The Corner


‘Harridan’ and Other Heresies

(Philippe Wojazer / Reuters)

During the latest Democratic presidential debate, I did some tweeting — some “live tweeting” (dread activity). One of the things I wrote was this: “If Warren is the nominee, will she come off as an impassioned, capable reformer or a left-wing, campus-style harridan? That is a huge question, unanswerable now, I believe.”

This tweet occasioned some responses — and I will cite a few in a moment.

For the last several years, I have complained that readers treat journalists and other writers like politicians. And this is not necessarily the readers’ fault: because journalists and other writers act like politicians, many of them.

They tailor their “message” to the audience. They deliver applause lines. (I have sometimes said to a colleague on a platform, “Are you running for office?”) They find the “sweet spot” (the politically safe spot). They worry about their popularity and their “clicks.” (Sometimes their pay depends on it.) On cable television, they sound like spokesmen for the DNC or the RNC.

In journalism now, they say that a piece “does well” or doesn’t “do well.” What they mean is it’s popular or not — nothing to do with the quality or importance of the piece.

A reader once said to me, “Do you realize you have offended millions of voters?” Okay. So?

In 2012, I used the word “wetback,” in a particular context. A little storm ensued. I wrote about this in a piece, “A Nasty Little Storm.” When the Left is mad at me — on Twitter, for example — they still throw “wetback” at me. I guess Google leads them to it.

Okay, back to the latest. When I wrote my tweet about Warren, the word “harridan” raised hackles. I didn’t call her one, mind you. I wondered whether, if she were the nominee, she would come off as “an impassioned, capable reformer or a left-wing, campus-style harridan.”

One reader said, “Really, Jay?” Another said, “Really?!?!” Someone said — charitably — “Gonna chalk up ‘harridan’ to tweeting too fast.” Another reader said, “Words matter. I think you can do better than this.”

Yes, words matter — very much. And, no, I can’t do better, because “harridan” is the perfect word there. The mot juste. I doubt a politician would use it — it would probably be unwise — but who’s running for office? (I would if you asked me, but people seldom do.)

I have always resisted the language cops. That was one reason I rejected the Left, soundly, when I was in college. They were always policing your language. The Right was far more tolerant, more open — more liberal, if you like.

These days, you got language cops on the right, too. I have been told not to say “gay marriage” but rather “homosexual marriage.” And I had occasion to write the following earlier this year — in a journal from the Oslo Freedom Forum:

Audrey Mbugua is from Kenya. She tells a story of transgenderism — her own. (I’m not sure that “transgenderism” is the right word. I find these sexual terms a minefield. People are always correcting you, or at least they are me.) Mbugua believes that she was born into the wrong sex — specifically, the male sex. It felt like a terrible, cosmic mistake to her.

I know some people don’t want me to say “her.” I have always resisted the language cops, whatever direction they were coming from.

Yup — and they can pry “harridan” from my cold, dead hands.

A few months ago, The New Republic published a wildly offensive piece about Mayor Pete Buttigieg. There was a little outcry. TNR removed the piece from its website, with a weepy apology. I was sorry to see this — not because I was a fan of the piece but because I hate to see a magazine succumb to the mob.

The political world and the media world are related. I would still like to see a line between them, however.

I hope that writers will be as bold as they can — as bold as practicalities allow. I hope they will be as non-politician-y as they can. We here at National Review are very, very lucky — lucky in our freedoms. Our founder did not fear to cross the “base” — as when he supported Jimmy Carter’s Panama Canal treaties (which were anathema to the Right). Also, drug legalization was not so cool — not on the right — once upon a time.

In the past, I’ve advised audiences, “Try to find a writer who doesn’t need to be loved or approved.” Find a honey badger — a writer who will say what he thinks is true and important, regardless of reader reaction. George Will is the example I cite most often. I could name another 20, many of whom are my close colleagues.

And if there comes a day when there is one writer — real writer — left in America, it won’t be me, I’m afraid. I can be pretty politician-y. It’ll be Kevin Williamson, right?

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