Tens of thousands of years have elapsed since we shed our tails, but we are still communicating with a medium developed to meet the needs of arboreal man. . . We may smile at the linguistic illusions of primitive man, but may we forget that the verbal machinery on which we so readily rely, and which our metaphysicians still profess to probe the Nature of Existence, was set up by him, and may be responsible for other illusions hardly less gross and not more easily eradicable?
Category: language and politics
Like the law, politics is overwhelmingly about language. Misrepresentation and euphemisms are rampant, along with many other devices to advance political agendas through the dishonest use of language. This category will try to keep up.
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
Henry Adams, 1907
The politician is an acrobat. He keeps his balance by saying the opposite of what he does.
Maurice Barres (1896-1923)
Political BS, a noxious blend of mendacity, manipulation, and meaninglessnss, is all around us, as it has been ever since we invented politics. So let’s try to understand what it is, the better to identify and resist it (this is knowledge that all middle-school graduates should have, but it is in the interests of the ruling classes that they not have it).
When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less. ‘ ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things. … ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
–Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
This is a message that the p.c. crowd — in the media, in the universities – needs to hear again and again, because they don’t get it, especially when a Presidential candidate (Warren) announces “her” pronouns on the debate stage, and a teacher is fired for not using the student’s preferred pronouns. It is not enough, the argument goes, to have pronouns of two genders, when there are so many other genders. We need more pronouns!
Spare me the sight / of this thankless breed, these politicians / who cringe for favors from a screaming mob / and do not care what harm they do their friends / providing they can please a crowd!
Euripides, Hecuba (c. 425 BCE)
This post introduces my Blahblahblah Award, bestowed upon the politician using the most devious and manipulative language since…well, since the previous award. The grinding Presidential race will continue for many months, so there should be plenty of material.
Is sloppiness in speech caused by ignorance or apathy? I don’t know and I don’t care.
I admire John McWhorter so much for the breadth of his accomplishments, his accessibility to the media, his eloquent lectures.
I recently saw a video clip in which he pegged Trump’s speech as characteristic of primitive humans just getting their “language chops” together.
The truth is what most people believe. And they believe that which is repeated most often.
Paul Josef Goebbels
Here is the text of a letter I sent to the Manchester NH Union-Leader (published 6/21/19):
March 19, 2019
Let me add my voice to the chorus of people outraged by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s comparison of immigrant confinement to concentration camps. This is worse than obscene and ignorant. It is an utterly irresponsible use of language. As a linguist, I am appalled by the deceptive reducing of two vastly different entities to a single point of comparison — confinement.
“…style is intrinsic and private, like…voice or gesture, partly a matter of inheritance, partly of cultivation. It is more than a pattern of expression. It is the pattern of the soul.”
Think of language as haberdashery: you have a closet full of clothes for every occasion. Your clothing choice expresses yourself in a particular context, for a particular audience. In the same way, barely aware of it (or not aware at all), you change your speech to what you think (though there are no conscious thinking processes) will be effective for a particular situation and audience.
Don’t forget why God made your eyes — plagiarize!
Tom Lehrer, “Lobachevsky”
I’m involved in a fair number of plagiarism cases. In non-fiction allegations, I typically represent a student who has omitted quotation marks, possibly because he/she was lifting what appeared to be basic background information. There are very few ways of saying some things with the appropriate degree of precision (especially in legal and scientific writing).
Definitions of “politician”:
An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared.
(One who) divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies. That means he knows only one class: enemies.
[Someone] who identifies the sound of his own voice with the infallible voice of the public.
Joseph K. Howard
A set of men who have interests aside from the interests of the people and who…are, taken as a mass, at least one step removed from honest men.
“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach – that it makes no sense.”
A prophet of political correctness
One of my favorite authors, Philip Roth, died recently, leaving a magnificent body of work. Unlike other personal faves, Saul Bellow and Bernard Malamud, who composed mostly in the key of J (for “Jewish”; Malamud’s The Natural is an exception), Roth’s versatility was truly impressive.
Charles Dickens is famous for giving his characters whimsical names that often reflect their personalities. “Scrooge” is probably the best-known, unmistakably conveying a grasping miserliness in almost tangible terms.
If Dickens had written about a vulgar, aggressive billionaire intent on seeking power, crushing his enemies, and emblazoning his name around the world, he could hardly have chosen a better name than “Trump.”
But we’re not talking about a literary character. Trump is a real person who makes sure his name is repeated 24/7 in every possible mass-media outlet.
This is as good a summary of political rhetoric as I’ve seen:
“Political speeches are rarely occasions for truth-telling. But the good ones combine a description of shared reality with the expression of a vision, or with words of celebration. The mediocre ones consist of platitudes—well-intentioned but lacking the force of inspiration or recognition. And then there is the genre of the thoroughly insincere pronouncement that is all empty ritual. This is not normally observed in countries with functioning democratic institutions, because hollow words are the very opposite of accountability. These kinds of speeches are usually given in dictatorships: their intended audience is not the public but the tyrant. This is what we observed in Washington on Wednesday, and it’s the scariest part of Trump’s big tax triumph.” (Masha Gessen, The New Yorker.)
The answer to the second question is easier than the answer to the first. Miller is from Santa Monica http://www.latimes.com/politics/washington/la-na-essential-washington-updates-trump-speechwriter-stephen-miller-pens-1495224315-htmlstory.html and, by whatever circuitous paths speechwriters’ careers take (and there are some weird ones), he is writing the President’s speeches. At least, that’s the only source for Trump’s formal rhetoric that I could find. Usually by this time, we know who’s writing the President’s speeches and where they come from.
At least, I do – I look for these things.