The worst sentence ever: “Mistakes were made”

In my day job as a journalist and editor, I eradicate a lot of passive voice. Let’s face it, 95% of passive voice usage is bad writing. It’s the easiest thing to attack when I first sit down to edit something. Find the passive voice construction, figure out what the subject and predicate of the sentence should be, rewrite. It’s the fastest way to improve someone’s writing. The next step? Strip out adverbs. Third step? That’s a trade secret.

Anyway, I highlighted some wisdom from Stephen King in my blog recently. He once wrote that the use of passive voice is a sign of a timid and insecure writer. I absolutely agree with him.

But there is one example of a passive voice sentence that is not indicative of timidity. “Mistakes were made.” This sentence is a dodge. It’s an example of political obfuscation, cowardice and cunning. Countless politicians and hacks have used this sentence construction to admit fault without actually pinning any blame to themselves. Look at the sentence: “Mistakes were made.” Who made the mistakes? This sentence certainly doesn’t explain it.

Wikipedia has a helpful list of historical uses of the sentence. President Ulysses S. Grant used a variation of it while discussing corruption in his administration. Richard Nixon used it quite a bit during the Watergate scandal. Ronald Reagan used it while discussing the Iran-Contra affair. Bill Clinton used it while discussing some fundraising shenanigans.

“Mistakes were made” is a slippery phrase people both in and out of power use to avoid accepting full responsibility. My fellow journalists should not allow politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats to get away with it. If you are at a press conference and you hear a senator or a CEO utter those words, interrupt him or her.

“Mistakes were made.”

“Excuse me, Senator. Who made those mistakes.”

“Um, I did.”

That’s right. Pin those people down. Their communications directors and pollsters have trained them to never actually say “I made a mistake,” and civil society suffers as a result. These people are avoiding accountability. Someone might counter and tell me, “Oh, we know what they mean. We know they made the mistakes.”

Well sure, we know it. But we have to extrapolate that truth for ourselves. We’re not really hearing an admission of guilt from Nixon, Reagan or Clinton. There is no accountability in their statements. Language is a powerful thing. There is a reason why they are using passive voice in this case. They know what they’re doing. And we should call them on it.

Just contemplate the emotional reactions you have when you read these two sentences.

“Mistakes were made.”

“I made a mistake.”

You cannot deny the power of that second sentence. The person speaking those words is taking a stand. They are claiming responsibility for something that went wrong. We, the listeners, hear and accept that admission of guilt. And in some small way, we accept it. We’re ready to move on. We’re ready to fix whatever went wrong.

The person speaking the passive voice is hiding in the shadows. We may be angry about those mistakes, but the speaker is being slippery. Maybe he made the mistake. Maybe someone else did. We can’t be sure because no one and standing up and taking the blame. So we feel cheated. We feel lied to. And the person who speaks the words gets to dodge blame in some small way. It has to stop.

“Mistakes were made” is the worst sentence in the English language. We need to kill it.


Guns for self-defense: What are we afraid of?

Gun rights advocates tell us the Second Amendment is the people’s guarantee that their freedoms cannot be taken away, whether by criminals or a tyrannical government.

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

It is the possibility of an criminal entering one’s home or otherwise assaulting one’s rights that motivates many to keep assault weapons that can inflict massive causalities. They also argue that their ownership of these weapons is a check on government tyranny. Never mind the fact that an AR-15 will do little to stop tanks and helicopter gunships.

But the fact remains that millions of us don’t own guns and we get on just fine without them. We don’t live in fear of someone breaking into our homes. We know its a possibility, but we also know that the police for the most part keep our streets safe. Many of us distrust our government, even despise our government, but we don’t feel the need to keep an AK-47 in the closet just in case.

So why do some of us need these guns and others don’t? I can’t pretend to know the answer to that. But the fact that I don’t feel that need to own a gun for self-defense keeps me from fully understanding the point of view of someone who feels otherwise. It makes it very hard to debate the issue when people are divided by a feeling that is so ingrained in their very fiber.

Still, of all the wealthiest, industrialized democracies in the world, gun ownership — and gun-related deaths — are far too high in the United States. Western and Central Europe are mostly free of gun violence. The United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, Australia.

