Travesty and American Usage

March 29, 2017 | 1 book mentioned 9 12 min read

Just what possessed those millions of voters in the free and mostly fair 2016 election we can never be sure. But one thing was unmistakable: not only had the worst candidate won; it was the worst possible candidate. It was disgraceful, absurd, a low-brow shock; the gloating man himself reminiscent of a comment below an article written by a woman on the Internet. Given that the “hallmark of our democracy” is a peaceful transition, the term for what to otherwise resist was given: normalization. As jargon goes, it could have been worse, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever used the word before, and had to wonder if it was quite right.

Since then our politics have tended to bottleneck and stop, preceded and eclipsed by a dispute over words themselves: racist, sexist, supremacist. If an epithet, the answer is Who, me? If a term of ideology — alt-right, PC, fake news, identity politics — each means something precisely different to every speaker. One of the goals of the new administration is strictly rhetorical — to draw false equivalences, rob words of their meaning. The credibility of the press is constantly attacked, especially when it deigns to describe what the administration’s policies do, or read back what it has said.

coverIn David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage,” ostensibly a long review of a dictionary, he describes a “Crisis of Authority in matters of language,” one set off by prescriptivists and descriptivists, grammar’s conservatives and liberals, give or take a few analogy-ruining specifics (the white working-class doesn’t wear bow ties, and none of the signs at the Women’s March read “All usage is relative.”). Point is, language is political. Arriving at its rules and conventions is an endless tug-of-war — what is the “correct” way to use the language and who is to judge? — which in Wallace’s view said usage dictionary artfully and persuasively irons out. To explain how, Wallace begins by reading off the rhetorical menu like so: there’s the “Logical Appeal ( = an argument’s plausibility or soundness, from logos),” and the “Pathetic Appeal ( = an argument’s emotional impact, from pathos).” In a sense, “A&AU” is a rave review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage’s author Bryan A. Garner’s third way.

[Garner’s] main strategy involves what is known in classical rhetoric as the Ethical Appeal. Here the adjective, derived from the Greek ēthos, doesn’t mean what we usually mean by ethical. But there are affinities. What the Ethical Appeal amounts to is a complex and sophisticated “Trust me.” It’s the boldest, most ambitious, and also most democratic of rhetorical Appeals because it requires the rhetor to convince us not just of his intellectual acuity or technical competence but of his basic decency and fairness and sensitivity to the audience’s own hopes and fears.

To these we can make a recent addition: the Unethical Appeal ( = an argument’s capacity to provoke, humiliate, and deflect, as well as flatter the “rhetor” with claims of persecution for his outspokenness.) The Unethical Appeal may be used to lie, rile, and show contempt for the very reaction it seeks. It longs to drink “Liberal tears.” Recent, though hardly unfamiliar, the Unethical Appeal is the primary rhetorical style of the new administration.

Punditry has been slow to come around; there have been slightly embarrassed defenses — almost as if making a grammatical correction — of norms. The most oft-repeated sentiment was surprise that Trump had not disqualified himself repeatedly. It was a series of bewilderments: first, that one could insult; then, that one could lie; and even then that one could be exposed. Nothing seemed to matter the way it used to (“You couldn’t make it up”). As of this writing, we’re still trying to catch the president and his aides in the act, as if they were particularly shy about vandalizing the free world. Does this swamp look drained to you? we ask of some late hypocrisy. Yes, they say, all drained.

When they go high, you go low. Blame three million illegal voters — a massive horde of ghosts — for losing the popular vote. In response to anti-Semitism, casually fly a false flag. When Trump says, “Obama founded ISIS,” it is not meant to be verifiably true. It is meant to be rhetorically uncompromising, to valiantly prove its own point about what can be said.

A common complaint among his supporters is this perceived inability to say anything — some mysterious, impolitic truth at the core of their resentment. (“Merry Christmas.”) But that sense of grievance is readily voiced in various online subcultures, by Gamergaters or viral craftsmen of reactionary Periscopes. Still, the “ironic bigotry” of a YouTube star remains unknown to most anyone who doesn’t watch him play video games online. It’s fair to ask what the boards at 4chan have to do with Trump carrying Pennsylvania. Suppose the influence of alt-testosterone has been indirect, meme-driven — purely rhetorical.

The unspeakable unites the disparate parts of Trump’s constituency: the red hats at the rallies, the 53 percent (of white women), the fake-news factories, the Twitter eggs, and the spineless skin-crawling Priebuses of the Republican establishment who came out regardless of Trump’s objective repulsiveness. A metastasized rhetoric connects people who don’t believe what they’re saying with those who hear what they want to hear.

The Unethical Appeal will be linked from a Facebook post; it will show up in replies to a tweet expressing sorrow for the Holocaust; it will be shouted at people just to see who will startle; it will come from the White House Press Briefing Room, and from the president himself.

