In a New York Times commentary this past week, columnist David Brooks used the word un-awed.
It feels good to vent in this way. You demonstrate your own importance by showing your buddies that you are un-awed by the majority leader, the vice president or some other big name. You get to take a break from the formal pressures of the job by playing the blasphemous bad-boy rebel over a beer at night. (emphasis mine)
He was talking about the perceived need by some journalists to ride herd on people in important places. His premise is that some journalists believe they have an obligation to pay attention to internal controversies, and that in the midst of it, they will discover that there is a tendency of some frustrated people in government to take shots at the “big guys.” Sometimes they share those “shots” with journalists, who in turn have to make a decision about how to use that information. The revealing Rolling Stone interview with General McChrystal was the stimulus for the piece.
It was an interesting article. However, I found myself coming back to the paragraph above over and over again, trying to assure myself that his use of the word un-awed was legitimate. I’ve never heard the word before. As it turned out, the only dictionary reference I could find for it was in a scholarly source, WordNet® 3.0, © 2006 by Princeton University. They list the word (without a hypen) and give it the definition you might expect: not awed. Maybe there are others, but my limited list of resources and my lack of interest in spending more time on the search didn’t reveal any . I would have used the word underwhelmed, a word which has great appeal to me, but…then again…it wasn’t my article.
I went through a mental process to assess my next step:
- I could do exactly what Brooks alludes to and blast him, getting my jollies from going after a “big guy.”
- I could pretend to be more scholarly than I am and write an expose of the word
- Or I could give Brooks credit for having used a word that caught my attention, thereby giving strength to his article.
I decided to take the third route. His use of an obscure word enhanced my reading of the article and established his point so well in my head that I read the rest of it with unusual clarity.
Obviously, the incident has stuck with me. I’ve gone back and read the article again twice now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it was one of the better pieces I read in the Times last week. I don’t always say that about David Brooks, but in this case he has hit the nail on the head. An atmosphere of full disclosure and enforced transparency has emerged in which people’s lives, words, and struggles are fair game for journalists and others who believe it is their responsibility to expose every wart and pimple on the body of government leaders. He cites several media and cinema sources which have led to this craving for exposure. I would have added the TV series, The West Wing to that list. Its depiction of daily life in the White House was pretty graphic.
One result, he says, is that people who might otherwise be interested in public service are reticent to expose themselves and their families to that kind of exposure. In the end, we lose. Good people who might otherwise lead this country hang back and let others lead. Frequently the results are not good.
In this specific case, I think General McChrystal naively opened himself to criticism by not assessing the wisdom of granting the interview. It was uncharacteristic of a man who is known for being precise. At the same time it is not the first time he has been overly candid in his remarks, making me wonder if there is an ego issue in him which could be dangerous in such a prestigious role. I commend the President for taking the action he did.
But the basic premise of the article, aimed at the reporter for Rolling Stone Magazine, makes the point and does it well. I’m not advocating the use of the word un-awed by writing this. I think it is a word with a limited use…maybe only this time. But it worked.
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