This was written some time ago, in the election of 2008. I’m trying to get back to this blog, which I have been neglecting.
No doubt because I’m a writer, I first noticed the trend on book jackets. Suddenly every flyweight scribbler who showed the least flash of talent was being hailed as a “genius.” Well, no.
Geniuses are rare. The very root of the word implies someone of extraordinary and inexplicable abilities, someone who can do what no one else is capable of. Geniuses are people like Buddha, Jesus, Shakespeare, Renoir, Einstein, maybe Alan Moore. They seldom occur as often once a century. Quick wit and a modest flair are estimable, but do not a genius make.
Maybe it began as a marketing ploy. Reassure the customer that the item in question is not merely a flashy expo of the latest fashions, but a work of enduring genius, and maybe you have the next summer blockbuster on hand.
However it began, the style percolated rapidly through all literary strata. Contemporary poetry has become the most solipsistic and monumentally boring enterprise possible to a wordsmith, read by none and practiced by thousands, but if you believe the blurbs (akin to believing Goldman/Sachs on finance or HCA on health care), these poets are, each and every one, geniuses.
The next inflated term I noticed was “hero.” Suddenly all you had to do to be a hero was enlist in the military. Of course there are heroes in the military, as there are in almost every human endeavor, but surely even the most hawkish of generals will concede that not every enlistee is heroic?
My standards for heroism are perhaps less stringent than my standards for genius. Heroism is attainable for almost all of us, whereas genius shows up capriciously. It is, in a sense, unfair. It cannot be acquired by means of any amount of earnest effort or any degree of sacrifice. (Though it may certainly be developed to highest effect or shamefully wasted.)
But my standards are nevertheless stringent. The hero, according to Joseph Campbell, ventures into unexplored territory and brings back something of value to the tribe, an idea or freedom from the dragon’s depredations, usually at great personal cost, always by means of enduring forbidding difficulties. Often the tribe initially disdains the hero’s achievement, only later realizing how magnificent the gift has proven to be. Martin Luther King, for example, was a hero.
At first I thought this degraded usage was confined to home-town newspapers, boosterish forums eager to foster local pride in the way the pep squad pumps up the high school for the big game. Every returning enlistee, no matter whether he or she had spent his or her enlistment stateside in the motor pool or as a mess hall cook, was hailed automatically as a “hero.”
(I do not look down on enlisted service of any sort, incidentally. But isn’t this a bit much? No action required, much less courage under fire.)
Later I began to see it everywhere, in wide-circulation papers, on television, on the internet. “The troops” were “heroes,” simply by virtue of wearing the uniform. No doubt there have been many brave soldiers in our (necessary and unnecessary) wars but surely there have been as many thieves, cowards, bullies, and butt-lazy jerkwads as well. Are they all “heroes?”
Do you see the common thread? Achievement has been replaced by the label, in the way that “organic” foods may contain corn syrup, in the way that no one posts a personal romantic ad who is not “sexy,” “creative,” and a lover of long thoughtful walks by the ocean.
The next inflated term I noticed was “warrior.” Perhaps because I read too many graphic novels, I attribute the term’s current popularity to Frank Miller. The Nietszche of the comics, he is to them as Harlan Ellison was to science fiction. (I’m strongly against cockfighting but might pay money to watch Miller and Ellison in a pit together.) His Dark Knight shrugs off heart attacks and various broken or dislocated limbs by means of sheer willpower, is more muscle-bound than Arnold but capable of incredible acrobatic feats even at the age of fifty, and crashes his speedster in flames but wins the race anyhow.
My son-in-law and I tried to watch 300 on video the other day. We were prepared for death and mayhem and a ceaseless display of sixpacks (apparently no male in Sparta ever wore a shirt) but the constant flatulent oratory defeated us. (Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t Athens, that city of boy-lovers, as Leonidas snidely refers to them, whip the Spartans’ butts a few times? Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Sparta more about Conquest than Freedom?)
Whoever originated the usage, it’s everywhere now. I don’t know whether the burgeoning of the martial arts in the U. S. is cause or symptom, but I do know that samurai have become the contemporary models of perfect warriors. The myth-making may be seen at its most preposterous extreme in the two Kill Bill movies (which could have been one if the dialogue hadn’t been so comically portentous and slow). I enjoy Ken Chi as much as the next fellow, but surely the disaffected samurai are our latter-day equivalents to the lone horseman, incredibly quick on the draw, who rides into a lawless Western town, and, though he despises gunplay, shoots all the bad guys dead?
Let’s take a look at those samurai. Warriors they were indeed, superbly trained in swordplay, taught to eliminate fear from their reactions. But as models of human behavior? The very same virtues that made them fearsome made them morally neutral. They fought for whichever noble they served. If we are to believe the romance of the samurai (which I’m no more inclined to do than I am to see Billy the Kid as the embodiment of the noble gunslinger), their code was the code of honor. Self-described warriors are always keen on “honor.”
The samurai, in essence, transformed themselves into weapons. The weapon may be beautiful, the weapon is certainly deadly, but the weapon has no conscience. The “honor” of the warrior is like the curving gleam on a samurai sword. Everything depends on the character of the person swinging it.
The romance of the warrior is that the true warrior is invulnerable. Even a brief glance at history shows this to be total fallacy at best and more probably total lunacy. In a video game you may trounce all the bad guys (unless you have chosen to play the bad guy). If you get “killed” while you’re learning, you can resurrect the character and try again.
It ah, you know, it doesn’t work that way in real life. I would guess that at a minimum a hundred wannabes must die for every surviving true warrior. Somehow I don’t really like those odds.
Okay, fantasy is fantasy and reality is reality, and most people can tell the difference. It wouldn’t matter except for the rhetoric. Far too many personal and policy decisions treat this “warrior” nonsense as genuine thought. We have the spectacle of self-described “warriors” who instigate wars though they themselves fled from any possibility of exposing themselves to battle.
Again, perhaps because I am a writer, I locate the common flaw in the inflation and degradation of the language. Quite a few good people have referred to Orwell’s warnings in this matter, and rightly so. The basic principle is less seldom mentioned: The proper function of language is communication. We use it to convey information from mind to mind.
The fine and underappreciated poet James Whitehead had a character in one of his poems declare, “The end of style for honest men is clarity.” (By way of full disclosure, Whitehead would caution that the man on whom the character was based wound up in a mental institution.)
Dissimulation is a perversion, not a function. In the same way that an invading micro-organism will destroy the health of its host, evasion and deceit destroy language. Dishonesty has a characteric and unmistakable sound, and doesn’t take much training to recognize. Hemingway, himself quite a purveyor of bovine ordure, famously stated the necessity for having a good bullshit detector. Anyone who listened to one of Nixon’s campaign speeches knew without a doubt, long before he swore to the contrary, and regardless of whatever arguable virtues he may have possessed, that he was a crook.
When a dissembling politician (I will entertain the notion there are other kinds) emits clouds of obfuscation and double-speak, phrases lose syntactical connection, grammars go haywire, and words lose their meaning.
How could it be otherwise? The speaker does not respect the language, but views it as merely a tool to further his or her own devices. If you do not respect the instrument, you are unlikely to master it.
There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in this country, as if the choice were between education and honor. I remember an equally misleading choice being offered in previous elections. The candidate, we were told, was the kind of fellow you would like to have a beer with. Are there no intelligent and principled people to have a beer with, I wondered?
More often than not, this rampant anti-intellectualism (someone more cynical than I might suspect the existence of wide-spread inferiority complexes) has taken the form of disdain for true eloquence.