Guest Column: Language, Thoughts & Peter Miller

by Jennifer Miller


It’s been a while since I wrote and time has allowed me a further reflection on a man’s life, in this case my father, Peter Miller. Whether good or bad, whatever happens to each of us, is perhaps not fate, but a combination of genetics, the environment and time in which we grew up, our education, sexual orientation, race, social economic status, chance, luck, accident, etc. I am not sure if anything is ever meant to be.  Maybe?  I do sometimes wonder if I was meant to be my father’s daughter.  

  But he was many things besides being my father.  He was a teacher, historian, writer and later (after no doubt too many disappointments) a semi-recluse. It’s hard to tease out what was the normal isolation of aging and what was something more resembling giving up on humanity (which becomes increasingly understandable as I age).  

The essence of my father’s writings focusses on language and how it’s used for social and political control. My father was a cynic in the traditional use of the Greek word, not in the truly negative, but in the honest doubter and skeptic searching for the truth, and over his life he became increasing intolerant of lies, especially perpetrated by the elites or the one percent who controls the wealth.  

He might be considered extreme but given the context of today’s polarization it seems mild in comparison and many of his thoughts seem very relevant as we attempt to confront continued disinformation on a global scale. Democracy’s true threat in Peter’s mind is not nuclear weapons, but language and the mountains of distortions.   Language becomes the weapon used to divide and conquer which allows the elites to remain in control.   

The dictionary he developed in the last decade of his life was an attempt to organize the words used to confuse and control people’s thinking. Though opinionated, he strikes a chord in how we use language to manipulate thinking.  Peter found that certain groups of people utilized semantics for the sake of control (like “alternative facts!”).  I also think, honestly, it was a love letter.  Like a parent trying to warn their child of hidden dangers (and what kid wants to hear that!). 

The preface of his work follows:

“A country consists of a land, a people, and its government. The nation’s key semantic players have much to gain from conditioning us to think of these three entities interchangeably. The civic notion that “the government is you” provides unimpeachable cover for all sorts of elite gamesmanship conducted in the name, but not for the benefit of, we the people. The top-up crowd is pleased whenever citizens conclude that our democracy operates pretty much the way we were taught it did in high school civics. 

This dictionary, following an introduction to set the historical and political context, uses neologisms to take a satiric look at how elites use language to attain their ends. Their goal is to shape our sense of public reality. To this end they rely on various stratagems, many semantic, that use democratic rhetoric to thwart the will of the majority! 

What’s harder to account for is the frequency with which elites obtain policy outcomes that conform to their wishes. All too often we citizens are left with the doleful sense of being complicit in public policies whose outcomes, had we better understood the intentions behind them, we would have opposed. Within this perceptual gap there’s been ample room for the top-up crowd to conduct business as schmooze and engage in the hocus operandi that sustains it.” 

When my dad shared his pride and joy dictionary, I was embarrassed, I didn’t understand most of it.  I just wanted him to be “normal.”  Can you imagine?  Growing up with this brilliant, complex, and flawed man– he wanted to save democracy, while I was worried about my zits and how to make my boobs grow. Later my view expanded, and I became well versed at making someone else’s dreams come true, because I didn’t know what mine were.   Let me share a couple definitions from his Devil Dictionary:

“Language: The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another man’s treasure.” 

“Language-not money or force -provides legitimacy … Uncontrolled words are consistently more dangerous to established authority than armed forces. The[se] wordsmiths…are always devoted to obscurity. They castrate the public imagination by subjecting language to a complexity that renders it private. Elitism is always the aim.”

Peter’s dictionary was his attempt at coming to terms with the inequities he saw around him.  Now I am coming to terms with him not being here.  He used to joke about being “immortal.” He didn’t claim he was it was always a disclaimer.  Man, did we go through some storms together.  I was always left in the role of being HIS cheerleader, but as I grew older and less dependent on his approval and need for love, it all got a hell of a lot more real. Eventually, I was able to figure out myself and I began to tell him who I really was.  He began to listen less consumed with his crucial thoughts.  Ironically, now I understand his urgency… and his loneliness.  How many people are truly known and can be known by their father?  I was one of the lucky ones.

We were fortunate to have the time which went full circle.  By the end, he lost that mind. I can see early on how he covered for his mistakes and omissions.  Eventually he couldn’t fake it anymore.  A year before he died, he came to live me (after being kicked out of an assisted living facility).  

All those dating stories I wrote were during that time and I’m dumbfounded how I ever managed.  I mean I get it I needed to have an adult, full sentence conversation (although with many of the men I met they weren’t really all that interested/capable.  While my dad had always pondered the big questions, most men just wanted me to suck their dick).  

Imagine then losing that connection, cause once we got on the other side of the shit, I shared more intimacy/honesty with my father than any other man. Perhaps the reason for the dementia was it became the only way to let go of him. Had he simply died quickly it would have been insurmountable, but because he lost himself bit by bit it gave me the time, I needed to let go piece by piece.   

In the end it was REALLY hard.  It was like dealing with an adult baby who would vacillate from being pitiful to being hostile and impossibly demanding.  Many days I hated the person he had become, but he was trying to teach me compassion and patience (as I was wiping his ass). I know he never wanted to be a burden, but real love is not always convenient.   

This reflection is my thanks to him for inspiring me to always look, experience and question.  His legacy is to always seek the truth.   Always ask the uncomfortable questions.  To withstand the loneliness and fight against complacency and the “vertical dead.”   To always seek justice and not be seduced by the lies. To stand alone when necessary while understanding that “he who has much knowledge has much sorrow.”  He had that quote hanging above his toilet.  

Maybe I really was supposed to be his daughter.  The lessons were astonishing, life changing, relevant and fierce from a man who taught me, despite the flaws/frailties/faults, what love really is.