WHEN IT COMES to chroniclers of the United States’s political decline, readers today are spoiled for choice. But none brings quite the same background to the job as does David Bromwich, in whose bibliography early titles like A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost (1989) and Hazlitt: The Mind of a Critic (1983) have given way to, most recently, American Breakdown: The Trump Years and How They Befell Us (2019). An eminent scholar of, among other things, 18th-century poetry, criticism, and philosophy, Bromwich has in recent years turned up every few months in left-leaning publications like The New York Review of Books and the London Review of Books to offer commentary on American politics. That he takes a dim view of Donald Trump is no surprise, but his view of the intellectual fashions of the left so volubly opposed to Trump is even dimmer, and more incisive for it.
American Breakdown, Bromwich’s second book this year, closely follows How Words Make Things Happen, an infinitely less topical-sounding text that would seem to belong more to the roster of Bromwich the distinguished English professor than Bromwich the political commentator. But it does clarify that the author looks upon politician and poet alike with the same critical eye — or rather, that he listens with the same critical ear. That goes for the political speechwriters as well. “He was the first man of the right to leaven his moralism with jokes,” Bromwich writes in a damning piece published shortly after the death of William Safire and later collected in the volume Moral Imagination (2014). “With fun and ‘pace,’ with plenty of euphemisms, and with calculated self-depreciation, he did more than anyone else to legitimate a reactionary president, Ronald Reagan, as a new kind of centrist.”
One might expect a man of the left to condemn a figure who “connects the political style of McCarthy with that of Rush Limbaugh.” But Bromwich doesn’t go easy either on the likes of Barack Obama, who, as he summed up in a 2014 LRB piece, “watches the world as its most important spectator.” The headline of an earlier essay in that same publication delivers a plainer assessment: “A Bad President.” What sets Bromwich off about both Safire and Obama is their abuse of language, and not the kind of syntactical misfires on which critics of George W. Bush fixated, and critics of Trump now fixate, with such righteous glee. In Bromwich’s view, Safire used words to stoke the flames of the Vietnam War, and later to press forward the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Obama used words first to make promises — closing Guantanamo Bay, restraining domestic surveillance — and then to retroactively convince his supporters of the obvious impossibility of keeping those promises.
Acts such as ordering drone strikes bother Bromwich at least as much as they bother Obama’s other critics on the left, but those other critics have seldom looked past Obama’s famously “soaring eloquence” to the emptiness of his words. Bromwich indicts Obama as well as other members of his party for failing to sell their cause to the American public with speech equal to the task, or even speech equal in force to that used with such seeming carelessness by the opposition.
“The Democrats have a language problem,” writes Bromwich in a piece published in the LRB this past spring.
They refer to Trump in clinical jargon as a “narcissistic personality,” toss about Greek words like “homophobic” and “misogynistic,” “transphobic” and “xenophobic,” and actually made themselves believe that Trump calling Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” was shocking, when in most people’s minds it was another forgettable piece of bad manners — vulgar, yes, but we knew that. The elevation of abstract language with no salt or savour, and no traction in common speech, the anathemas that come across as finger-wagging, the antiseptic prudery that runs in a pipeline from campuses to center-left journalism and finally to the Democratic Party: these misjudgments form a pattern with a history.
In this historical pattern Bromwich detects an “entrenched complacency which few in the academic-corporate-political-digital elite are ever made aware of,” one that has driven American liberals into positions whose untenability is made clear by the strained language used to justify them. Bromwich draws a notable example from Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, when the phrase “believe all survivors” took on the expanded meaning “treat all accusations seriously,” even when most Americans “still believe that an accused person is innocent until proven guilty, and it would be a moral disaster for Democrats to discard the principle as the condemned property of right-wing libertarians.”
The presumption of innocence isn’t the only principle Bromwich sees as in danger of abandonment by the left. In the fall of 2016, he published a 10,000-word LRB essay on free speech, a concept that, during the first decades of the 21st century, has become rather the worse for wear. The very words “free speech” now call to mind an ignoble modern dichotomy: on one side the anonymous internet troublemakers disingenuously defending their compulsion to launch scattershot personal attacks, and on the other the targets of those attacks (or their self-proclaimed champions) defending their calls for vengeance against the attackers by insisting that, because the First Amendment only prohibits punishment by the government, no form of private sanction — social ostracism, termination of employment, “de-platforming” — can even theoretically violate their free speech.
