WAR AND THE CRISIS OF LANGUAGE







The draft of this article was written by Merton in 1968. It was not published till after his death: in 1969 as an essay in The Critique of War: Contemporary Philosophical Explorations, edited by Robert Ginsberg (Chicago, Henry Regnery Company).





The Romans, to speak generally, rely on

force in all their enterprises and think it

incumbent upon them to carry out their projects

in spite of all, and that nothing is

impossible when they have once decided upon it.

Polybius




I.




Long before George Steiner pointed out that the German language was one of the casualties of Naziism and World War II, Brice Parain in France had studied the "word sickness" of 1940, the mortal illness of journalese and political prose that accompanied the collapse of France. In proportion as the country itself accepted the denatured prose of Vichy--in which peace meant aggression and liberty meant oppression--it lost its identity and its capacity for valid action. It succumbed to "a full armed language without practical application." This, Parain reflected, had already happened before, in World War I, when words meant one thing in the trenches and another behind the lines. (See Sartre's essay on Parain in Situations I [Paris, 1947], p. 192.)

The reflections that follow are random and spontaneous insights--less of a philosopher than of a poet. For poets are perhaps the ones who, at the present moment, are most sensitive to the sickness of language-a sickness that, infecting all literature with nausea, prompts us not so much to declare war on conventional language as simply to pick up and examine intently a few chosen pieces of linguistic garbage.

But of course, one does not have to be endowed with a peculiar poetic sensibility, still less with political genius, to recognize that official statements made in Washington, about the Vietnam war, for instance, are symptoms of a national-indeed worldwide-illness. Nor is it very hard to see that race riots and assassinations are also symptoms of the same illness, while they are also (and this is more important) a kind of universal language. Perhaps one might better call them an anti-language, a concrete expression of something that is uttered in fire and bullets rather than in words. And this in itself expresses an acute awareness of the gap between words and actions that is characteristic of modern war, because it is also characteristic of political life in general.

The malaise is universal. There is no need to quote a Swedish poet to prove it. But these lines from Gunnar Ekelof may serve as an aperitif for what is to follow. He begins his poem "Sonata For Denatured Prose" in these words:



crush the alphabet between your teeth yawn

vowels, the fire is burning in hell vomit and

spit now or never I and dizziness you or never

dizziness now or never.

crush the alphabet between your teeth yawn

vowels, the fire is burning in hell vomit and

spit now or never I and dizziness you or never

dizziness now or never.

we will begin over.

crush the alphabet macadam and your teeth

yawn vowels, the sweat runs in hell I am dying

in the convolutions of my brain vomit now or

never dizziness I and you.

(Gunnar Ekelof: Late Arrival on Earth, selected Poems, trans. Robert Bly & Christine Paulston [London: 1967],p. 63)







There is no need to complete the poem. It is an angry protest against contemporary, denatured language. Ironically, it declares that ordinary modes of communication have broken down into banality and deception. It suggests that violence has gradually come to take the place of other, more polite, communications. Where there is such a flood of words that all words are unsure, it becomes necessary to make one's meaning clear with blows; or at least one explores this as a valid possibility.

II.




Meanwhile, it is interesting to observe that religion too has reacted to the same spastic upheaval of language. I do not here refer to the phenomenon of a radical "God is Dead" theology--which in effect is our effort to reshape the language of religion in a last-minute attempt to save it from a plague of abstractness and formalism. This phenomenon is of course important. And so much has been said about it already--perhaps a great deal more than the subject deserves. I merely want to point out, in passing, that the fifties and sixties of our century have witnessed a curious revival of glossolalia--"speaking in tongues." Without attempting to evaluate this as charisma, I will at least say that it is significant in a context of religious and linguistic spasm. It is in own way an expression of a curious kind of radicalism, a reaction to a religious language that is (perhaps obscurely) felt to be inadequate. But it is also, it seems to me, a reaction to something else. Glossolalia has flowered most abundantly in the United States, in fundamentalist

Pentecostal sects of white Protestants, and perhaps most often in the South about the time of the Freedom Rides and nonviolent civil rights demonstrations. (I do not have much information on what has taken place most recently.) This was also the time when the cold war was finally building up to the Cuba Crisis and the U.S. intervention Vietnam was about to begin. Surely there is something interesting about this. At a time when the churches were at last becoming easily are of a grave responsibility to say something about civil rights and nuclear war, the ones who could be least expected to be articulate on such subjects (and who often had solid dogmatic prejudices that foreclosed all discussion) began to cry out in unknown tongues.



