Calling the Professional Organization of English Majors

Garrison Keillor likes to poke gentle and oddly generous fun at all sorts of things – dour Lutherans and film noir detectives, in the Adventures of Guy Noir – as he has a fondness for useless and clueless but good people. And every few weeks he does a mock public service announcement for the Professional Organization of English Majors (POEM) – here’s an example – and you can buy the collection if you wish. He loves these kind and thoughtful and wonderfully educated folks, even if they are absurdly superfluous these days, and maybe always have been. But they do know the good stuff, and care about it – and they end up flipping burgers. But they should be honored, while you smile at their noble disengagement from what everyone else thinks is important. The garage is on fire and they’re quoting Keats or something. On the other hand, William Carlos Williams once said this – “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Ah, English majors – maybe they have it right, but they are odd ducks.

But there’s much to be said about some of the things they study so carefully. Those years at Duke studying the minor satires of Swift and his contemporaries were good training. Yes, the first decades of the eighteenth century are long gone and somewhat irrelevant to everything, and yes, Queen Anne was perhaps the dullest and most dimwitted of British monarchs, but the writers of the time were on a roll, and Swift was the master of subtle and devastating satire. And that’s worth investigating. How do you say one thing and clearly not mean it at all, but not mean the opposite either, but imply a range of other things, new ways of looking at an issue, creating little explosions of realization, depending on how much you already know about the issue? That’s a neat trick. The more you think about what’s said the more you realize what’s really going on, and nothing was offered directly. That’s a neat trick, and worth a few years in graduate school working out how you can use language to say something you clearly don’t mean, and have everyone know exactly what you mean. That raises some basic questions about how language actually works. And you quickly find yourself in the world of that French structuralism stuff, considering semiotics. You may still end up flipping burgers of course, but you’ll know something about how the world works.

And you’ll certainly know something about contemporary American politics. That’s where people say one thing and clearly mean another. For example, Conor Friedersdorf refuses to blame Sarah Palin for the Tucson shootings, of a congresswoman and a federal judge and all the others:

The strongest case against these people isn’t that their rhetoric inspires political violence. It’s that they frequently utter indefensible nonsense. The problem isn’t their tone. It’s that the substance of what they’re saying is so blinkered that it isn’t even taken seriously by their ideological allies (even if they’re too cowardly, mercenary or team driven to admit as much).

They’re in a tough spot these days partly because it’s impossible for them to mount the defense of their rhetoric that is true: “I am a frivolous person, and I don’t choose my words based on their meaning. Rather, I behave like the worst caricature of a politician. If you think my rhetoric logically implies that people should behave violently, you’re mistaken – neither my audience nor my peers in the conservative movement are engaged in a logical enterprise, and it’s unfair of you to imply that people take what I say so seriously that I can be blamed for a real world event. Don’t you see that this is all a big game? This is how politics works. Stop pretending you’re not in on the joke.”

So this is about language that communicates what it doesn’t really mean. Swift would smile – but too bad it’s not satire. And see Alex Pareene on watering the tree of liberty:

The Tea Parties are based around the rhetoric of the American Revolution, which was a violent insurrection. It makes a sad sort of sense that a bunch of comfortable white reactionaries would dress up their childish tantrums with such grandiose language, because “desperately protecting your privilege in the face of what appears to be the demise of the empire” sounds much less inspiring than “defeating tyranny.”

As the Republican Party has become more homogeneous, more regional and more reactionary, it has tended to make up for its growing demographic shortcomings by making sure its supporters are more motivated and energized – and the most effective way to energize them has been to make sure they’re constantly enraged.

