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Jewish World Review
March 12, 2013/ 1 Nissan, 5773
Annals of illiteracy
The abuse of language is probably as old as language itself. They go together like matter and anti-matter. And thoughtful observers have pointed out the danger of corrupting the language at least since Milton.
"Nor do I think it a matter of little moment," the English author wrote -- in Latin -- to an Italian friend in 1638, "whether the language of a people be vitiated or refined, whether the popular idiom be erroneous or correct. ... I am inclined to believe, that when the language in common use in any country becomes irregular and depraved, it is followed by their ruin or their degradation. For what do terms used without skill or meaning, which are at once corrupt and misapplied, denote, but a people listless, supine, and ripe for servitude?
"On the contrary, we have never heard of any people or state which has not flourished in some degree of prosperity as long as their language has retained its elegance and its purity."
Good luck with that. The temptation to abuse language for our own self-interested purposes can prove irresistible. Especially to the kind of rhetorician convinced of the rightness of his cause, and the wrongness of the other fellow's.
A particularly effective technique is to seize on some easily misinterpreted phrase the victim has used, trim away its context, and use it to paint him as evil, as mean-spirited, as ... Racist! Which has become the pejorative du jour for anything or anybody or any idea we dislike -- and any politician or party we'd like to discredit. Much the way Communist or Fascist were used in different times. Liberal acquired much the same suspect sound, which may be why liberals started calling themselves progressives.
Words are powerful weapons and, like any other, can be misused. Why reason your way to a conclusion -- that can be hard work -- when a blanket condemnation lies conveniently to hand in a single, ready-to-serve epithet?
It helps if the victim is recorded making some statement that can be edited just right, or rather just wrong, to make him out as some kind of yahoo. And so inflame all the political illiterates out there, and there are a lot of them. Always have been. Joe McCarthy waxed powerful on their support. And before him, Huey Long. Right or left, each has its demagogues. And the worse the times, the better the demagogues do.
Fear, suspicion, insecurity, ignorance, the lurking suspicion that somebody somewhere is doing better than we are, and at our expense, too ... take those ingredients, mix well, serve hot, and you've got the perfect recipe for rousing the rabble. Especially the kind who can't really tell one word from another. Illiteracy is the health of demagoguery.
There's no telling what the suckers will swallow. The story about how George Smathers got elected to the U.S. Senate from Florida years ago -- and it's only a story -- is that he accused his opponent, Claude (Red) Pepper, of having a sister who was "a practicing thespian" and a brother who was a "known homo sapiens." Why, the scoundrel even practiced "celibacy before marriage" and may have "matriculated" his way into college. Shocking.
It all sounds too funny to be true, but there is truth in jest. The moral of the story: Never underestimate the gullibility, or maybe just boundless ignorance, of the great American electorate.
Fill that vacuum it with selected "facts" and a lot of ill will, and there's no telling how high a Joe McCarthy -- or a George Wallace or Orval Faubus -- will go. Or how low.
Here in Arkansas, the latest victim of this trick is a state senator of some prominence at this session of the Legislature -- one Jason Rapert. He was caught telling a political rally of like-minded supporters: "We're going to try to take this country back for conservatism and we're not going to allow minorities to run roughshod over what you people believe in."
Standard fare at a right-wing political rally, right? Except for that one hot-button, sure-fire word: "minorities."
Uh oh. We all "know" what the senator meant by minorities. The word has become a standard euphemism for just certain minorities--like black folks, and maybe Hispanic ones, too. That snippet of Senator Rapert's speech made YouTube, and all the usual suspects pounced: The Nation, Huffington Post, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, New York magazine.
No need to go into detail, and certainly not the context of the senator's speech. It turns out he was referring to an Arkansas Supreme Court decision that overturned an initiated act, approved by a majority of the state's voters, that would have barred unmarried couples from adopting children. The minority he was referring to was the state's Supreme Court, not a racial or ethnic minority, but the judges who had ruled against the will of the majority for constitutional reasons.
Naturally enough, the smear artists felt no need to go into that minor detail. After further investigation, New York magazine did allow that Senator Rapert appeared to be "slightly less of a bigot, still a liar." Which may be what passes for an apology in those politically correct precincts.
Why black or Hispanic Americans would need to be referred to by a different, more "polite" name in the first place, as though there were something shameful in being either, mystifies.
For equally mysterious reasons, some ultra-polite souls will go to almost any lengths to avoid using the word Jew, as if it were not fit for polite company. They wind up adopting unnatural constructions like, "Were there many Jewish persons at the party?" The way good burghers in Wilhelmine Germany might refer to "Germans of the Mosaic persuasion."
When a people is assigned one name after another through history, it's in trouble. For it doesn't have just a linguistic problem, but an identity problem.
Black Americans have gone from being colored to Negro and now African-American, and who knows what next? The problem has never been the name but the condition of a people buffeted by a history of slavery and then discrimination. ("Nobody knows the trouble I seen . . . Sometimes I'm up/ And sometimes I'm down/ Yes, Lord, you know sometimes I'm almost to the ground . . . .") The successive changes in a people's formal name, no matter how politically correct at the time, have proved only a nominal response, not a real one, to injustice.
There are few things more appalling, if comic at the same time, than elevated ignorance. Some years back a hapless municipal bureaucrat in Washington, the one in D.C., was badgered into tendering his resignation for having called the city's budget "niggardly" in some regard. That is, miserly, stingy, petty -- as in niggling. But the word was too close to the racial epithet for the more sensitive among the illiterate.
Illiteracy can make great grist for a mannered playwright like Richard Brinsley Sheridan (his Mrs. Malaprop would epitomize a high-toned illiteracy) or a newspaper columnist like Finley Peter Dunne, whose Mr. Dooley could convey wry truths in his stage-Irish dialect.
But as Milton knew, it is not "a matter of little moment whether the language of a people be vitiated or refined." Or as George Orwell would point out centuries later in his classic essay, "Politics and the English Language," poor thought corrupts our language, and in turn poor language corrupts our thought. The result is a mutually reinforcing cycle that debases both thought and language.
Paul Greenberg Archives
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