At precisely the same moment, the Roman Catholic Church was abandoning its ancient liturgical language, the medieval Latin that was unknown to most of its members, and speaking out in a vernacular that many critics found disconcertingly banal and effete. If I refer to these things, it is not in scorn or in criticism. They are simply further expressions of a universal uneasiness about language--a sense of anxiety lest speech become entirely deceptive and unreal.

Can this apply to glossolalia? Of course. Fundamentalist religion assumes that the "unknown language" spoken "in the Spirit" is (though unintelligible) more real than the ordinary tired everyday language that everybody knows too well. Whether or not one believes that simple Texas housewives can burst out in the dialects of New Guinea headhunters, under direct inspiration from God, there is here a significant implication that ordinary language is not good enough, and that there is something else which is at once more real and less comprehensible Has ordinary language somehow failed?

I do not wish to hazard all sorts of incompetent guesses about something I have not studied and do not intend to study. But one thing is quite evident about this phenomenon. He who speaks in an unknown tongue can safely speak without fear of contradiction. His utterance is definitive in the sense that it forecloses all dialogue. As St. Paul complained, if you utter a blessing in a strange language the congregation cannot answer "Amen" because it does not know it has been blessed. Such utterance is so final that nothing whatever can be done about it (see I Corinthians 14). I wish to stress this unconscious aspiration to definitive utterance, to which there can be no rejoinder.





III.




Now let us turn elsewhere, to the language of advertisement, which at times approaches the mystic and charismatic heights of glossolalia. Here too, utterance is final. No doubt there are insinuations of dialogue, but really there is no dialogue with an advertisement, just as there was no dialogue between the sirens and the crews they lured to disaster on their rocks. There is nothing to do but be hypnotized and drown, unless you have somehow acquired a fortunate case of deafness. But who can guarantee that he is deaf enough? Meanwhile, it is the vocation of the poet--or anti-poet--not to be deaf to such things but to apply his ear intently to their corrupt charms. An example: a perfume advertisement from The New Yorker (September 17, 1966).

I present the poem as it appears on a full page, with a picture of a lady swooning with delight at her own smell--the smell of Arpege. (Note that the word properly signifies a sound--arpeggio. Aware that we are now smelling music, let us be on our guard!)



For the love of Arpege . . .

There's a new hair spray!

The world's most adored fragrance

now in a hair spray. But not hair spray

as you know it.

A delicate-as-air-spray

Your hair takes on a shimmer and sheen

that's wonderfully young.

You seem to spray new life and bounce

right into it. And a coif of Arpege has

one more thing no other hair spray has.

It has Arpege.





One look at this masterpiece and the anti-poet recognizes himself beaten hands down. This is beyond parody. It must stand inviolate in its own victorious rejection of meaning. We must avoid the temptation to dwell on details: interior rhyme, suggestions of an esoteric cult (the use of our product, besides making you young again, is also a kind of gnostic imitation), of magic (our product gives you a hat of smell--a "coif"--it clothes you in an aura of music-radiance perfume). What I want to point out is the logical structure of this sonata: it is a foolproof tautology, locked tight upon itself, impenetrable, unbreakable, irrefutable. It is endowed with a finality so inviolable that it is beyond debate and beyond reason. Faced with the declaration that "Arpege has Arpege," reason is reduced to silence (I almost said despair). Here again we have an example of speech that is at once totally trivial and totally definitive. It has nothing to do with anything real (although of course the sale of the product is a matter of considerable importance to the manufacturer), but what it says, it says with utter finality.

