The dumbing of American political speech has truly apocalyptic implications

NPR reported it this morning, and I listened with rapt attention during my commute to work:

It turns out that the sophistication of congressional speech-making is on the decline, according to the open government group the Sunlight Foundation. Since 2005, the average grade level at which members of Congress speak has fallen by almost a full grade…The Sunlight Foundation took the entire Congressional Record dating back to the 1990s and plugged it into a searchable database. Lee Drutman, a political scientist at Sunlight, took all those speeches and ran them through an algorithm to determine the grade level of congressional discourse. “We just kind of did it for fun, and I was kind of shocked when I plotted that data and I saw that, oh my God, there’s been a real drop-off in the last several years,” he says. In 2005, Congress spoke at an 11.5 grade level on the Flesch-Kincaid scale. Now, it’s 10.6. In other words, Congress dropped from talking like juniors to talking like sophomores. Flesch-Kinkaid equates higher grade levels with longer sentences and words with more syllables.

— Tamara Keith, “Sophomoric? Members of Congress Talk Like 10th Graders, Analysis Shows,” NPR, May 21, 2012

This is of course right in line with the general trend of America’s linguistic devolution and infantilization that has been underway for several decades now. A few years ago I published a post here about its specifically literary manifestation. If you’ll pardon me the indulgence of quoting myself (since there’s crossover interest with today’s NPR story):

[T]he whole thing [is] attributable to a generalized move from a culture where print and concepts are more central to one where images are more central…For confirmation one can just compare most of today’s mainstream, best-selling books with the popular best-sellers of an earlier era and note the differences. Dickens is of course the arch-example from 19th century England. He was wildly popular with the everyday crowd, and yet his prose is demonstrably more complex — I’m talking quantifiably, in terms of the various “reading level” measurements that teachers commonly apply to texts to find out whether they’re suitable for students of certain ages and capabilities — than the overwhelming majority of current best-selling books, both fiction and nonfiction. And what you find when you examine the matter is that this shift is bound up with the move towards a culture where text-based communication has become subsumed under the wider and ever-expanding purview of an all-pervasive mass media realm where visual images are more dominant and therefore texts are progressively changed to fit comfortably into that milieu. (Have you checked out the way even popular magazines like People have altered themselves in the past two decades to become simpler and more akin on every page to TV screens or Webpages?)

— “Hemingway, media culture, and the impoverishment of modern English,” August 16, 2008

This is also, of course, the very same trend that Neil Postman referred to in Amusing Ourselves to Death (which continues to emerge as a truly prophetic book, in the profound socio-religious sense, with each passing day, month, and year) when he issued his now-famous “Huxleyan warning” in the final chapter, where he argued that in this age of the mass electronic media’s total transformation of society and culture, we’re living not in Orwell’s 1984-ish future of a top-down totalitarian dystopia but in Huxley’s Brave New World-ish future of a dystopia-by-default, engineered by popular consent. He wrote,

There are two ways by which the spirit of a culture may be shriveled. In the first — the Orwellian — culture becomes a prison. In the second — the Huxleyan — culture becomes a burlesque…What Huxley teaches is that in the age of advanced technology, spiritual devastation is more likely to come from an enemy with a smiling face than from one whose countenance exudes suspicion and hate. In the Huxleyan prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours. There is no need for wardens or gates or Ministries of Truth. When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby talk, when, in short, a people become an audience and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.

— Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), emphasis added

If this sounds disheartening on a veritably cosmic scale, we cannot, I think, take comfort in the response to the new information about the dumbing of America’s political discourse that NPR’s Tamara Keith received when she went fishing for it. After reporting that “Of the 10 members speaking at the lowest grade level, all but two are freshmen, and every one is a Republican,” and after quoting Sunlight’s Drutman that “Particularly among the newest members of Congress, as you move out from the center and toward either end of the political spectrum, the grade level goes down, and that pattern is particularly pronounced on the right,” Ms. Keith shares this response to all of these findings from a Republican consultant who endeavors to sound unruffled by them:

Frank Luntz, a Republican consultant and language guru, puts it this way: “It’s not an issue of dumbing it down; it’s an issue of cleaning it up.” He says there was a time when members seemed to use the biggest, most complicated phrases possible and didn’t really worry about whether the public could understand them. Now, he says, members are no longer just talking to each other. They’re talking to the public through cable TV and YouTube. “Life has changed,” Luntz says. “They not only expect but they demand that members of Congress communicate in a way that is more understandable and more meaningful to them.”

