Magazine article The New Yorker

Verbage

Magazine article The New Yorker

Verbage

Article excerpt

In recent elections, the Republican hate word has been "liberal," or "Massachusetts," or "Gore." In this election, it has increasingly been "words." Barack Obama has been denounced again and again as a privileged wordsmith, a man of mere words who has "authored" two books (to use Sarah Palin's verb), and done little else. The leathery extremist Phyllis Schlafly had this to say, at the Republican Convention, about Palin: "I like her because she's a woman who's worked with her hands, which Barack Obama never did, he was just an elitist who worked with words." The fresher-faced extremist Rick Santorum, a former Republican senator, called Obama "just a person of words," adding, "Words are everything to him." The once bipartisan campaign adviser Dick Morris and his wife and co-writer, Eileen McGann, argue that the McCain camp, in true Rovian fashion, is "using the Democrat's articulateness against him" (along with his education, his popularity, his intelligence, his wife--pretty much everything but his height, though it may come to that). John McCain's threatened cancellation of the first Presidential debate was the ultimate defiance, by action, of words; sure enough, afterward conservatives manfully disdained Barack Obama's "book knowledge." To have seen the mountains of Waziristan with one's own eyes--that is everything.

Doesn't this reflect a deep suspicion of language itself? It's as if Republican practitioners saw words the way Captain Ahab saw "all visible objects"--as "pasteboard masks," concealing acts and deeds and things--and, like Ahab, were bent on striking through those masks. The Melvillean atmosphere may not be accidental, since, beyond the familiar American anti-intellectualism--to work with words is not to work at all--there's a residual Puritanism. The letter killeth, as St. Paul has it, but the spirit giveth life. (In that first debate, McCain twice charged his opponent with the misdeed of "parsing words.") In this vision, there is something Pharisaical about words. They confuse, they corrupt; they get in the way of Jesus.

But we all need words, and both campaigns wrestle every day over them. Words are up for grabs: just follow the lipstick traces. For days, the McCain camp accused Obama of likening Governor Palin to a pig, because he likened a retooled political message to a pig with lipstick. Eventually, McCain (who had previously described Senator Hillary Clinton's health-care plan as a pig with lipstick) was forced to fudge. No, he conceded, Senator Obama had not called Governor Palin a pig, "but I know he chooses his words carefully, and it was the wrong thing to say." This was instructive, not least because it sounded like implicit praise: maybe I don't choose my words very carefully, but he does, so he should have chosen them more carefully.

Meanwhile, the campaign that claims to loathe "just words" has proved expert at their manipulation, from reversals of policy to the outright lies of some of its attack ads ("comprehensive sex education") and the subtle racial innuendo of a phrase like "how disrespectful" (used to accuse Obama of making uppity attacks on Palin). Karl Rove--along with predecessors like Lee Atwater and proteges like Steve Schmidt--long ago showed the Republicans that language is slippery, fluid, a river into which you can dump anything at all as long as your opponent is the one downstream. And, to be fair, those who affect to despise words have been more skillful than their opponents not just at amoral manipulation but at the creation of what Orwell called "a fresh, vivid, home-made turn of speech. …

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