The unknown poet might protest that he (or she) was not concerned with truth alone but also with beauty--indeed with love. And obviously this too enters into the structure and substance (so to speak) of the text. Just as the argument takes the form of a completely self-enclosed tautological cliche, so the content, the "experience," is one self-enclosed narcissism woven of misty confusion. It begins with the claim that a new hair spray exists solely for love of itself and yet also exists for love of you, baby, because you are somehow subtly identified with Arpege. This perfume is so magic that it not only makes you smell good, it "coifs" you with a new and unassailable identity: it is you who are unassailable because it is you who have somehow come a tautology. And indeed we are reminded that just as Arpege is--or has--Arpege, so, in the popular psychology of women's magazines, "you are eminently lovable because you are just you." When we reflect that the ultimate conceptions of theology and metaphysics have surfaced in such a context--hair spray--we no longer wonder that theologians are tearing their hair and crying that God is dead. After all, when every smell, every taste, every hissing breakfast food is endowed with the transcendental properties of being . . . But let us turn from art, religion, and love to something more serious and more central to the concerns of our time: war.

IV


A classic example of the contamination of reason and speech by the inherent ambiguity of war is that of the U.S. major who, on February 7, 1968 shelled the South Vietnamese town of Bentre "regardless of civilian casualties . . . to rout the Vietcong." As he calmly explained, "It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it." Here we see, again, an insatiable appetite for the tautological, the definitive, the final. It is the same kind of language and logic that Hitler used for his notorious "final solution." The symbol of this perfect finality is the circle. An argument turns upon itself, and the beginning and end get lost: it just goes round and round its own circumference. A message comes in that someone thinks there might be some Vietcong in a certain village. Planes are sent, the village is destroyed, many of the people are killed. The destruction of the village and the killing of the people earn for them a final and official identity. The burned huts become "enemy structures"; the dead men, women, and children become "Vietcong," thus adding to a "kill ratio" that can be interpreted as "favorable." They were thought to be Vietcong and were therefore destroyed. By being destroyed they became Vietcong for keeps; they entered "history," definitively as our enemies, because we wanted to be on the "safe side," and "save American lives"--as well as Vietnam.

The logic of "Red or dead" has long since urged us to identify destruction with rescue--to be "dead" is to be saved from being "Red." In the language of melodrama, our grandparents became accustomed to the idea of a "fate worse than death." A schematic morality concluded that if such and such is a fate worse than death, then to prefer it to death would surely be a heinous sin. The logic of war-makers has extended this not only to the preservation of one's own moral integrity but to the fate of others, even of people on the other side of the earth, whom we do not always bother to consult personally on the subject. We weigh the arguments that they are not able to understand (perhaps they have not even heard that arguments exist!) And we decide, in their place, that it is better for them to be dead--killed by us--than Red, living under our enemies.

The Asian whose future we are about to decide is either a bad guy or a good guy. If he is a bad guy, he obviously has to be killed. If he is a good guy, he is on our side and he ought to be ready to die for freedom. We will provide an opportunity for him to do so: we will kill him to prevent him falling under the tyranny of a demonic enemy. Thus we not only defend his interests together with our own, but we protect his virtue along with our own. Think what might happen if he fell under Communist rule and liked it!

The advantages of this kind of logic are no exclusive possession of the United States. This is purely and simply the logic shared by all war-makers. It is the logic of power. Possibly American generals are naive enough to push this logic, without realizing, to absurd conclusions. But all who love power tend to think in some such way. Remember Hitler weeping over the ruins of Warsaw after it had been demolished by the Luftwaffe: "How wicked these people must have been," he sobbed, "to make me do this to them!"

Words like "pacification" and "liberation" have acquired sinister connotations as war has succeeded war. Vietnam has done much to refine and perfect these notions. A "free zone" is now one in which anything that moves is assumed to be "enemy" and can be shot. In order to create a "free zone" that can live up effectively to its name, one must level everything, buildings, vegetation, everything so that one can clearly see anything that moves, and shoot it. This has very interesting semantic consequences.



