Textbook Writers Use Passive Voice to Exonerate Enslavers

Ellen Bresler Rockmore, “How Texas Teaches History,” The New York Times, October 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/22/opinion/how-texas-teaches-history.html.

In the excerpts published by Jezebel, the Texas textbooks employ all the principles of good, strong, clear writing when talking about the “upside” of slavery. But when writing about the brutality of slavery, the writers use all the tricks of obfuscation. You can see all this at play in the following passage from a textbook, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, called Texas United States History:

Some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves. However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.

Notice how in the first two sentences, the “slavery wasn’t that bad” sentences, the main subject of each clause is a person: slaves, masters, slaveholders. What those people, especially the slave owners, are doing is clear: They are treating their slaves kindly; they are providing adequate food and clothing. But after those two sentences there is a change, not just in the writers’ outlook on slavery but also in their sentence construction. There are no people in the last two sentences, only nouns. Yes, there is severe treatment, whippings, brandings and torture. And yes, those are all bad things. But where are the slave owners who were actually doing the whipping and branding and torturing? And where are the slaves who were whipped, branded and tortured? They are nowhere to be found in the sentence.

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“First, Learn How to Write.”

Adam Bryant, “Kathleen Finch: Get Better Ideas With a ‘Pile On’ Meeting,” The New York Times, September 5, 2015.

What advice do you give to new college grads?

I give two pieces of advice. First, learn how to write. No matter what you’re studying in college, be a great writer because it can stymie your career if you’re not. And second, get your foot in the door. If you have a dream job or a dream place to work, take any job that will get you in as long as you’re reporting or visible to important people.

Then raise your hand. Work hard. Be the person about whom everybody says, “She’s next, she’s the one who can do it.”

Uncritical Reading Erodes American Liberty

The New York Times reports on a study arguing that Supreme Court justices fail to read amicus briefs with sufficient attention to the sources they cite.

In a 2011 decision about the privacy rights of scientists who worked on government space programs, Justice Alito cited an amicus brief to show that more than 88 percent of American companies perform background checks on their workers.

“Where this number comes from is a mystery,” Professor Larsen wrote. “It is asserted in the brief without citation.”

In a 2012 decision allowing strip searches of people arrested for even minor offenses as they are admitted to jail, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy cited an amicus brief to show that there are an “increasing number of gang members” entering the nation’s prisons and jails. The brief itself did little more than assert that “there is no doubt” this was so.

Liptak, Adam. “Seeking Facts, Justices Settle for What Briefs Tell Them.” New York Times, September 1, 2014. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/02/us/politics/the-dubious-sources-of-some-supreme-court-facts.html.

Note: I did not read the original study. But I’d like to think that Professor Larsen is less obviously partial than the authors of amicus briefs.