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The Titanic War on Words
June 19, 2002
By Luciana Bohne

Let's face it: you can graduate from Yale University, apparently, without ever reading a work of literature. Our president seems to have done so. He has worse than no sense of language. He speaks a barbarous English, mangles words, creates bizarre neologisms, savages grammar, and generally crashes into linguistic accidents - or malapropisms - like a fly in honey. We should call him President Malaprop.

During the president's recent visit to Russia, for example, Pravda reported that, asked by Russian students what he thought of the brain drain of Russian professionals to the West, Bush quipped confusingly, "It's gonna take a lot of brains in Russia to create a drain." How many to change a light bulb?

All the president's businessmen, including Condi Rice, appear to be literary ignoramuses. Rice gave Bush Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment to read so he could impress Pootie-Poot on his visit. What was Condi thinking? Putin had been a KGB official. Bush was guilty of bombing Afghanistan. Maybe she never read the novel. It is about, among other things, a grim depiction of pre-revolutionary social conditions which -- with the new dawn of freedom, democracy, privatization, and mafia capitalism -- have returned to Russia, causing some 60% percent of Russians to live in dire poverty. I doubt Bush cares to read such stuff.

He did, however do a bit of business there for his pals and sponsors at Exxon. He got Exxon Putin's clearance to invest $14 billion for oil drilling off the Russian Pacific coast. In return, Putin signed that meaningless arms "reduction" treaty that won't make a neutron's difference to our survival. Exxon bought part of a privatized shipyard for $140 million, from one of Putin's friends to modernize it for the drilling operations. Always thinking of his oil friends, is Bush.

Not a whiff of this Exxon deal in the western press, though. I read it in Pravda. He also got US poultry exporters a deal by pressuring Putin to lift the ban on the importation of chicken parts. Good old free trade. What would US corporations do without it?

Governing is easy: slash taxes for the rich, don't spend anything on social services, get people to shop, keep the Congress scared and the people quiet. Mind the oil. Don't even think of alternative energy sources. The media minds itself. Global warming can't be stopped without slashing into profits. Do a little bombing. Whatever. 9:30 pm, beddy-bye. Nothing requires the Bush gang to bother with literature.

So why do they do it?

The intense rapacity and aggressive commercial spirit of the Bush Cabinet, coupled with the peculiar legal lunacies, morning prayers, anointment ceremonies, shrouding of perfectly boring naked artwork by the Minister of (Infinite) Justice (has he ever seen a fountain in Rome, Paris, or London?) make this administration singularly witless, humorless, esthetically clueless, and incapable of inventing a credible story. Yet, it has insisted on serving us indigestible fictions from the beginning.

Having no literary sensibility, no sense of esthetic pleasure, no love of words or experience of their beautiful power, no virtue other than making money and war to make more money, which is the opposite of making art, these propaganda hacks turn out improbable potboilers, penny-dreadful novelettes, pulp fictions more obscene even in their violation of good taste and common sense than the pathetically pumped up, laughably predictable, wildly improbable unsophisticated scenarios churned out by television and Hollywood -- and that's more dross than can be housed on all of Jupiter's moons.

Take the narrative of the war on terror. Robert Fisk, reporter for the UK's "The Independent" summarises it best:

First it was to be a crusade. Then it became the "War for Civilization." Then "War without End." Then the "War against Terror." And now, believe it or not, President Bush is promising us a "Titanic War on Terror." This gets weirder and weirder. What can come next? Given the latest Bush projections last week--"we know that thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us"--he must still have an even more gargantuan cliche up his sleeves. (12 June, 2002)

"Titanic war on terror" is, indeed a must unfortunate expression. "Titanic" in the sense of Titans, giants of the earth, or "Titanic" as in the sinking of? If an adjective has two distinctly opposed connotations, one of triumph and one of defeat, you choose another word.

Above all, don't try to make literature if you don't know literature. If you want to write comic strips, abdicate the presidency, there's a good boy. A literary sensibility matters -- even in politicians. I expect my job as a literature teacher makes me take these odd views.

