Analyzing the Rhetoric of Cornel West’s Critique of TaNehisi Coates

In the Guardian [Dec. 17, 2017] Cornel West, academic and civil rights leader, recently published a harsh critique of TaNehisi Coates, writer for the Atlantic, labeling the latter the “neo-liberal face” of Black struggle.

The critique interests me because it perpetuates yet another fissure in the coalition required to resist Trump, because it recapitulates debates among Black leaders during the Harlem Renaissance (an era I have published in and taught courses on), and because it also reminds me of the position James Baldwin took in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s; that position was of a writer first, although if you know about Baldwin, have read him, and have seen videos of him, you know he didn’t use that position to back away from struggles, attacks, and controversies.

There’s no getting around the fact (nor would I want to) that West has been a speaker and writer of titanic stature over the past three decades, and I agree with many of his positions.  That said–caveat lector--I’m very sympathetic to Coates and Baldwin.

The West piece isn’t that long, so I thought I’d reprint it and take up some of its points as we move through it.

“Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power, a book about Barack Obama’s presidency and the tenacity of white supremacy, has captured the attention of many of us. One crucial question is why now in this moment has his apolitical pessimism gained such wide acceptance?

  1. I think West begs the question here.  That Coates isn’t political in the way West would like doesn’t mean he is apolitical. That he is pessimistic about matters of race seems rationally grounded in his experience and what America looks like today, with Trump at the top.

Coates and I come from a great tradition of the black freedom struggle. He represents the neoliberal wing that sounds militant about white supremacy but renders black fightback invisible. This wing reaps the benefits of the neoliberal establishment that rewards silences on issues such as Wall Street greed or Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and people.

2. I think it would be more helpful for West to explore what concrete differences exist between Coates and him, rather than merely labeling Coates “neo-liberal.”  Further, until very recently, Coates had had a tough time making a living.  Then he got hired by the Atlantic and published two successful books. Making a living as a writer isn’t the same as “reaping rewards from the neoliberal establishment.” Further, writing about his own experience, writing “to” his son with the reader “looking on” (as Baldwin wrote to his nephew in The Fire Next Time), and focusing on White Supremacy does not equate with “silence” about these other issues; rather it suggests that Coates is writing about what he knows.

The disagreement between Coates and me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies, and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality in black America is too narrow and dangerously misleading. So it is with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ worldview.

3. The disagreement is one West has invented. To my knowledge, Coates has not attacked (or even disagreed with) West in print or on video.  And after this piece by West was published, igniting a Twitter storm, Coates simply left Twitter, viewing the spectacle as a distraction.  I would speculate that Baldwin would have done the same, except Baldwin would never have joined Twitter.  His carefully wrought, enduring nonfiction simply wasn’t in that 140 (or more) character genre. –Not to mention all the silliness and propaganda (some of it Russian) that saturates the land of Twitts. 

Coates rightly highlights the vicious legacy of white supremacy – past and present. He sees it everywhere and ever reminds us of its plundering effects. Unfortunately, he hardly keeps track of our fightback, and never connects this ugly legacy to the predatory capitalist practices, imperial policies (of war, occupation, detention, assassination) or the black elite’s refusal to confront poverty, patriarchy or transphobia.

4. Again, Coates’s focusing on a few things, including White Supremacy, isn’t the same as ignoring the other issues; indeed, Coates has made it plain that, in his view, one can’t understand American without understanding White Supremacy, thereby suggesting that it (White Supremacy) vitiates all institutions and informs most irrational, hateful prejudices.  West’s logic reminds me of the New Left’s logic: everything must be about class, therefore don’t bring up race, and therefore if you don’t always concentrate on class, I can’t support you. 

In short, Coates fetishizes white supremacy. He makes it almighty, magical and unremovable. What concerns me is his narrative of “defiance”. For Coates, defiance is narrowly aesthetic – a personal commitment to writing with no connection to collective action. It generates crocodile tears of neoliberals who have no intention of sharing power or giving up privilege.

