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Cobbett's Caveat
Volume 1 Number 1
Euphemisms mislead
bluntness needed


Marshall Fritz
April 10, 2001


Bobbie Gentry, of Jumping-off-the-Tallahatchie-Bridge fame, once told me, "Euphemism is a euphemism for lying." This came to mind this week when I was working on some of the speech titles for SepCon2001 and "not exactly at the same time" reading G. K. Chesterton's 1925 great little book about 1820s historian William Cobbett.

Let's take a couple of ideas from Chesterton and try to apply them to the School Liberation Movement and my quandary "and yours too, I'll bet" when picking words: Just how blunt should we be?

GKC writes that the main weakness of modern urban society (remember, he was writing in the 1920s, and must have thought that farmers and rustic folks were not too far gone at the time) is the "great delusion of the prior claim of printed matter" on the mind, a delusion so strong it could contradict experience. He writes: "The chief mark of modern man has been that he has gone through the landscape with his eyes glued to a guidebook, and could actually deny in the one anything he could not find in the other" and continues a bit later, "By a weird mesmerism, what people read has a sort of magic power over their sight. It lays a spell on their eyes, so that they see what they expect to see. They do not see the most solid and striking things that contradict what they expect to see. They believe their schoolmasters too well to believe their eyes. Cobbett was a man without these magic spectacles. He did not see what he expected to see, but what he saw."

Let's apply this lesson to the typical journalistic reaction to the opening of the Spring School Shooting Season: They bleat that we need more gun control, more metal detectors, and more pats-down upon school arrival. This is what they read from each other. Somehow, it makes sense to them. Cobbett would see the obvious: A school child intent on murdering some fellow students and maybe a teacher or two might just start off by shooting Officer Friendly who is staffing the metal detector.

Chesterton recalls Cobbett on the subject of the fear of Napoleon: "Nothing was ever better in its way than the dramatic derision with which he [Cobbett] pointed at the canal at Hythe, and told the people that this was meant to keep out the French armies that had just crossed the Rhine and the Danube."

Now back to the question of language for us School Liberators. Should we be blunt or nuanced? Chesterton helps us by contrasting truth and style and giving a memorable example:

"Veracity has nothing to do with violence, one way or the other. One historian may prefer to say, 'The Emperor Nero set on foot several conspiracies against the life of Agrippina his mother, and expressed satisfaction when the final attempt was successful.' Another may say, 'The bloody and treacherous tyrant foully murdered his own mother, and fiendishly exulted in the detestable deed.' But the second statement records the same fact as the first, and records it equally correctly.

"The violent man is telling the truth quite as logically and precisely as the more dignified man. It is a question of what we consider a superiority of literary form; not of any sort of superiority in history fact."


Now at this point, I was resolving to be more blunt in my rhetoric. The phrase "Public Schools are a Public Menace" was suggested to me by an advisor just days before and I resolved to use it often.

Ah, but I got a bit of a shock a few pages later. My hero Chesterton writes, "It is possible to speak much too plainly to be understood." Uh-oh. Now what?

He continues, "In a confused and complicated age, men are used to long words and cannot understand short ones. The world, in the sense of the ordinary political and literary world, could not understand Cobbett because he was not obscure enough. He did not soothe them with those formless but familiar obscurities which they expected as the proper prelude to any political suggestion. He came to the point too quickly; and it deafened them like an explosion and blinded them like a flash of lightning. People of this political and literary sort understood much better the speakers they were used to; or liked much better the speakers they did not understand. The pompous and polysyllabic felicities of the diction of Pitt seemed to them comforting if not comprehensible."

Wow. I had to read it twice, no, three times. My own literacy is so weak that I don't do long sentences too good. But I got the point. We have no Pitt, but we do have a Bush whose edu-diction includes this odd name for his Please-Trust-Me-Again-Charlie-Brown Education Program, "No Child Will Be Left Behind."

Think about it. No child will be left behind in singing. No child will be left behind in math. No child will be left behind in football. Track. Swimming. Poetry. Dance. English grammar. Spanish vocabulary. Latin conjugations. Geography. History.

Wait a minute! If I were a kid today, and no child is going to be left behind, we're gonna have pretty low music standards so I can keep up and not be left behind. After all, in my school in the fourth grade all boys were required to join the boys' choir. Except you know who. I was excluded from boys' choir, and not because of behavior or attitude or anything like that. I can still remember the lonely hour at 11am on Thursdays when I sat in the classroom alone. Reading Freddy the Pig, not Chesterton.

