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Jewish World Review
July 17, 2009
25 Tamuz 5769
When a Tweet Is Not Enough
WOODS HOLE, Mass. All politics may not be loco, as one famous
pundit (Michael Barone) puts it, but the ancient maxim that all politics is
local is demonstrably true. Consider a feature called "Obama Watch" in the
Cape Cod Times. There's nothing in it about the rising unemployment figures,
the crash of the president's teleprompter, his health-care legislation or
the latest on whether his diplomatic offensive is cooling fanatic fervor in
the Middle East.
The big question for the president on Cape Cod is whether
Barack, Michelle and the girls will follow the example of Ulysses S. Grant
and Bill Clinton to Martha's Vineyard for a vacation in August. How you
stand depends on where you're sitting, as a wise man I once knew was fond of
saying, and that goes double for an economic stimulus.
The natives, as a summer visitor quickly learns, are eager to be
stimulated, and an invasion of the Secret Service, snarling traffic jams and
attracting landlubbing gawkers is regarded as a small price to pay to lift
all the boats at the docks along the Massachusetts coastline. It's a needed
reminder to the hundreds of politicians, policy wonks, academics,
journalists, bureaucrats and other refugees from Washington that intelligent
life thrives beyond the Beltway.
For example, the residents of Woods Hole are more fascinated by
what's going on fathoms below the surface of the Atlantic, as discovered by
a robot called Nereus, which has gone deeper than any deep-sea vehicle
before it. Engineers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution began
working on Nereus nine years ago, and early this summer Nereus successfully
reached unexplored depths in the Marianas Trench in the western Pacific.
The dimensions of the trench are mysterious and breathtaking
it's nearly seven miles deep, the deepest indentation of Earth's crust (the
SS Titanic sank to a depth of "only" two and a half miles). Few sea
creatures live there, and Nereus, designed to withstand pressure a thousand
times greater than the pressure at the surface of the sea, is expected to
find them. At that depth, a day without methane is like a day without
Impressive as all the science and technology is, I'm equally
impressed that Nereus, a mythical Greek god with a man's torso and the tail
of a fish, was named in a nationwide contest open to students in junior high
schools, high schools and colleges. A generation of text-messaging and
Twittering has reduced the young to a language of "words" for messages of
only 140 characters. The Greek myths could never have been told in such a
language, and it's an unexpected blessing that there's such a relatively
large audience of literate young people who can draw on Greek mythology in
the service of science.
Many Twitterers (Twitterists? Tweetists?) insist that the
Twittering ubiquitous at the beach, in the woods, on bike paths, in sidewalk
cafes (and even in church and lecture hall) is simply for fun, idle thoughts
expressed in real time. But reducing thoughts to 140 characters may exert a
psychological and educational impact more serious than that, determining not
only how we speak, but how we listen. Words shortened to the point of
illiteracy a new survey reveals that nearly half of all college freshmen
must take a course in remedial spelling and shortcuts to nonsense pass
for information. Twittering keeps the focus narrow and imparts new meaning
to "tunnel vision."
George Orwell, an earlier generation's touchstone for clarity,
observed that "good prose is like a window pane." President Obama's
eloquence, which so mesmerized the world only yesterday, may not be sound
and fury signifying not very much, but nevertheless it may be something less
than meets the ear. Liam Julian writes in Policy Review magazine that the
president's speeches have become "loopy, lofty and often lubricious."
Vagueness tempts others to fill in meanings they want to hear;
the presidential language becomes a Rorschach test of attitudes. When the
secretary of homeland security refers to terrorism as "man-caused
disasters," she's playing a mind game. "Such phraseology," Orwell observed
of similar silliness, "is needed if one wants to name things without calling
up pictures of them."
Bad language has always reflected bad thinking just as good
language delivered with precision forces us to see more clearly. When one of
the president's famous teleprompters crashed to the floor during his defense
of the economic stimulus package, the irony was writ large for both Woods
Hole and Washington. It was a picture worth a thousand words.
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