On William Safire

New York Times columnist William Safire died Sunday at age 79.

I admired Safire, not for his conservative commentary, but because he belonged to an increasingly rare breed: those who know (and care) that “begs the question” and “raises the question” are not interchangeable phrases. For three decades, Safire used his Sunday column, “On Language,” to examine thousands of quirks, misuses, and perversions of American English.

The columns, many collected in books, made him an unofficial arbiter of usage and one of the most widely read writers on language. It also tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire: a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns, like “the president’s populism” and “the first lady’s momulism,” written during the Carter presidency.

There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bumps. And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!

Safire was often a stickler in what he called “a world of toleration and permissiveness.”   I’m not quite the prescriptivist Safire was, but I appreciated his use of wit and mnemonics to nudge people toward the proper spelling of “bated breath” and the appropriate usage of the word “penultimate.” His columns were a pleasant respite from the lazy grammar and kewl txtspk rampant on the Internet.

Reasons to read The New York Times are evaporating rapidly.


9 Responses to “On William Safire”

  1. Eclectic Radical on September 28th, 2009 5:58 am

    I was not a fan of Safire’s commentary at all, as I was not a fan of James Kilpatrick’s commentary. I was a great fan of Safire’s writing on language and writing and have generally found Kilpatrick’s attempt to do the same a pale imitation. What’s more, while I admit to being far from perfect, I have tried to keep correct English usage and grammar in mind for all my own writing. So in that sense Safire has been an influence.

    The genuine tribute now made, I will add some more tribute that includes the customary trolling as well. Safire was (with a few prominent exceptions that came up every so often) also a stickler for correctness in fact and correctness in thinking. When one read Safire one always saw his point and understood his argument even when one disagreed with his conclusions.

    That fact-based, logic-based style of commentary is nearly lost on the right side of the newspaper and blogosphere.

  2. Jenn Q. Public on September 29th, 2009 12:13 am

    Eclectic Radical wrote:

    That fact-based, logic-based style of commentary is nearly lost on the right side of the newspaper and blogosphere.

    Excellent job backing up that statement with facts and logic.

  3. Eclectic Radical on September 29th, 2009 3:37 am

    Brevity is the soul of wit.

    If that is an invitation, then I suppose I can offer some facts and present a logical thesis based on them.

    The entire (or near entire) right wing print and electronic media quickly moved to support the claim that counselling people about their rights and the importance of a living will in seeing that their medical choices were respected constituted ‘death panels.’ The original claim was either stupid or a lie. The conservative Republican Senator who has been trying to include such counselling in insurance and Medicare coverage for several years was attacked by the right wing media for defending the facts of the policy. The language has since been removed entirely, but the death panel attacks continue.

    This combination of facts creates evidence to support a logical thesis that concern with facts and logic was not high in the right wing media community when a nice scary meme would be threatened by them.

    A similar lack of concern with the facts has permeated right wing rhetoric on gay rights. The notion that gay rights are a fundamental threat to Christian rights is, again, either stupid or a lie. Yet it is one of the overwhelming threads in the tapestry of right wing commentary on the issue.

    This, once again, supports the same logical thesis that facts and logic are not terribly important to the bulk of the right wing media.

    The history of the right wing media on Iraq is equally bad and there are still more facts in support of the thesis in question.

  4. Jenn Q. Public on September 30th, 2009 12:50 am

    You’re confusing “facts” with opinions and interpretations.

    The first problem with your argument: you offer no support for your contention that the entire (or near entire) right wing media equated advance directive counseling with “death panels.” Nothing wrong with a little hyperbolic rhetoric on occasion, but it shouldn’t be confused with “facts.”

    The second problem: you have misrepresented the intent of the “death panel” argument.

    The term “death panel” was not used literally. As explained ad nauseum by the term’s originator and many others, it was a colorful (and extremely effective) metaphor intended to convey the detrimental effects of government price controls and other cost-saving measures on access to health care services. In one of our previous discussions, you acknowledged that quality care never comes cheap, and that’s what the “death panel” rhetoric is about.

    With regard to the much maligned funding for advance care planning consultations, the primary argument concerned context. Advance directives are a wonderful tool for ensuring that we go out on our own terms, but discussing them as a cost cutting measure (as Obama has) and slipping them into a bill designed to decrease health care spending is nothing short of ghoulish. Every expenditure in a bill that is supposed to be budget neutral (ha!) is suspect, but especially when care planning is involved. That’s why the language was stripped from the draft. The phrase “death panel” remains a useful bit of rhetoric for describing rationing by government fiat.

    The third problem: your assertions regarding the gay rights debate are opinions, not facts. It is your belief that gay marriage poses no threat to Christians’ freedom of religion. Many on the other side of the debate, including constitutional scholars, believe that religious protections are essential when we (rightfully) extend the privilege of marriage to gay couples. The untested area that lies between antidiscrimination law and religious freedom has been hotly debated many times by Volokh’s posse of law profs. Some religious protections may be duplicative of First Amendment freedoms, but where is the factual evidence that the perceived threat to Christian rights has been fabricated by “the bulk of the right wing media”?

    Your mention of the “right wing media on Iraq” is too vague to address.

    I won’t pretend that falsehoods, half truths, misinterpretations, and misunderstandings don’t appear in right wing publications and blogs. But factual inaccuracies and failures of logic appear everywhere. In singling out the right, the implication in your original comment was that left wing publications are somehow better. That’s laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Lefty blogs and pubs from Newsweek to The New York Times are riddled with lies, errors, and intentional misdirection.

    For example, just yesterday liberal WaPo writer Anne Applebaum tried to excuse Roman Polanski, saying he didn’t know his victim’s real age when he raped her. That’s interesting, considering Polanski’s own words two years after the rape: “Judges want to f— young girls. Juries want to f— young girls. Everyone wants to f— young girls!” Applebaum also said he fled during his trial, when of course the truth is that he fled during sentencing after entering a guilty plea. What’s also interesting is that Applebaum didn’t disclose that her husband is a Polish foreign minister who is lobbying for Polanski’s case to be dismissed. On a related note, Whoopi Goldberg told her audience that “he didn’t rape her because she was aware” and said, “It wasn’t rape-rape.” Can you honestly tell me that fact-based, logic-based commentary is present in these analyses?

    What about MSNBC’s recent segment about the “racial overtones” at protests with “white people showing up with guns strapped to their waists”? The video to support that segment showed a black guy with a gun. Only they cropped out his exposed skin to make the clip match the message they wanted to send. Hmm … seems like that “fact-based, logic-based style of commentary” was temporarily suspended.

    And then there’s that canard about 47 million Americans being uninsured. That figure bounced around “respected” liberal publications for months before Obama was finally embarrassed into knocking it down to a somewhat more accurate 30 million in his joint sessions speech.

    I could go on and on about the liberal media smears of Sarah Palin, but I’ll limit myself to just one. Last September I wrote about the outrageous claims by WaPo and others in the liberal media that Sarah Palin cut funding to a Covenant House program for teen mothers. In a HuffPo piece, Erica Jong piled on by insisting Sarah Palin was a racist because it was black teen mothers, and of course, the liberal feminist blogosphere jumped on board. Only, as it turns out, African-American clients made up just 11 percent of the youth served by Covenant House and in actuality, Sarah Palin tripled Covenant House funding. And since I’m on the topic of teen mothers, no it isn’t Palin’s hatred of sex education that led to the impregnation of those young women; she is pro-contraception and supports sex education including the use of contraceptives. Lots of liberal blogs and papers covered the lies about Palin’s worship at the altar of abstinence-only education, but few published the inevitable debunking. Oops, guess I couldn’t stick with just one malicious liberal media lie about Palin.

    Obviously we could spend days trading examples of media-driven falsehoods. You’ll mention three or four that originated on the right, and I’ll counter with a handful of examples from the left. Not only would that be unproductive, but I guarantee we’ll reach a stalemate because a failure to adhere strictly to facts and logic is evident throughout the blogosphere and print media.

  5. Eclectic Radical on September 30th, 2009 2:10 am

    The advance care directive counseling was not ‘slipped into a bill designed to cut costs’, it was slipped into a health care reform bill. The fact that the administration has chosen to argue the ‘cost saving’ benefits of health care reform to appeal to conservatives and deficit hawks is an unfortunate political tactic. To say that is what the bill is ‘intended’ to do is a reach. The bill is intended to expand health coverage. The idea that this will reduce costs is a selling point chosen because of the misguided administration and Senate view that if they can just find some way to sell reform to conservatives, then conservatives will somehow sign onto the bill in droves.

    One can deride that political strategy all one wants, but saying the bill is ‘intended to cut costs’ as if that were the only goal is too big a stretch. If the primary goal were cost cutting, the single most effective way to cut costs is single payer and that’s been off the table since the beginning just like your own preferred choices have been.

    As for the notion that the term ‘death panel’ was not used literally, the context of the comment doesn’t really allow for any other way to read it. It’s represented as a factual statement of what will happen if health care reform passes. The language chosen for the initial comment was extremely precise and literal.

    As for the issue of the ‘factual threat to Christian rights’, the burden of proof of such a statement is on those making it and they have failed to prove it. The legalization of civil marriage between homosexuals puts no legal requirements on religious organizations to perform religious marriages for homosexuals. The statement to the contrary is false. The idea that heterosexual marriage has to be ‘defended’ from homosexual marriage is also false.

