Words

Last week I wrote my article not knowing who’d won the American Election. This week I feel the same.

The strangest and most dangerous aspect of this campaign was that at a certain point words ceased to matter. Mr T could say what he liked, even if it was ridiculous, impossible, scurrilously offensive, or even contradicted the next day. He was a symbol, beyond truth, free of the need most politicians have to make sense. It’s often said that Americans don’t do irony, or they may have queried some of his attitudes: empathy with the underdog from a lifelong boss; promises for better wealth distribution from a spoiled billionaire; diatribes against outsourcing jobs from someone who outsources jobs; fellowship with war veterans from someone who eluded the draft; promises of massive public spending from someone who thinks it’s smart not to pay taxes; business advice from someone who notched up four separate bankruptcies … etc etc. It didn’t matter because his words weren’t what we usually accept words to be. He’s as free to eat them now as he was to utter them. His current emollient tone is no more credible than his raving was, especially while he assembles his wolf-pack to fall on what’s left of decent American values. Meaning is so over.

Most presidential candidates promise change. Administrations, once in power, realise that their country’s problems are mostly insoluble and end up concentrating on damage limitation. Their supporters get disillusioned and wait for the next hustler to come along. But this time the promised change wasn’t based on fiscal policy or micro-management. This time it took on some of the bastions of western civilisation and put land-mines under them. Look, says the Coming Man, we know what we’re supposed to think and say but that’s not really us, is it. We don’t really like foreigners. We can’t trust Muslims. We’re fed up with women talking back to us. We think climate change is just another tax. We don’t want to pay for healthcare for the poor. We’re white, American, and it’s time we came first.

We Brits should complain. We held the dress-rehearsal, we made it alright for high-ranking politicians to utter what everyone knew were bare-faced lies. We allowed racism to lead our debate. We encouraged our poor angry whites to concentrate only on wrecking the existing system, not looking for a workable alternative. The lesson here and in America was the same: when times are tough forget the reasons and point at the foreigner, classic fascism.

In “A Man For All Seasons” one of Thomas Moore’s zealous aides claims that in pursuing the Devil he’d cut down every law in the land. “What then?” says Moore, “When the Devil turns on you, who will protect you then, the laws being down?”

I feel the same about words. They may be tricky, they may talk less loudly than deeds, but they’re all we’ve got. They’re our only channel for human discourse and agreement. Once words are devalued, used merely as weapons, excuses for our most shameful instincts, we’re lost. There’s no basis left for humanity or trust, dignity or thought, only a primary-coloured world of gestures and mob rule. We can’t have that.

 

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