Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?

Enough Said: What's Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics?

by Mark Thompson


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There’s a crisis of trust in politics across the western world. Public anger is rising and faith in conventional political leaders and parties is falling. Anti-politics, and the anti-politicians, have arrived. In Enough Said, President and CEO of The New York Times Company Mark Thompson argues that one of the most significant causes of the crisis is the way our public language has changed.

Enough Said tells the story of how we got from the language of FDR and Churchill to that of Donald Trump. It forensically examines the public language we’ve been left with: compressed, immediate, sometimes brilliantly impactful, but robbed of most of its explanatory power. It studies the rhetoric of western leaders from Reagan and Thatcher to Berlesconi, Blair, and today’s political elites on both sides of the Atlantic. And it charts how a changing public language has interacted with real world events – Iraq, the financial crash, the UK's surprising Brexit from the EU, immigration – and led to a mutual breakdown of trust between politicians and journalists, to leave ordinary citizens suspicious, bitter, and increasingly unwilling to believe anybody.

Drawing from classical as well as contemporary examples and ranging across politics, business, science, technology, and the arts, Enough Said is a smart and shrewd look at the erosion of language by an author uniquely placed to measure its consequences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250144539
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/12/2017
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

MARK THOMPSON has been the President and CEO of The New York Times Company since 2012. Previously, he was Director-General of the BBC from 2004-2012, and CEO of Channel 4 Television Corporation from 2002-2004. Born in London, Thompson attended Stonyhurst College and Merton College Oxford. Thompson has three children with his wife, writer Jane Blumberg.

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Don't Retreat, Instead — RELOAD!


Public language matters. Words are free, and every politician and journalist and citizen can draw on an unlimited supply of them. But there are days when the right words are all that count, and it is the speaker who can find them who determines what happens next. Over time, leaders and commentators and activists with empathy and eloquence can use words not just to exploit the public mood but to shape it. And the result? Peace, prosperity, progress, inequality, prejudice, persecution, war. Public language matters.

This is hardly a new discovery. It's why public language and public speaking have been studied and taught and fought over for thousands of years. But never before has public language been as widely and readily distributed as it is today. Words hurtle through virtual space with infinitesimal delay. A politician can plant an idea in ten million other minds before she leaves the podium. An image with an author and a deliberately composed meaning — a plane hitting a skyscraper, say — can reach the eyes of viewers around the world with an instantaneity unconstrained by distance or mechanical limit. Once, and not long ago in human history, we would have heard a rumor, or read a report of it, days or even weeks later. Today we are all witnesses, all members of a crowd that is watching and listening in real time.

Now. It's happening now. He's saying that now. You're posting this now. I'm replying now. Listen to me. Look at me. Now.

We think of ours as the age of digital information, and so it is. But we sometimes forget how much of that information is conveyed in human language that is doing what it has always done in human societies: alerting, frightening, explaining, deceiving, infuriating, inspiring, above all persuading.

So this is also the age of public language. More than that, we are living through an unparalleled, still unfolding and uncertain transformation of public language. But when we consider and debate the state of modern politics and media — how policies and values get discussed and decisions get made — we tend to think of it only in passing, as if it is of interest only insofar as it can help us understand something else, something more foundational. It is the argument of this book that public language — the language we use when we discuss politics and policy, or make our case in court, or try to persuade anyone of anything in a public context — is itself worthy of close attention. Rhetoric, the study of the theory and practice of public language, was once considered the queen of the humanities. Now she lives out her days in genteel obscurity. I'm going to make the case for putting her back on the throne.

We enjoy one advantage over earlier generations of students of rhetoric. Thanks to the searchability and indelibility of modern media, it has never been easier to trace the evolution of the specific words and statements of which a particular oratory is constituted. Like epidemiologists on the trail of a new virus, we can reverse time and track an influential piece of public language from its pandemic phase, when it was on every lip and every screen, back through its late and then its early development, until we arrive at last at the singularity: the precise time and place it first entered the world.

On July 16, 2009, Betsy McCaughey, the former lieutenant governor of New York, appeared on Fred Thompson's radio show to add her two cents to the hottest political topic of that summer — President Barack Obama's controversial plans to reform America's health care system and extend coverage to tens of millions of uninsured citizens.

Fred Thompson was a colorful conservative whose furrowed and jowly gravitas had taken him from a successful law career to the US Senate, not to mention several successful stints as a Hollywood character actor. After the Senate, he embraced talk radio, and in 2009 his show was one of countless conservative outlets on which Obamacare was dissected and condemned.