    Statements of this nature are not ‘opinions’ nor are they presented as such. They are presented as matters of perceived fact. I can certainly understand the /opinion/ that it should be made clear that churches should not be required to perform religious marriages to which their core tenets are opposed. I even hold that opinion myself. It is something else to oppose gay marriage by stating, as /fact/, that churches will be forced to marry gay couples if it is legalized. This is an extremely important distinction.

    Holding opinions is one thing. Expressing them is one thing. Making putatively factual statements, based on one’s opinion, in order to scare people is demagoguery. Again, there is a clear distinction between the two.

  6. Jenn Q. Public on September 30th, 2009 2:09 pm

    I am merely using the language employed by Barack Obama and the Democrats to sell the reform bill to the American public. The Democrats (and, as you say, the “misguided administration”) framed the debate in terms of finances. Obama thought he could seduce fiscal cons with talk of slashing costs. He failed to realize that you can’t talk finances in the same breath as quality if you want to woo Americans who are, statistically speaking, satisfied with their care. Again, that’s why the “death panels” expression was so effective – it tapped into existing concerns about the government prioritizing cost over quality.

    Single payer is off the table because it can’t pass. If the political climate and composition of the legislature were different, single payer would be under consideration.

    If the term “death panel” was intended literally, why was it was it placed in quotation marks? No one was being quoted, so what were those quotes meant to signify? Interpreting it literally is exactly what happened in the Obama administration and JournoList echo chamber – they believed they could win the debate by arguing with Palin instead of addressing the issues – and it backfired.

    But I don’t need to explain to you that quotes have many purposes. You certainly weren’t quoting anyone when you used quotation marks around this phrase: ‘factual threat to Christian rights.’

    In your treatment of SSM, you’re assuming that your perceptions and opinions are superior and therefore factual. Legal recognition of SSM may not literally impose new requirements on churches, but how can you guarantee there won’t be challenges down the road? (In my reading of conservative media, that’s been the mainstream argument.)

    You don’t value heterosexual marriage as an exclusive institution essential to social order, so you believe that the notion it has to be defended is false. You don’t believe that SSM devalues traditional marriage or leads to a slippery slope, so you believe it’s untrue that hetero marriage requires defense. But at least half the country believes otherwise, and quite frankly, there are poly families already testing the legal recognition waters in other countries. Whether that’s right or wrong is up for debate, but it certainly gives credence to slippery slope fears. (My take is that slippery slope or not, the legalization of SSM is the right thing to do.)

    As an aside, proponents of gay marriage would make greater progress if they would take the time to understand the arguments of their opponents. The whole sneering contempt for “H8ers” strategy isn’t changing minds.

    One final observation: you’re awfully high and mighty about “fact-based” commentary for someone who has used the comment section of a liberal blog to misquote a figure cited in my recent ACORN post.

  7. Eclectic Radical on October 2nd, 2009 4:28 pm

    ‘One final observation: you’re awfully high and mighty about “fact-based” commentary for someone who has used the comment section of a liberal blog to misquote a figure cited in my recent ACORN post.’

    I checked this out as soon as I read this. I made an error of transcription. I have posted correct data in the same thread on the same blog. Thank you for informing me of the error. I hate missing something like that.

    ‘You don’t value heterosexual marriage as an exclusive institution essential to social order, so you believe that the notion it has to be defended is false.’

    First, this is a straw man argument. I’ve not made (to my knowledge) any statements about what I believe about heterosexual marriage. Second, this is not the fundamental argument of the matter. Traditional religious marriage is a sacrament of faith. Two people are joined by God. The government has no power to say who is married in God’s eyes. Churches define marriage very specifically and the First Amendment recognizes that their members have the right to do so.

    (I use my choice of words because I don’t believe human rights are granted by human authority)

    Civil marriage is a legal agreement ratified by the civil authorities. Western society gives the state the duty to defend legal contracts and the responsibility to set equitable contractual parameters. The legal right of contract allows consenting adults to enter into any legal agreement they wish as long as it conforms to equitable parameters.

    From a correct theological argument, marriage is the sacramental union of a man and a woman. Whether or not the state recognizes it as such under law is irrelevant. That is what marriage is. Whether or not the state recognizes something else as also being marriage is also irrelevant, only what meets the standards of the church is properly marriage.

    From a correct legal argument, civil marriage is a contractual agreement between two individuals to become one family under law. It requires no religious sanction and religious arguments are irrelevant. What matters is that the contract is entered into by consenting adults of sound mind.

