Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pervasive Language

On Sean Hannity’s Wednesday radio program, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) called for an “orderly revolution” to offset the “economic Marxism” of the Obama administration, in particular citing Thomas Jefferson’s much quoted call for a periodic revolution to keep one generation of Americans from being enslaved to the laws and constitutions of previous generations.

For a while now, for a couple of decades anyway, conservatives in the Republican Party have co-opted the terms “rebel” and “revolution”—words that still resonate positively with a good number of Americans. So pundits can remember Ronald Reagan as a “rebel,” and nobody raises an eyebrow.

One more sign of the debasement of the American English language, Bachmann’s call and similar calls promote turning back to the same business models and social roles we have followed into hell thus far and ignore that Obama’s “recovery” plans so far have done little that would please Marx (the real one, not the one that lives in the right wing’s imagination) except, perhaps, throw a few bones to programs that benefit the poor and needy. Those bones, apparently, are tantamount to all out “Marxism” to those whose notion of helping the poor and needy is to help the rich and grasping—so it’s no wonder that they might imagine “revolution” in terms of preserving the status quo.

Of course, these wannabe revolutionaries have had little to say about the previous administration's eight years of assaults on human rights and the U.S. economy. And, for a while now, I have given up my dream of George W. Bush and his arrogant gang’s ever being brought to trial for any of a number of crimes against the nation, its Constitution, its laws, its reputation in the world, its security, its defense, and its wealth, certainly not from the Republicans and not from the Democrats, Bush’s willing accomplices from the beginning. That dream was mere fantasy.

Year by year, I am convinced of George Orwell’s acuity in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which he claims that dying metaphors (among which “orderly revolution” must surely be listed), verbal padding, and hype effectively empty language of its content, leaving us with catch words and catch phrases incapable of holding any meaning whatsoever. So what becomes important about a word like “revolution” is not so much what it means as how attractive it sounds—and, used thus, it may be appropriated not only by those who promote change and progress but also by those who promote the obstruction of change and progress.

In summarizing these “swindles and perversions,” Orwell decries writing and speech that “consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.” Copy-and-paste language results in copy-and-paste intellects. Familiar word combinations please the ear and may even excite emotions, but they fail to draw fine distinctions or clarify exactly what the speaker means to say. As a teacher of writing, I am often impressed with how effortlessly some people can fill five typewritten pages with clichés and jingoism without ever saying anything in particular.

Such use of language hides rather than reveals. It abstracts rather than depicts.

Again, Orwell: “In our time [Orwell was writing in 1946], political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

Of course, Orwell, a supporter of labor and non-totalitarian socialist change (while strongly opposing fascism and Soviet communism), is better known for his novel Nineteen Eighty-four, in which governmental “newspeak” proposes that “War Is Peace,” “Freedom Is Slavery,” and “Ignorance Is Strength.”

I’m repeatedly reminded that we now live in a world which newspeak has swept clean of definition and meaning. Just yesterday I watched a movie rated “R” for “pervasive language.” In previous posts, I’ve mentioned my consternation at debaters of abstinence-only education, both pro and con, declaring their concerns that children today may be learning that “sex is OK.” What the hell does that mean? When I ask students to explain the precise qualities they most admire in their friends, most of them respond with identical phrasing: “My friends are there for me.” Well, OK then, that explains a lot, thanks.

When I express concern that they are not expressing themselves clearly, students often reply, “But you know what I mean.” Not exactly—and, besides, clear communication is more than the rhythmic accumulation of platitudes and tropes—and the burden of clarification and definition belongs primarily to writers and speakers, not readers and listeners.

I propose that “orderly revolutionaries” like Bachman and Hannity and even Obama and Clinton are, while indeed interested in change to varying degrees, principally involved in preserving “order,” equivalent in their minds to making minimal and perhaps merely nominal changes to the status quo. Now, I am not opposed to order—not at all—but neither am I convinced that it is synonymous with stagnation and obscurantism.

Those in power still want us to swallow the “trickle-down” theory of economy, under a new name. They are appalled and frankly scared of reports of widespread malcontent and anger—for them, it’s “class warfare” only when the underdogs fight back.

Savvy politicians are trying to co-opt some of the rage percolating in our culture with calls to revolution, all to pursue their own political ends—which are (guess what?) to sustain and perpetuate the powers that be.

So, to paraphrase Bachmann and others, let’s have a revolution that manages to change nothing, except perhaps the removal of the modicum of anemic “hope” poor and otherwise disempowered voters had in electing Barack Obama as President in the first place—a “hope” that the Obama administration has already watered down and sugared up to suit the sensitive palates of AIG, Chrysler, GM, Bank of America, and hedge-fund billionaires.

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