Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Politics & the English Language Revisited

(Yet another essay for my school paper, the Volante. Find the published version here.)

Reading Matt Hittle’s column last week, I found myself nodding in agreement. Writing and speaking well are valuable skills, not only in the business of passing exams, but in the businesses of the world outside these college walls as well. Unfortunately, they are also skills to be had at a premium among many college students. However, I believe that being able to write and speak well are important for other reasons as well.

In his seminal essay “Politics & the English Language”, George Orwell argues that sloppy writing is reflective of sloppy thinking. Although the essay was written in 1946, Orwell’s thesis remains valid today, perhaps in the current age of Twitter more than ever.

Allow me to use a metaphor familiar to many college students to illustrate Orwell’s point. When I pour a can of condensed soup into a saucepan, lurking amidst the amorphous chunks of potato and reprocessed meat lumps may be a host of preservatives and trans-fats of which I am totally unaware. If I had read the label carefully, I would have known all about the soup’s nefarious contents. But I was too lazy to do so, and now all those nasty chemicals are going into my body.

So it is with writing. Take a common word like “democracy”. Most of us would probably agree that democracy is a good thing, that our political system is democratic to one degree or another. But what precisely does democracy mean on an etymological level? On a practical level? Does it just have to do with elections? With the rule of law? Is capitalism a necessary part of democracy? Does it mean the same thing as “freedom”? If not, why not?

These are all important questions. Yet many people uncritically use democracy as a catch-all, without considering what it is they might actually be saying. And if we do not really understand our own words, how much more difficult is it for others to understand us?

That is not the end of the story though. “If thought corrupts language,” Orwell wrote in 1946, “language also corrupts thought.” To use another metaphor, if you want to become a professional accordionist, you cannot practice diligently every once in a while and muddle through the rest of the time. You must practice diligently every day. If you leave off practicing for, say, six months, when you return to the instrument, you will have to work twice as hard now to bring your skills back up to snuff.

So also language. When we allow ourselves to indulge in poor writing, we not only dull language’s usefulness in communicating with our fellow human beings; we dull our own ability to think critically and meaningfully about the concepts language expresses.

This insight was the basis of Newspeak in Orwell’s classic 1984. By trimming down English to a few hundred words and reducing complex notions to mere slogans, Big Brother used language itself to destroy people’s critical thinking skills and, thus, their capacity for resistance. By forbidding people from talking about things, the government forbade them, in a very real way, from thinking about them.

In this age of instant messaging especially, we have become our own Big Brother. Our digital conversations consist of monosyllables punched mindlessly into a cell phone keypad, if they consist of words at all. The fact of the matter is that critical analysis is not so easy when we confine ourselves to 140 characters. When even our politicians – people we expect to have thoughtful discussions, seeing as how they are running our country and all – begin to Tweet, we know something has gone drastically wrong.

By using muddy, unthoughtful language, we become muddy, unthoughtful thinkers. And when that happens, it becomes all too easy for others to use language to manipulate and dominate us. When we force ourselves to write well, on the other hand, we force ourselves to really think about what we want to say. We become not just better potential employees (although that we do become), but better citizens and better people as well.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Less Debate, More Dialogue

(Another article I wrote for the campus newspaper at the University of South Dakota, the Volante.)

Election Day 2010 has come and gone, and South Dakota has dispatched a new congressperson to aid in the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives. Regular readers might be able to guess my feelings about the election results. However, this is not a screed about how Republican rule will destroy America. Truth be told, the changeover in the House will not greatly affect politics in this country. Government will not all of a sudden become more efficient or less corrupt. Problems like poverty and war will not miraculously vanish. And our leaders will still bitch at each other instead of finding real solutions to our problems.

For proof of this, look no further than our very own campus. A week before the election, the Political Science League held its annual party debate. Neither the College Republicans nor College Democrats offered any novel answers to problems such as education and health care. Instead, they mostly spent their time regurgitating party slogans and attacking each other. If these are the leaders of tomorrow, I see little reason to believe that a transient alteration in the makeup of the House is going to change anything.

It doesn’t have to be like this though. Author and peace activist Louise Diamond draws a marked contrast between debate and dialogue as two different modes of communication. When we debate, she explains, we focus on positions, which are usually mutually exclusive. When we dialogue, however, we peel away the vituperative veneer of opinion to focus on the needs and concerns, the hopes and the fears that underlie our politics. The former is adversarial and antagonistic, whereas the latter is respectful and constructive.

