When a Tweet Is Not Enough

Suzanne Fields
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Posted: Jul 17, 2009 12:00 AM

WOODS HOLE, Mass. -- All politics may not be loco, as one famous pundit (Michael Barone) puts it, but the ancient maxim that all politics is local is demonstrably true. Consider a feature called "Obama Watch" in the Cape Cod Times. There's nothing in it about the rising unemployment figures, the crash of the president's teleprompter, his health-care legislation or the latest on whether his diplomatic offensive is cooling fanatic fervor in the Middle East.

The big question for the president on Cape Cod is whether Barack, Michelle and the girls will follow the example of Ulysses S. Grant and Bill Clinton to Martha's Vineyard for a vacation in August. How you stand depends on where you're sitting, as a wise man I once knew was fond of saying, and that goes double for an economic stimulus.

The natives, as a summer visitor quickly learns, are eager to be stimulated, and an invasion of the Secret Service, snarling traffic jams and attracting landlubbing gawkers is regarded as a small price to pay to lift all the boats at the docks along the Massachusetts coastline. It's a needed reminder to the hundreds of politicians, policy wonks, academics, journalists, bureaucrats and other refugees from Washington that intelligent life thrives beyond the Beltway.

For example, the residents of Woods Hole are more fascinated by what's going on fathoms below the surface of the Atlantic, as discovered by a robot called Nereus, which has gone deeper than any deep-sea vehicle before it. Engineers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution began working on Nereus nine years ago, and early this summer Nereus successfully reached unexplored depths in the Marianas Trench in the western Pacific.

The dimensions of the trench are mysterious and breathtaking -- it's nearly seven miles deep, the deepest indentation of Earth's crust (the SS Titanic sank to a depth of "only" two and a half miles). Few sea creatures live there, and Nereus, designed to withstand pressure a thousand times greater than the pressure at the surface of the sea, is expected to find them. At that depth, a day without methane is like a day without sunshine topside.

Impressive as all the science and technology is, I'm equally impressed that Nereus, a mythical Greek god with a man's torso and the tail of a fish, was named in a nationwide contest open to students in junior high schools, high schools and colleges. A generation of text-messaging and Twittering has reduced the young to a language of "words" for messages of only 140 characters. The Greek myths could never have been told in such a language, and it's an unexpected blessing that there's such a relatively large audience of literate young people who can draw on Greek mythology in the service of science.

Many Twitterers (Twitterists? Tweetists?) insist that the Twittering ubiquitous at the beach, in the woods, on bike paths, in sidewalk cafes (and even in church and lecture hall) is simply for fun, idle thoughts expressed in real time. But reducing thoughts to 140 characters may exert a psychological and educational impact more serious than that, determining not only how we speak, but how we listen. Words shortened to the point of illiteracy -- a new survey reveals that nearly half of all college freshmen must take a course in remedial spelling -- and shortcuts to nonsense pass for information. Twittering keeps the focus narrow and imparts new meaning to "tunnel vision."

George Orwell, an earlier generation's touchstone for clarity, observed that "good prose is like a window pane." President Obama's eloquence, which so mesmerized the world only yesterday, may not be sound and fury signifying not very much, but nevertheless it may be something less than meets the ear. Liam Julian writes in Policy Review magazine that the president's speeches have become "loopy, lofty and often lubricious."

Vagueness tempts others to fill in meanings they want to hear; the presidential language becomes a Rorschach test of attitudes. When the secretary of homeland security refers to terrorism as "man-caused disasters," she's playing a mind game. "Such phraseology," Orwell observed of similar silliness, "is needed if one wants to name things without calling up pictures of them."

Bad language has always reflected bad thinking just as good language delivered with precision forces us to see more clearly. When one of the president's famous teleprompters crashed to the floor during his defense of the economic stimulus package, the irony was writ large for both Woods Hole and Washington. It was a picture worth a thousand words.