Secretary of State Dumpty Speaks


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

                                                                        Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass


It would appear that the Obama administration has chosen to pursue this looking-glass linguistic philosophy, and Secretary of State Kerry is clearly the Humpty Dumpty in Chief.  And while they probably are aware of the deceit that is being practiced, they certainly do not see the silliness.  Politicians have of course always needed to be careful of exactly what they say, and this is all the more a concern in an age when there are microphones and cameras everywhere.  But inasmuch as a politician has an agenda and is inclined to keep it simple for the voters (and his colleagues), this care does not lead to clear and unambiguous statements but rather distortions of the truth and ultimately outright lies.

John Kerry, hero and patriot

John Kerry, hero and patriot

John Kerry, Secretary of State

John Kerry, Secretary of State

John Kerry, politician

John Kerry, politician


It begins with euphemisms, which is an easy approach since Americans are accustomed to dealing in euphemisms for all sorts of things that are for some reason embarrassing, such as sex and body functions.   The most notorious, and clever, euphemism is well known: collateral damage.  This illustrates perfectly the goal of such expressions, that is, to defuse statements that are unpleasant or counterproductive by attempting to remove the accompanying imagery.  Unlike “civilian casualties,” “collateral damage” is colorless, suggesting broken windows rather than mangled bodies of women and children.


Less prominent but a favorite of mine is “degrade” as a substitute for destroy, blow apart or kill, as in “the Republican Guard division was degraded.”  Most listeners will not immediately imagine what that actually means: burned and dismembered bodies scattered all over the place.  “Degrading” Assad’s assets sure sounds more mellow than blowing things apart, including Syrians.  It is a pity that generals are not required to explain in precise detail what occurred or is about to occur.

a degraded unit

a degraded unit


We have now reached the point where euphemisms will not suffice and words are simply redefined to mean what the speaker wants them to mean.  This had already caught my attention when a car bomb parked in Times Square was described as a “weapon of mass destruction,” dramatically increasing the magnitude of the charges against the perpetrator.  Or when people who leak classified information to the press are labeled “spies,” despite the absence of any foreign power, which I had thought integral to the definition of espionage.  Also, when did every inquiry about future developments (e.g., if x happens what will you do) become a “hypothetical” and thus not worthy of an answer?


Well, Secretary Dumpty has now raised the bar extremely high, asserting that bombing Syria would not constitute a “war” because no American troops would enter the country.  Indeed?  For millennia humans have defined war as doing violence to another tribe or state, whether it was undertaken with spears or cruise missiles.  Certainly, virtually all Americans, including Kerry and his friends, would consider it an act of war if someone bombed this country, and because of such an attack we went so far as to declare war essentially against an idea, terrorism.  According to Secretary Kerry the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would not constitute an act of war since there were no Japanese “boots on the ground.”


This is all blatant misuse of the language in the service of dissembling, but no one really cares.  The military is after all simply using technical terms, which they do all the time, and people, I suspect, now think first of collateral damage rather than civilian casualties.  For the most part, however, Americans do not care because all but the stupidest no longer believe anything politicians say.  Besides, the citizen who agrees with the policy will be quick to embrace the Humpty Dumpty philosophy.

No Worry Unless You Have Something To Hide

(I have nothing novel to say here; even allowing for the technology, no state in antiquity, even Egypt under their god-king, experienced this level of surveillance. I just need to vent on this subject.)


President Obama’s assault on the First and Fourth Amendments is in full swing. (The Second is completely safe.) It was bad enough to learn what our government was doing – in our name – under the Bush administration, but Obama’s security apparatus and his actions to protect it are staggering. We may no longer have renditions and blatant torture (force-feeding and prolonged periods of solitary confinement may qualify), but a Democratic and supposedly progressive President is actually laying the foundations of a police state, and Congress is helping, having found a bipartisan cause.

