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Friday, December 26, 2008

What Am I Doing Now?

Many winter evenings, after dinner, the members of our household are triangulated in the warm central room of our old farmhouse—David in his green chair at the right angle, reading light on book or magazine; Pamela across from him, laptop in lap; and Sarah in my yellow leather reading chair, at the other end of the hypotenuse from me. Knowing that his two daughters are among my frequent e-mail correspondents, David may ask, “Anything from the girls?” If I’m tapping away at 100 wpm, however, his question is more likely to be, “What are you doing?” and to say I’m “writing” is no answer at all. “Writing an e-mail” or “working on a press release” or “revising a chapter” gives him information. Or I might answer, “Blogging.” We both laugh at the awkwardness of the word, but we’re becoming accustomed to the usage.

Someone else near and dear to me (you know who you are!) is less tolerant of the term. “It’s a website! You’re writing!” Did I say it wasn’t or I wasn’t? But while all blogs are websites, not all websites are blogs, and words that help clarify distinctions are not the sort of linguistic tinkering that gets my Irish up.

It was a slow day today at the bookstore (the crowds obviously having raced to Traverse City for big sales at big stores), so I had a chance to do some reading. Bill Moyers, in his new book, Moyers on Democracy (NY: Doubleday, 2008), a collection of speeches he gave from 1986 to 2007, writes about threats to freedom from many sources. Among the dangers are government secrecy, national policies driven by ideology, and the failure of journalists to do their job (relying instead on carefully crafted government statements, studded with red herrings). Language per se is not one of his main targets, but he can take aim at it now and then, when necessary.
Day after day, the egalitarian language of our Declaration of Independence is shredded by sloganeers who speak of the “death tax,” the “ownership society,” the “culture of life,” “compassionate conservatism,” “weak on terrorism,” the “end of history,” the “clash of civilizations,” “no child left behind.” … We have all the Orwellian filigree of a public sphere in which words conceal reality[,] and the pursuit of personal gain and partisan power is wrapped in rhetoric that turns truth to lies and lies to truth.

‘Shredded’ is a strong, precise word. ‘Orwellian filigree’ calls up a host of associations (and the paradox there is surely intentional). Moyers is a master of language, and he pulls no punches. The phrases he skewers aim to reshape thought to the speakers’ [intentional plural] own ends. I have written elsewhere of my contempt for the phrase “politically correct” and for terrorists’ who “claim responsibility.” Are they planning to stick around and clean up the mess, rebuild infrastructure, heal families and communities? The boasting of criminals has nothing to do with responsibility.

Back to the less inflammatory term, ‘blog.’ My own use of language (unlike my politics) tends toward conservatism, but slow as I am to adapt new usages, still I recognize the fluid and constantly evolving reality of language. Any hope for fixity or purity in language is misplaced. Language can do as much as it does because it is flexible, because in its heart it is inherently ambiguous, and because there is no fencing it in and stopping its growth.

On the way home tonight, we stopped at Fischer’s Happy Hour Tavern for a bit of post-holiday conviviality. The lights and wreaths and garlands inside were festive, and the colored lights outside shone on icicles hanging from the eaves. Tomorrow, perhaps, the rains will come, but for tonight it’s still winter.

And what am I doing this evening, right this minute? Once again, I’m blogging!


Anonymous said...

I dislike the word "blog" but haven't found an acceptable replacement.

I loathe the use of "the homeland" to refer to my country.

I detest the practice of verbing nouns . . .

I grudgingly accept my status as a curmudgeon, and recognize that my own work seems quaint to anyone younger than dirt.

I envy anyone who can tap away at 100 wpm.

I admire Bill Moyers very much.

What am I doing? Wandering about the blogosphere commenting because I'm too lazy to settle down to reading a whole book!

dmarks said...

I've always found Moyers to be rather one-sided. There are buzzwords/slogans from his side of the political fence, very similar to the ones he listed, but they are not present in his list. "Sloganeers" who share his politics get a free ride from him, and he likes "national policies driven by ideology" if it is his favored ideology.

I had a discussion with someone about the "homeland" word today, in fact. "Interior" is more in keeping with the words used for Federal departments.

"I detest the practice of verbing nouns . . . "

Do you hate hanging adjectives? I still get a little peeved when someone says "Let me ask you a hypothetical". To me, it sounds as awkward as "I looked at the waitress and ordered a boiled."

Speaking of terrorists, the "word verification" entry that it is asking for right now is "Tabilan". Yes, "Tabilan".

Anonymous said...
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P. J. Grath said...

What will people find interesting? What will generate comments? I never know, and that's fascinating! Who would think language, as a topic, would call forth such strong feelings? Would fish be so passionate about water?

A whole 'nother topic (how many of you hate that construction? I usually employ it only in informal spoken conversation) could be practices that drive us wild in our native language but don't bother us at all in a second language. French is particularly inventive when it comes to taking any word--and let's imagine here that we're starting with a noun--and turning it into all other parts of speech, and I find that utterly charming. My linguistic conservatism, I discovered in France, is only triggered in English.

Moyers wears his liberal identity proudly. What he detests, whether it comes from liberals, conservatives, paid mouthpieces or anyone else, is "simple opining" in place of fact-based argument. He is scathing when it comes to those who would call themselves journalists but who find research "boring." His own shows were also famous for their civility. He listens, researches, finds facts, presents them without apology or timidity but also without name-calling. He is one of my heroes.

'Homeland' creeps me out. This is my country. It is also the country of those whose native land it is not.

That reminds me of seeing, up on Manitoulin Island, a sign in front of a church which I may be remembering wrong but which I want to say read "Church of Canada." I guess that would be like "Church of England," but when I saw the sign, I smiled and imagined the congregation saying to other churches, "A pox on your divisive creeds! We're all Canadians here!" But then, I do tend to romanticize Canadians....

Welcome aboard, Susan.

P. J. Grath said...

Wish I could correct my comments. In the 'homeland' paragraph, that last sentence should read, "It is also the country of many whose native land it is not." When it comes to states, for example, I was born in South Dakota and raised in Illinois, but Michigan is my home, without a doubt.

dmarks said...

Susan, unfortunately, is a spam entity pasting ads for some sort of insurance scam in this and many blogs. I've seen this exact same text before many times. It always has the format of general flattery about the blog (without referring to any specific content), followed by a link to some sort of money-making scam.

I've seen Moyers do much of "simple opining in place of fact-based argument.", and that he uses misleading/incomplete arguments much like Rush Limbaugh. That Limbaugh tends to yell more and Moyers tends to use gentle "civil" tones when he does his name-calling does not make Moyers much better in my "book". And, at least Rush Limbaugh does not do it on our "dime". Moyers is subsidized by the government.

Yes, the Homeland Security dept. needs to be renamed. Or radically changed.

P. J. Grath said...

Thanks for the Susan alert, dmarks. I admit I wondered about that, having been sprayed with similar "comments" when the blog was new. This is the first since I installed the wiggly letters verification step. Sigh!

My information on subsidies is scanty, but I've been surprised on both sides--people and programs not government-subsidized that you'd swear were, as well as those screaming out against government subsidies and managing somehow to put out a hand behind their back and get government money. On the matter of Moyers, it's probably safe to say that you and I will continue to hold different opinions. I won't even urge you to read his book.

Again, thanks for the clue about the spam, which I have now deleted!

Anonymous said...

What a lot of comments! I was just going to weigh in by simply saying that, whatever you call it, I love your blogging.

P. J. Grath said...

Hey, thanks, Maiya!

dmarks said...

I think I will try to find his book, actually. Maybe the library has it.