As Wallace wrote “Authority and American Usage,” he made note of every grammatical infelicity he happened upon (“10 items or less,” etc.). In the same vein, it took me just a few hours on November 9 to produce a list of singular reasons for the calamity.

White people
People who did not vote
Democrats who stayed at home
Every media outlet that normalized Trump
“Young men came to these online groups for tips on picking up girls & came out believing that it was up to them to save Western civilization” (Siyanda Mohutsiwa)
Your neighbors and relatives
“Race, gender, or class, fucking newsflash: it’s about all three” (Michael Lutz)
Trump fed on outrage
“America’s neglect of its own health comes directly from its stubborn insistence that nothing is as bad as it looks.” (@absurdistwords)
Virulent hatred
Let it burn
TV news
Republicans and Democrats who treated him like a joke
53 percent of all white women
Jill Stein

The whole idea of a single cause for the election result didn’t stick — it was even subject to Unethical Appeals (“This is why you lost”). But if a singular diagnosis presented itself, it centered on a lack of “empathy” for Middle America. Our polarization seemed to address the election-forecast models’ inaccuracy. The prescription essentially has been to make more logical and pathetic appeals to one another.

Accordingly, facts, such as the number of acts of terrorism carried out by Syrian refugees in the U.S. (zero), should be cited; and we should, on the basis of those facts, bid the travel ban’s proponents have an ounce of shame. But the whole expository gymnastics — our filter bubbles, the disaffection of the white working-class, the gaming of the media — is predicated on explaining to the earnest world why so many would celebrate a liar for his honesty.

We could have hardly expected the entire country’s “Crisis of Authority” to apply to the truth itself, but this ship has sailed something fierce. Which calls for a certain vigilance. “Now is the time to talk about what we’re actually talking about,” wrote Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “Resistance starts with plain speaking,” tweeted Alex Steffen. This characterizes much of the protest rhetoric that meets a now-familiar litany of race-baiting and broad-daylight falsities.

Wallace spends a good part of “A&AU” self-consciously parsing the fact that “language is by its very nature public.” What we’re actually talking about — the information conveyed — is inflected by the expression of ourselves by other means. Variables include the several dialects (“Urban Southern,” “Maine Yankee,” and/or “Standard Written English”) in which a speaker is versed, and the idea that “the dialect you use depends mostly on what sort of Group your listener is part of and on whether you wish to present yourself as a fellow member of that Group” (a dry response to the right-wing talking point about words liberals supposedly refuse to say i.e. “radical Islamic terrorism”). Wallace, who was male and very white, recounts his delivery of his patented remedial grammar spiel to a bright young black student as a means of painfully demonstrating how rhetoric is conjoined with whoever is making the argument — or “privilege.” Suffice it to say the road to meaning is long and winding. And all this amounts to a necessary inconvenience: the community decides what is plain, and now what is, in rhetorical terms, plainly true.

“U.S. Presidential Campaign” is also a dialect: straitlaced, clipped, pompous — and repetitive! It’s a dialect the Obamas were able to temporarily elevate but that the Unethical Appeal ultimately made mincemeat of. Adichie identifies “balanced,” “alt-right,” “liberal bubble,” “identity politics,” “women” as words that have had their use diverted, and are worth setting straight. But the Unethical Appeal is in the business of sabotaging these meanings. An Iowan’s conviction that a system takes her tax dollars and redistributes them to undeserving people from Chicago is profoundly racist to us. But the U.S. electorate, as a community, is swayed by the unethically appealing idea that racism is a hysterical accusation — and not the American legacy.

The debate is framed and reframed ad nauseam — should we seek to convert our fellow citizens, or speak to the courage of our convictions (and risk alienating swing voters)? A paradoxical stalemate is quickly reached, where either party accepts the other is right in principle. Such is life in an unacceptable democracy.

Words should be used clearly, without buzzy euphemism or fear. But it remains that there is no language above the fray, especially not when it comes to supposedly private meanings — hateful, privileged, woke. After stints reporting on Bay Area tech gentrification and Oberlin College, Nathan Heller has a more abstract imperative: “Let’s drive our language out of private circles, back toward the public sphere.” Until we do, what is said loud and clear will fall on ears not exactly deaf, but tuned to a different reality of subjective truths, and now will not be the time.

