Wall Street Journal editorial page fans such as myself have come to love their use of scare quotes, which is as incoherent as their ideas about economics.
Their two favorite subjects for scare quoting are, naturally, tax cuts and torture. As I wrote last year, drawing on the seminal work of TNR's Jon Chait and Isaac Chotiner, the Journal has referred to (in quotes) "the deficit," the "cost" of fixing the alternative minimum tax, and "torture" by American interrogators. Presumably, the goal is to call the reality of these concepts into question (rather than, say, the editors' sanity).
While these implicit claims are absurd as matters of fact, the Journal's use of scare quotes to call a word or phrase into question is at least grammatically correct. But as Chotiner noted back in October, the WSJ also uses scare quotes in ways that make no sense:
[T]hey go on to continue putting torture in quotes every time they use the word, regardless of context. So, for example:
The notion that the U.S. goes around unnecessarily "torturing" people...
C'mon guys! Even you admit that the United States is "torturing" people; you just don't think that we are torturing people.
Then, a few weeks ago, Chotiner noticed it happening again:
[T]hey seem to simply be placing quotation marks around words for no particular reason at all. The piece begins:
We've been saying for some time that the economy could use another tax cut, so perhaps we should be pleased that Washington is suddenly talking about a fiscal "stimulus." The challenge now is getting politicians to distinguish between policies that actually "stimulate" and the equivalent of dropping hundred dollar bills from helicopters.
No, no, no! Why is the word "stimulate" in quotation marks? They are discussing real stimulation, not "stimulation". But now to something they don't like--spending:
As for "spending it," we tried this a few years back and it didn't work very well.
No again! If the Journal wants to accuse people of spending money, they should not put quotes around "spending". It reads as if the Democrats did not actually spend the money, when of course the Journal thinks they did! Can someone please discuss this problem with the paper's editors?
The latest example comes from an editorial today on the controversy over Attorney General Michael Mukasey's position on waterboarding. It leads off with a string of scare quotes around "waterboarding" and torture":
If Senate Democrats thought Attorney General Michael Mukasey was someone they could push around to score political points, yesterday they discovered their error. The new AG stood his ground on the legal war on terror, despite five hours of grandstanding over an interrogation technique that the CIA doesn't even practice anymore.
We refer, of course, to "waterboarding," which the political left has made into a proxy for the Bush Administration's alleged "torture" of enemy combatants, which Democrats seem to think is a winning political issue.
The Journal, continuing directly, then puts "illegal" in scare quotes:
Thus the grilling of Mr. Mukasey to prod him to declare that he had now concluded that "waterboarding" is in fact "illegal." Democrats would then be able to flog the Bush Administration from here to November, declaring that "even Attorney General Mike Mukasey says..."
But this, again, is wrong -- Mukasey would hypothetically be concluding that waterboarding is actually illegal (not "illegal").
Finally, the Journal credits Mukasey with refusing to discuss a hypothetical, referring to his "point about 'context'":
Mr. Mukasey was true to his promise during confirmation hearings to investigate the legality of government interrogation practices. And so yesterday he certified that all techniques currently in use are legal. However, in a letter to the Senate, he added that, "I do not believe it is advisable to address difficult legal questions ... in the absence of concrete facts and circumstances."
This displeased some of the Senators, who accused him of dodging the waterboarding issue. But Mr. Mukasey is right to avoid hypothetical legal judgments over something that is no longer practiced. The former judge was careful to point out that legality depends on context, and he couldn't judge the actions of others in 2002 without knowing the circumstances.
...Judge Mukasey's point about "context" is something that Democrats surely understand, since many of their leaders... were briefed about waterboarding at the time. There's no evidence they objected then. But they're making a fuss now that their anti-antiterror supporters have made "torture" a campaign theme...
Why is "context" in scare quotes the second time it is used? The Journal doesn't quote Mukasey saying the word and they agree with him that context is relevant. Can someone send a high school English teacher over to Paul Gigot's house?
(PS If the incorrect use of quotation marks drives you nuts, you'll love The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, which I found via a commenter on one of Chotiner's original posts. Pure genius.)