An American Editor

January 9, 2013

On Words: Politics and Alice-in-Wonderland Speak

I have repeatedly written that word choice and grammar are important because words chosen and how they are used (i.e., the grammar rules applied to the words) communicate a message, and both an author and an editor want that message to be communicated without misunderstanding by the reader. No matter how many times I have written that mantra, no one has come forward to tell me I am wrong; ergo, I must be right.

For months I have been pondering what word choices put in sentence form could prove me wrong. I thought about statements that protest gays and non-Christians because they will rot in hell for not having been saved. Afterall, how many of us have experienced and survived hell so that we can know with certainty (as opposed to with belief)  that hell exists and that the unsaved will rot there forever. (I have also wondered how anyone knows that one rots in hell as opposed to having endless, wonderful 24-hour parties that fulfill every fantasy we ever had before we went to hell. Alas, it is just a matter of belief rather than knowledge. But I digress.)

The answer to my pondering came from the mouth of Congressperson Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) who said, in justification of her vote against House Speaker John Boehner’s Plan B, which would have made permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for taxpayers earning less than $1 million, “I am here to represent my constituents.” If this isn’t the biggest falsehood of the century, it certainly has to be the biggest falsehood of the year.

I don’t mean for Congressperson Blackburn to be singled out; rather, this statement, perhaps not so succinctly put by other politicians, when made by any politician to justify a vote that shoves us over the “fiscal cliff” is the biggest lie. The reason is that words, although they carry the firmness of a religious sermon demonizing sin, simply can mean neither what they are intended to mean nor the message they are intended to convey. If words could be sins, these words would rank near the top of sins and those who spoke them at the top of the sinners’ honor roll.

If nothing else, these words raise at least this matter of implausibility:

To be true, at least 50.1% of Representative Blackburn’s congressional district must be persons earning $1 million a year or more and against having their taxes raised.

Fewer than 1% of Americans have an annual income of $1 million or more. I suppose it is possible that most of America’s millionaires live in Tennessee in Representative Blackburn’s district, but if that is true, then how can any other Republican congressperson justify voting against making permanent the lower tax rates for the 99%-plus of Americans who do not earn $1 million a year? Someone (or many someones) are simply spreading the big lie!

The words “I am here to represent my constituents” raise other plausibility issues. It hasn’t been asked and answered, but I wonder who Representative Blackburn (and the other naysaying Republicans) really represents. Are the “people” who she claims to represent real or imaginary? I recognize that one of the things Americans are really great at is voting against their own interests and/or letting peripheral, minor issues sway them for or against a candidate, but the one thing no American I know has voted against is giving him-/herself a tax cut. So explain to me how the Republican naysayers’ vote against permanent tax cuts for 99% of Americans is something that “my constituents” want.

Perhaps the problem with the House of Representatives is that it has become a wealthy-person club. Many, if not most, of the “representatives of the people” would themselves — or their family — see their taxes rise and so are really representing themselves, not their constituents.

I’m one of those foolish Americans who thinks the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (starring Jimmy Stewart as an idealistic new senator) is what Congress should be about. Such idealism today on the part of a politician would simply be fodder for the lobby gristmill that is Washington politics.

Anyway, the point is that the words “I am here to represent my constituents” fail to fulfill the concept of words and grammar that I have been advocating for 30 years: they are closer to Humpty Dumpty’s view of words —

     “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

As the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse put it:

     The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, “Why is a raven like a writing-desk?”

“Come, we shall have some fun now!” thought Alice. “I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles. — I believe I can guess that,” she added aloud.

“Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?” said the March Hare.

“Exactly so,” said Alice.

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — at least I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Hmmm, perhaps being in Congress is like being at a Mad Hatter tea party. Certainly it is hard to differentiate a congressperson saying “I am here to represent my constituents” from an Alice-in-Wonderland conversation. I know that what I understand the words to mean clearly has no resemblance to what the speaker of the words intends the words to mean, as evidenced by the use of those words to justify voting against extending the tax cuts to 99% of Americans. It is evident that words spoken by Representative Blackburn — and mimicked by other congresspersons on a regular basis in multiple legislative areas — fail the test by which authors and editors live:

The words chosen clearly and precisely convey the author’s intended meaning so that there is no miscommunication between the author and the reader.

How refreshing it would be if that was the litmus test for political speech and failure of the test were grounds for recall.

2 Comments »

  1. I believe it comes down to the definition of “constituents”. While most of us see the term as meaning “the people who live in the district represented by the Representative”, in the congresscritter’s definition it obviously means “those nice rich people who give me money for my election campaigns”.

    Like

    Comment by Kay Shapero — January 9, 2013 @ 5:14 pm | Reply

  2. No logical person could argue against the points in your blog. But then, we’re talking about politicians. The delusion (or is it what they hope to sell to voters?) is that they are “representing” what people want because people want jobs and the 1% are the “job creators.” Sadly, we have a country that votes on faith, and one of the long-standing beliefs is that the Democrats are the tax-and-spend party and the Republicans are fiscally responsible.
    I know I shouldn’t be arguing politics early in the morning, but I couldn’t resist.

    Like

    Comment by Jan Arzooman — January 10, 2013 @ 6:47 am | Reply


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