Well, at Least That's Over
by Stephen Cox | Posted January 02, 2011
Happy New Year! It gives me pleasure to report that we survived 2010 with fewer devastating hits to the language than we’ve seen in recent years.
If you’re inclined to whine about 2010, please remember “the audacity of hope” and its sad but well-merited fate in the year just past. Of course, there is usually an easy passage from pomposity to farce, but the passage of “audacity of hope” was particularly easy, and particularly gratifying to observe. Every friend of the English language shuddered on election day 2008, expecting that Obama’s stilted, painfully self-conscious phrase would be enshrined forever in America’s pantheon of quotations, alongside “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” “Fourscore and seven years ago,” and “Th-th-th-th-th! That’s all, folks!” But now it’s merely a subject for sardonic humor.
So much of interest might have been said in 2010, but wasn’t.
I’m sorry, however, that I can’t welcome the new year as ecstatically as Addison DeWitt once greeted the debut of Eve Harrington. I am not available for shouting from the housetops or dancing in the streets. It isn’t simply that a lot of muddy snow remains to be shoveled off America’s pavements; it’s that so much of interest might have been said in 2010, but wasn’t.
In 2010 we experienced comparatively little linguistic terror or catastrophe, but we didn’t experience many linguistic delights, either. Washington — Mordor on the Potomac — was more vulnerable to solemn sneers and glorious jests than it had been for many years, and that’s saying something, but its opponents were seldom equal to the occasion. The most eloquent and resonant sound of opposition was “Don’t touch my junk.” That saying will last, and deserves to last. Its four modest monosyllables combine a trenchant protest against authority with a wry parody of enforced sensitivity: if you nice people won’t let me say “penis” or “testicles,” I’ll just call them “junk”; now how do you like that?
But try to think of some equally generous gift to the language, received from 2010. Tell me if you do. I’ll be interested.
The year did afford its share of linguistic monstrosities. It promoted, for example, the further growth of the Great Blob “We.” You know what I mean. Your nurse says, “How are we doing today, Mr. Johnson?” Your boss says, “I think that we [meaning you] had better get that report out right away.” Yesterday a waitperson asked me (I was dining alone), “And how did we like our salad?” I was tempted to reply, “I don’t know; I haven’t had time to poll the rest of us”; but friends have told me that waiters do sometimes spit in your food, so I took refuge in a haughty silence.
All politicians now use “we” to describe themselves. Newt Gingrich was just obeying this professional ethic when, in December, he was interviewed by Fox News about whether he intended to run for president. He replied that “we” were considering it. This makes me wonder how many people may actually be lurking on my ballot, underneath the name of any single candidate that “we” might vote for. It also reminds me irresistibly of those cartoons in which a three-headed monster keeps talking to itself.
But it was Oprah Winfrey who, in 2010, broke all records for “we.” It happened in an interview with Barbara Walters. Barbara asked Oprah about rumors that she was gay, and Oprah responded, “We have said, ‘We are not gay,’ a number of times.” Well, I have never said that, not even once. Have you? But then we weren’t being given the third degree by Barbara Walters.
Nevertheless, “moving forward,” as politicians often said in 2010: the past year not only failed to come up with any colorful new phrases; it was churlish about using old ones that might still have some value. I was astonished by the neglect of a number of venerable expressions that should have seemed perfectly natural, indeed unavoidable, in the context of the year’s political events. These locutions may never have been star players, but their absence from the team made the game a lot less fun to watch.
Who are the war-speakers now? Who claims to be besieged, subverted, held hostage by today’s forces of evil? Why, it’s our pacifist president and his friends, that’s who.
While following the controversy over the tax bill, I was shocked to hear not one satirical reference to the fact that Democrats like to “soak the rich.” And amid the outpouring of sympathy for people who have missed their mortgage payments, I heard not one mention of “giving a hand” to “the deserving poor.” “The poor” no longer exist in our national vocabulary. In this respect, the president is fully representative of leaders left, right, and center: he never talks about “the poor”; he talks exclusively about “the middle class,” or at most about “working families.” (I thought that child labor had been outlawed — except on farms, because farm states have two senators each — but I must have been wrong.) No one ever thinks of po’ folks now.
