“By any means necessary”: pragmatism on stilts

Malcolm X’s contribution to the erosion of American political rhetorical standards lives on, most recently in President Trump’s speech at a rally in Tennessee. But at least he was characterizing the expediency of his enemies.

In 1963 Communist-sympathizer Jean-Paul Sartre penned the words that in English become “by any means necessary.”

Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Ernesto Che Guevara, 1960, Cuba

 

 

Their African-American popularizer employed it to everlasting effect the following year. (He was assassinated the next.)

Conflating the necessary with the sufficient, it’s literally nonsense. “Any” doesn’t go with “necessary.”

There is, for example, more than one way to get to Times Square from Grand Central. One can walk a few blocks; or hop on the westbound M42 bus; or take the subway, either the shuttle (one stop) or the No. 7 (two). Each of them will do, but none of them is necessary.

The seductive power of the phrase overrides logic. “By the one means necessary” or “by any means sufficient” lacks punch.What the hackneyed phrase’s users mean is: “What I want is imperative, and whatever achieves it is permissible.” “Whatever it takes,” or “The end justifies the means,” which evacuates “justifies” of meaning.

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