Monday 02 September 2002

An impoverishment of language

“Let me reiterate back to what I was saying previously…”

George W. Bush? No, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so. It’s Rex (a.k.a The Moose) Mossop, a famous Australian Rugby League (football) star turned sports commentator whose mangling of the English language won him tens of thousands of loyal fans who couldn’t care less about Rugby League but tuned in every week in the hope of a new Rexism such as “They haven’t a hope of scoring unless they make some forward progress,” “A good punch never hurt anybody,” or “The game’s not over until the final whistle.”

Rex’s greatest linguistic moment occurred in 1972, when he made a citizen’s arrest on an alleged pervert he discovered spying on nude bathers at a beach near his home. Interviewed on TV that evening, Mossop—who had long campaigned against the nudist beach—famously remarked: “I’m sick and tired of having male genitalia thrust down my throat.”

I fondly recalled The Moose when reading Joseph Duemer’s comments on the linguistically-challenged George W. Bush:

How, then, can I claim that the language of our current president is somehow lacking? The short answer is that GWB’s language is not a dialect of English—a variety spoken by a group—but the result of an individual affliction (though one aided & abetted by a class identification that makes him particularly insensitive to the relations between words & things, words & acts. This is a man who grew up insulated from consequences.) We can use language to either sharpen or dull or perceptions & concepts: whether we choose accuracy or muddle depends, not upon language, but upon how we use language. That is, our use of language reflects our moral & ethical constructions. By this argument, GWB’s morality is as incoherent as his syntax. Which is why American soldiers may very soon be engaged in house-to-house combat in Baghdad.

In his post, Joseph pointed to an opinion piece in the Boston Globe in which James Carroll wrote:

The United States, in fact, is in a crisis of language. This is what it means to have a president who, proudly inarticulate, has no real understanding of the relationship between words and acts, between rhetoric and intention.

His vacuous reflection of our mute anguish can be consoling because familiar - hence the high poll numbers - but it is the last thing the country needs. Mawkish bluster in cowboy clothes does nothing to nurture a community of purpose. It does the opposite.

As a candidate, Bush openly displayed his willful illiteracy. At a loss for words, and proud of it. Many voters were charmed. Others were appalled. Few understood, however, that this abdication of leadership by the intelligent use of language would be dangerous to democracy at home, a grievous threat to peace abroad.

Australian football fans were charmed by Rex too. But The Moose called a couple of football games each week—he wasn’t the leader of the greatest industrial and military power in human history.

At first glance, Bush’s presidency is incomprehensible for non-Americans: it’s not just that half the voters in the United States could take this amiable buffoon seriously enough to put him into the White House. Even more inexplicably, he manages to sustain high approval ratings. Just a month ago, an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll found 69 percent of Americans in favor of Bush’s overall job performance (down from 92 percent in October last year). Even now, 95% of Republican voters approve of the job Bush is doing.

In Australia, we watch him on the evening news as he struggles to put together a coherent sentence, looking up with pride from his printed speech on the rare occasion he manages to say something vaguely sensible—like the dullest boy in the slowest class, desperate for the teacher’s approval.

We think he is a joke.

We are not Americans.

And because we are not Americans we have not undergone the intense social programming whereby Americans are constructed. As Richard Eyre wrote, “In many respects, the US is still a religious country with a strong streak of Christian fundamentalism, but the true religion of America is not Christianity: it is America itself.”

Non-Americans, needless to say, do not worship in the Church of America. We do not believe in the American flag, the Constitution, the Supreme Court, the Senate or the House of Representatives. Most importantly, we have no loyalty to the institution of the Presidency of the United States. For us, GBW is just another politician (although he seems more inept than most). The fact that he is President counts for nothing at all. Our loyalties, such as they are, lie elsewhere.

Yet, a significant majority of Americans support President Bush. I can only surmise it is because each incumbent is sheathed in the power and prestige of the Presidency, so that even the least deserving individual is accorded the respect due to the office. In many ways, this is admirable for it ensures that social and political institutions survive the incompetence and venality of individual office-holders.

Perhaps that’s why, while the rest of us listen in disbelief as Bush bumbles and stumbles his way through one linguistic debacle after another, most Americans hear an eloquent preacher extolling the truth and virtue of the American way. It’s difficult not to conclude, though, that Bush’s failure to enlist international support for the Iraqi adventure—apart from Australia, American’s lapdog—is due in part at least to his inability to speak eloquently and persuasively on behalf of his cause, a task that calls for the rhetorical skills of a Churchill or a Kennedy, not the down-home bonhomie of a West Texas good ole boy.

