Yesterday I posted Marjorie Perloff‘s thoughts about the occasion (I liked her nailing the ubiquitous and largely meaningless rallying cry, “saving the planet”). But after I posted her words, the letter from “humanusist” caught my attention:
I am surprised, Professor Perloff, that your essay on Language in a Post-9/11 world did not center more on, well, language.
For example, while you point to that wonderful phrase “free world,” it might be worth exploring how it once was understood to mean free of tyrannical governmental control. But today, of course, it implies something very different. It oft can be found in proximity, if not adjacent to other provocative phrases such as “religious zealots.” (In fact, that very phrase is to be found in this very series of the Chronicle’s special 9/11 retrospective essays…)
Another bit of language worth exploring: “National security.” What have we as society constructed, and come to accept, around those two words? What are we making of such language in our post-9/11 nation, and importantly what is it making of us?
I remember being stunned that a “Homeland” security department was created. “Homeland.” What did that mean? What does it still mean?
“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find — this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify — that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.”
So here’s a few words to be thrown around a great deal in the next week: free world, national security, “homeland” security, religious zealots (well, why don’t we go the whole nine yards and nail “religious fundamentalists”?)