The point is true but trivial: when one individual demands the silencing of another, those who accuse the demander of infringing on free speech are claiming the violation not of a written law but of a cultural principle. The demander’s protests that he hasn’t violated the former only underscore his violation of the latter, a distinction not everyone readily acknowledges. “Asked in a late interview how he fell away from his belief in Catholic doctrine, Graham Greene said he had been converted by arguments and he had forgotten the arguments,” Bromwich writes in “What Are We Allowed to Say?” “Something like this has happened to left liberals where freedom of speech is concerned. The last two generations were brought to see its value by arguments, and they have forgotten the arguments.”
Born in 1951, Bromwich falls squarely into the generation of professors now watching in astonishment as their students, most of whom grew up in the 2000s and 2010s, blithely dismiss and even display undisguised contempt for what once seemed like the settled values of liberal democratic society. He ascribes this state of affairs to several recent developments; one of the most important and least surprising is “the soft despotism of social media,” that distinctively 21st-century technology almost as enthusiastically resented as it is adopted. Bromwich, who has no social media presence of his own, seems not to engage with it at all, but his description of its customs and expectations will sound discomfitingly familiar to those of us who do:
[A] new keenness of censorious distrust has come from a built-in suspicion of the outliers in public discussion. Social media refer to these people as “trolls” and sometimes as “stalkers”; any flicker of curiosity about their ideas is pre-empted by a question that is not a question: “What’s wrong with them?” Meanwhile, those inside a given group have their settled audience of friends and followers, to adopt the revealing jargon of Facebook and Twitter: a self-sufficient collectivity and happy to stay that way. To be “friended” in the Facebook world is to be safe — walled-up and wadded-in by chosen and familiar connections. An unsafe space is a space where, if they knew you were there, they might unfriend you.
Outside, “all is uncertain, obscure, and apt to bring on sensations of fragility. Adversarial stimuli are to be ignored where possible and prohibited where necessary.” Inside, “a provocative and half-disagreeable remark amounts to a declaration of the intention to defect. To someone who has grown up in such a setting, the older protections of individual speech are an irrelevance.”
Facebook began at Harvard before it spread across the world; teaching at a university, and especially an Ivy League school, offers a vantage on the attitudes of the young before they become the attitudes of the majority. Bromwich teaches at Yale, where not long ago a diversity administrator sent out an email urging students to “mind that their [Halloween] costumes didn’t cause offence or encroach on sensibilities of gender, race, or culture.” An associate master of a residential college followed up with a message of her own, saying (as Bromwich summarizes) “that Halloween was a time for a lark and everyone should lighten up.” Not long ago, “both the cautionary letter and the reply would have seemed hilarious for their condescension and paternalism,” but in 2015 the reply “led to an immediate demand by some residents of the college that the associate master be sacked.”
An undergraduate subsequently wrote a telling testimony in a student newspaper, claiming (again, in Bromwich’s summary) that “the permission granted to culturally appropriative and possibly insulting costumes had deprived her of a safe space; after reading the wretched email, she found herself unable to eat, sleep, or do homework in a building where authority had been ceded to the person who wrote it.” On the issue of free speech, the divide between Bromwich’s generation and this student’s comes down to the question of whether the harm done by words belongs in a category or on a spectrum with the harm done by physical violence. But even some of Bromwich’s contemporaries profess views on the matter that have more common currency among the young. Take the director of Bristol University’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, Tariq Modood (born 1952), whom Bromwich quotes as writing, “The group which feels hurt is the ultimate arbiter of whether a hurt has taken place.”
