Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Humpty-Dumpty Words

Blab, blab.  "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect ordain and establish this Constitution..."

Blab, blab, blab.  It sometimes "becomes  necessary for one People to dissolve the political bands which have connected them to other..."

Blab, blab, blab, blab.  Ours is a government "of the People, by the People and for the People."

I have very little patience with all these People--or at least, with the way in which these three "sacred texts" employ the term.  That's because "People" is a Humpty-Dumpty word--a word that, as the great Wall-Sitter himself observed, can mean whatever a particular speaker chooses it to mean--and, this, with no particular regard for (or perhaps a cynical disregard for) what the eventual audience might think it means.

Years ago when I was in college, I read a book by Stuart Chase entitled The Tyranny of Words.  As I recall, Chase was some kind of an engineer by training, but he dabbled in economics, politics and linguistics--just the kind of writer to appeal to someone of MY easygoing, not-overly-specialized intellectual habits.  Yet this unpretentious little volume made such a deep impression on me that, even today, when baffled by mind-numbing TV debates or inane dinner conversations, I sometimes catch myself muttering under my breath Chase's cardinal precept:  "find the referent, find the referent."  Because, as Alice pointed out to Humpty Dumpty, one simply can't be so arbitrary with words and still hope to convey meaning.  If each spoken or written symbol (word) does not have a commonly-accepted referent--i.e., if it does not refer to something real that both the speaker and the hearer agree upon, then minds cannot meet and communication is impeded rather than facilitated.

Of course, that's precisely what Humpty-Dumpty, at least, was seeking:  "Impenetrability!  That's what say."

Chase goes on to note that such verbal neglect of referents can have a number of causes, the most common of which is simple carelessness or laziness (i.e., words are employed heedlessly, tossed about with mindless abandon, often with amusing, embarrassing or even--sometimes-- dangerous consequences).  But words may also be carefully chosen for their  "fluff" quotient--precisely because they have acquired so many various, even conflicting, referents that they have been rendered functionally useless for actual communication.  Thus, like Humpty Dumpty, a speaker may deliberately choose such a word in order to be impenetrable, in order to give the illusion of conveying information while effectively uttering a semantic blank--blab blab.  More malignantly even, a speaker may also select a particular word precisely because its very lack of a referent has packed it with an emotional power directly proportional to its substantive vacuousness. And thus a kind of mental tyranny is imposed by Humpty-Dumpty words.

So it is with the term "People" as used by those great "communicators" Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln--and almost every other politician (as we call OUR leaders) or demagogue (as we call THEIR leaders--you know, the guys that run the planet's sundry Peoples' Republics).  Lacking any common referent, the term "People"--in all of our hallowed canonized documents--and in the mouths of most of ruling officials everywhere--is little more than blab, blab.

We the blab, blab of the United States...; it becomes necessary for one blab, blab, to dissolve the political bands...; government of the blab blab, by the blab blab and for the blab blab...

Oh, I know.  Someone will object that, of course, all of these magnificent thinkers were clearly referring to the "majority" of American citizens.  Such nonsense!  Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration--with a little help--on behalf of a tiny bunch of wealthy merchants and planters who called themselves the Continental Congress.  He may have thought that this exclusive body somehow "knew" the will of some mythical "People," but we can be quite sure that it would never have occurred to Jefferson to ask the tinker or the tailor what they thought about dissolving political bands.  Likewise, the Constitution was drafted (with input from many writers, but especially Madison and Hamilton) by a dubiously extra-legal Grand Convention (whose only legitimate "charge" was to propose modifications to the Articles of Confederation).  Were the delegates to this Convention elected by the "People"?  Surely you jest.  And when the Constitution was voted upon--was it by the "People"?  Only if, by this term, you understand the white, rich, male elite that sat in state legislatures.  Finally, what WAS Lincoln talking about in the Gettysburg Address?  His use of the term "People" borders on mystical incoherence--like most of the speech, this word is lacking any concrete referent--it is blab blab--clearly intended to bypass reason and logic in order to trigger an immediate emotional response of pure patriotic fervor.

Don't misunderstand me.  I am not criticizing the efficacy or the poetic qualities of Mr. Lincoln's speech.  Nor, certainly, am I criticizing Jeffersonian/Madisonian "rule by the elite"--not, at least, if we mean an elected meritocracy of qualified, educated individuals.  Indeed, as I suggested at the outset, I deeply distrust popular democracy (Lord save us from government OF the people and BY the people).  No, though I am pleased that the franchise has been expanded to include citizens of all races and both genders, I am quite content with representative democracy.  Legislation is too important to be effected by referendum--groups of elected "specialists" (our Congressmen and Senators) should deliberate, reflect, question and, in the end, make the decisions that the (small "p") people have too little time and too little training to do rationally and fairly by direct popular vote.  Surely my point is attested to by the unhappy example of California--with its debilitating, regressive and--let's be honest, just plain stupid--popularly-voted propositions about everything from lotteries to real estate taxes to saving the family from homosexuals.

But what I am objecting to is the tyranny of words.  I do not approve of the way in which the word "People" has been used and misused--whether carelessly or deliberately--by luminaries (Lincoln) as well as loons (Michele Bachmann).  No, saying absolutely nothing meaningful (blab blab) while simultaneously striving to generate politically useful emotion (sob sob) is both reprehensible and, as Chase made so clear, tyrannical. 

So please, people (!)--don't allow yourselves to be jerked around by politicos and their blab blab about People.  Insist upon "finding the referent" when you hear such talk.  And if, as I suspect, no such commonly agreed-upon referent exists, just dismiss this statement as another example of  either witless or willful Humpty-Dumptyism.  Alternatively, if you simply must have your fix of People, run out to the newstand and buy an issue of the eponymous magazine!  Then, as you reflect leisurely upon the mysterious bond between Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, take a long slug of soda and ask yourself:  say, aren't THEY the PEOPLE who should be trying to form a More Perfect Union?

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