Obama and the groves of academe

You might reasonably categorise this as a trivial semantic moan (it is), but it’s been bugging me, so I will indulge myself. Here’s the problem: too often the adjectives academic and cerebral are deployed on people who lack much in the way of proof of these qualities. They have become a sort of shorthand for enigmatic and socially refined. The number one candidate, inevitably, is Obama, much of it centred around the nature of his emerging post-presidential career. I would imagine golf and money making will figure highly in reality, and good for him. It’s his gushing fanboys who misuse the terms.

Like most medics, I have had a fair bit of exposure to academia, and after the awakening of A-levels it hasn’t been too great a stretch in truth. One acquires degrees and diplomas in the course of things. Teaching isn’t tough, but being a really good teacher is. Higher degrees such as doctorates, and peer-reviewed quality research are a different matter. These things are very challenging and require a great deal of thinking, time, struggle, disappointment etc. I do alright with publications, but I have no MD or PhD and I admire anyone who has. I spent 6 years primarily employed by a medical school (though most of what I did was clinical, for the NHS). Genuine, productive, relevant academic activity is hard. You don’t wander into it, perform amazingly for a bit and wander off again.

So please don’t bandy such terms around unless you want to devalue them, as MENSA has achieved with IQ.  Here’s an example from Twitter. I was unnecessarily rude to @iainmartin1, whom I generally like and admire, as he kept putting superficial anti-Trump rants into the usually excellent Reaction (it wasn’t about defending Trump, it was the lack of any balance or attempt at understanding to which I was reacting).

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This is not, I repeat, specifically about Trump v Obama. My point is that it is very easy to assume the mantle of the sophisticated intellectual, whose mind is occupied by lofty thought, often in comparison to the low-minded alternatives who lack this visionary capability. It has an exact comparison in the NHS: people who claim to be ‘strategic, not operational’. The latter is tough, and is demonstrated by tangible results, the former tends to be associated with promises of a golden future and not much more. The classic visionary who caused colossal amounts of trouble was of course Tony Blair.

A similar situation arose with the ludicrous idea that had Hillary won, Obama could himself replace Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court, hence gushing articles like this. Again, it is all about how ‘impressive’ ‘mature’ and ‘curious’ he is. Not about cases fought, heard, won, papers published, previous experience at the highest levels of the law – basically just what a dude he is. This sort of crap patronises everyone, including Obama.

Interestingly, if you take Iain’s point about Obama’s early career and mode of thinking (the latter phrase is a bit of a copout too), it’s not as glittering as you might have been lead to believe. Did he actually write his books personally? Do people usually get to the end of them? Are they any good? Neither is ‘academic’ as such.

If you do a Google Scholar search, there’s plenty of boilerplate almost certainly written by speechwriters and team members rather than BO himself. There is not really much else. Despite the hype around it, this piece in JAMA – and almost certainly not written by BO  – is not an academic paper at all. This, from 1990, is an adequate local magazine article, nothing more. Here is a fascinating if slightly bitchy analysis, by Jack Cashill, of the great man’s writing style and his output, it’s worth reading. Following on from that is a typically witty piece from a truly great prose writer, Bob Tyrrell, further deconstructing the whole Obama intellectual/reader schtick.

If you were wondering about his speeches, given his intermittently justified reputation as an orator (try this), well…they don’t read quite as well as they did in his Golden Era. I quote from Matthew Walther’s book review, starting with a strikingly Blairesque paragraph that also calls to mind a tedious NHS management workshop:

(we) are forever being asked with a steady, cloying, increasingly oppressive optimism to “rise to this moment,” to “have passion” and “a strategy,” to aspire to “a sense of purpose,” to “feel” things like “urgency” and “hopefulness,” to participate in “a conversation worth having,” to “summon a new spirit,” to remind ourselves that “change happens”—as if believing things or wanting to do them, considered in the abstract and putting aside the question of what exactly those things are, were a virtue

and

Its editors, E.J. Dionne and Joy-Ann Reid, set up our expectations very early—on the book’s first full page, in fact—when, after having compared him to Lincoln and FDR, they quote Obama responding to a compliment from Harry Reid, who had called one of his speeches “phenomenal.”

“I have a gift, Harry,” Obama replied.

Maybe, but I don’t think it’s particularly to do with speeches, writing and thinking.

Obama Speaks To Press After His Daily Economic Briefing
Spontaneous oratory in action

Things that I wish I’d written (1)

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Liddle, as he should be?

If you blog you have to hone your writing skills, and try to be concise. I’m sure that I often fail. However, you do occasionally sit back and admire something that you’ve produced with a friendly inner smug voice gently praising your brilliance.

