I HEARD SOMETHING the other day which genuinely horrified me, and I want to take a little time to try to spell out the implications as clearly as I can. It’s a bit subtle and wonky, but I think it will be worth the effort, so bear with me for a few minutes.
First, I want to speak about nouns. I know, I know—nouns? Really? It’s OK, just get yourself a coffee and you’ll be fine.
Linguists divide nouns into two general types–“count” nouns—things that can be enumerated, and “mass” nouns—things that resist enumeration. In the former category, we include items like people, even-toed ungulates, and crimes committed by the Trump clan. In the latter, we include things like time, water, and the dust to which all the criminals of the Trump clan must eventually return.
Although linguistically distinct, the boundaries between the two are not, and language attempts to conflate them with techniques like grouping—a horde (of families), a sounder (of swine)—and specificity—a minute (of time), a droplet (of water), and a bunny (of dust). This is all perfectly ordinary—until some even-toed ungulate starts to swap one for the other.
Just for fun, I’ll make up a word and refer to this phenomenon as the “massification” of count nouns. Massification is not new; it’s been used by marketers and copy writers since antiquity to punch up verbiage to make it catchy or memorable. Massification is most frequently accomplished by removing articles such as “the” and “a”—constructs of the language that imply, or make reference to, the verb “to be.” Here are a few sample headlines from yesterday’s news feed:
Trump Policy Swings Threaten [a] Fragile G.O.P. Coalition - NY Times
Supreme Court Won’t Revive [the] Trump Policy Limiting Asylum - NY Times
Government headed for [a] partial shutdown at midnight, as lawmakers leave Capitol without [a] deal - Fox News
It’s noteworthy that Fox News can’t even be bothered to use capital letters properly—but that’s a different story.
Here’s another example from the world of military communications—supplanting the word “troops” for the word “soldiers.” This little trick has the effect of depersonalizing the narrative, which is no accident. “Troops” are military resources, and are always proffered in the plural, whereas “soldiers” are inarguably people, whether singular or plural. Troops are abstract, but soldiers have individual being, and the military does not want you thinking about real Joes getting perforated by real bullets. In fact, the only area of military communications that makes liberal use of the word “soldier” is in recruitment. Funny that.
Let’s be generous and allow that headline writers can be forgiven for wanting to save some space, and marketers can be forgiven for wanting to manufacture some appeal, but policy makers—military or otherwise—who employ these techniques for the purpose of selling bullshit cannot be forgiven at all.
With this context in mind, we come to he larger purpose of this essay—the latest outrage from the Trump administration, this time courtesy of Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielson. Nielson’s latest outrage lacks the gargantuan disgracefulness of her Trump-sanctioned immigrant family separation mendacity, but it is no less egregious, and far more insidious. This particular outrage—you guessed it—is the intentional massification of a count noun. In testifying before Congress, Secretary Nielson said—I am not kidding—“From Congress I would ask for wall. We need wall.”
One notes that Nielson’s capacity for articulation far exceeds her competence, and far exceeds that of her churlish administrative brethren, so this cannot be understood as a misstatement—plus she said it twice in as many sentences within a three-second window. Not “a” wall, or “the” wall, but simply “wall.” By all means take a minute if your stomach is suddenly uncooperative.
We are now long accustomed to politicians abusing the Queen’s English for nefarious purposes. Aside from garden-variety mendacity, for example, there’s “pivoting” to avoid answering direct questions, “acronymizing” (another word I just made up) otherwise horrendous policy initiatives—think USA PATRIOT ACT—and of course Trump’s propensity to stuff his every lie into a grade-school calibre Twitter feed, rather than conversing in the complete, let alone complex, sentences required by traditional media. Politics and Newspeak are old acquaintances.
This, however, is different. “Wall,” as representative of the genre, is Newspeak of a uniquely Trumpian stripe. Remember that massification is about the removal of being. To be—to have individual, enumerative existence—is precisely the opposite of everything that Donald Trump represents. Like every tin-horn demagogue who precedes him, his are the politics of reduction. In Trumpian rhetoric, people are equivalent to their race; race is equivalent to behavior; behavior is equivalent to culture; and culture is reason to fear. Fear, in the final analysis, is what runs the Trumpian universe. Thus we get Mexican rapists, and a disease-ridden Caravan. We get “good” people on both sides of a white nationalist tiki-torch march, and Vladimir Putin as the pee-tape arbiter of American elections. Most significantly, we get rally after rally in which the stupidest, most suggestible among us are spoon-fed facts as fiction, fiction as fact, and a neo-facsist nation extant only in the mind of one mentally-ill sociopath as the America of yore and tomorrow.
In this dystopian context, “wall” is a distressingly perfect metaphor. Here, the word no longer represents a border, it represents a massified scourge. We don’t need “a” wall to protect Americans from Mexicans, because everyone with a working brain knows that this is patently absurd. No, we need “wall” for our collective national security—a sentiment so nebulous as to be essentially meaningless.
Donald Trump understands none of this at an intellectual level, of course, but his instincts in this domain are superb. He doesn’t know why massification works, he just knows that it works—whatever it is. Political puppeteers, by contrast, know exactly what it is and why it works. Hence we get butchered English from a blonde marionette, and red-state Republicans with a generational propensity to vote against their own interests.
It must be said that in all of this, Donald Trump, Kirstjen Nielson, and the rest of the Newspeakers are not the problem so much as they are the symptom. Neo-fascist politics is by no means the only vehicle for the exploitation of human suggestibility. The days, it’s everywhere. We have all become numbers that are larger than one. We are markets, and religions, and demographic groups, and tribes. We are legion in our social circles, and our nation-states, and our sports teams, and our polling places. We—each of us—contain multitudes.
The society we’ve built is systematically dehumanizing us in all kinds of ways, and Nielson’s “wall” is just another brick in [that] wall. The fact of the matter is that she’s not taking about separating American people from Mexican immigrants; she’s not really even talking about securing American culture from the nebulous evils of “otherness.” What she’s really talking about is the separation of our being from our well-being.
American society has been programmed to believe that these are severable, and lacking real knowledge of our own being, we conflate well-being with the exigencies of the moment. All it takes is a bullhorn, a soapbox, and a lemming audience. We believe whatever we’re told, so long is it’s the last thing we’ve been told. We succumb to fear and ignorance, because we fear our own ignorance. We separate our being from our well-being, and we become what we loathe—cogs in the American bullshit machine, lacking agency, will, and discretion. We become malleable—governable—not through reason and compromise, but through manufactured consent. One need only gaze on the faces at a Trump rally to see it in all its wide-eyed horror.
Trump and Nielson would have us believe that our well-being is independent of our essential being, and that the latter is subordinate to political xenophobia and capitalist greed. They would have us believe that comfortable lies are preferable to difficult truths. Above all, they would have us believe any old thing, so long as we believe something. This is the final goal of political, religions, and capitalist Newspeak—don’t think, don’t investigate, don’t reason, don’t discern. Just believe what we tell you to believe.
Don’t take the bait. Don’t believe the bullshit. Don’t tolerate the corruption of language in service to the corruption of reason. There is no difference between being and well-being. We do not need, we do not want, and we will not tolerate, “wall.”