Friday, 17 March 2017

Language and the presidency

I ended my last piece with a promise not to waste any more words on the self-publicist and arch-troll Milo Yiannopoulos (see below). I break that promise only to note that Simon & Schuster have cancelled their contract to publish his book after he was caught on video joking about clerical abuse and dismissing the significance of sexual consent. Perhaps the publishers were grateful that he provided them with an excuse to change their mind.

When I made that promise I was intending to take a break from the American carnage that is the Trump administration. I thought I might write about the contrasting stylistic choices made by various translators of Anna Karenina. But I find myself in Los Angeles and the news presses in on me. Tolstoy will have to wait.

A growing movement calling for Californian independence, though extremely unlikely to lead to anything, is symbolic of the strength of feeling here, where people voted against Trump in overwhelming numbers. As I learned today from a sociology professor at the University of California, more than half of the university’s quarter of a million students are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Most people in this diverse and dynamic state know that immigration is a good thing and reject Trump’s xenophobic vision.    

The phrase “American carnage” comes from the President’s inaugural address. It was striking partly because we don’t expect such a stark indictment of a country from its own leader, but also because it sounds incongruously like the title of a slasher movie, a thrash metal band or a televised wrestling competition. It was verbally jarring in the context of a formal speech to the nation.

It points to a striking feature of the current political scene. America is undergoing a kind of linguistic revolution. From the beginning of his campaign, Trump’s most plausible promise was that people would be liberated to speak as offensively as they please. He is doing his best, of course, to shut down criticism directed at him: his chief strategist has said that on political matters the press should “keep its mouth shut” and a top White House aide has announced that the powers of the President “will not be questioned”. But inciting hatred against the weak is to be encouraged. Trump continues to model this freedom at every opportunity.

In speech, he is crude, repetitive and often incoherent. And yet no American President has ever put such stock in the power of language to construct reality. And because of his position, the consequences of one of his tweets or casual asides can be enormous. I am reminded of Auden’s poem, Epitaph on a Tyrant:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, 
And when he cried the little children died in the streets. 

Previously published in the Bangladesh Daily Star

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