Katrina and Words

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Just two months ago, I wrote an article here about incompetence, which began:

"Incompetence at all things has become a major part of American life. We are becoming resigned to the fact, quite complacent about it really, that the people of just a few generations ago were far better at solving problems than we are."

And I blamed "an artificial stupidity induced in us by politicians and lawyers."

A month later, along came Hurricane Katrina, and provided a major proof of this theorem. So let's take another cut at the topic in the light of all the fresh evidence.

Since the beginnings of language, humans have always lived in two worlds, a world of words and another of things. The words stood for the things, but the things themselves are ignorant of the words and uninfluenced by them. This is a very important and usually misunderstood fact, because we are so impressed by what we regard as the power of language that we constantly are making up myths in which words have power over things. God starts the whirlwind with a word, and man stays it with another word to God. Myths about magic are nothing else than a primitive paean to the power of words.

Because we so easily confuse words with things, we rarely remember that we live in two worlds. But the word is not the thing itself, as a philosopher named Count Korzybski, beloved of science fiction writers in the '60's, was fond of saying. Talking about hurricanes gives us no power over them.

Humans are most successful at managing the external world when they remember that language is nothing more than a rather inadequate means of reporting what we have done and talking about what needs to be done next. (Language is highly over-rated as a means of communication.) Humans get into severe trouble when they slide so far into a world of talk that they start confusing words with deeds, and think that any problem is solved with the right language, forgetting that anything needs to be done in the external world.

I submit that for fifty years or more, Americans have lived in a world of words. It comes naturally to lawyers and politicians (most politicians, after all, are lawyers) to believe that the word is the thing itself. If you think about it, a lawsuit is a construct entirely of words, torrents of them, in which he who controls the language best--finds the phrasing which will penetrate the virgin minds of an impartial jury--wins. Congress hurls tons of words around every day; legislation is an edifice of words; and in politics, as in law, the winner is the one who best shapes and hurls language. The Republicans took ownership of the word "liberal" and made it a badge of shame; and the Republicans run America today.

The result has been that the one with the best spin is the one who controls the power. An analysis of the political language of the last couple of decades clearly illunminates where the power has flowed, and why: Democrats talking about "compassion" have lost power to Republicans talking about "evil-doers". The Republicans came in with a stronger, starker story. But the problem, so typical of lawyers in an age when we do not have strong leaders mindful of external things, is that we have fallen into the primitive fallacy of believing that we solve problems by talking about them.

Al Qaeda and then Iraq of course were both good examples of where this fails. Presidential language about Al Qaeda was primitive and effective, but only to those in our camp; this language was largely unheard by, and when heard was meaningless or provocative to, the population that produces the people who walk into crowded places with dynamite strapped around them. And so they have continued to walk. In Iraq, we talked a good war, and even declared it won at what seemed the appropriate moment, completely forgetting that talk doesn't win wars, and that to fight one effectively you still need to think about things like the number of troops on the ground, effective body armor and the like.

I could write a book on the poisonous role of talk in wars and other disasters: the spin we gave "smart weapons" in the first Gulf war, versus their actual ineffectiveness in the material world; the incessant talk about body counts and the like in the Vietnam war, possibly the first war we ever lost by believing in the power of words over things.

Karl Rove is the word-master in the Bush administration; he is the one who artfully shapes the language that will retain control of the power. But what we saw when Katrina hit, for at least one long stark moment, was the two worlds shorn from each other; the world of words, in which everything was handled, everyone was fine; and the world of the real, in which a city drowned, crowds collected in stadiums and other public buildings without law or succor, for weeks on end, because nobody, from the president down, knew how to do anything other than talk.

The president's words to his highly inexperienced and incompetent FEMA administrator, "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job," didn't make it so. The president's highly unusual words (for a Republican) about the perncious effects of racial inequality in Louisiana will not create any change in the real world. And all the language about not playing "the blame game" (while pointing the finger weakly downwards, blaming the governor of Louisiana and the mayor of New Orleans) does not of course get relief to the people on the ground any faster.

What is lacking (as it usually is in these situations) is any commitment to separate the two worlds from each other, downgrade the importance we assign to words, and learn how to deal with external things any better.

The Bush administration discovered that you can't spin a hurricane. The hurricane spins you.