Like many baby boomers, I learned how to diagram sentences in grade school. As a kid who loved reading and writing, I actually looked forward to grammar lessons that required us to outline sentence structures in diagram form. Coming from a loving but chaotic home, I guess I enjoyed knowing that each part of the whole had a definitive place. Through this practice, I figured out which parts belong where, how they are related and why this matters.
Flash forward half a century and I find myself longing for a method that would enable me to accurately chart the rhetoric being hurled about in our current political arena. Maybe it’s my personal need for logical order in these turbulent times that leaves me pining for those simple days when we diagrammed sentences and memorized specific, yet related parts of speech. Or perhaps it’s the ubiquitous nature of words in our media- driven contemporary culture that causes me to pine nostalgically for a simple sentence stretched out across horizontal or perpendicular lines and right and left angles.
I admit that I’m not a big fan of geometry, but I do admire language when it’s properly positioned and I most admire it when it’s definitive and purposeful. Take the word great, for example. It’s always been a slippery modifier but when properly positioned and applied, its meaning becomes more clear. Of course, the English language is known for its defiance of unwavering rules. What happens, for instance, when this modifier is used ironically, as in “The Great Gatsby”? Or when it’s used without any meaningful context, as in “The Great and Powerful Oz,” or even more troublesome, when the context is relative and ironic, as in “The Great Depression”? When I ponder these inconsistencies, I yearn for a pencil, ruler and some lined loose-leaf paper. Frankly, I want to pin that word down on the page and glue it into place.
I’m done with Hayakawa and his Ladder of Linguistic Abstraction. I’m weary of post-structural linguists and their relativist, even nihilist inclinations. I want THE answer, not just AN answer, particularly when it comes to our most recent supposed national mission. What do we mean when we claim we can “Make America Great Again?” Were we to diagram this sentence, the subject line would be blank, so who is supposed to accomplish this supposedly great feat? And that verb to make? Without its modifier, again, it means “to create” or “to cause to exist,” but once we attach the adverb, the original definition loses clarity. How can we make something happen again? Make is a present tense verb but again suggests it’s already occurred, but lapsed.
Doesn’t this imply an a priori – an unstated, yet generally agreed upon assumption among us that somehow our greatness is waning and in need of resuscitation? This troubles me, as I don’t think there’s a location in the methodical sentence diagram for unstated assumptions, let alone self-proclaimed, unproven historical ellipses. Even more troubling is the adverbial trap again, for it’s inextricably tied to the very assumptions and ellipses that defy semantic logic. To further complicate this semantic quagmire, it’s impossible to ignore that it presumes that we collectively agree upon our past moments of greatness. And there’s still the matter of those ellipses – the periods between supposed greatness that remain undefined, and therefore, uncharted.
Let’s be honest, for a simple declarative sentence, this one is fraught with ambiguity, or even worse, duplicity. I’m not a history scholar, but I do know some basics: that the “City on a Hill” upon which we founded this great nation entailed wiping out large numbers of its former occupants before building could even begin. That once we established ourselves as merchants, we relied on rigid social codes and providential prognostications to determine an individual’s use value and status. That our farmers relied on the wholesale exploitation of human beings dislocated from their homeland, then shipped like chattel and forced to work without pay in fields to produce our crops. That our National Anthem would be considered militaristic plagiarism by today’s standards, as it’s a victory song whose melody was taken from the defeated to celebrate their defeat.
As a beacon of democracy and tolerance, we’ve had some glorious moments, but we’ve also lost many opportunities to verify our steadfast commitment to these principles. I think we Americans agree that democracies are only as great as their current leadership. What we may not all agree upon, though, is how far democracy can take us in our quest for greatness. We’ve championed the word to rally our people behind our greatest triumphs, but also, our greatest travesties. When we fill in the historic ellipses, a pattern emerges, one that is hard to deny, even when difficult to embrace. Perhaps the now unpopular Sigmund Freud had it right in his famous tome, Civilization and its Discontents, written after World War I during a period when fascism, democracy and communism competed on a global scale and laid bare the tensions between individual freedom and social conformity. If he did, we are in great trouble now, for never before has the world been so inextricably connected, yet our nation’s notions of what makes America great, so distinctly divided.
As language goes, so goes behavior. Though we may be on an unchartered course when it comes to arriving at a common understanding regarding abstract concepts such as freedom, individuality and collective greatness, this doesn’t mean we are lost. In this, our nation, democracy works best when guided by yet another diagram that I learned about in fourth grade, during my first exposure to American History. This would be the one designating the balance of power dictated by our three branches of government: The Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial. Without equal attention and devotion to all three, we jeopardize the entire infrastructure and render the word democracy a mere abstraction, sort of like the word great has become, absent of meaning beyond relative preference.
About the author:
Laura Iodice, a Bronx native, has resided with her husband in Syracuse, N.Y. for the past thirty years. She is a veteran secondary and post-secondary educator, has taught classes in literature, composition, rhetoric and cultural constructions of race and has published professionally about these subjects. Teaching is her vocation and writing is her life. Her creative non-fiction is soon to be featured in the online journal, Crack the Spine.