The public had long been aware, if unconcerned, of the constitutionally and morally questionable things the CIA has been doing, especially in conjunction with our seemingly endless wars, but inasmuch as the operations generally affect only other countries, the American public is mostly unconcerned. The recently revealed surveillance programs of the NSA, however, do affect Americans, and while most of our citizens have probably never heard of the Fourth Amendment, they do understand when they are being spied on. And so do our closest allies, even if their spooks and governments are enthusiastically cooperating with ours.

Amerikanische Reichssicherheitsdienst

Amerikanische Reichssicherheitsdienst

The situation has become even more threatening – and surreal – with the revelation of the Insider Threat Program, something right out of Stalinist Russia. By this directive federal employees and contractors are legally bound to watch for and report “high-risk persons or behavior” among their fellow workers, and failure to do so could result in penalties, including criminal charges. And any leaks concerning the program and its operation will be treated as espionage, even if the leak reveals illegal behavior. The only thing missing to complete the journey back to Moscow in the 1930s is any reference to “counterrevolutionaries, Trotskyites and wreckers.” Will this vigilance be rewarded with medals? Perhaps “Hero of America” or “Order of Washington”?

But wait, there’s more! In the name of security the government will also violate the First Amendment! That’s two Amendments for the price of one administration! No government has been friendly to leakers, not because of the typically stated reason of security but since the leak usually reveals the government has been doing something questionable, like monitoring all private communications. Under the Great Engineer of American Security, however, leakers are now being prosecuted under the Espionage Act of 1917, even though they are not passing information to a foreign government, which I mistakenly thought was part of the basic definition of espionage.
Unless of course the news media is considered a foreign entity, which is certainly the view of every autocrat, even the elected ones, like Recep Erdoğan of Turkey, who is close to setting records for jailing journalists. The traditional method for punishing journalists, like Judith Miller of Valeria Plame fame, is to demand the names of their sources and then jail them for contempt when they will not reveal them. In the case of John Risen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was threatened with contempt if he did not testify against a former CIA source, a federal appeals court has just ruled that he was not covered by the First Amendment. This means that potentially every reporter is facing jail if he does not reveal sources.

And now there is a new twist: the journalist receiving the leaked information can also be charged with committing a crime, the exact nature of which the administration has not made clear. Journalist Glenn Greenwald was recently threatened with such a charge. Does this mean if you find a pile of classified documents on the ground, read them and talk to your friends about them, you are eligible for criminal prosecution? On the other hand, the government can spy on you all it wants apparently. For years the government has been monitoring Risen’s phone calls and emails, not in pursuit of a terrorist but to discover his sources. So, the security agencies can acquire taps on innocent civilians for the fairly specious reason that someone is revealing things to them.

The public opposes the NSA PRISM program by a 2 to 1 margin, but a recent effort to halt it was defeated in Congress, the amendment to the Defense bill being the subject of intense lobbying by the President (the liberal guy), the spooks and the contractors who make stuff for the spooks. Those who support the NSA of course talk about damaging our security, suggesting they know better than the average American, which has some basis in truth since we can find out virtually nothing about the program – or that it even existed until Snowden popped up. “Trust us” is not very convincing, coming from people who have regularly lied to the public.

The biggest joke of all is the fact that Obama touts his administration as the most transparent ever, when in fact it is actually one of the most opaque in history. The secrecy mania is out of control. In fiscal year 2011 more than 92 million documents were classified at a cost of more than $11 billion; the full numbers are unknown because at some agencies classification and its cost are classified. Are these all secrets that could harm the country if revealed?  That is hard to believe.  Classification covers mistakes, malfeasance, outright criminality and violations of the Constitution and civil rights, and very important, it enhances the status of the bureaucrat doing the classification.

And all this behavior for what? Because without such massive surveillance and secrecy one or two terrorists might blow up some people? Is this a sufficient reason to assault our own Constitution and freedom, especially when innocents are being killed in far greater numbers because of our love affair with the gun and inclination to solve problems with violence? Surveying the increased and constitutionally dubious powers of the government and its security apparatus and the concomitant free fall of America’s image in the world, I can only conclude that the 9/11 terrorist have won.

