Is Trump “Barking Bad”? Ask the Phrase Finder!

Short answer: Yes. Today he looked to the sky and said, “I am the chosen one.”

But enough about Trump. Best to ignore him and concentrate, say, on enjoying life. For rhetoric and language nerds, this may include pondering the origins of phrases.

A good site for such exploration is The Phrase Finder from England:

The Phrase Finder thinks the most likely source of “barking mad” is the way people talked about rabid dogs in the 19th century. The PF cites the court record from the trial (for murder) of one Walter Tricker in England:

Mrs Hitchins, at the Inquest, says ‘It was not ordinary barking. They [the dogs] were barking like tearing mad.’

The PF discounts an alleged medieval origin linked to the town of Barking, England, where there was an asylum for the allegedly insane.

I am among those who have concluded that the President of the United States in August 2019 is insane. In addition to being stupid, corrupt, amoral, white supremacist, and poorly educated.

George Will and the “Logic” That Put the GOP in A Fix

“Fix” in this case means a broken state, one that begs to be fixed.

On FOX’s Sunday chat-show hosted by Chris Wallace, George Will opined that “fear” and “incredulity” prevented the GOP higher-ups from confronting and trying to stop Donald Trump’s climb to the nomination.  Whatever!

Will then climbed aboard the old Reaganesque hobby-nag, asserting that citizens who voted for Democratic candidates consisted chiefly of people who worked for “the government,” AFSCME union-members (federal, state, county, and municipal workers), teachers, and others who belonged to “a dependent class.”  Message: “gubment” (Reagan’s folksy pronunciation) is bad, the people who work in one of its capacities are lesser than those who don’t, one should recoil from them and gubment, and people who vote GOP are, one infers, “independent.”  Second message: But enough about the sociopath Trump: what about those bad citizens who don’t prefer him?

And now Will and other GOP geezers fear or deny the rise of a fatuous, hateful lard-ass who has been catapulted over the political wall, like the cow in Mony Python and the Holy Grail, by hateful, blind “anti-government” enthusiasm. Here is your Reaganism.  Here is your Reaganism on the Trump-drug.

Note that in the world of this logic, teachers, fire-fighters, food-inspectors, soldiers, spies, garbage-workers, the police, and so on are to be sniffed at imperiously as horseman Will passes by, insensible to the city-worker who will sweep up the horse-shit.  Whereas someone who works for the defense industry or FOX News is just flat-out better.  How? Well, they just are.

In Will’s dream-sequence, most of the better people are White, of course–hence his career-long dismissal of Blacks’ problems in the U.S. as their fault and hence Trump’s nihilistic comfort with KKK sentiments.

Shall we point out the obvious? The Constitution, created by all those sagacious  White founders, many of whom went on to join the dependent class, established a (wait for it) government. —So that by the time Reagan’s con to continue to seduce White folks, especially in the Dixiecrat South, mutates into Trumpery, it is, like a terrible virus, a form of reckless, accidental anarchy, anarchy not springing from some considered ideology or wise distrust of authority, but anarchy infatuated with authoritarianism. So that mere McConnell is loosed upon the Senate, refusing to allow the hateful government (of which he is a part, oops) to do, at least, what the Constitution says: review a SCOTUS nomination.

In his pretentious prose and pose, for the better part of four decades, George Will helped to create Donald Trump’s rise, even though the Rovian Tea Party is the more recent puff of meth that riled and roiled the racist, anti-knowledge mob.  Thank you, George. Thanks so much. I do fear the consequences of a  Trump presidency, as I appear to be somewhat sentient this morning.  I do not find Trump’s rise incredible (in the old sense of the word), however.  It looks more like inevitable.


Concerning “Barker”

As you no doubt have heard, seen, and/or read, President Obama, in a press-conference concerning the “birther” question, referred to those who prominently keep the issue alive as “carnival barkers.” Let’s look at the metaphor and its etymology but then also ask who’s inside the carnival (we know the barker–whether s/he be Tancredo, Bachmann, Trump,or . . .) is outside the carnival.

The metaphor seems apt, even though few of us see carnival barkers or barkers of any kind anymore. It may seem apt because of the sense in which almost all politics seems to be spectacle now (thank you, Murray Edelman.)

But the occupation itself, barker, goes way back,according to the OED online:

2. fig. A noisy assailant; an auction-room or shop tout; one who ‘barks’ at a cheap shop or show: see bark v.1 2b. Chiefly U.S.
1483 Caxton tr. J. de Voragine Golden Legende 273/4 Whiche sometyme had ben a barker, bytter and blynde, ayenst the lettres.
1581 J. Bell tr. W. Haddon & J. Foxe Against Jerome Osorius 81 b, Neither Jerome Osorius nor any other braulyng barker can‥molest him.

Interesting that the term is now “chiefly U.S.” even though, of course, its origins are British.

Who’s inside? President Obama seemed to suggest that the media are because they keep reporting the story as “news.” His larger purpose in holding a press-conference (aside from appearing to be serious and adult–and presidential [the campaign has begun]) was to ask the media to cover more important issues.