An American Captain accounts for the leveling of a new "free zone" in the following terms: "We want to prevent them from moving freely in this area . . . From now on anything that moves around here is going to be automatically considered V.C. and bombed or fired on. The whole triangle is going to become a Free Zone. These villagers here are all considered hostile civilians."

How did the Captain solve the semantic problem of distinguishing the hostile civilian from the refugee? "In a V.C. area like this there are three categories. First there are the straight V.C. . . . Then there are the V.C. sympathizers. Then there's the . . . There's a third category . . . I can't think of the third just now but . . . there's no middle road in this war." (See Jonathan Schell in The New Yorker [July 15, 1967], p. 59.)

- "Pacification" or "winning the hearts" of the undecided is thus very much simplified. "Soon" says a news report, (The New York Times, January 11, 1967) "the government will have no need to win the hearts and minds of Bensuc. There will be no Bensuc. But there are further simplifications. A high-ranking U.S. Field commander is quoted as saying: "If the people are to the guerrillas as oceans are to the fish . . .we are going to dry up that ocean." (Quoted in the New Statesman [March 11, 1966]). Merely by existing, a civilian in this context becomes a "hostile civilian." But at the same time and by the same token he is our friend and our ally. What simpler way out of the dilemma than to destroy him to "save American lives"?



V.




So much for the practical language of the battlefield. Let us now attend to the much more pompous and sinister jargon of the war mandarins in government offices and military think-tanks. Here we have a whole community of intellectuals, scholars who spend their time playing out "scenarios" and considering "acceptable levels" in megadeaths. Their language and their thought are as esoteric, as self-enclosed, as tautologous as the advertisement we have just discussed. But instead of being "coiffed" in a sweet smell, they are scientifically antiseptic, businesslike, uncontaminated with sentimental concern for life--other than their own. It is the same basic narcissism, but in a masculine, that is managerial, mode. One proves one's realism along with one's virility by toughness in playing statistically with global death. It is this playing with death, however, that brings into the players' language itself the corruption of death: not physical but mental and moral extinction. And the corruption spreads from their talk, their thinking, to the words and minds of everybody. What happens then is that the political and moral values they claim to be defending are destroyed by the contempt that is more and more evident in the language in which they talk about such things. Technological strategy becomes an end in itself and leads the fascinated players into a maze where finally the very purpose strategy was supposed to serve is itself destroyed. The ambiguity of official war talk has one purpose above all: to mask this ultimate unreason and permit the game to go on.

Of special importance is the style of these nuclear mandarins. The technological puckishness of Herman Kahn is perhaps the classic of this genre. He excels in the sly understatement of the inhuman, the apocalyptic, enormity. His style is esoteric, allusive, yet confidential. The reader has the sense of being a privileged eavesdropper in the councils of the mighty. He knows enough to realize that things are going to happen about which he can do nothing, though perhaps he can save his skin in a properly equipped shelter where he may consider at leisure the rationality of survival in an unlivable world. Meanwhile, the cool tone of the author and the reassuring solemnity of his jargon seem to suggest that those in power, those who turn loose these instruments of destruction, have no intention of perishing themselves, that consequently survival must have a point. The point is not revealed, except that nuclear war is somehow implied to be good business. Nor are H-bombs necessarily a sign of cruel intentions. They enable one to enter into communication with the high priests in the enemy camp. They permit the decision-makers on both sides to engage in a ritual "test of nerves." In any case, the language of escalation is the language of naked power, a language that is all the more persuasive because it is proud of being ethically illiterate and because it accepts, as realistic, the basic irrationality of its own tactics. The language of escalation, in its superb mixture of banality and apocalypse, science and unreason, is the expression of a massive death wish. We can only hope that this death wish is only that of a decaying Western civilization, and that it is not common to the entire race. Yet the language itself is given universal currency by the mass media. It can quickly contaminate the thinking of everybody.

VI.




