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For the Record

Though we rarely think of them in this light, writers and professors of literature have training and skills with policy implications. They even, at times, feel called upon to weigh in on matters of national and international importance. In this country, however, I would be shocked if they were actually called upon, much less listened to. The one counterexample I can think of comes from abroad, and it has always appeared to me both memorable and laudable. When the Republic of Argentina formed a national commission to investigate, assemble evidence, and publish a public record after years of kidnapping, torturing, and murdering its citizens, they appointed a novelist, Ernesto Sabato, to head that commission. The introduction to its final report remains a model of clarity and persuasiveness, establishing an essential historical record. Sabato knew how to tell the story, and that clearly mattered.

As I write these words, the Senate is preparing to acquit the 45th President of the United States on the single charge brought against him during his historic second impeachment. Donald J. Trump was accused, as you know, of inciting the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021. That these proceedings will end without a conviction may lead some to question whether it was even worth the effort.

Writers and literature professors teach us to think more clearly about how words make meaning, about how language helps us make sense of the world, and of ourselves. If my tribe has a calling, that’s it. We don’t, of course, necessarily agree on the ultimate meaning or sense of any complex example of language; as we analyze, respond to, or invent it, we also debate. And yet we do—to borrow a felicitous phrase from Michael Ignatieff, a writer and politician—at least “narrow the range of permissible lies.” In a novel that recounts how the Nazis used euphemistic, bureaucratic language for some of their most criminal policies, Erri De Luca comments that, “Passing off fake vocabulary for cover [is] what the powerful do; the duty of writers is to return things to their proper names.” In this unprecedented moment in the history of my country, I’ll take a stab at doing just that.*

First, let’s put a fork in the one of the two principal arguments levied by the Republicans, both before and during these proceedings. Having twice lost votes on the question of whether an impeachment trial of a former President is constitutional, the Senators cannot today logically vote yea or nay to convict or acquit and still maintain that argument. Any Senator who still believes that these proceedings are unconstitutional, by voting at all, is participating in them and thereby contradicting themselves. The only action they might take and remain consistent would be to abstain, either by exiting the Senate chambers or by merely responding “Present” when their name is called. These two choices, which I assume none or few will take, would be quite different in effect, since the two-thirds majority required for conviction is determined on the basis of those present. If all Republicans purporting to believe the argument about unconstitutionality left the chambers, the Democrats would likely convict, with or without any Republican votes.

A second defense for the former President has also been offered: The Democrats have been accused of being selective in their references to the events of January 6, both in their citations and with the video footage they offered as evidence. Here again the logic is largely spurious: all citations and summaries are by definition selective; what matters is whether they represent their subjects accurately (which is why we have footnotes, giving readers the chance to fact-check). No complex speech or event could ever be analyzed in its entirety, thus selectiveness is also unavoidable. To give just one famous example: an influential analysis of a single sonnet by Baudelaire by the great linguist Roman Jakobson was over twenty pages long; the literary critic Michel Riffaterre used over forty for his critique of Jakobson’s reading.

In attempting this defense, one point made by the Republicans may perhaps seem pertinent, if not persuasive. The former President did indeed utter the following sentence:

I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.

Other than the split infinitive, what could be objectionable about these words? Doesn’t Trump say clearly and explicitly that he expects a peaceful, patriotic demonstration, a protest with the sole goal of making the voices of protesters heard? Doesn’t that statement in and of itself make the charge of incitement impossible?

As you likely know already, the Democrats anticipated this argument and countered it in advance, by noting that this sentence—coming roughly eighteen minutes in, during a speech that took over an hour—was the sole instance in which peaceful protest was envisioned. (I think we can assume that instruction and training in nonviolent civil disobedience, a staple at most protests that I have attended, was entirely lacking that day.) In contrast, the words “fight” or “fighting” were uttered before the eager crowd of acolytes twenty different times. And if you take a closer look, even during this particular moment in the speech, you’ll find that the dominant register of rhetoric is pugilistic, not peaceable. Republicans, the audience was told, are like “a boxer with his hands tied behind his back.” “We’re going to have to fight much harder,” Trump adds, calling on Congress to “confront this egregious assault on our democracy.” At the Capitol, he tells his followers, “we’re going to cheer on our brave senators, and congressman and women”—and then adds, “We’re probably not going to be cheering so much for some of them because you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

In short, the Democrats surely possess, as they like to say in law, the preponderance of the evidence. Frankly, I wonder if that “peacefully and patriotically” line was inserted intentionally, as an insurance policy, given how much it goes against the grain and intention of the overall speech. But the Trump lawyers also have another defense: they argue that the impeachment charge is guilty of inconsistency, since Democrats also have used language similar to that which they allege is incitement. They even concocted a nine-minute mixtape of Democrats using the word “fight” in a dizzying, though largely unspecified, display of different contexts.