Under the Bush Plan, I'd be in there with 60 other boys, but we'd be reduced to humming along with Mitch. The only way to leave no child behind is to have everybody stand still. Can't work. But sweet words, eh? Whatever we think of emperor's intentions, we can be appalled at his lack of sense, and the lack of sense of all who are applauding him.

Back to the main point, how to explain why it's a good idea to free the schools from politics. My experience with mainstream educators has been that the vast majority must think that I "get to the point too quickly." Attending their conferences, it is clear that they much prefer the felicities of mainstream edubabble because it is somehow "comforting if not comprehensible."

The same is true for a like high proportion of journalists and pundits.

On the other hand, most — way over half — of the regular folks find that I make sense right from the get-go. My fairly large sample (200-300) is drawn from people who have by chance sat next to me on a plane, train, or bus over the last seven years.

Back to my question, "How blunt should we be?" Well, if we're trying to attract today's educational and literary leaders, not very blunt. Because they have no basis to refute our allegations, to be effective in their attack they must stoop to the ad hominem that we're not very nice people. They flick their "ist-spinner" like a children's game and accuse us of being racist, sexist, elitist, misogynist, pollutionist, monarchist, or even this- or that-phobic. Our bluntness just makes them angry.

But more and more I am thinking the Glittery Litery are not our market. Somebody has to be last to learn that freedom works. We'll just have to leave some pundits behind. (Imagine the slogan, "No Pundit Left Behind."

I think our market is the regular Joe and Kristin.

For instance, imagine the proud parents of a "public school" Kindergarten child. One day he came home using the m-f epithet, and not for Milton Friedman or Marshall Fritz. He learned it on the playground. His schoolmates watch South Park and are taken to R-movies. Joe and Kristin don't want to be THAT multi-cultural.

If our market is Everyman and not the Glittery Litery, the guy reading Popular Mechanix, not Atlantic Monthly, maybe we should be real blunt. When Joe hears the phrase, "public schools are a public menace," he's likely to think, "Huhhhh! That's a new idea. Makes sense, too. I hated school."

If we use euphemism, the Glittery Litery will silently appreciate our linguistic cuteness and still reject our ideas.

If we use euphemism, Joe won't get the point.

When some educator says he's not undermining the virtues that Joe values, and you've caught the educator red-handed doing just that, I think you need to say that he's lying. He'll be furious, sure, and kick up a fuss. But Joe and the other parents who overhear you will get the point. Indeed, they'll get alarmed, too.

If you use the euphemism that the educator "seems discomfited by veracity," the liar will still fight you, but you'll have no allies. Your euphemism will have deceived Joe into thinking there is no cause for alarm.

That's why in "Ode to Billie Joe," Bobbie Gentry didn't sing that he "attempted to levitate in proximity to the Tallahatchie Bridge."



Cobbett's Caveat is an attempt by Marshall Fritz, founder and president of the Alliance for the Separation of School & State, to imitate the insightfulness and bluntness of William Cobbett when writing about the public menace known as "public schooling." Further, Cobbett is all the more heroic because, according to Chesterton, "his whole life was a resistance to the degradation of the poor" (p.45). Mr. Fritz hopes to avoid Cobbett's weaknesses, one of which was a readiness to think evil of an adversary.

The quotations are from Chesterton's William Cobbett, published by Hodder and Stoughton, London, about 1925, from pp 145-149.

A Google search on "William Cobbett" found 2,700 listings, including hundreds of biographies. Here is snippet from one of them:
As a writer of English prose, Mr. Cobbett ranks among the highest. He was extremely industrious and temperate in his habits, and thus acquired a good deal of learning and accomplished a great amount of literary work. Among his published books are History of the Protestant Reformation in England and Ireland, History of England, A Year's Residence in America, Advice to Young Men and Women, Cottage Economy, and especially his English and French grammars, which are of themselves very entertaining. He also compiled twenty volumes of parliamentary debates. As a satirist he has had few if any superiors, after Swift and Junius, and he was so ready to wield his stinging pen that Sir Henry Bulwer calls him in the title of an essay, "The Contentious Man." Yet he was very domestic in disposition, and devotedly loved by his family and friends.

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