“To experience the feeling is to suffer the injury,” Bromwich paraphrases, and how seriously one can take the idea reflects one’s position on free speech in this cultural and political moment. The same goes for any of the labels now routinely applied to allegedly hurtful forms of expression — “hurtful” included. “We have such labels today, of course, quite a lot of them, from the all-purpose ‘inappropriate’ to the dreaded ‘divisive,’” writes venture capitalist Paul Graham in “What You Can’t Say,” an essay published just before the rise of social media as we know it in 2004. “In any period, it should be easy to figure out what such labels are, simply by looking at what people call ideas they disagree with besides untrue.” Why identify those labels? Because “if a statement is false, that’s the worst thing you can say about it. You don’t need to say that it’s heretical. And if it isn’t false, it shouldn’t be suppressed.”
Graham urges us to “pay especially close attention whenever an idea is being suppressed. Web filters for children and employees often ban sites containing pornography, violence, and hate speech. What counts as pornography and violence? And what, exactly, is ‘hate speech?’ This sounds like a phrase out of 1984.” Bromwich affirms, in the preface to Moral Imagination, that he casts his vote with “the Orwell of 1984” against those who “assent to the theory that a bond exists that is more humanly compelling than the moral duties of men and women toward each other in the light of our shared condition on earth” — that is to say, with humanity itself over and above any of its subgroups, especially those founded on ideologies. “Ideology is religion that has not built its church, and religion is ideology grown lofty and distinguished. This was the common view of the educated in liberal societies half a century ago. If it remains so today, we who hold the belief have lost our voice.”
Proposed sanctions against “hate speech” now rest on the idea that “insult, carried by words alone in the absence of physical menace or a threat to livelihood, tends to impair the self-esteem of individuals.” This assumption Bromwich blames on “[t]he fiction of cultural identity,” a phrase at which some readers, not all of them undergraduates, may bristle. But Bromwich rejects the notion that every human being belongs first to a culture, a group that “confers the primary pigment of individual identity on the persons it comprehends.” Calls for suppression of negative speech about such groups presume, to Bromwich’s mind incorrectly, that “vulnerable persons have always already delegated their identity, their morale, and their empirical consciousness to the named identity of the group.” But those who see in group identity a “necessary shelter from the tidal force of the mass culture” and a “place for ‘affirmation’ and ‘resilience’” — protection, that is, from harm threatened in part by words — find it “natural to embrace a form of censorship.”
For those in favor of such censorship, its mechanisms of “enforcement and exclusion” eventually “produce a fortunate and economical result: self-censorship. We stay out of trouble by gagging ourselves,” and we do so in order to avoid accusations — unchallengeable when “the group which feels hurt is the ultimate arbiter of whether a hurt has taken place” — of having inflicted harm with our speech. One such harm is “microaggression,” which Bromwich defines as occurring when, in an encounter “between a member of the ‘dominant culture’ and anyone not identified with that culture, the former by word or gesture betrays an assumption that there is something unusual about the latter.” How should such an offense be punished? “By re-education, it has been suggested, in the form of additional diversity training and sensitivity training. Persuaded by this concept and by a therapeutic literature and practice that cater to it, young people of more than one race have come to think themselves uniquely delicate and exposed.”
When individuals and groups fear for their safety even in a pure war of words, cogent argument and debate becomes impossible. “Safety in argument or debate is of course an unintelligible demand,” Bromwich writes,
but the trouble with those who think they want it isn’t that they are incapable of giving reasons backed by evidence. Rather, they have had no practice in using words to influence people unlike themselves. That is an art that can be lost. It depends on a quantum of accidental communication that is missing in a life of organized contacts.
How Words Make Things Happen ends with a lightly revised version of his “free speech” essay, and the lost or at least vanishing art of persuasion constitutes the common thread between that essay and book’s preceding chapters. Originally delivered as the University of Oxford’s Clarendon Lectures, those chapters deal with whether and how “the use of words to make others believe something they were not disposed to believe” occurs through the use of language alone.
To make his case, Bromwich draws from the work of Burke and Orwell, as well as that of prose writers like Henry James and Walter Bagehot, poets like Shakespeare and Yeats, and philosophers like Aristotle and John Stuart Mill. The book’s partial inspiration and half-namesake, J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words, deals with what that linguistic philosopher calls the “cases and senses […] in which to say something is to do something; or in which by saying or in saying something we are doing something.” (Examples include “I take this woman to be my lawfully wedded wife” and “I name this ship the Queen Elizabeth.”) Bromwich sets Austin’s definition of such “performative utterances” in opposition to W. H. Auden’s seemingly offhand pronouncement, in his elegy for Yeats, that “poetry makes nothing happen.”
