Orwell’s Essay Misapplied

On January 21, 2010, writing for the Weekly Standard online, Philip Terzian opined  “On Political Language and Other Debauchery” and, in so doing,  misapplied, or missed entirely, Orwell’s points.

My first concern about the piece began with the last word of the title, for “debauchery,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language (online) means [the] “Vicious indulgence in sensual pleasures.”

I suppose a few political liars derive a vicious sensual pleasure from speaking or writing–in some weird Freudian way. (I’m trying mightily to grant Terzian a point.)  But probably “debauchery” is just a botched word-choice here, and Orwell might be mildly unamused.

I found more trouble in the first two sentences:

“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. “

Oh, my.  First, the non-sexist substitution of  “all school-children” or “all young students” for “schoolboy” would be, in one sense, more precise  (because girls go to school, too).  That issue aside, “every” is an exaggeration that’s probably not acceptable even as rhetorical hyperbole.   That issue aside, almost no school-children are aware of Orwell’s essay, which, if taught at all, is taught chiefly in colleges. And finally, is it really true that the language of politics tends to be dominated by the language of advertising?  I suspect not.  It is more likely that the language of politics is adapted to the techniques and strategies of advertising, and/or vice versa.

Terzian soon gets to the example that’s bugging him–the Demos’ rhetorical response to having lost a U.S. Senatorial election in New England:
“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.”

Okay, I’ll grant the point: “spin-control” is an example of a kind of political language Orwell didn’t like.  Two observations, though: First, on the list of rhetorical crimes and misdemeanors committed by politicians, placing a loss in a good light is far, far down the list–and it certainly cannot qualify as debauchery. Second, the election IS a trivial event in the broad sweep of history, and even in the narrow sweep of it; and the “message” of Brown’s victory probably was/is complicated, or at least multi-faceted: What political scientist with expertise in election-campaigns would disagree with that?  Nonetheless: a tip of the cap to Terzian’s granting that both [all] sides lie and/or commit truthiness in politics.

To conclude his critique of  “debauchery,” Terzian goes after the New York Times, citing an example from an editorial:

“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.

The Times editorial was probably wrong in the sense that the election was remotely a verdict on Mr. Obama’s presidency–but only remotely.  The editorial was probably correct to claim that the election wasn’t a national referendum; after all, the election occurred in one small state, so there’s that.  Also, not long after the election, a kind of health-care “reform” passed.

But Terzian asserts, “Massachusetts election was a verdict on the Obama presidency.” However, he offers no evidence to support the claim.

The big rhetorical questions about this piece: Why bring Orwell’s essay into the discussion at all? Why not simply write about how and why you disagree with the Times’ editorial?

–A curious misapplication of ideas in “Politics and the English Language.”

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2 Responses to “Orwell’s Essay Misapplied”

  1. Philip Terzian Says:

    I’m afraid I stopped reading after you evidently failed to recognize Macaulay’s famous locution about ‘every schoolboy knows …’ Pedants in glass houses etc.

    • O. Says:

      Thanks for stopping by. Much appreciated. I noted the allusion but did not think it excused imprecision, and your piece intrigued me so much I read it all the way through.


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