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Say What You Will

What you say about yourself is also, by implication, an argument about the world around you – whether you would have it be or not.

Lieve Schreiber's screen adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated is an exploration of how people relate to history, how history relates to language, and how people use that language to define these relationships. As a whole it's fairly overrated; the final scenes are an interminable and anti-climactic denouement where the subject matter and structure called for a resounding and beautiful bang, the travel scenes are often plodding, and a search for information where the protagonist never confronts or even directly engages the shadowy patriarch who secretly holds said information is bound to be fundamentally unsatisfying. But taken in pieces it can be very good, with some scenes in particular providing glimpses at tensions and problems of discourse.

One scene in particular has stayed with me since I first watched the film. Alex Jr., the author-protagonist's translator and guide to the Ukraine played by Eugene Hutz, asks the American Foer what kind of money a first-rate accountant would make in America. Alex Jr. has reason to wonder: his greatest ambition is to move to the US and manage other people's money. Foer, played almost silently by Elijah Wood, answers, “I don't know. A lot, probably, if he or she is good.”

Alex Jr. is stunned. “She?” he says. His English ranges from surprisingly sophisticated to execrable. Perhaps he fears he's misunderstood Foer.

“Or he,” says Foer. So Alex has understood correctly.

“Are there any Negro accountants?” askes Alex Jr. In a world where women work with money, anything is possible.

“Yes,” says Foer, “there are African-American accountants. But you don't want to use that word.” His patience is admirable.

After confirming that there are homosexual accountants – indeed, there are homosexual everythings – Alex Jr. returns to the Negroes. “And how much currency would Negro homosexual accountant receive?” he asks, grinning at those crazy Americans. Foer insists, a little less patient now, that Alex Jr. shouldn't really use that word. Alex is confused. “But I dig them all the way,” he says. “They are premium people.” And while there are all kinds of problematic ideas to unpack in even what seems like such a relatively innocent statement – the racism of ascribing positive qualities and connotations to races is pernicious, for instance, and anyway it's no defense for other negative attitudes – the film has given us every reason to believe that Alex Jr. really does love black American people. He loves their music, their style of dress, and every other aspect of their culture that has made its way – however warped it may be in the end – to the Ukraine. This is a troubling love, but a love nonetheless.

Foer tries again. “It's that word, though. You're not supposed to use that word.”

Alex Jr.'s response is, as the film's title promises, illuminating. He asks, looking wounded now, “What is wrong with the Negroes?”

The conversation ends there. Foer doesn't have a response. What Foer doesn't have the patience to explain, and what Alex Jr. doesn't have the sophistication or training in English to understand, is that there is a distance between word and referent, between sign and signified.

That distance is perhaps best described by Foer's initial response to Alex Jr.'s hapless English. “You don't want to use that word.” His initial language is based on his knowledge of Alex Jr. The Ukranian youth is by definition a racist, but he's not hateful. Next Foer uses the language of “should” – Alex Jr. shouldn't use that word – but it's still an appeal to Alex Jr. as a fundamentally ignorant but well-meaning and generally sweet kid. It's not so much that nobody should say that word – although Foer would probably agree that this is the case – as it is that Alex Jr. specifically shouldn't and wouldn't want to if he understood its implications.

The language we use is often first and foremost an act of self-definition. Foer doesn't aim to redefine black people by calling them African-Americans, he aims to express something about himself. He sees himself as a thoughtful, liberal-minded man with sensitivity to racial issues and a concern for the politics of language, and we know this because he employs that term. This is an argument wherein assertion and evidence are delivered by the same utterance – the assertion being his vision of himself as implied by his use of language, the evidence being said use of language.

Likewise, the act of calling black people Negroes is not usually an attempt to redefine them. The signified remains the same. Rather, the word communicates an ugly constellation of attitudes and understandings on the part of the speaker. Thus, Foer tells Alex Jr. that he “doesn't want to use that word.” Alex Jr. doesn't want to communicate that ugly constellation of ideas, but he doesn't have the expertise to avoid it, especially in a nation the film suggests is still burdened by very bad ideas about race. Foer is attempting to intervene and protect Alex Jr. from an unfortunate mistake of self-definition.

