Sunday, June 3, 2012
Taking A Chance by Walter Lippmann
The other night I sat up late reading one of those books on politics which are regarded as essential to any sort of intellectual respectability. It was a book that might be referred to in the Constitutional Convention at Albany. As I read along I was possessed with two convictions about the author. The first was that he had worn a high hat when he wrote the book; the second, that he had no teeth, which made him a little difficult to understand. And all through that hot mosquito-ridden night the disintegration of his vocabulary went churning through my head. . . “social consciousness. . .sovereign will. . .electoral duties. . .national obligations. . . on moral, economic, political, and social grounds. . . social consciousness. . . sovereignty. . . electoral. . . social. Sovereign. . . national. . . sovereign. . . “ Each word was as smooth and hard and round as a billiard ball, and in the malice of my sleeplessness I saw the toothless but perfectly groomed man in a high hat making patterns of the balls which were handed to him by his butler.
As the night dragged along, the callowest prejudices came to the surface and all fairer and reputable judgment deserted me. I heard myself say that this ass who plagued me couldn’t possibly have any ideas because he didn’t have any vocabulary. How is it possible, I asked, to write or think about the modern world with a set of words which were inchoate lumps when Edmund Burke used them? Political writing is asphyxiated by the staleness of its language. We are living in a strange world, and we have to talk about it in a kind of algebra. And of course if we only deal with colorless and vacant symbols, the world we see and the world we describe soon becomes a colorless and vacant place.
Nobody can write criticism of American politics if the only instruments at his disposal are a few polysyllables of Greek and Latin origin. You can’t put Bryan and Hearst and Billy Sunday into the vocabulary of Aristotle, Bentham, or Burke. Yet if you are going to write about American politics, can you leave out Bryan and Hearst and Billy Sunday, or even Champ Clark? The author I had been reading did leave them out completely. He talked about the national will of America as if it were a single stream of pure water which ran its course through silver pipes laid down by the Constitutional Fathers.
I tried to recall any new words which had been added to the vocabulary of social science. Boss, healer, machine, log-rolling, pork-barrel – those words which meant something at Washington or in Tammany Hall, but my author would no more have used them than he would have eaten green peas with a knife. Anyone who did use them he would have regarded as a mere journalist, and probably a cocksure young man at that. Then I remembered that the diplomats had made current a few fresh words within the last generations – hinterland, pacific penetration, sphere of influence, sphere of legitimate aspiration; they had meaning, because nations went to war about them. But the real contributions, curiously enough, have come not from the political theorist, but from novelists, and from philosophers who might have been novelists.
H.G. Wells and William James, I said to myself, come nearer to having a vocabulary fit for political uses than any other writers in English. They write in terms which convey some of the curiosity and formlessness of modern life. Speech with them is pragmatic, and accurate in the true sense. They are exact when exactness is possible, and blurred when the thought itself is blurred. They have almost completely abandoned the apparatus of polysyllables through which no direct impression can ever penetrate. They do not arrange concepts, they gather precepts, and never do you lose the sense that the author is just a man trying to find out what he thinks. But the political writer who gave me the nightmare never admitted that he was just a man. He aimed at that impersonal truth which is like the inscription on monuments.
He regarded himself as a careful person. His method was to retrieve in qualifying clause whatever he had risked in assertion. So he achieved a compendium of things-that-can’t-be-done, a kind of anthology of the impossible. His notion of getting at the truth was to peal it, like Peter Gynt’s onion, though Peter Gynt had the sense to be surprised that there was nothing to an onion but the layers.
My temper grew worse as I reflected on the hypnotic effect of books done in this manner, on the number of men whose original vision is muffled by verbal red tape and officialism of the spirit. The true speech of man is idiomatic, if not of the earth and sky, then at least of the saloon and the bleachers. But no smelly or vivid expression can win its way through these opaque incantations with which political science is afflicted. They forbid fresh seeing. An innocence of the eye is impossible, for there are no words to report a vision with; and visions which cannot be expressed are not cultivated. No wonder, I thought, political philosophizing means so little in human life. Its woodenness is the counterpart of a wooden politics, its inhumanity is the inhumanity of a state machine. The language is callous, unmoved and unmoving, because it aims to reflect rather than to lead the life upon which it comments. Dead speech is good enough for thoughts that bring no news, and it is to the timidity of the political thought that we must ascribe its preference for a dead language.
In these tomes over which we yawn at night there are occasionally ideas that might shake the world. But they do not shake it, for they are written for people who do not like to shake it. They are hedged with reservations, fortified with polysyllables, and covered over with appalling conceit that here is truth – objective, impersonal, cold.
I generalize rashly: that is what kills political writing, this absurd pretense that you are delivering a great utterance. You never do. You are just a puzzled man making notes about what you think. You are not building the Pantheon, then why act like a graven image? You are drawing sketches in the sand which the sea will wash away. What more is your book but your infinitesimal scratching, and who the devil are you to be grandiloquent and impersonal? The truth is you’re afraid to be wrong. And so you put on these airs and use these established phrases, knowing that thy will sound familiar and will be respected. But this fear of being wrong is a disease. You cover and qualify and elucidate, you speak vaguely, you mumble because you are afraid of the sound of your on voice. And then you apologize for your timidity by frowning learnedly on anyone who honestly regards thought as an adventure, who strikes ahead and takes his chances. You are like a man trying to be happy, like a man trying too hard to make a good mashie shot in golf. It can’t be done by trying so hard to do it. Whatever truth you contribute to the world will be one lucky shot in a thousand misses. You cannot be right by holding your breath and taking precautions.
The New Republic
August 7, 1915