Thursday, April 07, 2005

Hyperbole and the Deterioration of Language

The thing I related earlier about the Pope got me to thinking. One of the most pervasive literary devices in modern times, particularly among political commentators and party hacks like myself, is hyperbole. Everybody is described as "crazy" or "evil" or as an "imbecile" or something like that.

It all seems rather inocuous when we do it, mostly because readers know it's hyperbole - when I say Dennis Hastert is a madman, people know that he's not actually marauding around with a meat cleaver whacking off the body parts of his staffers or anything like that, if for no other reason than CSPAN would have probably covered something like that.

I'm as guilty as anybody else of this transgression, and I have a feeling that my idol, the late great Hunter S. Thompson, had a lot to do with its proliferation. But the trouble with using this device, other than the fact that it's just lazy writing, is that when you're faced with the task of describing somebody who really is legitimately a lunatic, you have nowhere to go. You're already at 11, as it were.

It's a subtler-than-usual instance of the "cry wolf" phenomenon. It's as if you spent ten years calling everyone you didn't like "Satan," and then one day you wake up and go into the office and sit down to interview a guy for a story and there's Satan, big red horns and cloven hooves and fiery pitchfork and everything just ambling into the meeting room munching a scone.

And later you're writing the article and you're like "Shit! If I say it's Satan, how do people know I mean Satan like you mean Satan when you talk about Satan, and not Satan like you mean Satan when you talk about Bud Selig?" And you've painted yourself into a corner.

Which is where I'm at, basically, with Tom Delay. I've been following Delay for years, since long before anybody knew who the hell he was, and there really is no way to accurately describe what this man is like without sounding like you're making some kind of joke. You can really only understand it if you experience the actual sensations that fill your heart when you listen to the man speak, or better yet, watch him on television, and realize with mounting horror that he is one of the most powerful men in the world.

Tom Delay is a person who is so divorced from reality that if it weren't for his all-consuming drive for power to focus his mind, he would probably - and again, I am NOT trying to be humorously hyperbolic here - be wandering the streets with a shopping cart full of high heels, rambling on and on about how the Pope is the antichrist and the Giant Bonus Card is really the mark of the beast.

The way you can tell this is that unlike most Republicans, who are mentally unbalanced in much milder and more socially acceptable ways, Delay really has no conception of what kind of lies you can get away with telling because they are plausible and hard to disprove, and what kind of lies will be immediately understood to be lies because they are screamingly stupid on top of being untrue.

It's not a made-up story that Delay told a roomful of reporters that he and Dan Quayle couldn't get into the military during Vietnam because all the slots had been taken up by minorities. That actually happened in 1988 and was reported by a Houston paper, unfortunately before the days of widespread web archiving so you can't read it online. Delay's never even denied saying it, to my knowledge.

But the real goods on Delay can be had just by listening to him for 45 to 60 seconds, speaking off the cuff on basically any subject. This doesn't happen too terribly much because, at least until recently, Delay has been very good at avoiding the media. But it happens often enough that if you look around you can find a clip of Delay talking at length. Here is one such clip; Delay comes on at about the 10 minute mark.

Most of what he says is just descriptive, he's talking about what happened WRT the Schiavo subpoena and why the Republicans did it. But even during the purely descriptive portion, he's jumping around, having trouble saying two things in a row that have much of anything to do with one another.

The really weird part starts at 15:00, so if you're bored by general discussion of political wrangling, skip all the way to there. Once Delay begins to talk about "what this fight is really about," you get a real good look at the way his brain works, or doesn't work, as the case may be.

Delay tries mightily to describe why the Schiavo case is "critically important." "It's critically important," he assures his audience. "This is a critical issue for people in this position, and it's also a critical issue to fight the fight for life, whether it be euthanasia or abortion [sic.]"

I know I don't have to point out that none of this, aside from making any sense, gets hold of any kind of real purchase in terms of a moral rationale for Congress intervening in the Schiavo case. He's just stating and restating over and over how critical it is. But his crazy little brain feels a deep need to really explain why the Schiavo case is important.

