A serious dose of seriousness needed

October 16, 2023 3:00 am

California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, former speaker of the U.S. House, speaks with reporters on Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2023, after briefly attending a meeting where his GOP colleagues were hearing from the two lawmakers campaigning to become speaker. (Jennifer Shutt/States Newsroom)

For those of us among the chattering class, a persnickety pain in the tuchus is the charge that we’re out over the tips of our skis with a particular subject. That we’re commenting or criticizing something about which we little know or understand.

A word for such a transgression even exists: ultracrepidarian, adj. — “noting or pertaining to a person who criticizes, judges, or gives advice outside their area of expertise,” or n.— a person who does such a thing.

The etymology is Latin for “beyond the sole of the shoe,” coined when ancient artist Apelles called out a cobbler for criticizing his painting, impressing on him that art was outside his knowledge … as in the resulting axiom: “shoemaker, stick to thy last” or its modern equivalent, “shut up and dribble,” created when Fox News’ Laura Ingraham was aghast that Black professional athletes had brains and voices. 

Being guilty on occasion of the above charge, I’ve learned the primary lesson of writing commentary: Be a reporter first. Gain whatever knowledge you need about a field or discipline lest you offer threadbare criticism, banal observation or—- if you’ve gone too far round the ultracrepidarian bend — uninformed enlightenment.

Misfiring on that process rarely goes unpunished.

Still, far more than commentary writing can create shoemakers unstuck to their lasts. 

To wit: I have been alternately fascinated and horrified by the reactions these past weeks to a world at war, a planet on fire, a Congress in a self-inflicted state of discombobulation and disarray and a Nebraska State Legislature in the throes of prickly partisanship for which it was neither designed nor distinguished. 

Unserious people are saying and doing unserious things that eventually have serious consequences. That may not be textbook ultracrepidarism, but it’s close enough for me.

After Hamas launched a war against Israel, GOP National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said the murderous conflict was a “great opportunity” for the Republican Party. She also repeated the lie that the U.S. release of $6 billion of Iranian funds — which were still in the bank when the first rockets flew — somehow meant that we were bankrolling terrorists.

The short version of former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s demise is that he chose country over party in leading a bipartisan vote that kept the government open another 45 days, the countdown of which is on. Good on him for that.

But before we add his chapter to a reprint of “Profiles in Courage,” he had reached across the aisle only once before. And this time it lit the fuse to his ouster led by an octet of representatives among the nation’s least serious thinking leaders. 

That said, the solution to whatever brought the House to such a sorry state must be more than politics. Nebraska Rep. Mike Flood, who voted to keep the Speaker, said this about McCarthy’s undoing. “Today’s decision by a handful of my colleagues to vacate the chair undermines the work of House Republicans to enact a conservative agenda and has the unfortunate effect of helping Democrats.” Undermines the work of the party? I thought the House represented all of these United States. Didn’t the Speaker’s heave-ho have an “unfortunate effect” on the entire country?

Last summer the Nebraska Legislature’s Education Committee held a hearing on what some believe are the horrors of social-emotional learning, a theory that posits the ability to develop your own well-being and to have healthy relationships is a skill that can be taught. Message: Let’s not have any of that

The testimony produced ponderous and convoluted conspiracy theories (please excuse the redundancy), claims of student indoctrination based on claims of student indoctrination and the dressing down of the usual suspects, critical race theory or anything to do with sex or gender. The hearing surely dimmed hopes for a raised level of debate when the Nebraska Legislature convenes in January.

Among Nebraska lore, U.S. Sen. Roman Hruska’s case for mediocrity during the 1970 Senate hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Harrold Carswell is writ large on the state’s psyche. Hruska’s exact words, uttered during a television interview when he was asked about the charge that Carswell was a mediocre nominee, were “Even if he [Carswell] were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they?”Recent machinations of a world in need of a serious dose of seriousness makes one wonder if mediocre thinking and its poor relation, ultracrepidarian thinking, are now over-represented.

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.