Being something of an amateur linguist, I decided to look into the roots of these two words, to check if Ms. Diamond's distinction was appropriate on etymological as well as conceptual grounds. It turns out the word debate originally comes from the Old French verb debatre, which means "to beat, to batter". Dialogue, on the other hand, derives from the Greek dialogos, which consists of the Greek dyo "two" and logos, familiar to any Biblical scholar as "word" but here meaning "speech, discourse".

That makes sense. Instead of coming together to talk, to engage in a productive dialogue, our leaders seem bent on battering one another into submission. If we take the word at face value, there is no such thing as a “healthy” debate.

As citizens and students, we are far from guiltless in perpetuating this culture of discord. How often do we embroil ourselves in a heated wall-to-wall on Facebook, knowing full well that neither party is going to budge? Therefore – as ever – any change in the government is going to have to start with us. When we discuss the latest news with our friends, or with our enemies for that matter, we must learn to be respectful of differing opinions. Reconciling deeply held opinions is not terribly important. Recognizing the needs that undergird those opinions is.

As I face the disheartening prospect of members of the Tea Party in Congress, however much I may disagree with them, I must recognize that they are not raving lunatics; they are real people with real concerns. Because I believe their policies to be misguided does not detract from the intensity of their passion and the reality of their fears. They are not acting out of spite. They are acting out of genuine concern for the well-being of themselves and their loved ones. They are afraid that their families, their religion, and their livelihoods are being threatened. They need to know that they have control over their own lives, just the same as I do.

Our task, not just in the political sphere but also in our everyday lives, is to find ways to address those needs and desires, shared by us all alike. What we need is dialogue, a conversation where the participants are more concerned about finding a solution than getting their way, where doing the right thing means more than being right. That means we have to start listening for what lies beneath the surface. Once we learn to do that, we may discover, much to our surprise, that we have more in common than we would ever have thought possible.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

An Ode to the Ode to Joy

The Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has been played so often, in so many different guises, that we sometimes lose sight of how beautiful it is. Featured in countless films and television shows, rearranged for a thousand middle school concert bands, appropriated as the international anthem of the European Union, perhaps no other snatch of classical music has so deeply penetrated the consciousness of listeners the world over. The opening bars of Beethoven’s own Fifth Symphony are the only rival I can conceive for it, but even then I would give the crown to Ninth. Whereas that famous three-note phrase is laden with doom, the Ode to Joy is a, well, joyous expression of all that is good and noble in the human soul.

Maxim Gorky once related an anecdote about Vladimir Lenin:

“I know of nothing better than the Appassionata and could listen to it every day… But I can’t listen to music very often, it affects my nerves. I want to say sweet, silly things and pat the heads of people who, living in a filthy hell, can create such beauty. One can’t pat anyone on the head nowadays, they might bite your hand off. They ought to be beaten on the head, beaten mercilessly…”

Lenin could choose not to listen; he could choose not to let the attraction continue beyond the final bars. But while that music lasted, he was constrained, by the laws of his humanity, to face up to the essential beauty at the heart of humankind. So am I constrained by the laws of my humanity when I hear the Ninth. I listen to the fourth movement, about five minutes in, as the orchestra takes off into the development after the first major statement of the Ode to Joy. As the strings strain up, I am, without fail, reduced to tears. I have no more choice in the matter than does a rubber ball to feel the gravitational pull of the Earth below it.

Monday, October 25, 2010

A Critique of Western Civilization

Below the bluffs,
across the street
from the white-washed condominiums

A crumpled McDonald's cup,
slick industrial polypropylene
beside a tire-flattened Tallboy,
Keystone Light

Popping off the plastic top
reveals a Lifestyles condom--

Across the highway,
across the spine of railroad-tracks,
vanish into black walnut
and golden corn.

September 2010

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Driving north on I-29

the telephone poles recede out of sight,

marching to vanishing point,

infantrymen in a ninth-grade perspective study

Waves of wheat stain orange-gold

beneath a pink-plumed sky

shortly after the Equinox

Franck’s Sonata in A,

pound out racing passages,

fly up under the wings of geese. South-flying,

they cartwheel to straining strings,


past the recapitulation into the coda,

south for the winter.

