Who’s responsible for the things that go wrong with our language?
Individuals, surely — and sometimes just lazy individuals, people who can’t be bothered to listen and learn, people who say “I was laying on the bed” without ever noticing that lie and lay are different verbs.
Often the culprits are individuals acting in social or occupational groups. About 25 years ago, some waiters on the west coast thought it was cute to ask their customers, “Are you still workin’ on that?” when they wanted to know whether the customers had finished their meals. Still workin’ on that is an ugly expression, and it’s actually bad for business, because it implies that eating restaurant food is work. But soon after it started, I traveled to Connecticut to visit my friends Muriel Hall and Mary Jane Hodges, and when we went out to dinner I told them that “workin’ on that” was abroad in the West and would soon infest their own neighborhood. They couldn’t believe that such a thing could happen: “No, you’re kidding!” Yet within a few months it hit them, and everyone else. It’s still with us.
Just as bad money drives out good, false language drives out real language.
A couple of years ago, the same occupational group started using grab to mean everything that an employee does for a customer. “I’d like some coffee, please.” “OK, I’ll grab it for you.” “What happened to my order of lox?” “Sorry; I’ll grab it.” “The restroom has no toilet paper.” “Hold on; I’ll grab you some.” Now this ugly expression, too, is everywhere.
Why? Catchphrases of this sort are self-subverting attempts to say something “different” in circumstances in which the same kind of thing has to be said over and over, every day — attempts made without the realization that if you keep saying that different phrase, you will produce an even drearier sameness. This goes double for the repulsive jargon of the electronics business, from input to meme and all the rest of it. Just as bad money drives out good, false language drives out real language. That’s why people undergoing a spiritual crisis can think of nothing more poignant to say than, “I’m just trying to process my emotions.”
Major collections of culpable individuals are corporations, advertising agencies, pop psychologists, romance writers, and self-help quacks (aka “inspirational authors”). A TV ad for Cancer Treatment Centers of America combines the bad attitudes of all five. “Cancer treatment is more than our mission,” it claims. “It’s our passion.” Mission? These days, everybody’s got a mission statement. Even the garbage company pretends that it’s Father Serra. And that isn’t enough. The mission has to be carried on with passion. But look. If I get cancer — again! — I won’t be looking for treatment that happens to leak out of somebody’s passion; I’ll be looking for treatment that’s guided by cold reason. “It’s our passion” . . . Why not go the distance? Why not say, “It’s our insanity”?
There are sins of omission and sins of commission, and the state is guilty of both.
The capitalist system allows people to compete by the quality of their language. Retailers of vital services can attract customers by offering clear information, dispassionately conveyed. Restaurants can get an edge on their competitors by hiring staff who speak decent English, and many of the better restaurants do. Corporations sometimes compete in similar ways; see the Progressive Insurance satire of passion. If businesses don’t watch their language, and customers don’t care, it’s their own fault.
Yet the strongest, most pervasive, and most repulsive influence on modern language is the modern state — political power in its many branches: the schools and colleges, funded overwhelmingly by government; the professional associations, licensed and inspected by government; the mainstream, heritage, and soi-disant respectable media, propaganda agencies of government; and the omnipresent advocacy (i.e., pressure) groups, constant campaigners for government money and influence.
There are sins of omission and sins of commission, and the state is guilty of both. Why do the public schools exist if it isn’t to teach people, at some point in their 13 years of “education,” that there’s something wrong with saying “Sally laid on the couch”? Or to show them why they’re right to be mildly sickened by “You still workin’ on that?” (Recently I heard an even more disgusting version: “You still pickin’ at that?”) But government isn’t merely letting bad language happen; it isn’t merely teaching tolerance for bogus words. It’s creating bad language, constantly and massively.
I’m not just thinking about the language of tax codes and applications for building permits. I’m thinking about the countless words and phrases by which the state infiltrates its blunt, reductive mentality into our way of life. Where do you think the plague of impact came from? You know the word I mean, the verb that has annihilated influence, shape, guide, determine, control, damage, devastate, and all the shades of meaning these options represent, and left nothing but an image of violent collision — impact! Tell me you were impacted, and I won’t know whether you had a dental problem, enjoyed a book, or lost your home in an earthquake. The government started this, when it started issuing “studies” and edicts (more the latter than the former) about the impact of “processes” on “communities,” about how the planet has been, is, or may conceivably be impacted by its climate, and about every other kind of impact a million busy bureaucrats can invent. The evil locution spread. Now, in the dim religious light of the psychiatrist’s inner office, a voice is heard: “How were you impacted by your wife’s eating habits?”
Tell me you were "impacted," and I won’t know whether you had a dental problem, enjoyed a book, or lost your home in an earthquake.