And that was easy enough to do:

When the GOP didn’t have the votes to stop healthcare reform from passing, their strategy – and it almost worked – was to scare Democratic elected officials. That was the point of telling everyone to shout themselves hoarse at the town halls: to terrify House members. Convince them that their constituents were incensed. If some LaRouchites or other unclassifiable political entities got into the mix, fine — more voices for the choir of rage. What was formerly a sort of uneasy tolerance of the extremists inched closer to open acceptance. Roger Ailes allows Glenn Beck to run amok spreading classic Bircher paranoia. Matt Drudge links to conspiracy-mad broadcaster Alex Jones. Everyone in the party had to pretend to be cool with idiot extremist Oath Keeper Sharron Angle, because the craziness the right wing whipped up led its primary voters to select her over the safe party hack who would’ve handily defeated Harry Reid. There are connections – both direct and spiritual – between the far-right Patriot movements that flourished in the ’90s and some of the more out there elements of the Tea Parties.

When she’s not talking about God, Sarah Palin’s talking about guns. Practically all her rhetoric is blood-soaked, and proficiency with firearms is a key element of her persona.

The defense of all this right now is that none of them were actually talking about guns and violence, really – and Swift was not suggesting that the Irish actually boil and eat their babies – but some dumb-ass isn’t going to get the joke. Pareene sees that:

And when you combine standard-issue violent political language with the idea – stated and reiterated by nearly every prominent right-wing politician and media figure since Obama took office – that the opponent is not simply wrong, but has illegitimately seized power, and is illegally exercising that power, the inevitable question raised is, “What do we do to stop them?” The correct answer is supposed to be “vote Republican and keep watching Fox,” of course, but a good midterm for the GOP hasn’t dethroned the socialist usurper-in-chief.

Palin is responsible for no evil act. But she and the others are responsible for confusing people about what’s metaphor and what is what it is. Or maybe they don’t know the difference.

Erick Erickson is on CNN all the time now, to deliver his political analysis from the right, for big bucks, but Pareene suggests Erickson would probably prefer not to be reminded “of the time he got himself all worked up about new regulations on dishwasher detergent.” But Erickson did and wrote this:

At what point do the people tell the politicians to go to hell? At what point do they get off the couch, march down to their state legislator’s house, pull him outside, and beat him to a bloody pulp for being an idiot?

At some point soon, it will happen. It’ll be over an innocuous issue. But the rage is building. It’s not a partisan issue. There is bipartisan angst at out of control government made worse by dumb bans like this and unintended consequences like AIG’s bonus problems.

If the GOP plays its cards right, it will have a winning issue in 2010. But it is going to have to get back to “leave me the hell alone” style federalism where the national government recedes and the people themselves will have to fight to take their states back from special interests out of touch with body politic as a whole.

Were I in Washington State, I’d be cleaning my gun right about now waiting to protect my property from the coming riots or the government apparatchiks coming to enforce nonsensical legislation.

Pareene points out that this was in response to a ban on certain types of dishwasher detergent that are polluting fresh groundwater in those parts. This is not a big deal, and Erick Erickson is not Jonathan Swift. Did he mean this? Who knows? With Swift you did know what he actually meant. This was a curious hire for CNN.

But of course everyone is saying that the left is just as guilty as the right for blurting out over-the-top nonsense. News people say that to prove they’re fair, but Paul Krugman is having none of that:

Where’s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let’s not make a false pretense of balance: it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It’s hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be “armed and dangerous” without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the GOP.

And there’s a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and you’ll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you won’t hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly, and you will.

Of course, the likes of Mr. Beck and Mr. O’Reilly are responding to popular demand…. But even if hate is what many want to hear, that doesn’t excuse those who pander to that desire. They should be shunned by all decent people.

Steve Benen comments:

I’ve seen many make the “both sides” argument by pointing to posting from a pseudonymous diarist on Daily Kos who few, if any, had heard of before. The response seems pretty obvious: when “BoyBlue” has his own cable show, develops a sizable following, and begins organizing rallies on the Washington mall, get back to me.

I realize major media outlets feel contractually obligated to embrace the false equivalency, but folks should know better. Remember the Senate candidate who recommended “Second Amendment remedies”? How about the congressional candidate who fired shots at a silhouette with his opponent’s initials on it? Or maybe the congressional candidate who declared, “If I could issue hunting permits, I would officially declare today opening day for liberals. The season would extend through November 2 and have no limits on how many taken as we desperately need to ‘thin’ the herd”? Or how about the congressional candidate who said he considered the violent overthrow of the United States to government an “option” and added that political violence is “on the table”?