5. Coates does perceive White Supremacy to be implacably powerful (if not “almighty”), and, like Derrick Bell (as West notes later), doesn’t see that situation changing soon if ever.  It is hard to gainsay Coates’s realism.  Further, Coates sees his calling to be that of a nonfiction writer, a witness in prose to racism and White Supremacy.  He prefers not to be a leader, and he seems to know and respect his own limits. West wants him to be West, Jr., it seems, and Coates wants to be Coates. 

When he honestly asks: “How do you defy a power that insists on claiming you?”, the answer should be clear: they claim you because you are silent on what is a threat to their order (especially Wall Street and war). You defy them when you threaten that order.

6. For me, this comes way too close to blaming the victim.  White Supremacy’s effect on Coates, his family, his home city and neighborhood, and so on, does not spring from his being silent, nor has he been silent; he just doesn’t write what West wants him to.  Calling out White Supremacy is as much a threat to the “order” as calling out Wall Street. 

Coates tries to justify his “defiance” by an appeal to “black atheism, to a disbelief in dreams and moral appeal”. He not only has “no expectations of white people at all”, but for him, if freedom means anything at all it is “this defiance”.

7. Given American history then and now, Coates’s position of expecting nothing of white people (except more of the same) seems rational.  It occurred to be that West, for all his anti-neoliberal writing and preaching, may be caught up in the American narrative of progress: in American, things must and will get better.  In fact, things “must” do nothing, and they are getting worse, suggest the data.  For me, Coates’s position, like that of Derrick Bell, is refreshingly contrarian and honest. 

Note that his perception of white people is tribal and his conception of freedom is neoliberal. Racial groups are homogeneous and freedom is individualistic in his world. Classes don’t exist and empires are nonexistent.

8. I need to be persuaded that Coates’s view of white people is tribal.  Based on his experience, Coates simply doesn’t trust white people to change themselves or the country fundamentally, and he didn’t invent the white homogeneity that has forged American history and that informed Trump’s election. Neither is he a Black Nationalist. I wouldn’t presume, nor should West, to say what Coates’s view of freedom springs from, although Coates himself has made it clear that he’s interested primarily in making a living to support his family.  First things first isn’t “neoliberal.”

This presidency, he writes, “opened a market” for a new wave of black pundits, intellectuals, writers and journalists – one that Coates himself has benefited from. And his own literary “dreams” of success were facilitated by a black neoliberal president who ruled for eight years – an example of “Black respectability, good Negro government.”

9.  President Obama tried to change things within the “neoliberal” system.  West has chosen a different way, and Coates yet another one.  If anyone expected any president, let alone the first Black one (whom the GOP tried to “break,” even using that loaded language), then that person was delusional.  President Obama probably could have done more in some areas and done things differently in others so as to satisfy West and others.  He also came very close to doing all that was possible, given the circumstances. And if he had presented himself in the radical way West seems to have desired, he would not have been elected. Period.  He could have been radical, or he could have been president, but not both.  As things stood, the GOP effectively turned him into a radical in the eyes of the rabid, racist base. 

There is no doubt that the marketing of Coates – like the marketing of anyone – warrants suspicion. Does the profiteering of fatalism about white supremacy and pessimism of black freedom fit well in an age of Trump – an age of neo-fascism, US style?

11. I don’t want to get into an ad hominem attack, but the way West and his booking agents have marketed him and the way he has created a Cornel West “brand” (going so far as to appear on Fox News with Bill O’Reilly, contributing, one might argue, to a fascist spectacle) suggests he may want to tread lightly with regard to Coates’s moderate success.  Coates’s first book sold 1.5 million copies.  Why not be happy for him?  Further, even a cursory reading of Coates’s essays and books shows that they oppose the worldview of Trump and his followers.  

