More Than Three Little Words

Presidential election result headline in the Nov. 8, 2020, editions of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
Presidential election result headline in the Nov. 8, 2020, editions of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

When I have taught or trained in editing or writing or somesuch, I always bring out a personal lesson: What is wrong with the headline “Suspect Arrested”?

For those who did reasonably well in high school English, you’ll recall having been taught that such sentences or phrases are in the passive voice and that you never should use the passive voice.

The passive voice puts the subject of the sentence at the end, after the word “by,” “Suspect Arrested by Police.” Further, my passive headline has an “implied subject”: the phrase “By Police” is missing, precisely because it’s obvious.

The standard passive style is scorned because straightline phrasing with active verbs is livelier and more attractive. (To passive readers, presumably.) The problem with an implied subject comes from it not being obvious to the general reader.

The lesson I deliver to novices, however, is that the passive voice exists, even gets a name, because it has sound uses in good writing. Top reason: You want to avoid saying the obvious.

A few weeks into my first copy-editing job at the then-Arkansas Democrat in Little Rock, in 1985, I submitted atop a crime brief the headline, “Suspect Arrested in LR Robbery.” (Candidly, I only remember the first half, not the crime committed.) The copy desk’s shift chief, the slot editor, Melody, called me on it, that we always use the active voice.

She rewrote the headline to “Police Hold Suspect in LR Robbery.” The character count is only 2 longer (29 and 31) so either will fit across two columns in the selected font size.

I objected of course, saying it’s obvious who did the arresting, you don’t need to spell out the cops. Melody was not persuaded, and she was slot that night.

I made the rule for myself, though, for later on when I could get by with it:

The implied subject in a passive construction is superfluous if it is obvious, so is usually allowable.

So who or what determined Joe Biden was victorious in the epochal, centered, all-cap, bold-faced, sans serif headline of editions of Sunday’s Arkansas Democrat-Gazette “BIDEN CALLED VICTOR”?

Or did they? It’s someone’s call, maybe he’s not the winner.

The implied subject is not clear. For the passive voice with implied subject to work, the subject has to be clear, to a hypothetical Joe.

The evident point of the headline was that the country began Saturday the 7th to move as if Biden won the presidency with the last final if uncertified state tallies that morning. The subtextual second point was that Biden was not factually victorious as the incumbent promised to fight the vote tallies in the courts.

Whomever chose BIDEN CALLED VICTOR wanted the second point to be nearly as strong as the first.

The editors had a good news-judgment reason, to show that the race was not over. Yet just as factual were the headlines nationwide from that Sunday the 8th: mostly variations on “Biden Wins.”

Not that media projections of incomplete or almost complete vote returns are official, that awaits certification days later, but for many decades they have an informal legitimacy. Because the final counts usually show slight changes.

If election results change through recounts or legal maneuvers, that calls for new headlines on those future articles. Don’t have to signal that possibility early.

“Biden Called Victor” is an alternate grammar construction, where the implied subject is not obvious but deliberately not clear.

Let’s call it the “passive-aggressive voice.”

“Biden Called Victor” is not terrible because readers should get the intent: ambiguity. But my old paper the Demzette long has prided itself on precise language. Choosing a headline that calls attention to itself should be allowable only for puns on light stories.

If it was so important to point out some softness of Joe Biden’s electoral victory 4-5 days after the election, the paper could’ve made the same point actively and clearly — and a bit longer headline count (22.5 and 26.5) so drop the font a bit — with:


A majority of Americans, maybe even a majority of Electoral College delegates, would agree.

Subtotal Recall

Of all the things I might remember about fifth grade — that would be age 11 plus-minus — why does the state-mandated Arkansas history semester stay in my noggin? Before today, I thought it was because this was the first and last time I cheated on a test.

Arkansas map showing county boundaries
Here’s your test, class: write the name of each county of Arkansas, and the county seats, so that teacher can read it!
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Not because I needed to. The smart kid getting away with murder, well cheating, would be revenge on what I took to be a lazy teacher. Yes, that’s me at 11, some 51 years ago, thinking like that.

Besides going through the textbook, Mrs. Floyd had us memorize the names of all 75 counties and their county seats. Now what practical good is that? It’s not even conceptually pedagogical, when you could be tested on crops or ores or prehistory or famous authors or the stars on the flag.

My memory, for normal uses of recall, remains good. But rote memorization scared me then (and makes me squirm now). That weakness also was part of my anger, worried I would not be able to ace the test.