All four of these examples came from 2010 — and all came from Republican candidates for federal elected office. And this doesn’t even get into Republican activists and media personalities.

“Both sides are wrong”? Yeah, sure they are.

And in the Baltimore Sun, Thomas F. Schaller has the details:

On Oct. 9, 2009, House candidate Robert Lowry of Florida held an event at a Broward County gun range during which he fired at a series of symbolic political targets, including a silhouette with his opponent Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s initials on it.

On Jan. 10, 2010, Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle spoke of the need for “Second Amendment remedies” to congressional policies, and specifically called for “taking out” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

On May 10, 2010, House candidate Brad Goehring from California’s 11th District wrote on his Facebook page: “If I could issue hunting permits, I would officially declare today opening day for liberals. The season would extend through November 2 and have no limits on how many taken as we desperately need to ‘thin’ the herd.”

Jesse Kelly, the Republican who ran against Ms. Giffords last cycle, held an event on June 12, 2010, advertised locally as follows: “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”

On Oct. 21, 2010, Dallas pastor and House candidate Stephen Broden said the violent overthrow of the U.S. government in 2010 should not be “the first option,” but citizens ought to use “any means necessary” and that violence should remain an option “on the table.”

It’s all out there, and it’s too late to invoke Swift and say it was subtle satire. And Schaller adds this:

There was a time when “by any means necessary” rhetoric from the likes of Malcolm X was considered so dangerous, it warranted surveillance by federal agents. Now, when heavily armed white male congressional candidates use the same rhetoric, it is called patriotism.

This is why you need the Professional Organization of English Majors (POEM) – metaphor is only metaphor. It’s wise to keep that clear, considering this the inability, in certain corners, to separate metaphor from the thing itself:

The fact is that today’s violent political imagery is produced almost exclusively by paranoid conservatives. Not all conservatives are crazy and paranoid, but the overwhelming majority of crazy, political paranoiacs are conservative. It doesn’t help that their darkest thoughts are stoked daily by people like Glenn Beck and Michael Savage, who weave bizarre narratives about how ACORN, the Black Panthers, George Soros and other imagined demons are conspiring to overtake the U.S. government and undermine American values.

Cindy Sheehan was vilified for peacefully protesting the Iraq war outside George W. Bush’s Texas ranch, but she didn’t blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City or fly a plane into an IRS office, as deranged conservatives did. Pro-choicers and World Trade Organization opponents sometimes stage unruly public rallies, but they don’t set off bombs at the Olympics or shoot people, like the anti-choice activist who murdered Dr. George Tiller did.

The language used trips up certain people, and Steve Benen offers this:

For the record, I think blaming Palin for the massacre is absurd. I found her crosshairs effort to be wildly inappropriate; I think her “reload” rhetoric is distasteful; and I find the former half-term governor to represent the very worst American politics has to offer – but I haven’t seen any reason at all to hold her responsible for Saturday’s violence.

That said, I also don’t know of any prominent political figures who have blamed Palin. I’ve seen plenty of pieces arguing that she contributes to the ugliness and toxicity of our discourse – a point that seems more than reasonable – and that there can be consequences for her brand of right-wing politics. I’ve also seen pieces argue that conservatives need more sensible leaders than a clown like Palin, and that the media has a responsibility to call her on her routine garbage.

And Kevin Drum chimes in:

I think the attacks on Sarah Palin have been completely ridiculous – and I can’t tell you how much it pisses me off that I feel forced to say that. But come on, folks. “Targeting” political candidates for defeat is so common a metaphor that we could barely even hold elections anymore if we didn’t use it. Give it a rest.

