WAR AGAINST LANGUAGE
“Truth is so rare, it’s delightful to tell it” stated one of the greatest American poets. In 1886 she died in New England aged fifty-six, single, reclusive, and apart from a couple of poems out of two thousand-odd, virtually unpublished. A visionary, she was also a woman neither distanced from nor discontent with life, tough-minded, quick-witted, above all honest. What an inspired individual – how unexpectedly pure in her apparent eccentricity and literary isolation! She knew truth for most precious virtue, the vital ingredient of each life, indispensable to every writer. Thus she remains our disabused contemporary – a humane, peaceable, quietly relevant voice in this vexed new century, our already tarnished millennium so beset by lies.
Emily Dickinson marvellously told one of her many privileged correspondents: “Life is a spell so exquisite that everything conspires to break it”. She wasn’t being whimsical, but unsentimental and alert, one who during sad and violent times could find perfectly accurate words of comfort for a friend’s children, bereaved by war. As a kind of footnote to heal or steady herself, she added: “Sorrow seems more general than it did, and not the estate of a few persons, since the [American Civil] war began; and if the anguish of others helped one with one’s own, now would be many medicines.”
These troubled autumnal days existence itself, for so many, seems to hang by a thread. A thread which for innocent civilians anywhere may be cut at random, thanks to the lethally effective efforts of reckless, unscrupulous fanatics worldwide. Among the latter, after the cynical bombing of Afghanistan, rank our own Anglophone figureheads, Bush and Blair. As calculating in their bland cruelties and misplaced crusades as any suicide bombers, this equally bigoted, hypocritical double-act appears rather more cowardly. They’re astute enough to nurture self-image not self-immolation, but what does their eager rush for vengeance, the blaringly trumpeted ‘War Against Terror’, truly imply? The phrase itself is nonsense, a contradiction in terms. All war is terror, in any and every case. So what creative talent, which spin-doctor, speechwriter or tabloid hack dreamed that one up?
The pious jargon politicians affect is the product of highly-rewarded wordsmiths, whose glib formulations they shamelessly regurgitate. Any halfway decent writer could fabricate such facile, cliché-crammed stuff. But decent writers are independent truth-tellers who can’t be bought… What price then the so-called subtext, that underlying political message being transmitted, coded or not? Truth-seekers should reread Orwell on that topic, and worry over what won’t appear in print: the disregarded views of ‘ordinary’ or ‘common’ people; the comments the media have no space for; whatever gets spiked, censored, or remains unsaid. A salutary exercise for wouldbe writers might involve observing the current international mayhem from another angle…
– OK guys, forget ‘dubious legitimacy’, mandates and suchlike. Justify everything via your special brand of fundamentalist rhetoric. Always sell the sanitized Spectacle. Blacken your chosen villain (skulking in cave, etc) – that murderous, ruthless, primitive, (shuffle the adjectives) heathen ogre against whom you’re free to test advanced experimental technology. A less expensive, if no less valuable weapon, is your more attractive cleancut patriotism: you have Right – and all the Media – on your side or in your pocket. Avoid ‘vengeance’: this word has nothing to do with the bullying master’s response to the shock of being bitten by the underdog. Talk Respect, National Pride. Civilisation itself’s at stake – motto that never fails. Ignore causes, motives, history: hit those barbarian folks hard. Act out the flagwaving grandeur of overkill, allowing no time for your true, transparently humanitarian aims to be questioned. Smart bombing of military targets. Surgical strikes, as per Gulf and Balkans. No civilians hurt, no bombs off course. Our brave lads unscathed, of course. Reporting of internal and international protests to be kept minimal. Deny inconvenient statistics where appropriate. If misguided politicians break ranks or show dissent, reference to Hitler, Evil Empires and Appeasement does the trick. Threaten, ridicule or marginalize the dissenters, poor flakey fools who’ll just lose jobs while the really bad guys lose their lives. Crime doesn’t pay. “Tough on crime”– remember? Together let’s rewrite and repackage the dictionaries, we good guys who define crime. Our bosses, brave new lords of language, thanks to us, control the World Wordgame. Terror we can all spell. A bad business, bad for business. More loss of life? No problem: people come and go, replaced, displaced. Loss of funds? On the latest campaign front, cash can be made, big money in wartime. (That particular Golden Rule needn’t concern Joe Public). For now, all sing along: We’ll deal as we wish with dubious allies, dictatorial regimes; invest in new bases and colonies, planting philanthropic schemes; watch us rebuild global capital to feed our oilpipe dreams –
True or false? Was my imagined powerbroker’s theme-song only a distasteful subversive rant? Or an alternative scenario worth pondering during the present conflict? Literate persons take your pick, but be aware of, and beware of, the power of words. Making best use of the English language calls for and upon an implicit morality, although the difficult struggle for objectivity may seem something of a losing battle. This process of verbal perception involves, however, a plain and clear enough obligation toward communicating the truth. As that wise lexicographer, fine wit and engagingly honest wordman Dr Johnson once remarked: “Without truth there must be a dissolution of society. As it is, there is so little truth, that we are almost afraid to trust our ears; but how should we be, if falsehood were multiplied ten times! Society is held together by communication and information.” In 2001 too we must be on our guard, prepared to fight for our language. This means taking official statements, media ‘stories’, disinformation and the continuing propaganda of governments with the proverbial but ever more vital pinch of salt.
