A Response to “Politics and the English Language”

In April of 2007, a review of George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” graced the blogosphere:

C:\Documents and Settings\Owner.YOUR-ADE6240E02\Desktop\Politics & the American Language\Responses to Orwell\Response to George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language – Writer’s Corner Politics Non-Fiction – Epinions_com.mht

 

“I wanted to do something I considered important for something just shy of an arbitrary milestone. This is the 200th essay I have posted. Since so much of what I write about is language, I decided to take a look at George Orwell’s essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ and see how relevant it is today. …

“… The topic of this essay will be a re-evaluation of Mr. Orwell’s well known “Politics and the English Language” published in 1946. Sixty-one years on, how does it hold up? Are his fears justified now; has what he predicted come to pass? The one warning (I would normally use “caveat” here but his essay decries the use of Latin words when a Saxon word will do) is that my analysis will focus mainly on American English rather than BBC English—I will make as much reference to it as my research and native knowledge allows.

“Britain in 1946 was still under war rationing despite the end of the war. The ‘pink bits’ (British controlled colonies, protectorates, etc, so-called because they were usually printed in pink on world maps) in many instances were beginning to question the foreign authority. So, in addition to the near bankruptcy of the nation after the end of the war, Britain was facing a rising level of revolt in the colonies whose trade was essential to Britain’s survival. It is no wonder, then, that Mr. Orwell would say this: ‘Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse.’ Decadent has two separate meanings, both of which (with an economy only someone like Mr. Orwell could assume) are in effect here. The first meaning is a movement towards decay. There is little denying that, despite prevailing in the war, Britain was suffering from a hangover that would last until the middle of the 1950s. Once the Sceptred Isle had control over 60% of the landmass of the planet. They found that “This fortress built by Nature for herself against infection and the hand of war” had lost Nature’s favor and was literally facing default due specifically to war. The second meaning of decadent is a movement of language towards the pretentious. Living in the decaying world with its evidence of bombing all about, Mr. Orwell takes on the decadent use of language in the political sphere and the harm it causes itself and the culture it defines.

“Radio played a huge role in the decay of political speech. Prior to the radio, members of parliament and other political writers could really only communicate to the masses by pamphlet or by speeches presented in the newspapers of the day. Britain has always been a society of classes, so the newspapers that one read were as likely to pigeon hole him as his dialect or his clothing. Radio was a leveling force with regards to political speech; anyone with a radio or with access to one could hear the Prime Minister speak. The more people could hear the more they could complain—therefore the movement towards obfuscation. I imagine it started out innocuously enough. My guess is that politicians wanted to say something, but they needed different words (soon to be called buzzwords) that would indicate to the party loyalists that all was well regardless what the speech was really about. Of course television followed, but ‘Politics and the English Language’ was written before television was only a little more than an experiment at Westinghouse.

“I must find a way to consider this quote from the essay:   ‘All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.’  In college and university courses, we are trained to notice the use of words like ‘all,’ ‘always,’ and ‘never.’ The training requires that you be absolutely sure of your sources or opinions in order to use these words without modifiers.

“We know that man is a political creature. This is statement, though, is less about man and more about politics. If you see your opinion as something that you need to explain and defend, then the language you use to do this is, by definition, political. Through this lens, I can accept that language used to discuss any issue, private, public, serious, or absurd, will be political in nature. However, I cannot accept that all politics is a mass of lies, etc. (though I will grant that political language does tend to be more schizoid than not, but this is because of the nature of compromise, not the nature specifically of politics). Discuss whether embryos stored in suspended animation that are going to be discarded should be used for stem cell research. Discuss whether it makes any sense for the Best Director Oscar to go to someone and the Best Picture Oscar should go to a film not directed by him. Either way, the discussion is political. From the life and death serious to the miniscule and absurd, discussions that are point/counter-point are political.

“From time to time, the language of politicians makes it into the culture and is dealt with accordingly. Here is where I break with the famous essay. It is extremely important to understand that political language and the words that come out of a politician’s mouth are not one and the same. Yes, on occasion language works like that, but there are far more unelected people chatting and experts blabbing than there are politicians elected at all levels combined. This multiplicity of sources may be the sole reason why I believe that Mr. Orwell’s essay is no longer relevant.

“Before I get into the various thrusts of this essay, I have to fault Mr. Orwell for something that he really cannot help. The issue is with the English language. If he were writing in French, German, Russian, Hungarian, or Greek, he would have more of an argument. English is the most fungible official language (any pidgin is more fungible than a stable language because pidgins are subject to become obsolete as they actually become either one of the languages that the pidgins combine or become their own language). American English adds even more words than BBC English, but there is no English equivalent to the Academe Francais; therefore, words from immigrant groups or colonies, or from any other jargon can make it into general circulation without having to pass through the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary. So Mr. Orwell’s subject is a moving target. He covers this by saying ‘correct grammar and syntax are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear.’ I would assume by this, the idiotic “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” would fit at least this argument even if it fails as a dying metaphor.