During the month of December, local and national radio informed me that numerous faith leaders were getting themselves arrested in protests at the Mexican border with San Diego, where I live. Their protest involved President Trump’s border policies — that much was clear, although its rationale was never developed, or even hinted at. (The reason, I suppose, is the assumption, cultivated by Democratic Party leaders, that all anti-Trump activity is the same, in a world in which there are but two entities: Trump and The People.) But what does faith leaders mean?
My working assumption about all religious attempts to impact politics is that the true meaning of faith leaders is “busybodies.” This was clearly not the intended meaning, but the words themselves refuse to tell us what that is. So let’s go at it in another way. Why would someone say faith leaders when any other phrase was available?
The answer is this. In the first decade of the 21st century, religious officials who involved themselves in politics were called by the media ministers or preachers, usually preceded by the adjective rightwing. Leftwing religious activity was ordinarily not identified as “religious.” Religious activists might be concerned citizens or community leaders, but never, never leftwing preachers. (The tradition holds for talk-show hosts, who are always rightwing, never leftwing.) This was language as new as it was misleading. Martin Luther King was always, in the media, a minister or preacher; had he been called a faith leader it would have implied something spooky and cultlike, or something righteous in a distant, transmontane way. But times changed, and the media decided that separation of church and state meant that only rightwing dominies had wandered into politics — a tribute to the media’s ignorance about such little things, unimportant in American history, as the African-American churches.
Why would someone say "faith leaders" when any other phrase was available?
Then came the election of Barack Obama, who appealed continually to religious sentiment; and later there appeared the come-to-Jesus moments of Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and so on, who discovered that all of Donald Trump’s policies were not only anti-American but anti-religious and specifically anti-Christian. Much talk of the Sermon on the Mount, the Good Samaritan, and “suffer the little children.” But the problem was that according to the modern liberals’ own ideas (and in this case, not such bad ideas), religion should not be involved in politics.
A way was found to deal with this. Political figures began referring to religion as faith (a word that would surprise a Hindu or a Buddhist, but why bother to find out about other people’s faiths?) and preachers as leaders. From the politicians the glad phrase faith leaders passed directly, and without digestive process, into the copy of newspapers and radio and TV stations.
Of course, it isn’t used for rightwing “faith leaders.” These remain rightwing preachers, rightwing rabbis, and radical imams — when mentioned. No matter: to whomever it is applied, the phrase remains as meaningless, yet as suggestive, as it was originally meant to be. The fact that a Unitarian minister, a Roman Catholic priest, and a Reform rabbi stage a political demonstration doesn’t mean that they are leaders of anything, much less of a faith. Listening to the news, however, you would think they were Maimonides or St. Augustine — or Martin Luther King, to whom the august title of Faith Leader would have seemed just pompous nonsense.
It wasn’t just a disaster, you understand, but a catastrophic one.
Pompous, and obscurantist. But if you want transparency — an expression that achieved some popularity when it was used by anti-government protestors demanding that a few of the state’s inexhaustible horde of secrets be revealed, but was soon coopted by such intensely secretive politicians as President Obama, who smugly asserted that his administration was the most transparent in history — if you want transparency, I say, and you want the thing instead of the word, you will find it in the relationship between state and media, which is as clear as any bell. What the state says, the media say, and vice versa. They’re the same, and you can see right through them, in more ways than one. When you do, you can also see, quite transparently revealed, what some call the deep state.
Here’s a parenthesis that I think is necessary. There are two types of conspiracy hunters. The first believe credulously in political conspiracies. The second try to discredit their political opponents as credulous believers in conspiracies. To all these hunters I say: I do not believe that John F. Kennedy was slain by the CIA or Big Oil or anyone except Lee Harvey Oswald. I do not believe that the Illuminati rule the world, or even exist. I don’t even believe in the International Communist Conspiracy. I do believe that people cooperate with one another, often without advertising the fact that they do, and that this tendency is particularly notable among people who have not been elected but are nevertheless accustomed to holding state power. These are the people who deserve to be called “the deep state.” Am I being transparent enough about my views?
Now, if you have trouble seeing through the media to the state, and the state to the deep state, you can hear the tightness of their relationship in the pompous yet just-plain-dumb language that they all use. On December 19, CBS radio, agitating against Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, reported an “anonymous administration official” fulminating against the move as “catastrophically disastrous.” It wasn’t just a disaster, you understand, but a catastrophic one. Does the word overkill come up in classes at the Columbia School of Journalism, or are they all about advocating for social justice? And speaking of credulity, why is special credence to be paid to someone because he or she is (A) hysterical, (B) semi-literate, (C) a government official who (D) wants to operate in secret? Members of the deep state aren’t shy about expressing themselves; they glory in their power and prestige — but they do want to escape the consequence of being bounced out on the street.
