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On Political Language

And other debauchery.

1:12 PM, Jan 21, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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Every schoolboy knows George Orwell's famous essay on "Politics and the English Language" (1946), the point of which is that politics misuses language, and injures it in the process. You don't have to search very far to find examples, especially here in America where the language of politics tends to be dominated by the vocabulary of Madison Avenue--or, in some instances, public relations.

You would have to search very far, for example, to find a Democratic response to this week's Senate election in Massachusetts that isn't an exercise in spin control: This is actually a blessing in disguise, the real message is more nuanced and complicated, this is a comparatively trivial event in the broad sweep of history. Of course, both sides engage in this kind of rhetorical sleight of hand, as if by second nature: It is the Democrats who are on display this week.

Years ago I undertook a study of events which led to the rise to power of Charles de Gaulle, and was struck, among other things, by the candid nature of political language in France in 1958. Indeed, I remember the shock with which I read a plain-spoken statement by the last prime minister of the Fourth Republic, Pierre Pflimlin, when his government fell: He told reporters, in so many words, that his legislative support had fallen away and there was no choice but to step aside and dissolve the government. He said nothing to embellish or disguise the sequence of events, he expressed no pride in the accomplishments of his ministry, he did not announce that he was taking this strategic step in order to strengthen his future position. The game is over, he said, and I'm out.


For whatever reason, in American politics, it is always necessary, in the face of bad tidings, to change the subject or deny the nose on your face. It is a shock, however, when journalists of repute resort to these deceptive devices. This morning's New York Times editorial on the Brown-Coakley race is a case in point: "There are many theories about the import of Scott Brown's upset victory," announces the Times. "... To our minds, it is not remotely a verdict on Mr. Obama's presidency, nor does it amount to a national referendum on health care reform." The balance of the editorial is a critique of Mr. Obama's presidency, with particular attention to the status of health care legislation.

Of course, the New York Times is entitled to its opinion of Obama's presidency, especially on the editorial page. But why was it necessary to explain the extent to which the Massachusetts election was a verdict on the Obama presidency, and a national referendum on health care reform, by introducing the subject with a brusque denial of the fact--painfully obvious, even to the Times--that the Massachusetts election was a verdict on the Obama presidency, and a national referendum on health care reform?

Because the debauchery of political language is hardly confined to politics, and has especially infected the language of those who write about politics.

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