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.