“I want to look at two eras in American history to show how the public reacted, how the language changed, then how it changed again. What Mr. Orwell doesn’t really seem to take into account is the general power of the people to unstink manure from the District of Columbia or other state houses. (I wonder if my image with a made up word would pass Mr. Orwell’s muster as a living metaphor?)

“The first is what is woefully called the McCarthy Era. I am all for calling it the Red Scare Era since it is both more accurate and keeps the name of the offender out of the title. Three things combined to make this awful time in American history possible. The first is the fact that the Soviets exploded their first uranium based weapon in 1949 only 4 years after the United States did it at home and over Japan. America was supposed to have the monopoly on atomic weapons and only Americans (and the German émigrés that came to the country prior to the beginning of the war) were smart enough and touched of God enough to invent and be trusted with such a device. Therefore, a spy or group of spies had to be responsible (well, this turned out to be true). The problem was that the US tried, convicted, and executed people who had given no useable knowledge to the Soviets. Klaus Fuchs is the one who gave the Soviets information they could use to speed up their acquisition of the bomb. He was tried and sentenced in Britain, sentenced to 14 years and was released in 9. Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1948, so it was known at the time of both the trials in the US and in Britain, still the situation is far more Kafka-esque than what would become known as Orwellian not too far in the future.

“The second storm was Mao. Republicans of the day (Richard Nixon in particular), accused the Truman administration of ‘losing China,’ as if the United States had any control or say over the fate of the 900 million Chinese at the time. Speaking of this number, it was used along with the near 500 million behind the so-called Iron Curtain as a type of score. Their side was clearly winning the battle for ‘hearts and minds.’ Our side needed to do something or the whole world would become communist. Only fear could stop people from realizing the specious reasoning behind that. What had been Russia and what had just been China had never had an effective form of representative government, so the idea that democracy, or a true republic would stand up against a strong dictator is just a silly daydream. (Here is as good a place as any for saying this: not every society can benefit from democracy; society’s relationship to and formation of government is like an infant, it has to crawl, which it learns on its own usually, but to learn to walk or run requires assistance over a rather long time—if you try to take a country controlled by a despot and give them the vote, they will be like the proverbial mule with a spinning wheel; they will be given a tool whose use they don’t understand; it is a noble sentiment, but it is still a sentiment and not something that can be unleashed on a society with no priming.)

The third storm is a junior senator, who lied to get into office, trying to find a cause that would keep him there and potentially lead to greater things. Joseph McCarthy found a soft target by claiming that there were [insert number] of ‘card carrying commonists’ (he insisted on mispronouncing the word) in the US State Department. The number changed from speech to speech, so it was obvious from the beginning that he was fibbing. The problem is that with the two scares in 1949, the US was in a position for just such an insistent fibber to gain prominence.

“Television was both a stoker of the storm and witness to its crashing end—ooh, I try and try but mixed metaphors are too fun; not only do they upset the hardcore grammarian, they lead to a mental image that is more precise despite the indictment of apparent senselessness).

“During this time, paranoia in the country was running high. The country was fighting a war or conflict or engaged in a police action in Korea against the Red (and to be honest yellow) Menace. The 1950s was a time when children were shown all manner of films at school covering personal hygiene and what we can call psychological or civil hygiene. In amongst the films that stress conformity is at least one film that has a young boy of around 8 discovering his parents are ‘Reds.’  So he insists that they go to church on Sunday—sure that this act would purge them of their redness. This is truly laughable today, but at the time few would find it funny. We must also not forget that the Supreme Court of the United States had the very progressive Earl Warren as its Chief Justice. He and the court along with him were instrumental in tearing down racial barriers beginning as early as 1953; this was yet one more reason that the country would be made nervous. Social movements were in motion that white collar, white America either feared or did not understand.

“At this time, some words lost their meaning entirely, others change meaning entirely. Patriotism, loyalty, even war were words that stopped having an agreed upon meaning. Context alone drove what the speaker or writer meant. Red, pink, soft were words whose meanings were changed. And to be completely frank, communism or commonism was a word whose meaning was not understood generally and despite the lip service given to communism by both the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union. Each country was in the early stages of the struggle which meant a dictatorship—their aims might have been communistic, but their reality was only authoritarian.