But he’s not so sure about Glenn Beck:

I’d say that if you’re really looking for someone to censure on the rhetoric front, he’s a way better target than Sarah Palin. A campaign poster like Palin’s that uses a bunch of bull’s-eyes to represent “targeted” candidates is pretty unlikely to send some mentally unbalanced nutcase over the edge, but frankly, I’m surprised Beck hasn’t already inspired a couple of Jonestown-like mass homicide waves.

And David Frum just seems sad:

Palin failed to appreciate the question being posed to her. That question was not: “Are you culpable for the shooting?” The question was: “Having put this unfortunate image on the record, can you respond to the shooting in a way that demonstrates your larger humanity? And possibly also your potential to serve as leader of the entire nation?” …

Of course, Palin has yet to give the answer called for by events. Instead, her rapid response operation has focused on pounding home the message that Palin is innocent, that she has been unfairly maligned by hostile critics. Which in this case happened to be a perfectly credible message. And also perfectly inadequate. Palin’s post-shooting message was about Palin, not about Giffords. It was defensive, not inspiring. And it was petty at a moment when Palin had been handed perhaps her last clear chance to show herself presidentially magnanimous.

Andrew Sullivan is wry – “Magnanimity is not in her genes.”

And Jim Burroway offers this:

Given what we know today, I see no reason why those of us who consider ourselves progressives can’t concede that Palin, Limbaugh, and the others got lucky (if you can call it that) and that they probably aren’t responsible this time.

Maybe we can even let them off the hook – IF they can agree that we all need to come together as Americans who all love our country equally, whether we’re on the left, the right or anywhere in between. Because we all need to acknowledge that none of us has a monopoly on loving America. None of us wants to see our nation destroyed. Maybe this can be an opportunity for everyone can drop their torches and pitchforks, and instead resolve to disperse the poisonous fumes that have very nearly ruined us as a people. I see no reason why the right shouldn’t be able to agree to that and change its behavior accordingly, just as I see no reason why the left needs to insist, with hardly a smidgen of proof, that a schizophrenic young man is somehow the far right’s creation. The energy expended pursuing those accusations can be better spent addressing the daunting needs of the severely mentally ill.

My hope is that somehow we can find a way to do that. My fear, though, is that we have already crossed the Rubicon and there is no turning back. And if it does turn out that Loughner’s shattered mind was nudged by either the right or the left, then all bets are truly off.

Stephen Budiansky is not hopeful:

For as long as I can remember, I have heard conservatives blaming everything that is wrong in the universe, from violent crime to declining test scores to teen pregnancy to rude children to declining patriotism to probably athlete’s foot… on Dr. Spock, Hollywood liberals, the abolition of prayer in school, Bill Clinton, the “liberal 1960s,” the teaching of evolution – in other words, upon symbols, rhetoric, cultural norms, and the values expressed by political and media leaders.

Yet from the moment when someone gets a gun in their hands, apparently, society ceases to have any influence whatsoever on the outcome and individual responsibility takes hold 100%. Something is driving the tripling of death threats against congressmen (and the concomitant rise in threats against Federal judges and other villains of the right, from Forest Service rangers to climate scientists) and it isn’t the sunspot cycle.

And Jonathan Alter here worries that Obama will comment on “the Gifford tragedy” during this year’s State of the Union address:

The State of the Union will almost certainly begin with heart-wrenching symbolism. Ever since Ronald Reagan put a “citizen hero,” Lenny Skutnik, in the balcony of the House chamber after he rescued passengers from the wreck of an Air Florida jet that crashed in the freezing Potomac River in 1982, American presidents have all used their State of the Unions speeches to honor their own “Skutniks,” as they’ve come to be called in Washington. This year will be no different. At least one or two people connected to the horrific incident (The 20-year-old office intern who heroically applied triage to Gabrielle Giffords? A relative of slain federal judge John Roll?) will undoubtedly sit with Michelle Obama at the speech. And it’s hard to imagine that the poignant birth date of 9-year-old Christina Taylor Greene, September 11, 2001, will escape mention.