This is disappointing to me, because I grew up around po’ folks, and a lotta folks I know are still po’. I can’t see why they should be omitted from the glossary, but in 2010 even the professional friends of the working man did exactly that. Obama used the word “folks” with fanatical phoniness, but he didn’t call the poor folks “poor.” I suppose that’s because he and his friends had discovered that really poor people don’t vote, and therefore shouldn’t be noticed, and that relatively poor people always insist that they are middle class.
Relatively rich people do that too. Have you ever met an American who referred to himself as “rich”? There’s no point in debating the question of whether to “soak” the rich. They’re linguistically extinct — except when the Democrats want to increase their taxes. Then, as we discovered in 2010, they become the “super-rich” (i.e., people who make more than $250,000 a year).
That is what the Republicans call “class warfare,” a phrase I am heartily sick of, despite its fair degree of accuracy. The reason I regard it as fairly accurate is that Obama’s leading supporters and administrative fixtures are virtually all super-rich themselves — and I’m not talking about people who make only $250K. I doubt that Obama knows anyone who makes as little as that, or has known anyone who makes as little as that during his own past years of political “service.” But some kind of warfare is going on. The most famous remark that Obama made in 2010 was his crack about Republican congressmen holding “hostages” (i.e., refusing, out of principle, to vote for his legislation). That’s war talk, that is.
If Obama came back, where did he come back from? From his dismally low popularity? From the 9.6% unemployment fostered and protected by his economic policies?
And it’s interesting: starting in the 1960s, “right wing” people were violently attacked by college professors and other kindly, mild-mannered folk for “militarizing” the language — you know, insisting on prosecuting a “cold war” against an “evil empire,” and calling communists “traitors” when they were merely plotting to set up a Stalinist dictatorship. The attack revived after 9/11, when a concerted attempt was made to ban the word “evil” as an aggressive, contemptuous piece of hate speech, reminiscent of . . . er . . . uh . . . Nazis or something. (Gosh, I almost said “radical Islamicists.”) But who are the war-speakers now? Who claims to be besieged, subverted, held hostage by today’s forces of evil? Why, it’s our pacifist president and his friends, that’s who.
The truth is less ideological and more rhetorical. Obama was desperate when he made that statement. He would have said anything if he’d thought it would help. To rescue his political career, he needed to make a deal with the Republicans, but he also needed to conciliate the many members of his party who hate Republicans. He decided that the best way to do it was to show that he, too, hated Republicans. That wasn’t hard, because it was true. He does hate them. So he charged that the Republicans had, in effect, manned up (another ridiculous 2010 expression) and were negotiating with him at the point of a legislative gun. Oh, the humanity! But he had to go along with them, for the sake of the republic.
If you can’t see through this stuff, you’re even more naïve than the New York Times.
But speaking of naïve journalism, this is the time for Word Watch to make its fearless forecast for 2011. Here goes.
During 2011, I envision a more complex linguistic situation than prevailed on 2010. I predict that the nation will be annoyed and harassed, not just by the usual guff, but by three rival political dialects.
This is a language in which I am well educated, a language that has come pretty naturally to me since I stopped being a leftist several generations ago; but I have to concede that it’s lacking in charm. The Republican leadership, which is not very charming to begin with, will speak continually of “balancing the budget,” “ensuring fiscal responsibility,” “setting the nation’s house in order,” “getting America back to work,” and so on and so on. Sound words, if sincerely spoken — which ordinarily they won’t be. But don’t go to John Boehner or Mitch McConnell for inspiring words. They’re too busy running across the fields, with the Tea Party chasing after them.