The media are inside the carnival–or are the carnival itself–because they have little or no journalistic discipline; they have little or no discipline because they are in the entertainment business: mostly, news departments are no more, and even where they allegedly exist (NYTimes), look how far they get sucked into the spectacle: Judith Miller.

One fantasizes about a hard-bitten editor–male or female–shouting, “We’re not reporting that crap. Understood?!” But those days are gone. These days are dominated by the likes of Trump, who, sanctioned by his NBC employers, barks, thereby demonstrating who or what is the carnival. Sure, the barker gets all the scorn, but it’s not as if barkers don’t have bosses, who have helped to give us a new word: “birther.”

Of “Demagogue”

Let us take a brief etymological tour, courtesy of the OED online, of “demagogue.”

It used to be a neutrally descriptive, if not an honorific, term, it seems; an example from the OED:

1719 Swift Let. to Young Clergyman, Demosthenes and Cicero, though each of them a leader (or as the Greeks called it, a demagogue) in a popular state, yet seem to differ.

Demagogue=pedagogue, in the sense that the former practices democracy as the latter practices teaching.

But in the very same era, the word was also used pejoratively, as it is now, and the neutrally descriptive connotation subsequently disappeared:

2. In bad sense: A leader of a popular faction, or of the mob; a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious popular orator.

a1716 R. South Serm. II. 333 (T.) A plausible, insignificant word, in the mouth of an expert demagogue, is a dangerous and a dreadful weapon.

One doesn’t hear or read the word very much in everyday media nowadays, perhaps because it sounds old-fashioned?

Another possibility is that the political spectacle of the pseudocracy is such that almost all politicians and many visible media beasts must be demagogues to do their jobs, as their jobs have become defined. Arguably, the main job of many state- and federal-level politicians is to be demagogues, and to govern is to practice a hobby, at best. If this is the case, then those interested in politics a) understand that politics = demagoguery now or b) think that a demagogue who agrees with them is a good leader (or candidate), and think a politician or candidate who disagrees with them is a demagogue–at best.

That is, one might posit that people with some critical distance from the whole process is likely to see almost all politicians as demagogues, albeit with differing degrees of demagoguery: neither Tom Coburn nor President Obama, for example, comes close to sinking to the level of
Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump. One might then simultaneously posit that if the demagogue is being effective in an inappropriate, manipulative appeal to a voting bloc, then that voting bloc probably doesn’t view the demagogue as a demagogue.

Of course, political operatives like Karl Rove or James Carville will recognize a demagogue when they see one and applaud his/her behavior when the behavior serves a purpose with which they agree.

Of “Statesmanship”

A far-flung colleague with some personal experience with Congress wrote the following:

“A statesman can get elected, but never re-elected. Much of the voting populace thinks it’s begging for a statesman, but what it really wants is Pontius Pilate. The impact of the ever increasing media and the various outlets for immediate and accessible communication have made statesmanship impossible. What allows for statesmanship is the desire of the voters to elect someone whom they trust to do the right thing on their behalf. In this day and age, virtually all of the voters think they know the right thing regardless of how this knowledge may have been acquired.”

To follow up on the point(s) a bit: the more confused voters are, then, by the process–lies, truthiness, spin. baiting, propaganda–the less likely they are to know who might have their genuine best interests in mind, and the less likely they are to identify correctly what their best interests are. In this regard, it is interesting to observe the reactions to the bombing of Libya. The reactions from politicians seem chiefly calculated; some may be “philosophical” or principled: hard to say. The reactions from common folk seem products of predispositions against or for intervention (in general) or against or for President Obama. One wonders how many of the reactions are based on a thorough calculation or consideration of “self-interest.”

My own “self-interest” in the political arena tends to include a desire for long-range planning–in matters of foreign policy, the revenue-side of the budget, the environment, land-use, energy (precisely how safe are the reactors–I mean really?), and so on. I’ve never been tempted to vote for a candidate (for example) because she or he might lower, raise, or leave alone my personal local, state, or federal taxes. I cite this example merely to demonstrate how flexible the “self” part of “self-interest” can be, not to suggest my way is correct.

The Oxford Dictionary online links statesman and statesmanship to the good or expert management of the state and its interests, but I think the terms have taken on a connotation that suggests the politician in question is acting with a bit more honor and a bit less personal calculation than does the usual politician.

Once in a meeting of our faculty, a good friend and colleague could have pressed for a vote that would have gone his way, but instead he chose not to press the issue and to let the issue be unresolved until the next meeting, when his side of the issue may well have not prevailed. A dean at the time remarked, “That’s very statesmanlike of you.” Just so. The friend and colleague was being fair-minded–another connotation of “statesman” and “statesmanship,” maybe.

The word “statesman,” by the way, goes all the way back to 1600–the first OED citation being from a play by Ben Johnson. Also of interest (to me) is that we the people haven’t quite yet found a non-sexist equivalent; “the language,” that protean force, hasn’t accepted “stateswoman” or “statesperson.” Something satisfactory, idiomatically, to our “ears” will come along.