For example, I've always maintained that the war in Vietnam could have been won if Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had read Graham Greene's The Quiet American, which, as early as 1954, predicted that Americans would make a mess of the whole thing as a result of a combination of American puritanical zeal, historical naivete, messianic optimism, and obsessive Yankee tecnhological can-doism. All qualities that left them unprepared to deal with the stoical endurance, patient planning, and communal spirit of a people belonging to an ancient legacy of dealing with invaders. When we bombed Hanoi incessantly, the North Vietnamese built the tunnels under Hanoi and bided there until the skies cleared of technological wizadry. They won.

To win wars, you need more than a mighty army and shiny, new death-technology. As Leo Tolstoy shows in War and Peace, about Napoleon's disastrous campaign in Russia, you need to know the people, their nature, and the weather. Hitler, being like all racist tyrants, pretty stupid, and always wanting to be right, didn't bother with War and Peace. He thought be could do better than Napoleon. He didn't reckon with the "inferior Slavs'" fierce heroism: 20 million Russian dead in defense of Mother Russia. His racism couldn't imagine that. So he shipped his Sixth Army into Russia one bright June morning in 1941, never to see it again -- and thereby lost World War II.

To win wars, you need to know how to use words, not just bullets. A literary education may not be such a bad idea -- especially if you intend to wage interminable war.

No doubt, if allowed to vote, Americans could insure a more civilized, less football-rah-rah, kick-ass yahoo rhetoric from their leaders -- they did in the past. "There is nothing to fear but fear itself." "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country." Even, "If you don't like the heat, get out of the kitchen," or, "The buck stops here," have a reassuring, I'm-in-charge-here kind of ring to them.

Compare to the manly, statesmanlike, self-assured diction of the above quotations the spineless, wimpy whine of President Bush McBush: "We're in for a long struggle in this war on terror. And there are people that still want to hurt America." This is the stirred-up (rather than stirring) tone and diction of a little boy afraid to fight his own fight, who runs home to mama to complain that no one likes him.

What if FDR had pouted like this after Pearl Harbor about the Japanese being everywhere and disliking America instead of invoking a Jovian thunderclap of condemnation in one, declarative sentence, that this was "a date which will live in infamy?"

What if Winston Churchill had spoken like Bush after Dunkirk, instead of echoing Shakespeare's Henry V's rousing speech (actually an effective warmongering speech in irresistible iambic pentameter) on St Crispin's Day before his battle with the French?

This old generation of rulers had learned from studying the poets in the school room to pace their speeches with the rising and ebbing tides of sweeping, majestic, punctuated repetitions, or with the reassuring calm of parallel costruction.

Imagine if American education had produced a mass of citizens sensitive to words, instead of sensually-deprived TV watchers used to cheap sex, and guns, and violence, shouting pundits and absurd, sensational plots. Would George Bush be still president today?

Imagine, if, instead of cowering before terror, Bush had wanted to make us face it , fearlessly, as this bracing sentence charges us to do, "When fear usurps reason and becomes the ruling principle of governance, terrorism wins."

This is what The Guardian wrote, admonishing the White House that: "What is needed now is backbone -- a little less febrility in Washington, a little more of fortitude and calm resolve." It goes on: "Sound leadership means respecting and building on America's democratic strengths, not emphasizing America's vulnerability to justify the undercutting of its traditions."

Ah, but there's the rub. Bush cannot speak like a statesman and a gentleman because he doesn't care a fig for preserving American traditions, as his occupation of the White House proves. And he cannot show calm and resolve in his speeches because he cried wolf once too often and none but Americans with blind faith believe him. So he must exercise himself into a panic and somehow infect the citizens with it, or the November elections for the razor's edge race in Congress, The Homeland Security Ministry of National Paranoia, and the ever-present mission to liberate Iraq of what's left of their structures after practically daily bombings for eleven years will remain a pipe dream.

Luciana Bohne thinks, reads, writes, paints in Pennsylvania. She will be glad for readers' comments at

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