Zombified Words Leave Us Only Able to Bray at One Another

November 12, 2020 Updated: November 17, 2020


So far as I know, I’ve never met Kerrie Gillis, but I get an e-mail from her practically every day, urging me to subscribe to the new New Republic (or TNR as it seems to prefer to be known), the monthly magazine of which she is the publisher. I am honored with this invitation, I assume, because I was a subscriber long ago, when the old New Republic was still a serious weekly magazine worth reading, even when one disagreed with it.

But if Ms. Gillis is trying to persuade me to come back into the fold and that her magazine is still worth reading, even when one disagrees with it, she is going a very odd way about it. Her most recent e-mail is headed “What do we do about all these Trump supporters?”

I don’t know about you, but I felt a certain chill on reading those words. I thought they sounded just a little like Lenin’s saying, in 1921, “What do we do about all these Mensheviks?” Or Mao Zedong in 1966 saying: “What do we do about all these bourgeois revisionists?”

Ms. Gillis may or may not be a revolutionary leader newly come to power, but she writes as though she thinks she is one. And for a revolutionary leader in power, to ask questions like these is to answer them.

“We,” you see, can be automatically assumed to include only those for whom Trump supporters are “the other”: an undifferentiated mass of counter-revolutionaries with whom it is pointless to reason.

In the same way, last Sunday’s column by Maureen Dowd in The New York Times was headed: “We Hereby Dump Trump.” There, too, “we” sounds inclusive but is only meant to comprise herself and those of her fellow Trump-haters who have been trying to “dump” the president ever since he was elected.

Ms. Gillis’s purpose in her e-mail is to puff a piece for the magazine by Andrew Cohen in which he writes of his own interactions with Trump-supporting friends and family: “You can argue all day with a jackass, but in the end, it will still be a jackass, and you’ll have wasted a day.”

Needless to say, I suppose, he doesn’t stop to consider the matter from the point of view of the jackass, which must be saying to itself: “You can argue all day with Andrew Cohen, but in the end, he is still Andrew Cohen, and you’ll have wasted a day.”

Is the one jackass any more or less of a jackass than the other?

The problem, it seems to me, lies in that word “argue”—a noble word that formerly implied a reasoned discussion around a subject of which more than one reasonable view may be taken. Mr. Cohen, though he may not realize it himself, is pretending to use the word in that older sense—as it might have been used in the old New Republic—while actually using it in the much more often intended newer sense of “exchange insults with.”

To call someone a jackass is not an argument. Nor is it to call him a “racist,” a “misogynist,” or a “narcissist,” all words used to describe President Trump—and, by extension, those supporters she is pretending not to know what to do about—in Ms. Gillis’s e-mail.

They are used in a quotation from the lament of a basketball coach named Stan Van Gundy for certain old friends and colleagues whom he also, presumably, considers to be racists, misogynists, and narcissists for supporting the President, though why he should regret his estrangement from such people as that is unclear.

All these words, like “argue,” have been zombiefied and drained of their meaning, which is their life-blood, in order to be weaponized against Mr. Trump. They are used like Homeric epithets—the “wine-dark sea” or “the rosy-fingered dawn”—so as to be attached to his name by sheer repetition and accompany it wherever it may appear in the media, like the leper’s bell and cry of “Unclean! Unclean!”

I used to think I knew what “narcissist/narcissism” meant and could even use it in a sentence. But it doesn’t mean that, anymore. Now it has been used so often to describe Mr. Trump that it has no other meaning. The old joke about how, if you look up “narcissist” in the dictionary, you will see a picture of Donald Trump has come true, apparently.

But if “narcissist” and “Trump” are equivalent terms, just as the person can have no further existence apart from it, so it can have no further usefulness apart from the insult.

It’s a kind of scorched-earth approach to the language of public discourse to make such words, which once meant something public and rational and subject to argument, now signify nothing but “someone of whom I highly disapprove.”

Any reasonable argument about whether or not this or that word or action on the part of him to whom the epithet is applied is now irrelevant, since the language needed to make such an argument has been destroyed.

It’s hard for me to see how argument itself can ever again be anything but the braying of jackasses.

James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The author of “Honor: A History,” he is a movie critic for the American Spectator and the media critic for the New Criterion. 

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.