Joseph Duemer takes it a step further when he writes:

Simple-minded linguistic determinism clearly won’t do—we do not understand our world(s) exclusively through the medium of a single language; otherwise, I would not have been able to enter into the spirit of Vietnam before I began learning Vietnamese. But—& this is important—I learned much more about Vietnam in my bones after I began studying the language. Linguistic determinism ignores the fact that all languages are part of Language & the Language is among the most basic things that makes us human. You can get a lot done with even rudimentary elements of a shared language: get a meal, fall in love, arrange the price for something…

I learned much more about Japan in my bones after I began studying the language. And I learned much more about myself. When you attempt to describe your thoughts and feelings in another tongue, when you try to overcome the limitations of your upbringing and socialization in order to connect with someone who shares only a few of your primary values, you begin to comprehend not just how language forms us but also how fragile and arbitrary is the nature of belief.

That points to what I find most troubling about George W. Bush: his absolute certainty based upon a breathtaking insularity. Bush would be an infinitely more capable and effective President if he’d taken the time and trouble to learn another language. Given his inadequate grasp of his first language, however, it’s unlikely he could have ever mastered a second.

Update. In the comments to this post, Dorothea Salo and Burningbird pointed out that George W. Bush speaks “not half bad” Spanish. Given that I speak “not half bad” Japanese, this revelation rather undercuts my argument. “His accent sucks,” wrote Dorothea, “but no more than that of my third-semester students, all of whom were quite comprehensible.” My (Japanese) accent doesn’t suck—despite my relatively weak vocabulary, on the telephone I am frequently mistaken for a native Japanese speaker because my Japanese “sounds natural.” Yet, crappy accent or no, the fact that GBW speaks halfway decent Spanish amazes me. At this point, late on a Tuesday night, I’m tempted to email Joseph Duemer and ask him what he thinks it might mean.

Other commenters noted that, with just a 50% voter turnout, only a quarter of the American population voted for George W. Bush. That doesn’t explain why his approval rating remains so high. Perhaps it means that, if voting was compulsory in the US, he would have been elected with a substantial majority.

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Comments

Even those of us who have undergone (but not neccessarily succumbed to) "the intense social programming whereby Americans are constructed" find GWB a joke as well as a painful reminder how little real social progress has been attained in these United States. Many of use aren't polled or the polls are rigged against recording us. Many of us wonder if our votes will count in the next election. Many of us are working to stop the madness. Remember us, the other 50%, the uncounted and the unheard.

Posted by Willy on 3 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Remember, too, that with voter turnout hovering somewhere around only 50%, GW was ushered into office with the tacit support of roughly 25% of the population. Hardly a ringing endorsement.

Believe me, there are many many Americans who also listen in disbelief as this prodigal son mangles the language.

Posted by RKB on 3 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

What they said.

My only minor criticism, Jonathon, is that in my experience learning a second language teaches the learner as much about his/her *first* language as about the second.

And in point of fact Shrub's Spanish isn't half bad. His accent sucks, but no more than that of my third-semester students, all of whom were quite comprehensible.

This is the only good thing I have to say about Shrub.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 3 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Surprise, surprise. India has its own case of a sportsman who's more famous for his language. I'm talking about Navjot Singh Sidhu who retired from a very successful cricketing career and is now a commentator for ESPN India. Thanks to his peculiar phrases, now known as sidhuisms, his commentary is very much in demand. Hey, his art even has a website dedicted to it... http://www.sidhuisms.com/

Posted by Mahesh Shantaram on 3 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Willy, polls are not rigged to leave you or anyone else uncounted. Indeed, one of the triumphs of an otherwise anemic American political system is the refinement of polling to a near science.

Real polls, though done by major polling organizations like Gallup, are as accurate as is possible given our current understanding of human behavior and statistical mathematics. Phone-in polls, write-in polls, yeah, they're garbage. But things like the National Election Study are spot on far more often than not.

The problem is, as has been said, only 50% of people bother to vote. Polls accurately measure the entire population, but the part that feels spending all of 20 minutes of their life a few times a year to exercise their right to vote is skewed heavily.