For days I stuck a playing card on the clipboard I liked to write on, splaying it across the tabs on either side of the clip. On the day of the test, the card had taped to it a scrap of paper where itty bitty I wrote out the counties and their seats.

I wasn’t caught. I didn’t feel good about this afterward, nor did I regret it. My friends never knew, probably.

In today’s Sunday editions of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, though, journalist Bill Bowden reports that the Arkansas history textbooks used through the 1960s were not merely pro-Confederacy on that aspect of the state’s story but pro Ku Klux Klan, “Arkansas History Books Carried Rebel Slant — Lessons Reflected Lost Cause Views.”

My friend’s detailed article has plenty of quotes from the handful of authorized textbooks. None rang a bell at least directly, but something clicked this morning. Back then, I read the local and Little Rock dailies and the weekly magazines my parents subscribed to. Yet I still was a young child in 1968 or ’69. Maybe this state history claptrap did not sit right, causing something to lock in my cranium.

“The Klansmen told the Negroes to be good and to stay away from the polls on election days. Negroes who refused to obey were visited a second time and taken out and whipped.”

Our Arkansas, published in 1958 by Walter L. Brown, reported by Bowden

A Democrat-Gazette photograph shows four of the hardback books. Their cloth covers (no dust jackets) are red, green or orange. I remember though our state history was dark blue. I might be mistaken.

I wish I could claim prescience on the factual presentation or my perception of cultural evil. Nah. I’m nearly over the hill here in 2020 and still must work to increase my empathy and understanding of people and peoples.

It’s just odd that I remember sitting in that near-basement classroom of Mrs. Floyd in Ballman Elementary School, toward the right and toward the front. Half my friends were there, and the other half in the other fifth-grade class, that of Mrs. Gossett. Mrs. Floyd was prim and not quite young, Mrs. Gossett older with gray curls and a little sloppy. There are Mark, Dana, Richard, Keith, Kevin, Jim, Cici, Gae Von, Ann, Cindy and so on. I was the last picked for kickball teams at recess, so Mark and I read outside when we could get by with it. I recall no anecdotes about the reading and math we were taught, nor the topic of the other semester that preceded state history.

Maybe though we slogged through Arkansas history in the fall.

Coda: In 2015-16, I worked as a substitute teacher for Fayetteville and suburban Farmington public schools. At one middle school one day, the history teacher’s lesson plan had me help the students go through a section on Reconstruction.

This was only a couple of pages. As we started I saw the components on why Reconstruction failed were wrong factually. There wasn’t time for me to Google on my cell phone enough facts to put this in perspective for the students. And should a sub do that, ethically? All I could do was tell each class how complicated that period was and encourage them to look the topic up after school for the full story.

That’s What He Is, All Right

Official White House photo pf President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence
Official White House photos of President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence

From Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, to Wednesday, Dec. 18, 2019, neither spoken nor written have I ever used the phrase President Trump or any variation. That is I did not adjoin the word “president” and the word “Trump.” Or “president” and “Donald J. Trump,” etc. I called the man by his names, and I liked DJT. Also said “the president.

Why haven’t I called Trump president? It’s not because he didn’t win the office. I think he did. He, the Republican Party in general and his campaign managers figured out how to game the Electoral Collage, which states to focus on.

You can’t win a big competition just by being the best campaigner. It’s more key to slam any rivals. Somehow negativity sticks with us humans better than positivity. Turns out that creating doubt isn’t hard. Making it stick takes more strategic effort.

Republicans figured out how to slander the Democratic nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton so effectively that even most of her supporters said something to the effect of, “Yeah, maybe she is (whatever), but she’s best we’ve got for 2016 and better than him.”

The GOP got there first and hit hardest. The more Democrats stamped and hollered about Trump, oddly, the more firmly his followers back him. Why? He owned most of the allegations, turned them around by bragging. That’s why calling Trump a liar is weird. At the least expected times, the habitual liar tells the truth.

It’s not that the Trump Republicans practiced “you can fool some of the people some of the time,” but engaged in “you can fool enough of the people.”

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Truth in the Stars

Four blue stars on Arkansas flag defined
The symbolism of the four blue stars on Arkansas flag is explained.

It’s been embarrassing.

The state flag of Arkansas includes an explicit reference to the Confederacy. The overall design can be seen as having similarities to the Confederate battle flag of the American Civil War. The early 20th-century legislation establishing the banner sets four large blue stars within a diamond to refer to the nations to which Arkansas has belonged: a triangle indicating Spain, France and the United States, and separately and uppermost the Confederacy.

