I've been thinking lately about the diminution, or devaluation, of language. Degradation, even, not too strong a word. The calculation being that it doesn't matter, that precision or accuracy is irrelevant, and we're just a bunch of persnickety snobs, who condescend to honest folk and treat them like knuckle-dragging hillbillies, that never had no book-larnin', and get things all twisted around with fancy words and high-falutin' airs.
I'm obviously thinking, too, that this is connected to our present culture of false or competing narratives - conspiracy theories, in effect. Bad money drives out good. The counterfeit devalues honest weight.
There was a time, not that long ago, when a guy like Albert Einstein inspired respect. ("How does it feel to be the smartest man in the world?" somebody asked him. "I don't know," he said. "You should ask Tesla.") An athlete or a war hero, sure, but Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, the NASA team that put us on the moon, an American novelist winning the Nobel. We admired their skill, and tenacity, and sheer will. We took pride in their intellect. All of a sudden, this is suspect, and we're not supposed to trust the weatherman. Not an exact science, admittedly, but more informed than reading the entrails of chickens.
Maybe this is an odd complaint from a writer of fictions, but to be convincing, fiction depends on exact detail. If you get one thing wrong, it casts doubt on all the rest. Not to mention Twain's enduring advice: use the right word, not its second cousin.
So if you take this inexactness, and fold it in with false narrative, you get a kind of Stalinist double-talk. "Our brave soldiers are moving ever forward," or "Our fervent comrades of industry are exceeding all expectations," and pay no mind to the NKVD machine guns behind our brave soldiers, to shoot slackers, or the bazillion shoes made to fit left feet. Facts become transactional, in the sense that they're negotiated. We agree on a shared reality, the least common denominator. (Or is that the most?)
The question then becomes, what's lost, in the exchange? As language gets dulled, it conveys less. Misuse makes it less useful. Without precision, it's at the same time less resonant. It slips its moorings, cast adrift.
Now, in France - I know, this sounds like the opening line of a comedy routine, the same crowd that regards Jerry Lewis as an auteur - the French answer to an Academy, which guards against barbarisms, like social media or cell phone jargon imported from les Etats Unis. Good luck with that one. But it reminds me that my grandmother, all these many years back, wrote a letter to R.J. Reynolds, complaining about their advertising slogan, 'Winston Tastes Good, Like a Cigarette Should.' And she actually got a very courteous response. Apparently enough people were offended by the use of 'like,' instead of 'as,' that corporate assigned a team to answer the complaints. The answer, in effect, was that they were dumbing it down. This was advertising, not Freshman English. It simply sounded better to the naked ear. My grandmother was having none of it. A longtime educator, she wasn't in the least mollified. She was fluent in French, too, although to my knowledge she never saw a Jerry Lewis picture.
English as a language, of course, develops through usage and accretion, much like English common law, established by precedent and convention, not by fiat. There is no ruling body, the Chicago Manual of Style notwithstanding, to lay down the law one way or the other, or settle the dispute over the Oxford comma. But it's disheartening, all the same, to see language disrespected - or more to the point, dismissed. I'm not that much of a grammar Nazi, although I do think spelling counts, and I'm overly fond of the semi-colon, but what distresses me is that the dismissiveness, the act of not caring, seems symptomatic of a larger contempt for expertise, for informed debate. Somebody, maybe from the CDC, commented about the anti-vaxxers, "Science is just another voice in the room." In other words, everybody gets equal time, no matter that common sense calls bullshit.
I'm well aware that I could be accused of falling into a You-Kids-Get-Off -My-Lawn thing, and that what I'm saying is by definition elitist, but that's the whole damn point. When language loses coherence, when it loses exactness, it loses utility. You can't share an agreed-upon reality if you can't even describe it. Is this political? Of course it is. The politics of language is about ownership. If we surrender ownership, we lose the gift of speech itself.
25 September 2019
24 August 2016
In the latest news from Lake Woebegone, we have a reshuffle at the top of the ticket - no, not the Trump campaign, but the inner circle of the Kremlin. Sergei Ivanov, the president's chief of staff, one of Putin's senior guys and one of the last holdovers from the good old days in Leningrad, where the two of them made their bones with KGB, just got thrown under the train by his boss.
