Sunday, December 3, 2006

Reading: Frank Rich on Bush's connection to reality, such as it is

And I remember frequent Discourses with my Master concerning the Nature of Manhood, in other Parts of the world; having Occasion to talk of Lying, and false Representation, it was with much Difficulty that he comprehended what I meant; although he had otherwise a most acute Judgment. For he argued thus: That the Use of Speech was to make us understand one another, and to receive Information of Facts; now if anyone said the Thing which was not, these Ends were defeated; because I cannot properly be said to understand him; and I am so far from receiving Information, that he leaves me worse than in Ignorance; for I am led to believe a Thing Black when it is White, and Short when it is Long. And these were all the Notions he had concerning that Faculty of Lying, so perfectly well understood, and so universally practiced among human Creatures.

Jonathan Swift, A Voyage to the Houyhnhnms

Political language--and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists--is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

George Orwell, "Politics and the English Language"

Frank Rich's essay on the tattered remains of the relationship between the 43rd President and what most of us tend to call "reality"--the break-up really does have an Edward Albee feel to it, with the recriminations, the dark family secrets, and the whiff of bourbon--made it out from behind the NYTimes Select firewall with unusual speed today.

Perhaps the mainstream news media feel some urge to play catch-up on the whole Bush bashing thing.

With a title like "Has He Started Talking to Walls?", there's little room for confusion about where Rich is heading, and much of the buzz about the essay has tied it into the question of whether Bush is--you know--losing it. (Its appearance the same weekend as this piece by Paul Craig Roberts, with the even less ambiguous title "Is President Bush Sane?", no doubt stoked the flames.)

You can read it for that--and welcome to it--but there's another point that Rich makes that is no less important, and spares us the chase through the forensic, legal, and clinical markers of sanity.

There's also a linguistic dimension to the current spectacle of the presidential turban becoming unwound: As simply put as I know how: Whether or not he is crazy, he certainly talks that way. More so with each passing day since the midterm election, it seems.

Rich writes:
When the president persists in talking about staying until "the mission is complete" even though there is no definable military mission, let alone one that can be completed, he is indulging in pure absurdity. The same goes for his talk of "victory," another concept robbed of any definition when the prime minister we are trying to prop up is allied with Mr. Sadr, a man who wants Americans dead and has many scalps to prove it. The newest hollowed-out Bush word to mask the endgame in Iraq is "phase," as if the increasing violence were as transitional as the growing pains of a surly teenager. "Phase" is meant to drown out all the unsettling debate about two words the president doesn't want to hear, "civil war."

When news organizations, politicians and bloggers had their own civil war about the proper usage of that designation last week, it was highly instructive - but about America, not Iraq. The intensity of the squabble showed the corrosive effect the president's subversion of language has had on our larger culture. Iraq arguably passed beyond civil war months ago into what might more accurately be termed ethnic cleansing or chaos. That we were fighting over "civil war" at this late date was a reminder that wittingly or not, we have all taken to following Mr. Bush's lead in retreating from English as we once knew it.

It's been a familiar pattern for the news media, politicians and the public alike in the Bush era. It took us far too long to acknowledge that the "abuses" at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere might be more accurately called torture. And that the "manipulation" of prewar intelligence might be more accurately called lying. Next up is "pullback," the Iraq Study Group's reported euphemism to stave off the word "retreat" (if not retreat itself).

In the case of "civil war," it fell to a morning television anchor, Matt Lauer, to officially bless the term before the "Today" show moved on to such regular fare as an update on the Olsen twins. That juxtaposition of Iraq and post-pubescent eroticism was only too accurate a gauge of how much the word "war" itself has been drained of its meaning in America after years of waging a war that required no shared sacrifice. Whatever you want to label what's happening in Iraq, it has never impeded our freedom to dote on the Olsen twins.

When historians one day catalog the flora and fauna of corruption during the Bush era, not least on the list should be the corruption of language. Others have tried it--Ronald Reagan called the MX Missile the "Peacekeeper"--but only the Bush administration has worn us down to such an extent that so many of us have stopped even trying to keep it all straight.

The Rich article is going onto the Readings list on the sidebar.

(Tip of the hat to Philip Roth--who no doubt's been wondering when he could finally update his resume with "mentioned at p3"--for first juxtaposing the Swift and Orwell quotes.)

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