This past year the editors at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary added “word salad” to their list of terms since it has been in the news lately as a way of describing how the current president speaks. It’s a term that is not quite the same as “gobbledygook” or “gibberish”, two older words used for describing nonsense language, the first in writing and the latter in speech. “Word salad” leans more toward describing the nonsensical speech of the mentally ill, and a more technical term for it in that case is aphasia, the jumbling together of discrete words and phrases such that the whole becomes incoherent.
To gain an understanding of what word salad is while steering clear of the real thing as uttered by the current president, which can imperil your well-being, listen to this approximation from the “Word Wizard” segment of the Bob and Ray radio show.
When Sarah Palin appeared on the national scene in 2008, people described her way of speaking as “word salad”, and that first gave the term widespread attention. Now the current president has become the best known spouter of word salad, and it has become difficult for the unfortunate citizenry – who already have enough awful language usage to deal with – to listen to the news on radio or watch it on television without being subjected to it and its brain scrambling effects. Reading a literal transcription in a newspaper or online can be even worse, because the human brain tries harder to make sense of words in print, while it has an easier time tuning out auditory nonsense as so much “Bwah, bwah, bwah” noise, like that made by the adults in the Peanuts television specials, where the sound effect is created using a muted trombone. Concentrating on word salad in print can be detrimental to a reader’s mental health, or at least cause a bad headache.
Heart shaped jello salad from Yerevan, Armenia. Photo by Chaojoker.
Aaron Copland borrowed the melody from the 1848 Shaker song “Simple Gifts” for part of his score to the 1944 Martha Graham ballet Appalachian Spring. This rendition is from a 2001 album by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and is sung by Alison Krauss.
Stay safe in the new year and avoid consuming word salad in any form. Peace.
The recent controversy over Sarah Palin, Ted Nugent, and Kid Rock goofing in front of a portrait of Hillary Clinton at the White House tells us nothing new really about who these people are. Their immature actions were about what we would expect from a tour group of seventh-graders left unsupervised for a time, and were mild compared to the antics of two gay activists at a White House event in 2012 who flipped the bird at Ronald Reagan’s portrait. Joy Behar on The View accurately characterized the Palin trio as “sore winners”.
Behar’s phrase reveals the authoritarian character of many Trump supporters, and it tells us something about why they would goof in front of the portrait of a defeated political rival rather than merely tell us that they are childishly vindictive. The term “authoritarian” as used here refers to a personality type instead of only a political inclination. More authoritarian personalities are typically drawn to right-wing politics than to the left, but nonetheless there are authoritarians of the left. The Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer has studied and written about the authoritarian personality type, and developed a short test for the type, though he humorously suggests in his notes on the test that you not take the result too much to heart. His book on the subject, The Authoritarians, is available as a free download, and is well worth reading.
We are accustomed to hearing about sore losers, and certainly the Clinton camp has come across as such with their eagerness to cast blame for their election loss on everything and everyone but their own miscalculations and hubris, but Behar’s clever turn of phrase shines an unusual light on the election winners. What do they have to be sore about? Because an examination of the authoritarian character shows they are perpetually aggrieved people who feel put upon by the larger society no matter how powerful and numerous they are within it. An authoritarian always needs a scapegoat, The Other, a straw man (or in the case of the Hillary Clinton portrait, a straw woman), to push against and to externalize their hostility and anger. Anger makes up a large part of the authoritarian character, and for their own well-being they need to turn it outward.
Hitler in Paris, 23 June 1940; photo from the Heinrich Hoffman Collection. Albert Speer, architect, on the left, and Arno Breker, sculptor, on the right.
So we have a trio of winners who take time from their White House tour to gloat over the portrait of a loser; we have a president who continually dredges up his victory over that loser in a childish attempt to validate himself; we have the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who had been licking his chops in anticipation of a Clinton presidency because of the joy and headlines it would have given him in continuously investigating her, and who now appears to have been so deflated by her loss and the no-win prospect for him of investigating the new president that it could have affected his decision to not run for re-election in 2018.
Why then with all this winning are they not happy? True winners, after all, can be happy and generous in their victory. Because as authoritarians they cannot be happy for themselves with winning, but they can be happy with beating someone they have made into The Other. They will prop up a straw man or woman again and again in order to beat that straw person down again and again; they will repeatedly, with hollow enjoyment, revive the memory of The Other’s loss; and they will be disappointed and without purpose when they are deprived of the opportunity to badger a scapegoat and to build up their own esteem at the scapegoat’s expense.
Cheering crowds greet British troops in Paris on Liberation Day, 26 August 1944; photo from the British Imperial War Museum.
Such are the actions of the authoritarians on the right in Washington, D.C., while over on the Left Coast, in Berkeley, California, the authoritarians on the left are not helping the cause of an open society, but are instead hurting it when they make martyrs of right-wing opportunists Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. The old saying “sunshine is the best disinfectant” is beyond their ken. They don’t trust others to make their own adult decisions about what to hear and believe. What is within their ken is that they fervently believe they know what’s best for everybody. That they enlist the words and ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr., to validate their tactics is perverse. That the By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) and Antifa groups are authoritarian in nature is without doubt. They are certainly not sore winners, and don’t fit the profile of sore losers. They are nothing other than soreheads.