Bromwich’s interest here lies not in poetry exactly, but in “the half-metaphorical, half-literal usages that mark a boundary between rhetoric and poetry, or between the persuasive and the imaginative uses of words,” and in what about an attempted act of persuasion “makes it so hard for us say for sure whether the words are fanciful or accurate, fictional or matter-of-fact, plainly false or manifestly true.” Burke believes in the persuasive superiority of words to images, because words “leave more to the imagination; they are better suited to feeding the passions for the very reason that they have a harder time approaching clarity and truth.” But the passions of the listener don’t necessarily conform to the intention of the speaker, and Cicero “seems aware of the danger when in De Oratore he cites Demosthenes on the most important parts of an oration: delivery, delivery, and delivery” — meaning that “you can always make the same words mean different things.”
Argue with nothing but “a well-ordered troop of reasons” and “you will convert only people who live by reason and logic. And they are few.” This is advice Bromwich has tried to publicly convey to Democratic politicians and their speechwriters, as yet to little noticeable effect. What actually persuades is not reason but “the semblance of reason,” whether employing “true or false logical sequences” based on “well-attested evidence or specious evidence.” The processes involved in convincing others are “not essentially different from those we employ in convincing ourselves,” a powerful dramatization of which Bromwich finds in Julius Caesar: Brutus “convinces himself that the assassination of Caesar is a necessary act, politically considered. But he wants very much to think that it is also right,” and so in a soliloquy “treats himself as a typical citizen who looks to be sure that his motive as well as his image is untarnished.”
The Satan of Paradise Lost also convinces himself, and in so doing displays both “an instinct for improvisation — which tracks and assimilates the motives of his audience — and a restless desire to spread the nets of his own mind and prevent any doubt from escaping.” He “drops one argument and takes up another as a matter not just of persuasion but almost of self-preservation,” demonstrating “the usual character of excited speech when it aims to convert a chosen audience,” especially “political discourse and the rhetoric of self-justification” as we still hear it today. Henry James, by contrast, asks us to imagine speech that defies interpretation, “a language appropriate to a perceptive mind that sees and tells the truth about people without wanting to have any power over them.” Mastery of such a language — the language of “a world in which the devices of persuasion dissolve in the sheer activity of thought and feeling” — “would begin with a vow of separation between knowing and doing,” the kind of vow Isabel Archer nearly makes in The Portrait of a Lady.
In our world, even potentially effective persuasion “requires that we have feelings about beliefs”: in other words, “no tears in the speaker, no tears in the listener.” Hence the store we set not just by sympathy but also by empathy, an arcane word revived “to prove how thoroughly we are impressed by the sympathetic imperative.” Burke describes sympathy as “a sort of substitution by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected,” a facility demonstrated in his speeches of the 1780s on the plight of the distant colonists in America and the subjects of British India. In his House Divided speech, Abraham Lincoln blends “the language of objective forces and that of human actors who are bearers of sentiments, beliefs, and expectations,” betting that this “unusual combination of evoked authorities” would “plant a conviction about how to act in a consequential matter of right and wrong.” Hence “the importance of saying we are against slavery and the importance of hearing ourselves say it”: speaking “the words of conviction hardens us for the conversion of words into deeds.”
Statesmen like Burke and Lincoln had specific goals they wished to achieve with their speech, but what about poets like Yeats and Auden? In their cases, Bromwich frames persuasion as “a kind of dreaming aloud, which the dreamer asks other people to listen to and be somehow affected by.” How responsible is the dreamer for the real-world consequences, if any, of those dreams? Over the course of his life, Yeats went from “an aestheticism that shunned in principle the rhetorical aim of changing the minds of readers or affecting their practical lives in any way” to “writing poems that came close to propaganda for aristocratic society.” Auden found his early fame as “the self-conscious leader of a poetic movement dedicated to political reform and possibly to revolution” and ended up claiming “an exemplary civic function for art, a function that deliberately excluded any notion of pragmatic effect.” But Orwell, by the time of his critical commentaries on both poets in the 1930s and 1940s, had come to believe that “serious literature could not escape having a political motive. Nor could it inoculate itself against having a persuasive effect.”
