U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“In the Land of Truth, the Man with One Fact is King”: The Corruption of Language and U.S. Intellectual History

(Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Rivka Maizlish. — Ben Alpers)

In The Loop “The shin-bone!” After enduring humiliating invective from a U.S. State Department official, Malcolm Tucker, Director of Communications for the Prime Minister in the British satirical film In The Loop, searches for the nastiest image he can find to take out his frustration on an inferior. Having found his inspiration with the shin-bone, Tucker continues: “I’m gonna take out your shin-bone,” he hisses, “and I’m gonna break it in half and use it to stab your body!” Shortly after this scene, the film comes to an end with the Assistant Secretary of State screaming at the Assistant Secretary of Defense, “Get some balls!”

When I first saw In The Loop after its release in 2009, I was amazed at the constant barrage of acrimony expressed in violent sexual, digestive, or general body imagery, culminating in the ridiculous, if horrifying, image of stabbing someone with their own snapped shin-bone. I was amazed because this dark satire of U.S. and British efforts to shore up support for an invasion of Iraq had so perfectly translated into provocative dialogue historian Robert Dean’s insights about language, gender, bodies, and American foreign policy in Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy.

Imperial Brotherhood, published in 2001, represents perhaps the most creative application of Joan Scott’s famous exhortation to use gender as a category of historical analysis. With clarity and precision, Dean reconstructs the “ideologies of masculinity” that deeply influenced Cold War policymakers, locating these ideologies in class-based cultural institutions like the elite prep school and the Ivy League fraternity. Explaining that his focus is on “a symbolic system of meaning,” Dean writes that “the term ‘ideology of masculinity’ refers to the cultural system of prescription and proscription that organizes the ‘performance’ of an individual’s role in society, that draws boundaries around the social category of manhood, and that can be used to legitimate power and privilege.” “Because the roles men play in society and the powers they wield are linked to social class,” Dean argues, “ideologies of masculinity are inseparable from class experience.”1

After reconstructing the ideologies of masculinity forged in class experience for several U.S. Cold War foreign policy framers, Dean reveals how the American government policed and maintained expectations of masculinity. With several chapters devoted to “the political and personal effects of a state-sanctioned sexual inquisition,” Imperial Brotherhood contains one of the best discussions of the Lavender Scare, a topic still greatly overlooked in scholarship and university courses.2 The book culminates in a fascinating demonstration of how thoroughly ideologies of manhood infected the language of policy makers. But if thought can influence language, as George Orwell wrote, language can also influence thought, and Dean argues that the language of manhood culture strictly defined the range of policy options U.S. leaders believed available to them. “How decision makers understood threats, and which responses they considered legitimate or even conceivable,” he explains, “followed in significant measure from ideologies of manhood.” “A life time of immersion in masculine competition and a culture celebrating militarized manhood gave many highly educated, privileged, and powerful men the conviction that duty and the protection of both their own power and that of the nation demanded a war,” Dean concludes, thus using gender to understand U.S. involvement in Vietnam.3

For its creative analysis, meticulously constructed argument, and insights into how gender anxiety infects language and thought, I recommend Imperial Brotherhood to anyone interested in gender, class, language, Cold War culture, diplomatic history, and particularly intellectual history. For its clear writing, valuable discussion of the Lavender Scare, and often hilarious source material, I recommend teaching Imperial Brotherhood in upper-level undergraduate courses. There is, I believe, no shame in suggesting that this book works particularly well for undergraduates because they get to read about President Kennedy promising to “cut [Khrushchev’s] balls off,” and President Johnson reassuring critics of his policy in Vietnam: “I’m going up her leg an inch at a time . . . I’ll get the snatch before they know what’s happening, you see. . . . I didn’t just screw Ho Chi Minh. I cut his pecker off.”4 If Ho’s “pecker” can improve enrollment… why not?

