What We Mean, Meaning What We Say
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.
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.”
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.
the difference between “liberating” Iraq and “occupying”
it,” says Kaplan.
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.”
Child Left Behind.”
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’!”
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.”
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.
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
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?
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.