Sunday, 18 May 2014

Schlubb and Klump

Burt Schlubb and Douglas Klump are minor characters in the movie, Sin City (2005). They remind me of Conrad Black and Rex Murphy. Says a Wikipedia entry of them: "a pair of low-rent hit men with 'delusions of eloquence' who use pretentious, pseudo-poetic words (sprinkled with malapropisms) in daily conversation to mask the fact that they're both incredibly stupid and incompetent...".

Though Black and Murphy are less prone to malapropisms there is something of a mismatch and disproportion in their speech. They tend to focus on the word level (obscure adjectives, mostly) rather than the crafting of memorable phrases. They seem utterly oblivious to that august art of discourse called, rhetoric. As "public speakers" of some standing in Canada this makes them inexcusably negligent and may be rightfully sued for professional malpractice.

This much neglected aspect of the liberal arts is most easily seen in the right-wing political discourse in North America by its very absence. In Canada, there are few luminous examples in literature and literary criticism, and even less in politics—Harper's government, like the Tea Party movement, has stopped trying altogether. In America (and England for that matter), this disconcerting trend to intellectual barbarism is also gaining speed though the pace is non-uniform as evidenced in world-class talent that is still celebrated in all forms of media in the arts and public discourse.

For example, most of PBS and the venerable CBS television show called, Sunday Morning, extend that philosophy to the modern setting most beautifully. This hard-to-describe philosophy is best captured thus:

Over the past century, people studying rhetoric have tended to enlarge its object domain beyond speech texts. Kenneth Burke asserted humans use rhetoric to resolve conflicts by identifying shared characteristics and interests in symbols. By nature, humans engage in identification, either to identify themselves or another individual with a group. This definition of rhetoric as identification broadened the scope from strategic and overt political persuasion to the more implicit tactics of identification found in an immense range of sources. (

Much of the semiological environment of public discourse, television and the so-called mass media in Canada by contrast is a veritable wasteland. There is a promo by Peter Mansbridge (of the CBC flagship, The National) where he says "There is no spin. You just ask them, 'and then what happened...'" that pretty much sums it up. The use of the English language is achieving pure jargon. It gives a new take on "the medium is the message".

Don't get me wrong; I love the CBC. I listen intently to The National broadcast nightly and tremendously enjoy its weekly political analysis feature called, At Issue. This is where Mansbridge shines, and his thoughtful, informed prompts to the panel reflect best his impressive intelligence. All the more dismaying that he would unabashedly cater to the less common denominator in that instance.

All this may sound pretty snobbish. But I come from a cultural/societal experience that suffers greatly from language loss, and I see the use of language as a developmental process. In my professional and personal view, the level of linguistic competence and vitality is the best indicator of social viability bar none. Having lived and studied in Newfoundland I know that prevalent socio-economic conditions (ie, academic achievement) have little to do with vitality of language; "the gift of the gab" is often the only claim to fame. And, this is a wonderful thing.

I suppose it appears unduly harsh of me to hone in on Black and Murphy like this. But to me their style of public discourse is to not demand the best of what Canadians can achieve. Complacency is unbecoming.


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