The University as Farm Club

The good news: the highest paid public employee in each of the fifty states works for an academic institution.  The bad news: not one of them really has anything to do with education.  In Alaska, Montana, Vermont and Delaware the highest paid state employee is a university president, in Maine it a law school dean and in North and South Dakota, New York and Massachusetts it is a medical school dean.  In every other state except Utah the highest paid public employee is a football or basketball coach (a hockey coach in New Hampshire).  Only Utah has as its highest compensated employee someone who may actually be involved in education, but that figure is still emblematic: a plastic surgeon.

Clearly, a major purpose of the American university is to be a farm club for the NFL and the NBA, something that baffles non-Americans.  And well it might, since supporting professional sports has absolutely nothing to do with the true mission of the university, and football and basketball programs suck up resources that might otherwise benefit education.  In the year 2011-2012 only West Point showed a profit in athletics; all those revenues, especially from TV, never see the light of academic day but are simply pumped back into athletics.  And it is still not enough, forcing universities to find more money, typically through so-called student fees, which are easier to increase than tuition.  It has been calculated that 99 major schools each funneled an average of $5 million more into their athletic programs by employing student fees and “university subsidies.”  And though unlikely, if all the money donated to the athletic programs of these institutions went instead to the real university, each would see an average increase in income of $12 million.

Of course any money saved would not automatically go to instruction, equipment, research, faculty or staff.  All the evidence demonstrates much if not most of it would end up funding the central administrations, which are growing at a phenomenal rate, both in terms of numbers and compensation.  Vice-presidents/associate provosts are being created for every conceivable administrative niche, many of them redundant and the vast majority of them having absolutely nothing to do with actual education.

My former employer, the University of New Mexico, lists 45 individuals under the headings “University Officers” and “University Administration,” to which may be added 15 Deans.  There is an Executive VP of Administration, apparently because the administration is so large that it must itself be administered.  There is a VP of Equity and Inclusion, a VP of Human Resources, an Assoc. VP of Student Development and a Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity, and if that does not cover students, add a VP for Student Affairs and a Dean of Students.  What can all these people possibly do bedsides draw big salaries?  And at UNM the Athletic Director is actually a VP, which in a way is a burst of
honesty.  And remember, these numbers remain steady or actually increase at a time when faculty slots are going unfilled because of “budgetary constraints.”

All these people are compensated at a level generally far above that of the staff and faculty.  The median salary of a public university president is now $440,000, having increased 4.7% in 2011-2012, a rate that outstrips inflation and the raises for faculty and staff (and American workers in general), which are frequently missing altogether.  A study of 145 schools revealed absolutely no relationship between the quality of the institution and the pay of its president, but try telling that to boards of regents, who constantly claim a good (read “expensive”) president is essential for a good university.

The American university is becoming a joke.  Yes, an excellent education is still available, at least in the sciences and engineering – and of course business – and especially at the graduate level.  But while faculties are stagnant or even shrinking, administrations and athletic programs are growing and absorbing more and more resources, which means skyrocketing tuitions.  Students and taxpayers get to pay for all these drones, and meanwhile the institution is making huge amounts of money off its unpaid “student” athletes, allowing for more administrative and athletic growth.  Congratulations on acquiring both a degree and a couple hundred thousand in debt.

There is no reason to believe this will change.  The boards of regents at public schools are typically political appointees, more concerned with image than substance and committed to “serving the people,” who of course essentially see the university as a sports venue and perhaps a job-filler.  And the prime directive of any government, as the current President of the United States is demonstrating, is to defend and increase its power.  Sure, the NFL and NBA could support all those football and basketball programs with their spare change, but why should they when students and taxpayers are doing it for them?

Finally, from personal experience: Mike Locksley, the recently fired football coach of UNM, who in two years won two games, made as much money in one year as I made in 31 years of teaching.  He immediately found another job.