‘There is no … guarantee that the “people” as a historical actor will be constituted around a progressive identity’
— Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason
‘What do you want your world to look like? What do you want it to be? Do you know that a wall has two sides? And nobody is free?’
— Pussy Riot, Make America Great Again
Decades ago the Prince of Wales exhorted Britons to converse in ‘proper’ English, by which he meant ‘English English’, and to resist the viral creep of American English, users of which are inclined ‘to invent all sorts of nouns and verbs, and make words that shouldn’t be’. We Yanks are mostly inured to charges of barbarising the mother tongue, your Queen’s English, whether by invention or plain abuse. As American lexicographer Noah Webster observed, independence requires a ‘system of our own, in language as well as government’. We are not therefore insensible to degrees of competence or consonance in employment of the tongue that binds and separates us. We recognise not without a tint of pink that the rolls of our legislative and executive branches of government are spotted with verbal barbarians. These brutes huddle deceptively in the lee of our national altar to the artless and industrious common man wrestling every inch of America from the frontier wilds. By the nineteenth century this potent shade of the agrarian myth promulgated by worthies like Thomas Jefferson was an ecumenical creed. To lay claim to this sacred history (whatever its deficits, and including a presupposition of white supremacy) was to steal a march on political rivals and to bathe oneself in the headwaters of our ‘more perfect union’. Studied black-and-white stills of President Calvin Coolidge haying in Vermont (or colour footage of George W. Bush clearing brush in Texas) circulated in compliance with the Jeffersonian axiom that ‘those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God … whose breasts he has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue’. In our national lore, the exigencies and purity of simple practice, haying and clearing brush, absolve the ‘common man’ of his inarticulacy in ‘our own’ English.