Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto whose latest book is On Risk.
Author Martin Amis wrote that the pandemic of cliché has three main carriers. The key one is language, where tired phrases and empty usages become self-repeating. This habit is nurtured in turn by clichés of thought, which underwrite expression. Even worse, it is supported by clichés of the heart, which diminish empathy and understanding. Thus runs the triteness trifecta.
Some future writer will document our decade-long deterioration of public discourse and language. “Woke” and “social justice” are bludgeons of abuse, and “the left” is a badge of presumptive opprobrium. Social-media trolling is a pastime more popular than baseball. Then there are much-repeated phrases such as “on both sides” (because there can only be two), “step aside” (to resign a lofty post, usually in disgrace), and “deeply disappointed” (to be angered or disgusted but unwilling to say so).
Other writers have weighed in on “settler” and “cancel culture,” so I won’t bother with those. I will note, philosophically, that “begs the question” is rarely what most speakers think it means. Also, unphilosophically, that restaurant TV shows where people say “to die for” and “melts in your mouth” are deeply disappointing. I step aside.
No, the most fascinating example in recent twists of tongue is the expression “the American people.” If you watch daily news, the repeated invocation of this term becomes mesmerizing. It clearly has some consonance with the likewise loaded ideological term “the American dream.” The definite article is always a sign of significance. That’s the truth.
Back in 2007, conservative blogger Matthew Yglesias opined about it in The Atlantic. “Apparently Democrats use this phrase far more often that Republicans,” Mr. Yglesias wrote. “In most cases, they either could say ‘people’ (as when [Bill] Clinton says ‘The American people know where I stand’) or ‘Americans’ (as when [John] Edwards says ‘the illegal spying on the American people that this president has been engaged in’) or ‘America’ (as when [Barack] Obama says ‘But what the American people are looking for right now is straight answers to tough questions’).” His conclusion: “I don’t think anyone other than grandiloquent pols and columnists ever use the phrase.”
Grandiloquent is a wonderful word, but this Yglesiastical view is certainly not the truth, come 2021. The “American people” tic has made itself into a marker of comprehensive United States exceptionalism, on every side. After all, Brazilians, Nicaraguans and Canadians are also technically “American,” among many other populations. And the saddest part is that there is actually no one U.S. American people now, even in those crowds who chant “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.!” for everything from the death of Osama bin Laden to hockey squads in Florida or Nevada mostly comprised of players from Canada and Europe.
Several theories might explain the phrase “the American people.” The first is wishful thinking. We hear often how something or other is not actually aligned with the American people – blocking voting rights, denying science, refusing to respect the health of others; but then also asking people to respect basic science, get vaccinated, wear a mask. In fact, that is all completely American – because America is as America does. And, as we have been told by the former U.S. president and other politicians and pundits, the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot was simply a visit by peaceful tourists and loving people.
So that means, second, that invoking “the American people” is aspirational, akin to wishing for nicer eyebrows and a slimmer torso. That’s not me you see in the photo! It is ugly and fat fake news! America is great and good. Trust me, because I talk loudly and interrupt a lot. I am actually very trim and handsome, with great eyebrows.
But that delusion leads to a third and related theory, which is that this usage is defensive and incantatory. Its repetition invites the old adage that if you say something three times it becomes magically true. In rhetoric, this technique is called epizeuxis or palilogia, depending on your Greek or Latin. Go, go, go! Yes, yes, yes! Mayday, mayday, mayday!
These three nested theories raise (though they do not beg) a valid question. What is being conveyed? It would be odd to hear a politician in this country invoke “the Canadian people” or “the Canadian dream” as policy touchstones. We might hear in other contexts of “the German people,” say, or La Francophonie (itself by far a more expansive and accurate descriptive term). I have heard people talk of Britons, Italians, Australians, Norwegians and Serbians, among others. I have read about friends, Romans and countrymen.
“The American people” is ideological shorthand, an appeal made against reason and fact. That does not diminish its potential power. We live in an aggressive global attention economy. What talking heads and politicians are really saying is this: Lend me your ears. As a North American not in pursuit of the American dream, but dedicated to liberal democracy, I suggest we all keep those ears on our own heads. My eyebrows remain okay.
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