“Jokes were a superior way to tell the truth,” wrote Emily Nussbaum, nostalgic for satire that didn’t seem as insufficient as its target is broad — a “Drumpf” hat atop the ash heap of history. The joke in play was well-known to combatants in recent culture wars, the campus politics beat, and all heavy users of Twitter. Precisely, it’s always both a joke and a supposedly trenchant critique of those too censorious to think it funny. This was novel enough to shock mainstream political reporters, unfamiliar with “how dangerous it could be for voters to feel shamed and censored — and how quickly a liberating joke could corkscrew into a weapon.” (“I don’t understand how the president can make an attack like that.” — Jake Tapper, emphasis mine. The dirt-simple answer for which is overlooked by a seasoned reporter like Tapper because he is seasoned.) The Unethical Appeal is the song of adolescence: the rise out of you is all that matters. As rhetoric, it’s less of an attempt to persuade than a bomb threat to get school canceled. Not everyone laughed out loud, but Trump’s voters walked out of class anyway.

Even worse, the joke is direly unfunny — it needs to be explained. This was an election won — and an administration conducted — in bad faith. What a person feels in their heart of hearts is for them to know, but Trump has done much worse than bear personal animus. “Birtherism” rested on the assumption that those who don’t look like you must have cheated, that they do not deserve what should be reserved for people who do look like you and are from the same place you come from. Possibly not even “racism” does justice to this vicious selfishness. The President of the United States names and points, telling his supporters who to blame, a rallying call — against immigrants, Muslims — that human beings aren’t good enough or strong enough to resist. It’s no secret that he does this not out of some ideology with which we might disagree, but in order to stay on TV and hear distant cheers. The true reason for his illegitimacy — Russian interference or not — is that he makes America worse.

The Unethical Appeal is a permanent part of Internet culture — its founding rhetoric, perhaps. It’s a cheat code, nonbiodegradable trash. A rhetoric is a kind of technology, and we would just as soon vanquish the Unethical Appeal as we would bring back factory jobs, or speak to one another on the phone. Its pervasive role in the election — and the elevation of those for whom the Unethical Appeal is their sole expertise — is what’s truly unprecedented; I imagine it also accounts for the distinct feeling that we’re living in a revenge porn of a country.

But people who reject the Unethical Appeal are still subject to it. Identity politics and “political correctness” are defended on their antagonists’ terms. Troubleshooting techniques on hand — leaning on the targeted to sign off, fact-checking on, or waiting for corporate social media to act in our best interests — have all been found wanting. But an almost anti-rhetorical show of strength seems to be working. Service was nonexistent at the Women’s March in D.C. — it’s possible I hadn’t read a tweet in hours. At a burger joint sometime after five, when a newscast showed Chicago and L.A. and London, a cheer went up. During its rocky organization, and while the zeitgeist was scanned for its after-effects, it was said that the march could have been better articulated; perhaps that is as it should be: a powerfully inarticulate expression of opposition.

The recommendations of “Authority and American Usage” are just maybe instructive for the historical moment. When A Dictionary of Modern American Usage makes its case for the value of prescriptive grammar, Wallace fawns over Garner’s style — reasonable, democratic, and so much less pointy-headed and elitist than somebody. Searching for a way to describe it, Wallace looks up “authority” in the dictionary. After the first definition — about the right to power, obedience, and judgment — he finds this: “2. Power to influence or persuade resulting from knowledge or experience.”

In his op-ed defending BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the “golden shower” dossier, editor-in-chief Ben Smith argued that a gatekeeper’s secrecy makes less sense than trusting his audience enough to show them a document that had already been in the possession of both their representatives in government and news organizations for some time. The “purity and incorruptibility” of traditional reporting he dismisses out of hand. A lot is at stake here — and let’s allow that the responsibility for false equivalences lies ultimately with those who make them (“FAKE NEWS”) and not with those who may have invited them. Transparency — showing readers your journalistic work — is an interesting, open question to Smith. For whatever reason, credibility — a reader-citizen’s capacity to trust that which she hasn’t seen with her own eyes — is not.

A contempt for the media is nearly unanimous; it’s a song lyric, a night tweet from the current White House, and a lament of the resistance Left. The remark is typically made without any consideration of where a media absent authority leaves us. With max efficiency we were delivered to the bottom of a slippery slope — Facebook made fraud easy and profitable; fakes were seen more than real news was read. Twitter proved a brutally effective technology for the siege — propaganda, harassment — but not the besieged. The question is how to restore the authority of journalism — not as a given, but according to the “knowledge or experience” with which it performs its role in our democracy. CNN and Fox News on mute at the airport does not an informed citizenry make. We might want to subscribe to a magazine with more full-time fact-checkers than the zero employed by companies with cool native ad templates. Or we could read that newspaper the president says is on its last legs. When I ran this argument by a friend of mine, he thought I was “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” None of this is going to be easy; I don’t imagine I make it any easier on myself by mounting a defense of elite journalism and calling for throwing out at least part of the baby. Still: now is the time to say that the disruption of journalism was led by tech companies that are moral failures.

