June 7, 2012

"I've never heard so many Americans talk so acceptingly about wars, in the plural."

David Bromwich on The Emperor’s New Language

David Bromwich is locating our 2012 distress in our language — or lack of it. It is reunion season at Yale, 50 years after President Kennedy addressed my graduating class of 1962 with his tax cut speech and the famous crack about having “the best of both worlds — a Harvard education and a Yale degree.” Four months later, human civilization hung by a thread in the Cuban Missile Crisis. I am trying to count the watersheds crossed in American life.

Bromwich, the Sterling Professor of English at Yale and for me by now an indispensable public commentator, confirms my sense that the country is starving for want of words. On the brink of post-imperial panic, we don’t know what to call this worse-than-recession, this Euro-charged breakdown of politics and finance. What we do know is that “we are the 99 percent” is the left’s most effective line since the 2008 meltdown, but that the right and the Tea Party have commandeered the public conversation with street language of salt and savor, with vehemence and conviction that the liberal-left seems to scorn.

Professor Bromwich faults President Obama for ducking a direct confrontation with the Tea Party’s nihilism about government — for trying even to coopt the Tea Party with the thought that anti-taxism is in our DNA, as if we had a common stake in crushing the public sector. Do we call this an excess of prudence? a failure of imagination? moral timidity? Political correctness, in the Bromwich diagnosis, has a lot to do with scrubbing the Democrats’ script and emasculating their language — as incorrect as it would be to say such a thing. The strongest language that Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton can summon is to dismiss attacks as “not helpful.” They speak in a “schoolmarm” voice (another “incorrect” formulation) against rough-and-ready reactionaries who fling words like “corrupt,” “depraved” and “poisonous” with abandon. Democratic rhetoric in our day is “academically trained, scrupulous, conscientious,” Bromwich observes, and free of the popular touch.

We can do better than that, Bromwich says, or at least we once did. From a vast acquaintance with the best in political speech, he is reciting Vachel Lindsay’s poem “Bryan, Bryan, Bryan, Bryan,” refiring the frenzy in the heart of a 16-year-old boy on the day in 1896 when William Jennings Bryan, running against William McKinley, roared into Springfield, Illinois and the young bucks of the town “joined the wild parade against the power of gold.” And then Bromwich is reading back Martin Luther King Jr.‘s response in 1967 to a reporter who wondered why the civil rights leader had strayed into the protest against war in Vietnam. “Justice is indivisible,” Dr. King answered, “and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere; and whenever I see injustice I am going to take a stand against it whether it’s in Mississippi or in Vietnam.”

You can hear just what a clear and simple statement of conscience is there; and it draws the world toward it. It draws whole worlds toward it when people see that sense of a man planting himself on his convictions… I think that belief that war is wrong, that war was is a leading evil, could also rally people. But we don’t see war being talked down… This is new in my experience. I’m 60 years old now, and I’ve never heard so many Americans talk so acceptingly about wars, in the plural. You feel that we are Rome or something, and that people have resigned themselves to it. It’s a very strange situation we’re in — that under Obama, after Bush, the number of wars has increased. And his chief innovation in language is to speak of war more generally, more allusively, more vaguely and in a softer tone; and now to publicize his own actions as a decider on the killing of individuals, including Americans if need be. It’s a terrible sinking back into the lethargy of… It’s just where we are.

David Bromwich with Chris Lydon at Yale, June 1, 2012

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  • Nice interview, it reminds me of Studs Terkel’s work. The language that I hear from the Tea Party and the right is of free-floating rage. I’m reminded of a child who, not able to have his way, throws a tantrum and starts breaking things just to break them. Right now we have a country that snarls against the government, yet when that government says let’s go to war, suddenly gets misty-eyed and self-righteous. We’ve lost our ability to do many things but, dammit, we can still kick ass! It’s a flight from reason to emotion. We’re anxious that our undisputed spot at the top is not acknowledged by the world and that the disappearance of the comfortable life is largely beyond our control – the product of the globalization that once served us so well.

  • Potter

    Wow about David Bromwich’s reading of Martin L King’s response. It’s amazing what MLK left us; he had a consciousness too rare. This answer itself could stand for the definition of greatness. And, true, it draws people to it. We don’t have that greatness, that bigness, inclusiveness, of soul, now. We sure need it.

    We are still talking about the lack of accountability and getting to why we so desperately needed it from Obama. My feeling about Obama is that he makes politically expedient decisions, decisions that he feels will not cause much pain. It’s fearfulness. What is right or best for this country falls by the wayside. He hides behind this idea of practicality. So odd or ironic (or maybe not so odd) that he campaigned on a promise boldness, audaciousness. That served to make many afraid of him- needlessly. He paid a price for those words both with his opponents and his supporters. There are plenty of advisors and defenders now to bolster him too. Bill Clinton.

    I agree we don’t have people on the liberal left, progressives, leftist libertarians, sticking their necks out and using the strong language we hear from the other side. A lie goes out there, gets repeated over and over again and no one says LIE, Romney is a serial liar, DISHONEST ( and oh so smooth about it).

    What happened to Howard Dean, he who said he belonged to the Democratic wing of the Democratic party? He got chased out. (I agree Elizabeth Warren is pretty fearless.)

    But here we are facing Romney as an alternative. Romney the liar. Romney the core-less. I will say it. At least Obama has some core in there somewhere.

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  • The Parrot

    Listening to this I’m reminded of my favorite episode from the four gospels


    Jesus went through the temple whipping it on the money changers, tearing them a new *ss, admonishing them to do their business elsewhere. That is a language of stern, honest, disgust in action, both verbal and physcial. Since it is a sincere attempt, through force of personality, to unmoor commercial interests from spiritual interest, I’ll claim it as a liberal activism action, an early 99% move. What did it acheive? Strategically or tactically? Do we think financial interests and spiritual interest were decoupled, untangled, de-emeshed? For a guy who is supposed to have great insight into the human character, this appears to me to be the proverbial flailing around to achieve nothing.

    Aggressive push back (this is the key observation, we’re contemplating a reactive behavior), in language or deed, may or may not achieve sustainable results; it’s a mixed record in my opinion. That said, most people find it very appealing. Why? My guess is most people feel powerless and hopeless. My favorite crotch kickers to listen to for pure unhinged entertainment were the speakers from the Black Power movement and KKK of the 1960s. Both had a rhetorical verve full of p*ss and vinegar, backed up with explicit shows of force and ritual. Both claiming a higher ground through purification. Were they effective? Hard to say, but racie relations in the U.S. are different now than in the 1960s.

    Hola Potter. I think Romney’s core is found in his fat billfold which sunbaths upon various off-shore floating accounts …

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