February 6, 2005
Saying What We Mean, Meaning What We Say

“War on terror!”
“Moral values!”

I am in Cambridge, in Anne Bernays’s and Justin Kaplan’s cozy sitting room and we are throwing down catchwords like trump cards. We are talking--well, ok, we’re ranting--about how civil discourse is increasingly dumbed down into shoot-from-the-hip slogans with superimposed political meanings. As a result, when we talk about public issues, we’re often speaking in code, consciously or not.

“Defense of Marriage!”

One resolution the three of us would like to see in the new year is for people to say what they mean and mean what they say. Bernays and Kaplan have spent their careers doing just that. Bernays, a novelist perhaps best known for her book Professor Romeo, teaches at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. Her newest book, Trophy House, will be published next fall. Kaplan is aPulitzer Prize-winning biographer who was the editor of the last two editions of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. He is also, Bernays adds, “good at household repairs and a very good cook.”

The objects of our afternoon rant are those insidiously familiar terms so loaded with agenda that, when we say or hear them, actually frame our point of view. Terms like “support our troops,” which Bernays drily notes, “is code for ‘I’m a Republican’.” A visitor from some other world, hearing the phrase, might assume it had a relatively apolitical meaning, appreciation for the men and women who put their lives in danger on behalf of us all. Most Americans, though, would understand it as not only support for the individuals serving in the military, but also support for the war they have been sent to fight.

“It’s the difference between “liberating” Iraq and “occupying” it,” says Kaplan.

“It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic,” says Bernays. “I worry that people grow up accepting these things like candy, not questionning the meaningless phrases they use.”

“No Child Left Behind.”
“Patriot Act.”

The power that comes with naming has been understood since the Garden of Eden. But the power to name has morphed into the power to frame as politicians use their naming rights opportunities to put their objectives on our lips. Remember Alice in Wonderland: When the March Hare insisted Alice say what she mean, she protested, “At least I mean what I say--that’s the same thing, you know.”“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“I teach writing,” says Bernays, “and I’m exquisitely aware of how people use words. I get terribly heated when I feel someone is deliberately manipulating words to pull the wool over people’s eyes. People haven’t been taught to question.”

“Tax relief.”

Even examples that seem innocuous leave us speaking in built-in conclusions. Unless we keep our skeptical, critical, analytic abilities sharp, we’re left mouthing cliches that, as Kaplan points out, provide people with a substitute for thinking.

“Ethnic cleansing.”

Words are conscripted for political purposes so routinely that, when we hear them benignly uttered on the evening news, we can lose sense of how truly horrific they are.

“In an odd way it’s almost criminal. It’s manipulation of your brain. Words are used as weapons,” Kaplan says, adding that, there are parts of the world where that might be an improvement.

Now, what was that you said?

What we’re reading now: Justin Kaplan is reading The Peabody Sisters, by Megan Marshall, which will be published in April. As soon as Anne Bernays finishes her reading tasks as a judge of fiction for the Massachusetts Book Awards, she's looking forward to reading Volume One of Norman Sherry's The Life of Graham Greene. I am reading The Fading Smile, the late Peter Davison’s charming dish about the Boston poetry scene between 1955 and 1960, with its intimate glimpses of the astounding group that included Lowell, Sexton, Plath, Kunitz, and Frost.

From Anne Bernays’s forthcoming book, Trophy House, to be published in September by Simon and Schuster: The sky was as blue as a Delft plate and cloudless except for a few wisps near the horizon. More and more people. I realized, were staying on past Labor Day, enough to make me uneasy. Figures, rendered tiny by distance, walked near the edge of the bay, a couple were sitting on the sand, wearing fleece of many colors. A man with bushy eyebrows appeared from over a dune. At his heels was a black standard poodle, clipped to look like a turn of the century chorus girl. The dog calmly pooped onto the sand and failed to kick back over what he'd left there.

From Justin Kaplan’s forthcoming non-fiction book, Innkeepers, scheduled to be published by Viking/Penguin: When John Jacob Astor died in 1848, at the age of 84, he was the richest man in America. His fortune, an estimated twenty to thirty million dollars, mainly founded on his holdings in Manhattan real estate, was ten to twenty times greater than that of the nearest contenders in that line, the inventor and industrialist Peter Cooper and shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt. William Backhouse Astor, the old man's son and heir, had the body put on display in the parlor of his house in Lafayette Place. The undertaker installed a glass window in the black silk velvet pall so that citizens who pushed their way through the crowd of gawkers could look upon the face of wealth incarnate.

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com.

 
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