NOVEMBER 27, 2020
IN THE SECOND VOLUME of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville described one of the most distinctive features he encountered during his nine-month journey across the young and unruly nation. Having sailed from France to survey the American penitentiary system, which was then seen as a model of generosity and benevolence, he disembarked in New York and was immediately surrounded by a thick cloud of talk.
Everywhere he went, Americans were engaged in what he insisted was a distinctly democratic form of speech, trading phrases in frontier boarding houses, arguing in crowded town squares, and inviting each other to take part in commercial, political, and civic associations that were advertised in the more than 900 newspapers that circulated daily across the country.
In addition to inventing new words, Americans also repurposed existing ones. “The first and most frequent strategy used by democratic nations to create innovations of language is to give an unusual meaning to an expression already in current usage,” he explained. Americans would “restore forgotten expressions to their vocabulary” and borrow technical terms from specific groups which they would “introduce into normal usage with a figurative meaning.” This repurposing of words had its advantages and disadvantages, both stemming from how those words were made to take on an ever-expanding range of meanings. “In giving double meanings to a word” Americans “render the original meaning as ambiguous as the newly acquired meaning,” Tocqueville argued.
A writer starts by giving a slight twist to the original meaning of a well-known expression and, after the change, adapts it as best he is able to his purpose. A second turns the meaning in another direction; a third drags it down another track. Since there is no one to arbitrate, no permanent court to give a definite meaning to the word, it wanders about freely. The result is that writers never appear to adhere to a single thought but seem to aim at a knot of ideas, leaving the reader to judge which of them they intend to hit.
Americans still speak the malleable language Tocqueville described. We have spent the two centuries since he published his treatise repurposing words. Our discourse is peppered with allusions to the “Four Freedoms,” the “Freedom Rides,” and the “free market,” phrases that point to what have proven to be at times violently opposing interests all of which are nevertheless grounded by the same plastic term. The rhetorical technicians at The Lincoln Project just finished pumping nearly $70 million into campaign ads based on the premise that simply by remobilizing tropes that have proven resonant on the right, endorsing Joe Biden in clips with deep-red titles like “Real,” “Strong,” and “Decency,” they would reach enough Republicans to swing the most important election in our history — an effort that, given the much-needed gains Democrats made in formerly Republican suburbs, may have been decisive. As Washington Irving wrote, America is a “logocracy,” a government of words where the balance of power depends as much on the terms you use as the offices you hold.
No one has been a more incisive observer of the terms Americans use, and the transfers of power they allow, than David Bromwich. A Sterling Professor of English at Yale, Bromwich has for the past four decades been calling our attention both to the ways words shape the concrete features of our society, hardening sentiments into the institutions and norms that govern our lives, and to the role that each of us plays in that process, taking those institutions and norms and, in the act of speaking as such, translating them back into sentiments that we, through the affect-rich act of inflection, can defend, attack, and reform. In Writing Politics: An Anthology, Bromwich has collected nearly 30 essays (the earliest written in 1721, the latest in 1964) that he offers as examples of democratic speech at its turbulent best.
As the title suggests, the selections share a concern with how our language shapes our politics. When read together, one is struck less by the arguments they make than by the approach they share, which involves burrowing below the surface of the commitments we take for granted in our everyday talk, exposing the implications that are buried underneath, and leveraging those implications for political ends. In many cases, the decisive moment does not hinge on dispassionate reasoning but instead on a deeper and more moving form of deliberation that is based on moral and aesthetic judgment. As Bromwich writes in his introduction, “An essay is an attempt, as the word implies — a trial of sense and persuasion, which any citizen may hazard in a society where people are free to speak their minds.”
His primary theorist is Michael Oakeshott and his rhetorical model is Martin Luther King Jr. As Oakeshott explains in his 1951 essay “Political Education,” any political activity that relies on an “independently premeditated ideology” is bound to fail. The better course, he argues, is to recognize that all ideologies are “abstractions” of “some concrete activity” derived from “a traditional manner of behavior” that we already engage in and to draw on the resources that are “intimated” in that behavior.