September 2010

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Updating Obsolescence

(A column I wrote for the school newspaper at the University of South Dakota, the Volante. You can read the original at the Volante's website here.)

Upon returning to USD for the fall, I discovered that the library had purchased all-new computers for the Academic Commons. My first thought was, “Ooh, shiny!” However, as I began to use these new computers – my first encounter with Windows 7 – I began to have other thoughts, specifically, “How the hell do I draw a table?”

Once again, Microsoft had rearranged the toolbars for the new edition of Word, along with a myriad of other “improvements.” They did not reinvent the wheel entirely, of course. They left it in a shape familiar enough that I could still use it, but not so familiar that I could accomplish my goal without a lot of needless confusion and frustration.

This is a great example of planned obsolescence, an idea pioneered by General Motors during the 1930s. GM discovered that if they released new models every year, instead of waiting five or ten years until they had actually made substantial improvements to automotive design, they could make a lot more money. GM made so much money, in fact, that other car companies got on the planned obsolescence bandwagon, followed by the rest of the manufacturing community.

Today, planned obsolescence is an integral part of our consumer culture, from the cars we drive to the computers with which we design them. Obstinate as I am, I continue to use Microsoft Office 2003 on my laptop. However, laptop is also pre-programmed to download the latest Microsoft auto-updates, updates designed for the latest versions of program. It is at this point that the computer gets confused: “Wha-wha-what? What is this ancient software doing here? Does not compute!”

In the titanic struggle that ensues, more than one computer has been laid low (e.g., mine). In effect, you have to upgrade in order to continue using Windows, whether you (or your computer) like it or not. Obsolescence is not merely planned; it is forced.

In the JFK assassination of planned obsolescence, however, Microsoft is far from a lone gunman. For example, my iPod recently decided to go haywire on me. This would not bother me so much – sometimes technology just malfunctions, after all – if it weren’t for the fact that I bought the thing two months ago, in order to replace my last iPod, which was itself a replacement for another failed piece of hardware.

One would think that, given the technological wizards employed there (and the prices we are expected to pay for their creations), Apple could make mp3 players that function for longer than half a year. Then again, if Apple will have a new, more expensive iPhone ready to sell next quarter, why would they want the product they release today to last any longer than that?

Another, well, textbook example of the inanity of planned obsolescence is the college textbook. How much do I really gain when I have to spend a hundred dollars on the eighth edition of a research methods textbook, when the seventh edition is identical in almost every way and costs ten dollars? I have aced more than one course, all the while using the earlier, inferior, and vastly less expensive version of the book.

My complaint is with no one company, nor with any one industry. My complaint is with the culture of consumerism that undergirds the release, every two years, of yet another “upgrade” to a perfectly serviceable system. The examples above, all too familiar to the modern student, beg the question: how much is that revised introduction worth, anyway?

It makes more sense to me to wait five or ten years, until most of us have figured out how to use the wheel in the first place, until manufacturers have had time to work out the kinks and actually make meaningful, useful adjustments, before we go about reinventing it. It’s less wasteful of time, talent, and resources, not to mention less frustrating for you and me.

Then again, that’s not the point. The point is to get us, as consumers, to consume more. And consume we do indeed, as people are forever drawn by the allure of the new. It matters little whether anything is actually better than before. It’s newer; therefore, it must be better. For my part, I’m happy with Microsoft Office 2003.

Friday, September 24, 2010


The rook,
last soldier standing in an interminable chess match
between Neo-Confucian bureaucrats
The mandarin leans in,
runs a thoughtful hand through his beard
Liquid Eastern eyes survey the battlefield
and with fingers like skittering spider-legs
he makes his move


to a late September 4th of July--
we got rained out this year, we had to reschedule--

Pile into a blue Ford pickup from 1984,
baby backpacks and yellow Labradors
and head for the hills

Winding up through a fireworks display,
shower of autumnal sparks,
multicolored spurs in a game of
psychedelic jacks,
through the Roman candles and Catherine-wheels
to see him
See him standing there,
out of time and out of space:
a castle in its corner in a medieval game,
a north woods Steely Dan allusion
or an oblique Wild West reference
to Le Morte d'Arthur

The Labrador shakes himself,
muscular trunk rippling,
water-droplets flying
He's been entertaining himself
in a spring nearby
while the rest of the pack ascends
the spiral staircase and gazes
out through the looking-glass
onto a wide green country.

September 2010