The Grammar of Russiagate

Grammar, usually taken to consist of the rules of correct syntactic and semantic usage, becomes, in [philosopher Ludwig] Wittgenstein’s hands, the wider—and more elusive—network of rules which determine what linguistic move is allowed as making sense, and what isn’t. This notion replaces the stricter and purer logic, which played such an essential role [in his first book] Tractatus in providing a scaffolding for language and the world. Indeed, “Essence is expressed in grammar … Grammar tells what kind of object anything is. (Theology as grammar)” (PI [Philosophical Investigations] 371, 373). The “rules” of grammar are not mere technical instructions from on-high for correct usage; rather, they express the norms for meaningful language. Contrary to empirical statements, rules of grammar describe how we use words in order to both justify and criticize our particular utterances. But as opposed to grammar-book rules, they are not idealized as an external system to be conformed to. Moreover, they are not appealed to explicitly in any formulation, but are used in cases of philosophical perplexity to clarify where language misleads us into false illusions.

Grammar is not abstract, it is situated within the regular activity with which language-games are interwoven: “… the word ‘language-game’ is used here to emphasize the fact that the speaking of language is part of an activity, or of a form of life” (PI 23).


— “Ludwig Wittgenstein,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Closely observing the grammar of the Official Russiagate Narrative is revealing and instructive. It provides clues to the (language-)game being played.

Consider what I call the insidious article, the. In the public prints and official pronouncements, it’s not enough to say Russians tried to muck around in the American election. It’s almost always the Russians. This is a subtle way to convey the idea that Vladimir Putin and his intel agencies were responsible. If a second-tier Russian oligarch who wishes to help Putin hires, on his own initiative, “a bunch of subliterate-in-English trolls,” in Masha Gessen’s words, and pays them the minimum wage to (again Gessen) “post[] mostly static and sort of absurd advertising,” that is treated as the equivalent of Putin’s executing a plan to destroy the American political system.

There’s a big difference between Russians and the Russians, even if the grammar seems inconsequential.

Then there’s the similar case of synecdoche, “a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa.” This is one of the few things I learned in college that I actually remember. (Thank you Mark Isaacs, professor of journalism at Temple University, who also introduced me to the work of H. L. Mencken.)

When you read in the newspaper or hear it said on CNN that Russia or Moscow or the Kremlin did such and such, you should call out, “Who exactly?” Countries, cities, and citadels cannot act. Only individuals do. Moreover, there’s a big difference between the GRU (Glavnoje Razvedyvatel’noje Upravlenije) and the IRA (Internet Research Institute), between Vladimir Putin and Yevgeny Prigozhin. But their acts are equally attributed to RussiaSt. Petersburg (where the IRA is located) even becomes subsumed by MoscowThe Kremlin could refer to someone directly ordered by Putin or a rogue actor. But those distinctions are of little interest to those formulating or promulgating the Official Narrative.

Finally, let’s turn to the word alleged. I can’t stress how important this word figured in my journalism training in the 1960s and 70s, both in school and on the job. It was drilled into me by teachers and editors that an allegation is just an allegation until it is confirmed. And to drive this home, my teachers’ favorite line was, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

Alleged was the obligatory qualifier before murdererthief, rapistkidnapper, etc. — until the suspect was convicted or his guilty plea was accepted by a judge. We’d never dream of not using it before that point. News organization were of course protecting themselves from libel actions, but it was more than that, namely, fairness and acknowledgment of the presumption of innocent/burden of proof. Even an initial confession was not proof of guilt: people sometimes confess to offenses they did not commit, and sometimes people think their actions are illegal when they are not.

At least one young newsman either learned the lesson about alleged too well or thought it would be fun to mock the obsession with the word. Don Folsom, a rookie Buffalo, NY, radio newscaster in the 1960s began his Easter morning report thus: “Today millions of Christians around the world are celebrating the alleged resurrection of Jesus Christ.” He was fired.

The word alleged seems almost completely lacking in the Russiagate conversation. The New York Times and other major news outlets have many times referred merely to “Russian interference in the 2016 election.” No alleged? Have those reporters actually seen the evidence the general public has been denied? If so, they haven’t said informed us of that fact. Remember, the infamous January 2017 National Intelligence Assessment contained no evidence, as the same Times explicitly acknowledged at the time. In his Jan. 6, 2017, article, “Russian Intervention in American Election Was No One-Off,” Times reporter Scott Shane wrote:

What is missing from the public report is what many Americans most eagerly anticipated: hard evidence to back up the agencies’ claims that the Russian government engineered the election attack. This is a significant omission….

Instead, the message from the agencies amounts to “trust us.”

I thought reporters weren’t supposed to trust even their own mothers! Why are they trusting the lying James Clapper’s “handpicked” intel personnel who made this assessment? Do they not remember the Big Lie about Iraqi WMDs, not to mention the entire lying history of the U.S. intel complex?

The Times and the other major news companies have forgotten what Shane reported more than a year ago: that the government has not disclosed the evidence again Putin and the Russians. If you think the indictment of 13 Russians patched up this hole, reread this column. Note also that the IRA is not charged with hacking the DNC and Podesta email accounts and giving the authentic contents to Wikileaks, which is how the big fuss got started.

So there you go. I can only conclude that the mainstream media were so traumatized by Trump’s win (a traumatizing event, to be sure) and by Hillary Clinton’s loss (not so much) that they have dropped the grammar of detached reporting and embraced the grammar of those who seek confrontation with Russia.

It’s a very dangerous (language-)game indeed.

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Sheldon Richman, author of America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com.  He is also the Executive Editor of The Libertarian Institute.

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