Posts Tagged ‘politics’

For the past few weeks, my life was mostly on hold. No, I wasn’t working nonstop on the campaign, although I made a few calls and knocked on a few doors. No, I wasn’t ill or incapacitated. I was waiting for Tuesday, for the decision that became clear at about 9 pm PST. (more…)

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This weekend, at the urging of many Obama campaign emails, I attended a Get Out The Vote training. As I walked into the nondescript, poorly-lit building in Seattle, I followed hand-painted signs to a large room where they had set up maybe 75 chairs. I was early, so I stopped into the bathroom (one light out, and a sign informing me not to use one of the sinks) and got back to the big room in time to grab an incredibly uncomfortable wooden folding chair. A nice woman a few seats over passed around “Doonesbury” from the Sunday comics section, and I remarked to the woman next to me that it was heartening to see the room filling with people.

It didn’t stop filling with people. Half an hour later, all visible floor space was full of people, while the walls were lined with others standing awkwardly. An older woman having a hot flash inquired about opening the only outside door anyone could see, but the staff said it was locked. The temperature rose, people started to fan themselves with their pamphlets, and the PowerPoint started. Two extraordinarily young, energetic, probably really smart and engaged people began talking through their presentation. (more…)

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Every day between nine and ten am my first semester of college, Dr. Madsen found time to instruct us to pick up our pencils, move to the top of the pages we were writing on, and write in all capital letters: WORDS HAVE MEANING. At the time, it seemed like a frustrated, obvious reminder to write comprehensibly and use the dictionary.

In graduate school, I realized that it wasn’t a simple reminder, but the expression of a theoretical viewpoint. This was his rebellion against Derridean uncertainty, his way of shoring up language against the onslaught of Freshman carelessness, and his plea for stability. If words have meaning, inherently, it matters how we use them; they are, however loosely, tied to truth. If words don’t have meaning, but rather make it or twist it or empty it, they have no relationship to truth. They can’t be trusted, can’t be used as the foundation for anything. They can still be used, but much less reliably. If words have meaning, language is a revolver: you cock it, aim carefully, and fire precisely. If words don’t have inherent meaning, language is a fully automatic rifle: a vague, deadly, scattershot sort of thing.

Lately, the New York Times‘ Opinion page has resembled Dr. Madsen’s emphatic plea for inherent meaning. Several of the Times‘s standard columnists have written articles in which language and its relationship to truth receive a rare kind of attention. Most of these have been in the “Most Emailed” lists lately, which I treat as a snapshot of the current anxieties and hopes of Times readers.

In this time of meaningless babble, crashing stocks, and terrifying uncertainty, this strikes me as a strangely natural response: those of us who are lettered, who are educated, who were taught that words matter, cling to words. We pick up our pencils, our computers, our pens and our voices, and we write, in all capital letters, WORDS HAVE MEANING. WORDS HAVE MEANING. WORDS MATTER. WORDS HAVE MEANING AND THAT MATTERS.

Because if they don’t, we simply don’t know what to do about it. If they don’t, we are impotent. If they don’t, we have to completely rethink how we use them.

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Each semester, while I was teaching, I found I had to spend some time within the first few classes on the problem of Engfish. The first assignments always came back in a sort of half-language carefully constructed to reveal nothing, commit to nothing, and generally avoid saying anything dangerous or objectionable.

Reading Maureen Dowd’s piece in the NYT today (sidenote: sometimes Dowd makes me nuts with her cleverness, sometime I wish I had written it myself), I realized that Engfish is exactly what we’ve been getting from Sarah Palin. No wonder that temptation to bang my head on the table felt familiar–I recognize it from the frustration of reading students’ first attempts at college-level academic writing.

And it makes me wish I could tell Palin the same thing I told them: You aren’t saying anything, and I strongly suspect it’s because you don’t care that much about the topic country/political situation. Caring about getting a good grade elected isn’t going to be enough to propel your writing speaking from “sounding academic political” to actually saying something. No, you’re going to have to figure out–and I’m not promising this will be quick or easy–what the hell you have to add to the conversation about this text the world. What are you passionate about? What are you committed to? What authority does that give you? Then you can get down to what you have to say, and you might be worth listening to.

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One of the vague projects that followed me out of my Master’s degree involves re-reading some of the century-old children’s books I loved when I used to walk to my grandmother’s house after middle school and read (and read and read) them. The past few days saw me working through two of Gene Stratton Porter’s books: Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost. Alas–or perhaps thankfully–neither of them fits neatly into the narrowest construction of my field of interest, as they hardly mention canonical works, let alone allude to them regularly.

However, in the absence of the kind of backwards-looking dialogue about identity that I usually focus on, Porter’s books attempt a different kind of identity-construction. In fact, their lack of canonical reference is probably a part of their identity project: they look forward, and in doing so they must avoid much allusion to the literary–let alone British–past.

No, Porter is very consciously constructing American identity. Freckles, despite his Irish lilt, is figured as quintessentially American. Elnora, our Limberlost girl, is even more obviously and emphatically American. Porter’s sense of what makes them American and what makes them good is apparently clear-cut and innocuous. Yet, as I watch the current presidential race and think about the moral and idealogical dilemmas that we’re facing today, I can’t help reading this subtext on Americanness as an unconscious sort of prophecy about the tensions that are inherent in our national identity.

Freckles embodies American values because he pulls himself up (one-handed, no less) by his swamp-muddied bootstraps–but his innate honor is a signal of his European aristocratic bloodline. Elnora loves and appreciates the wilderness of the Limberlost–but is willing to sell trees or oil wells to fund her education. Freckles is especially American because he claims the Limberlost as home–but his daily guarding only serves to protect it so that it can be exploited by the right people.

In our current conversation, fraught as it is with bootstrapping elites, pedigreed, twelve-housed Joe six-packs, and moose-shooting, oil-drilling wilderness women, the American that Porter constructs seems to have come to pieces. In the century since Freckles and Elnora fictionally moved from the Limberlost of Indiana, the trees have come down along with the coherence that allowed classism and bootstrapping, environmentalism and exploitation, and forward focus and anscestral naming to coexist within the umbrella of American Identity.

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In 1981, Kenyan author and theorist Ngugi wa Thiong’o formally renounced English as his artistic medium. The English language, he claims, is too bound up with colonialism, exploitation, and hegemony to be useful as a means of fighting those forces through literature. Language and politics, for him, are too entwined, too married to one another, for the colonial or post-colonial subject to be able to untangle or divorce them and use them against each other.

Ngugi’s position is radical in many senses, in that it a) calls into question the value of creating art with “borrowed” or learned vocabularies; b) raises serious doubts about people’s control over their languages; and c) rejects English, which is (perhaps unfortunately) often the only language in which Americans and other English-speakers can read fluently. If you or I were to explain this position to most Americans, it would probably be understood as anti-American, while the language it is written in–highly theoretical English–would be read as “elitist.”

Over the course of this presidential election, however, it is becoming clear that many, many Americans not only agree with Ngugi in thinking that a language they perceive as hegemonic can never be appropriated for non-hegemonic purposes, but would actually take his manifesto step further. To many Americans, knowing, understanding, or being able to speak that language identifies you with it so thoroughly that they assume any word of it must have been learned in pillow talk. If you speak the language of lawyers, economists, academics, or diplomats, you must be in bed with them. They do not trust that your words–which come from a percieved hegemonic discourse–can be untangled from the slimy limbs of what that hegemonic discourse stands for: elitism, wealth, and condescention.

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