Writing on Yeats, Orwell notes that “by and large the best writers of our time have been reactionary in tendency,” on his way to the conclusion that “a writer’s political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away, but something that will leave their mark even on the smallest detail of his work.” Auden’s line, in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” about poetry making nothing happen reads as if written in anticipation of such a charge, but Bromwich also detects in the elegy “a hope that words, engendered by poetic imagination, may somehow be exempt from the burden of moral responsibility, because they do not mean to persuade. And there is a self-protective defense against the fear that sometimes words may actually make things happen.” But, for Bromwich, words do make things happen, if only “uncontrollably, unspecifiably. And in the presence of great writing, for that reason, it is appropriate for us to fear as well as admire even those words whose greatness we recognize.”
In academia, that fear has lately taken forms of which Bromwich would surely disapprove, beginning with the expectation of “trigger warnings” before classroom discussion of any work with the potential to remind students of their own traumatic experiences. “People should have the right to know and consent to what they’re putting into their minds, just as they have the right to know and consent to what they’re putting into their bodies,” a former Oberlin student who campaigned for the application of such warnings to Antigone told The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller in 2016. Bromwich’s response to that line of thinking goes back to Milton, who in his anti-censorship polemic Areopagitica argues that the
good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed on Psyche as an incessant labor to cull out and sort asunder, were not more intermixed.
Thus, as Bromwich puts it,
to try to purify ourselves by renouncing all exposure to dangerous words is to legislate for the preservation of our innocence; but Milton doubts that this can be done. The censor holds a very different view: impurity invades or insinuates from outside, it is a kind of pollution, and the duty of moral guardians is to secure and deliver us.
But “[i]mpurity, after all, springs from us, among others. Any law devised to winnow out the noxious materials can only weaken the very people it protects.” The zeal of today’s aspiring moral guardians looks like the natural progression of what Bromwich describes in a 2001 essay as our
therapeutic culture with its glamorous, garish, and finally abject dogma that in every life there are wounds that need healing; that the unhappiness of life comes down to an avoidable trauma or series of events to investigate and anatomize; and that experience may be reduced to experiences — on the understanding that bad experiences often happen early and always occur as side effects rather than as signs of inveterate character.
Bromwich sees social media as having ensured, in the years since, that “[o]ur verbal surroundings online are created by affinity; and each day a hundred small choices close the circle more tightly. You don’t say wrong things — the sort of things that will startle your friends.” (Though not a social media user, Bromwich himself has described the trouble he got into with “left-liberal friends” for writing the “Bad President” piece.) In a description of the implications for free speech — bundled with a critique of one of his bêtes noires, America’s tendency to blunder into foreign interventions — he looks, as others have, to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
Doublethink, Orwell wrote apropos of life in Oceania, was the mental technique that allowed one to “hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them.” The process found its consummation in “the ultimate subtlety: consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.” It is like that with freedom of speech and self-censorship in the West. We must spread freedom of speech in order to make the world free. And to do the job well, we must watch what we say.
But Bromwich sees the freedom to speak one’s mind as “a physical necessity, not a political and intellectual piece of good luck; to a thinking person, the need seems to be almost as natural as breathing.” He quotes E. M. Forster asking, “How do I know what I think till I see what I say?” — a question that applies “not just to writing but to friendly or unfriendly conversation, or a muttered soliloquy. Yet the good of free speech has seldom been a common intuition, and it is not a universal experience. It matters to a few, much of the time, and to others at unpredictable times.”
