Who That

“Suppose you think along the lines of power, authority. Inevitability. You’ve got your two kinds of people now, when you get down to it. On one hand you’ve got your rebel mentality whose whole bag or groove or what have you is going against power, rebelling. Your spit-in-the-wind type that [sic] feels powerful going DSCN6557against the power and the establishment and what have you. Then, type two, you’ve got your other type, which is the soldier personality, the type that [sic] believes in order and power and respects authority and aligns themselves with power and authority and the side of order and the way the whole thing has got to work if the system’s going to run smoothly. So imagine you’re a type two type. There’s more than you think. The age of the rebel is over. It’s the eighties now. If you’re a Type Two, We Want You – that should be their slogan. In the Service.” David Foster Wallace, The Pale King.

The “Service” in the quote is of course the IRS, the soul-crushing and improbably compelling topic of David Foster Wallace’s sprawling, unfinished (unfinishable?) last novel. Who noticed the irony that Wallace died only months before the advent of the Tea Party, and that the first anniversary of his death, to the day, was marked by none other than the Taxpayer March on Washington, the largest right-wing gathering of its kind? The coincidence is sadly appropriate: Wallace’s most savage ironies in The Pale King could hardly match the obscenity of that congeries of blustering free-market fanatics and crypto-fascists, all of them exercised to rage by the merest prospect of health care reform and progressive taxation. The “soldier personality” come down to us from Wallace’s 80s had morphed into something deeply incoherent and virtually psychotic, a flailing mob of like-minded sociopaths farcically miming civil rights movements, but of paler complexions, in tricornes.

Wallace’s quote is colored by the period it evokes, but one aspect of the authoritarian language is still a pitch-perfect match for current parlance. Twice the speaking character refers to a kind of person as a “type,” and follows that “type” with the relative pronoun “that.” Such usage (a “type that feels powerful”; “the type that believes in order”) is endemic to a subset of the U.S. population, “types” who skew fascist. This minor grammatical flaw taps into a psycho-social habit of mind that aligns with forces as ominous as those captured by Wallace’s novel.

Proper usage of the relative pronouns “who” and “that” calls for the former when referring to human subjects, the latter when referring to things and animals. The distinction seems simple enough:

The corporation that built the missile.

The drone that carried it.

The man who aimed it.

The people who died.

What explains the slippage from one to the other, or the strong preference for the grammatical error? Take an example from an interview with a Republican operative, tapped by CNN to explain the Tea Party’s summer of rage in 2009 and to plug his book of political wisdom:

The people you should be listening to at the town halls are not those who [note “who”] are yelling in the front, it’s those that [sic] are grumbling in the back. Because there are tens or hundreds of thousands of people that [sic] have come to these town hall meetings that [sic] have never participated in politics before. They’re going to vote in 2010. I’ve offered a lexicon for them to be more effective in this book because in the end, the shouting really doesn’t move people. They need to know how to communicate more effectively.

The interviewee, Frank Luntz, is a right-wing pollster and communications specialist famous for coining the term “death tax” as reference to estate taxes, among other gifts to our political “lexicon.” In the months following the Taxpayer March on Washington, there was a flurry of debate on the nature of the Tea Party: grassroots movement or “Astroturf” product of right-wing PACs? Luntz picks up the ‘populist’ canard and warns the CNN interviewer not to underestimate the angry populace, then seamlessly moves into communications mode, where his role is to mold those same people’s minds. This double aspect – referring to people as autonomous subjects, then as objects of propagandistic manipulation – is betrayed by the shift from an initial “who” to a repeated “that” (“those that are grumbling”; “people that have come”; people “that have never participated in politics before”). The shift reflects either a cynical choice to speak in the language of ordinary folks or an unwitting demotion of those people to the status of objects – the symptom of a fundamental disregard for human autonomy barely veiled by his professions of respect.

Fast-forward to 2010, the year the Republican operative predicts a major Tea Party influence on the national elections. But that influence comes earlier than expected, with the January special election in Massachusetts for the senate seat formerly occupied by Ted Kennedy. For liberals, it’s week from hell: on January 19, Republican Scott Brown claims the Tea Party’s first electoral victory; on January 21, the Supreme Court issues its notorious Citizens United decision. The connection? In each case, a crosswise substitution, a bait-and-switch between ‘who’ and ‘that.’

Which is exactly how Scott Brown first appeared as a figure in the public spotlight. To help fund his law school education, the future senator posed nude in the pages of Cosmopolitan magazine. Who is that? the magazine’s reader’s must have asked themselves. A similar question may have stirred in the minds of those who saw Brown’s hokey TV ad in 2009, a nightmare hieroglyph in which John F. Kennedy is seen speaking admirable lofty words, and then, after an awkward fade into an image of the flag, Scott Brown’s own prosaic face appears, parroting Kennedy’s lines. Whatever happened to Ted Kennedy? And who that? Meanwhile, demonstrating the limits of their own status as autonomous human subjects, the republican majority in the Supreme Court handed down the decision that enshrined the free speech rights of corporations as equivalent to those of people. The corporation – a that – had become a who.



1 Comment

Filed under Diction, Politics of Discourse

One response to “Who That

  1. oh how I love Wallace, great job

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