Have you noticed a lot of poetry around? No, I’m not speaking metaphorically about the heroism of firefighters or the eloquence of a nation united in grief. I mean, literally, there’s a lot of poetry floating around. Since the attack, Andrew Sullivan has run some new poetry almost every day. NRO’s John Derbyshire has reached into his stunning literary arsenal as well. Of course, these guys were educated in Britain, so it’s understandable that they’d actually know some appropriate verse (not unrelated, the Brit papers overflow with poetry). But poems have been popping up all over the place in America. U.S. newspapers and magazines, memorial services and mass-blasted e-mails are chock-block with verse from Auden, Tennyson, Eliot and other dead white geniuses long forgotten by average Americans and long despised by grievance-poets dependent on government grants and angry college sophomores for a living.
Now, I know next to nothing about poetry, other than that I know what I like. But I do think this is a sign of something bigger. Language is making a comeback. People are recognizing that words have fixed meanings again. Capital-”T” Truth can be gotten at, it can be described and illuminated by words accessible to all. This is great news.
For the last few decades, words have been under attack. They were, well, “just words.” Most of my professors in college, for example, subscribed to the view that words were merely aural Rorschach tests for the biased, and often bigoted, ears of the masses. Around the country, where the fever swamps of political correctness were the most fetid, students were chastised for using words like “individual,” “merit,” you name it, because somebody somewhere could bend and twist the word’s true meaning into something personally offensive.
Sometimes this subjective alchemy reached the point of true comedy. Not too long ago, Washington’s public advocate was forced to quit his job because he used the word “niggardly” correctly in a sentence. You see, niggardly sounds like another word, and that is transgression enough — never mind that it means miserly and is of Scandinavian derivation — for the ignorant and their over-educated defenders.
I guess I’m particularly sensitive to this phenomenon because I receive so much e-mail from people who have their own personal definitions of words. For example, a few months ago, when I unintentionally offended a lot of Asian-American college students with some dumb jokes about China, I made them even madder still by defending myself with — gasp — a dictionary. I merely pointed out that what I wrote wasn’t racist according to the dictionary (or my own conscience). “How dare you use a dictionary!” dozens of kids pounded furiously into e-mails, as if a dictionary were some wholly illegitimate and oppressive tool of the ruling class. (See, “A World of Feelings“)
This week President Bush said, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” Intellectuals and politicians across Europe — i.e., the crusader nations — winced. American pundits and peacenik callers to radio stations, always inclined to look for the blameworthy within our own borders, immediately invoked the authority of their dictionaries: “You can’t use a word like ‘crusade!’” they shrieked. “Don’t you know that means ‘holy war’ or ‘jihad’?” the foreign and domestic intellectuals asked. Never mind that a holy war against terrorism — as opposed to, say, Islam or America — is no vice and the defense of murderers is never a virtue.
Regardless, whether or not you think the word crusade — or the White House’s apology for it — was merited, I for one thought it was great that so many people felt the need to scurry to a dictionary.
It seems to me that objective meaning is flowing, like transfused blood, into all sorts of concepts which were tragically anemic not too long ago. Patriotism is of course the most obvious example. Freedom is another word people are reacquainting themselves with. But we’ve also seen good and evil (and even capitalized Good and Evil) used by all sorts of politicians and commentators normally embarrassed by such morally loaded — and hence unacceptably judgmental — words.
When Reagan accurately used the word “evil” to describe the Soviet Empire, the pointy-heads got flat abs laughing so hard at the silliness of our president.
Well, no one except the most asinine of sophisticates (Susan Sontag call your office) laughs today when we hear the word evil used by the president to describe the assault on the World Trade Center. The same holds true for freedom and tyranny, heroism and villainy, and a host of words which until eight days ago drew snickers and eye-rolls from people who live by the op-ed page of the New York Times.
Today, few people are rolling their eyes.
And this is an unequivocally good thing, and not just because a lot of dumb college courses will suffer in attendance as a result. When words lose their connection to truth, tyranny is not far behind. Orwell’s “Newspeak” in 1984, the Soviet’s co-optation of the West’s democratic vocabulary, and even the recent inflation of our rights to include every single good thing a government could or could not pay for, were all examples, to me, of the dangerous waters you can drift into when a society unhitches words from their moorings.
The prevailing propaganda on college campuses, various U.N. conferences, and much of the activist Left and even a few obscure corners of the hysterical Right, are all examples of the tyranny of malleable or meaningless words. This tyranny isn’t always apparent at the point of a gun. It may simply be the absolutism of a mob that makes words hostage to its own self-esteem.
Scores of journalists and politicians say that September 11, 2001, was the day everything changed. They usually appear to mean how we see the world and our own security or how American priorities have changed or some such thing. But I think there’s more to it than that. A lot of ironic detachment and cynicism has been washed away, and on the whole that’s a good thing.
There’s a downside to all of this, beyond of course the actual tragedy at its heart. So far, it is very difficult to make jokes. When David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien came back on the air this week, none of them could make jokes. The latest issue of the New Yorker dropped its jokey cartoons. I myself have been striving for two days to figure out an appropriate opportunity to write, “Hey Mr. Taliban, tally me banana” without success. But the inability to make jokes, too, is a testament to the newfound power of language.
Jokes will make a big comeback, of course, as they always do. And that’s a good thing, too. But I don’t think it will be easy to be funny about all sorts of things for a very long time.