The sun may not rise tomorrow. Rivers might begin to flow uphill, and the sea could turn to blood. The Eiffel Tower could come to life, shake its legs, and dance the mazurka through the streets of Paris. Titmice could begin to recite Paradise Lost. The heavens could roll up as a scroll.
David Brooks has written a good column.
What's more, in it he reveals that there is something he really cares about, namely good writing. He has been reading a series of columns that Harriet Miers wrote for the Texas Bar Journal while she was the President of the Texas Bar, and he is appalled. As he says, "the quality of thought and writing doesn't even rise to the level of pedestrian." This might seem excessively snarky, until you read some of the examples he gives. As he writes:
"Nothing excuses sentences like this:
"More and more, the intractable problems in our society have one answer: broad-based intolerance of unacceptable conditions and a commitment by many to fix problems."
Or this: "We must end collective acceptance of inappropriate conduct and increase education in professionalism."
Or this: "When consensus of diverse leadership can be achieved on issues of importance, the greatest impact can be achieved."
Or passages like this: "An organization must also implement programs to fulfill strategies established through its goals and mission. Methods for evaluation of these strategies are a necessity. With the framework of mission, goals, strategies, programs, and methods for evaluation in place, a meaningful budgeting process can begin."
Or, finally, this: "We have to understand and appreciate that achieving justice for all is in jeopardy before a call to arms to assist in obtaining support for the justice system will be effective. Achieving the necessary understanding and appreciation of why the challenge is so important, we can then turn to the task of providing the much needed support."
I don't know if by mere quotation I can fully convey the relentless march of vapid abstractions that mark Miers's prose. Nearly every idea is vague and depersonalized. Nearly every debatable point is elided. It's not that Miers didn't attempt to tackle interesting subjects. She wrote about unequal access to the justice system, about the underrepresentation of minorities in the law and about whether pro bono work should be mandatory. But she presents no arguments or ideas, except the repetition of the bromide that bad things can be eliminated if people of good will come together to eliminate bad things.
Or as she puts it, "There is always a necessity to tend to a myriad of responsibilities on a number of cases as well as matters not directly related to the practice of law." And yet, "Disciplining ourselves to provide the opportunity for thought and analysis has to rise again to a high priority."
Throw aside ideology. Surely the threshold skill required of a Supreme Court justice is the ability to write clearly and argue incisively. Miers's columns provide no evidence of that."
I have been sitting back and watching the fights over the Miers nomination with a certain detachment. I said what I thought of it, but my opinions will not affect what happens in any way. That depends on the fights among conservatives, which I have no part in. For all I know, I thought, she could be better than she seems, though the administration's attempt to sell her nomination by citing her strong opposition to limits on Presidential power really scares me.
But the passages of her writing Brooks cites suggest a whole new line of concern. As I am forever telling my students, it's generally not true that you can have a perfectly sound argument that just happens to be obscured by terrible writing, as though the argument were one thing and the language that expresses it something else altogether. You don't have to be a graceful or elegant writer to be a good thinker, but it's very hard to think clearly if you can't write clear, workmanlike prose.
The passages Brooks quotes suggest not only that she didn't write clearly, but that (at least in the early 90s, when she wrote them) she couldn't. These are not, I think, the sorts of sentences that would be written by a good writer who was writing in haste, for instance. They are the sort that would be written by someone for whom written prose was to some extent an alien and resistant medium.
Bacon wrote that "Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man." For some jobs, fullness or readiness is what's required. But being a judge requires a mind with just the sort of exactitude that writing creates and good writing reveals. If Miers doesn't have it, that's a real problem.