Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Bush Style vs. McWilliams Style

One of my favorite books on writing style is Francis-Noel Thomas and Mark Turner's Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose. Thomas and Turner discuss and contrast various styles, including plain style, which they describe as follows.

"Plain style is communal, its model scene a congregation in which speakers reaffirm for each other common truths that are the property of all. In the theology behind plain style, truth is always simple, and it is a common human possession. Individual revisions of this communal possession distort and dilute it. The wisdom of children can be the wisdom of adults, because knowing truth requires no special experience and no critical analysis. Sophisticated thought and conceptual refinement pervert truth. Any language that reaches beyond the simplest level is suspicious as the probable symptom of such a perversion" (76-77).

For my money, this is the best description of President Bush's conception of the truth. Plain style is very popular in Texas, where intellectuals are defined as people "educated beyond their intelligence." I heard Henry Hyde describe some academics that way when they informed his committee that it was torturing the Constitution during the Clinton impeachment.

Carey McWilliams's style was more like what Thomas and Turner call classic style. For the classic stylist, common wisdom is often self-serving. Without critical testing, such common wisdom can become "an anthology of a community's complacent errors." Classic style remedies that deficiency by requiring critical analysis. "In classic style, truth is available to all who are willing to work to achieve it, but truth is certainly not commonly possessed by all and is no one's birthright. In the classic view, truth is the possession of individuals who have validated common wisdom; for them, truth has been achieved, and such achievement requires both experience and a critical intelligence beyond the range of babes" (77).

In short, classic style values simplicity but doesn't reject nuance or sophistication on principle. Today's headlines suggest we could use more classic style and less plain style in American politics.

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