    Those are the facts. Many advocates of SSM (notably Andrew Sullivan, who appears at times to forget that civil marriage doesn’t make him any more ‘married’ as a Catholic) forget this as frequently as do its opponents. The fact that the majority of marriages in the US are both religious and civil (I could be wrong about this, but even if the numbers no longer support it the cultural paradigm still advances that thesis) or that some churches choose to recognize civil marriage between their members as proper and correct are red herrings that distract from the facts of the debate.

    The state has no power to define traditional marriage. Churches do not have the right (in the absence of a state church and the specific repudiation of such a church) to dictate the standards of civil marriage to the state. Those are the theological and legal facts.

    Because you stated your views on SSM here, I’ll state my views on future challenges to religious freedoms. I would oppose a law restricting the freedom of religions to define ‘marriage’ by their own standards as aggressively as I oppose a law claiming the government is bound to restrict civil marriage to only what conforms with religious standards.

    Already having failed the elevator test completely, I will be brief in my reply to the health care issue. The ability of a bill to pass is much like the ‘electability’ of a candidate. If something is believed to be impossible by a majority, that belief is self-fulfilling. The real possibility can only be determined by sufficient optimism to put it to the test.

    I’m not going to bother defending the administration from your indictment because I agree more than a little, even if we hold different views on the matter at discussion.

    The echo chamber of the right wing media did everything possible to present ‘death panels’ as a serious threat instead of raising issues in a responsible and factual fashion. In the best light, they engaged in a deliberate campaign to frighten the heck out of voters. In the worst light, they lied outright. Parsing it to pass it off as less dishonest than intended doesn’t change that. Even the best light isn’t very good.

  8. Jenn Q. Public on October 8th, 2009 4:43 am

    Finally, I have a few consecutive minutes to devote to a reply.

    Eclectic Radical wrote:

    First, this is a straw man argument. I’ve not made (to my knowledge) any statements about what I believe about heterosexual marriage.

    The contention that you “don’t value heterosexual marriage as an exclusive institution” isn’t a straw man, it’s an inference based on what you’ve written in this thread and others. You’ve asserted your support for gay marriage and clearly described the notion that heterosexual marriage has to be defended as false. It’s a reasonable assumption that you don’t value the continuing exclusivity of marriage as necessary or even desirable. If that inference is incorrect, you have my apology.

    I agree with almost everything else in your most recent comment on marriage. One small quibble: “marriage is the sacramental union of a man and a woman” is correct from a Judeo-Christian theological perspective and perhaps in most other theologies, but certainly not in all contemporary religions.

    Since you brought up Andrew Sullivan, I have to say this: he was once a thoughtful public intellectual, but that day has come and gone. He was boldly making the case for gay marriage when even the gay community was uncomfortable with the idea. Unfortunately, he demolished his credibility when he donned his amateur obstetrician’s coat and engaged in incessant interrogation of Trig Palin’s parentage. Even on the gay marriage issue, his arguments have become increasingly knee-jerk and he now does a disservice to the cause as often as not.

    Regarding the issue of civil/religious marriage, when I got married by a town clerk in NY, a bare bones ceremony was required whether we wanted one or not. Just signing the paperwork was my preference, but it wasn’t an option, which demonstrates how intertwined the religious and civil definitions of marriage are in American society. I am very much in favor of further delineation between the two.

    Back to the death panel issue, I maintain that the conservative media adopted the phrase because it was a colorful bit of rhetoric that captured attention, re-enlivened the debate, and distilled valid, widely held fears about government rationing into a single, memorable term. I remain unconvinced that it was a lie, unlike liberal media contentions that 47 million Americans are uninsured and we’ll all be able to keep our current health plans.

    Despite good intentions, I seem to have failed the elevator test as well, so I’ll leave off here.

  9. Eclectic Radical on October 10th, 2009 3:51 am

    I’m not a huge fan of Andrew Sullivan and I haven’t jumped aboard his bandwagon because he likes Barack Obama the way a lot of liberals have. I do think there have been some pretty ridiculous personal attacks made on him and I wrote about one of those, but that was more out of my contempt for the attack than my regard for Sullivan. He fits into the category of commentary I was bashing pretty well, even if his political flexibility makes it tricky to decide whether or not to call him right wing. Obviously his social views are not.

    I speak from a ‘Judeo-Christian’ perspective a little too often when talking about religion in general, yes. I’m sure it comes from being, personally, Christian and from participating in a public debate where people professing to be the same advocate broad legal incorporation of ‘Christian’ principles that do not resemble what I was taught at all.

    On the ‘death panel’ issue, I maintain that it was a deliberately dishonest bit of demagoguery intended to scare people despite lack of a factual basis for the claim. It’s shorter to say ‘lie.’

    Probably, I admit, not an area we’re going to convince each other even if we agree about religious marriage vs civil marriage.

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