“The country was paranoid of the Reds so they bought all sorts of silly stories about government officials, writers, actors, directors, even one maid whose identity was confused with someone else—who also turned out not to have any ties to any communist group. “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the commonist party?” was the common refrain. The funny thing is, while being paranoid, the American public was also becoming a bit suspicious. This is the crux of what I hope I am explaining clearly.

“People like to focus on McCarthy’s appearance on the respected Edward R. Murrow show See It Now as the catalyst to McCarthy’s censure by the Senate. It really wasn’t, but the program began to solidify the suspicions in a way that began to override the paranoia. The suspicion came in waves prior to this—had there been no suspicion, it is very unlikely that Murrow could have filmed his show. The reason is that several newspapers were openly hostile to McCarthy. They wanted him to produce the corps of commonists in the State Department whose number kept changing. We must remember that government was not thought of in the same cynical and antipathetic way it is now. So you have a body of the Federal government openly questioning people from literally all strata of society about their loyalty. But the country also had many respected newspapers that were openly challenging this subcommittee to release the names of suspected commonists in the government. You see, most of the people that were questioned during these hearings didn’t work for the government.

“So Americans started to see through the bull. The coffin was made at this point, the nails and hammer gathered ready to seal McCarthy in it. See It Now put the lid on the coffin and the so-called Army-McCarthy hearings put in every last nail. Forgive me for this, since it may be commonly known among those on Epinions—but the moment had so much resonance more for why it happened than the exchange it caused. Joseph Welch was defending the Army (it would have likely taken longer for the Red Scare era to end if McCarthy hadn’t picked such a massive target as the Army). Welch was defending the Army when McCarthy attacked one of the junior attorneys in Welch’s firm—in other words being entirely off topic. It is then that the exchange occurred. Welch fully admitted that the attorney had been vetted and found to be fit to be a member of their law firm, despite having once belonging to a group McCarthy and his ilk considered to be commonist. So Mr. Welch fires forth with ‘Let us assassinate this lad, further . . . You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?’ Only historians remember what happened after that famous statement. But by the end of 1954 the senator was censured and was drunk so much of the time he didn’t even bother to attend many sessions of the senate.

“Following this, there was still some activity on the House UnAmerican Activities Committee well into the Vietnam War, Conflict, Police Action. But the bull used during the McCarthy hearings and accusations became so widely ridiculed that it was obvious that the language and the people weathered the storm of political nonsense fairly well. And, mind you, this is coming from a bred in the bone cynic. This era also gave us the term McCarthyism, universally negative, for anyone who starts to focus on a supposed threat for the purpose of gaining attention for themselves. Language, discourse, even politics survived the onslaught.

“The second era is one that is likely to get me into some trouble. Historians cannot look at today within the context that drives their discipline. I’m not an historian, so I can venture into the present using the same tools as above to explain the current administration and how the American people began to see through the language coming out of the District of Columbia and realize that it was nonsense.

“What makes this task doubly difficult is not just the fact that some of it is still ongoing but that it comes at a post-Nixon, post-Clinton time of extreme political cynicism.

“The history, being recent, is generally known and understood in current contexts (even if some of the motives are debatable), so describing the setting and context are not necessary. What follows will be as close to a chronological timeline of events and reactions as possible.

“In 2002, the initial administration for #43 began to prepare the public for another war. We were already fighting in Afghanistan (and some times creating havoc due to cultural misunderstanding—bombing a wedding party because part of the celebration is for those with weapons to shoot them into the air [this is meant exactly as described it is not an indictment of the military but of an administration who didn’t give a rat’s fanny about cultural differences]). But we had basically stopped getting daily information from Afghanistan by the time the administration started to explain why an attack of Iraq was not just necessary but critically important. The stated cause was the evidence for weapons of mass destruction (this term is certainly something that would make Mr. Orwell cringe as badly as it does me; please remember that a fully loaded automatic rifle pointed at the right crowd is a weapon of mass destruction as is a conventional bomb and even a conventional grenade—just the threat of a weapon in a crowded place can lead to mass death due to panic and stampede). The problem is that there was a rather vocal minority of us who were screaming at anyone who would listen.

