Friday, July 20, 2018

Words actually do change history


Strong men do not have to be imbecilic, stupid, or destructive. Witness one former leader of the French Republic, Charles de Gaulle in his discernment between patriotism and nationalism, a discernment the U.S. president has obviously never learned or accepted:

Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism when hate for people other than your own comes first.

Apparently, there is currently an epidemic of conflation of non-equivalencies poured like molasses into the gears of the current crop of white supremacist and nationalist self-proclaimed leaders. Remember Charlottesville: “There were good people on both sides!” (trump) and then Helsinki: “Both countries are at fault!” And then in the subsequent interviews, “I think it was the Russians, and it could have been China or other people’ there are a lot of people out there!”

The self-declared “right” to do whatever you want “when you are a star” does not include the option to redefine reality in such a way as to serve only one’s deepest fears and narcissistic instincts. The slithering of language into a slough of both inaccurate and unsustainable definitions, while contemptuous of everyone else who speaks the language, is also an empirical witness to hubris, bullying and inferential collusion with others who have engaged in this propaganda for their whole lives.

To operate from the premise that no one will either catch on or be sufficiently bothered to do something about challenging me on my conflation of evertyting, including patriotism and nationalism, is nothing less than subversive, whether the laws and the legal system can or does accuse the current president of treason, obstruction of justice, defying the emoluments clause, or that ubiquitous “collusion” with the Russians.
These modest observations about the meaning of words, and their abuse, is just another route to exposing the dangers of this chief executive. And yet, there are some significant implications of the conflation of patriotism and nationalism.

Twentieth-century history, if it taught us anything, attempted to point out through millions of unnecessary, unjust, unwarranted and inexcusable deaths, that nationalism is a path leading only to darkness and destruction. Conflating the “Russian component of Crimea” with justification for the invasion and take-over of that region of Ukraine, leaps directly into the putin logic, and abrogates that “logic” as American “collusion” and compliance, and foreign policy rationalization. And even putin’s putative proposal of a plebescite for the people of Ukraine to cover over his illicit invasion (let’s drop the politically correct incursion and call it what it is) is another of his vaunted manipulations to maintain the upper hand. It reminds one of the adolescent “Better to ask for forgiveness after than for permission before” committing an act that would be clearly unacceptable.

And, from the English classroom, the conflation of meanings of words is one of the “weeding” aspects of gardening the pubescent flowers that are attempting to grow and develop before one’s eyes. There will always be a combined denotative and connotative aspect to the meaning of words. And the context in which they are used is another factor in their “interpretation”. These are basic considerations in a grade nine classroom, where language skills, vocabulary, discernment and judgement, including the capacity to discern and name inferences (as well as coherence, unity and emphasis in the complex task of developing clear thoughts, feelings, perceptions and ideas) are like the tiny shoots of “green” that announce the beginning of new growth in Spring. And each student “takes” to the growth curve differently; some blatantly disdain its ‘femininity’; others much on it like the latest offering from McDonald’s with vigor, energy and even a kind of playful combativeness. And then there is a large group in the middle who seem almost disinterested in the concept itself.

The “readers” of course, admire often to the point of fascination, the complexity and the excitement generated by world-class writers. The ones who despise reading or find it difficult (and often these are some of the same students) shy away from the “obsessive” interest in words and the delicacy of their meaning and import. This dichotomy also holds when the skill of “listening” is at issue. Those who deem words to have meaning and import, listen much more carefully, and intently (today’s therapy calls it “active listening”) while those who have withdrawn from words and their complexities, tend to turn off when conversations go “into the proverbial weeds”. Policy wonks, poets, playwrights, lawyers and clergy, journalists and humanities academics, among others, find this withdrawal especially obstructive, given that their ‘stock in trade’ is words.*

The marketing business also requires word mastery to build sales campaigns on the emotional impact of selected words. Just this morning, Donny Deutsch, marketing guru, appearing on Morning Joe, indicating he would be meeting with Democratic Party officials next week to map out a “slogan” for the midterm elections declared, “this is the vote of your life” as his preference, given the current serious and potentially fatal threats to democracy embedded in the words and actions of the current occupant of the Oval Office.

Words, then, and their meaning and import are mere chop sticks in the awkward and singularly “undextrous” hands of the president, useful for the immediate “meal” of whatever “scene” he is producing in his private and personal reality television appearance, and disposable in the trash, ready to be replaced by another and different and even opposing “sticks” in the next “appearance”.

The word “produce” and not the word “create” was used in the previous sentence for the simple reason that trump would not know how to “cre.ate” something even with a manual. He gathers props and pays for props, including all the candidates for president from the Republican party in 2015 and 2016. There really are no other “items” in his “props” list than other people, regardless of their name, their character, their intellectual, ethical, political, military, national or loyalty histories. It is as if he is in constant “production” of the next episode of his own epic biographic narrative. Entertain, evoke applause, provoke knee-jerk cheering and jeering of his opponents, dropping epithets filled with nuclear emotional explosive dynamite…..all in  the service of a literal and a metaphoric “empty suit” of a man.

It is, in a word, pathetic!

There is something to be said for the comparison with Obama, one of, if not the most literate and sophisticated writer to occupy the Oval Office, and the comparison does not favour his successor. Nevertheless, the public expects and deserves a president who has sufficient command of the language that blatant conflations, deceptions, dissembling and lying are not the norm. So, by any reasonable standard, the president is a disaster as an executive responsible for his own use of language.

What is even more striking and startling is that some 35-40% of the American public either does not know or care about the difference between patriotism and nationalism and goes right along with the chicanery. This is either or both an indictment on their language training in elementary and secondary school, or a much more blatant disregard for the difference in order to permit and enable trump to carry out his iconoclastic bombast on all laws, institutions and traditions. And for the president to do all this under the rubric of “making the country great” a slick slogan for “patriotism” (really a ruse to cover his insidious nationalism) is so  tragic and unforgiveable that it reeks of the political bar room.

When the language through which we communicate ideas, plans, strategies, hopes and dreams for a nation is so disparaged by the leader of a country, whether it is done consciously or unconsciously, the effect is the same. The very foundations of the national culture are being eroded and are slipping into the sea along with the millions of tons of plastic, the flow of which this president is only exacerbating through another of his many heinous acts of hubris, removing environmental regulations to “make his friends a whole lot richer” (his words to his friends at Mar-a-logo immediately after the passage of the tax bill).

It is not which words he uses that matters; it is also the contempt demonstrated for the meaning of the words he does use that also manipulate the once most trusted and honourable democracy in the world.

No longer!

Recall the words of Martin Buber, the Jewish scholar and theologian:
The real struggle is not between East and West, or capitalism and communism, but between education and propaganda.

Not hard to tell into which side this president slithers.

*It is not a stretch to advocate here for a minimum of one and preferably two or three courses in Literature, Creative Writing, Debating, Rhetoric be included in the post-secondary education of all students in Science, Math, Medicine and Engineering.

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