“There is a word in Newspeak,” said Syme, “I don’t know whether you know it: DUCKSPEAK, to quack like a duck. It is one of those interesting words that have two contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it is abuse, applied to someone you agree with, it is praise.”
Political speech, as George Orwell has noted, is often not speech in the fullest sense of the word. “Duckspeak” tends to manifest itself as worn-out stock phrases and mixed metaphors, or as the Clinton campaign’s flowcharts, or simply as sentences that don’t mean anything. It’s tribal signaling, half-consciously discharging from the speaker’s oral cavity, meant to be received in the same unthinking stimulus-reflex manner.
This week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland has, unsurprisingly, seen much of it. Slogans, folksy turns of phrase, names of conservative saints, strung together in any arbitrary order to give the same reassuring answers, over and over again, to the same questions: who are we? who are they? who do we hate? and what makes us stronger?
“The ‘media experts’ … don’t hang out with regular folks like us, who like to hunt, and fish, and pray, and actually work for a living!” Aptly coming from the Duck Dynasty star and noted bigot Willie Robertson, that’s a pretty concise example of it.
But at least it’s a coherent thought. Former presidential hopeful Ben Carson, on the other hand, began by laying out his bona fides as a surgeon, then launched into free association from there: “You know, I devoted my career to studying and operating on the human brain,” Dr. Carson told the delegates, “this remarkable organ” that gives us the “ability to reason.” That’s why Uncle Ben knows we need to use reason when we evaluate our choices for president. Ah, got it! And what is his reasoned diagnosis? That Hillary Clinton is two degrees of separation removed from Lucifer. If it sounds like a quack, and quacks like a duck…
Apparently half of America’s political duopoly throwing a coming-out party as a full-on theocratic, xenophobic ultra-nationalist movement wasn’t newsworthy enough, though, compared to Melania Trump’s plagiarized platitudes, which made international headlines. An awkward consequence for all the Democrats having a field day with Mrs. Trump’s fiasco was the inevitable reminder about the vice president they elected, whose own 1988 campaign tanked when Joe Biden turned out to be a pathological serial plagiarist.
I’ve had to deal with my share of plagiarism cases teaching at various universities for the past decade. It seems to me that the more compulsive the behavior is, the more reckless and unthinking it also tends to be. Even more than the dishonesty, I always find myself becoming resentful of the sheer stupidity of most plagiarists (or their apparent assumption of my stupidity). Why would Michelle Obama’s Hallmark greeting cards even be worth the effort, let alone the risk? And how could anyone think it would go unnoticed?
But while Melania Trump stopped short of claiming she “grew up as a poor black girl on the south side of Chicago,” as the joke of the day went, Biden was unable to exercise similar restraint (at the same tender age of 45). He happily lifted biographical details from the life of British Labour leader Neil Kinnock, including a claim that Biden’s nonexistent coal-miner ancestors would work 12-hour days and then come up from the mines to “play football.”
This is the hallmark of a pathological plagiarist: meticulously copying irrelevant and incriminating details — such as the word “football” in this case, which in American English would be “soccer.” The mental image is pretty hilarious, though: the rugged Biden clan, all covered in coal soot, putting on their helmets and mouth guards and shoulder pads, then heading off to a nearby field to start tackling each other.
So Melania Trump’s aping stole the show, despite being among the most innocuous moments in the entire RNC horror show. Though it’s hard to pick one, the most disturbing performance so far might have been that of Rudy Giuliani, who yelled and spat incoherent strings of words at the crowd like Daffy Duck doing a Hitler impersonation. Here’s a small sampler:
Telling the crowd how Trump will “make America one again,” he showed what 21st-century fascism looks like: so very inclusive! No black America, no white America! Regardless of your race or whether you’re gay or straight, let us unite in defense against fake Syrian refugees and illegal aliens and Islam — well, not all of Islam, but “you know who you are, and we are coming to get you!”
In its ethos, the Clinton-led modern Democratic Party is eerily similar, just way more discreet. As the recent #WeAreTheLeft farce illustrated, the core crowd most enthusiastically rallying behind Hillary has labored to co-opt identity politics and turn it into a weapon for the prevailing power structure. History seems to consist of an endless sequence of idealistic sentiments morphing into grotesque parodies of themselves. One can’t help being reminded of that when, for instance, you hear a Klansman talk about his many black and Mexican friends; or when Hillary’s woke supporters call for a more inclusive imperial war machine and a more diverse oligarchy; or when you see the RNC crowd change its hue from light pink to a flushed red in excitement as Rudy Giuliani screams about “every color, every creed, every sexual orientation.”
When you’re as good at working your audience as Giuliani is, though, they’ll go along with anything to please you. This ended up being a slightly awkward back-and-forth, I thought:
Giuliani: “Are we crazy?” Crowd: “Yeah!” (I would have gone with: “Are we a bunch of neo-Fascist bigots?”)
This month also saw a few speeches by our lame duck president on his trip to the NATO summit in Warsaw. Somehow, President Obama always manages to sound so measured, even when he’s addressing, on his way out the door, the gleeful push by the US towards a potentially disastrous military confrontation between Russia and the west. The right signals, strung together in the right order and delivered in a thoughtful tone, asking us again to gently remind ourselves of who we are, who they are, and what makes us stronger — that’s what makes a good (lame) duck speech. Whether the sentences are semantically and syntactically sound is not particularly relevant. Take this much-quoted statement:
“In this challenging moment, I want to take this opportunity to state clearly what will never change. And that is the unwavering commitment of the United States to the security and defense of Europe, to our trans-Atlantic relationship, to our commitment to our common defense.”
So what will never change is America’s “trans-Atlantic” relationship with Europe — as opposed to what, their trans-Siberian relationship? And apparently neither will “the unwavering commitment … to our commitment to our common defense.” Rest assured, Europe! Our commitment to our commitment to our relationship remaining forever trans-Atlantic is unwavering! In this moment I will take this opportunity to state this very clearly!
In my native Finland, there’s an old tradition of casting a vote for Donald Duck, who receives the highest percentage of protest ballots in every election. In neighboring Sweden, someone even started a Donald Duck Party back in 2002. Another regular contender in Finnish elections — though not as popular as Donald — is lovingly called “picture of church boat” (figure it out). As I contemplate who to vote for in the upcoming US presidential election, the choice is depressing — especially the choice of Donalds. Perhaps I’ll just draw a picture of this boat.
More duckspeak is in store this month when Democrats hold their own drivel-fest in Philadelphia. Finally, a party convention that will properly celebrate the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump — Hillary Clinton has received quite enough attention at his expense this week.