This move, frankly, made me smile, and it brought back memories. You see, that writer I cited earlier, Erri De Luca, was also indicted for incitement, and, after a two-year-long legal battle, he was absolved of the charges. Back in 2014, a protest by an activist group he supports had resulted in property damage on a construction site. Even though he wasn’t himself there, Erri was asked about the events that day in interviews by the Huffington Post and the Italian news service ANSA. He responded that, “I continue to think it legitimate to sabotage that project.” And in Erri’s case too, the eventual trial focused at length on a single word, in this case, “sabotage.” And here again, the prosecution insisted on tying that single word to the charge of incitement. In a written defense published before the trial, Erri responded that:

I claim my right to employ the verb “to sabotage” as best befits the Italian language. Its use is not restricted to the sense of “material damage,” as the prosecutors in this case argue.
            For example: a strike, especially a wildcat strike with no warning, sabotages the production of a factory or a service.
            A soldier poorly following an order sabotages it.
            Parliamentary obstructionism against a prospective law sabotages it. Acts of negligence, whether voluntary or not, sabotage.
            The accusation against me sabotages my constitutional right to contrarian speech. The verb “to sabotage” has an enormous range of figurative uses that correspond with meaning of the verb “to obstruct.”
            The prosecutors insist that the verb “to sabotage” has but a single sense. In the name of the Italian language and of common sense I reject this constricted meaning.

Like De Luca, Trump’s lawyers have insisted that a single word may have multiple meanings. And at De Luca’s trial, as it happened, the defendant’s lawyers also spent nine or so minutes citing other uses of the term in question; in this case, they were quoting directly from the accused writer’s own published texts.

And so, you may ask, how and what is different here, if anything, between the polysemic possibilities inherent in all language and the particular usage in these two cases? The answer shouldn’t be hard to grasp; in fact, it’s fundamental to the case law traditionally cited whenever the issue of potential limits to free speech comes up. You have the right to state your opinions, but if you know there isn’t one, you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. One thing is what a writer is asked in an interview, about events at a demonstration he did not attend; the speech of a President before a crowd of his followers, shortly before mayhem ensues, is quite another. The Republican mixtape offered only one example of a speech in some sense comparable to that of January 6, 2012: Elizabeth Warren’s address at the Women’s March in Boston, on January 21, 2017, almost exactly four years earlier. On that day, the Massachusetts State House was unharmed. Apparently all speech is not, or all followers are not, created equal.

Let me sum up: Was Trump’s rhetoric intended to incite lawbreaking and likely to succeed in doing so? Any careful and conscientious reading of this moment in history could hardly find otherwise. His supporters were there because he called them there, he met them on the National Mall, delivered an inspirational address, and directed them toward their target. He then returned to the White House, sat back, and watched. The people listened and delivered on what they believed they were asked to do; after they’d done it, they said as much. For me, the question isn’t even interesting, the answer is patently obvious.

What is less obvious, perhaps, is that, given “the facts” as this mob was given them, their actions—though reprehensible in reality—were arguably justifiable. After all, isn’t this one of our self-evident truths? Whenever a government interferes with our fundamental rights, it is “the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government.” If Biden’s electoral victory was illegitimate, and if his party intends a Stalinist takeover, not to mention pedophilic sex trafficking, the Great Replacement, and who knows what else, history will eventually record that the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the other ragtag berzerkers on January 6 did indeed “have truth and justice on [their] side” and “a deep and enduring love for America in [their] hearts.” And Donald J. Trump will deserve all the accolades that he has given himself.

In short, murderous, racist, and criminal as they were, the actions of Trump’s acolytes are a secondary concern—if our primary focus is the future of this Republic. As a writer and professor of literature, I believe that the most fundamental issue we face today is how to sort through lies and uphold the truth, and that the actual verdict of the impeachment trial is secondary. What matters most, despite that verdict, is that official records of these proceedings have been kept. Everything, or at least everything we know now, is on the record. What Trump did, what he said, and all of what those words and deeds led to that day. American carnage.

At least today we now know where each of our so-called representatives stand. They have voted, either for democracy, or for the insurrection. A role call was taken, and they chose a side.

       *For this piece, two websites, and were consulted. Both provided transcripts and a video recording of the January 6 speech. The National Public Radio site notes that its transcript was first published by the Associated Press.

Jim Hicks is Executive Editor of the Massachusetts Review

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