Defining Ideas

America’s Language Problem

Wednesday, December 2, 2015
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Barbara Kelley

“The American,” H.L. Mencken wrote in 1919, “has been the most ardent of recorded rhetoricians”; his classic work The American Language equated our national character and distinctive speech with the republic’s enduring vitality.

The American Founders understood this and, as close readers of the classics, recognized that the fate of antiquity’s democratic Athens turned on the matter of language. In Thucydides’ great work The Peloponnesian War, the historian’s editorial comment that “the growth of the power of Athens, and the alarm which this inspired in Lacedaemon (Sparta), made war inevitable” has recently been the basis of a political science study, The Thucydides Trap, by Graham Allison, a political scientist at Harvard. Allison argues that evidence across history scientifically demonstrates that, as was the case with Sparta and Athens, whenever an established power (e.g. the United States) is rivaled by a rising power (e.g. The People’s Republic of China), the former will feel it necessary to take military action to stop the latter before it becomes overwhelmingly dominant.

Something in the psychology of nations calls them to revisit—for better or worse—their point of origin, perhaps the time of national character formation, when they sense a new critical moment in their history. The Thucydides Trap study is an example of such a return, as The Peloponnesian War has been “a manual for American statecraft” from the Revolutionary era to the Cold War.

But Thucydides’ comment about an established power’s fear of a rising competitor is belied by Thucydides’ own narrative of history from 431 to 404 B.C., a sequence of happenings which shows the collapse of language to be the underlying propellant of Athens’ fall.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist Paper No. 6, displays his close reading of Pericles’ speeches as recounted by Thucydides in a rhetorical trajectory that displays “The celebrated Pericles” (we can hear Hamilton’s sneer) to be “the primitive author of that famous and fatal war, distinguished in the Grecian annals by the name of the Peloponnesian War; which, after various vicissitudes, intermissions, and renewals, terminated in the ruin of the Athenian commonwealth.”

Based on Hamilton’s references to Pericles’ speeches, we can recreate what the Founders recognized as both substantive and stylistic flaws in the use of language. Among these were the hubristic emphasis on the swiftness of Athens’ direct, “single chamber” democracy which would later rush into the disastrous Sicilian Expedition; disregard for the importance of religion when Pericles tells the people that the gold of the Parthenon’s statue of Athena can be stripped off and melted down to pay for the war; and disdain for the Athenian national character of activism by declaring a war policy of strategic withdrawal. Even Pericles’s great Funeral Oration ominously contains the shadow of a doubt over whether those who fight and die for their country actually will be eternally honored.

All these points compel thoughts about the United States in the twenty-first century. Is the Founders’ design of a deliberative republic as the antithesis of Athens’ rapid democracy being undone by the instantaneity of polls and social media? Are the demands of comprehensive, all-encompassing healthcare and other social welfare legislative mastodons overriding religious liberty? Is the “can-do” American character being smothered by administrative regulatory pressures and politicians reluctant to ask the citizenry to uphold America’s premier role in maintaining world order? And what of the promissory honors declared in Pericles’ Funeral Oration when mentioned together with an American Commander-in-Chief’s decisions to put our military personnel in dangerous war zones without any strategic design to actually win, and end, the war? All these are products of language used to misdirect, procrastinate, or provide cover for objectives other than those openly enunciated.

Athens’ downward spiral explodes in the civil upheaval in Corcyra when “words lost their meaning” creating a “stasis” during which no one was able to persuade others of what would be best to do. Thucydides provides a long list of words whose meaning was lost and then replaced, often to the opposite effect: reckless speculation became refreshing honesty; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation, unmanliness; toleration, indecisiveness; frenzied violence, heroism; deceitful plotting, justified self-defense; tendentiousness, trustworthiness; caution, cause for suspicion.

In America now, as in Athens then, words may be losing their meaning. Are claims of persecution assertions of power? Sporadic military moves means of avoidance? Defiance of authority regarded as authoritative? Demands for rights deepening dependency? What once were vices now virtues? Self-indulgence thought to be self-reliance?

A culture committed to inclusive diversity and open expression has begun to incentivize claims of victimization and resentment as mechanisms for intimidation, and this is taking place in a technologically ubiquitous communicative environment which instantly magnifies and spreads the lowest, most senselessly hate-filled expressions of deranged minds.

Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War reaches its most grotesque moment in the Melian Dialogue as the Athenians categorize an entire people, the citizens of Melos, as intolerable for their political stance of neutrality, ordering them to submit or be slaughtered. By this point, the foundational concepts of Athenian strategic understanding—that nations conduct their affairs at different phases of their history out of fear or honor or interest—have become jumbled and self-contradictory, an incoherent mélange in which only raw power makes sense.

Thucydides’ narrative comes to its denouement during the nighttime battle in Sicily. Language has so deteriorated that the Athenians have lost their password. Chaos follows as the fleeing Athenians do not pause to recover the bodies of their fallen comrades, failing to fulfill Pericles’ solemn promise made years earlier in his Funeral Oration.

Alexander Hamilton’s interpretation of Thucydides warrants serious attention today. As does the popular New York musical “Hamilton,” justly welcomed with universal approval as a way to rectify and revitalize the American language in the cause of inclusivity and free speech. But another Hamiltonian issue is at hand: The Secretary of the Treasury’s decision to remove Hamilton’s portrait from the ten-dollar bill. A nation’s currency is one of its most meaningful forms of language expressing its character. If Hamilton goes, something fundamentally American will be lost forever.