The Magazine

Speaking of Politics

Orwell matters, but he wasn't always right.

Oct 29, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 07 • By BARTON SWAIM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

George Orwell was the greatest political essayist since William Hazlitt, and like Hazlitt's, his essays delight even when they're wrong. Probably Orwell's most famous essay is "Politics and the English Language" (1946), a rambling and deliciously witty attack on writers who allow political clichés and other varieties of formulaic balderdash to do their thinking for them. One writer, he says, "knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink."

"Politics and the English Language" is worth reading, and probably deserves its place in college writing textbooks, but that's despite rather than because of the fact that it rests on the mistaken premise that abuses of the English language have become more frequent and more flagrant in recent times than they were in some unspecified past. This is untrue, of course, except in the technical sense that more things were written and published in 1946 than 50 or 100 years before, and so more of it was nonsense. Isaac Rosenfeld once observed that Orwell was a "radical in politics and a conservative in feeling," and here Orwell makes an error to which conservatives are naturally prone: that of supposing people have become dumber during a period which happens to coincide with one's adult memory.

But the real trouble with "Politics and the English Language" is attitudinal rather than philosophical or factual. The best way to explain is by quoting a couple of typical references to it from journalists. Here, to take one of countless examples, is the first paragraph of a recent column by John Naughton in the Observer, Britain's left-wing Sunday paper:

"Political language," observed George Orwell in his great essay on "Politics and the English Language," "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Much the same applies to the output of the public relations industry. One of the most important public services that mainstream journalism can provide, therefore, consists of decoding PR-speak: translating its half-truths, unsupported assertions and evasions into plain English.

More often journalists summon Orwell's essay to make objectionable politicians look sinister or ridiculous. Here is Daniel Okrent of the New York Times:

Hijacking the language proves especially pernicious when government officials deodorize their programs with near-Orwellian euphemism. (If Orwell were writing "Politics and the English Language" today, he'd need a telephone book to contain his "catalog of swindles and perversions.") The Bush administration has been especially good at this; just count the number of times self-anointing phrases like "Patriot Act," "Clear Skies Act" or "No Child Left Behind Act" appear in The Times, at each appearance sounding as wholesome as a hymn. [Does Okrent remember the Violence Against Women Act or the Educational Excellence for All Children Act? And should the Civil Rights Act have been given a more impartial title?] Even the most committed Republicans must recognize that such phrases could apply to measures guaranteeing the opposite of what they claim to accomplish.

Leave aside, if you can, the loathsome prose (hijacking proves pernicious when officials deodorize programs). Okrent seems sincerely to believe that the preemptive titles legislators give their bills are able somehow to coax people into supporting or thinking favorably of them. Indeed, both these writers entertain the same fear; namely, that a large part of the general population can be manipulated by the clever or cynical use of words--turned this way and that as a drayhorse responds to "gee" and "haw." Mind you, Okrent and Naughton aren't themselves fooled by the semiotic tricks of the powerful. It's other people they're worried about.

The passage from Orwell's essay most often quoted is this one:

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. .  .  . Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Now, it's easy to sympathize with Orwell's outrage. Any literate person who follows politics with even cursory attention will have experienced the nausea brought on by hearing vacuous or obviously false statements made in such a way as to disguise rather than express what the speaker knows to be true. It's essential to remember, though, that this kind of rhetorical sleight-of-hand, the deliberate separation of words and phrases from their meanings, doesn't convince people who don't already agree. People by and large aren't impressed by transparent lies: That's what makes them transparent. And this is true even in societies in which the state exercises, or attempts to exercise, total control over what can be said and published. That people in such societies wearily acquiesce to lies doesn't mean they believe them.

Yet journalists and intellectuals often find it irresistible to believe that most people lack the mental means to see through the skulduggery of modern politics. In their view, politicians--or at least those politicians of whom they disapprove--are apt to "hijack the language," to use Okrent's phrase. Or take Naughton's high-minded description of journalism's function: "One of the most important public services that mainstream journalism can provide," he thinks, is that of "translating" the "half-truths, unsupported assertions and evasions" of "PR-speak." The disdain apparent in that remark is spectacular. It's a form of disdain that lurks behind "Politics and the English Language," too.

Just look at the sentence quoted by Naughton--incompletely quoted, I should say, for it reads in full: "Political language--and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists--is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Orwell enjoyed overstating himself, and likely didn't literally believe that "all political parties" were in the business of making "murder respectable." What he certainly did believe, however, was that clever people could control an entire population by means of linguistic trickery. That belief is evident in Animal Farm and, most conspicuously, in 1984.

It would be easy to update Orwell's famous observation that "Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" We can all think of terms used so promiscuously for political ends that their meanings have become too flexible to be useful. Often, though, this says as much about our own political opinions as about anything else. The reason for this has to do with the double standard we apply to political pronouncements. I am prepared to tolerate an element of ambiguity or logical sloppiness in a statement made by a politician with whom I have great sympathy for the simple reason that I already think he's right. In my mind, the rightness of his statement excuses whatever tergiversations he feels he must employ to make his position more acceptable to the public.

However, I expect absolute clarity and precision from the politician with whom I have little or no sympathy, and if he says something vague or illogical, I will interpret it as vague or illogical, and think poorly of those who excuse its vagueness or illogic on political grounds. The point is that those, like Orwell, who believe politicians are manipulating great numbers of people by means of shrewdly concocted rhetoric are missing a basic truth about democratic culture. Political opinion follows empty rhetoric; empty rhetoric doesn't alter, and certainly doesn't dictate, political opinion. Although a bold and original pronouncement may persuade its hearers, a tawdry one (of the kind bemoaned by Orwell) merely boosts morale among the committed.

People whose job it is to put words together--journalists, intellectuals--will never believe this. They can't. It's too gratifying for them to believe that wordsmiths are ultimately in charge. Thus, the Berkeley linguistician George Lakoff has convinced a large proportion of the Democratic party that Republicans have maintained power for such an unaccountably long time by simply reworking a few phrases to their advantage: "Death tax" instead of inheritance tax, "tax relief" instead of "tax cut," "pro-life" instead of "anti-abortion," and so on. Similarly the British political writer Robert Fisk thinks American politicians have managed to sell what he, Fisk, thinks are obviously inhumane policies in the Middle East by the judicious use of a single word, "terrorism." And of course, there are huge numbers of intellectuals who believe the phrase "war on terrorism" is a magnificent hoax perpetrated on an imbecilic electorate.

It's strange that George Orwell, so dismissive of those whom he derided as "intellectuals," should have adopted essentially the same attitude. His failure in that regard is at least partly the result of his constitutional gloominess ("the most hopeless person I ever met and probably the most unhappy," one friend said of him). And Orwell's experience in the Spanish Civil War certainly darkened his view of modern politics: He had seen the propaganda of Spanish Communists reported in England as truth, and their brutality ignored altogether. Whatever his reasons, he couldn't reconcile himself to the possibility that average people weren't gullible boobs. That is, to some degree, why he hated the left-wing intelligentsia of which he was so uncomfortable a part: He felt that they used their talent for words to mislead decent and patriotic people with the empty verbiage of moral equivalence.

In this, he had more in common with the intellectuals he despised than he thought.

Barton Swaim is author of the forthcoming Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere.