Winning the war with words

Suzanne Fields

12/1/2003 12:00:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

We must not con ourselves. The violent struggles of the 21st century will be won with military might. But words will be among the most effective weapons.

Language has always been a powerful tool in winning hearts and minds, and it's particularly crucial today, when flashing images on big and small screens, where most Americans get their information, often cheat the viewer of everything but bang and flash.

It was no small triumph that "the speech" that George Bush delivered in London elegantly stated the cause for liberty, and gave the reasons why we must fight terrorism and establish democracy in Iraq. His enemies will keep the Texas bumpkin caricature alive (what else do they have?), but it's not nearly as satisfying for them as it was.

The Times of London called the speech "powerful, well argued and fluent," showing the president to be "a politician to be taken seriously." The left-wing Guardian conceded that the president "may have quieted some of the more extreme doubts about him on this side of the Atlantic."

Bush chided those who question the capacity of the Islamic masses to govern themselves as patronizing in their pessimism: "It is not realism to suppose that one-fifth of humanity is unsuited to liberty." (Presidents must be optimists.)

Anyone looking for the "vision thing" can find it in the clarity of the presidential argument and the felicity of his language. It should be required reading in college English and history classes and assigned for critical papers and oral debates.

But few students and fewer professors would think of doing such a thing when Bush bashing is so much more fun. The professors prefer polarization and obfuscation to reasoned discussion, wisecracks and cheap humor to a thoughtful search for solutions in a complicated world.

"Idealism increases in direct proportion to your distance from the problem," Willy Brandt, the Social Democratic chancellor of West Germany from 1969 to 1974, once said. Denis Dutton, an American who teaches philosophy at Canterbury University in New Zealand, where Brandt made his observation, applies it to the intelligentsia. "The corollary of our bargain-basement moralism," he writes, "is the easy assumption that anyone with a view of world events different from ours must be cynical or corrupt or incompetent."

This bargain-basement moralism applies to tenured professors and students who never heard a Bush idea they couldn't despise or a conservative idea they couldn't mock. Such "attitude" is compounded by the inability to write with coherence and argue with clarity. The academic culture has become an educational quagmire.

Professor Dutton, in fact, sponsored a "Bad Writing Contest" to give the worst material published in scholarly books and journals the attention it deserves. There's lots of bad material.

As bad as student illiteracy has become, he thinks we pay too little attention to the attempted writing of their professors. He awarded his first prize to a widely admired professor of Comparative Literature and Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley. He offers an excerpt: "The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition convergence and rearticulation. ." (I'll spare you the rest of it.)

This jargon-laden example of incomprehensibility is neither isolated nor unusual. Poor writing, ideological prejudice and narrow arrogance in academe expose a fault line in the ability to teach how to write, think and reason clearly. It's fair game to make fun of a president's spontaneous verbal syntax, and sadder still when academics who suffer jerking knees won't attempt to deal in a forthright way with the president's ideas.

Anyone who visits our finest universities, so called, will quickly discover that the most articulate arguments are made by conservatives because they have to try harder to get a persuasive word in, edgewise or otherwise. The politically correct culture of the left is smug in its failure to grapple with political realities, and it dominates the faculty lounges.

"Through world war and cold war we learned that idealism, if it is to do any good in this world, requires common purpose and national strength, moral courage, and patience in difficult tasks," the president said in his speech London. "And now our generation has need of these qualities."

Powerful words, and the prescription for survival.