Sartre speaks of the peculiar, expert negligence of the language used by European mandarins (bankers, politicians, prelates), the "indolent and consummate art" they have of communicating with one another in double-talk that leaves them always able to escape while their subordinates are firmly caught. (Op. cit., p. 202.) On others, ambiguous directives are imposed with full authority. For others, these are final and inescapable. The purpose of the language game is then to maintain a certain balance of ambiguity and of authority so that the subject is caught and the official is not. Thus the subject can always be proved wrong and the official is always right. The official is enabled to lie in such a way that if the lie is discovered, a subordinate takes the blame. So much for European democracy. The same has been true in America in a somewhat different context--that of wheeler-dealing and political corruption rather than the framework of authoritarian and official privilege. But power in America, we find, can become mean, belligerent, temperamental. American power, while paying due respect to the demands of plain egalitarian folksiness, has its moments of arbitrary bad humor. But lest this bad humor become too evident, and lest repression begin to seem too forceful, language is at hand as an instrument of manipulation. Once again, the use of language to extol freedom, democracy, and equal rights, while at the same time denying them, causes words to turn sour and to rot in the minds of those who use them. In such a context, the effort of someone such as Lenny Bruce to restore to language some of its authentic impact was a service despairingly offered to a public that could not fully appreciate it. One might argue that the language of this disconcerting and perhaps prophetic comedian was often less obscene than the "decent" but horrifying platitudes of those who persecuted him.



VII.




Michel Foucault has described the evolution of the dialogue between medicine and madness in the Age of Reason. (Michael Foucault, Madness and Civilization [New York: 1967], p.188.) Therapeutic experiments with manic-depressives in the eighteenth century assumed a certain inner consistency in the delirium of the mad and, working within the suppressed framework of this consistency, sought to suggest to the madman an alternative to his madness--or, rather, to push the "logic" of his madness to a paroxysm and crisis in which it would be confronted with itself and "forced to argue against the demands of its own truth." Thus, for instance, in cases of religious mania and despair, patients who believed themselves damned were shown a theatrical tableau in which the avenging angel appeared, punished, and then gave assurance that guilt was now taken away. Patients who were dying of starvation because, believing themselves dead, they would not eat, were shown representations of dead persons eating and were thus brought face to face with an unexpected syllogism: you claim you are dead and cannot eat, but dead men can eat . . . The beauty of Foucault's book is that we become fascinated by the way in which the "reason" of the Age of Enlightenment unconsciously shared so much of the madness with which it was in dialogue.

Reading of this dialogue between reason and madness, one is reminded of the language of power and war. In the deliberate, realistic madness of the new language we find an implicit admission that words, ordinary discourse, won't do--not exactly that language itself has broken down, is no longer valid as such. But the enemy is at once so perverse and so irrational--such a psychopathic liar in fact--that he has to be cleverly treated as a beast or as a manic. We all know that it is customary for one who resorts to violence to do so on the ground fat the adversary "does not understand anything else." The "language escalation" is a more sophisticated application of this principle, but on a massive scale implemented by the threat of a nuclear strike. It seems, indeed, that since the adversary understands nothing but force, and since force means everything up to and including the use of H-bombs, we will eventually get beyond the mere threat of a nuclear strike: one of us will actually strike. This will demonstrate that if you face an enemy with the conviction that he understands nothing but force, you will yourself necessarily behave as if you understood nothing but force. And in fact it is highly probably that if you say he understands nothing but force, it is because you yourself are already the same plight.

In any case, it is quite obvious that the military on whatever side must be quite convinced of the superior efficacy of force, or they would not be military. If they worry about this at all, they can always reason that force is necessary because we are faced by various bunches of madmen who understand nothing else. The dialogue then proceeds a way that reminds us of Foucault:

1. Rational discourse with the enemy is useless. He does not understand rational discourse and makes negotiation an opportunity for lying and pathological trickery. He has to cheat.

2. Therefore he has to be dealt with solely in the framework of his madness and wickedness, his propensity to lie and cheat. One does not bargain with such a one, because bargaining implies the acceptance, on both sides, of conditions. He must be pushed to the point where his surrender is unconditional in terms of his own madness. To grant him reasonable conditions would be to treat a madman as a rational being, which would be the worst possible kind of mistake and indeed (if you believe in sin) a sin.

