Politics & Policy

Shyster, Shyster, Shyster

Some lighter fare.

Now that the Iraq war is about over — or at least the shooting part — I’d like to take a quick moment and look to the lighter fare in the news, the stuff akin to the meal I have between late breakfast and early lunch. You know, the easy listening of punditry, the sort of stuff that you can read with one eye, on the train. The sort of stuff you banter about at the watercooler. The sort of stuff for which Alec Baldwin only needs one tutor to understand.

Let’s start with an editorial in this week’s New York Observer, a fun, but odd, newspaper primarily geared toward the sort of literary liberals who deny they read the Drudge Report or NRO (they are smart enough to publish Rick Brookhiser though). Anyway, the editors of the Observer have gotten their panties in a bunch over the rise of anti-Semitism over here in NR land.

Now you might think this is a reference to the way Rich Lowry keeps coming up with article ideas like “Can Jonah stop an industrial fan with his face?” or “How many strangers does Jonah have to deep kiss as they get off the plane from Shanghai before he gets SARS?” Or, you might think this is a reference to how many times I’ve been invited to “The Nutcracker Suite” — A.K.A. NR Publisher Ed Capano’s office (for the ostensible purpose of getting a raise only to find the suits waiting — like Marmalard, Neidermeyer & Co. in the motel room waiting for Otter) to give me a pummeling (they call it “motivation” or “curing” my writer’s block).

But no; the editors of the Observer are referring to the hateful use of the word “Shyster” by the editors of National Review. I’ll let them explain:

There’s a reason why some words or phrases simply are not acceptable in polite company. They are offensive, redolent with prejudice and hatred, and simply not clever or witty.

Take, for example, the word “shyster.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is of “obscure origin,” but its meaning is hardly obscure. Rooted in the German scatological term scheisser, it’s a deplorable and demeaning word which has traditionally been loaded with anti-Semitism. You’d think the editors of the National Review would have thought twice before using the word in a headline. Apparently not: In the magazine’s April 21 issue, a review of Walter K. Olson’s book, The Rule of Lawyers, was entitled “Shyster Heaven.” No doubt the editors found this clever and amusing. It was nothing of the sort — it was either an insensitive oversight or anti-Semitic innuendo. . . .

Blah, blah, blah. Some interesting etymological stuff about Shakespeare’s Shylock and the like fills in the middle part of the editorial. And then, the kicker:

The founder and former editor in chief of the National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., surely would have understood the vulgarity of the word and the ugliness of the sentiments. Sadly, his successors apparently have neither his judgment nor his wit.

Now before we bust out the B’nai B’rith “Righteous Editorial of the Year” Award, let’s run through a couple quick stats. The New York Times, by my quick (and limited) Lexis-Nexis search, has used the word “shyster” no fewer than 107 times in the last few decades. The Washington Post, 128 times. Among those who use this execrable slur have been noted anti-Semites Charles Krauthammer, Mary McGrory, and Richard Cohen, who declared “The president cannot persist in acting like some shyster who mines the fine print for the gold no one else can see.” The Jerusalem Post has used the word more than 20 times over the last decade or so, and from what I can tell never once mentioned the pernicious roots of the slur. Other publications railing against perfidious shysters include The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, and similarly notorious Jew-hating rags. And, I even found three mentions of the word in previous issues of that Protocols of the Elder of Zion in tan broadsheet — the New York Observer!

So am I making a big deal out of this? Yes and no. Yes, because well, who cares? No, because this nonsense on the Observer’s part is typical of a certain breed of liberals who refuse to debate facts when they can demean motives — as when Charles Rangel said of Republicans who favor limited government, “It’s not ‘spic’ or ‘nigger’ anymore. They say, ‘Let’s cut taxes.’” The Observer assumes bigotry or — shriek! — insensitivity only from conservatives and therefore feels it needn’t address the issues.