Our country has always been a special case with gun ownership, I suppose. We rose up, after all. We drove out the British. We formed militias, distributed muskets. And when the war was over and the British were gone, we held onto those muskets. We expanded West.  Guns were essential for self-defense and hunting and the occasional murder. Guns became a sport, too. They became a family tradition. Many fathers passed down guns from one generation to the next.

But assault weapons are something new. Semi-automatic High capacity magazines. Capable of firing off hundreds of rounds in a in a few minutes. Capable of wiping out a school or a movie theater or a church. These aren’t muskets. These aren’t hunting rifles. These aren’t for sport, even if some have adopted them as such.

When gun control advocates push back against the pervasiveness of guns that aren’t built for sport, gun rights advocates go back to the Second Amendment. They talk about self -defense and tyranny. The very act of restricting the size of a clip on an AR-15 is construed as tyranny. It will prevent someone from defending their home, they say.

Again, a lot of people tell me the right to bear arms should not be abridged because people need to be able to defend themselves. Why? Nathan Hegedus, a Stockholm-based writer who once lived in the U.S. recently wrote:

Buying a gun in our times, especially for self-defense, seems to me an aggressive or defensive act—a statement by the purchaser about how he feels about his community, his neighbors and his country. It means he doesn’t feel safe in his bed at night, that he doesn’t trust the police to stop the criminals, and he doesn’t trust his fellow citizens not to attack. You can mask it with talk of freedom or the Constitution but underneath it all is fear. Firearms have become a manifestation of a massive distrust of both government and the wider society, a physical manifestation of a deepening societal and political divide.

Hegedus points out that our country is going through tremendous change. It has been for much over the last fifteen years. We face globalization and post-industiralization. We’re on our way toward being a majority-minority society. Feminists and gay rights advocates are changing family structures. We have a black president! This country has changed so much. And yet, there are a lot of people who are not a part of this change because the United States is a very big place. There are communities and individuals in this country who feel like they’re being marginalized. Where they once felt mainstream, now they feel like they’re being pushed to the fringes. If you’re not connected to these changes and not sympathetic to them, how can you feel safe in such a place?

A gun advocate commenter on my blog recently wrote that in this world there are sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. He says he took this from the writings of retired army Lieutenant Colonel David Grossman, a scholar of violence, particularly the effects of training soldiers to kill. Most of us are live-and-let-live sheep, the commenter claims. But there are wolves among us who hunt and kill, steal and rape. Finally there are the sheepdogs, who keep watch over the sheep with their shotguns and their AR-15s. This is what this gun advocate would have me believe.

This commenter would have me believe that I am the sheep and he is the sheepdog. I disagree. I’m not afraid to defend myself. I’m not afraid to let out a little bit of the wolf if I need to. I just don’t feel the need to own a gun.

I think it comes down to faith. I have faith in my neighbors and my community. I have faith in the institutions of law and order. I have faith that many of the changes our country is seeing are good.

But I also face the reality that there are bad people out there and that there will always be a risk, however slight, of someone trying to do me harm. I’ve narrowly escaped bad situations before. They could come again. But I’m not going to let it dictate how I live my life. I’m not going to keep an assault weapon or even a handgun in my home. And a year from now when they run the Boston Marathon, I’ll take the day off from work and head down to Boylston Street and cheer on thousands of others who refuse to give into fear, too.

Reading a complete history of a world gone mad in World War Two

You were our liberator, but we, the diseased, emaciated, barely human survivors were your teachers. We taught you to understand the Kingdom of the Night.

Those are the words of holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. He wrote them about the American soldiers who arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11, 1945 and freed him and other ragged survivors of Nazi Germany’s brutality. His words are quoted by Martin Gilbert in his epic and sorrowful book, The Second World War: A Complete History.

I grew up with a father who was always fascinated by the history of World War Two. We would watch John Wayne movies together when I was young. He had a tattered copy of a Time-Life book on the history of the war that I would page through occasionally. I remember it mostly for the black and white photos, particularly the graphic images of dead soldiers lying on beaches and meadows, their eyes closed and their mouths open in some unending gasp of pain.