Another way of looking at this issue is to consider a hypothetical situation. Imagine two men are standing side-by-side, looking at a white wall. You stand with your back to them. You have seen the wall and believe it is white, but you have not seen their faces. You know both men wear glasses because you saw, on your approach, the stems on the backs of their ears. One man says the wall is green. The other says the wall is red. Given this situation, would it make more sense to infer something about the coloration of the wall, or to infer something about the coloration of their glasses? Their language likely tells us more about the men themselves than the object to which they refer – although there's always the chance that you were mistaken and the wall is not white.

In politics this use of language to define the self is frequently used as a way to grope at power. In his speeches and conversations with the press, presidential candidate for the Democratic nomination John Edwards was the first major public figure to refer to Bush's “surge” of troops to Iraq as an “escalation”, and also “the McCain doctrine”. In using the latter term, Edwards' aim is primarily to redefine the surge. He wants to attach the idea of the surge to one of its chief proponents, John McCain, because it's such an unpopular idea and McCain is considered by many to be a powerful political threat to Edwards.

The use of the term “escalation”, however, was not meant to redefine the surge but to describe Edwards' attitude about the surge. Everyone agrees that the surge or escalation will involve increasing the number of troops in Iraq by something like 20,000 troops for an uncertain amount of time, and the word escalation doesn't significantly alter that understanding. What it aims to do is reinforce Edwards' chosen image as the most anti-war of anti-war candidates.

This example is particularly interesting because of how little promise of action can be tied to Edwards' use of language here. Use of “escalation” suggests he would end the war in Iraq if he could, but we already knew that. He can't be promising action about the surge specifically because he isn't in a position to do anything about it now and furthermore he never can be. Even if we were to choose him as our next president, the surge or escalation will have already happened. For lack of power, Edwards is left only with the ability to define himself in hopes that people will like the way he defines himself and vote him into office.

Another example is the case of racists seeking office in the United States, especially one George Felix Allen, once a Virginia senator and presidential hopeful. In today's political climate it's possible to enact all manner of racist legislation, but it's impossible for true white supremacists to get what they want. We will never again pass the black codes. There will never again be miscegenation laws. What's important to white supremacists, then – at least those who understand this reality of American politics – is to elect candidates who express attitudes and define themselves in such a way as to suggest they too would, in an ideal world, return separate but equal to the law books. These candidates, should they want these votes or the esteem of their racist fellows, must find ways to send coded messages to white supremacists. That's why George Allen publicly said "macaca", an obscure equivalent of the epithet, “nigger” that isn't so obscure among today's skinheads and white militias.

Unfortunately for Allen, his code wasn't as difficult to crack as he thought. Today we have Google, and it wasn't long before people had found countless examples of notorious racist Internet hubs trading in the term "macaca". Allen had successfully communicated to this world that he was one of theirs, that he held that ugly constellation of ideas, but he had communicated the same to the blogosphere, which knew how to put his use of racial slurs and the noose he once kept in his office together. His campaign, once considered a sure thing, went into free fall. While old acquaintances and teammates went on the air to confess they'd heard him use the American version of that word, he posted a video to his campaign website of an “ethnic rally” in his support. If "macaca" was meant to be a subtle symbol for true racists, the “ethnic rally” was a hammer to the United States' collective skull. “I'm not racist!” it screamed. “See the words I use! I'm nice and open-minded and tolerant!”

Allen lost the election by less than a percentage point, which is a reason to celebrate and cause for shame and concern all at once.

What's interesting, and what deserves its own column, is an exploration of the process by which these acts of self-definition ultimately lead to prevailing attitudes, legislation, social structures, and eventually transform our understandings of those objects they did not necessarily ever seek to redefine. With the term African-American has come gradually a new understanding of race – and with its rejection in some quarters, another understanding, still. When we only mean to communicate our own ideas and attitudes, we take the risk that others will adopt those ideas and attitudes. A statement about my self is rarely strictly a statement about myself. Usually, it is also, by implication, an argument about the world around me – whether I would have it be one or not.

When the Democrats took Congress last year, achieving a majority of one in the Senate because of George Allen's poor choice of language, blogger Duncan Black (a.k.a. Atrios, of Eschaton fame) wrote, with some apparent surprise, that the Democrats had power now, and as such lefty bloggers and blog readers could stop obsessing about positioning and start actually crafting legislation. They could, in other words, make a shift from constant uses of language for self-definition toward uses of language to make law. This moment served to illustrate that continuum and tension between uses of language to define the self and uses of language to redefine the world outside. One is almost never too far from the other. Alex Jr., in asking what's wrong with the Negroes, risked not only accidental communication of attitudes, but their adoption by his audience -- a risk sometimes too awful to take.

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