Think about it like this: there are more "poor" than "rich" in the United States, and yet politicians catering to the interests of the rich get elected again and again. Whose fault is that?

It's certainly not the fault of the rich, that's for damn sure.

Posted by John on 3 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I believe the whole Bush family speaks Spanish if I remember my bios correctly (as Dorothea pointed out). However, Bush lacks the empathy you describe about your own experiences with learning Japanese, Jonathon. Well, the intelligence, too.

(New slogan: Dumb as a stump, that's our Bush!)

Many of the people of this country wouldn't necessarily see Bush's lack of verbal dexterity to be a handicap to his leadership. Unfortunately, many also don't seem to see his lack of leadership ability to be a handicap in his leadership, either.

Frankly, though, I'm less embarrassed of Bush being president, then I am of the fact that only about 50% of the eligible voters, vote.

Posted by Burningbird on 3 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

A very fine post Jonathan. Many Americans find the Bush presidency incomprehensible too. In many ways the "dumbing down" of America is an across the board phenomena- Bush fits right in with network television, Hollywood movies, fast food, The consolidation of media, merger upon merger, financial shenanigans, Star CEO's, etc. Fat and lazy would not be too harsh, but for the speed and crush of change that has many retreating into the safe and familiar, local and personal, in a rather rational process. A turning point will come, where these issues are connected and inextricably bound to our personal lives. Until then, I appreciate well spoken observations from abroad.

Posted by Michael Webb on 3 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Thank you all for your insightful comments. That GBW speaks passable Spanish astonished me, as I noted in an update to my post. That he was elected with only 25% voter support still doesn't explain his continuing high level of support.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 3 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

"Half the voters in the United States could take this amiable buffoon seriously enough to put him into the White House." You have to evaluate Bush's election in light of the candidates he was running against: Gore was a weak candidate, perceived by many as whiny and pedantic and bearing a strong odor of Carter-style ineffectuality. (I speak as a Democrat who voted for Gore.) People were also fed up with Clintonism. Nader was obviously never going to end up in the White House.

Americans all across the political spectrum are rarely satisfied with the choices they are presented with on election day. The system, as it currently works, does not yield inspiring candidates. It's not that Americans said "Hey, let's vote for the stupid guy."

"Perhaps that's why, while the rest of us listen in disbelief as Bush bumbles and stumbles his way through one linguistic debacle after another, most Americans hear an eloquent preacher extolling the truth and virtue of the American way." I don't think anyone hears "an eloquent preacher." Americans are not quite that stupid, "intense social programming" notwithstanding. (By the way, intense programming compared to what? That of other industrialized nations? Is one fish wetter than another?) The respect is largely for the office, and that tends to rub off on the person holding the office at a time of crisis. The gap between "job approval rating" and "personal approval rating" varies depending on external circumstances.

Thank you for a very thought-provoking article (as always!) and thank you for allowing me to comment on it.

Posted by Peter Riis on 4 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Jonathon -- I think the key thing to look at when trying to figure out his continued high level of support is the split along party lines at the end of the survey. If you take away the Republican respondents, you're left with an underwhelming 54% approval rating.

Here is one thing that the Bush administration has been abundantly clear on over the past year: you are either with us, or you are against us. If you do not support the administration, then you do not support America.

That 95% of Republicans gave a favorable response is not at all surprising, given this mantra. Bush's approval ratings are top-heavy, aided by the insinuation that if you don't approve of the job he's doing, you are somehow supporting "the terrorists." United We Stand, and all that.

Posted by RKB on 4 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Approval may not be that high after all, according to the NRO. A Zogby poll with somewhat different methodology gives a starkly different result.

Posted by Peter Riis on 4 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Peter, thank you for your comments. As it happens, I do believe that American fish are the wettest of all (though Japanese fish come a close second). I like your fish metaphor so much that I think I should write a post about the power of American ideology.

I would like to make it quite clear, however, that my remarks about "intense social programming" should not be construed as negative. It's hard to comprehend how a society as heterogeneous as that of the United States could hold together without the glue of such a shared ideology.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 4 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Robert, thank you too. I hadn't considered the "if you're not with us, then you must be a terrorist sympathizer" factor.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 4 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I think, and could very well be wrong, that although the polls were undertaken by Washington Post/ABC News, they are polled in places like Texas and other Republican friendly states.

