Easy Chair — From the April 2013 issue

Broken English

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The ruination goes on today, although for slightly different reasons. Take this business, now a sort of epidemic, of presenting everything as an “argument.” People in the land of professional commentary no longer believe things or propose things or even assert things; they argue them.

I’m familiar with this particular cliché formation because in the early 1980s, when my friends and I were high school debaters, we talked this way all the time. Arguments were what allowed us to keep score back in those days: one team argued for something, the other team argued against it, and the argument was won or lost. But high school debate was a game — a game for teenagers. The point wasn’t for an individual debater to believe any particular argument and win the room over with the radiance of his faith; it was for him to be able to argue anything. Insincerity was essential.

For the commentator class, the usage has a similar distancing effect. It’s a kind of shortcut to objectivity, and suggests that the pundit in question doesn’t actually believe something — oh heavens no — but is merely reporting that the belief might be held by someone, somewhere. So when Nina Easton appears on Fox News and says (in a sentence I have chosen for its utter averageness) that “one could argue that Barack Obama’s smartest political move was putting Hillary Clinton in his Cabinet so that she wasn’t outside with Bill Clinton causing mischief,” she isn’t actually asserting this as the truth. She’s only reporting that one might assert this, were one so inclined.

Modifying “argue” with “could” or “would,” as Easton does here, distances the wise person even further from the forbidden stuff of opinion. For example, after relating certain facts about Ronald Reagan’s presidency and his many, many vacations, MSNBC host Chris Matthews in 2011 reasoned that critics of President Obama’s vacations were being unfair — and then deftly used conditional voodoo to nix everything he had just said. “Presidents have always been taking vacations,” he reminded viewers, “and complaining about it amounts to a little more than partisan carping, one could argue.”

Could one, now? In this instance, it is easy to see the pundit’s cherished distance as a simple verbal trick, a disappearing act. But now let us observe the cliché at work in a different setting, where politics is not the subject and the effect is genuinely confusing. Taking to the NPR airwaves in September 2012, the author Junot Díaz described a character in one of his own books like this: “What we’re left with is a character who, for the first time in his life, I would argue, is capable of being in a normal relationship.”

Here we seem to be witnessing a deliberate and extraordinary divorce of speaker from subject. After all, who knows the development and the mental state of Díaz’s character better than Díaz himself? He labored over this short-story collection for sixteen years. Surely he can indulge in a little straight talk about his own creation without carefully leaving himself a rhetorical escape hatch.

Why, aside from its magical distancing properties, do people cling to this off-putting construction? Because it cues the audience to the presence of a professional; and professionals are complicated, painstaking people — they don’t simply assert things but instead argue for them in high-minded settings like legal briefs and scholarly journals. Arguing for things, or (better) announcing that you would argue for them given certain conditions, is how enlightened people are supposed to speak.

This seems like the only plausible explanation for the following assessment of the band Yo La Tengo by the critic Milo Miles. Speaking to Fresh Air listeners, he notes: “But if they lack rock dramatics, I would argue that the group knows as much about the modes and manners of rock ’n’ roll as anyone who has ever played the music.”

The point here is not really Yo La Tengo’s unexcelled expertise in rock genre conventions (though that is no doubt a fascinating matter) but rather the expertise of the critic himself, who can both judge a band and also avoid any hint of judgmental finality. His opinion is not to be stated, it is to be argued. That is how professionals talk when they talk about rock. Maybe.

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