Words and Things
By Crispin Sartwell
One of the basic claims of
the philosophical trend known as "postmodernism" is that our language
creates our reality. Running through the normal history of philosophical
theories, this notion has gone from seeming radical and ridiculous to being a
universally accepted truth.
The biggest question about Iraq, it appears, is
not how to get a grip on the situation on the ground, not how to negotiate
between rival groups or stop the bloodletting. The main question is whether to
call the conflict a "civil war."
As we ponder the problem of immigration,
the question is not how we're treating human beings or what the economic
effects of various approaches might be, but whether our opponents' or our own
policy should be called "amnesty."
There was a time when the main proponents of the
omnipotence of little squiggles of ink and bleating tiny noises were leftists.
They held, for example, that one of the main vectors of gender oppression was
the fact that men called women "girls." And they held that true
liberation could be pushed forward by requiring people to yap in the approved
Now the proponents of incantatory magic appear
from the right. I heard the immigration opponent Tom Tancredo on the radio
yesterday: Amnesty! It's amnesty! Look it up in the dictionary!
The resort to the incredible power of words is
an index of the incredible powerlessness of human beings over actual things and
one another. The Bush administration cannot decide the outcome of the Iraq
conflict; there are a thousand factors entirely outside its power. But its
spokesmen can control whether the sound "civil war" comes out of
We can't stop people from entering the country, nor
remove the ones that are here, without an infinite expenditure of resources we
don't possess. But we can control our use of the term "amnesty."
We continuously compensate ourselves for our
real impotence by our verbal omnipotence.
We're all in roughly this position:
it's hard to change anything substantial, starting with ourselves, but it's
easy emit slightly different noises from time to time. If emitting noises
created realities, we'd all be little gods, and the theory that we are little
gods is a great comfort to creatures as pathetically powerless as we actually
Combine this deeply idiotic yet sort of touching
situation with a politics based on focus groups and polling, and you've got the
formula for an entirely empty political discourse, a discourse that is
committed only to controlling "perceptions" by flapping our little
gums in unison.
A few months ago, as you may recall, some
study proclaimed that the American people support wars when they sense that
victory is possible. Within minutes, every administration spokesman was
mumbling "victory victory victory," while Bush appeared on stages
festooned with the word. Perhaps they were surprised when this had no effect on
anything at all.
Nor, of course, is this merely a disease of the
Republicans. I remember Al Gore in 2000: his entire criticism of Bush's plan to
privatize Social Security was to incessantly chant the phrase "risky
This may be cutting edge philosophy
(or cutting edge philosophy circa 1985), but it's deeply primitive
superstition, the kind that wins love by writing two names in a heart and then
folding the paper just so, the kind that casts spells and believes its own
fairy tales. If it wasn't an index of my sexism, I'd call the resulting
Let the fact that there's no civil war - or for that
matter the fact there is a civil war - be a comfort to you as you're blown to
bits. And let it be a comfort to us all that our reality is being created not
with bombs and bodies or work and worth but with the merest words.