There wasn't a better person than Betsy McCaughey to do that. A historian with a PhD from Columbia (thus entitling her to that medical-sounding "Dr."), McCaughey had risen through sheer brainpower from humble origins in Pittsburgh to become a significant public figure on the American Right. And she was considered a specialist in health care policy. She had been a forensic as well as ferocious critic of Clintoncare, the Democrats' failed attempt to reform the system in the 1990s. Obamacare, of course, was a rather different proposition — indeed, some of its founding principles had been developed by Republicans, or even implemented by them. The policy bore a particularly inconvenient resemblance to Mitt Romney's health care reforms while he was governor of Massachusetts. Mr. Romney was already being touted as a possible challenger to Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

But Betsy McCaughey was too forthright and ideologically committed to be discomforted by the intellectual genealogy of Obamacare. Nor was she likely to face a particularly testing cross-examination from her lawyer-turned-radio-host. American politics was polarizing even before Barack Obama arrived in the White House, and the media discussion of that politics had polarized along with it. The paradoxical result was that the more bitter the divisions became, the more likely it was that everyone in any given studio or on any political Web site would agree with one another. The people with whom they all disagreed were absent — indeed were probably all gathered in a different studio, making the opposite case in an equally cozy ideological cocoon where they faced the same low risk of contradiction.

On the face of it, then, nothing about this encounter — the political circumstance, the characters, the likely flavor and flow of the argument — was out of the ordinary. But on July 16, Betsy McCaughey had something new to say. Deep within one of the drafts of the Obamacare legislation that was then making its way through Congress, she had stumbled on an unnoticed but alarming proposal:

One of the most shocking things I found in this bill, and there were many, is on page 425, where the Congress would make it mandatory ... that every five years, people in Medicare have a required counseling session that will tell them how to end their life sooner, how to decline nutrition, how to decline being hydrated, how to go into hospice care ... These are such sacred issues of life and death. Government should have nothing to do with this.

There are two things to note about this claim. The first is simply that it's untrue. The section of the bill that McCaughey was referring to — Section 1233 — did not in fact call for compulsory "end-of-life" counseling sessions. Such sessions would have remained at the patient's discretion. The intent of the draft section was to make these voluntary sessions eligible for coverage under Medicare, the federal program that pays many of older Americans' medical costs.

But the fact that it was untrue — and indeed was promptly and definitively refuted by defenders of the bill — did nothing to stop it from rapidly gaining currency. This is the second, and more intriguing, point to note. Provision of end-of-life counseling had previously enjoyed tentative bipartisan support, but in the days following McCaughey's appearance, many of America's most influential conservative commentators and a number of prominent Republican politicians, including the House minority leader, John Boehner, took up her charges. And the claim began to be rounded out. The radio host Laura Ingraham cited her eighty-three-year-old father, proclaiming, "I do not want any government bureaucrat telling him what kind of treatment he should consider to be a good citizen. That's frightening." While a few commentators associated with the Right ridiculed the "myth" or "hoax" of Section 1233 — on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Joe Scarborough joked about the "Grim Reaper" clause — most of the discussion on the conservative side of the political divide was predicated on the assumption that McCaughey's claim about the bill was a straightforward statement of fact.

Then, on August 7, Sarah Palin entered the fray with a posting on Facebook that included the following passage:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's "death panel" so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their "level of productivity in society," whether they are worthy of health care. Such a system is downright evil.

What followed is well known. Within a few days the freshly baked term death panel was everywhere — radio, TV, the newspapers, the Web, Twitter — spread not only by its author and her supporters but, unintentionally yet also unavoidably, by those who were frantically trying to debunk it. By the middle of August, an opinion poll by the Pew Research Center suggested that 86 percent of Americans had heard the term (that is twice as many as those able to name the vice president). Of these, 30 percent believed it was a real proposal — the proportion among Republicans was 47 percent — while another 20 percent said they weren't sure whether it was true or false.

Despite all denials, a belief that Obamacare meant compulsory death panels remained stubbornly widespread, and a few months later the Democrats dropped the underlying proposal. When in 2012 the Obama administration again raised the possibility of covering end-of-life counseling under Medicare, the tagline threatened to take flight once more and the proposal was quickly dropped. In the summer of 2015, after extensive further research and consultation, Medicare announced that it did indeed intend to pay for end-of-life counseling. Predictably, Betsy McCaughey immediately took to the New York Post to announce: "Death panels are back."

A term that exaggerated and distorted a claim that was itself false, and that in any event had virtually nothing to do with the central thrust of Obamacare, had changed the course of politics. In fact, it is probably the only thing that many Americans can recall about the whole health care debate. As the veteran conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan remarked about Sarah Palin: "The lady knows how to frame an issue."

Let's set aside whatever views we have about the protagonists in this political drama, or indeed about health care and politics as a whole, and consider the phrase death panel purely as a piece of rhetoric. What makes it tick? Why was it so successful in shaping the debate? And what, if anything, does it tell us about what is happening to our public language?

