Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Special Author Event: The Language of Politics

Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?
by Mark Thompson

We are all living through a season of unease these days regarding the language of politics,
a sense that something has gone wrong.  We have, however, only a vague notion of why we find it all so disturbing. Mark Thompson, author of Enough Said, has some answers. Why does public language matter? Thompson argues that the character of our public language is not merely a symptom of deeper and more formative forces in our culture and politics.
He writes, “I want to place it at the heart of the causal nexus. As much as anything, our shared civic structures, our institutions and organizations, are living bodies of public language, and when it changes, so do they. The crisis in our politics is a crisis of political language.” He describes the salient danger that lies in the corruption of public language, “For some, the instrumentality, the leaching away of substance, the coarsening of expression are essentially cultural disappointments--evidence of some wider dumbing down and failure of seriousness. For me, the critical risk is not in the realm of culture but that of politics and,
in particular, democracy--its legitimacy, the competitive advantage it has historically conferred over other systems of government, and ultimately its sustainability.”
High stakes indeed.

The way Thompson treats this subject in Enough Said may well be unexpected. Our expectations, however, reveal something about the nature of the problem. We expect something reductive and tendentious these days when it comes to the discussion of issues of public importance. It may not only be something we expect, but a mode of discussion we have come to prefer. It makes things simpler, less intellectually taxing, imposes fewer civic burdens, and makes us less anxious. We can move on to the next thing. But Enough Said is written in the style of the personal essay, and shares that form's latitude. It is discursive and unhurried, well suited to the sophisticated exposition Thompson feels his subject needs. It does not slight context or complexity in tracing the problem’s origins or evade the difficulties of its amelioration.

Sarah Palin's formulation of the phrase "death panels" during
the debate over "Obamacare" is explored by Thompson as a prime
example of everything that has gone wrong in political speech.
The political language of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Sarah Palin is, predictably, examined critically here, but it will perhaps come as a surprise to readers that Thompson’s praise and criticism extend across the political spectrum. His perspective is independent, his judgments even-handed. His tools of analysis are derived from rhetorical theory, not politics. He is unwilling to single out any group--politicians, the public, journalists, or new media technology--as the party to blame for the dismal state of affairs. He traces the dynamic between these groups and parses their share of culpability. (It will not surprise the reader that there is plenty to go around.) Enough Said is, in both its temperament and in the depth of its analysis, a model of the way Thompson believes that issues of public importance should be discussed.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair called
the British Press "the feral beast" and his
administration developed methods of spin
and information management to control it.
This is, however, not a book just about the language of politics. The language of politics is part of the larger world of contemporary public speech. Thompson makes the connections, and identifies the components of the general crisis in public language. Enough Said is an exploration of the way public language has lost its power to explain and engage, and how this has threatened the bond of trust between people and politicians.

The authority of Enough Said--why the reader will pay attention and give some serious consideration to the arguments--has as much to do with the personal and biographical elements of this account as it does with the detail and intelligence of the analysis. As a journalist working for the BBC, as Director General of the BBC, and as Chief Executive Officer of the New York Times, Thompson has had a front row seat. He has been both a witness and a participant. He is able to support his points with examples that give context and dimension. Through a close examination of words and context he builds a remarkably resonant analysis. Enough Said is elegantly argued, dense in ideas, and displays a sophisticated comprehension of its subject. With one reading, you will miss too much, pass by too much you wanted to think about and think through. Readers will want to return to passages in Enough Said. But then, once again, that was the idea, to spark more sustained thought and a more considered--and considerate---discussion about the problems in our public language than might be achieved by the aphorism or sound bite. 

Aristotle's Rhetoric, written in the 4th
Century B.C., is still a book for our times.

In Enough Said, Thompson ranges widely, using ideas from social psychology, history, science, philosophy, marketing, and other fields. But at the core of this book is a defense of rhetoric's classic ideal as “critical persuasion.” He has much to say, critically and passionately, about the nature of journalism and its place in public language. In the acknowledgements to his book he apologizes to the experts into whose fields he may have wandered. But just as his book presents a model of how public language might be used in discussing important public issues, Thompson as a thinker presents an instructive model of what someone with broad learning and inquisitiveness can contribute to the discussion of the difficult public issues we face. It is Thompson’s willingness to presume, his comfort in ranging broadly through the ideas and concerns of our Western tradition that allows him to give us not only particular insights, but the synthesis and overview found in Enough Said. He says that he hopes his “congenital intellectual overconfidence….may have allowed me to bushwhack my way to a handful of insights that might be hard to make out from any one of these established academic paths.” That’s putting it modestly. In Thompson’s hands, the performance here redeems any real or putative presumption. Enough Said is a stimulating tour of the crisis in our
public language.

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