3. His madness has roots in guilt, because he is, after all, wicked. He understands punishment. But the punishment must be shown to him in terms of his own madness. He must see that his own destructive violence will lead inexorably to one consequence: his own annihilation. But to translate this into words would lead to confusion. The message must be got to him in the unmistakable language of force itself. Of course, verbal formulas have to be restored too, in order to define what force is all about, to set conditions, etc. But the verbal formulas must be kept deliberately ambiguous, unclear. The clear and unmistakable message is not that of the terms offered but of the escalation itself. In other words there is an appearance of dialogue on the verbal and political level. But the real dialogue is with weapons and may be a complete contradiction of what appears to be said in the prose of politics.



The effect of this, of course, is a vicious circle: it begins with a tacit admission that negotiation is meaningless, and it does in fact render the language of negotiation meaningless. War-makers in the twentieth century have gone far toward creating a political language so obscure, so apt for treachery, so ambiguous, that it can no longer serve as an instrument for peace: it is good only for war. But why? Because the language of the war-maker is self-enclosed in finality. It does not invite reasonable dialogue, it uses language to silence dialogue, to block communication, so that instead of words the two sides may trade divisions, positions, villages, air bases, cities--and of course the lives of the people in them. The daily toll of the killed (or the "kill ratio") is perfunctorily scrutinized and decoded. And the totals are expertly managed by "ministers of truth" so that the newspaper reader may get the right message.

Our side is always ahead. He who is winning must be the one who is right. But we are right, therefore we must be winning. Once again we have the beautiful, narcissistic tautology of war--or of advertising. Once again, "Arpege has Arpege." There is no communicating with anyone else, because anyone who does not agree, who is outside the charmed circle, is wrong, is evil, is already in hell.





VIII.




It is a dictum of Marxism that a word is true if it can be verified by being carried out in action. But this idea is not a monopoly of the Communists. It is now universal. It is everybody's property. Modern politics is a matter of defining how you think things ought to be and then making them come out that way by cunning or by force. If you aren't strong enough or smart enough to verify your ideas by putting them into effect, then you have no business saying how things should be in the first place: follow somebody else who has the necessary power! The strange thing is that this idea is not so modern after all. In fact it is quite ancient. Another word for it is magic, or witchcraft.

Of course, the shaman and the medicine man in primitive society did not possess the advantages of a technological skill that would enable them to say that white was black and then prove the point by turning white into black. Yet even unlimited power does not always succeed in making one's own words come true--as the Vietnam war has conclusively shown.

One of the most curious things about the war in Vietnam is that it being fought to vindicate the assumptions upon which it is being fought. Now it turns out that these American assumptions are quite wrong: the White House and the Pentagon have consistently interpreted the war as a military invasion of South Vietnam by the North. In other words it is the Korean War over again, a "conventional limited war" in which the problems are above all military and can be handled in terms of bombing, sending in more troops, wiping out areas in which he enemy tends to concentrate, cutting supply lines, etc. By the escalation of the war and the bombing of North Vietnam (after the "Tonkin Bay Incident," which has now been shown to have been exaggerated if not actually faked) the United States did actually turn the war into he kind of war it was supposed to be in America--apart from the fact that the aggression was the other way around. But this did nothing to alter the fact that the war in the South remained essentially a revolutionary guerrilla struggle that could not be adequately handled by conventional military operations.

Alastair Buchan, analyzing this curious fact in Encounter (January-February, 1968), wonders how it was possible for such a policy to be accepted when the U.S. government relies on "a wide range of research institutes and universities to give greater depth and accuracy to its own operational and political analysis." He hazards a guess that the unassailable self-confidence of science somehow contributed to the error: "Probably technology (helicopters, new small arms, infra-red sensors and all the rest) with the element that corrupted judgment, making it seem possible that the Americans could do what the natives (i.e. the French) could not." In other words, there is a certain hubris built into technological thinking that encloses it within itself and its own suppositions and makes it fatal to ignore decisive realities that do not fit those suppositions.

