February 28, 2007

"As if there could be a war on an adjective, or an adverb -- it doesn't really work"

On today's Radio Times , Marty Moss-Coane interviewed Stefan Halper,

...co-author with Jonathan Clarke of “The Silence of the Rational Center: Why American Foreign Policy is Failing.” He is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs in New York. He is also author of “After the Crusade.”

About 4:04 into the interview, this exchange takes place:

Marty: Would that be also true then for the war on terror, as it is described today, does that limit debate and discussion?
Stefan:   Well, I think it does, I mean I think uh the con- th- the phrase "the war on terror"
uh as- as if there could be a war on an adjective, I mean it's- it's just-
or an adverb -- it doesn't really work.

This is not the first time that a prominent intellectual has gotten prominently confused about what part of speech terror is: "Terror: not even a noun (says Jon Stewart)", 5/19/2004. Not to prolong the suspense, terror is indeed a noun, not an adjective or an adverb. Questioning whether there could be a war on an adjective or an adverb, in this context, is roughly like asking a question about foreign policy presupposing that New Guinea and Paraguay are in the Middle East.

The point of this post is not to poke fun at Halper's ignorance of elementary grammatical analysis. Rather, I want to emphasize again a point that I've made many times before: we've reached a historical low point in the ability of Americans, even some of the smartest, best educated and most intellectually curious Americans, to engage in any coherent analysis of the speech and language that they use every day. It's not that they've been taught outmoded ideas -- in effect, it seems, they might as well never have been taught anything at all. Despite this, they remain interested in the problem, with predictably embarrassing results.

Stefan Halper, in particular, is what Donald Trump would call a "top intellectual". He's got doctorates from both Oxford and Cambridge and a string of prestigious academic appointments. He's held high-level foreign policy positions in four American administrations (Reagan and Bush senior). He's the author of four books.. So the fact that he doesn't have the tiniest clue about the simplest aspects of linguistic analysis is striking.

Some might think that this is depressing. On the contrary, it seems to me, it's exciting -- from this blank-slate state of public awareness, there's no direction to go but up.

[Update -- Simon Musgrave pointed out by email that "there is a fine literary precedent for attacking adjectives and/or adverbs":

All the officer patients in the ward were forced to censor letters written by all the enlisted-men patients, who were kept in residence in wards of their own. It was a monotonous job, and Yossarian was disappointed to learn that the lives of enlisted men were only slightly more interesting than the lives of officers. To break the monotony he invented games. Death to all modifiers, he declared on day, and out of every letter that passed through his hands went every adverb and adjective. The next day he made war on articles. [Joseph Heller - Catch 22. Simon & Schuster reprint 1996: 16]

Simon observes that Yossarian, having been educated in an earlier age, did apparently know one part of speech from another, or at least thought that he did. ]

[Update #2 -- Norm Geras makes the point that Halper's political argument is no more coherent than his linguistic one:

Halper says, for example, that terrorism is differentiated, used by different kinds of groups, with different ideas and in different contexts, all of which we have to understand. It's a good thing these arguments didn't prevail during the Second World War, thought of by many as a war against fascism. You know Germany, and Italy, and Japan... different countries, different contexts. As if there could be a war against a bunch of proper nouns and conjunctions.

It did make things easier that Germany and Italy and Japan were countries with well-defined armed forces to engage and defeat. But still... ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 28, 2007 05:07 PM