principles might be damaging to her electoral prospects.

  • At National Review, John Hirschauer notes the interesting intra-party debate: Joe Biden vs. the Democratic Economy Truthers.

    Joe Biden had a revealing exchange with a reporter at a campaign stop in Iowa last week, one that put the ideological divide between him and his fellow Democratic primary candidates into stark relief. The reporter asked Biden — who by this point in the interview was visibly exhausted — why Iowans should vote for him or, indeed, any other Democratic candidate with the statewide unemployment rate at well below 3 percent under the Trump administration. As the Obama legacy’s apparent heir, the former vice president replied that Trump had inherited a recovering economy from Obama. “They were employed before [Trump] got elected,” he said, “He’s not the reason for that employment rate being down.”

    The former claim isn’t strictly true — the unemployment rate in Iowa was 3.4 percent when Trump first took office, and at last count was down to 2.5 percent — but the local reporter, if she knew that, did not point it out. Instead, she responded by asking why, even if Biden’s claims were true, “people [should] want to make a change” at all. After (parsimoniously) insisting that it is “up to [Iowans] to decide,” she pressed Biden yet again: “Make your case.” Biden, running out of steam, dejectedly insisted “I’m not going to.”

    "Kid, don't you get it? I am not Trump. What better case do you need?"

    Hirschauer goes on to point out the increasing desperation of the non-Biden Democrats, trying to find some statistical darkness lurking in the otherwise rosy economic picture. While ignoring that whole upcoming-fiscal-disaster thing, of course.

  • The editorialist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal notes the obvious: Bernie Sanders wants to eliminate rich people.

    One of Bernie Sanders’ charms, according to his followers, is that he’s an unapologetic advocate for his beliefs. Never mind that most of the 20th century stands as a monument to the catastrophic dangers of his collectivist philosophy, Bernie’s no phony!

    True to form, comrade Sanders this week unveiled how he plans to pay for the gargantuan expansion of the federal government that will be necessary to provide his extensive handouts: He plans to harness the power of the state to fatten the Beltway bureaucracy with a new trillion-dollar pipeline carrying other people’s money.

    To quote a Twitterer's take on Bernie (and, to be fair, a lot of politicians): "lets [sic] demonize a small group of people, blame them for our problems and act like the world would be a better place if we could just get rid of them.”

    Or another, who compares old Bernie with new Bernie:

  • Google takes us to some strange places in our search for phoniness. For example, the Black Agenda Report ("News, commentary, and analysis from the black left"), where Margaret Kimberley writes on The WFP, Phony Outrage and Black Misleaders. The "WFP" is … well, let Margaret tell you:

    The co-founder of Black Lives Matter has struck a cynical deal with corporate Democrats to boost Elizabeth Warren by attacking Bernie Sanders forces as racist.

    “The Working Families Party is a perfect partner for the fraud because it exists only as a cover for the Democrats.”

    The black misleadership class and their friends are preparing for the 2020 presidential election in a predictably shameful manner. In an effort to do the bidding of the Democratic Party establishment they are cynically using claims of racism in an effort to prop up Elizabeth Warren as the faux progressive choice. In the process they have relegated black voter concerns to the whims of the group whose corrupt and inept machinations put Donald Trump in the White House.

    Well, that's an interesting take.

  • But back on Planet Conventional Wisdom, subdivision New York Times, N. Gregory Mankiw asks and answers an easy question: Yang vs. Warren: Who Has the Better Tax Plan?. Let's look at the non-better one:

    Senator Warren has proposed a new tax on millionaires and billionaires. Every year, households would be taxed 2 percent on wealth exceeding $50 million or 3 percent on wealth exceeding $1 billion. The revenue, Senator Warren has said, would fund programs such as universal child care and tuition for public higher education.

    The political appeal is clear. Millions of Americans would benefit from this new public spending, while a small sliver of the population would bear the cost. According to a new paper by the University of California, Berkeley economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, who helped to design the Warren plan, less than 0.1 percent of families would pay this tax.

    Determining how much those families would owe, however, would be devilishly difficult. One problem is that many kinds of wealth have no market valuation.

    Take Rihanna. She is fabulously wealthy, but to put a number on her wealth, the I.R.S. would have to also estimate the present value of her songs and their possible future royalties. Sometimes, such intangible assets are sold on markets — Michael Jackson once bought the rights to Beatles songs — but often there is no market price for them.

    It all makes more sense if you assume that Warren isn't putting forth a reality-based proposal because she thinks it's a good idea; she's putting forth a unicorn-fart idea that will appeal to the resentment-fueled Democratic Party base.

  • Meanwhile, Trump's GOP opponents are contending to see who can be the biggest clown in the car. Karen Townsend of Hot Air: Arby's trolls Mark Sanford with humor to set record straight.

    Standing outside an Arby’s restaurant in Iowa with a note pad and sandwich in his hands, Sanford launched into his grievances held against President Trump – where’s the wall he promised? What about eliminating the debt? The premise is that Trump hasn’t fulfilled his campaign promises. He asked, “Where’s the beef?” Oops.

    Good old Arby's:

    Sanford's attempt at fumble recovery was even worse.

    But it's nice to see that Arby's is in on the meme.

Last Modified 2024-06-03 6:43 AM EDT