Trumps speech redundant, formulaic, aggressive, post-literate is everywhere. The language of resistance, by contrast, doesnt exist
By May 1945, Nazi Germany lay in ruins. Church domes succumbed to firestorms. The megalomaniacal designs of Albert Speer, Adolf Hitlers court architect, caved in under the onslaught of aerial bombs and mortar shells. On this lunar landscape, one period edifice endured: Nazi language.
In his 1947 book Language of the Third Reich, Viktor Klemperer, a German-Jewish philologist, chronicled the way in which fascism had changed the German tongue. All around him tainted officials were being fired, streets renamed, libraries purged. But this language had become so entrenched as to appear indelible. Not the hate-filled speeches, Klemperer felt, that were Hitlers surest propaganda weapon, but the individual words, the expressions, the formulations repeated ad nauseam for citizens to adopt and pass on, mindlessly.
In response, the writing born in this squalor known as rubble or clear-cutter literature set out to self-denazify. Postwar Germanys bards wrote about the simplest of things in the simplest of languages. If their works read like lists of pancake ingredients or threadbare belongings it is because they were.
In the wake of Nazism, these writers intuited, language required deliberate use. Still, there was a lingering sense that the efforts were too little, too late, as their countrymen and -women carried on with the characteristic superlatives, hyperboles and extermination-related coinages. Many abide to this day.
Its not only fascism. Authoritarianism of any shade warps language in lasting ways. Newspeak spreads fast and furious. Language is like air. You realize how important it is only when it is messed up. Then it can kill you, the Nobel laureate Herta Mller once cautioned, recalling communism.
Resistance, then, needs and breeds a language: this much was obvious to the German clear-cutters, decolonization activists the world over or Soviet-bloc dissidents. But it has yet to dawn on Donald Trumps opponents.
Instead of a new anger-channeling lexicon, there is a tide of borrowings. For months, the oppositions English has absorbed Trumps idiom by the mouthful, from nasty woman to grab a pussy. The Democrats wield the slogan Make America Sick Again against the Republican repeal of Obamacare, and the New York Times runsheadlines ending in Sad!
But the irony that fuels this headlong push to colonize and parody, subversive as it may first seem, does little but reproduce the familiar speech bubbles. Worse, it creates a distance, as irony does, where proximity full language ownership is urgently needed.
To follow the lead of a president-elect who popularized saying what everyone is thinking, as journalist Julia Ioffe puts it, has become the gold standard of social media ripostes to Trump, many embellished with the F-word.
Its true that mat, which is obscene language banned from public use by Vladimir Putin in 2014, has been a well-known instrument of defiance in Russia. But with enough Russian imports to go around, America must devise its own expression of dissent. If history is any indication, it cant be the repurposed language of Trump. Whence the obliviousness to this need?
Its possible to chalk it up to Americas inexperience with authoritarianism, although this should be to its credit. But the real reason is infrastructural. Compared to most other places, the country pays little heed to language. Outside the educators associations and lone initiatives, no academies, institutes or advisory boards propel the topic into the public sphere. Not since HL Mencken has thinking about the American language its diversity, its emancipatory potential garnered nationwide attention, and he died over six decades ago.
Instead, the burden of thinking about the issue has fallen to immigrants and minorities. Language has been on their minds at work, at home and even abroad. In 1979, James Baldwin pondered parlaying Black English into power while in France. People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate, he poignantly observed.
The way out now is to stop outsourcing and establish that language matters for all Americans, always, but especially in radical moments of transition in governance. Inspirations for affecting the political winds by changing the language need not come from Europe. In 1983, in the small west African nation of Upper Volta, Cpt Thomas Sankara was aided to presidency by a military-led coup backed by a leftist coalition.
During his short time in office, Sankara sparked his peoples collective imagination about their place in the world. He renamed the country Burkina Faso, or the land of the upright people, jettisoning its old colonial name. Sankaras revolution radically rethought national priorities, shifting power to the upright people the Burkinab, and especially to the poor.
Sankara argued that Burkinab needed a new vocabulary to overcome the imperialist past that still lived on in concepts imposed by the colonizers. The change in language accompanied sweeping political change. In a 1984 speech to the UN, he spoke for those left behind, noting that [o]ur revolution in Burkina Faso embraces misfortunes of all peoples. Railing against international banks, he argued that debt is neo-colonialism. He condemned the capitalist system as structurally unjust and periodically unhinged. In these stormy times, he asserted, we cannot leave our enemies of yesterday and today with an exclusive monopoly over thought, imagination and creativity.
Sankara was assassinated in 1987 by his elite political enemies, including his former army comrade Blaise Compaor, who ruled for the next three decades. But the nations name, along with Sankaras revolutionary ideas, weathered Compaors authoritarianism. Nearly 30 years after the murder, memories of Sankara recently inspired the Burkinab to oust Compaor, forcing him into exile and calling him to account for his role in the crime. The rudiments of a new vocabulary helped mobilize a new generation of activists to change their world.
Vocabularies of resistance have germinated among US-based progressives, isolated though each instance remains. Reverend William Barbers has repeatedly called for a new moral language to aid with the nations moral defibrillation.
Bernie Sanderss presidential campaign rhetoric routinely skewered the oligarchy and billionaire class. Native American protesters against the Dakota Access pipeline have brought water protectors into everyday parlance, and Black Lives Matter is now both a rallying cry and a movement focused on the struggle for black, and all, peoples liberation.
But only broad linguistic disobedience can move beyond the liberal-conservative, left-right dualities that have proved so damaging to American politics. In a famous 1946 essay, George Orwell recommended starting at the verbal end to change the course of events. This can be a silver lining of the Trump years. Because finding a language of resistance doesnt take linguists or writers.
It takes citizens who grasp, as Baldwin did, the importance of this foremost political instrument, means, and proof of power.
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