From there Obama and his speechwriters will try to set the incident in context. This won’t be easy. As I wrote last week, he needs to govern more in poetry than he has thus far. But if the prose is too purple, it falls flat. If he over-analyzes the tragedy, he risks seeming to middle-of-the-roaders as if he’s politicizing it. (The Right will think that in any event). And if he even implies a direct connection between the words and websites of politicians and the twisted mind of Jared Lee Loughner, he’s asking for trouble.

There’s no winning. No one has studied Swift and the slippery nature of metaphor, and what is really meant by what. Only members of the Professional Organization of English Majors do.

But see Joshua Green here:

Whether or not it’s fair to blame Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting rampage against Rep. Gabrielle Giffords on overheated political rhetoric and violent imagery, the episode will probably mark a turning point in how the media cover politics. Members of the mainstream media are often not comfortable making judgments about whether such language is appropriate, or even dangerous, and therefore avoid the subject – until something like the Giffords shooting occurs, at which point they have a handy reference on which to pin stories. Articles that by their very nature must be speculative – does angry rhetoric lead to violence? – can safely be cast as “news” and reporters feel much more comfortable writing them.

And we now have a test case:

Since the right wing, and especially the Tea Party, have been the epicenter of political anger, they can expect much tougher coverage – even though Loughner had no apparent connection to the Tea Party and had a reading list as far to the left as other of his positions were to the right. And of course it’s pointless to try and read too much into a lunatic’s politics, anyway. It will be interesting to see how broadly the media polices questionable political speech going forward – will it be limited to gun sights and threats about “Second Amendment remedies”? Or will it also include the right-wing charge that Obama is a foreign-born Muslim?

We may be forced to study… the nature of language. It’ll be like we’re all English majors.

And Green adds this:

Whatever the answer, the Giffords shooting seems certain to make the Tea Party path to the presidency more difficult. Until Saturday, it seemed like a good bet that GOP primary voters were going to behave much like they did in the 2010 primaries, punishing moderates and rewarding candidates who made the angriest denunciations of the president, the government, Nancy Pelosi, etc. That’s one reason why Newt Gingrich refashioned himself as a Tea Partier and started ranting about Obama’s “Kenyan colonial mindset.” It’s why the whole GOP field was rightfully terrified of Sarah Palin. But the political strategy of going to ever greater extremes in one’s use of martial and apocalyptic language seems like the thing that’s sure to change now – at least for a while. That could substantially alter the path to the Republican presidential nomination, the jockeying for which is already underway.

And sure enough, Palin’s InTrade odds of winning the nomination dropped right after the shooting.

Yep, those numbers tanked – and Swift scholars smile. And Andrew Sullivan has the final word:

A political assassination cannot be dismissed as non-political. And even if one argues, as I would, that Palin bears no direct responsibility at all for this act of violence and that the idea of her as an “accomplice” of some sort is offensive, it remains true that a) Palin specifically targeted this political opponent for “re-loading” within literal gun-sights, b) this was noticed at the time by the future victim as a dangerously violent provocation, c) Palin upped the ante when confronted with this criticism and refused to back down, and is even now apoplectic that this should be in any way about her. If your response to these set of facts is to deny that there is anything awry here, you are part of the problem, it seems to me.

There is no way to understand the politics of this without Palin. She has long been the leader of the movement that drapes itself in military garb, that marinates in violent rhetoric, that worships gun culture, that has particular ferocity in the state of Arizona, and that never ever apologizes for anything.

And he sees that things could work out this way:

My hope is that this horrifying momentary conflation of politics, guns and mental illness will lead responsible figures on the right to eschew the path of Palin. I hope this ends the appeal of Palinism’s primordial emotions and divisiveness. I hope it brings us back to a more responsible center-right that seeks dialogue rather than warfare.

But he knows that won’t happen:

The signs among the hard core of the far right are not, alas, promising. And so we wait for a Republican leader who is not a Palinite or in fear of them. And we wait.

The whole issue of how language works has confused people. Where’s the Professional Organization of English Majors when you really need it?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Jonathan Swift, Political Irony, Political Rhetoric, Sarah Palin, Tucson Shootings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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