As I listened to Luntz speaking these words this morning, I immediately wondered about the generic and apparently ubiquitous “them” to whom he referred. Who exactly are “they,” the people for whom “communicating in a way that is more understandable and more meaningful” means turning serious public conversation into a form of baby-talk? Ms. Keith was thinking one step ahead of me, however, and helpfully answered my unspoken, indignant query by informing me, or rather reminding me, that “The average reading level of Americans is between eighth and ninth grade.”

Despite this sad demographic and educational/cultural fact, the efforts of people like Luntz to try and justify and/or explain away the devolution of political language are nothing but rationalizations and sophistry. Nobody is well-served when people whose ostensible purpose is to serve as leaders begin catering to linguistic childishness, or worse, falling victim to it themselves in their own psyches and sensibilities. And it’s not just the life or death of a viable culture that’s at stake here. We’re talking about the life or death of human civilization, and perhaps even of the human race itself. Aside from the ever-pressing issues of climate change, economic collapse, and peak fossil fuels with their respective Armageddon-level possibilities, the world is in a truly precarious state right now with respect geopolitical tensions (which of course interact synergistically with those other issues).

Only last week, the U.S. envoy to Israel announced that “at a certain point, we may have to make a judgment that the diplomacy will not work” with regard to sanctions on Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program, and assured Israel that although the U.S. hopes it will not be necessary to use military force against Iran, “that doesn’t mean that option is not fully available. Not just available, but it’s ready. The necessary planning has been done to ensure that it’s ready.” (See “US envoy to Israel: US ready to strike Iran,” AP, May 17.) Reuters reported on the same day that, according to officials and other people close to Israel’s government, the top Israeli elite, after having made very hawkish pronouncements earlier this year about the possibility of attacking Iran, has suddenly clammed up. “Their language of late has been more guarded,” says Reuters’ Michael Stott, “and clues to their intentions more difficult to discern. ‘The top of the government has gone into lockdown,’ one official said. ‘Nobody is saying anything publicly. That in itself tells you a lot about where things stand.'” Another “senior Israeli figure” with “close ties to the leadership” said, “I think they have made a decision to attack. It is going to happen.” This person even stated a probable time frame of, basically, right now: “The window of opportunity is before the U.S. presidential election in November. This way they will bounce the Americans into supporting them.” Stott points out that an attack on Iran would have “such potentially devastating consequences across the volatile Middle East that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas even went so far as to predict in an interview with Reuters last week that it would be ‘the end of the world.'” He ends the piece by drawing an explicit parallel between the position of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and that of Winston Churchill in the 1930s, invoking the memory of Churchill’s (ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to stop Hitler during the latter’s rise to power, when other European leaders wanted to appease him. “But Churchill,” writes Stott,

although eloquent on the dangers posed by the rise of Nazi Germany during the 1930s, ultimately failed to prevent Hitler’s ascent to power, the world war he unleashed or the Holocaust in which six million Jews were murdered. Netanyahu, those who know him say, is determined to avoid going down in history as the man who shirked his opportunity to stop Iran going nuclear.

— Michael Stott, “Iran attack decision nears, Israel elite locks down,” Reuters, May 17, 2012

So we are truly looking at the possibility of another world war being launched any time now. It’s all a terribly tangled and complex situation with almost inconceivably high stakes. And, to bring things back around to the overarching point, is this really a circumstance in which we, an American public that reads (and thus thinks and understands) on an eighth/ninth-grade level, need politicians who speak to us, and in many cases who authentically think about the world in their own right, on a junior high level as well? Certainly, high culture and linguistic savvy do not automatically make anyone, including politicians, virtuous or reasonable — the Nazi elite, remember, represented one of the most exquisitely cultured, educated, and linguistically sophisticated political regimes in history — but then, neither do childish and simplistic thinking and speaking, which can only lead to bona fide disaster in situations like this. For evidence, just witness America’s entire history in the twenty-first century, which is still, ominously, very young.

About Matt Cardin


Posted on May 21, 2012, in Government & Politics, Society & Culture and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.

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