For all I knew of the war, I never fully understood the scale of it, nor the mechanics of how it all happened. Who attacked whom and why? How did the different alliances form and collapse? How did Germany and Japan go from unstoppable conquerors to cowed and shattered occupied nations?

To get a better picture of all that happened, I decided to pick up Gilbert’s complete history.

How can you capture a “complete history” of a war that spanned six years, killed more than 45 million people and engulfed an entire world? Gilbert did it within 750 dense pages. It’s a blow by blow account. It isn’t a deep reading of events. It won’t tell you why Adolph Hitler came to blame the Jews for all the world’s miseries, nor why Germany decided to follow him down a path of murder and depravity.  You can go elsewhere for those answers. You can read any number of books about D-Day at Normandy, the struggle of the Allies against the Japanese in the South Pacific, or the battle of Stalingrad. Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt. They’ve all had their biographers. Their deputies and generals, too. There are so many stories to tell.

But Gilbert takes a high-level view of the war. From beginning to end he summarizes every major battle in a few sentences or paragraphs. He explores the major events and the grand strategic decisions.  And he lists the dead. He offers name after name of people who lost their lives in battle, who were exterminated in death camps, who were tortured in dungeons, who drowned at sea. And he lists the nameless, too. One hundred gypsies dead on this day, 475 Jews dead on the next. The numbers just grind you down. The scale of the madness and murder is heartbreaking.

German soldiers rounding up Jewish women and children in the Warsaw ghetto

This book was a journey into the horror and the evil that was unleashed on the world in 1939. It is a portrait of a world gone completely insane. This book reveals Elie Wiesel’s Kingdom of Night, where madmen and banal cynics built gas chambers and crematoriums to exterminate Jews, Gypsies, Communists, homosexuals and anyone else they could blame for their own dreadful failures to live as decent human beings in a challenging world.

That madness lurks in our world still. There is so much hatred and fear. And there are still evil men who are more than happy to bend that hatred and fear to their will in pursuit of power and satisfaction of petty, ugly urges. Jihadism is an expression of that madness. So is the backlash against peaceful Muslims by bigots who firebomb mosques and beat up dark-skinned shopkeepers.

The eyeglasses of victims of the gas chambers at Auschwitz concentration camp

This is why I read history. I like to learn lessons from the past. They say learn from the past so you don’t repeat the mistakes of those who came before you. Well, I say you learn from the past so you can see what’s coming. Madness, hatred, fear, stupidity. It’s a toxic mix that lurks around us. Seventy years ago it drove grown men to line up hundreds and thousands of innocent men, women and children against walls in hundreds of cities and shoot them dead, all because they were different. They worshiped the wrong god. Their skin and their hair was a little too dark. They spoke Yiddish or Polish or Russian. Is it so hard to imagine it happening again? Did it really ever end?

The final line of Gilbert’s history of the war talks about unfinished business. “The great unfinished business of the Second Word War is human pain.” That pain never went away. It festered. It is still with us. It expresses itself in the Sudan, in Southeast Asia, in Mexico and on our own streets. Pain breeds hatred and with hatred comes madness. There is so much hatred in this world. A war wasn’t able to kill that hatred. Who knows what could. But hatred can be defeated by good-hearted people who have the courage to stand up and shout down the cynics and the demagogues. In 1939 there weren’t enough voices ready to drown out the ravings of Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini. Who offers up their voices today?

Nazi uniform-wearing Republican: Honest but clueless

Rich Iott, a Republican candidate for a U.S. Congressional seat in Ohio, says he wears a Nazi military uniform because he is fascinated by military history, not because he’s a Nazi sympathizer.

I believe him. But I also believe he has a thing or two to learn about history.

I love to read about history because I enjoy learning how the past shaped the world we live in today. A full understanding of history requires  you to take a broad view of past events. You can’t just interpret events to suit your own prejudices. History is about uncovering the truth. And the truth can be ugly.

Rich Iott is a millionaire businessman who is running for the  9th Congressional District in Ohio. The Atlantic has revealed that in his spare time he participates in a group that reenacts World War II battles as a unit of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking, a Nazi Germany military unit noted for its valor and known for having a large number of volunteers from Northern European countries that had either been conquered by or allied with Germany during the war.