Coates wisely invokes the bleak worldview of the late great Derrick Bell. But Bell reveled in black fightback, rejoiced in black resistance and risked his life and career based on his love for black people and justice. Needless to say, the greatest truth-teller about white supremacy in the 20th century – Malcolm X – was also deeply pessimistic about America. Yet his pessimism was neither cheap nor abstract – it was earned, soaked in blood and tears of love for black people and justice.

12. So now Coates’s bleak worldview is wise, not neoliberal?  Further Coates’s pessimism has been earned: chiefly by growing up in a very hard neighborhood in the very hard city of Baltimore. Also, his writing is the opposite of cheap and abstract: it is deliberate, serious, and above all concrete.  There is a reason Toni Morrison, who knows a thing or two about writing, compared Coates to Baldwin.  It’s fine with me if West wants to critique the comparison between Malcolm X and Barack Obama, but that comparison was a one-off, and it is in no way central to Coates’s writing.  Obama inspired him: is that so horrible?

Unfortunately, Coates’ allegiance to Obama has produced an impoverished understanding of black history. He reveals this when he writes: “Ossie Davis famously eulogized Malcolm X as ‘our living, Black manhood’ and ‘our own Black shining prince.’ Only one man today could bear those twin honorifics: Barack Obama.”

This gross misunderstanding of who Malcolm X was – the greatest prophetic voice against the American Empire – and who Barack Obama is – the first black head of the American Empire – speaks volumes about Coates’ neoliberal view of the world.

13.  I’m getting close to thinking West hasn’t read Coates, whose writing reveals that he has an expansive, patiently developed view of American and black history.  In fact, he credits his time at Howard University with disrupting and correcting his facile view of history. Moreover, his father, a former Black Panther, literally forced Coates to read books.  That Coates’s worldview may differ from West’s does not mean that Coates understands American history less than West does. 

Coates praises Obama as a “deeply moral human being” while remaining silent on the 563 drone strikes, the assassination of US citizens with no trial, the 26,171 bombs dropped on five Muslim-majority countries in 2016 and the 550 Palestinian children killed with US supported planes in 51 days, etc. He calls Obama “one of the greatest presidents in American history,” who for “eight years … walked on ice and never fell.”

14. I agree with both West and Coates on this one.  True, there’s not all that much competition (and no competition from Trump), but Obama will likely be known as one of the better presidents, especially given the stiff headwind into which he had to sail.  That said, Obama no doubt approved immoral tactics.  

It is clear that his narrow racial tribalism and myopic political neoliberalism has no place for keeping track of Wall Street greed, US imperial crimes or black elite indifference to poverty. For example, there is no serious attention to the plight of the most vulnerable in our community, the LGBT people who are disproportionately affected by violence, poverty, neglect and disrespect.

15. West has made no attempt to back up the charges of “tribalism” and “neoliberalism.”  He just keeps trying to apply the labels, hoping they’ll stick.  And concentrating on White Supremacy doesn’t imply indifference to the most vulnerable or those affected by violence, poverty, neglect, and disrespect.  Coates grew up among the most vulnerable and has written about that. 

The disagreements between Coates and I are substantive and serious. It would be wrong to construe my quest for truth and justice as motivated by pettiness. Must every serious critique be reduced to a vicious takedown or an ugly act of hatred? Can we not acknowledge that there are deep disagreements among us with our very lives and destinies at stake? Is it even possible to downplay career moves and personal insecurities in order to highlight our clashing and conflicting ways of viewing the cold and cruel world we inhabit?

16.  Maybe others have attacked West’s “career moves,” but Coates hasn’t, so I’m not sure what he’s getting at.  If anything, West seems to have gotten a bit personal with Coates, slapping labels on him with a certain amount of  glee and a glaring absence of evidence.  As to insecurities–well, in this particular piece and in his dust-up with Michael Eric Dyson, West sometimes reminds me of academics who attain a certain stature in their field, and as in West’s case, who attain celebrity.  They often view another’s success as an implicit  threat to their fame and influence. West has earned his stature.  I just wish he could thank Coates for his contributions and congratulate him for his modest success.  I think, too, that it would be more productive for West to view an array of critiques of white (or “neoliberal,” if you will) as necessary and, we hope, effective. Instead he seems to want all Black intellectuals to get in line, his line. 

