Power commands language now more often than language commands power. To some extent, that was always true. Kings had heralds; and bards were expected to puff up their chieftains, not deflate them. Still, words have made a difference in their day, from Mark Anthony's injudiciously permitted funeral oration, after which Brutus left town in a hurry; to Tom Paine's "Common Sense."
With us, words are much devalued. Who listens to speeches anymore, or reads them? Newspapers seem to print fewer than they used to; and on television, it is rare when the speaker manages more than 15 seconds or so before the anchorman comes in to spend the next 60 telling us why he said it.
There was an effect of startlement when Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev conducted his pre-summit barnstorming with a degree or two of wit and even eloquence. Could words count? Time will tell; but the words that came back out of Washington were no answering burst of spirit but a basement rumble--as if someone were checking the pipes--about tactics and what the Soviets were up to. It was plumbing versus cuisine.
Our public life tends to respond to anything particularly acute or provocative by zeroing in on who the speaker is, what he represents, and what he's trying to put over. It is more important to decide what is signaled than to listen to what is said. Body language is more important than language. Context outdoes text.
In this state of things, a writer like E. P. Thompson, an English historian and a leader of the nuclear disarmament movement, tends to get himself fairly squarely niched. Western establishmentarians and commentators on strategic questions classify him, at best, as soft-headed if possibly sincere. For their part, the Soviets seem highly suspicious of this softheadedness, or perhaps of this sincerity.
In a nutshell, a term his critics would find congenial, Thompson vigorously criticizes Soviet internal repression. On the arms race, however, he insists that both sides are guilty of escalation, and argues that historically the West has been somewhat guiltier. Regardless of the guilt measurement, he suggests that it would be a good and practical thing for the West to make some first moves in hopes of breaking the logjam. There would still be plenty of deterrence left for those who like it, he argues. And he adds: If the buildup on both sides has proceeded over the decades by a series of unilateral steps, why is it unthinkable to take a unilateral step or two the other way, and see what happens?
My point is not to grade Thompson as a strategist. What strikes me in reading "The Heavy Dancers," a new collection of essays brought out by W. H. Norton, is something else. Thompson is a peace activist; but he is also a writer.
What kind of writer? The kind who, at his best, writes so well and demands so much of himself that besides dealing with ideas he personifies them. As Orwell did. Thompson is pretty much rejected in this country, except by the Quixotic editors of The Nation, because of the instrumental, bottom-line mentality I was referring to. Do you determine that his ideas are impractical, wrong or dangerous? Then cross him off.
His argument against the confrontational mentality of the two blocs is made not from a lofty, plague-on-both-houses position, but down on the ground between them, pumping oxygen into the depleted air. It is a vulnerable place to be; he gets slammed both ways; and he slams right back.
At the Oxford Union debate with Caspar Weinberger several years ago, he had a savagely impatient phrase for the stand-off between our septuagenarian President and the ailing Soviet leader, Yuri Andropov. "Throughout this last autumn," he said, "power lay in the hands of two elderly men, one of whom was on a kidney machine and half dead from the neck down, and the other of whom (in the view of his critics) was on an auto-cue machine (TelePrompTer) and half dead from the neck up."
Though he attacks U.S. foreign policy with glee, he is puzzled by American leftists who ignore the evils of Soviet oppression and the virtues of America's climate of freedom. Without it, he writes wryly, the nuclear disarmament movement could never have found the information with which to make its case. He points, in contrast, to the plight of a Soviet dissident who, living under censorship, assumed that the phrase "nuclear freeze" and "nuclear winter" were synonymous.
Of one left-wing American writer, Thompson remarks that he "is too eager to take upon his white Western English-speaking nuclear terrorist back every one of the world's sins. I will allow him, and the United States, many of those sins; but it is indecently greedy to claim them all. . . . If the United States were blown away tomorrow I dare say the world could go on doing wrong."
And for the Soviet Union, he has a poem:
\o7 "It seems a long time for the kingdom of freedom
to have shown the world nothing but its backside.
Comrade Central Committee, comrade high official