But now we’re getting too serious, so let’s leave it here: Okay, maybe — maybe — the word “Shyster” has some unpleasant connotations for people whose ears can pick up grievances at decibel levels normal human ears cannot. Fine, fine. Interesting stuff. But, like Dutch Treat, that bigoted veneer has been rubbed off by common usage. Or, in this case, by the sort of greasy money-grubbing we’ve come to associate with the beady-eyed shysters The New York Observer feels compelled to defend from nasty ol’ National Review.


That took longer than I planned, so let’s stay with this English stuff (Alec Baldwin’s second language after hand puppet).

The other day I mentioned in The Corner that I am perturbed by the use — or what I called the misuse — of the word “decimate” on TV. Reporters constantly referred to how Saddam’s troops had been “decimated.” I objected that the original meaning of the word means “to kill one out of ten,” so saying the “division has been decimated by 40 percent” just doesn’t make much sense to the non-mathematically inclined. Other readers complained that the word had moved on, like “shyster” I suppose, to mean simply “destroy.” Stop being a pedant, they complained. I backtracked a bit. Then other people wrote in to say pedantry is important because without it the language slips out to sea entirely. This opinion elicited a counterargument which said that language is organic and we must not end up like the French who batten-down their words with tack hammers every time an American linguistic breeze blows through. And so on, back and forth. One side, saying “let our freak flag fly!” The other side saying “Where will it end?” (In hyper-minature [like the Mona Lisa on a grain of rice], this is actually a summary of the entire post-Enlightenment argument about how to organize civilization itself, balancing self-expression against self-discipline, order against chaos, yin versus yang, cats against dogs, Maggie versus the one-eyebrowed baby, suits against scribblers, and so on.)

Well, the “where will it end?” partisans of pedantry scored a huge victory, or loss, depending on how you look at it, in Scotland last month. A schoolgirl submitted a paper written entirely in cell-phone text-message hieroglyphics. Here is a portion of the essay from Scotland’s Sunday Herald. Let’s see if U CN TRNSL8 A TXT SA?

My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we usd 2 go 2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :-@ kds FTF. ILNY, its gr8.

Bt my Ps wr so:-/ BC o 9/11 tht they dcdd 2 stay in SCO & spnd 2wks up N.

Up N, WUCIWUG – 0. I ws vvv brd in MON. 0 bt baas & — — -.

AAR8, my Ps wr 🙂 – they sd ICBW, & tht they wr ha-p 4 the pc&qt…IDTS!! I wntd 2 go hm ASAP, 2C my M8s again.

2day, I cam bk 2 skool. I feel v O:-) BC I hv dn all my hm wrk. Now its BAU

Here’s the translation:

My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York, it’s a great place.

But my parents were so worried because of the terrorism attack on September 11 that they decided we would stay in Scotland and spend two weeks up north.

Up north, what you see is what you get – nothing. I was extremely bored in the middle of nowhere. Nothing but sheep and mountains.

At any rate, my parents were happy. They said that it could be worse, and that they were happy with the peace and quiet. I don’t think so! I wanted to go home as soon as possible, to see my friends again.

Today I came back to school. I feel very saintly because I have done all my homework. Now it’s business as usual . . .


I’ve done a bit of college speaking lately — at Wheaton College, Williams, and Metro State in Denver. And I have to say how deeply flattered and just all-around pleased I am by the attendance of NRO readers. It makes every audience I speak to immeasurably friendlier and easier to talk to when I know that I have my own peeps in the crowd. Thanks very much to everyone. I’ll continue to announce events as they come up (Princeton in a week or two, Hillsdale Academy for their Commencement) in The Corner, and hopefully whenever I write a book you folks will show up then, too.

Even bigger thanks go to Kathryn Lopez, Chris McEvoy, and Aaron Bailey — and K-Lo’s merry band of writers — for the unbelievably good job they did covering the war for the last few weeks. If you notice a slow down in The Corner and elsewhere, it’s partly due to their much deserved need to take a deep breath. I cannot exaggerate how proud I am of NRO and the fact that so many people mistakenly think I am responsible for the excellent work it does.

Lastly, in meeting so many NROniks in the flesh over the last week, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback. Lots of people want more Cosmo, Lucy, and Alec Baldwin bashing. You got one out of three today and more on tap. Later.


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