Fighting Words

Words Matter

Cliché, not plagiarism, is the problem with today’s pallid political discourse.

One of the great moments among many in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is when we find the young Albert Brooks manning the phones in the campaign office of the man we know (and he does not) to be a double-dyed phony. On behalf of the empty and grinning Sen. Palantine, he is complaining to a manufacturer of lapel buttons. “We asked for buttons that said, ’We Are the People.’ These say, ‘We Are the People.’… Oh, you don’t think there’s a difference? Well, we will not pay for the buttons. We will throw the buttons away.” Part of the joke here is that the joke itself is also at the expense of Brooks’ character and his “candidate”—there really and truly isn’t much, if any, difference. Fan of Jerry Brown as I had been, I still winced when he ran on his lame “We the People” slogan against Clinton as late as 1992.

Of course, in 1992, Clinton borrowed from an old slogan of John F. Kennedy’s: “Change Is the Law of Life.” Now, why did he annex that questionable truism, and why in that year? First of all, because he wanted to plagiarize the entire Kennedy effect for himself, and second, because he was the challenger and not the incumbent. When you are the incumbent, it is harder (but not impossible) to demand “change.” Sen. Hillary Clinton, who wants to run as the “change” candidate—because, well, because you can’t so easily run as a status quo candidate—also wants to run as a stability-and-experience candidate. Hence the repeated alterations (or “changes”) in her half-baked slogans. By the time the plagiarism row had been started by her very ill-advised advisers, she had run through: “Big Challenges, Real Solutions”; “Working for Change, Working for You”; “Ready for Change, Ready To Lead”; and “Solutions for America.” Sen. Obama, meanwhile, had picked the slightly less banal and more cryptic mantra “Change We Can Believe In,” which I call cryptic only because at least it makes one ask what it can conceivably be intended to mean.

It is cliché, not plagiarism, that is the problem with our stilted, room-temperature political discourse. It used to be that thinking people would say, with at least a shred of pride, that their own convictions would not shrink to fit on a label or on a bumper sticker. But now it seems that the more vapid and vacuous the logo, the more charm (or should that be “charisma”?) it exerts. Take “Yes We Can,” for example. It’s the sort of thing parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training uptake. As for “We Are the People We Have Been Waiting For” (in which case, one can only suppose that now that we have arrived, we can all go home), I didn’t think much of it when Rep. Dennis Kucinich used it at an anti-war rally in 2004 (“We Are the People We Are Waiting For” being his version) or when Thomas Friedman came across it at an MIT student event last December. He wrote, by the way, that just hearing it gave him—well, you guess what it gave him. Hope? That’s exactly right.

Pretty soon, we should be able to get electoral politics down to a basic newspeak that contains perhaps 10 keywords: Dream, Fear, Hope, New, People, We, Change, America, Future, Together. Fishing exclusively from this tiny and stagnant pool of stock expressions, it ought to be possible to drive all thinking people away from the arena and leave matters in the gnarled but capable hands of the professional wordsmiths and manipulators. In the new jargon, certain intelligible ideas would become inexpressible. (How could one state, for example, the famous Burkean principle that many sorts of change ought to be regarded with skepticism?) In a rather poor trade-off for this veto on complexity, many views that areexpressible (and “We the People Together Dream of and Hope for New Change in America” would be really quite a long sentence in the latest junk language) will, in turn, be entirely and indeed almost beautifully unintelligible.

And it’s not as if anybody is looking for coded language in which to say: “Health care—who needs it?” or “Special interests and lobbyists—give them a break,” let alone “Dr. King’s dream—what a snooze.”  It’s more that the prevailing drivel assumes that every adult in the country is a completely illiterate jerk who would rather feel than think and who must furthermore be assumed, for a special season every four years, to imagine that everyone else “in America” or in “this country” is unemployed or starving or sleeping under a bridge. The next assumption made by the drivel is that only a new president (or perhaps a sitting president who is somehow eager to run against Washington and everything else in his home town) can possibly cure all these ills. The non sequitur is breathtaking. The more I could be brought to believe in a stupid incantation such as “Washington Is Broken,” the less inclined I would be to pay the moving expenses to bring a failed Mormon crowd-pleaser and flip-flopper to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. And this was the best that a supposed “full-spectrum conservative” could come up with by way of rhetoric. At this rate, Sen. John McCain will have to campaign as a radical post-Castroite to deal with the perceptions that a) he’s too old and b) the Republicans are too WASP-dominated.

How well I remember Sidney Blumenthal waking me up all those years ago to read me the speech by Sen. Biden, which, by borrowing the biography as well as the words of another candidate’s campaign, put an end to Biden’s own. The same glee didn’t work this time when he (it must have been he) came up with “Change You Can Xerox” as a riposte to Sen. Obama’s hand-me-down words from Gov. Deval Patrick. All that Obama had lifted from Patrick was the old-fashioned idea that “words matter,” and all that one can say, reviewing the present empty landscape of slogan and cliché, is that one only wishes that this could once again be true.