Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Language of Machiavelli

I have recently been reading a great translation of Machiavelli's The Prince done by Angelo Codevilla, a professor of international relations at Boston University. Codevilla’s translation presents to the English-speaking reader much of Machiavelli’s brilliance in using language for his own ends. Codevilla gives a very good editor's introduction, clearly showing the role and impact of The Prince in intellectual history--noting some important patterns of thought that we take for granted today, whose predominance is attributable to Machiavelli. Even more interesting, though, is the subsequent essay on "Words and Power." In this, Codevilla demonstrates some of the devices not of argumentation but of linguistic manipulation that Machiavelli employed to get his readers to adopt his own new (and quite revolutionary) moral standards.

Moral standards are not something that people give up freely, being ingrained in our values and prejudices, and at a level deeper than many people can reason to. What are the two topics supposedly banned from polite conversation? Religion and politics. Why? Because they are the two areas in which, for decades now, politeness gives way to defense mechanisms meant to mask the insecurities we feel when trying to explain (and thus, justify) the beliefs we hold so deeply. (Or maybe why those beliefs have a hold on us).

There are so many human reasons why we believe things--because our parents believed them, because our parents believed the opposite, because there is so much suffering in the world (or our own lives), because we're convinced we're supposed to believe them, because we're afraid of changing our actions or our lives, because we need the stability of being told what to believe, because we're afraid to reason for ourselves, because of the sins of those who believe otherwise, etc.

I bring this up because it was on this level that Machiavelli seems to have meant primarily to engage his readers. He knew he couldn’t get his readers to adopt his new standard of good and evil by reasoning them to it. So he chose to use language on the level of those deeper-than-reason human reasons for belief (fear, pride, desire to succeed, etc.).

Codevilla highlights the significance of Machiavelli's way of using language by contrasting it with Dante. This description of the two writers makes Niccolo look almost ... Machiavellian:

In short, Dante crafted his language to follow the dictates of reason, not of men or of chance. Dante thought language was not to be imposed by power or by convention but to be accepted by reason. . . . Machiavelli knew exactly what Dante meant. He disagreed. He believed that language, like every other human tool, serves the interest of some to the detriment of others. But Machiavelli did not argue against Dante. Instead he baldly accused him of speaking the language of a rival city, of being insufficiently committed to Florence. This did not advance the cause of truth, but it did help Machiavelli prevail with his Florentine audience.

If this sounds too commonplace to be worth pointing out, just remember to keep two things in mind. First, while people did this before Machiavelli, they knew they were doing something "wrong." Machiavelli legitimized this is a method that was "good" by literally redefining the words good and evil (more below). Second, Niccolo wasn't just lying (that's an ancient practice to be sure!), he was crafting a strategy using words deliberately as weapons. Thus Codevilla asserts that for Machiavelli, "Language, therefore, is a most powerful weapon in the struggle for primacy, and one peculiarly suited to the unarmed."

Codevilla didn’t stumble upon the fact that this was Machiavelli’s preferred way of using language by just reading The Prince extra carefully; he found that Machiavelli laid this method out explicitly in other writings: specifically his Florentine Histories and Discourses upon Our Language. Codevilla used to work on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, so unlike most Americans he probably doesn’t have a problem seeing the deeper, sometimes subversive, layers under the surface of much oral and written communication.

Let's look at some details, then. "The most important questions regarding The Prince," says Codevilla, "hinge on Machiavelli's use of words.

Does he in fact confuse the adverbe bene (well) with the noun bene (good) so as to collapse the distinction between doing well and doing good? How does Machiavelli change his readers' notion of virtue and goodness? As we shall see, he regards the meaning of such words as wholly plastic. Therefore, he gradually alters their meaning by changing their context.

He does this by forcing his readers to think of the words in the midst of an onslaught of situations and images that are unpleasant to deal with -- so many that in the end, the tired reader is weakened into granting, perhaps semi-wittingly, that what good is what eliminates such situations:

[Machiavelli's] work, especially The Prince, is filled with tales of gore and treachery. To what end? Everyone knew such things happened. Why did Machiavelli insist on mentioning them so frequently and in such detail? . . . The answer becomes clear when we remember that Machiavelli did not mean to argue as much as he meant to act. The vivid portrayal of political defeat is a fearsome thing. Machiavelli never argues explicitly that earthly suffering and death are the worst fates; he just omits any discussion of the possibility that they are not.

Thus Codevilla shows Machiavelli to be exploring and playing with the aspects of human nature upon which modern advertising would be based -- more than 400 years before Edward Bernays, the man called the father of modern advertising and nephew of Sigmund Freud, encapsulated the psychology of crowds and of the subconscious in his interesting little, rather Machiavellian book, Propaganda.

Marx and later the Soviets would perfect what Bernays had learned from Gustave LeBon's study of crowds into the very simple strategy of making people believe lies (one reliant upon total control of the media): constant, relentless repetition of your message, and mercilessly stamping out any dissent. People start to believe not because they have been convinced, but because they have no mental energy left to resist.

