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Words Loaded, Words Limp

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“To express oneself badly is not only faulty as far as language goes, but does harm to the soul.” According to Plato, those are the words of Socrates in the dialogue of Phaedo.

How right the man was. But keep your distance. Drop a line from one of the ancient Greeks, and you’ll quickly be dismissed as a condescending monogrammed shirt-wearing elitist—especially if that ancient Greek was a philosopher. Quoting Thucydides is cool, though. The Wall Street Journal editorial board does it all the time, and no one calls them snobs. They’re hard-eyed realists who know that war and kicking ass is politics carried out by other means.

Thucydides translated human events into an epic war chronicle, sprinkling one-liners along the way. “For human nature is as surely made arrogant by consideration as it is awed by firmness,” he wrote. No one expects President Bush to carve prose diamonds of that order. So as the situation in Iraq deteriorates, we get presidential rhetoric the likes of “Bring ’em on.”

If human nature is awed by firmness, porous words from a one-page dictionary of schoolyard threats don’t count. Everyone knows Bush killed plenty of brain cells during his drinking days. And where would the politics of the English-speaking world be without the eloquence of Tony Blair and Jack Straw? In the gutter, that’s where. Who knows how Bush’s statement translated over into Arabic. This much is true: The day after our leader’s stately pronouncement, six U.S. soldiers were injured. By Monday, two U.S. soldiers would be dead. Pardon the momentary lapse while this column gets all William Safire on your ass, but in the realm of politics, words must accurately express terms of understanding and points of contention. In the arena of war, where lives are at stake, words must sustain powerful visions and noble goals. Ask yourself this question: Would you risk your life and the honor of your nation for words better suited to a barroom brawl? If you answered yes, then you’re the kind of person who’d kill a man for a six-pack of beer and bag of chips, and you deserve your miserable, petty life.

& ull; Depending on how you gauge the comments of Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet Seamus Heaney, Detroit rapper Eminem flexes more syntactical muscle than the leader of the free world. Speaking before the Prince of Wales’ Educational Summer School in Norwich, Heaney indirectly compared Eminem to Bob Dylan and John Lennon. “He has sent a voltage around a generation,” Heaney said. “He has done this not just through his subversive attitude but also his verbal energy.”

At least comparisons between Heaney and Eminem aren’t skin-deep. The parallels are eerie. Heaney says, “Fear is the emotion that the muse thrives on.” Eminem says, “I invented violence, you vile, venomous, volatile, vicious, vain Vicodin!” Heaney’s poem “Digging” says, “Between my finger and my thumb/The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” Eminem’s song “Pistol Pistol” waxes eloquent over firearms as well. “Can’t go nowhere without my gun ... Sorry officer, I don’t care how pissed I get you/But I don’t go nowhere without my pistol pistol.”

Let’s play that at top volume to those nasty Saddam loyalists. Bring ’em on, indeed.

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