This division was also part of the Waffen SS, the military arm of the German Nazi Party. The Waffen SS was a military organization that was distinct from Germany’s traditional regular army, the Wehrmacht. In fact, commanders and enlisted men in the Wehrmacht were known to despise the Waffen SS for a variety of reasons, in particular its function as an instrument of terror. The Waffen SS was responsible for a large percentage of the war crimes Germany perpetrated in World War II. During the 1939 invasion of Poland, the Waffen SS systematically murdered thousands of Jews and Poles. When officers in the Wehrmacht complained to Hitler’s government about the brutal and inhuman behavior of the Waffen SS, those complaining officers were usually relieved of duty. The Waffen SS continued to be an instrument of terror throughout the war, but it also was a competent fighting organization that proved itself in conventional battle.

So, we have a GOP candidate for Congress who in his spare time wears the uniform of a Panzer (tank) division within the Waffen SS. This has the media in a frenzy. Iott is such an easy target. Perhaps rightly so. But even as the media takes aim at him, they miss the real issue.

After all, is it really so terrible that Iott and some friends wear these uniforms in order to reenact battles from World War II? If he liked to dress up as a British Redcoat and reenact battles from the American Revolution, would we be so riled up? Reenacting historical military events is a common pursuit in our country. These are people who enjoy military history. They enjoy learning about it, reliving it and teaching about it.

If you visit the website of Iott’s “Wiking” reenactment group, it’s quite clear the group is sincere in its pursuit of learning and teaching history.

The real problem lies in the groups misrepresentation of history.

The group’s website describes a very narrow view of the history of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking. According to Iott’s group, the division was a valiant and highly decorated military unit made up of volunteers from Holland, Denmark, Norway, Finland and other Northern European countries who wanted to fight Soviet Russia and “the threat of communism.” According to the website, these men saw Nazi Germany as the “protector of personal freedom and their very way of life.”

This historical account is highly misleading. First of all, it neglects to mention that this SS division was involved in several war crimes. For instance it assisted the Einsatzkommandos (Germany’s paramilitary SS death squads that roamed Europe rounding up and murdering Jews) in murdering at least 50 Jews. Can any reenactment of this division be fully honest without some acknowledgment of this atrocity.

Second, the most famous member of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking must be acknowledged somewhere. He is Dr. Joseph Mengele. He served as a medic in this division before getting wounded. He was reassigned to the rear and eventually served in Germany’s concentration camp system. If you haven’t heard of Dr. Mengele before, do some reading. There are many reasons why he is known as the Angel of Death.

Finally, I believe that the “Wiking” reenactors are deliberately misinterpreting the motivations the of the 5th Division’s non-German volunteers. Did these men really see Germany as the protector of personal freedom? Germany had bombed Holland back into the Stone Age. It had invaded Norway and set up a puppet regime there.  It invaded Denmark, although it let the Danish government remain in place until 1943.  Only Finland was a real ally to Germany, and in some ways it had no choice. The Soviet Union tried to conquer Finland shortly after Germany invaded Poland. The Finns turned to Germany for help.

Did these people see their conquerors as defenders of freedom? Was their main motivation to fight the spread of communism? I think the truth is more complex than the “Wiking” group would have you believe. Perhaps some of them saw Germany as a beacon of freedom. I think others were drawn to the Nazi Germany’s ideology of racial superiority and xenophobia. To many, Communist was just a euphemism for Jew or Gypsy.

I think Iott has been seduced by the idea of Europeans volunteering to fight against communism because the idea appeals to his ideology. He is a “Tea Party” candidate for Congress, which means he’s a part of the movement which thinks that anything slightly left of the political center is socialist. I think he has a romantic view of these Danes, Finns, Norwegians and Dutch men who became SS soldiers in order to fight communism and socialism because he still sees communism and socialism as an evil that plagues our country today. He’s wrong of course, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Because of their romantic view of these Nazi soldiers (and let’s not be coy, these were Nazi soldiers) and their so-called struggle against communism, Iott and his colleagues have chosen to ignore some of the more unsavory facts of the history of the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking. By painting an incomplete picture of the division, they are doing a disservice to the study of history. In some ways they are rewriting it. And that is unforgivable.