There are a few writers though who consistently trump what you’ve done, and make it seem effortless. Wrong though he is about most things, Matthew Parris is one. Kevin D Williamson (right about most things) is possibly the dean of this school. Here is another, now a hate figure for half of the middle classes, Rod Liddle. Very funny, and peerless prose:

The remarkable thing is the change. The degree to which liberal lefties now cling to these most unlikely of heroes – a former right wing quasi fascist self-publicising dwarf like Bercow, or an investment banker like Gina Miller. Or a stupid bureaucrat like Jean Claude Junckers. And they do this because, I suppose, they have nothing left to cling to. Everything else is gone. They are left with these pathetic, bourgeois, right wing, half-wits. It really is all they have, so swiftly has the ground shifted beneath their feet. Sometimes I almost feel sorry for them.

Perfect

Clarity of expression: left v right

It was an erstwhile leftie** – albeit a privileged and well educated one – George Orwell, who wrote the classic guide to good writing, Politics and the English Language. The whole thing is great, but here is the distillation:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

It is quoted continually, and I would say that it’s an excellent basis for anyone who enjoys writing – bloggers, for example. A more recent teacher, from the other end of the political spectrum, would be Simon Heffer, in his Style Notes.

Orwell-2
*

Sadly, lefties have fallen far from grace in this important area. Here is (non-leftie) Douglas Murray critiquing ‘Jack’ Monroe and ‘their’ employer, the Guardian:

Soon afterwards, even the award of “Woman of the Year” to someone with a penis seemed passé as a far-left blogger and “anti-austerity activist” called Jack Monroe came out as “nonbinary transgender”. A few days later she accepted a “Woman of the Future” award,  which was not merely undeserved but (if Monroe were to be taken at her word) singularly inaccurate.

Or not. For although Monroe has announced that she is “trans” she expressed herself unwilling to do anything about it. Indeed, she demonstrated even less skin in the game than Caitlyn Jenner. Personally, I slightly admire people so sure they are stuck in the wrong body that they go through the terrible operations necessary to change sex cosmetically. But I feel reluctant to go through the necessary language hurdles if they won’t do anything other than “declare” themselves something. And what hurdles! In reporting Monroe’s desire to “transition”, Pink News adopted the new house style which makes pronouns for trans people not only non-gender specific but also plural. So we read, “Writing on their blog, Jack said . . .” Also (lovers of our delicate and beautiful language look away now), “The Guardian columnist and poverty campaigner changed their name to Jack when they was younger.”  The new newspeak is the old illiteracy.

That ‘they was’ hits you hard at the end of the beautifully written paragraph.

liddle1
*

Which brings me to my main reason for writing this post, which is to find an excuse to quote Rod Liddle, who is a unique political mix of left and right, and extremely funny with it. Here he is in the latest Spectator, on two of his bêtes noires (permitted, as I  can’t think of an English equivalent):

Let me mention a couple of names to you: Alan Rusbridger and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. One is the former editor of the Guardian, the latter a columnist at the Independent until it went digital, and read by almost nobody, anywhere. Between them they are or have been honorary visiting professors at four universities — Nuffield Oxford, Queen Mary, Cardiff and Lincoln, and possess honorary doctorates from four more. I know this because I hate both of them and regularly check what they are up to.

Limpid, direct prose, perfectly expressing his point. Orwell would have been proud.

**should it be lefty, or leftie?

 

 

Great hacks of our time (7): Peggy Noonan

Peggy Noonan is such a legend these days in the American media in particular, that this there is very little I can add to the praise that is routinely lavished on her, most recently with her latest collected writings The Time of Our Lives. Aside from her newspaper work, she has a terrific website.

Peggy-Noonan
..shucks

One of her masterpieces is the short book on Pope John Paul II, which is a heartfelt and almost painful examination of that extraordinary man. She loves literature and really can write. Which brings me to the point of this short post. Here is the almost perfect description of her craft, which undoubtedly applies to blogging:

“When you’re writing you give the creative part of your brain full sway, you let it dominate, you don’t let your critical side mug it or slow it down. Later, in editing, you bring your critical self to the fore, question the assertion, kill the aside. But the point is you give your writing everything you have at the moment you’re doing it and rethink when the page has cooled.”

Good advice, and here is the lady herself applying that skill to a beautiful existential reflection, from 1992:

I think we have lost the old knowledge that happiness is overrated — that, in a way, life is overrated. We have lost, somehow, a sense of mystery — about us, our purpose, our meaning, our role. Our ancestors believed in two worlds, and understood this to be the solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short one. We are the first generations of man that actually expected to find happiness here on earth, and our search for it has caused such unhappiness. The reason: If you do not believe in another, higher world, if you believe only in the flat material world around you, if you believe that this is your only chance at happiness — if that is what you believe, then you are not disappointed when the world does not give you a good measure of its riches, you are despairing.

Prose of such quality is a very rare gift.