Bromwich doesn’t shy away from the conservatism of Oakeshott’s premise. While it may seem controversial to contemporary readers, this recommendation has been commonplace on the left for decades. In his 1971 handbook Political Action: A Practical Guide to Movement Politics, Michael Walzer, who spent more than 30 years co-editing the progressive magazine Dissent, where Bromwich has also been an occasional contributor, warned, “In general, it is a mistake to take one’s symbols from the avant-garde culture of the time. To do so inevitably turns political action into an elite performance and a kind of esoteric communication.”
Similar warnings were issued in the wake of the 2016 election, with Mark Lilla noting that his fellow liberals have spent decades using “a disuniting rhetoric of difference” that has caused many Americans to become “hostile to the way we speak,” and Marilynne Robinson pushing back against the reliance on “in-group language” borrowed from “post-structuralism” and other academic trends that, however popular they may be on college campuses, fall short of “persuasive speech.”
While Bromwich shares these concerns, urging his colleagues in the humanities to focus less on their sub-specializations and more on the “adeptness in the use of words” that is the basis of “active competence” in democracies, his approach is rawer and more exacting. He is skeptical of the self-flattering conformism these appeals can sometimes imply and insists on using the resonant language Oakeshott described to provoke rather than reassure.
In Writing Politics, he gives his Oakeshottian conservatism an edge by presenting Martin Luther King Jr. as the most skillful pursuer of intimations in recent history. As he explains in his short introduction to “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” King buttressed his plea for civil rights by leveraging the languages that had the strongest claim over the people he was speaking to: the languages of the King James Bible and, more deliberately, the language of “law and order.” King mobilized both to compel his audience to keep the promises they had made to themselves by using those languages to narrate their lives.
Responding to local clergymen who had criticized his decision to march in Birmingham as “unwise and untimely,” King framed his activism in Biblical terms.
Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my home town.
By assuming this tone, King both stated a deeply held conviction and made it difficult for his critics to renounce his actions without also renouncing the tradition of gospel preaching to which those actions, as a result of his analogical redescription, now belonged.
King used a similar strategy in better-known passages where he addressed the failings of “white moderates,” the ranks of which reached far beyond the clergymen themselves. Here too, he strengthened his case by evoking a vocabulary that was revered by the group he was addressing. “One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust.” Increasing rhetorical pressure, and reaching for the more loaded terms “law” and “order,” he continues:
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
Bromwich singles this out for praise. “King spoke with the authority of a native American, claiming the rights due to all Americans, and he evoked the ideals his countrymen often said they wished to live by,” he writes, adding the slow-burning aside: “The stories the nation loved to tell itself took pride in emancipation much more than pride in conquest and domination.”
These selections by no means exhaust Writing Politics. Many of the essays tend in the other direction, expressing well-deserved skepticism about our dependence on resonant words, especially our tendency to use those words to deceive ourselves. In “The Fugitive Slave Law,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, sickened by his neighbors in Massachusetts who championed the ideals of the Constitution while condoning a law that would have required citizens to hunt down fugitive slaves, laments the “worthlessness of good tools to bad workmen.” In “The War and the Intellectuals,” Randolph Bourne takes aim at his peers who had been lulled into promoting American entry into World War I by “nebulous ideals” of “democracy” and “civilization,” contributing to the “premature crystallization” of “old errors” that could be avoided only through the effort of “irreconcilables” whose task would be to “divide,” “confuse,” and “disturb,” keeping “the intellectual waters constantly in motion to prevent any such ice from ever forming.” In “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” Hannah Arendt stresses the need to develop “consciences” that do not rely on “automatic” appeals to “customs” and “manners,” but are instead the product of an “intercourse with oneself” prompted by language that does not merely repeat received values.
Bromwich reveres these figures who broke with the platitude-filled speech of their time holding open a space where individuals could think for themselves. Language occupies the space between passivity and force, using irony to loosen the grip of words that have become stubborn and pathos to recover words the meanings of which have been suppressed.