During the 2019 General Session of the Arkansas Legislature, a Democratic Little Rock representative proposed dropping the Confederate reference and making a star symbolize the indigenous tribes that dwelled here before the European conquests. It was twice defeated in committee.

Why take the state’s word on such a matter? Why not as citizens proclaim the four blue stars be both inclusive and accurate? This detail might not make a sanctioned state history textbook, but a nongovernmental group could promote an alternative symbolism in defiance of accepted and prejudicial dogma.

Local 965 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees approved such a resolution March 28, 2019. I wrote the text, being a union member, sitting on the board as recording secretary and communications director. [A similar post is on the 965 website.] The rationale is that nearly all Local members are directly and indirectly workers in education. A modern flag is a teaching device, presenting facts and concepts. Educators have a vested interest in symbols that we use to impart knowledge and values.

Star Crossed: A Symbolic Act of Civil Disobedience

That Local 965, AFSCME, promote a fair and historically accurate representation of the official Arkansas State Flag.

Since 1923, the Arkansas Legislature has held that its fourth, separate blue star signifies the state’s membership in the Confederacy, the other three blue stars in place from 1913 representing the nations having held the territory from which Arkansas was carved — Spain, France and since 1803 the United States. (Reference)

The four-year Confederacy being considered a sovereign state comparable to the Republic, not to mention European nations, pales in comparison to how indigenous tribes dwelled in the region for centuries before, primarily the Quapaw, Osage and Caddo. (Reference)

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2,000 Words

Photos of Trump about to welcome Clemson football team with silver setting, lit candles and prepackaged fast food, and a photo from Snopes of Roger Stone's Nixon face tattoo
Main photo NBC News, inset photo

“A picture is worth a thousand words.”

This is my Facebook profile photo and cover photo for Sunday. Can’t stomach it for more than that nor wish others to deal with it longer either.

“Revulsion” is not an impeachable offense for Donald J. Trump, but these snapshots should convey revulsion and the facts behind DJT’s unfitness for office. These photos should imply the extent of who he is, was and will be.

The balance of power has moved away from DJT and the Republic Party and its leadership, with the Democratic Party majority in the House of Representatives. That leaves the GOP, which dares not utter opposition publicly to the president, his policies or administration, controlling the Executive Branch, the Senate and increasingly the Judiciary Branch.

We’re probably stable as a nation until a huge calamity — a natural disaster bigger than the worst hurricanes of this century OR a terrorism attack greater than 9/11.

I fear the Democrats will feel they have no choice, in such circumstances, to give the current administration whatever it wants, comparable to 2001-02.

Let’s pray and think good thoughts, shall we? Simultaneously we citizens can further restore the balance of power in the nation’s capital and state capitals.

Any updates to the post will identified as such.

Consent Degree

Bullies surround us. Always. All of us, 100 percent. Accept it, you know it’s true, and choose your battles. Making dark jokes helps. Also, they’re not always on the prowl.

Two young antelopes spar or play in front of elephant
Credit: StockSnap

This isn’t about bobcats or coyotes. Although like humans, kitty cats and puppy dogs if the predator instinct remains strong and they’re given the chance play with their prey. Sometimes human bullies feel a need for something their victims have, but often enough it’s more gratuitous. While compulsion is strong, humans have more power of choice than other animals.

This is not to say all of us are victims AND all of us are bullies — maybe just latently cruel or maybe just sometimes. I don’t see that in myself and others. Some people are bullies, and the majority of us have to deal with that.

But 100 percent of us can do ugly things.

Among bullies, some are lifers. Sickos keep at it year after year. Others bully a few times or within a span of a few years — late childhood or early adulthood — then seem to retire from it.

Louis C.K.’s stand-up never has done much for me. The routines (culture, family, relationships) are more provoking than funny. But I relished his sitcom Louie. With overlapping plots and major and minor characters, he covered much of the same ground, with greater impact. Thus, I hope to someday see I Love You, Daddy, his film satire whose release got scuttled with his expose.

The hashtag #metoo has been a digital key this fall inspired by journalism reports of sexual assault, sexual harassment and sexual threats by famous or successful people. The victims in these cases often are not typical victims in terms of helplessness but at times ambitious and with early successes in their own right. What these victims have done best is bring the type of bullying that beset them — sexual — to light. Light, air, candor, specifics.

I read in social media the #metoo’s of people I know. If every person could in full confidence post #metoo, it’d be 100 percent. Surely every girl gets the talk from someone: Be careful with men. The threat’s universal. Continue reading