We live, fair to say, in unpredictable times. In his recent writings on politics, Bromwich has attempted to make sense of what brought about not just the chaotic Trump presidency but also the delusion and irresponsibility of those, in the Democratic establishment and elsewhere, who claim to want to bring it down. Faced with the constitutional changes masterminded by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, Obama’s timidity and misjudgment, and the “better and more fluent liar” now occupying the White House, Bromwich diagnoses a “near-autistic breakdown of political speech in America.” This has resulted in a public conversation rendered incoherent by demands: demands for special treatment, for the charged redefinition of common terms, and for not just the silencing of but the extraction of public apologies from opposing voices — apologies that, when delivered, possess “the moral stature of hush money.”
In an environment like this, who can hope to change another mind with words alone? The failure of persuasion extends to the debate over free speech itself: thanks to avoidance of all but the most perfunctory interaction with the other side, advocates for restricting free speech and advocates for unrestricted free speech alike wrongly see their own cases as inherently convincing. Few can execute even the most basic techniques of persuasion, such as first showing others “that they already agree with themselves and that we agree with them more than they think,” presenting the preferred conclusion in such a way that it “falls in with their already existing beliefs and shapes a connected narrative of their interests over time.” Self-persuasion, however, remains strongly in evidence, not least in America’s grand act of Brutus- or Satan-like conviction, condemned increasingly often by Bromwich, of the value of “spreading democracy by force and commerce.”
In his own cautioning against restrictions on free speech, Bromwich draws from no less a philosophical pillar of liberalism than Mill’s On Liberty. “If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind,” Mill writes. But Bromwich sees Mill as having lost a great deal of his persuasive force since 1859: “Quote this passage to a roomful of academics today, withhold the name of Mill, and not one in three will credit that any intelligent person could ever think something so improbable.” The philosopher opposes “the affixing of any penalty at all to dissent from what the majority supposes are the components of a better world,” not a fashionable view by the standard of the 2010s. But he does so because he believes in certain liberties owed to all persons “simply because they are persons”: “freedom from subordination because of one’s sex or sect,” for example, but equally “freedom to know your mind by speaking your mind to another person.”
And if in speaking your mind you offend another person, should your speech then be ruled out of bounds? “Much might be said on the impossibility of fixing where these supposed bounds are to be placed,” writes Mill, “for if the test be offence to those whose opinion is attacked, I think experience testifies that this offence is given whenever the attack is telling and powerful.” Or, as Graham puts it, writing in a 21st-century society inexorably re-sensitizing itself to verbal offense:
No one gets in trouble for saying that 2 + 2 is 5, or that people in Pittsburgh are ten feet tall. Such obviously false statements might be treated as jokes, or at worst as evidence of insanity, but they are not likely to make anyone mad. The statements that make people mad are the ones they worry might be believed. I suspect the statements that make people maddest are those they worry might be true.
By this logic, a disinterested truth-seeker in the United States of the 2010s could do worse than to take most seriously the beliefs that provoke the angriest responses and widest-spread calls for suppression. In and of themselves, reactions of that character reveal a basic faith in the power of words, a perhaps surprising discovery when words in public have never been spoken in greater quantity, nor, seemingly, with greater carelessness (not least by the president of the United States). A society that restricts speech, or desires to, is a society that believes words make things happen. The harsher the consequences for speech, the greater the power imputed to speech. The kinds of speech that remain most free — that is, most free from potential consequences — are consequently the least powerful. Poetry may not make anything happen right now, but as Clive James has quipped, the best way to make it relevant again would be to ban it.
But even poets can now be extorted for apologies, as demonstrated last year by the case of Anders Carson-Wee, who dared to appear to be writing in the vernacular of a culture not his own. “With the joint arrival of multicultural etiquette and globalization, we have come to dwell increasingly on hidden injuries that threaten the norms and civilities desirable for people everywhere,” writes Bromwich near the end of his free speech essay. For as much as has changed since Milton’s day, legislation for the preservation of our innocence holds out no more promise now than it did then. We correct one another publicly, aggressively, with great moral righteousness and in highest dudgeon, but that doesn’t mean “we know ourselves well enough to be sure that our corrections are correct.” To Bromwich, this behavior shows that “the narcissism of humanity remains as conspicuous as ever at a moment when we can least afford the indulgence” — words he published before any of us ever had to speak the words “President Trump.”