When Foreign Laws Silence Americans' Speech

I’m glad to see a couple of important Senators drawing attention to this subject (and I'm proud of my native state of New York for taking the initiative on it). Sens. Specter and Lieberman co-authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal pointing to how easy Americans can be sued in foreign courts (like the UK) under libel laws that are heavily weighted against publishers. Note the scenario they use as example:

In 2003, U.S. scholar Rachel Ehrenfeld asserted in her book, "Funding Evil: How Terrorism Is Financed and How to Stop It," that Saudi banker Khalid Bin Mahfouz helped fund Osama bin Laden. The book was published in the U.S. by a U.S. company. But 23 copies were bought online by English residents, so English courts permitted the Saudi to file a libel suit there.

As in many areas of modern life, laws are struggling to keep pace. Either they assume outdated business models in the face of creative collaboration and the prospect of name recognition for young artists through file sharing, or the very international nature of communication and information brokering today.

If I make a point to buy a book in German from amazon.de, I don’t have the expectation that I could sue the author in this country, since there was no intention to have major distribution here, even though it was always possible. Maybe our laws do allow me to sue the author in an American court, but I don’t know if they should. Does the truly tiny distribution of Ehrenfeld’s book in the UK really give British courts the right to allow a Saudi to sue an American?

The ability to speak freely and challenge people to give reasons for public actions is a beauty of the First Amendment. While I don’t think it was meant to protect “art” depicting obscene desecrations of the symbols of my (or anyone else’s) faith, the First Amendment was meant for just the type of thing Ehrenfeld is trying to do. Even if she doesn’t have all of her facts straight, the idea is that getting her assertions out in public is worth encouraging, b/c our Founders thought that the public should be the judge of speech, not the government.

The war on terror has (or at least needs to have) a major public diplomacy component. IMHO, the West should be challenging the radical segments of the Muslim world to justify themselves intellectually before the court of public opinion, insisting that you can’t riot or kill people when you don’t get what you want like someone who hasn’t grown psychologically past early childhood. If you are right, you have a legitimate chance to convince everyone. It is this very open and terrifyingly just invitation to justify themselves in public that prompts the terrorist propagandists (and don’t think there aren’t any) to use tactics like suing in British court. It is a type of procedural warfare that allows them to silence unpleasant voices without having to argue reasonably. Hence this interesting facet of the proposed law: “If a jury finds that the foreign suit is part of a scheme to suppress free speech rights, it may award treble damages.” I don’t know how easy or impossible this would be to prove in court, but it’s good that they recognize it as a strategy.

It would be nice if the US and the UK could come up with some joint advisory committee to look at protecting our citizens from their laws when neither plaintiff nor defendant have ever set foot in Britain. In the meantime, if the UK doesn’t do anything, we definitely should. It’s too bad the UK doesn’t see the public diplomacy value to itself in moderating speech laws that are begging to be abused.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

You'll Think What I Want You to Think

I made a discovery on Netflix recently. The British show Yes, Prime Minister from the early 80s is simply brilliant in its portrayal of the real workings of government and society in all their ridiculousness.

The three main characters are the Prime Minister Jim Hacker, Sir Humphrey, and Bernard Wooley. Sir Humphrey is the cynical Cabinet Secretary, with an admirable loyalty to the civil service (and only the civil service), and Bernard is the naive and pedantic personal secretary to the Prime Minister. Humphrey is always trying to teach Bernard more cynical ways, such as in the following:
We run a civilized, aristocratic government machine, tempered by occasional general elections. Since 1832, we have been gradually excluding the voter from government. Now we've got them to a point where they just vote once every five years for which bunch of buffoons will try to interfere with our policies ...
But that's not even what I wanted to blog about. In the Episode titled "The Ministerial Broadcast," Sir Humphrey and Bernard are discussing the Prime Minister's radical plan to bring back the draft ("National Service"), and Humphrey gives what has to be the best demonstration of how easily polls can be manipulated to suggest exactly the answer the pollster wants. Enjoy:
Humphrey: A nice young lady comes up to you, obviously you want to create a good impression--you don't want to look a fool, do you?

Bernard: No.

H: No. So she starts asking you some questions: Mr. Wooley, are you worried about the number of young people without jobs?

B: Yes.

H: Are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?

B: Yes.

H: Do you think there's a lack of discipline in our comprehensive schools?

B: Yes.

H: Do you think young people welcome some authority and leadership in their lives?

B: Yes.

H: Do you think the respond to a challenge?

B: Yes.

H: Would you be in favor of reintroducing national service?

B: Oh, well I suppose I might.

H: Yes or no?

B: {sigh.} Yes.

H: Of course you would, Bernard, after all you've told you can't say no to that. So they don't mention the first five questions and they publish the last one.

Alternatively the young lady can get the opposite result: . . .
Mr. Wooley, are you worried about the danger of war?

B: Yes.

H: Are you worried about the growth of armaments?

B: Yes.

H: Do you think there's a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?

B: Yes!

H: Do you think it's wrong to force people to take up arms against their will?

B: Yes!

H: Would you oppose the reintroduction of National Service?

B: Yes! . . . Oh.

