Also, our long love affair with war: Since it's the weekend, might we enjoy some real full-blown erudition?
We'll start with our English language, which was invented long ago. Though actually, no one invented the English language, not even the seers who invented the claim about what Candidate Gore crazily said he invented.
According to the leading authority on the subject, the English language, with its several words, has actually developed over a period of quite a few years. We'll quote our expert source:
English has developed over the course of more than 1,400 years. The earliest forms of English, a set of Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th century, are called Old English. Middle English began in the late 11th century with the Norman conquest of England, and was a period in which the language was influenced by French.Those Jutes! Borrowing from Steve Martin, they had a different word for everything!
Old English developed from a set of North Sea Germanic dialects originally spoken along the coasts of Frisia, Lower Saxony, Jutland, and Southern Sweden by Germanic tribes known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. In the fifth century, the Anglo-Saxons settled Britain and the Romans withdrew from Britain. By the seventh century, the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons became dominant in Britain, replacing the languages of Roman Britain (43–409 CE): Common Brittonic, a Celtic language, and Latin, brought to Britain by the Roman occupation.
Or possibly not. At any rate, this brings us to glorious Austin, with his observations concerning the usefulness of our quite a few words.
We refer to J. L. Austin, who might be thought of as a type of Wittgenstein gifted with clarity. Way back in 1956, he delivered A Plea for Excuses, the Aristotelian Society's presidential address.
Pay no attention to his ultimate subject matter! Along the way, he described our English language as the ultimate example of crowdsourcing—as a repository of all the distinctions people found useful over thousands of years:
AUSTIN (10/29/56): Our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men [sic] have found worth drawing, and the connections they have found worth marking, in the lifetime of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonable practical matters, than any that you or I are likely to think up in our armchair of an afternoon—the most favourite alternative method.According to Austin, the reason we have so many words is because millions of people, over thousands of years, found the distinctions they allow us to draw to be useful. Some of these distinctions probably come to us by way of the Jutes, in the language which eventually turned into modern-day English.
In some cases, Austin may have seemed to be speaking about minute distinctions. The leading authority on his work reminds us of a memorable bit of observation on his part:
An example of such a distinction Austin describes in a footnote is that between the phrases "by mistake" and "by accident." Although their uses are similar, Austin argues that with the right examples we can see that a distinction exists in when one or the other phrase is appropriate.We're working from memory here. But if memory serves, Austin showed that English speakers would tend to agree on the circumstances in which it would make sense to use one or the other of those two phrases. That is:
Even though it might seem to us that the two phrases are interchangeable, we would all quickly agree that the one phrase was appropriate in Circumstance A, where the other phrase would be the one that fit Circumstance B. Our language equips us with the tools of minute distinctions, even if we're unaware of the breadth of the tools we possess.
Over thousands of years, millions of people have given us the inheritance of a rich assortments of words and locutions. We can use these tools to create an intelligent public discourse. Or we can decide to go to war with those we despise, in ways which are especially appealing at times of vast tribal partisanship.
Recently, we liberals have shown our love for the words "liar" and "lie." In one example, Masha Gessen drew applause when she assailed NPR for daring to use the term "misstatement" instead of "lie" when referring to a groaning misstatement by Donald J. Trump, the current American president.
"The word 'misstatement' as applied to Trump is actually a lie," the estimable Gessen said, drawing applause from the world's most brilliant audience. In these and other ways, we humans have constantly found ways to march ourselves off to war.
Those Jutes! They, and those who followed them, have given us many different ways to refer to inaccurate statements. Meanwhile, just as a simple matter of fact, Donald J. Trump, in the past six months, has issued a steady stream of groaning misstatements, many of which have been obviously false and/or baldly absurd.
That doesn't necessarily mean that his statements were lies, although they certainly may have been. Luckily, the Jutes and the Angles have left us with many ways to describe such inaccurate statements:
Various names for an inaccurate statement:And so on. According to Austin, those words exist because people found, over thousands of years, that they help us draw useful distinctions. Or we can employ our one favorite word, marching ourselves off to war as we curtail our nation's public discussion.
misstatement, falsehood, untruth, error, inaccuracy, misrepresentation, fabrication, exaggeration, distortion, prevarication, whopper, groaner, howler, fib, embellishment, tale, tall tale, invention
Is Donald J. Trump a liar? Were his sometimes crazy, frequently obvious, repeated misstatements lies?
In the case of Donald J. Trump, the questions is clouded by a possibility many people have raised, though often just in passing. We refer to the possibility that Donald J. Trump may be mentally ill in some deeply unfortunate way.
Is it possible that Donald J. Trump is "mentally ill" in some way? Might that explain his gruesome behavior before the Boy Scouts this week? His many ridiculous statements, some of which ridiculously may even subject him to prosecution?