And so, inexplicably, Delay's brain jumps the tracks and starts to really explain why the Terry Schiavo case is important. What he has to say is really beyond shocking, but not only because it's so craven and self-serving. It's shocking because Delay does not realize how what he is saying sounds to other human beings, because he can't conceive of the idea of other human beings having feelings and reactions. This is textbook sociopathic thinking. This is also why he can't vocalize what issues are really at stake in the case, beyond empty language about "fighting the fight for life."

Quoting directly now (and this could not be more in context):

"And I'll tell you, ladies and gentlemen, one thing God has brought to us, is Terry, Terry Schiavo [sic], to elevate the visibility of what's going on in America, that Americans would be so barbaric as to pull a feeding tube out of a person that is losing [?] and starve them to death for two weeks."

The little piece of his brain that has any idea how to not sound like a raving lunatic has reached the end of its meager resources now. This is circular, of course, he's saying that Terry Schiavo was brought to us to elevate the visibility of, well, of Terry Schiavo. But this is just the last defense mechanism; he's babbling away the last barrier his conscience has erected against saying what he says next [i'm skipping a little bit of restatement here, but the context is preserved]:

This is exactly the issue that's going on in America, that... of attacks against the conservative movement, against me and against many others. The point is is the other side has figured out how to win, uh, and defeat the conservative movement, and that is to go after people personally, charge them with frivolous charges, link that up with all these do-gooder organizations funded by George Soros, and then, and then get the national media on their side.

That whole syndicate that they have going on right now is for one purpose and for one purpose only, and that's to destroy the conservative movement. It's to destroy conservative leaders, not just in elected office, but leading, I mean, Ed Fullner, today, at the [Harry Stroth?] Foundation, is under attack in the National Journal, I mean, this is a huge, nationwide concerted effort to destroy everything we believe in.

Keep in mind this is a speech that is about Terry Schiavo, purely about that issue and nothing else. And Delay is standing there saying to a room full of people that they should be thankful that God sent them Terry Schiavo because it will help shield him from attack by Democrats and their evil liberal media empire. This isn't speculation about motives, this is Delay standing up in public and saying this.

A person that would do this is mentally unbalanced. He has no conception of what is acceptable behavior for a person in society. All he knows is that the damn liberals are after him, and thank God for this "thing" Terry Schiavo, who came along to help him beat the rap.


Don Q. said...

You make a good point about hyperbole in writing. It tends to make political discussion resemble the "put-down contests" in the fifth grade lunchroom.

Adam P. Short said...

I know you are, but what am I?

Anonymous said...

Also interesting is this quote from DeLay, actually on the Schiavo case:

And I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, one thing that God has brought to us is Terri Schiavo, to elevate the visibility of what’s going on in America that Americans would be so barbaric as to pull a feeding tube out of a person that is lucid and starve them to death for two weeks. I mean, in America, that’s going to happen if we don’t win that fight.

Hear ye, hear ye! The liberals are going to pull feeding tubes out of lucid people! Wow, and all this time I thought that 5 different independent doctors had all agreed she was in a persisten vegetative state.

One note on's also too close to a comedic device. A good portion of actual stand-up comedy is simply exaggeration to the point of absurdity, where the goal is to entertain, rather than to inform. That's what hyperbole really does, and why its dangerous to debate - it tittilates, it doesn't inform. It's the National Enquirer approach to rhetoric.

It's still unavoidable though. Most people write about topics because they're actually interested in them, so it's difficult to take all of the passion out of writing and turn it into nothing but bland factual textbook fare. That sure isn't what I come to the blogosphere for anyway. :)

Adam P. Short said...

Ah, thanks, I couldn't figure out that word "lucid." I kept hearing "losing." I'm going to put a note in the original post. Thanks again, gokmop.

Anonymous said...

I didn't actually listen to the audio - there was a transcript at the link you provided so I just searched for the portions you referred to and copy/pasted out.

The Greatness said...

Hear, hear, on the issue of language. It's simply the most infuriating thing about discourse of any kind in the modern age. I can't say that somebody is wrong; I have to say that he's a craven imbecile.

That said, Tom DeLay looks to me like a craven imbecile. And coming from me, that's saying a lot.