Is April Fool’s Day every day in our nation?
September 30, 2005
Baltimore’s H.L. Mencken detested Franklin Delano DR. JACK R. VAN ENS, AUTHORRoosevelt for being a slippery posturer. Mencken possessed a cutting tongue as he lashed his enemies in print. This author, editor and social critic judged FDR a spin master, a agile politician who used clever, distorted language to hoodwink our nation caught in the clutches of the Great Depression. Mencken gladly accepted an invitation to roast FDR at the Washington press corps’ Gridiron dinner in December 1934. Though his remarks lacked customary caustic wit, Mencken charged that Roosevelt felt at home in an imperial presidency. “Fellow subjects of the Reich,” he began, griping that “Everyday in this great country is April Fool Day.” If living, Mencken would cringe when hearing inflated language on the rise in our nation. The rampant use of hyperbole makes political leaders and hucksters sound like a cross between Paris Hilton and a Southern California “Valley Girl.” It’s not because of Paris Hilton’s high IQ that she is seldom at a loss for words. Paris rarely hesitates to describe even the drabbest person or inconsequential party as “hot.” Such hyperbole warms her speech. Of course, the Entertainment Tonight TV show stretches Paris’s lingo. She’s so “cool.” Parties she attends are “fantastic.” Whatever she does is “wow!” Inflating words, making their meanings elastic, helps cinch a sale and lie about a war.Since boyhood, I’ve been a serious philatelist-stamp collecting for those not versed in the hobby. Receiving glossy catalogues in the mail featuring choice U.S. stamps for sale, I bid on them in New York auctions. One dealer makes his fame by using hyperbole in describing rare stamps he auctions. The way he stretches words referring to choice stamps has become legendary. He strings hyperbole together. Few readers bother to inquire whether his grandiose description about a stamp is entirely correct.For example, this dealer describes a commemorative stamp issued in conjunction with Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Presses ran a sheet or two of this stamp using deeper blue ink than the government ordered for it, thus creating a rarity.Here’s how this auctioneer verbally salivates about his philatelic gem: “a magnificent mint example of this famous rarity, possessing an extraordinary overall freshness and brilliance few copies can boast, with stunningly rich color and a razor-sharp impression on bright white paper, marvelously well centered amid margins that are considerably larger than typically found…”What works for stamp auction cataloguers is co-opted by our national leaders to make us feel good about the war in Iraq. Extravagant language hides lies by candy coating war hawks’ claims. Mencken’s prediction has come true that April Fool’s Day is every day.Public television’s Jim Lehrer doesn’t major in hyped language. He tones down hyperbole. Lehrer admits a dirty little secret kept from our nation when we attacked Baghdad. Then Washington assured us that our mission would be accomplished in short order. Our troops might mistake marching into Baghdad with the Rose Bowl Parade on New Year’s Day because Iraqi citizens would throw bouquets their way. Lehrer confesses now how journalists, mimicking war advocates, didn’t speak of our soldiers’ occupying Iraq after a quick victory. Why didn’t the press broach the subject of a long occupation full of bloodshed? Because, Lehrer points out, “the word ‘occupation’ … was never mentioned in the run-up to the war.” Our president and his staff spoke about the invasion as “a war of liberation, not occupation. So as a consequence, those of us in journalism never even looked at the issue of occupation.” April Fool!Though he didn’t excel at Yale as a student and sometimes garbles syntax, President George W. Bush aces using hyperbole and good-old-boy blarney to describe the Iraq war. He loves cliches some critics call “little prophylactics that prevent the conception of an idea,” to justify the war. Patriotic cliches abort the truth. They take on a life of their own, flying below scrutiny’s radar.We hear that our troops will “stand down” when the trained Iraqi army “stands up.” What does this catchy play on words really mean? In describing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, George W. Bush equates poetic metaphor with euphoric victory. “We’ve climbed the mighty mountain. I see the valley below, and it’s a valley of peace.” That’s how the October 1, 2004 New York Times reported his campaign rhetoric.I don’t see the valley of peace. But with 20/20 vision I do perceive how our war leaders scorn biblical caution, “Who is this that darkens my counsel,” says the Lord, “with words without knowledge?” (Job 8: 32). Don’t puff prose, warns God.Verbal whoppers feed Washington’s spin. Speaking at Princeton Theological Seminary in 2004, English professor Marilyn Chandler McEntyre at California’s Westmont College pointed out how lies pass as truth when language is not analyzed. Her students expect to be lied to about most anything, including the war, says Professor McEntyre. “They are witnessing along with us the daily stream of euphemistic, hedging, over-generalized, obfuscating discourse that passes for political debate.”She points to the patriotic puff George W. Bush sallied in the September 30, 2004 presidential debate: “The best way to defeat them [the enemy] is to never waver, to use every asset at our disposal, is to constantly stay on the offensive and, at the same time, speed liberty. We must deal with threats before they materialize.” What’s false is this use of language that doesn’t square with reality, that puffs what’s right about the war and sloughs off what is fundamentally wrong with it. As Paris Hilton might gush, “The war is hot! So, why not go for it?” doc: lieThe Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads non-profit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through dramatic presentations and storytelling. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado