War over Auxiliary Verbs
October 8, 2002
Im fussy about language. We cant all
be Shakespeares, but we can at least try to be succinct and accurate.
George Orwell even taught us that needless words can mask political
Last night I tried to
read an article about the parlous condition America is in. Maybe it made
some good points. I dont know. I couldnt finish it. In fact I
couldnt get past a sentence that began: Further
exacerbating the problem is the fact that ... Why not just say,
To make matters worse, ...? Because the writer wanted to
use exacerbating, which he thought would sound more
impressive. So he spoiled a whole sentence for the chance to use one big
People do this all the
time. They say due to the fact that rather than
because, prior to rather than
before. It not only annoys me, it makes me distrust them.
When I read bad English, I suspect bad faith.
Im not an
English teacher anymore. I reformed long ago. By bad English I dont
mean improper grammar or incorrect usage; I mean the kind of English an
honest man wouldnt use to a friend English whose purpose
is to manipulate, not to convince.
Bushs speech in Cincinnati Monday illustrates what I mean. He
wanted to justify war on Iraq. What has Iraq done to us? Well, nothing,
really. So Bush repeated the long litany of dangers and
threats Saddam Hussein allegedly poses.
Seldom have I read so
many auxiliary verbs in one speech. Bush didnt say what Iraq has
done to this country, since it hasnt done anything except shoot
back at American aircraft. But he spoke at length about what Iraq
could or would or may do, or is
capable of doing.
mass destruction, of course, made several appearances. Has
Saddam Hussein actually used them against us? Well, he
could. The danger is
significant and will grow worse with time.
He cannot be trusted. We have every reason to
assume the worst. We cannot wait for the final
proof. The smoking gun ... could come in the form of a
mushroom cloud. (This last snappy line has become a cliché
of the Bush administration.)
By this kind of
reasoning, and with this kind of language, you can make a case for war
against just about any country you like (or dislike). Lots of countries have,
or are working on, or could develop nuclear weapons, and
they could use them on us. Why is Iraq, as Bush says,
Saddam Hussein is a homicidal dictator,
a ruthless and aggressive dictator, a murderous
tyrant, who persecutes his own civilian population
and has tortured and beheaded opponents. We must protect our
freedom against the likes of him.
I know lots of people
who agree that Hussein is a detestable guy, but Ive never met one
American who worries about being attacked by him, let alone being
enslaved by him. Just how would that work? Many Americans are worried
about losing their freedoms these days, but the only danger to freedom
they see is the Bush administration, not Iraq. Saddam Hussein
couldnt conceivably arrest Americans without warrants, imprison
us without trials, and suspend the Constitution. Our own government
Bush has made a case
that Hussein poses a threat to Iraqis. But he has made no case at all that
he poses a threat to you and me. At least nobody can accuse Bush of being
a dangerous demagogue; his attempts to whip up fear and war fever have
fallen flat. A Roosevelt or a Churchill, who had some command of English,
might be able to do it, though even they had little success until their
countries were attacked.
The more Bush talks,
the clearer it becomes that any threat Iraq poses to
ordinary Americans is strictly hypothetical. Any links
between Iraq and al-Qaeda terrorists are matters of surmise, even
wishful thinking; Bush would love to be able to prove them, not because he
wants to fight terrorism, but because he wants to attack Iraq.
And most people find
his preoccupation with attacking Iraq rather puzzling. He still
hasnt given us any real reasons; only feeble excuses.
Could, would, and may just
arent good enough.
Joe Sobran's Biography.
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