Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Bad Writing in High Places, pt. ii

A photo snapped over this long holiday weekend at the base of the grand phallic Yorktown monument, commemorating the 1781 siege of Yorktown which ended with the surrender of Cornwallis’s army to a combined Franco-American force under George Washington & the Comte de Grassi – and thereby pretty much ending the Revolutionary War. Now don’t get the idea that I spend my holidays visiting battle sites: on the contrary – I’ve driven thru central Pennsylvania a hundred times, and never come closer than twenty miles to Gettysburg. Okay, I once stopped in Scotland to snap photos of the site of Drumclog (Scott, Old Mortality), but that’s about it. Let’s just say we happened upon this whacking great erection blocking out a lovely view of the York River, & with my constitutional inability to see an inscription without reading it, I had to linger and read not merely the inscriptions on the four sides of the base, but all the plaques the Daughters of the American Revolution had laid round about. One of them – reproduced above – strikes me as a neat epitome of the degradation of public discourse in these United States over the past 200 or so years:
We are now friends with England and with all Mankind.
Benjamin Franklin, 1783
American Peace Commissioner

Now that’s lovely – as fine a balanced period as one could ask for from le philosophe Franklin, transatlantic representative of the age of reason.
This great peace monument is a symbol of the sacrifices in lives and property in the Revolutionary War, which ended at Yorktown and which brought us our independence. It symbolizes, too, the peace between the mother country and America – a peace not seriously interrupted since 1781.
Horace M. Albright, 1931
Director, National Park Service

Oh dear. Public stolidness not unrelieved with turgidity. Without questioning Mr Albright’s history (perhaps the War of 1812 was a “serious interruption,” or those tense years when Henry Adams, junior legate to the embassy in London, was waiting for the UK to cast in with the Confederacy), one notes how a Hooveresque concern for “lives and property” manages to make the Revolution, once figured in terms of Roman virtue, a matter of capital investment.
The Treaty of Paris was the first step toward an alliance with Great Britain which has grown stronger through two centuries to become one of our most important alliance relationships. Political, cultural, economic, and defense ties between our two nations are firm and lasting.
Ronald Reagan, 1983
President, United States of America

I suspect Reagan wrote this bit himself – at least it’s hard to imagine one of his speechwriters guilty of these two sentences of unremitting, bland boilerplate. Would Lincoln, would Pitt, would Burke, for God’s sake would that toad-eater Tony Blair have allowed those two solecisms – “alliance relationships” and “defense ties” – to appear over his name? If the Gipper’s shade is listening, an “alliance” is by definition a “relationship”; and “defense ties” is merely a lazy, bureaucratically crippled way of saying “miliitary ties.” I’ll content myself with addressing the dead; there’s no-one in the White House now who reads or listens to anything.

2 comments:

Archambeau said...

Mark:

I know the sins of Reagan's prose are too legion to mention, but let's not miss the failed parallelism of "cultural, economic, and defense ties." Really, you need a proper adjective like "militrary" here, to maintain the parallellism set up by "cultural" and "economic." I suppose Reagan had absored the discourse by which all things "military" must be thought of as defenses, lest we recognize that we are so often on the offensive.

Ask me sometime about my symbolic protest at the childhood home of Reagan in Dixon, Illinois...

Bob

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