The Magazine

Speaking of Politics

Orwell matters, but he wasn't always right.

Oct 29, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 07 • By BARTON SWAIM
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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.