Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Grow our civilisation

“Grow the economy,” “grow my business” – two phrases which have irritated a fair number of people who know the difference between a transitive and an intransitive English verb. I confess I share their displeasure, but what strikes me in this case is not the assault on an overly refined sensibility by one or two English phrases. No, what strikes me is the complete powerlessness of the people who are actually thinking about the English language – their powerlessness to have any impact whatsoever on the development of the language.

Apparently the use of “grow” as a transitive verb combined with objects like “business” and “economy” dates back to a speech by Bill Clinton in 1992. Via the press, the usage became commonplace in the business community. Reviewing the change in the language in 1999 The New York Times Manual of Style included this comment:

“With a direct object, grow sounds natural in references to living things: grow flowers; grow wheat; grow a beard; grow antlers. The newer usage of grow to mean expand (grow the business; grow revenue) is business jargon, best resisted.”

There was no resistance though. The learned were powerless to exert any. Once upon a time the culture had its high priests and it had its teachers, who could uphold a notion of the right way to do things – a notion, however feeble, that could stand in a critical relation to the way things were often done. Thus, culture preserved an idea of what was right and what was wrong, what was good and what was bad.

What are we to say now? Are we to throw our hats in the air and rejoice that the high priests have been defrocked and pushed rudely aside leaving the crowd free to do what it wants without the nasty wagging finger of the critic and the teacher? Is this the sort of liberation that 5,000 years of civilisation have been preparing for – a free-for-all in which anything goes? Or is the sight of the thoughtless leading the unthinking a rather disturbing one?

If we have not yet reached the Promised Land at the End of History, do we not still need a clear idea of what it means to move forward and upward? And will it not inevitably be a smaller or larger minority of more thoughtful people who will formulate, promote and insist upon those ideas of what forward and upward mean? And wouldn’t that minority deserve a certain respect – a certain authority?

The revolt against the high priests of the past was supposed to create a better world, but when that particular revolt becomes a more general refusal of any distinction between right/wrong, good/bad, forwards/backwards, then the barbarian elements are sure to come to the fore and take over (as is now the case). And the most glaring example of barbarism is in the very economy which the American president wanted to grow. Buffett says the markets are all about fear and greed – naked passions liberated from any thoughts about what ought to be done in the world – any thoughts about what is right, about what would help us move forward. Governments tremble now at the thought of what the markets will do. Let us marvel at this great liberation of the individual and of passion from the millennia of priestly repression. Perhaps History has finally arrived at its End. What joy to have arrived at last!

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