Bromwich describes reform as a process of “redefinition” that begins when we become aware of a rupture between the words we use and the lives we lead. “The pressure for reform comes from a redefinition of self-respect or sympathy with myself,” he explains. “Some contrast between what I am and what I ought to be startles me and leads to a self-discontent, which then issues in remedy or redress.” It is a visceral, intimate process that plays out in the act of speaking. Before a bill is signed or a law is passed, a deeper change takes place, one discernible in the way a particular word rises in the chest or catches in the throat.
These are the moments Bromwich focuses on. It is in them that our social structures are most available for amendment, their concrete features reshaped by the grain of each voice. As public words pass through private individuals, layers of meaning are added and removed. The consequences are subtle but profound. When we inflect our language we inflect our societies, bending, to use the term’s etymological root flectere, the bonds that bind us.
Bromwich was one of 150 co-signers of the Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” that cautioned against the “forces of illiberalism” that were threatening the “free exchange of information and ideas.” While it alluded to Trump, its main target was Woke Twitter and the increasingly popular practice of de-platforming. Reception was mixed, with some, like Michelle Goldberg, agreeing with the letter’s premise that “even sympathetic people will come to resent a left that refuses to make distinctions between deliberate slurs, awkward mistakes and legitimate disagreements,” and others, like Gabrielle Bellot, describing it as “a carefully veiled invitation to use dehumanizing rhetoric under the bastion of the ‘free exchange of ideas.’”
While Bellot’s criticisms have merit, it would be a mistake to discount the letter’s broader claim that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” That this recommendation was well intentioned seems beyond dispute given that many of the letter’s co-signers, including Wynton Marsalis, Noam Chomsky, and Gloria Steinem, have been fighting for social and economic justice for decades. What is missed both by the signers and their critics, however, is a recognition that exposure, argument, and persuasion have been taking place on a larger scale than we may think.
When millions of Americans chant the phrases “No Justice, No Peace,” “This Is What Democracy Looks Like,” and “Black Lives Matter,” including the estimated 15 to 26 million Americans who have demonstrated since George Floyd’s murder, they aren’t simply repeating those words. They are adding their own inflections to them, giving them the depth and reach on which persuasion depends. Moreover, when we remind ourselves that those words are taken not from the college seminar room but rather from an accessible American idiom, that process of inflection starts to look like the process of reform described above.
Tocqueville argued that by repurposing words Americans gave them “double meanings” that made them “ambiguous.” Bromwich is also interested in ambiguity, and includes among his predecessors William Empson who, in Seven Types of Ambiguity, described “an ambiguity” in literature as “any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language.” In an essay on Empson that he published in The New York Review of Books in 2017, Bromwich distinguished between this literary ambiguity and “strategic ambiguity.” Whereas strategic ambiguity involves concealing meanings that, if drawn out too precisely, would “hamper an agreement,” literary ambiguity involves what Bromwich describes as a “suspension between two states of mind” in a situation where “someone confined to either state could not know the reality of the other” and “turns on a hidden complexity that the reader is prompted to notice in a single word.”
The way we speak now is ambiguous in this second sense. The phrases “No Justice, No Peace” and “This is What Democracy Looks Like” derive their force from the fact that the words “justice,” “peace,” and “democracy” contain in them the kind of hidden complexities Bromwich describes. When said in the context of a protest or march, they evoke a range of contending meanings, some that endorse the status quo and others that challenge it.
Something similar happens with the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” The statement is so obvious it raises the question why it has to be said at all. That it does need to be said reveals a shameful uncertainty about the meaning of the words “Black,” “lives,” and “matter” across much of the country, including among many well-meaning Americans who may have hesitated to say those words at first. The ambiguity opens a space where the reform Bromwich described can occur — a space where the act of speaking can cause intimations and sympathies to shift.
Sam Sackeroff is Leon Levy Assistant Curator at The Jewish Museum in New York. He received his PhD from Yale University in 2019. His current research focuses on liberalism and aesthetics in postwar America.