An authority is one that can tell us which rule is truly arbitrary and which rule preserves meaning. “People who eat that kind of mushroom often get sick.” — Wallace’s own pithy demonstration of grammatical value. (If you can spot that error, try to parse: “By law he can’t have conflicts.”) Twitter and Facebook were created to fill market niches, not to do the things that they are most often used for. This “open platform” ideology held even as they proved to be optimized primarily for rampant abuse and the generation of profitable user data. Their significant potential for political organizing is skewed by self-congratulation. “Twitter’s amplification of marginal voices and contributions to comedy stand alone. (Facebook — its user growth at an all-time high — is, as ever, described by its most devoted users as a complete waste of time.) Together, the two are offering us little but mushrooms that often make us sick.

“A&AU”‘s other recommendation comes at the outset: a “Democratic Spirit,” defined as a “passionate conviction plus a sedulous respect for the convictions of others.” I doubt it’s just me who finds this ethic concedes that which we can no longer afford. “The premise for empathy has to be equal humanity,” wrote Adichie — a premise impossible to square with Trump’s 63 million votes. What could it mean otherwise? The American cultural divide is literal, geographical: rural and urban. If we live inside bubbles, we should ask ourselves if at least something on those glistening surfaces represents a value worth holding on to. In the last few years, I’ve spent a good deal of time in the Midwest. The people are lovely, we shake hands, I’m welcomed into their homes. But in the places they live, there’s less countryside and more vast parking lots of chain stores, sprawl in neon and gray. It is American culture as advertised from sea to shining sea, in long aisles where people — who have been told that they are all different — confront a market-scape made for everyone indistinguishably. In contrast, urban America offers all sorts of people one hasn’t met before, and a cultural distinctiveness that, while it may include $18 cold brews ripe for parody, is vital, diverse. Living in cities best embodies the Democratic Spirit — again, a nearly impossible argument to make during a real-estate boom that’s done much to make our country almost feudal with inequality.

Writing about Obama’s invocation of Selma in his farewell speech, and his longstanding rhetoric about American unity in general, Ezekiel Kweku noted, “The victories won by those marchers weren’t about consensus, about ‘our’ decision to change; they were about one vision of what America should be confronting and defeating a competing vision. ‘We, the people’ wasn’t all of us.” Part of the election-shock came from the lingering presumption that a people, or a country itself, could be, by nature, good. This is a mistake, a misplaced modifier, an obvious typo even. It might take a while for the truth to prevail. But if we hold out for the word that belongs to us all, and to which we are all equally subject, the truth is, it won’t.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in The Literary Hub, Full Stop, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Tweets bimonthly at @byMCMah.


  1. Oh, boo hoo! Get over yourself already. You lost. Conservatives had to put up with Obama’s 8 years of lies, liberal BS and global impotence. Trump, warts and all, will at least keep us safe, stimulate the economy and put people to work. Good riddance to PC, limp-wienied liberalism, we gonna Make America Great Again whether you like it or not!

  2. Good argument, Kirk. Well thought-out and nuanced. I was particularly swayed by the numerous citations to reliable sources that you helpfully provided to support your stance.

  3. Kirk, spot-on ol chap! Like you I heartily welcome Trump’s racist, hard-cocked faux-conservatism.

  4. Bernie, who needs sources, I just stated self-evident facts.

    And toad, Trump is trying to protect us. Call it what you want, but if you were tasked with keeping an entire nation safe, I hope you would put PC aside and do what you must.

  5. Kirk,

    No he isn’t. Are you seriously this stupid? How/why did you find your way to this site, I’m genuinely curious. Does some Drudge-style alarm start going off on top of your Commodore 64 when someone is mean about Trump?

  6. Kirk,

    Every serious policy analyst on planet Earth is in agreement that a Muslim ban 1) does nothing to prevent attacks and actually makes us more susceptible, by 2) serving as free advertising for ISIL. The vetting process for immigration is already comprehensive, sometimes taking years. This is not about making people safer, it is about throwing red meat to people like yourself, who hate Muslims.

    This is, of course, obvious to any regular reader here, but I thought I’d take the time to spell it out for you, though of course, that was stupid of me since it won’t have any effect. There goes 10 minutes I’ll never get back. Sad!

  7. Swog,
    No, I hate no one. I have been enjoying TheMillions for about 10 years. I may be a Trump supporter but I’m actually a man of culture and breeding. I know the stereotype is toothless rednecks with 8th grade educations. Not true of us all. The Left just doesn’t know what to think about a non-politician who is actually getting things done. Your’e used to community organizers who stir people to shoot cops, and government agencies to lie and obfuscate.

  8. Kirk,

    “A man of culture and breeding?” This has to be a joke account.

    And yeah, sorry, but I just don’t believe the Venn diagram of Trump supporters–especially ones credulous enough to believe he’s “getting things done” and “keeping us safe–and people who read a lot (besides Breitbart and WND) contains even the tiniest oval in the middle.

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