Did April 1865 really save America? Not enough for me.

In April 1865: The month that saved America, author Jay Winik argues that this  month at the end of the American Civil War was a pivotal moment in history where the future of the country was in serious doubt. Yes, the Union in the north was beating down the Confederacy through attrition, but the war was very much still undecided. Winik says that events unfolded in a way that led to a swift end to the war and to a period of national healing that allowed the South to reintegrate back into the the United States.

I don’t buy it.

I don’t think April 1865 was quite the miraculous month Winik says it was. The country continued to bleed from open wounds for at least a century. The war may have ended slavery, but the freed slaves spent the next 100 years as third class citizens, with very few rights and almost no equal protection under the law. Also, when I look at our country today – at how divided it is – I can’t help but notice the regionalism. Most of the South votes one way. Most of the North votes another way. That’s no coincidence.

Yes, the future of the country was still very much undecided in April 1865. The South had fewer resources than the North but it did have better military leadership. General Robert E. Lee had made every single Union general he faced look silly. Even in the final weeks of the war his hopelessly outnumbered forces inflicted massive losses on General U.S. Grant’s Army of the Potomac. Confederate President Jefferson Davis was considering a transition from a conventional war to a guerrilla war that could have prolonged the conflict indefinitely. The Confederacy’s people had formed a national identity of their own and the prospects for them ever identifying themselves as citizens of the United States seemed dim. President Abraham Lincoln was about to be assassinated by a conspiracy that sought to kill him, his vice president and his secretary of state, an attack that had the potential to send the country into a paroxysm of panic and anarchy.

Winik argues that the almost everything seemed to break just right, allowing the war to end and allowing the South to slowly reintegrate into the country. He points to decisions by men like General Robert E. Lee and his fellow Confederate officers to order their men to surrender rather than take to the hills and the mountains as partisan fighters. Had they become guerrillas, the war could have raged for many more years. Imagine the South turning into something like Vietnam or Iraq. Such a conflict would have destroyed the South and broken the spirit of the North.

On and on, Winik points out events that unfolded in a way that allowed the country to survive and heal. And he’s right. Lincoln’s assassination could have been a decapitation that led to chaos. A dictator could have emerged in the White House. The Northern armies could have avenged Lincoln’s death by burning what was left of the South to the ground. Anything could have happened. But the war ended quietly, despite Lincoln’s death.

Winik overlooks a critical part of the war’s outcome. The United States may be irrevocably united by law and nationhood. People in the North and the South consider themselves Americans. But the country remains very, very divided. The South is the land of Republicanism. The North is Democratic. The division in America is complex, but much of it is rooted in the racism that originally perpetuated slavery for centuries.

During the Civil War the Republican party was the party of abolitionists. The Democratic party defended state’s rights and slavery. After the war ended, the parties continued on this course. The Democrats dominated in the South, at least until the late 1940s,  and Republicans dominated in the North. Then President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, advocated and signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and began enforcing judicial orders to desegregate the country and end institutional racism.

When the Democrats became the party of the Civil Rights movement, the South’s political leanings shifted sharply. It wasn’t all about ethnic divisions, but Republican leaders were explicit behind closed doors that they would exploit Southern racism to take the South from the Democrats.

For nearly 50 years the South has been solidly Republican.  Today there’s very little difference between the two political parties, but the South remains Republican. I’d say that’s a legacy of the racism that has plagued the South and divided it from the North since the war ended 145 years ago. Yes, there was and remains plenty of racism in the North, but racism was a key issue that divided the nation in 1861 and it continues to be an issue today.

Today, the divisions between the North and the South are more complex than smple racism. And the regional divisions are also less geographically monolithic. Some states in the South and the North buck regional trends. The country’s expansion has led to other regional divisions, too. There is a lot of talk about “Real America” and “Real Americans.” People in Alabama might see New Yorkers as alien and vice versa.

I’d say the wounds that cut the country apart in 1861 are still very raw today. Winik should have mentioned something about that in his book. Instead, he barely even mentions the failure of Reconstruction, the North’s attempt to remake the South after the war.