Saturday, June 12, 2010

Failure of the Will

Hey, time to dust off an Orwell Award for George F. Will, bull-goose quantitative linguist of the Washington Post editorial page!

Here's a passage from Politics and the English Language in which Orwell is complaining about words that have become "strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader":

When one critic writes, "The outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality," while another writes, "The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness," the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion.

Will's going to reverse field on himself and go Orwell one better. Here's his most recent:

Using perhaps the royal plural -- a harbinger of grandiosity to come -- Obama cited the size, cost and complexity of his campaign: "Our ability to manage large systems and to execute, I think, has been made clear over the last couple of years," and "indicates the degree to which we can provide the kinds of support and good service that the American people expect."

Ha! That damn plural pronoun "we"! Apparently it means ... well, maybe it means the same thing that the first-person singular pronoun means:

"I," said the president, who is inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun, "want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector."

Oops. Plural pronoun went unnoticed in that one. Why? Let's hypothesize that it's because -- as Orwell suggested -- some commentators use polar-opposite, exclusive concepts to refer to the same thing because they really aren't referring to some phenomenon in the empirical world that the rest of us can see. It doesn't matter what sort of pronoun Obama is using; it could be the fourth-person dual umlautive of his native Kenya for all Will cares. His point is that anything Obama says can be used against him in the court of public opinion. It's his ego, it's his clueless serenity, it's his arrogance, it's his overweening self-confidence, it's something that underscores his unfitness for office.

Will has a solid track record of making stuff up when it suits him (we've discussed that here before, and I trust a mere link will be an appropriate introduction to the Log's extensive work on the linguistic significance of presidential discourse). Nor is he alone. Stanley Fish makes stuff up from the ivory tower; Fox does it with the happy ineptitude of junior-high kids with their first calculator. They all have different functions. Fox's job is to foment outrage among people who would be dangerous if they could only remember that the eyeholes go in the front of the pillowcase. Will's is to put a scholarly gloss on it: Erm, hem, yes, the rabble do sound vulgar today, but there's actually a linguistic point behind their angry shouts, d'you see?

Translating the observed into the theoretical isn't a hopeless task. It's actually what honest, competent writers -- columnists or academics or bloggers or whatever -- do when they take what they see, compare it with what's known and draw sensible conclusions from it. Will and his ilk start with conclusions, making the evidence itself irrelevant. One kind of wonders what the Washington Post sees in that sort of discourse.



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home