Life & Liberty: Politics and Punctuating


You start telling the Congress that they should act objectively and reasonably without considering politics, it's probably not going to happen.

Sticklers for language probity are always encountering people who want explained, once and for all, the rules for the placing of other punctuation in the neighborhood of quotation marks. Or there are reminders from intransigent fundamentalists about participles and gerunds.

Persnickitiness and intransigence are admirable. But what, after all, is the important virtue to be learned from strict attention to even the tiniest details of syntax, spelling, and punctuation? It is not the ability to notice and attend to those details; that is nothing more than an essential skill and the fruit of nothing more than training. The use of that skill, however, can provide the substance of education, for, of all skills, it is the most likely to engender the habit of critical and thoughtful attention. It is not so that they may become perfect in the mechanics of language that we teach children the mechanics of language, but so that they may live in the habit of paying attention to language, the one and only repository of meaning and thought.

It is good to worry about where to put punctuation with reference to quotation marks. It is even better to settle the matter once and for all and to stop worrying about it. Look it up in some handbook. If you like what you find, use it. If you can find better logic (or even better typography) with some other rules, do it. Paddle your own canoe.

But skillful paddling is merely necessary. It is not sufficient. It is only a dilettante who would make himself perfect in paddling and go nowhere.

Consider, for instance, the words of the epigraph above, a statement from the mouth of a certain Robert Dole, an elected functionary of our government. He was commenting on a report from some appointed government functionaries, who discovered that government could save hundreds of billions here and there through the practice of mere intelligence.

What, then, should I say of the words of Dole? Shall I, because I truly don't even know which party the man serves, say nothing, as best becomes the ignorant? Shall I confine myself to what I am supposed to know, commenting cleverly for a while on the obscurity of his antecedent and the uncouthness of his run-on sentence? Should I not rather remember that those are the words of a government agent who is not going to disqualify himself, as he should, from voting on questions related to public policy on education?

He asserts a principle that we have been trained to accept without any thought at all. And what can it mean to give "no thought at all"? It means a failure of the power of language—a kind of deafness to what is said and a kind of dumbness out of which nothing can be said about what is said.

Dole tells us that in his line of work loyalty to factional beliefs and interests must come before responsibility and objectivity. I am not surprised to hear that, of course. What does surprise me (a little) is that millions of Americans can hear that without anger and disgust, saying, if they say anything, well, that's politics.

In fact, however, that is not politics. It is politicking, a very different field of study. Politics is the study of the art of governing well, by which is meant not successfully, or effectively, but virtuously. Vicious government is frequently successful and effective. Can virtuous government do as well? Can there be a virtuous government? A studied inquiry into such questions is the business of politics. The sleazy scramble after office and influence is another sort of business. The inquiry requires a mind attentive to language and skilled in its use, for it is an inquiry into meaning. The scramble works best where there is a scarcity of such minds, and thus an ignorance of politics. It is not out of knowledge but out of that mental indolence that flatters itself as "realistic" that we can believe that responsibility and objectivity are just too much to expect of elected functionaries of government.

Having heard from Dole, we can now distinguish four classes of Americans from whom we can't expect responsible or objective behavior: infants, imbeciles, mafiosi, and elected functionaries of government. While all four classes are also alike in that they are capable of successful and effective behavior, according to their various appetites, the first three have one admirable virtue utterly absent in the fourth. Infants, imbeciles, and mafiosi are content to mind their own damn business and don't even want to vote on education policies.

And I wonder what Dole wants American education to be, what effect he imagines that it should have. Does he want the children to grow up to be just like him and all of his successful and effective colleagues? Does he want them to be "educated" enough so that they will know better than to deal with each other objectively and responsibly whenever they might lose some advantage thereby? Does he want them to know how to handle other punctuation with reference to quotation marks?

To the last question, I'm sure he would say yes, supposing that it is somehow different from the others. It is not. It is the same question.

Punctuating correctly is objective and responsible behavior. It requires judgments of worth and obedience to principle. It is virtuous, a result of both the power and the propensity to distinguish between the better and the worse. It is not much, perhaps, but it is on the right road. If enough people will walk it all the way, we'll be free of Doles. That's why politicians are so interested in education.

Richard Mitchell is the author of Less Than Words Can Say and the publisher of the Underground Grammarian, from which this essay is adapted.