In all seriousness, the wealth of quotations from policy-makers using violent metaphors about bodies when talking about foreign policy may be one of the most useful aspects of Dean’s truly remarkable book. And it is precisely this display of anxiety about gender and power that In The Loop captures so perfectly. “The intelligence we’ve got is so hard, so f–ing deep, it will puncture your kidneys,” one character declares. The policy-makers– both male and female– of In The Loop constantly use vulgar language invoking threats of physical and often sexual violence to assert dominance and to challenge the manhood of anyone who dares oppose them. “If you were a real general, you’d have some balls,” Assistant Secretary of State Karen Clark yells at Lieutenant General Miller, who has, throughout the film, been asked to establish his credentials as a man and a general with the questions: “Have you ever even killed anyone?” and “When was the last time you killed someone?”

Johnson TreatmentAccording to Dean, members of the “Imperial Brotherhood”– Cold War policy-makers influenced by “ideologies of masculinity”– also frequently challenged the manhood of their peers in an attempt to establish power. “You are such a sissy,” Lyndon Johnson declared when National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy indicated his preference for tennis over an invitation for golf with the president. “What do you want to run out here and play girl’s game for?”5 Johnson, who insisted that the public would view him as “an unmanly man,” if America “lost” Vietnam, was particularly sensitive about his modest Texas background among the Harvard elite of Kennedy’s cabinet. According to Dean, Johnson “acted to establish dominance . . . through calculated displays of his own body” intended to humiliate his peers.6 Dean presents one particularly illuminating incident: Bundy, Johnson once complained, “came into the bathroom with me and then found it utterly impossible to look at me while I sat there one the toilet. You’d think he had never seen those parts of the body before. For there he was, standing as far away from me as he possibly could, keeping his back toward me the whole time, trying to carry on a conversation.” When Johnson asked Bundy to come closer, “instead of turning around and walking over to me,” the President continued, incredulous, “he kept his face away from me and walked backwards, one rickety step at a time. For a moment I thought he was going to fall into my lap. It certainly made me wonder how that man had made it so far in the world.”7

Like so much of what we love in American history, this kind of material is ripe for satire, which In The Loop achieves. The film, however, goes far beyond Dean’s excellent book in demonstrating the power of language to manipulate and prescribe human action, suggesting how historians might take Dean’s approach in new directions. For this is a film primarily about language. The movie opens with Simon Foster, British Secretary for International Affairs, in trouble with his superiors for publicly calling war “unforeseeable.” Foster clumsily attempts to cover his error: “War is not foreseeable or unforeseeable, not inevitable but not… evitable?” he offers, showing the failure of language, or at least his failure to find language suitable for expressing his position, because, of course, his position is unclear.

Foster’s absurd struggle with language throughout the film demonstrates not only the limits of words but also suggests, as George Orwell believed, that a confusion in language both represents and creates a confusion in the realm of thought and ideas. When Foster again tries to rectify his “war is unforeseeable” blunder, he ends up telling a camera crew and group of reporters: “For the plane in the fog, the mountain is unforeseeable… but then it is suddenly very real and inevitable.” After this pitiful metaphor, reporters bombard him with questions about what the mountain represents, who is flying the plane, and “are you saying the government is lost in the fog?” “All I’m saying,” Foster stammers, “is that to walk the road of peace, sometimes we have to be ready to climb the mountain of conflict.” Poor Foster, who opposes war, is so out of control of his words that “climb the mountain of conflict” ends up on a bumper-sticker displayed in the State Department office of Linton Barwick, the hawk behind the American push for war. “What if I say the war is a resigning issue?” Foster, desperate to assert himself, asks an aide. “You can’t say its a resigning issue because then you will have to resign!” she replies, revealing how language has the power to determine Foster’s actions.

But if language manipulates Foster, language is also easily manipulated by the hawks in the film. “The minutes should not be a reductive record of what was said,” asserts Barwick, “but a more full record of what was intended to have been said.” He then proceeds to do violence to official minutes, editing the words of his colleagues. In the climax of the film, the hawks pushing for war must deal with a committee report that found no evidence for war and in fact warned about the difficulties of invasion. Shortly after threatening to stab a man to death with his shin-bone, Malcolm Tucker hastily adds and removes words from the report, changing “might have found,” to “have found,” in order to fabricate evidence that could provide justification for war.

