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Sunday, January 13, 2019

A Letter to Professor John McWhorter

This letter responds to: John McWhorter, Trump’s Typos Reveal His Lack of Fitness for the Presidency, The Atlantic (Jan. 11, 2019), <>. 

Dear Professor: 

I have read your material on and off for many years. You say interesting, and sometimes courageous things. That said, I was disappointed by your recent article in The Atlantic

We (Americans) have had many talented wordsmiths in the White House. I see no connection between such talents, and adopting & putting into effect substantively sound policies. Woodrow Wilsona university academiccomes to mind. But very few can explain precisely why the U.S. entered WWI or offer any justification for Wilson’s allowing the federal civil service to be (re)segregated by race. He was, however, good with words. 

Your article amounts to a non-instrumental claim that elites who share your specific skill set should have power and those who do not share that skill set should not. Unless you can offer some substantial connection between those skills which you value and something akin to objective success in office, then your argument amounts to a shallow elitist claim, not an instrumental or pragmatic one. Eg: He simply cannot accept—cannot grasp—that international diplomacy could possibly require more subtlety than a real-estate transaction.

Your repeated references to President Truman are illustrative. Truman took the U.S. into a major land war in Asia. It was an undeclared war. More than 50,000 American died or were wounded. The U.S. and its U.N. allies did not prevailat least, not in the traditional sense. That conflict—the Korean conflictstill festers to this day. Trump has not taken us into any such conflict; indeed, he is ramping down our participation in such conflicts. Maybe your focus on spelling and sound composition skills aremaybe just a tadmisplaced? 

It is certainly better for the President to spell forest with a single R rather than two Rs. But a lot of property was destroyed in California, and more importantly, many were injured or died from the conflagration. All told: it is probably more important that better policies be put in place to stop similar future disasters than we worry about spelling. I think those situated closer to the disaster might agree with me, even if you and others in New Yorkcomfortably distantsee it otherwise. 


Seth Barrett Tillman, A Letter to Professor John McWhorter, New Reform Club (Jan. 13, 2019, 8:29 AM), <>, <>. 

PS: Welcome Instapundit readers! Feel free to look around New Reform Club
my co-bloggers do good work!

PPS: If you liked this letter, you might also want to see: Seth Barrett Tillman, A Letter to George F. WillNew Reform Club (Jan. 13, 2019, 10:27 AM). 


Scott said...

I concur with your observation on the relative importance of skills and the connection of said skills to performance.

I'd add one more question -- why can't diplomacy be like a real estate transaction? Two sides come together and after arriving at an agreement, come away better off in their estimates of value. There's enough detail in the agreement to arrive at understanding and certain enforcement mechanisms to ensure compliance.

Second -- as to spelling and grammar. I was in the Army for almost 30 years. When I came in in the early 70s, there was a great emphasis on perfection in writing. Later in my career the service noted that for operational units, this emphasis slowed information flow. The Army writing standard was changed to something like "generally free of grammar and spelling errors and easily understandable at the first reading." Or something like that, I can't recall the actual quote.

Danimal28 said...

Could not agree more, Seth. Funny how Trump is using our significant economic leverage to help 'encourage' the Norks, and more importantly, the rest of that specific region to police themselves. Same in the Middle East. More troops and US treasure downrange? Not...

Thanks for allowing comments and have a great day!

tim maguire said...

I like McWhorter and am a regular listener to his podcast. You are right that he does often say interesting and even courageous things (his take-down of Tai Nahesi-Coates is a must-read). But he's not always interesting and courageous. This essay reveals a failing many academics suffer from--the assumption that sloppy writing or speaking reveals sloppy thinking.

This is itself sloppy thinking--that ineloquence is evidence against an idea.

This is especially an issue with Trump as he often deliberately appears sloppy in order to trigger people like McWhorter. For instance, I have little doubt that Trump spelled forest with 2 Rs to remind people of Forrest Gump to make people think of low IQs when they think of the CA government.

Pam said...

McWorter: "He simply cannot accept—cannot grasp—that international diplomacy could possibly require more subtlety than a real-estate transaction."

Could Professor McWorter equally acknowledge for the sake of argument the possibility that international diplomacy may not require more subtlety than a real estate transaction? And by the way, I'm a lawyer and I've never seen the words "real estate" hyphenated. What does that mean in terms of the professor's ability to appreciate the nuances of international diplomacy?

And so, what role does arrogance and hubris play here, because how many million dollar anything has this professor negotiated? Did he negotiate his own real estate purchases, his own employment contract, any contract for anything? Did he write a book about negotiating? Has he had success after success at negotiating? Please don't condescend to me by arguing that grammer and pretty sentence structure should be my compass to pick my president. I'll take courage, resolve, confidence, belief in the Constitutional Republic and the rule of law, and a undying, unflappable view that our country is magnificent in its creation and inception. How about that?

Seth Barrett Tillman said...

Pam: We all have to use spell check. Seth

narayanan said...

Has not history shown that almost all sticking points in international diplomacy related to "REAL ESTATE"

David said...

Truman got us into Vietnam? Did not know this.

Elisin said...

David - I'm assuming that's a joke that I just don't get. If not, when I bing search 'Truman land war asia' the first page has many links to articles with Korea in the blurb.

Anonymous said...

I generally like McWhorter, too, have so for going on two decades. But I've noticed a pattern among otherwise sane people regarding Trump. Reason magazine is the prime example. Here we have the most mainstream libertarian publication bashing Trump on a daily basis when in fact Trump is arguably the most libertarian POTUS since Silent Cal. Same deal with McWhorter. I can only guess that it's so unfashionable in his social circles to even hint that Trump is having some success so he's reduced to ankle biting about Trump's grammar.


Ken said...

"He simply cannot accept—cannot grasp—that international diplomacy could possibly require more subtlety than a real-estate transaction."

I love this claim. The author probably believes this, which is the problem. The type of real estate transactions Trump has done are far more complex and subtle than this pretender could possibly understand because the author does not want to understand. To understand the grasp Trump has on international relations and the use of power means the author would have to admit how seriously wrong he is about many things, something that egotist could not possibly do.

Dick Eagleson said...

If facility with the English language is now a prime criterion for high office, it's a good thing Barack Obama reached the Presidency when he did. He didn't actually write very much compared to Trump, especially on social media platforms, but his sundry mis-speakings were legion. Probably the creepiest of these was his repeated pronunciation of the word "corpsman" as "corpse-man" on one memorable occasion. No, Mr. President, military medics are not The Walking Dead. Then there was the "54 states" thing, his reference to Austrians speaking "Austrian" - the list could go on and on.

In addition to being halting and inarticulate when deprived of a teleprompter and a prepared text, Obama actually was a bad President - a very bad President. Like Jimmy Carter before him, he learned nothing in office and left messes with which the nation will still likely be dealing decades after his leaving office. Trump seems to - gasp - actually be trying, and sometimes succeeding, in fixing things that are genuinely broken.

JMW Turner said...

As an English major from the distant past, I'd like to point out that clear writing, correct spelling, and proper grammar only succeeds if the thoughts are equally clear.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Those who make their living with words tend to overvalue them.