However, in such a situation, power can still vindicate itself by declaring that its estimate was the correct one and that it is still winning. Since statistics can be made to prove anything, it adduces statistics to show that its words are in fact coming true. Unfortunately, the Tet offensive of the Vietcong in 1968 made it finally clear that no amount of juggling with words or figures could make this "politics of inadvertence" (the words of Arthur Schlesinger's) come out level with reality. Lyndon Johnson is certainly well versed in all the appropriate skills, and yet in this instance he turned out to be a singularly failed witch.

What needs to be noted is that the massive effort of the United States to gain acceptance for its own version of the Vietnam war by doing all in its power to turn that version into accomplished fact has had profoundly significant effects. And these effects are not what was intended. Confidence in the Washington government, in the American political system, in the credibility of American officials, even in the basic human integrity and sincerity of the American Establishment is now seriously undermined at home and abroad. The political language of the United States, which was suspect before, has now been fatally denatured. It has probably lost all its value as intellectual currency. The crisis of the dollar is intimately connected with the crisis of human communication that has resulted from the sinister double-talk of the American Establishment about itself, about the war, about the race situation, about the urgent domestic problems that are being ignored or set aside while the government puts more and more money and manpower into the war. The tragedy is not so much that America has come out of its pristine isolationism but that it has decided to rule the world without paying serious attention to anybody else's view of what the world is all about. Language has been distorted and denatured in defense of this solipsistic, this basically isolationist and sometimes even paranoid, attitude.



IX.


What next? The illness of political language--which is almost universal and is a symptom of a Plague of Power that is common to China and America, Russia and Western Europe--is characterized everywhere by the same sort of double-talk, tautology, ambiguous cliche, self-righteous and doctrinaire pomposity, and pseudoscientific jargon that mask a total callousness and moral insensitivity, indeed a basic contempt for man. The self-enclosed finality that bars all open dialogue and pretends to impose absolute conditions of one's own choosing upon everybody else ultimately becomes the language of totalist dictatorship, if it is not so already. Revolt against this is taking the form of another, more elemental and anarchistic, kind of violence, together with a different semantic code. Space does not permit us to study this other language, but it must be acknowledged as immensely popular and influential all over the world. It is the language of Che Guevara, of Regis Debray, of Frantz Fanon: the violent language and the apocalyptic myth of the guerrilla warrior, the isolated individual and the small group, enabled by revolutionary charisma to defy all the technological might of the biggest powers in the world. In spite of the failure of Che in Bolivia--a failure that only resulted in his canonization as a martyr of the post-colonial revolution--the Vietnam war has had the result of awakening revolutionary hopes all over the world, from Harlem to Angola. Che Guevara called for Vietnams everywhere, and the Black Power movement, introducing the language of Fanon into American political life, is set on making the inner cities of the United States "other Vietnams." At the moment, when the full tragedy has not yet manifested itself, this might to some seem an inspiring revolt against the inhuman pride of technological white power. But all the hopes of Fanon--which may have some basis in the jungles of Africa--are couched in the same terms of magic and witchcraft that assert something and then proceed to make it so in fact, thereby vindicating their own prophecy. If this went wrong for U.S. power in Vietnam, it may also go wrong in the American ghettos, where, unfortunately, the Negro does not have miles of swamp and jungle to maneuver in but is enclosed in a small and highly vulnerable area in which he can easily be destroyed or arrested and taken off to concentration camps.

However that may be, the revolutionary tactic that tends to harass and immobilize the Goliath of technological military power and bring it down largely by its own elephantine weight has at the same time created a new language that mocks the ponderous and self-important utterances of the Establishment. This new language, racy, insolent, direct, profane, iconoclastic, and earthy, may have its own magic incantation myth. It may be involved in its own elaborate set of illusions. But at least it represents a healthier and more concrete style of thought. It does not reduce everything to abstractions, and though it is fully as intransigent as the language of the Establishment, it still seems to be more in contact with relevant experience: the hard realities of poverty, brutality, vice, and resistance.

Yet, flexible though it might be in some respects, it remains another language of power, therefore of self-enclosed finality, which rejects dialogue and negotiation on the axiomatic supposition that the adversary is a devil with whom no dialogue is possible.

Back to the Main Page