Between the hawks’ easy ability to manipulate language and Simon Foster’s pitiful lack of control over language, the dialogue of In the Loop draws attention to the absurd excess of meaningless words involved in political discussion. When Linton Barwick slips and mentions a secret war committee, he claims that the Assistant Secretary of State has misheard the word “committee.” “Maybe it was Khomeini,” he suggests, “there are a lot of words it could have been.” Over protests that “sitting on a new Khomeini” makes no sense, Barwick’s lackeys offer other words that sound like committee: “kitty, commissary, itty…” (“itty is not a word!” Barwick snaps).

George Orwell opens his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” published in 1946, by asserting that the English language “is in a bad way.”8 Orwell argues that confusion of language is both an effect and a cause of a confusion of political ideas. “One ought to recognize,” writes Orwell, “that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.” “Political language,” Orwell continues, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”9 In the Loop portrays political language carefully applied for just this purpose– to spin lies and gain support for war. The film also shows how language clumsily uttered without thought can entrap its author.

Orwell argued that “dying metaphors,” phrases which “have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves” both reflect and encourage a lack of careful attention to ideas, and render communication within political community impossible.10 Dying and nonsensical metaphors abound in In the Loop, from “climb the mountain of conflict” to “just give a wink and a nod.” One sympathetic, if particularly powerless, character attempts to challenge the use of a “dying metaphor.” “Bottom line!” he groans, “I hate that phrase; we’re not in retailing!” His interlocutor responds by aggressively repeating the metaphor over and over. “The bottom line is…” he reasserts. In the Loop‘s best parody of the state of politics and the English language comes in the form of a dead and completely mangled metaphor: “In the land of truth,” Barwick proclaims before altering the official minutes of a committee meeting, “the man with one fact is King!”

Robert Dean’s masterful Imperial Brotherhood follows Orwell’s claims about thought and language by showing how “ideologies of masculinity” appeared all over the curiously violent and sexual language of Cold War policy-makers, and by carefully demonstrating how this language, and the ideology behind it, in turn influenced policy. In the Loop echoes Dean’s observations about language, gender, and American foreign policy, but by treating the corruption of language in general, the film goes beyond Dean’s focus on gender and class anxiety and vividly illustrates Orwell’s darkest fears. Intellectual historians, following Orwell’s essay, might look for instances in history where language is in a state of confusion, where political communication is as futile and jumbled as it appears in In the Loop, where there is an apparent gap between thought and words, and treat the decay of language as a tool for excavating certain thought and culture from the past. For example, Perry Miller argues in The New England Mind: From Colony to Province that while second-generation Puritans maintained the language of Calvinism, their thought had strayed from the dogma they uttered. In The War on Words: Slavery, Race, and Free Speech in American Literature, literary scholar Michael Gilmore uses cacophony and silence– an excess of words and the failure of words– in American politics to examine antebellum ideology. Attention to a decay or confusion of language can alert intellectual historians to particular instances of unstable of ideas in American culture– instances often difficult, but always rewarding to explore.

_____________________________________

1 Robert Dean, Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001), 2.
2 Dean, 7.
3 Dean, 241.
4 Quoted in Dean, 240.
5 Quoted in Dean, 210.
6 Dean, 210.
7 Quoted in Dean, 210-211.
8 George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” 1946.
9 Ibid.
10 Ibid.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Fabulous post, Rivka.

    The language of embodied masculinity, and the systems of power and privilege that such language produces/protects/projects — this is an important and interesting object of analysis in history. And by “history” I don’t simply mean “the past,” or “the Cold War,” but “history” as in “the writing of historians.”

    Kerwin Klein, in Frontiers of Historical Imagination, does this essential analytical work in showing how historians have gendered not just the American west but the study of it. Also, in The Gender of History, Bonnie G. Smith offers an interesting take on how the historical profession in general is/might be “gendered.”

    And a quick read through Arthur Schlesinger’s Vital Center reveals how completely the masculinist ideal of brute physical force shaped even the most “academic” of arguments during the Cold War.