It isn't like major observers aren't willing to make that suggestion. Just last night, in the opening segment of The Last Word, former Bush official Peter Wehner offered this portrait of Trump:
WEHNER (7/28/17): Look, we've seen Donald Trump enough to know that he's fundamentally uncontrollable and uncontainable...The personnel at the White House is mediocre, there's no question about that. But the problem at its core is Donald Trump, and it is, at its core, that he is a person who thrives on chaos and manage with chaos.According to Wehner, Trump "has a disoriented and disordered mind," the fruit of "a psychological affliction." Wehner sat on a panel which included the Washington Post's Gene Robinson. He had referred to Trump in a column, that very same day, as "Mad King Donald."
But it's really deeper than that, Lawrence. It is a psychological and emotional affliction. He has a disoriented and disordered mind, and there is no controlling or containing that.
To our eye and ear, Lawrence was still treating this as a form of cable amusement. As he did, the day drew nearer when Donald J. Trump—who is either a liar or the victim of a possibly disabling affliction—will launch his Korean war, endangering the whole world.
Wehner and Robinson are hardy alone in their fleeting suggestions. Yesterday afternoon, luxuriating at a chic happy hour, we stumbled back upon the words of the New Yorker's David Remnick, who asked this question, though fleetingly, in the July 10 issue:
REMNICK (7/10/17): Trump is hardly the first bad President in American history—he has not had adequate time to eclipse, in deed, the very worst—but when has any politician done so much, so quickly, to demean his office, his country, and even the language in which he attempts to speak? Every day, Trump wakes up and erodes the dignity of the Presidency a little more. He tells a lie. He tells another. He trolls Arnold Schwarzenegger. He trolls the press, bellowing “enemy of the people” and “fake news!”...The President’s misogyny and his indecency are well established. When is it time to question his mental stability?"When is it time to question his mental stability?"
For us, that time arrived in February 2016. But as we noted yesterday, when Remnick raised this question with Maggie Haberman in a recent interview, Haberman refused to play, and Remnick moved right along.
Does the question of Trump's "mental stability" affect the question of his alleged lying? Well actually, yes it does, in several ways.
Gessen was happy to call Trump a liar; she said NPR was lying too, since they wouldn't use that word in their reporting on Trump. This childish desire to drop our bomb tends to curtail our public discussion of Trump.
It halts our discussion at a point which evokes the third grade playground, where "Your're a liar, no you're a liar." When this level of discussion is transferred to august lecture halls, everyone gets to go home feeling good, and we get to avoid a larger question concerning the possibility that the person who holds the nuclear codes is "mad" or gripped by a "psychological affliction" which eliminates his "mental stability" and leaves his mind "disordered."
When disordered people make false statements, they may not exactly be "lying." If we're willing to end our discussion of this peculiar person with our favorite bomb, we're behaving like third graders, and we're choosing to ignore the fact that Trump controls actual bombs of substantial power.
NPR has cited two reasons why reporters should, in most cases, tend to avoid use of the L-bomb. We think each of their reasons
made sense. We could add a third.
(When we stop discussing Trump's "gross misstatements" and start discussing his "lies," we liberals trade a fact-based discussion, and a debate we'll likely win, for a discussion many folk will quickly tune put and a second-order debate we are quite likely to lose. If we want an intelligent discourse which may help voters see the actual state of the world, this will tend to be a losing game, even if it makes us feel tribally good.)
Masha Gessen wants reporters to call Donald J. Trump a liar. This strikes us as a childish desire, one that's focused on the least of our possible worries concerning Donald J. Trump.
Why do we love to drop our bombs? As always, we think of the late Gene Brabender, an actual person and a character in Jim Bouton's famous book, Ball Four.
Brabender was a pitcher for a succession of major league teams. According to the leading authority on Bouton's book, it was "the only sports-themed book to make the New York Public Library's 1996 list of Books of the Century. It also is listed in Time magazine's 100 greatest non-fiction books of all time."
Brabender was portrayed by Bouton as a big, raw-boned country boy with little taste or tolerance for nuanced discussion. Late in the book, his patience is strained by an an absurd bullpen discussion concerning the circumstances which might enable a pitcher to maximize the number of strikeouts he records in the course of a nine-inning game.
Bouton describes the discussion as "insane," then describes Brabender's rising anger. After a comical discussion of the role of facts and disputed factual claims in the world, Brabender brings the discussion to a halt with this deathless oration:
"You're lucky. Where I come from, we just talk for a little while. After that we start to hit."
Given Brabender's size and strength, Bouton dryly said that he "felt lucky indeed."
We sometimes think of Brabender when our fellow liberals choose to "just talk for a little while" before starting to hit.
Our language gives us many ways to describe Donald J. Trump's long list of obvious absurd and peculiar misstatements. In our view, we ought to start using those words, as if life itself were at stake.
It may feel good to denounce his statements as lies. But this tends to stop the nation's discussion. More specifically, it tends to keep us from discussing our president's possible mental state.
As Gessen's audience burst into applause, that war with Korea drew a few minutes closer. In these and other ways, we the humans have always found ways to drive The Others farther away and march ourselves closer to war.
Is Donald J. Trump in the grip of an affliction? Does this affliction leave him with a mind that is "disoriented" and "disordered?" If so, he many not exactly be lying when he makes his peculiar statements.
Is he gripped by an affliction? Given the stakes, isn't it time we set cable amusements aside and actually started to ask?