GUTS AND CUTS
My earlier column, entitled War Against Language, intended to provoke. Provocation’s just one of a writer’s various functions and responsibilities. Linked to humour and a sense of the absurd it provides another weapon for an author’s armoury. Being provocative involves questioning the status quo and where necessary satirising current morality and language. But telling the always personal, often difficult truth is a prime requirement. So much depends upon … the red wheelbarrow of William Carlos Williams, for example – that limpid little Imagist poem which has baffled and exercised readers since its first publication in the 1920s. Directness, openness, a fresh angle of vision. Yes, so much depends upon using the best words in the best order, in order to speak out, speaking one’s mind. Thus writers in general are particularly watchful and specific about the tools of their trade, words.
Nothing controversial about the above: Writers’ Forum is aimed at those interested in writing as well as reading. Yet I encountered some deep irony (and irony can indeed cut deep), when that article on ‘spin’, misuse of language, and censorship duly appeared with significant cuts. Provocative enough, I guess, next finding myself both congratulated and censored! Evidently there’d been no time to send proofs or inform me of proposed changes – no word by letter, phone, fax or e-mail. The editor’s a busy man, I appreciate. However, cuts invariably provoke argument.
I plead guilty to using, with respect to that fine upstanding double-act, Messrs. Bush’n’Blare, the dreaded C-word. No, not the four-letter one. Nor the really obscene ten-letter one, Censorship. It was Cowardice. Politicians professing firm Christian principles order other, younger, more impressionable men to rain painful death and destruction on already starved, brutalised, defenceless civilians. (Politicos personally never jeopardise their own perks and comforts, let alone life and limb.) Are such crusading warriors, bombers-from-a-distance, true captains courageous, worthy of respect? Or should we trust those expansive and expensive spin-doctors, creepy ‘consultants’ whom governments squander public money upon? Can one legitimately raise doubts about their vague, very dubious ‘War Against Terror’? If you do, you’re called unpatriotic – cowardly too, for pacifism has always been misread as gutlessness. And Cowardice being a capital-C word, most editors jib at it, saying they fight shy of libel.
Nobody approves of terrorism. Sadly, terrorism is always historically the final resort of the oppressed, the last desperate means left for underdogs to bite back, scenting eventual freedom. Why not honestly examine the reasons for such desperation? Discuss whatever causes terrorism; don’t just simplistically demand revenge upon this baleful Hydra. Less gung-ho outrage while ranting piously about the sanctity of life…
So sue me, but I suspect religionists: they seem to me misguided and if not quite feeble-minded, mostly hypocrites, bigots, racists, fanatics, dupes and liars. Then what of the bearded weirdie barbarian Bin Laden, about whom I presume I’m free to be libellous as I please? He’s neither fool nor coward, but a cunning unscrupulous American-trained religious fanatic. No perpetually elusive all-purpose ogre, though oddly like some latterday Hassan Ibn Sabbah – that Old Man of the Mountains whose followers, on the promise of Paradise, incarnated the word ‘Assassin’… Those suicidal destroyers of the World Trade Centre towers – in attacking the potent symbols of a culture built on greed and exploitation – weren’t cowards either, however else vilified. We must be accurate, unsentimental about this. Courage even when futile deserves respect, whereas moral cowardice, the converse of bullying, is likelier to prompt contempt than compassion.
Creative not destructive courage every writer needs and celebrates. A poor Italian boy, teenage immigrant in 1920s New York, starved and struggled to achieve a very personal prose-poetry. With singular romantic awe he eulogised “The naïve skyscrapers / At the head of supine Manhattan”. He died, struck down by dreadful suffering, long before the twin towers themselves were designed and destroyed – died building and sharing his own tender hopes and humane visions, courageously above all. His American peers – Williams, Pound, Kay Boyle, Harry Crosby, Sherwood Anderson, Edward Dahlberg, Robert McAlmon, etc – generously acclaimed and supported him through years of bed-ridden torment. Yet that innocent, peaceable outsider was condemned, first to an unfairly horrible fate, then to a horribly unfair oblivion. Who now remembers Emanuel Carnevali? His truly inspiring work remains worth seeking out. He loved life and literature and had no time for lies – an epitaph so few living politicians are worthy of.
Meanwhile the struggle continues, writers reflecting the world they live in, as honestly as possible. But if we’re lucky enough to be free, writing the way we want, imagining that better world we all desire, all forms of censorship – whether creeping, blatant, shameful or shameless; dogmatic or pragmatic; mealymouthed or imperious – need resisting. As deliberate sin of omission, cynical admission of fear, or fear of freedom itself (construed as loss of control), censorship simply worsens the current paranoid climate of state repression. Unfortunately for everyone, censorship plays a continuing part in what the late great William Burroughs called The Big Lie.
(The above two articles were written for Writers Forum magazine, 2001-2, where I was promised an 800 word column every month. However, following editorial disagreements, the pieces were subjected to cuts and I severed contact.)