Part of its strength is obviously its compression. A powerful political point that can be expressed in two words is perfect for the world of Twitter — and not just Twitter. Say that at some point in the summer of 2009, you'd been walking through an American airport past a TV monitor. The words death panel fit neatly onto the news tickers that all the cable news networks put across the bottom of the screen. You don't even know whether the person on the screen is arguing in favor or against Obamacare. What you see — and what you remember — is the two words.

We can break the compression down farther. The term has the effect of a synecdoche, that type of metonym in which the part stands for the whole. We know when we hear the words death panel that they don't stand merely for Section 1233; they stand for the whole of Obamacare. Actually, they stand for everything to do with Barack Obama, his administration, his vision for America.

And the words are proleptic: they take an imagined future scenario and present it as current reality. Whereas Betsy McCaughey simply misrepresents the draft bill, Sarah Palin offers a political prediction that goes like this: the legislation the Democrats are proposing gives the federal government control over your and your family's health — control over life and death — and, knowing them, it won't be long before they create a bureaucracy to decide who gets what. On the face of it, then, this is a slippery slope argument — let them pass this law, and in the end the government will decide who lives and who dies. But of course it isn't a complete argument at all. It's a piece of rhetorical panache that leaps straight to the dystopic end state and brings it to life with vivid imagery. The power of prolepsis is such that we may not even notice that the intermediate steps in the argument are missing.

The impact of the term is accentuated in the original posting by two inspired pieces of passing off. Sarah Palin puts "death panel" in quotation marks, which implies that she's quoting from the draft bill; she also puts quotation marks around "level of productivity in society," as if that too were Barack Obama's phrase rather than her own concocted one. This evocation of a dehumanized Socialist/bureaucratic state seems to have been prompted by conservative congresswoman Michele Bachmann's lopsided interpretation of the views of the bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel, a fervent advocate of universal heath care. It is of a piece, though, with attacks on US government attempts to reform health care stretching back more than half a century; in the mid-1940s, the American Medical Association denounced President Truman's plans for national health insurance as Soviet-style "socialized medicine." But death panel triggers even darker allusions: twentieth-century eugenics and euthanasia programs, and the selections in the death camps, with Barack Obama and Medicare officials taking the place of Nazi doctors.

If we listen really carefully, though, we can hear something else. The mention of Trig, her son with Down syndrome, signals how far Palin has generalized and radicalized an argument that began with what now seems the relatively modest claim that the elderly were going to be badgered into refusing further treatment. Now it's about murdering the young.

And there's a broader implication. An American voter might reasonably conclude that there are two kinds of public policy question: those that go to the heart of religious, cultural, and ethical differences — the debates about abortion and same-sex marriage are obvious examples — and those which are essentially managerial. How can we prevent another shock like Lehman Brothers? How can we best protect the United States from the Zika virus? You might further conclude that the question of health care reform fell squarely into the second category.

Not according to Sarah Palin. Her previous public mentions of Trig had been in connection to her opposition to abortion, and for her Obamacare raises similar issues — this is a battle between the forces of good and evil. In referring to him, she's attempting to pivot the visceral, Manichaean quality of the abortion debate into the battle over health care reform. When it comes to abortion, the two sides believe there can be no compromise. The same is true of health care, she says. You can't compromise with people who mean to slaughter your children.

And that's the final point to make about the term death panel. It's maximal: in all respects it states its case in the strongest possible terms. What Sarah Palin claims to be uncovering is nothing less than a conspiracy to murder. There is no presumption of good faith on the part of your opponent — this is a fight to the political death, a fight in which every linguistic weapon is fair game. It is a rhetoric that seeks not to dispel distrust of politicians but to foment it. And it worked.

Perhaps the term death panel leaves you cold. Perhaps you find the rhetorical conceit grotesque or comical, and you are amazed that anyone could be taken in by something so crude and exaggerated. But all rhetoric is designed for a particular time and place and above all for a particular audience — it is a supremely tactical, contextual art — and the phrase probably wasn't intended for you. Given the context and the people likely to hear it, however, it was devastatingly effective, like a precision-guided munition punching its way through to its target.

Yet in one respect it is an utter failure. It is so tendentious, so abstracted from the real — and difficult — decisions and trade-offs that must be faced in any debate about health care, so purely partisan in intent and meaning, that it makes the real policy choices associated with Obamacare not easier but harder to understand. Whether willfully or not, explanatory power has been wholly sacrificed in the interest of rhetorical impact.


Excerpted from "Enough Said"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Mark Thompson.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

1. Lost for Words
2. That Glib and Oily Art
3. There You Go Again
4. Spin and Counterspin
5. Why Is This Lying Bastard Lying To Me?
6. An Unhealthy Debate
7. How to Fix a Broken Public Language
8. Sentences That Sell
9. Commit It to the Flames
10. War
11. The Abolition of Public Language
12. Keep Calm But Don’t Cary On
Postscript: Truth or Dare?

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