against abstractions

Wilfred McClay has an excellent piece in today's First Things. Highly recommended. Here's the intro:
We have a chronic problem in America with abstract words. We cannot do without them, since they are carriers of our highest ideals and aspirations: “justice,” “democracy,” “dignity,” “liberty.” But it is for precisely this reason that we should beware of them, and treat them as precious commodities, not to be wantonly profaned or corrupted. The use of such words—or of words such as “change” or “hope” or “promise”—play an essential role in most acts of cultural sleight of hand.

That caution is especially appropriate in a modern democratic culture, and so it is not surprising that Tocqueville had a keen awareness of it. “Men living in democratic countries, then, are apt to entertain unsettled ideas, and they require loose expressions to convey them. As they never know whether the idea they express today will be appropriate to the new position they may occupy tomorrow, they naturally acquire a liking for abstract terms.” The chief virtue of an abstraction, he observed, is that it is “like a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.”

Such words can thrill and intoxicate, even as their meaning is made to expand beyond all bounds, and inflate into something genuinely dangerous, or at any rate something different from, and perhaps even deeply antithetical to, their original meaning.

Which of course puts one in mind of the 2008 presidential election, and particularly the Democratic nominee, whose rhetoric is invariably referred to as “soaring”—a word used admiringly by people who have evidently never thought much about the word’s dictionary meaning: “a mode of flight in which height is gained by using warm air that is moving upwards.” This is likely to be true of the rhetoric of any effective democratic politician. But Barack Obama’s campaign is so high and lifted up by abstractions that older means of propulsion, a wing and a prayer, seem crawlingly terrestrial by comparison.

Closer examination discloses that there is nothing very new going on here, only a fresh exemplification of the principle Tocqueville put forward so lucidly. A case in point is Obama’s use of the word promise, a frequent visitor to his rhetoric over the years, and the dominant theme in his Democratic nomination acceptance speech, “The American Promise.”
Ok, I lied. The intro plus a lot more of the good stuff.


Kyle R. Cupp said...

You cannot run a country on bloodless abstractions.

CMinor said...

The definition of "soaring" had me in stitches!

Zach said...

Wilfred McClay is great!

HE has a few lectures on ISI that are worth checking out.