Books we love
"Enough Said" is a Powerful Look at the Sewer of Political Language
As we look back at the language of this recent election, what will we remember? I reckon some of the terms will be "bad hombre," "nasty woman," "loser," "basket of deplorables," and "build a wall!" Yikes.
Those terms would be more fitting if spewed during a professional wrestling show, perhaps to hype a steel-cage death match at Wrestlemania. It's hard not to feel like political language has fallen into the sewer, and plummeted from there into a lower sewer, and might be still falling.Mark Thompson had the same feeling, and that feeling spurred a timely new book: Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? Drawing on his experience as former Director-General of the BBC and current CEO of The New York Times, Thompson takes a careful, informed look at all the ways, big and small, our common political language has become untrusted, untrustworthy, and toxic. Much like the work of George Lakoff, Thompson's book has the potential to help us understand what's gone wrong—and take a toilet brush to the political talk of the future.
The thesis of this book is stated succinctly by Thompson: "The crisis in our politics is a crisis of public language." Thompson discusses all the usual culprits we like to blame for the degradation of public language: the politicians, the media, and (gasp!) the public themselves. Through numerous examples and a deep dive into rhetorical history from the Greeks to the present, Thompson explains the importance of rhetoric, including why it's vital to democracy despite its crappy reputation, which is epitomized by Cordelia's reference to "that glib and oily art." As Thompson's analysis shows, "glib and oily" would almost be a compliment today.
This book is British-centric, but not lacking in American examples, partly thanks to the author's experience as a BBC journalist who visited America frequently. Thompson's analysis is often accompanied by personal anecdotes that add liveliness to the story of discourse's decay, and those anecdotes aren't tangential: Thompson has had a ringside seat to the ongoing circus. It's particularly interesting to hear about some of his journalistic dilemmas—such as whether or not to put a member of what we would now call the "alt-right" on the air (Thompson did so in 2009). His thoughts on the advent of 24-hours news in 1980 also proved to be prophetic: "There was an unnerving sense that, if you couldn't find anything else to feed it, it might end up eating you."
This isn't the kind of book you buy for the writing style, but Thompson is a supple writer who has mastered the power of short sentences ("Public language matters") and the trickier game of longer sentences that don't dissipate into drivel. The following sentence is a damning condemnation of the current media landscape, but it's also damn well-written: "Most of the young people who work for the new publishers find themselves not knee-deep in a war zone or with the time and resources to pursue a heroic long-range investigation but locked in a digital sweatshop, making lists and chasing clicks, racing to keep one step ahead of the scything blades of Facebook's unforgiving algorithm." That's depressing AND lively—a nice feat.
Donald Trump hovers over this book, like an orange leviathan poised to crush a city in a Japanese monster movie. If you're reeling from the Trumping of American politics, you should find this a satisfying read, because Thompson takes many opportunities to both discuss Trump's shenanigans and put them in context. Trumpism may feel like the political equivalent of the Chernobyl accident or a cat born with three heads, but there are plenty of precedents. In fact, there are so many precedents you may want to cry.
The only downside of this book is that it's almost too wide-ranging—I came away informed but exhausted and overwhelmed. This book made me feel as if we are all characters in The Walking Dead, doomed to be brutally slaughtered—or at least brutally trolled. Thompson does try to provide some hope for the future, appealing to qualities such as prudence and reciprocal altruism. Yay? Maybe I just need a long nap.
For many folks, Trumpism—or, to be less specific, the Age of the Troll we're suffering through—will never make sense, but Thompson does about as good a job I can imagine of bringing sense to the senseless. He also nails why we need to make public language mean something: "The near-universal trashing of the regular language of politics creates perfect conditions for the true demagogue, by which I mean the politician for whom populism is not a means to an end but an end in itself." Let's hope a lot of people read this book, because the responsibility to make words matter belongs to all of us. I'm not sure if that's a hopeful thought or not, but I'll let you know after that nap.