This didn't use to be that odd an occurrence, of course, usually followed by a trip to the basement of the Lubyanka and a bullet in the back of your head. I think people were actually surprised when Nikita Khrushchev was allowed to retire to his dacha, instead of being disappeared. Milan Kundera has a wonderful aside in LAUGHTER AND FORGETTING (or maybe it's UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS, sorry about that) about a Czech political figure from the Soviet era who gets erased from the history books and from collective memory. He's in a group photograph with some other party hacks, reviewing a parade or whatever, and he's cosmetically removed from the picture, but whoever retouches it leaves the guy's hat visible. So our guy's weightless, not even a shadow, while his orphaned hat floats in the empty air. For the luckless Ivanov, we ain't talking metaphorical, and the job market's tight for his particular skill set. He serviced one client and one client only. Maybe he got too big for his boots, or maybe he kept faith, but whichever it was, he outlived his usefulness.
Back in the day, a cottage industry sprang up in both media and intelligence circles. Kremlin-watching, reading the tea leaves - whose star was rising, whose sinking? This is a science still being practiced with regimes like China's and Iran's, where the workings of government are utterly opaque to outsiders, but Russia these days seems almost transparent by comparison. (Does anybody under the age of sixty remember Malenkov and Bulganin? Does anybody over the age of sixty remember them?) It seems like a throwback to the Cold War to wonder what Sergei Ivanov's political disgrace signifies. I venture there'd be more speculation if it happened on a slow news day, but it seems like a tree falling in the woods with nobody to hear it.
An informed guess? Putin has achieved escape velocity. He doesn't need his old gang, or their street smarts. He's shaking off the past and gathering new recruits. Medvedev is just about the Last Man Standing. He's a year younger than Putin. Ivanov is a dozen years older. Ivanov's successor, his former deputy, is twenty years younger than Putin. Putin has effectively been holding the reins for the past seventeen years, since he took over from Yeltsin - and if not without dissenting voices at the time, those voices have been silenced since. It's all about the chronology. These guys Putin is sidelining, pushed into retirement or promoted to some meaningless sinecure, aren't geriatrics. They're the Establishment, ready for prime time, with every expectation of putting both feet in the trough. All of a sudden their golden parachute has turned into a box of rocks. They've been traded to the minors.
The new kids, like Ivanov's replacement, Anton Vaino, have no power base independent of Putin. And more than that, they've risen in the apparat while Putin's held office. In other words, they have no basis for comparison. So far as they're concerned, Putin is the state. Fairly obviously, this isn't a view Putin discourages. It's also been remarked that some Russians in the older generation are nostalgic for Stalin, or at least for an iron hand, and Putin doesn't discourage this sentiment, either.
I don't think we're talking about a culture of Yes Men, or not entirely. Putin isn't delusional, and his policies - Ukraine and Crimea, in Syria and the Caucasus - aren't being questioned. What's happening is simply that he's eliminating possible challengers. Having secured his position, Putin is now making himself irreplaceable. Nobody's waiting in the wings. It's only policy. When a new king takes the throne, he smothers his close relatives, thinning the herd.
For some reason, I've been slow on the uptake, along with quite a few other people, but I don't know why this should come as any surprise. Everything in Putin's methodology has always been about turning back the clock. He once said that allowing the dissolution of the Soviet Union was one of the great political mistakes of the twentieth century - I think he called it 'historic,' meaning a wrong turn, historically - and his attitude toward the Near Abroad, the former Soviet republics, bears this out. But has he actually decided to raid Stalin's closet and try on some of his old clothes? If the shoe fits, well and good.
The thing is, you're not going to get too many people who don't think Stalin was a psychopath. Vladimir Putin has his fair share of vanity, I'm sure, and he may have an inflated idea of his self-importance, or his place in history, but nobody's suggested he's a fruit loop. Not yet. Calculating, manipulative, and ruthless. Let's face it, those aren't disqualifications. Blood on his hands? Sure. Not to plead any kind of moral equivalency, but he's not the only one.
It's an inexact science, reading the leaves. Probably best left to those of us who don't have a dog in the fight. We could go back and forth about this, and never settle our differences. Let's put it this way. When you eat with the Devil, use a long spoon.