Catastrophically disastrous, while dumb, is not an expression that somebody stayed up all night to invent. But what about this item from CNN (December 20):
Shaken, saddened, scared: Washington erupts over Mattis resignation
Can’t you just see the news staff, huddled around a computer screen, trying to get the alliteration right?
The idea, of course, was to issue a clarion call, suggestive of . . . I don’t know what. A nuclear explosion in Cincinnati? The return of the Black Death? The Day of the Triffids? Here, as usual, the tone of the open media is the same as that of the deep state. Catastrophically disastrous, I’d like you to meet mass eruption. Oh, you’ve met before. I thought so.
How childish this is! No matter what you think about General Mattis (or Syria, for that matter, except that I, for one, would like us to get out of there), the picture of a sad and shaken city erupting, and doing so over somebody’s resignation, could be created only by people who think that words are nothing but emotional pricks and goads, and if you use enough of them on your audience, you can steer them in any way you want.
That’s not a particularly bright idea. But I recall that R.W. Bradford, the founder of this journal, used to refer to the “dumber principle” — the idea, common among people who have bought something at an inflated price and are now trying to unload it on someone else, that “there is always somebody dumber than you are.” In this light, consider the recent protective action of the American media on behalf of the government of France. On December 10, Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister, responded to violent demonstrations against a (highly regressive) fuel tax by declaring that his government was ready to make any gesture of appeasement (geste d’apaisement) that might restore unity; i.e., make the mobs go away. Le Maire’s geste was a transparent display of the modern state’s contempt for the people. Let ’em eat gestures.
Here, as usual, the tone of the open media is the same as that of the deep state.
At this, strangely, there was no populist revulsion among the American media. Reportage about the French affair was lackluster, uninterested. Could that have been because the public’s object of disgust was a tax imposed to save the environment?
Things are normally that way, in Europe and America — the ruling class gets hypochondria, and the working class gets pneumonia. Name one public figure who has, in the name of the environment, climate change, sustainability, or simple economy, taken even one trip fewer in a private jet. Yet these are the people who never met a tax or regulation they didn’t like. There is always the question: What are they thinking? Are they just that rude? Or are they just that dumb? And they may be both. If you want a combination of rude and dumb, you can hardly do better than an account of French politics published by the Chicago Tribune on December 8.
The Trib, at least, could not be accused of ignoring the French demonstrations; it reported them in a 30-paragraph article (bylined to the Associated Press). In paragraph 13 there is a vague reference to “a gas tax hike” and “eroding living standards.” (Al Gore did predict erosion, didn’t he?) Yet only in the final paragraph is their cause stated clearly — in a quotation from, of all people, President Trump: “People do not want to pay large sums of money . . . in order to maybe protect the environment."
Perfectly true, but the betting is that you won’t read that far. To get there you have to resist the anesthetic administered in paragraph 24, which invokes the usual anonymous authorities: “Many economists and scientists say higher fuel taxes are essential to save the planet from worsening climate change, but that stance hasn't defused the anger among France's working class.” (So saying something is now a stance?)
Things are normally that way, in Europe and America — the ruling class gets hypochondria, and the working class gets pneumonia.
You also have to get past the mysterious paragraph 12, which mentions “the financial disconnect that infuriates many of the protesters.” Aha! Now we know! These people are infuriated by a disconnect. I feel the same, whenever my computer goes down, and I need to find the plug. But how did so many Frenchies get unplugged? Maybe paragraph 21 will help us. It describes another, “environmental” demonstration that appears to have featured some of the same character actors: “A scattering of yellow vests [these are things that French law requires you to carry in your car, in case your fashion sense is insufficient to meet an emergency], as well as women, children and retirees, were among the 17,000 people marching to demand action against climate change. One sign read ‘No climate justice without fiscal and social justice.’"
Make sense of that, will you! Here are people demanding action against climate change. So they’re enraged environmentalists, eh? That’s what the article says. But the people seem to be saying — sorry, one of their signs is saying; it’s so easy to take one sign as representative, isn’t it? — that they want other kinds of “justice” first. So are they upset about climate change, or not? Well, if they aren’t, they ought to be. The economists and scientists say so. In fact, the economists and scientists demand that they (that is, the people) pay higher taxes. But somehow, this demand has not defused the people’s anger. Why not? Ah! (Gallic shrug) — who knows?
Is the Tribune’s mess of a story intentional — a way of boring and confusing readers until they give up on the matter? Or is it merely a predictable result of the uncertain hold on literacy so often noticeable among the controlling class? In any case, it’s transparent. It presents a true picture of the modern state and its organs of propaganda.
I’ll hand you some of my own propaganda. Here it is. You can have a flourishing language or you can have a flourishing state. You cannot have both; you need to decide. And if you’re too lazy, dumb, or silly to decide, you’ve already made your decision, and it’s obvious what you’ll get. It’s what you’ve got right now.