Nov 5, 2011

November 5, 2011: Return to Custer, A Word about The Word, Pigs Breakfast.

“He that controls language, controls everything” –from the “Quotations of Chairman Joe

It was during one of my visits to the “farm” (1) that I received one of my great life lessons.
Following the usual talk with grandmother, I had occasion to speak with grandfather and my great-uncle Lionel.  Lionel was, for his time, a learned man; one of the few in the family to have actually walked the halls of higher learning in the early 20th century.  He was well read and could converse intelligently on nearly any subject from agriculture and applied mechanics to philosophy and religion.  He understood, as those that lit the prairie fire that was the “progressive movement”, that language is everything.

This is a biblical concept and, befitting a descendent of Methodist clergy, an especially Protestant one.  For when God said “let there be light” and, by the power of the word alone, there was created the “big bang” it is a very powerful thing indeed.  But to us mere mortals the power inherent in the ‘word’ assumes other, more modest, manifestations. 

In the temporal world the ‘word’ is a symbol.  The ‘word’ cannot embrace everything; wrap its arms around the entirety. The word ‘carrot’ for instance, is not a carrot.  It is simply a series of symbols in the form of written or spoken letters and sounds that convey the idea of a ‘carrot’.  One cannot see the carrot upon the page or in the ear; one cannot smell it or taste it.  One can only conjure the idea of it as it corresponds to one’s experience in encountering the ‘thing’.  Or, take for instance, the word ‘house’.  What kind of house, a palace, a mansion, a Victorian, a hovel?  What does one mean?  To answer this, a whole dictionary of words to explain the noun or pronoun, be they adjectives to define the noun, or adverbs to describe the action have evolved to give greater clarity and meaning.  For instance, H.C. Brunner describing New York City’s “Shantytown” for “Scribner’s Monthly” in the mid 19th century had this to say:  “The shanty”, he wrote, “is the most wonderful instance of perfect adaptation of means to an end in the whole range of modern architecture”.  There was not any general method for describing a shanty, “each must be studied by itself” for in the tangle of ramshackle dwellings, “individual combinations are lost in the prevailing lawlessness of line and hue.” The shanty architect said Brunner, “revels in unevenness”. (2) While colorful, and reflecting a certain bourgeois bias, Brunner’s attempt to capture life among New York’s ‘other half’ fails to wrap its arms around the smells, the poverty, the fears, the insecurities in a city where fully a quarter of the adult population were members of gangs.    

The ‘word’, it transpires, is not the same thing for us mere mortals. The ‘word’ is not the thing, the word is only a pale symbol of the thing but in the absence of the genuine article it must stand as substitute. This is why the ‘word’ is constantly subject to interpretation be it Bible or Constitution; for however hallowed the word upon which it is written it is still a pale substitute for the genuine article.  What is meant by “honor thy father” or the 10th Amendment is left to the interpretation of the larger society at any given time and, more troubling in our age, the individual.  To insure some modicum of consistency a whole series of doctrines, reference materials, bodies of law and interpretations have been put forward over the centuries establishing various “traditions” in which to put the original “word” into some relevant context.  To this end certain words assume certain meanings in the social traditions assuring that discussion and debate occur within the generally understood boundaries of those traditions be they religious, cultural or national. 

This was the meaning behind the question posed to me by my great Uncle as he sat, a mere 100 pounds of swollen joints, (3) in his wheelchair behind his desk in the living room of the old farmhouse. 

“Tell me Joe” he asked (as if to say you’re a college boy now, you should know this), “what’s the difference between a contradiction and a paradox?” 

“I’m not sure,” I replied.  A look of resignation emerged followed with a touch of mild disappointment. Then quickly his eyes brightened and a smile crossed his face as he saw an opportunity to impart a lesson to the emerging lad. 

“A contradiction is when something appears to be false and is false”, he said.
“A paradox is when something appears false and is true.” 

“Ah”, said I, recognizing a certain mastery of language but uncertain as to its full meaning.

It took years to understand that full meaning of that little exchange: however one defines the terms one must be careful about the use thereof, for each term has a specific and a general meaning depending upon the context.  Carelessness, he seemed to be saying, sows confusion. He meant more than that of course, but it would take much longer to see all the ramifications therein.  To use terms interchangeably, carelessly, can be more than confusing it can be dangerous.

Later Lionel’s brief lesson would be reinforced by admonitions from professors not to use Totalitarian, for instance, as a substitute for Authoritarian, for they are not the same animal. 
These are lessons to heed, if only imperfectly, as one goes about conducting public discourse.

In this context there is nothing more ridiculous than Glen Beck standing before a blackboard equating communism and fascism. Why anyone would seek counsel from someone who, like Limbaugh, has chosen to elect himself out of an education is beyond me.  To equate Obama with Hitler and Stalin in the same breath or to equate Islam with communism is to do violence against the language that approaches rape.  It is either a deliberate smear or the wailing of a lunatic or both, but in seeking to destroy the meaning and context of the terms, Beck and his ilk go about sowing the seeds of confusion so as to create fear and, by so doing, stampede the next election.

Watching Beck I learned, finally, the rest of the lesson taught so long ago in Custer: making a pig’s breakfast of the language is more than confusing, it is dangerous.
(1)               (1)  See post of December 15, 2010 for discussion of the “farm”
(2)               (2)  Brunner, H.C., “Shantytown” Scribner’s Monthly Vol. 20 pp. 855-859
(3)  Great uncle Lionel suffered from Rheumatoid arthritis for most of the latter part of his life.
(3)               (4)  Happy Guy Fawkes Day


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