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