I stand with those like Robin DG Kelley, Gerald Horne, Imani Perry and Barbara Ransby who represent the radical wing of the black freedom struggle. We refuse to disconnect white supremacy from the realities of class, empire, and other forms of domination – be it ecological, sexual, or others.

The same cannot be said for Ta-Nehisi Coates.

17. True enough. Coates decided to go his own way, but by focusing on white supremacy, he hasn’t ignored class.  He writes a lot about his own struggles in and with class. Further, concentrating on white supremacy seems crucial in America’s current predicament, and as Coates pursues that line, others can, should, and will pursue the others that West mentions. A productive division of labor. 

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“The Road Not Taken” Syndrome

You are probably familiar with Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” If you are, and if you believe the poem implicitly encourages taking the figuratively less well-trod path in life, then you belong to a vast majority, and you are in error.

A main point of this post, however, is not to correct your error, per se, but to use the established meaning of the poem as a reference-point as we all continue to consider the pseudocracy–the reign of seeming, government by deception and willing self-deception, and media of misinformation.

Two excerpts will demonstrate what the poem actually “says”:

1:Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

This describes the “other” road. Note that, in effect, the roads are similar in appearance and wear.

2: I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Note that the teller is speaking from the present and that he is predicting what he will say and that what he will say has no bearing on his having taken “the other” road. How could it? For in that present moment, NOTHING has resulted from his taken the road he took. In fact, the speaker is more or less admitting that whatever the consequences, if any, will be, he will say (with a sigh) what he will say. One might say, then, that the past and past choices will be what we say they will be.

However, it truly no longer matters what the words in the poem convey because the culture at large has decided what the poem means; indeed, the culture at large may not even know that the phrase “the road less traveled” alludes to the poem. The culture at large has absorbed the alleged lesson that one should take the road less traveled, even though if everyone took that advice, the less traveled road would be the most traveled one.

Similarly, in the pseudocracy, beliefs and psuedo-facts are impervious to observation and information. Thus, no matter what the Act says or what people are experiencing, “Obamacare,” to many, will be Obamacare, not the AHCA, and it will be “a government takeover,” and it will be “more expensive,” and it will be an example of socialism.

And: the Democratic Party will be the party of “the little guy.”

And: White conservative Christians will be under siege, the ultimate victims.

The Republican Party will be the party of judicious financing and small government.

The Democratic Party will be the party that protects the environment.

And: the proper foreign policy will be to make the world afraid of us, and making the world afraid of us will be a good thing.

President Obama will have been born in Kenya, and will not be a Christian.

It will be only a co-incidence that most of the U.S. Senators are White, wealthy men.

And so on.

As Yogi Berra might have said, Nobody takes the road less traveled anymore because it’s so crowded.

We shall be talking about the pseudocracy, with a sigh, ages and ages hence.

Squalid Scalia

An online definition of squalid goes as follows:

(of a place) Extremely dirty and unpleasant, esp. as a result of poverty or neglect.
Showing a contemptible lack of moral standards.

I apply it to Justice (ha!) Antonin Scalia, in general but with regard to today’s arguments concerning same-sex marriage.

Reportedly, Scalia asked Ted Olson, a conservative arguing in favor of supporting the overturning of Prop. 8 in California (thus arguing in favor, more broadly, of same-sex marriage), “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit gay marriage?” (This is a paraphrase.) Then he offered a couple of dates when this might have (not) occurred. Olson’s answer was a question, “When did it become unconstitutional to prohibit mixed race marriages?” Scalia’s answer was to tell Olson not to answer questions with a question. Ah, the highest court in the land. High on what, who knows?

Scalia positions himself as an “originalist.” He likes to go back to the original text of the C. itself, and to founders’ intent. Grudgingly, he agrees to look at amendments. By the way, wouldn’t founders’ intent require cloning? Yeah, sure, there are letters and the Federalist Papers, but still, those are incomplete. We’d have to have live cranial video of what the founders were thinking when they signed the C. Even cloning wouldn’t cut it because, for the sake of argument, let’s assume we could bring a Founder back to life. First question: How’s it going? Second question (for Jefferson): “What gives you the right to own slaves?” Third question:”What was your intent when you …?” So, Big Tom gives us an answer: “My intent was to . . .”. Why would we believe his account?

But of course one good rhetorical answer to Scalia’s question is not the question Olson asked but an imperative: “Show me when and where the Constitution explicitly prohibited same sex marriage.” Scalia would then have to talk about, well, obviously, back then, gay people didn’t get married, yadda, yadda. Yeah, fine, but show me where that gets us into the text of the Constitution, Moe. (He reminds of Moe in the Three Stooges.)

This is all a rhetorical (in the negative sense) exercise on my part because, in part, Scalia’s mind is squalid, not to mention made-up. It is dirty and unpleasant as a result of neglecting reason in favor of politics. He’s just a GOP hack. He shows a contemptible lack of moral standards. It is immoral to go on hunting trips with Cheney (also unwise) and then claim there is no conflict of interest when you hear (but not listen to) a case involving Cheney. Etc.

Please know I don’t think much of the rest of the Court, either. With the exception of Ginsburg, they all seem like robed clowns too much taken with themselves. And poor Justice Thomas has become a smoldering boulder of self-loathing. Breyer is a gasbag. So is Kagan. Kennedy sits his ass on the fence, guaranteeing no one respects him.

Still, Scalia is a cut below–especially with his lame “originalist” posturing.

David Brooks’ Faulty Reasoning About Why the GOP Lost

I give David Brooks credit. In looking for reasons why the GOP had a bad night, he’s not being as shameless as Karl Rove. I know that’s faint praise. The long-con-artist Rove is blaming a storm for his failure to deliver what billionaires paid him for. Here is Brooks’ take:

Growing beyond proper limits, government saps initiative, sucks resources, breeds a sense of entitlement and imposes a stifling uniformity on the diverse webs of local activity.

During the 2012 campaign, Republicans kept circling back to the spot where government expansion threatens personal initiative: you didn’t build that; makers versus takers; the supposed dependency of the 47 percent. Again and again, Republicans argued that the vital essence of the country is threatened by overweening government.

These economic values played well in places with a lot of Protestant dissenters and their cultural heirs. They struck chords with people whose imaginations are inspired by the frontier experience.

But, each year, there are more Americans whose cultural roots lie elsewhere. Each year, there are more people from different cultures, with different attitudes toward authority, different attitudes about individualism, different ideas about what makes people enterprising.

More important, people in these groups are facing problems not captured by the fundamental Republican equation: more government = less vitality.

The Pew Research Center does excellent research on Asian-American and Hispanic values. Two findings jump out. First, people in these groups have an awesome commitment to work. By most measures, members of these groups value industriousness more than whites.

Second, they are also tremendously appreciative of government. In survey after survey, they embrace the idea that some government programs can incite hard work, not undermine it; enhance opportunity, not crush it.

Moreover, when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.

* * *

As it happens, I’m an expert on part of what he says. I grew up “on the frontier”–in a High Sierra town of 200, once a Gold Rush town. And, culturally, part of me came from Sweden but that part was atheist, not Protestant. Also, I saw what the GI bill did for one of my uncles, who flew mission in a Flying Fortress. It allowed him to go to a state college and get a teaching degree. He taught and coached for the next 30+ years but never gave up on the “frontier” stuff like hunting, fishing, building your own cabin, and panning for gold.

My uncle’s values were not, in fact, different from those described in the Pew poll concerning these alleged “people from elsewhere.”

Everybody in the U.S. is from elsewhere, and why begin history with Protestant colonialists? Why not start it with the slaves who were brought here in 1619? Or the Spaniards out on that frontier? Or the French in the bayous? And so on? And why not mention that many of the early members of the federal and state governments owned slaved? That’s the ultimate “government intrusion” and extreme “attitude toward authority.”

So I assert that Brooks’ argument is based on a false, White-centered, nostalgic view of history. I also assert that the GOP had a bad night (but only narrowly, let us remember) because it has been begging for one. Look who speaks for them mostly loudly, hear how much hate is in the speech, and see how weird the stances are: abortion banned even in cases of rape; denying global warming; claiming “trickle down” economics is anything more than a long-con (70%+ of economic growth is driven by consumer–middle class spending, not by how much dough rich people get to keep); wanting government to intrude on two adults’ decision to spend their lives together (what’s more “American” than that?); and treating the first Black president like a you-know-what.

I also assert Brooks’ argument hinges on a false dichotomy: either government helps the economy or private enterprise does. They both do, and they both must. If these “new people from elsewhere” don’t work with the same fallacy as Brooks does, it may simply mean they are reasonable. Government can raise the taxes or sell the bonds necessary to build schools, bridges, sea-wall, an electric grid, and so on. Who does the work? Private contractors. So enough of that dodge, please.

If government has grown beyond proper limits, then why not question the proper limits of the defense budget, which is the most out of whack part of our budget when compared to all other countries?

Is a national health insurance program–operated by private insurance companies–and improper intrusion of government, or just something my practical uncle would see as necessary?

Barack Obama as Big Government Lefty is one of the larger straw men the GOP has built. On what issues is President Obama to the Left of Eisenhower or Truman?

I think the GOP decided to see how far right it could go on a range of issues, and so it went too far. I think it decided long ago to be a White party. Lindsay Graham has admitted as much, and we all know about the Southern Strategy, which is race-based. That’s the short version. There’s more to it than that, but it isn’t the more that Brooks cites.

The Core of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language”

Devotees — I make bold to use the plural — of this blog know that the pair of us routinely pore over George Orwell’s classic essay “Politics and the English Language.”  We are critical of the essay.  As a result of our criticisms, we may obscure our admiration for Orwell’s thinking.  It behooves us, then, to reiterate the essay’s virtues from time to time.  This entry is one such time.

In my view, the following passage is the centerpiece of Orwell’s insights:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.

In our time, 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. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as “keeping out of politics.” All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.

I confess that every time I read these paragraphs, phrases and clauses leap from the screen — seldom from pages these days although from the pages in the collection Shooting an Elephant in 1976 when Professor Lance Bennett sent me Orwell’s way — as fronts of T-shirts.

My favorite sentence in the essay was initially and remains today “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”  What a bounty that hucksters such as Dr. Frank Luntz should expose themselves as liars and cheats even as they ply the polity with soothing phrases and soulless palaver!  Dr. Luntz and other politicos wield calculated vagueness and crafted equivocation with frightening effectiveness, which makes them at once enemies of understanding, rationality, and democracy.  Their expedients win elections and shape policies at the expense of self-governance.  The dark arts of political grifting enrich the grifters even as they impoverish the polity.

Another T-shirt aphorism aligns with the foregoing maxim: “Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.”  To me these first two sentences mutually reinforce.  Because the insincere manipulator or audiences must avoid clarity in favor of euphemism and other “swindles and perversions” [Orwell], the con artist must assemble words and phrases into slogans, bumper stickers, and spot ads that withstand mindless repetition but not critical scrutiny.  Apostles of orthodoxy intricately arrange words and phrases — but not usually sentences and paragraphs lest  complicated, modulated expression induce thought and skepticism — into towers of babble that bear repetition much better than they weather reflection.  Orthodoxy and conformity, it follows, not only encourage but also depend on rote expression(s) that mask motives and hide sinister designs behind dextrous expression.  Insincerity is a great enemy of clarity because clarity of thought and expression threatens the insincere.

As insincerity begets strategic and tactical unclarity and as prosaic, hackneyed strategic and tactical words and phrases repeatedly hide motives and designs unbecoming to partisans, ideologues, and other scammers and shammers, political messages becloud minds.  “And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity,”  Orwell notes.  Orwell’s “model” of language and politics seems to me to be that propagandists enthrall followers and thereby make their followers far less even as they may make followers believe that followers are becoming far more, perhaps, even that followers are becoming part of leadership.

 

 

Another Triumph of Appearance Over Actuality

Yesterday morning [13 May 2012] I was listening to “Weekend Edition Sunday” on NPR when Rachel Martin* spoke with Walter Isaacson about the many patents that the late Steve Jobs had registered for artistic creations.  Mr. Isaacson published a biography of Mr. Jobs about the time Mr.Jobs died.  Mr. Isaacson summarized the matter:  “You know, he was taught in the early 1980s by a great guy named Mike Markkula that the packaging really matters. You have to impute a beauty to a product from the moment people see the box. And so he has a design patent with some other people at Apple – I think Steve’s name may be first on it – of just the way you open the box to the original iPod and how it is cradled. And you open it and it hinges like a jewel. There’s a certain theater, an emotional theater in the unpacking.”

As I listened I thought that Mr. Isaacson deftly summarized modern impression management:  Sellers manipulate impressions via packaging unrelated to content [if indeed the packaging does not substitute for content, as in political speeches].

And attend to Mr.Isaacson’s phrasing [transcript courtesy of LexisNexis Academic]:  “You have to impute a beauty to a product from the moment people see the box.  … And you open it and it hinges like a jewel. There’s a certain theater, an emotional theater in the unpacking.”  Mr. Isaacson’s ode to adornment encapsulates the age.  Emotional theater indeed!

* Rachel Martin was my student in Politics and Government at the University of Puget Sound.  She has since grown way past anything I might have taught her!

 

 

The Unintended Literature of Politics

Here is a brief quotation from a story in the San Jose Mercury News about Senator Santorum’s quitting the primary-campaign:

Bridget Nelson, a Tea Party activist who co-hosted a March 29 fundraiser for Santorum in Alamo, spoke with him Tuesday and said she’s “bummed” but will soldier on.

“I felt that for the first time in a long time, here’s a presidential candidate the conservatives can get behind who loves God first, country second,” she said. “He just said he wants to be involved still in politics and hopefully in the future possibly running again in 2016, but right now this is the best decision for him and his family.”

If this conversation were depicted as “overheard” in a novel like WAR AND PEACE, we’d be fascinated by all the ironies and nuances. Consider just the mixture of language itself:

“Tea Party,” “Alamo,” “bummed,” “soldier on,” “loves God first, country second.” The first two samples are often interpreted simplistically, but anyone who looks carefully into the Boston Tea Party and the defeat at the Alamo will ponder the unintended complexities in Ms. Nelson’s statement. Then comes “bummed,” straight out of “bum trip” or “bad acid trip,” from the 1960s. “Soldier on”: voters as PFCs. And finally, “loves God first, country second.” I don’t mean to be difficult, but shouldn’t all voters want a candidate who respects the country and more or less keeps his or her faith to himself? Aren’t a hefty number of Americans perturbed by some Muslims, who indeed love God first and country second, as their faith instructs?

If you haven’t read the first page of WAR AND PEACE in a while, you might give it a go. There’s a party going on–a high-class one–in St. Petersburg. War is about to happen. But the odd entanglements of language, egos, and petty desires–as they often do–intrude.

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