Monday, April 28, 2008

False Friend # 1

False friend is the linguistic term for a word in another language that looks just like a word in your own, and so you assume it means the same thing. Be careful! It's wonderful to make friends of new words, but make sure you really know them, or they'll only hurt you.

English has very many words that were borrowed from French, or that English and French both took from Latin, which have kept the same meaning: préparation, longue, noble, thème, champion, etc.

For future reference, if you're ever in southern France and you need new batteries for your camera, it is better not to go into a store asking for "Les batteries." The better word here is piles.

Une batterie is a drumset.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Speaking of Propaganda, Comrade . . .

Periodically if you read the Washington Post (I don't personally, but I like to look at the pictures), you'll see something that looks like an article, smells like an article, and is written like an article. Don't be fooled! Check the fine print and you'll see it's a full-page ad taken out by the Russian government's Tourism/Cover-up Board. They buy space in a newspaper in America's capital, and present the message they want us to hear, in a package we are more likely to trust. (I think even conservatives in this country trust the average report in the Post more than they trust, say, this.) Check out this and this, for example.

Well, the Post finally caught on to what the Russians were doing, and on March 6th, decided they might as well make a story out of it, so they wrote this article on Russia's "global propaganda machine." One page two of the article is a reference to the recurring "feature" in their own paper:
The official government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta is using its healthy profits to fund monthly supplements in newspapers in India, Britain, Bulgaria and the United States. "Russia: Beyond the Headlines," as the publication is called, is a paid advertising supplement in The Post.
One of my favorite lines is this one:
The campaign is designed to counter what the government and many people here see as unrelenting and unfair Western criticism of declining political freedoms under President Vladimir Putin.
Let's see ... counter ... criticism ... declining ... Well, there are at least three negatives here, but I think they mostly cancel out to show Putin himself as the biggest negative in the whole picture. As the article admits, there are skeptics that simply won't be fooled by such blatant tactics. But we would be foolish ourselves to dismiss Russia's campaign as harmless. Propaganda works because it understands that people can, and in many cases, deep down they want to be fooled. No one wants to think that the Russians are deceiving us and spying on us so deeply that they have spies in positions of high authority in the CIA and the FBI ... but then we discover Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen.

One of the primary tactics of propaganda is relentless repetition of the message. It doesn't really matter what you think of the message on your first hearing--that's long gone when you hear it in the back of your head after the 30th hearing. That's why "Beyond the Headlines" is a regular feature. This is the same tactic used by advertising campaigns. Advertising is propaganda. The father of modern advertising, Edward Bernays, laid out how it all works in a very important and influential little book truthfully titled, Propaganda.

Another tactic of propaganda is the form the message takes. I don't care if you tell me a hundred times the world is round, if your commercial has Hitler saying it, I'll probably start to doubt the message. That's why commercials use every day people (usually women) selling every day products--if we saw the CEO of Frigidaire asking us to buy his product, our mind would drift to what he gets out of it--profit. So he has to redirect your mind to what he want you to get out of the commercial--that attractive people just like you use it. "They do? Well, I don't want to be left out," your mind says, while you think you're logically weighing pros and cons.

So the Russian government puts out its party line in newspapers: its own mouthpiece Rossiyskaya Gazeta, and features in the Post meant to look real, b/c if you don't look too carefully, you'll assume it is real. And of course that's what Putin wants you to think: that his government, his democracy, his new puppet president--that they're all real.

Btw, for more on His High Putinage, stay tuned to Someone Like Putin.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

New Focus

So at long last, I've realized why I haven't been posting, and what I can do about it. As I have floated from point to point in the vast ocean of my interests, my blog came to feel too limiting, so I'm refocusing it. That is, I'm putting back on the wide-angle lens, based on all of my myriad interests. Now, don't worry, all that Germanic and obscure linguistic stuff isn't going anywhere--like curious explorations of how Vatican and Wednesday come from the same root. Still, I have a few areas in particular I'm looking forward to exploring, all in some vague way related to language.

I'd like to serve a slightly more definite "public diplomacy" purpose by looking at some aspects of other languages that have lessons for understanding other cultures--something Americans are so tragically bad at. The sad part really is not that Americans are bad at languages--you can't know you're bad at something you don't try. But by not opening those horizons for ourselves, we do keep ourselves needlessly from the opportunity for more precise thought. George Orwell makes this point famously--and brilliantly--in his 1946 essay on Politics and the English Language.

I'd also like to look again at the whole prescriptivist/descriptivist approaches to language. The prescriptivist grammar school approach to what is "correct" in language is certainly inadequate--to what other field do we feel it is sufficient to apply a grammar school understanding in our adult lives? Yet the strict descriptivism that I think I see in linguistic academia seems a bit restrictive in its own way: If Keynesian prescriptivism ignores the unpredictability of human nature and therefore the fact that languages evolve naturally over time, laissez-faire descriptivism may be too afraid to view language as a tool--one which others will master even if we don't.

In other words, I'm interested in the the whole idea of language being a tool of humanity, and the various applications this has for strategic communication, rhetoric, propaganda, semantic battles in public discourse--the conscious use of language as a tool by people, or the unconscious use of people as tools by language.