The Hard Years: A Look at Contemporary America and American Institutions

By Eugene J. McCarthy | Go to book overview
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25
Language and Politics

Man has never fully escaped the Tower of Babel nor avoided the confusion of tongues. Man lives by words, and the use of words is, therefore, always a serious and a dangerous act.

Patrick Henry's "give me liberty, or give me death" was an inspiration for and a significant part of the American Revolution. With the words J'accuse, Émile Zola stirred the French nation against the injustice of the Dreyfus case. And Churchill in the early months of World War II gave courage and resolution to England: "We shall fight on the beaches. . . ."

Poets and men of letters are the special custodians of language. Scientists and mathematicians seek stabilization of meaning through the use of symbols rather than words: E = mc2 was Einstein's word.

The Catholic Church long used Latin as the language of official doctrine and ritual, claiming it is universal, immutable, and independent of the weaknesses of vernacular languages. But the fact is, as theologians know, even a dead language does not help. People are perverse. They think and believe and die in the language they live in.

In a democracy the language of politics is of special concern. The theoretical basis of a democracy supposes a measure of good will in people, so that when they are informed, they can make sound political judgments. For this theory to work, there must be a common language. If the language is debased or misused, if the meaning of words is obscure, the basis for common judgment is undermined, if not destroyed.

The pressure on the language of politics is always greatest when political problems are most difficult and when politicians are called upon to answer for failure in other professions.

The war in Vietnam subjected the language of American politics

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The Hard Years: A Look at Contemporary America and American Institutions
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