Parataxis and Politics

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We’re looking forward to reading the forthcoming book on language and politics by the chief executive officer of the New York Times, Mark Thompson. He had an op-ed piece in the paper over the weekend called “Trump and the Dark History of Straight Talk.” It’s adapted from his book “Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics,” which is due out next month and, according to the advance squib on, lays our political crisis to “the way our public language has changed.”

“Enough Said,” according to Amazon, “tells the story of how we got from the language of FDR and Churchill to that of Donald Trump.” The book “forensically examines the public language we’ve been left with: compressed, immediate, sometimes brilliantly impactful, but robbed of most of its explanatory power.” In the op-ed piece, Mr. Thompson writes of “rhetorical markers,” such as “short sentences (‘We have to build a wall, folks!’) that pummel the listener in a series of sharp jabs.”

This is known to rhetoricians as parataxis, which Webster’s Second defines as arrangement without logical connection but Mr. Thompson calls the “traditional style of the general (‘I came, I saw, I conquered’).” He fails to mention it, but Hillary Clinton is a paragon of parataxis, as in her remark in respect of Colonel Gadhafi, “We came. We Saw. He died.” We suspect that the Times is going to attribute the plunge into parataxis predominantly to the Republicans. Truth is, it has been a bipartisan business.

Nor is the Gray Lady herself innocent. Our favorite example is Paul Krugman’s put down of Ron Paul, in which he reacted to his defeat in a televised debate with the congressman by declaring debates useless. “If Ron Paul got on TV and said ‘Gah gah goo goo debasement! theft!’ — which is a rough summary of what he actually did say — his supporters would say that he won the debate hands down,” carped Mr. Krugman. We invite our readers to watch the debate and see the rhetorical plane on which Dr. Paul was speaking.

The fact is that the Times’ premier columnist is the Nobel laureate of parataxis, right up there with Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton. Its editorial columns aren’t far behind. Maybe Mr. Thompson will get into that in the book. Our own view is that parataxis isn’t the cause of the problem in our politics but the symptom — of a disconnect between runaway government and the voters it purports to represent and the taxpayers who pay for it. Bring the government into concord with the rest of us and the language, too, will become more connected.

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