    Of course we know better now.

  2. Rivka, David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government and K.A. Cuordileone’s Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War might be of interest to you.

  3. Rivka: Thanks for the provocative piece. I’ve been thinking more about the meaning of silences (i.e. public, as failures, deliberate, etc.) since reading an essay on the subject in DEMOCRATIC NARRATIVE, HISTORY, & MEMORY (eds Carole A. Barbato and Laura L. Davis). The essay therein was by Jay Winter and he explored “socially-constructed silences.” – TL

  4. A good post.
    Might be worth mentioning that there is a fairly extensive literature on war/gender/masculinity by scholars of int’l relations (who mostly tend to be political scientists by disciplinary affiliation – at least in the U.S.).
    One recent book, for ex,, is Aaron Belkins’ Bring Me Men: Military Masculinity and the Benign Facade of American Empire, 1898-2001 (2012).

    • Thanks for the citation. Kristin L. Hoganson’s Fighting for American Manhood (1998), about the Spanish-American War, is another incredible study of gender, culture, and American foreign policy.

  5. “But if thought can influence language, as George Orwell wrote, language can also influence thought”

    Is this your argument, Orwell’s, or Dean’s? I think there are some linguists and neuro-psych types who may have trouble with such a reversal.

    “the absurd excess of meaningless words involved in political discussion.”

    So true! I recently saw a talk by Ginny Redish, a famous advocate of “plain language” (that’s the name for what these writing specialists call it). She worked for the government (well, she worked for a D.C. research firm called American Institute for Research) in the 1970s and ’80s, on making forms easier for regular people to understand. She talked about how the “center for paperwork” (I forget the actual name, but it was a government committee with a name like that!) was established under the Carter administration, but then when Reagan came to office, he abolished many of these government bodies because he planned to abolish all the regulations they dealt with. Perhaps you would be interested in her work.

  6. Hi, Andrea! I believe Dean and Orwell have similar ideas about the relationship between thought and language, and, though I’m not an expert on linguistics, I agree with them. But you’re right: many linguists despise Orwell for exactly this point. Redish’s work sounds interesting; I side with Orwell on the importance of “plain speech” in political writing, talking, and thinking. Historian James Miller has an essay about the debate over whether plain speech or radically different (and therefore often confusing) speech has more potential to change politics. Miller examines Orwell as plain speech proponent and Adorno as radical/opaque speech proponent.

    James Miller, “Is Bad Writing Necessary,” Lingua Franca (Vol. 9 No. 9, 2000).
    http://linguafranca.mirror.theinfo.org/9912/writing.html

    Miller writes:
    “Must one write clearly, as Orwell argued, or are thinkers who are truly radical and subversive compelled to write radically and subversively–or even opaquely, as if through a glass darkly? That is the question.
    On one side stand academic luminaries like University of California at Berkeley rhetorician Judith Butler and University of Pittsburgh English professor Jonathan Arac, who take their inspiration from critical theorists like Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno. Arguing that their work has been misunderstood by journalists on the left, these radical professors distrust the demand for “linguistic transparency,” charging that it cripples one’s ability “to think the world more radically.”
    On the other side are ranged a variety of public intellectuals and journalists like UCLA historian Russell Jacoby, feminist writer Katha Pollitt, and NYU physicist Alan Sokal. Intolerant of bewildering jargon, they cannot see how deliberately difficult prose can possibly help change the world. As their patron saint, they often nominate George Orwell, the very image of a man who spoke truth to power and spoke it plainly.”

    • I will have to read this. I can understand an argument which says “complex and radical thoughts cannot be expressed in plain language because they are too complicated, and to try to express them in plain language is to do a disservice to their complexity.” However I feel negatively toward an argument that says “complex and radical thoughts ought to / deserve to be expressed in complicated language” whether they CAN be expressed plainly or not… or the idea that the person thinking up the radical ideas CAN’T think of the radical ideas if he thinks using plain language… this seems very strange to me. Like I said, I’ll have to read that paper you linked.

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