In the beginning, there was the Word…
A writer’s bible would probably begin like that. A democrat’s bible should definitely begin like that.
The meaning and context of words ought not to be the eclectic obsession of writers, jurists and sundry, crazy, logophiles.
The reason is simple yet seminal. Just as farming was the beginning of human settlement, communication was the beginning of human civilization.
Our unique ability to form complex word combinations is what turned us from man to tribe. And thereafter, from tribe to society, culture, nations and civilizations.
Think about it. The journey from drawing cave paintings to being able to say Thatis a Tableis how we went from passive observation to abstract concept formation.
The power to articulate: “I have a dream” was the unearthing of consciousness, of the self, ego and identity. The depth of thought and abstraction those words encompass are still under discussion by academics and experts.
Eons later those words would lead to other words – freedom, parity, equality and yes, even aggression, ‘movements’ and civil disobedience. These are powerful words with the ability to affect even more powerful change in the world around them.
The discovery of the phrase: You are wrong: was the discovery of morality. The retort: How do you know? was the breakthrough to epistemology and metaphysics. Another answer in another context:“Because apples always fall down” was the discovery of universal laws of nature. The key to it, was understanding the word always.
Whichever way you look at it, the difference between man and chimpanzee is not merely the opposable thumb. It’s that we don’t grunt out differential calculus and Shakespeare. We can’t.
However impolitic it is to say so, Words are the origin story of the civilized world.
Take the meaning of words away, or even blur them, and communication starts to crumble; centuries of the civilizational process start to unspool.
This is not a new idea. Tomes have been written about the importance of language per se as well as the politics of language. It is impossible to touch the subject and not mention Noam Chomsky’s seminal work in linguistics. It is a tragedy that his work on politics is best forgotten out of respect for the man as a linguist. Chomsky was on to something that his politics interfered with and that would ultimately damage linguistics itself.
Where the Chomsky school erred was in its political partisanship, and a lack of historicity.
It is not a coincidence that throughout history and across geographies, despots have started first and foremost with repossessing and repurposing certain words.
Nor is it a coincidence that philosophers, rationalists and democrats have sought, often in vain, to point to the incongruity of those words.
Franςois- Marie Arouet a.k.a Voltaire ( 1694-1798), said in the impetuous times preceding the French revolution: “Those who can make you believe in absurdities, can make you commit atrocities” (See full quote below)1
He was talking of the oppression of the Church and Monarch and Voltaire was lucky to be heard in that they were both put in their rightful place in public discourse. But not before such blood was shed that the period came to be known as “The Terrors.”
Not two centuries later, another revolution would follow the Great French revolution and it would be marked by a similar repossessing of words.
A London-based, German citizen would rouse impoverished Russian workers into revolt and then revolution. It was an absurd concatenation of geography, rivaled only by the absurd concatenation of words he would string together to make the revolution’s rallying cry.
The phrase was “Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”
The Prussian Economist and Hegelian philosopher was of course, Karl Marx (1818 to 1883), co-author of the Communist Manifesto. Without going into either the philosophy or politics of Marxism, it is interesting to examine the words themselves :
Dictatorship and Proletariat2
The questions almost ask themselves– How could there ever be such a thing? How would millions of underfed, uneducated, tired full-time working men, be all dictators at the same time?
Would they stop working and start dictator-ing? But doesn’t a dictator need dictatees or subjects, or…working men?
Would they take turns? But among millions, how would any man reasonably hope to get his turn in his lifetime?
Would they elect someone to dictate over them, instead? In which case wouldn’t it become a dictatorship of the appointee ? And was there not something bizarre in choosing or electing your own dictator?
At best, sado-masochism on a nation-wide scale. At worst, paying for the hatchet that’s to be buried in your chest and thanking the man afterward?
Let’s just say that somehow they all did became dictators at the same time, then who would they dictate to?
Let’s give the best possible answer and say –they would dictate their own lives. Wouldn’t that just be self-determination? Like Democracy? Or going the other way – Anarchy? So why call it dictatorship? What was the specific reason for using that word combination?
Especially since dictatorship –the absolute tyranny of one man (or many) — was the problem to begin with.
Without taking anything away from the fact that dictatorships and landlords had to go and factory workers and farmers needed a better deal; the mind boggles at the thought that the weight of this articulation’s contradictions did not bury the idea at birth.
One might be tempted at this point to dismiss this as pettifogging. After all, politics is the art of the possible and slogan making is the even more complex art of getting people to rally behind an abstract idea. To nitpick on words has sometimes been called the tyranny of the dictionary.
But words are all we have with which to communicate. Take the meaning of words away and we may as well be grunting to each other. Slogans must represent the idea in truth and the idea must represent the reality is or promised.
As one looks through history one must ask oneself the question: have slogan makers truly represented the reality they promised or were we just not listening? The answers may vary but are almost uniformly surprising.
One man who surprised himself and the world was Eric Arthur Blair aka George Orwell (1903-1950). He displayed a serendipitous understanding of word-mangling in his book 1984 Among the gems in this delightfully prophetic book are a Ministry of Peace responsible for War and a Minister of Love in charge of Law and Order. (Think of Secretary of State responsible for Foreign Relations aka Wars)
The book was published in 1949 just four years after the end of WWII. Orwell wrote it because he thought British democracy wouldn’t survive the war without succumbing to either Fascism or democratic socialism. It received a lukewarm response and Orwell himself later said he had been wrong in his high pessimism.2
What he and others didn’t realize at the time was that Orwell hadn’t been wrong, merely ahead of his time.
The central theme of 1984 is best described in this single line that has come to describe the world since the 1950s:
“First they steal the words, then they steal the meaning.”
While WWII would end with the defeat of the fascists and the beginning of a new Cold War between the allies and the communists; across the Atlantic, New York’s Madison Avenue was already sharpening its teeth on How to Steal Meaning and Make Money.
One could pick on almost any big advertising campaign of that era to make the point but the most fascinating case study in this new and now legitimate art form was the De Beers Ad campaign of 1938 that would could the phrase A Diamond is forever
Forty years later, producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman would make a hugely successful eponymous movie of that name based on Ian Fleming’s book (Diamonds Are Forever); Shirley Bassey would sing a lovely, seductive title song to John Barry’s composition and diamonds would forever be associated with engagement rings and women.
In the 1930s however, De Beers was best known for its horrifying working conditions for mine workers at their African sites. Invasive cavity searches to prevent workers from smuggling out small uncuts to sell in the open market; vicious murders and violent business practices were on the company’s public relations to-deal-with-daily roster.
The 1938 ad campaign however managed to convince young lovers that since Diamonds lasted forever, it somehow meant that a diamond engagement ring would make their marriage last forever. And so a rock meant for kings and industries became a middle-class housewife’s obsession.
Never mind that in war-torn Europe and the rest of the world, thousands of young men, at that very moment, were dying alone on battlefields every day. A few months later, the U.S. would enter the war too and Americans would also begin to die. But the myth of the diamond engagement ring would remain immortal.
In fact, Madison Avenue specifically and Americans in general, would soon become so adept at repurposing words that the next great assault on meaning would come from that side of the Atlantic.
NEXT WEEK — Extraordinary Rendition of Ordinary Words
Full quote: “Certainly anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices. If you do not use the intelligence with which God endowed your mind to resist believing impossibilities, you will not be able to use the sense of injustice which God planted in your heart to resist a command to do evil. Once a single faculty of your soul has been tyrannized, all the other faculties will submit to the same fate. This has been the cause of all the religious crimes that have flooded the earth.
2. Latin Proletarius (lowest class of people in Rome. Origin Proles Mid-17th century: from Latin proletarius (from proles ‘offspring’), denoting a person having no wealth in property, who only served the state by producing offspring. Oxford Dictionary definition