The Long View 2004-09-15: They Actually Said That

The Donation of Constantine

The Donation of Constantine

It was only two months after this that Dan Rather announced he would resign from CBS. Unfortunately, no one is likely to paint any frescoes about it.

At the end of this post, John engaged in the then novel practice of publicly shaming a company that he felt hadn't treated him well. Given the rather extreme dimensions this practice has taken on in the last thirteen years, John probably would not have approved. He could have repented of it this Lent if he were still with us.

They Actually Said That

The CBS National Guard Documents Scandal has reached the point where we can safely say that Dan Rather has squandered any presidential prospects he may have had. Will he resign tonight? One trusts he will say something colorful.

One of the bright spots in this affair is that The New York Times has acted as if it were a regular newspaper. In fact, if you ignore the koan-like headline in today's edition, Memos on Bush Are Fake but Accurate, Typist Says, the article itself had the most interesting new information of the day. The typist, of course, was the secretary to George Bush's Air National Guard commander, Jerry Killian; she says the documents that CBS has been promoting contain the kind of thing her boss used to say about George Bush, but that the texts themselves just are not formatted like the documents she used to prepare. Killian's son says that her recollection is faulty on Killian's attitude toward Bush. Be that as it may, though, the Times tells us this:

CBS has refused to say how it obtained the documents. But one person at CBS, who spoke on condition of anonymity, confirmed a report in Newsweek that Bill Burkett, a retired National Guard officer who has charged that senior aides to then-Governor Bush had ordered Guard officials to remove damaging information from Mr. Bush's military personnel files, had been a source of the report. This person did not know the exact role he played.

I don't know either, and I refuse to speculate. I mention the matter so I can quote this bit of rhetoric from Mr. Burkett's attorney:

Asked what role Mr. Burkett had in raising questions about Mr. Bush's military service, Mr. Van Os said: "If, hypothetically, Bill Burkett or anyone else, any other individual, had prepared or had typed on a word processor as some of the journalists are presuming, without much evidence, if someone in the year 2004 had prepared on a word processor replicas of documents that they believed had existed in 1972 or 1973 - which Bill Burkett has absolutely not done'' - then, he continued, "what difference would it make?"

That's the kind of thinking that gave us the Donation of Constantine. It was very embarrassing when someone blew the whistle on that one, too.

* * *

Meanwhile, on the Times editorial page, Nicholas D. Kristof had a column entitled Mr. Bush's Glass House. In that piece he tells us, "First, there's reason to be suspicious of some of those CBS documents," thus proving that editorial writers do sometimes know what is in the rest of the newspaper. Then he says, "Second, we shouldn't be distracted by our doubts about the CBS documents." He goes on to point out that George W. Bush obviously got political help getting into the Guard, and that he slacked off in the last two years of his commitment. Mr. Kristof concludes thus:

More than three decades later, that shouldn't be a big deal. What worries me more is the lack of honesty today about that past - and the way Mr. Bush is hurling stones without the self-awareness to realize that he's living in a glass house.

I think that everyone has been clear for some time that the Guard story is not a big deal. What is a big deal is "the lack of honesty today."

* * *

Speaking of outrages exposed, I see that Canada's premier magazine, Saturday Night, has come out in favor of spelling reform for English. At any rate, the September issue has a piece by Gabrielle Bauer, "The Quirky World of Spelling Reform," which treats the subject favorably, and has many nice things to say about the Simplified Spelling Society, of which I have the honor to be a member.

I mention the matter here, not to argue for reform, but to showcase some of the arguments to the contrary. The article dutifully dug up this gem, for instance:

"Then there's the problem of reprinting old texts with new spelling, I can just hear the traditionalists' screams if they get their hands on a volume of Shakespeare's plays rewritten in reformed spelling," says Robert Savage, a professor of educational psychology (and former Briton) at McGill University.

Shakespeare, of course, did not use modern spelling, though many educated people seem to confuse the paperback editions they used in school with the First Folio. But here is an argument that is new to me:

Linda Siegel, a professor and Dorothy C. Lam chair in special education at the University of British Columbia [says] "English spelling may actually be better for struggling readers, because it requires them to use their visual memory right from the start." Given that "many people with dyslexia have stronger visual memories than normal learners, this may not be such a bad thing."

One of the main points of the Saturday Night piece is that research shows that English spelling causes the symptoms of dyslexia to manifest. It builds character, you see.

A minor point: contrary to the article, Robertson Davies was not, as far as I know, an advocate of spelling reform. Rather, he was an orthographic anarchist.

From "The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks"
Penguin Books, 1996
Copyright (C) Robertson Davies, 1986
Page 434:

Dear Miss Hawser:

Your suggestion that a few people in Canada try to revive the lost art of letter-writing is a worthy one, and I am flattered that you should include me in your group. I am grateful for the copy of "The Maple Leaf Letter Writer" which you have sent me, and I have read it with great care. But there is one point on which I disagree with the book, and that is its insistence on absolutely conventional spelling. Although I am myself a fair speller, I have thought for some time that a reasonable amount of personal choice should be allowed in this matter. After all, the passion for spelling according to a dictionary is only about a hundred years old; every writer of any importance before that spelled a few words at least in his own way.

Only the other day I was looking at a book of letters from the seventeenth century, in which one writer expressed himself thus: "As for Mr. A--, I esteem him no better than a Pigg." Consider that word "Pigg." The extra "g" is not strictly necessary, but what power it gives to the word! How pig-like it makes poor Mr. A--! How vivid his swinishness becomes! And look at that capital "P." It seems to enrich the sentence by calling special attention to the most important word.

I am not a spelling reformer. I am a laissez-faire liberal in matters of spelling. I do not care that our present system of spelling wastes time and paper. I firmly believe that both time and paper are of less importance than the perfect expression of the writer's meaning. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a Pedantick Booby.

Yours for orthographicall freedom,
Samuel Marchbanks.

And while we are on the subject of Robertson Davies, here is a link to my review of The Cunning Man. Enjoy!

* * *

A final outrage exposed, this one from me.

One of the advantages to having a blog is that you never have to write a letter-to-the-editor again. Another is that you can threaten to embarrass consumer businesses whose performance is not up to your demanding standards. I tried to do the latter today.

I had received an email from Iomega saying that the bar code I had posted to get a rebate on my new backup drive was not the original bar code. I was asked send in that bar code so that Iomega could continue to process the rebate. Instantly, I sent off email, saying that the drive's box had long since been thrown away, and that I would expose online this stratagem so obviously designed to cheat me out of my rebate. I got a message back a few minutes later. If I didn't have the box, all I needed was the serial number on the bottom of the drive.

As we know from Michael Tolkin's The New Age, God will judge us by how we treat customer service personnel.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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