Words and the End of American Democracy

As someone who scribbles a lot, I get upset when words, through misuse, become meaningless or misleading, particularly important words, like ‘fuck’ or ‘freedom’ or ‘fun.’

 Back in the dark ages – when I was a student – a writer I used to enjoy called George Steiner wrote a series of essays about how Hitler’s rhetoric weakened the German language, draining much of its meaning.  This was my first encounter with this kind of discussion.  Since then, as I said, it makes me crazy when someone like Ronald Reagan calls Somoza’s torturers, the Nicaraguan Contras, ‘freedom fighters;’ or when Fox News calls our moderate and centrist President a ‘socialist.’

Languages are alive.  If we don’t take care of them, they can get sick and die.  They can be murdered.  Yes, languages are resilient, they can take a lot of abuse, but I’m not sure the English language has ever been as abused as it is today, with plutocratic politicians and corporate media, saturating our lives, the airwaves, the internet, public discourse etc. with Orwellian propaganda.

It seems to me that our public discourse has been degraded to the point where it is almost impossible to have a discussion about any difficult issue because the words we use have been damaged so much.  Take the word ‘individualism.’  I have heard it thrown around a lot recently by stock market traders, politicians, and CEOs among others.  It is used to justify Wall Street criminality and greed, as if being an individualist means being able to do anything you like, as if care for your community and the welfare of others were somehow un-American and a sign of weakness.  This is the kind of crap that Ayn Rand goes on about.  ‘Individualism’ can be used today in the US to justify any horror perpetrated by the so-called free market (child labor, for example) in exactly the same way as the word ‘communism’ can and has justified mass starvation.  Can we get beyond these ridiculous and empty isms already and do some clear, sane thinking?


Individuals and communities are just as important as each other.  In fact, it is not possible to define one without the other.  In a democracy, this is the starting point.  Ayn Rand was educated in a public university.  Think about it.  Bill Gates built his empire on the invention of the United States Army.  The most successful people are strong individuals, yes, but nobody ever does anything on their own.

I wrote a book recently.  Yes, I’m a clever boy.  Yes, I was the one who put the words on the page, making decisions about order, rhythm, imagery etc.  Yes, I have a talent.  But I’d be very, very stupid (like Rand) if I thought that I wrote the book alone.  Or, to put it another way, if I were alone, there would be no book.  Books are by definition the products of civilized society, products of community, products of the individual in community.

Bill Gates did not earn all of those billions of dollars.  We all did.  By encouraging Bill to think that he did it all by himself, our society has done everyone, including Bill himself, a great disservice.  In fact, we have destroyed our democracy.  And it may be too late.


About Aidan

Husband. Father. Teacher. Dramatist. Essayist. Novelist. Professional Actor. Fundraiser. Organic farmer. Student of Yoga, popular science, politics, philosophy. View all posts by Aidan

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