Posted by Pussy Delacour on 5 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

"I think I should write a post about the power of American ideology." From the inside, it's very difficult to tease out what implicit American ideology could be. I've lived in the middle of America most of my life, and honestly, I find America incomprehensible--it's something I can't form any sort of meaningful overall concept of, apart from its being a political unit. Deep immersion in other societies might be the only basis on which to come to any kind of conclusion about "Americanness," but it also has to be underwritten by a breadth of knowledge of America itself that gets harder and harder to achieve every day. It needs some kind of hyper-Balzac!

Posted by Peter Riis on 5 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Peter, that article you linked is over a year old.

Posted by Mark Pilgrim on 5 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Oh, jeez! Nothing like gross carelessness to bolster an argument. I'm sorry about that.

Posted by Peter Riis on 5 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

I've always deeply admired what you write, but in this case I feel driven to take issue with you on this post.
First, it's useful to remember that George W. Bush was not elected president. He lost the popular vote to Mr. Gore by a margin of 500,000 votes. Depending on the standards used, one can make a good case that he lost Florida as well. At least, that's what the University of Chicago has concluded. He is president by grace of a Supreme Court decision, not by the popular choice of the majority of Americans. (See http://www.tallahassee.com/mld/tallahassee/news/opinion/3973122.htm?template=contentModules/printstory.jsp)

That said, part of the reason for his high ratings is, as you suggest, simply because a large part of the public feels that any person in the office of the presidency deserves respect just for being president and for representing the institution. They tend to be Republicans, anyway. There is also a high value placed on loyalty, particularly in a time of trouble. Across most of the political spectrum is a realization that he is the man who has to address a horrendously difficult problem and that perhaps it's only fair to cut him some slack.

The media and baby boomers who have made it to the elite are also still conditioned by Vietnam. Thus, liberals and Democrats who normally might have been more critical, are desperately trying to avoid the appearance of defeatism or disloyalty. So, he enjoyed carte blanche for several months (less so now).

You have to understand that for a long time after 9/11 many of us fervently wished -- despite all the evidence to the contrary -- that somehow W would grow up, reach inside his tiny soul and become, if not great, at least not embarrassingly puerile. It's like being the parent of a slightly dimwitted, clumsy child. For a long time, you'll hope the lad will pull through. And even after the sinking realization has set in, you still hope that the kid will somehow get the problem right, kick the ball, hit the target. You keep your fingers crossed and your eyes shut and ignore as much as you can. This phase is ending.

Bush's team has been successful at using corporate PR techniques to stay on message and to present imagery that resonates with large swathes of Americans. I passionately detest spin in our country -- but from a professional standpoint, it has been well executed. This insightful article points out that the appearance of professionalism itself has been successful in bamboozling the public and the media http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2001/0209.marshall.html

Another facet of Bush's success is that few American see him raw and unmediated. His verbal gaffes, pauses and inarticulate maundering don't generally make it direct to the public which reads mainstream newspapers or watches the mainstream television outlets. In the press, his syntax is smoothed out and the repetitions removed. On television, they edit. Except for those few who watch C-SPAN -- which carries raw, live feeds -- I doubt that many Americans have seen how he can stumble and bumble his way through a sentence when he's not reading from a prompter.

My suspicion is that part of it is intentional, as some think it was with Eisenhower. It can be useful to be perceived as inarticulate. Then, when Bush manages to get through a speech on even a mediocre level, everyone sighs with relief and his partisans hail him as Churchillian.

What you who are abroad must also remember is those same polls showing support for Bush personally and for his foreign policy show much less support for the other specific policies of the Bush regime. What's often ignored his how many of his major initiatives have stalled, been shelved or simply forgotten for the moment.

Don't let the numbers or the reports fool you.

Posted by Tim Roessler on 6 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

Tim, thanks for your comments. The points you make are well taken -- being outside the United States has both advantages and disadvantages. What I've clearly underestimated is the depth of disenchantment with George W. Bush, which doesn't come across in the news reports in Australia (although our media has made it quite clear that his plan to invade Iraq lacks support even within his own party).

I was interested in what you said about the element of calculation in Bush's inarticulate speech. I rather wish I'd mentioned that in my original post, since I've often wondered whether he's a lot smarter than his public persona suggests.

Posted by Jonathon Delacour on 6 September 2002 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour