We had better things to chip at than to watch the Republican Party convention; however, short of living in a remote cabin, it is impossible to isolate one's self from the "news stream" that has become something of an Orwellian ether which is omni-present and all-permeating.
So it was we read that the media were not happy with Ryan's speech which was strewn with lies -- not seeming lies, not plausible lies, but lies which lay beyond the pale.
The candidates' speeches, intoned the New York Times, "seemed to signal the arrival of a campaign in which fact-checking concerns have largely been set aside" But, queried James Bennet of the Atlantic, "what if it turns out that when the press calls a lie a lie, nobody cares?” Alas, replied the Times, "blatant falsehoods like those of the Romney-Ryan campaign are only possible because Americans no longer expect to hear the truth."
No longer? Perhaps. But we would first ask of the Times - what exactly is a blatant falsehood and how does it differ from a mere falsehood? Is a blatant falsehood one that is totally unacceptable as opposed to merely unacceptable?
Totales unannehmbar! Where had we heard such phrases before? According to Viktor Klemperer, the philologist who studied the Nazi use and abuse of language (Lingua Tertii Imperii (1947) ), such hyperbolic ambiguation was among the linguistic devices employed by the regime to corrupt language and, hence, thought.
If something is unacceptable, it cannot be accepted. "Totally unacceptable" supplies a howl of emphasis that it really really cannot be accepted. But this howl of necessity implies that there could be some unacceptable things which are, at least to some extent, acceptable. But the acceptably unacceptable is nonsense, and the persistent use of such urgent and insistent hyperbole reduces speech to a din of shouts embodying latent contradictions.
To say that the Nazis "employed" such devices unduly suggests intentionality. It is perhaps more accurate to say simply that that was their usage. Conrad Heiden, a social democratic parliamentarian who fled to the United States in 1936, wrote that National Socialist leaders and administrators were drawn from a class of "intellectual brutes" -- men whose professional training and native intellegence implemented and amplified a brutish core. In other words, they barked, snarled and howled only they were "intellectual" enough to do it in words.
Howling and lying are nothing new in politics. Cleon's speeches to the Athenian assembly, Anthony's waving of Casesar's bloody toga, Innocent the Third's cry of Deus lo vult were hardly emblematic of reasoned discourse. The sorry truth is that civil society is only a whisper away from the wolf pack.
Neither is the corruption of language anything new. In a famous passage in his history of the Peloponnesian War Thucydides discusses the "revolution" in speech that accompanies, and is in fact, the precursor to civil dissolution.
The ancient Greeks understood very keenly that to be a political animal is to be a speaking animal; for it is words, says Aristotle, which enable us "to decide the expedient and the inexpedient and to distinguish the just from the unjust."
American intellectual and political life is in such a pathetic state because grammar is not taught in what used to be called Grammar School and because social scientists and sociologists run roughshod over syntax in a rush toward something called "hard facts".
The consequences of blurring distinctions is illustrated by the much-used term "potential suspect." A suspect is a person who may be guilty of some crime; thus a "potential suspect" is a person who possibly, may be guilty of something. But of course anyone is possibly guilty of something. The term renders us all all potential suspects -- or perhaps merely suspects but in all events warranting surveillance.
Even the appellate judiciary, which supposedly makes a profession of precise speech, runs roughshod over the plain meaning of words. Among other weirdnesses of speech, it has, in recent years, dredged up the oxymoronic concept of an "ongoing emergency" once so favored by despots who suspend the rule of law on an ongoing temporary basis.
In Michigan v Bryant (2011) 562 U.S. ___, Justice Sotomayor defined an "ongoing emergency" as one in which the police need to "'assess the situation, the threat to their own safety, and [the] possible danger to the potential victim'". Left undefined were the contours of a possible, possibility of harm (i.e. 'danger') to a person who might possibly be or become a victim.
If the Supreme Court can "think" this way, it is no surprise the run of the mill appellate courts are even worse. In one California case we are familiar with, the Court of Appeal rejected an argument against punishing recidivist status by stating, "appellant was not punished for his recidivist status but for being an habitual criminal."
Such blatherings are really no more than articulated howls; sounds of wrath wrapped in the tissue of words.
It is true that sophistry has a legitimate role to play in law, politics and theatre (which are all much the same thing). The maleability and ambiguity of shades of meaning is what allows language and thought to develop just as dissonance can give rise to new and engaging harmonies.
I would venture to say that the difference between Socrates and the Sophists was not that Socrates did not employ subtle tricks of logic and rhetoric (he did), but that he did so with a good faith desire to elucidate as opposed to bad faith and cunning aim to confuse.
The same applies to judicial politics. The structure of federal legislative power rests on Justice Marshall's somewhat dubious distinction between "absolutely necessary" and merely, ordinarily "necessary." (McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) 17 U.S. 316 ) One can disagree with Marshall's concept of federalism; one can call him sly, but his play on words had a constructive purpose.
Neverthless, as Aristotle would also say, moderation in all things. A persistent and pervasive misuse of language batters words into articulated mush with predictable effects on the brain.
The vast heap of slogans, labels, oxymorons, pleonasms and other grammatical mutations that comprise American social, political and judicial discourse today did not heap-up on account of some judicious play of what the French poet Valéry called sons et sens. It arose from a culture of linguistic abuse.
By chance, we were perusing our friend Alexis de Tocqueville who had some relevant things to say on the matter. A passionate materialism and insistence on equality, he wrote, rendered Americans impetuous, restless and indifferent to the dictates of reason.
"I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States. The Americans have no philosophical school of their own, and they care but little for all the schools into which Europe is divided, the very names of which are scarcely known to them. ¶ To evade the bondage of system and habit,.... [is] the principal characteristic[ ] of what I shall call the philosophical method of the Americans.
"As to the influence which the intellect of one man may have on that of another, it must necessarily be very limited in a country where the citizens, placed on an equal footing, ... are constantly brought back to their own reason as the most obvious and proximate source of truth. It is not only confidence in this or that man which is destroyed, but the disposition to trust the authority of any man whatsoever. Everyone shuts himself up tightly within himself and insists upon judging the world from there. ... As they perceive that they succeed in resolving without assistance all the little difficulties which their practical life presents, they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of the understanding. .... . This disposition of mind soon leads them to condemn forms, which they regard as useless and inconvenient veils placed between them and the truth." (Democracy in America, Book II, Sec. 1, ch. 1.)
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"[T]he desire of acquiring the good things of this world is the prevailing passion of the American people ... And yet, "[f]rom time to time strange sects arise, which endeavor to strike out extraordinary paths to eternal happiness. Religious insanity is very common in the United States." ( Op. Cit., Book II, Sec. 2, ch. 12.)
Of course all this was as of 1831, before the advent of that thing known as "mass communication." The very term ought to give rise to suspicion if suspicion were not already superceded by the reality of a society and culture grounded in hucksterism and kitsch.
A daily barrage of advertising which blares spurious claims and insinuated benefits has stupefied our minds into an acquiesent inactivity which accepts without question whatever is asserted in much the way babies gurgle and coo when brightly coloured rattles are rattled before their eyes. Our heroes and myths rather than inspiring occasional remembrance and enthusiasm blunt our sentiments under a narcotic pall of vulgar, flashy concoctions all of which ultimately serve to gratify our national vanity.
"The Americans, in their intercourse with strangers, appear impatient of the smallest censure and insatiable of praise. The most slender eulogy is acceptable to them, the most exalted seldom contents them; .... Their vanity is not only greedy, but restless and jealous; it will grant nothing, while it demands everything, but is ready to beg and to quarrel at the same time. If I say to an American that the country he lives in is a fine one, "Ay," he replies, "there is not its equal in the world." It is impossible to conceive a more troublesome or more garrulous patriotism; it wearies even those who are disposed to respect it." (Op. Cit., Book II, Sec. 3, ch 16.)
And so it was that it took but a passing glance to see in the rosy, white faces of the cheering Republicans all the vainglory and aggression of which Americans are capable. Theirs were the whoops and howls of ego indulging itself and snarling at the "not me".
It will be little different in the Democratic convention which will indulge a different version of l'amour propre under a barely indistinguishable set of noisy platitudes accompanied by a noise of nonsensical cheering.
"Yet in the end the spectacle of this excited community becomes monotonous, and after having watched the moving pageant for a time, the spectator is tired of it.". (Op. cit., Bk II, sec 3, ch. 17.)
©Woodchip Gazette, 2012