This is the fifth in a series of posts.
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Part Two: Pissing on Language (3)
It is revealing to read John Chang’s We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation, published in the United States just this year, 2016, alongside Victor Klemperer’s The Language of the Third Reich: LTI—Lingua Tertii Imperii: A Philologist’s Notebook, which was originally published in Germany sixty-two years ago, in 1954. Both detail the distortion and flattening of language that paves the way for the degeneration of populism into demagogy and, concomitant with that, of democracy into authoritarianism.
In one passage of his book (pages 52-53 of the English translation), Klemperer does a good job of articulating the difference at issue. After reminding the reader that “politics is after all the art of leading a polis, a city,” he goes on to note that with the emergence of modern democracy the “city” that is to be lead is no longer something of the size of ancient Athens, the birthplace of the idea of “democracy”— which is to say rule by “the people” themselves, consisting of “everyone” equally, and not just by some privileged segment of society for their own benefit. The polis today, Klemperer acknowledges, is vastly greater both in physical extent and in population than the ancient Greek city-state of Athens. Yet, he writes, even when the massive modern polis eventually emerged, political leaders were still challenged, as they were in Athens centuries ago, to “turn to ‘everyone’ in person,” if they were truly to lead.
That remains so for modern political leaders, with a polis as large as a nation-state and with populations in the millions or even billions. It remains true, as Klemperer goes on to say, “even if ‘everyone’ amounts to millions, and even if thousands of kilometers separate their individual groups.” Though “the people” can no longer be gathered together and addressed at a single place of assembly, as they were in ancient Athens, they must still be gathered together and addressed, even if only “virtually,” through digital means.
Thus, as Klemperer writes: “In this way the speech, as one of the tools and duties of the statesman, was reinvested [with the emergence of modern mass democracies] with the status that it had enjoyed in Athens, indeed an even greater status given that instead of Athens the orator now addressed an entire country, and indeed more than just one country.” Furthermore,
[. . .] a speech was not only more important than it had been previously [that is, during the long period separating original Athenian democracy from the emergence of modern democracy], it was also, of necessity, different in nature. In addressing itself to everyone rather than just select representatives of the people it had to make itself comprehensible to everyone and thus become more populist. Populist means more concrete; the more emotional a speech is, the less it addresses itself to the intellect, the more populist it will be. And it will cross the boundary separating populism from demagogy and mass seduction as soon as it moves from ceasing to challenge the intellect to deliberately shutting it off and stupefying it.
I have added the emphasis to the concluding sentence of that passage, in order to highlight the crucial distinction Klemperer is drawing between populism on the one hand and demagogy on the other.
In saying that populism addresses its audience by working with everyone’s emotions rather than intellect, Klemperer does not mean to belittle populism, or to deny it a crucial positive role in helping to build democracy. Quite the contrary is the case. Our emotions—as Heidegger for one knew and consistently taught—are the primary access we have to how we experience ourselves and our place in the world moment by moment. What is needed is not learning how to disregard our emotions in favor of some disembodied pure intellect. What is needed, rather, is to learn to listen to our emotions properly, to let them give us the disclosure about our world, and our insertion in it, that only they can give.
We need to learn how to listen to our emotions—and also how to address them, if we are to move ourselves together to act wisely and well. Unless we do, populism degenerates into demagogy, and democracy is lost.
Language itself is always fundamentally at work in our emotional natures, forming them and us through them. In listening to our emotions, we are also listening inevitably to our language—our “native tongue,” the language of the community into which we are born. As Klemperer writes earlier in his book (page 15), “language does not simply write and think for me, it also increasingly dictates my feelings and governs my entire spiritual being the more unquestioningly and unconsciously I abandon myself to it.” We can certainly add that insofar as I am born, rather than somehow bootstrapping myself into my own existence, I always have already “unquestioningly and unconsciously abandon[ed] myself” to the language of my birth, the language that others have already cultivated for me from long before I was born.
But “what happens,” Klemperer pointedly goes on to ask, “if the cultivated language [at issue] is made up on poisonous elements or has been made the bearer of poisons?” After all, he goes on to observe (pages 15-16): “Words can be like tiny doses of arsenic: they are swallowed unnoticed, appear to have no effect, and then after a little time the toxic reaction sets in after all.”
The same thing applies to the conflation of words as well, the erasure of significant differences of meaning between them. A prime example, one no less relevant today in the United States than it was in Germany in the 1930s, is the blurring of the very distinction Klemperer points to in the first lines I cited above, the distinction between populism and demagogy.
Coupled with the washing out of the difference between populism and demagogy also goes the process of equating appeals to the emotions with rejection of thought, as though thought were the same thing as sheer intellection, mere calculative rationality. Blurring the boundary between thinking and calculating— between free and open reflection, on the one hand, and the purpose- and profit-driven computation of possible outcomes, on the other—joins readily with blurring the boundary between populism and demagogy, and the one reinforces the other.
Thus, that joint process of erasure of apparently “merely verbal” boundaries has far from “merely verbal” consequences. Rather, as Klemperer knew and witnessed to his horror in Nazi Germany, it completely undercuts both genuine thought and genuine democracy.
Neither democracy nor thought can thrive without one another, and the flattening of language flattens them both.
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To be continued.