Until 2010, “progressives” were old fogies who believed in everything that appeared in the Socialist Party platform of 1912. They went down to the community center on Friday night and listened to speakers (whom no one but other speakers had ever heard of) explain how Big Oil runs the government and will stop at nothing until it poisons the earth and destroys all its people. Outside of that, they had no life. They all voted enthusiastically for Obama but were then horrified to discover that he wasn’t prepared to outlaw capitalism the very next day. One or two of these advanced thinkers happened to be billionaires and thus managed to get themselves taken semi-seriously, so long as they doled out cash; but that was it.
Then came 2010, and by the time it was over, the most leftward people in the Democratic Party had all declared themselves “progressives” out of frustration with Obama. For one thing, he was a total loser. For another thing, they wouldn’t admit to themselves that the specific reason he had lost the November election was that he had followed their advice and “doubled down” on his least popular policy initiatives. To differentiate their wing of the party from the die-hard Obamaites, they needed their own special word for themselves — and lo! “progressive” was found and seized upon. Suddenly, like some animal species that was thought to be extinct until it blundered into a neighborhood where the garbage wasn’t always picked up on time, “progressives” propagated themselves everywhere. Congress and the old-fashioned media filled up with them, overnight.
The current “progressive” ideology isn’t much worth talking about; it consists largely of the idea that government should always expand exponentially, which it would be doing if the president would only ignore the wishes of nine-tenths of the American populace. The progressish dialect isn’t much fun, either; but it will be very prominent in 2011. Expect to hear much more about “empowerment,” “workers’ rights,” “corporate control,” “masters of war,” “the military-industrial complex,” and other standard shibboleths of the distant Left, as leftists try to hold Obama’s renomination hostage in the temple of their idolatries.
This is the worst one.
Obama’s popularity ratings have been in the swamp since mid-2009. His amateurish performance as president resulted in his opponents’ overwhelming victory in the election of 2010. Since that election, his biggest accomplishment has been rounding up enough Democrats to vote for the continuation of the Republican tax cuts he had campaigned against.
Strangely, in response to his questionable achievements a chorus of cheers is now being heard from the loftiest heights of the established media — cheers rendered in a barbaric, virtually untranslatable tongue, full of terms that have no plausible equivalent in normal English. Thus, Obama is complimented for his “thoughtful,” even “deeply intellectual and reflective” leadership, for his “moderation,” his “conciliatory approach,” and his “reaching-across-the-aisle method of government.” He is said to have “emerged victorious” and to have “surprised the pundits” as he “turned the corner” on his “struggle to lead America out of its financial doldrums.” Obama is, in short, “the comeback kid.”
Only an expert on mental illness could comprehend what all this means, but its chief characteristic is clearly its gross dishonesty. If Obama came back, where did he come back from? From his dismally low popularity? From the 9.6% unemployment fostered and protected by his economic policies? From the total disarray of his own party? From any other conditions that were just as evident on November 2 as they are today?
The president is not a kid, and the only way in which he has come back is by means of this hideously contrived and shopworn language. We’ve had a comeback kid before: his name was Bill Clinton. And there has never been a moment when modern liberals were not relabeled, when necessary, as conciliatory “moderates” of a “bipartisan spirit,” “pragmatists” who “govern from the center,” etc. Some years ago, the New York Times declared, in a lead editorial, that Walter Mondale was “a man of principle, who has always had the courage to compromise.”
To conclude. These three dialects are the linguistic survivors of 2010. We’ll have to put up with them. But I can think of a good thing about last year: it appears to have jettisoned one considerable wad of smarm: “transparency.” We used to hear a lot about the cellophane-like “transparency” of the Obama administration. Now it appears, what with the healthcare deals and the taxation deals and the stimulus deals and the immigration deals and the security deals and all the other kinds of deals, that “the era of transparency” was over before it started, banished by the era of obvious lies. And that’s the real come-back kid.
Stephen Cox is editor of Liberty, and a professor of literature at the University of California San Diego. His recent books include "The Big House: Image and Reality of the American Prison" and "The New Testament and Literature."
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