But back to the original points from the far-flung colleague: politicians, their handlers, and the media have so confused most citizens that most citizens may not know what their long-term self-interest may really be–as condescending as that may sound. People really do vote against what reasonably seems to be their self-interest. At the same time, politicians seem so caught up in zero-sum games, posing, baiting, and playing to the base that an old-fashioned, even quaint, notion of “statesmanship” never occurs to them.

Was President Obama behaving in a statesmanlike way when he compromised on health-care? I don’t know, but at the moment I’m leaning 60% toward a “Yes.” What is far more interesting, even to me, than my opinion (or lack thereof) on this matter is that it is probably impossible to have this discussion with most citizens. Many progressives’ visceral response is that he “caved in” on the single-payer option and sucked up to large health-insurance companies. Many conservatives and other GOPers and apparently all of the “Tea Party” will have the visceral response that he let the federal government “take over” health-care. There just doesn’t seem even to be the elbow-room available to conduct the discussion.

Etymology of “Hackneyed”

Wild Bill recently wrote a post about hackneyed metaphors, and it sent me to the Oxford English Dictionary online to take a whack or a hack at the etymology.

Most of the action seems to have occurred in the 18th century. A “hackney” is an ordinary, work-a-day horse, and thus comes the small one-horse carriage, hackney, we hear about in such works as the Sherlock Holmes tales.

“Hackneyed” as referring over-used words or metaphors seems to spring up not much later.

“Hack,” as referring to a “hack writer” or any other person who is more or less a worker-for-hire, a worker ready to do a quick job, appeared in the 18th century, too. For a while, it referred to a prostitute, but no more, I think.

Now that I know the term referred to a work-a-day horse, I have slightly more affection for hackneyed metaphors.

Detachment and Politics

As Wild Bill and I continue to fiddle with Orwell’s ideas while the pseudocracy burns, we have pondered the potential worth of advising readers and viewers of (and listeners to) political media to be at their most suspicious, skeptical, and detached when they are “consuming” the rhetoric of persons with whom they are most likely to agree. Before I pursue the point further, let me take a brief detour into nerd-dom.

Several hundred years ago, when I was in graduate school pursuing a Ph.D., I took a linguistics class. The main topic was Chomsky’s transformational grammar. But we also explored other topics, including etymology. And so I found myself writing a 25 page research paper on the etymology of 20 or so words. One of them was “distinterested,” not to be confused with “uninterested.” If memory serves, I discovered that at one point in the etymological history, the words had “flipped”–the former had meant “not interested,” the latter “interested but detached.”

Detached. Mentally, one takes a step back, so as to have more room simply to observe. “You see,” Holmes tells Watson in one of the tales, “but you do not observe.” Holmes is passionate about his consulting-detective practice and each case, but when the game is afoot, he also detached. Now let’s fast-forward to . . . the case of Sarah Palin and her followers.

According to Norman Goldman, an attorney and talk-show host, the Rasmussen polling service has determined that, for the moment, Sarah Palin’s offical followers–those who belong to her organization–are not detached. For example, a Rasmussen poll discovered that 46% of her official followers now suggest that if Palin is not the GOP presidential nominee, they will not vote for the GOP nominee. I know: there are many questions to ask about such polls. But for the sake of argument and a point about detachment, let’s accept the findings.

Enthralled with her rhetoric and personality, the followers of Palin are deeply interested but have lost one of their best rhetorical friends, detachment. If they truly value her ideas and proposals, they will detachment these from her personality and the excitement surrounding the Palin spectacle. Surely they can find–if necessary–another GOP candidate who professes to believe in small government, hunting, extreme support of “gun-rights” (gun-owner rights), and whatever else Palin supports. If they could get a purchase on detachment, they might also–gasp!–find one thing about which they disagree with her, and what’s wrong with that?

Palin also suffers from a lack of detachment, as do most politicians and players in the spectacle. For one thing, the spectacle demands a consistent performance, even a caricature. So when Palin appeared on FOX to critique the President’s State of the Union, everyone knew more or less what her response would be and how it would be delivered. She would have at least one one-liner, and she trotted out the play on Winning the Future: WTF. Even Greta Van Susteren, lobber of softballs, didn’t laugh. Think of how refreshing it would have been if Palin could have found the detachment to allow herself to agree with one of the President’s points. What if she could have brought herself to agree that if China now has the largest solar-energy project, the U.S. should get more forcefully into that game. But no, she’s decided to occupy the undetached, too-interested, and too predictable position that anything having to do with solar energy is vaguely associated with environmentalists, leftists, and hippies and must be a threat to the oil industry. The detached view is that solar energy is one viable industry to pursue, is not a “threat” to the oil industry, which is chiefly threatened by its non-renewable product.

So let’s practice. Let’s find one pundit, expert, politician, or columnist with whom we find ourselves agreeing 100% of the time. Now detach. As you read, listen, and/or watch, coolly look for one argument or analysis offered with which you disagree. We are seeing (and listening)–and observing, in a disinterested way.

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