Recently I finally finished watching the America: The Story of Us series that I'd recorded from the History Channel. As noted in this post a few weeks back in the episode about the Civil War there was an allusion to Twitter (as an analogy for the telegraph) that struck me as a particularly noteworthy lowlight. At the time I suggested I might continue just to see if in the latter episodes they might top (so to speak) that.
So? Did they?
There were some moments in their summaries of the last 145 years, but the nearest contender for that specious honor came with about 10 minutes left in the concluding episode. Not surprisingly, it involved more of the nigh-insufferable interview footage with Mr. "You're Fired" himself, Donald Trump.
The topic was the resiliency of Americans in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. First Rudy Giuliani talked about how the terrorists didn't kill our spirit, then Soledad O'Brien talked about how people became polite to one another presumably having been reminded of the fragility of life, Vera Wang talked about how America came back to New York and helped by spending money. So the bar was already not that high.
I rewound and listened to it again and again, just to be sure I heard him correctly, to verify he didn't say "tragedy." I suspect that even though that's probably what he meant the word "travesty" is what came out of his mouth.
Travesty, as in to make a mockery of something.
I can't claim to know the ultimate motives of the terrorists who orchestrated the plane hijacks, but in the intervening years when I've pondered that topic never had it occurred to be they were operating on some kind of cruelly satirical level.
My first reaction, as one who knows the difference in meaning between "travesty" and "tragedy," was slight incredulity (hey, look I know what "incredulity" means, too) that the producers would have let that slip through; it seemed clear that Trump had misspoken (I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt—not that he'd done anything to deserve that, but I was feeling generous) but the producers still chose to include that bit of footage nonetheless. Apparently, out of all the celebrities and academics they'd interviewed, nobody else had better articulated the necessary sentiment that fit with their hooray-for-America tone.
Should that not be sufficient justification? Quibbling over a modest malapropism that didn't change the overall meaning of the statement seems just as bad on some level.
Trust me. I know.
It would not be worth writing about were it not for my supposition that the Twitter allusion indicated they were intending for this potentially to be viewed by high school students. The public may not notice the distinction between a tragedy and a travesty but they're not watching this as part of an educational curriculum. So it seemed like allowing such an error to make the final cut undermined part of their presumed intentions (I do know for a fact that the series was made available to schools); perhaps students deserve better.
Now, one may argue that Trump really meant it when he said "travesty," that he said the word he intended to say. To that I can say: Sure, maybe he did. However, even with the fluidity of English I would counter with this: The only way one could describe the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 as a "travesty" is if one doesn't really understand what a "travesty" is.
If Trump wants to change its definition from a scathing mockery to a horrible event for his personal vernacular he can do that, but the thing is this: English already has a word for that. It's "tragedy." (Now, the drama sticklers could take me to task for that definition, but I'm merely trying to presume what Trump really meant. However, I would be okay with describing 9/11 as a tragedy—although personally I'd probably go with atrocity.)
Donald Trump, for all his money, doesn't get to change the lexicon to suit his whims for the entire educational system. Or hell, he probably does, but I like to pretend there's still some right beyond wealth. To give Trump that kind of power over the language, now that's a travesty.
However, if anything has been proven here (and to be clear: I am not alleging anything has) it is this: What is considered important is not being able to use the word that actually means what your intended message would require but to have a quotable sentiment. Conceivably the decision by the producers of America to ignore this faux pas (whether it was a conscious one or not) suggests they don't believe that in years to come that what our educational system will prize will be vocabulary or proofreading skills.
Clearly my education (unimpressive as it was in many respects), which granted me the knowledge of the distinction between the two similar-sounding terms, only served to provide me with this sense that I'd learned something that was no longer pertinent in our society.
Perhaps this series is tailor-made for the student of the future who, if he or she is lucky, won't be burdened with this unnecessary awareness of the lexicon as obviously I was.
The series featured a recurrent refrain about the resiliency of Americans; I can only hope that someday I will rebound from noticing that which presents me only with frustration. The future holds much promise for the youth; for me, I'm not so sure.