Read William Safire’s “On Language” column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine and, besides the fact that complaining about how humans speak is about as logical as pointing out that dolphins do not execute their swimming strokes perfectly, Safire seems like a reasonably sane fellow.
Check out his regular op-ed column and you might come to a different conclusion: William Safire needs mental help.
He writes for the newspaper of record. His words are deemed “fit to print.” But either he has no fuckin’ clue what’s really going on or he’s 100% aware…and thinks all is swell.
Case in point: Safire’s November 10, 2003 column, “The Age of Liberty,” began by crediting President (sic) Bush with demonstrating “a strong sense of history.” What did Dubya do to warrant such rare praise? In a recent foreign policy speech, he evoked “the direct line of aspirations expressed by three of the past century’s most far-seeing and controversial U.S. presidents.” Safire is referring to Woodrow Wilson, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. Is Wilson controversial for promising peace and then waging war? Is FDR controversial for interning over 100,000 Japanese-Americans without due process? Is Reagan controversial for, well, being Reagan? No, in Safire’s topsy-turvy world, these words from Bush serve as an explanation: “From the Fourteen Points to the Four Freedoms, to the Speech at Westminster, America has put our power at the service of principle. The advance of freedom is the calling of our time.”
(This on the same day John Gibbons, a former appeals court judge, said justice was being “totally denied” to the detainees in Guantanamo Bay. “They don’t have access to lawyers; they have had no hearings; they are just in limbo,” explained Gibbons. “That’s as clear an example of justice denied as you can find.”)
The former Nixon speechwriter turned corporate media mouthpiece further demonstrated his possible mental instability by using the words “clearly articulated” and “detailed, coherent, and inspiring” in relation to something George W. Bush said out loud. “A carefully constructed speech, like a poem or a brief or a piece of music, has a shape that helps makes it memorable,” Safire gushed. In other words, this wasn’t just a cynical exercise authored by a team of manipulative Bush handlers…this was a “moving exposition of the noble goal of American foreign policy.” (Note: Safire didn’t type those words by mistake. Check the Times corrections box for November 11 and you’ll see no mention of his column being riddled with errors.)
In the elegiac speech that so captivated dear William, Bush (leader of a nation that incarcerates its citizens at the rate of 1200 a week) pointed the finger at “outposts of oppression” like Cuba, Burma, North Korea, Zimbabwe, and China. Conversely, our un-elected president claimed “We’ve witnessed, in little over a generation, the swiftest advance of freedom in the 2,500-year story of democracy…It is no accident that the rise of so many democracies took place in a time when the world’s most influential nation was itself a democracy.”
That would be the U.S. he’s referring to…the influential democracy in which one needs to raise $200 million to win four years in the White House. Yet, as Safire informs his readers: “Protecting and extending freedom has always been America’s ‘calling,'”
Let me recap here: Either Safire has no fuckin’ clue what’s really going on or he’s 100% aware…and thinks all is swell. Whichever deduction you reach, it all points to this: William Safire needs help…now.
And while we’re at it, let’s take a second look at his stale “language maven” schtick. Steven Pinker, author of “The Language Instinct,” had this to say about Safire’s ilk: “The contradiction begins in the fact that the words ‘rule,’ ‘grammatical,’ and ‘ungrammatical,’ have very different meanings to a scientist and a lay person. The rules people learn (or, more likely, fail to learn) in school are called prescriptive rules, prescribing how one ‘ought’ to talk. Scientists studying language propose descriptive rules, describing how people do talk.”
In other words, as long as most people can understand you, the hell with the William Safire.
MICKEY Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.