“One of the things that a small but skeptical portion of the media wanted from Senator McCarthy was the list of names of the 57 or 59 or 102 or 65 or whatever ‘commonists’ in the State Department. One of the things that skeptics like me wanted to see was the evidence of weapons. None of us believed that Iraq could hide the kind of equipment the administration insisted were being hidden. You see, if you can say ‘we know they are there, but they are hidden’ some people will believe you because that is the nature of gullibility; however, even the gullible will eventually start asking for more than just someone’s word. In order to fill the credibility gap, the administration had to start talking about biological weapons and mushroom clouds. Still, the skeptics kept saying that the weapons inspectors weren’t finding anything and independent sources weren’t finding any satellite evidence, so the administration’s claims seemed to be far-fetched at best. (I have mentioned this in many essays previous to this, so I will summarize it like this: you can hide one nuke or two, but you can’t hide the factories it takes to make a bomb; mobile chemical and biological weapons labs are a joke unless the people working in them are suicidal—one crash and we would know of a problem right away because of the number of people dead of small pox or anthrasis, VX or sarin.)

“In March of 2003 #43 launches a war. In May of 2003, #43 declares an end to offensive combat operations (with the Mission Accomplished banner behind him). By the end of August, the number of Americans killed in Iraq after the ‘end of offensive combat operations’ equals the number killed during the offensive. Some minor grumbling begins from camps that had been supportive.

“We have an election in 2004. #43 is reelected. Attorney General Ashcroft announces a suspicious terror alert just two weeks prior to the election. The president stays above the fray but allows his war-hawks to go onto any and all talk shows to explain the link between Saddam and terrorism (which is non-existent) and to paint democrats who want to know more as soft on terrorism and weak on defense (replace the word terrorism with commonist and you realize we’ve been through this before). Values voters are given the responsibility for the reelection. Along with weapons of mass destruction, Mr. Orwell would be made very nauseous at ‘values voter.’

“Weapons of mass destruction had passed from a threat to a joke so fast then to an old joke even faster that only historians will be able to track first its effectiveness, then just how laughable it became. Values voter is a bit different. Whether I like it or not, weapons of mass destruction nearly always called to mind a nuclear device, so there was an actual meaning even if the weapons were entirely missing from Iraq. Values voter is a term that has no meaning—find for me a voter who does not vote for her or his values? However, the public automatically knew what that meant. For the election of 2004, a values voter was someone, quite simply, who didn’t want to recognize gay marriages or civil unions. Ballot initiatives in 11 states either defining marriage as male/female or outlawing the recognition of gay unions from other states brought the so-called values voter out. The Right can point to other ‘values,’ but none were going to get as many people to the poles as fear that gays might be able to marry rather than just live together.

By the 2006 ‘throw the bums out’ election, the term values voter was gone. The people tagged as such in 2004 voted in 2006, so what happened to the term?

“Here is the climax of my argument that Orwell’s worries do not carry to the present day. Mr. Orwell could not foresee the samizdat of the World Wide Web. The chatter on blogs and sites like myspace and Epinions gives those connected to the Internet the ability to say pretty much whatever they want (some sites have rules against inflammatory language, but most sites either do not or those with the rules do not scan for such material with great frequency). Values voter as a term had to be retired because it actually, at least for a little while, became offensive. People who don’t mind gays getting married or pot being made legal or who are for a type of death with dignity law or are for stem cell research were, in a sense, being called valueless voters by the media. Then the people who were tagged as values voters started to get uppity themselves. Their notion was that they had broader concerns than just worries about gays.

“Prior to the 2006 election, you could still find references to what impact values voters might have, but these references were few and far between, then essentially dead (all of my information about this comes from print and internet sources, I stopped getting any amount of ‘news’ from television half way through the 2000 election crap).

“Before I sum up, I need to explain political correctness (since it came along between Mr. Orwell’s essay and mine, and is a political issue), a state of language that attempts to be fair, but in the doing creates pockets of focal attention on the difference the pc term is intended to allay—the verbal version of diverticulitis. Black may come with a connotation that some people don’t like, but African American is often a lie since most are just Americans of color rather than being from Africa (by the same logic I would be a Sussex American since all of my ancestors who lived prior to migrating were from that one county). An attempt to make the language less sexist (which is mostly slang driven anyway) created a virus. Still, for some adjectives, political correctness was not an awful thing—I’ve never been comfortable with the word retarded; I’m not very fond of mentally challenged which followed; however mentally challenged has given way to low, medium, or high functioning mental retardation which is more sensitive and more accurate. But Americans did to political correctness what only a society like America could do. Short people became ‘vertically challenged,’ obese people became ‘gravity enhanced.’ And then you get the truly absurd, gay people as ‘heterosexually challenged,’ straight people as ‘homosexually challenged,’ the direction straight being called ‘gayly forward.’ The funniest one I ever heard was a Jewish professor I had referring to a Jew’s harp as a ‘Christianly challenged harp.’

“Politics in general, or politics aside, American English is as healthy now as it has ever been. Brits and grammarians may now grumble or launch arguments against this statement or just assume that if the patient has always been dead, then nothing has changed.

“I need to reiterate that what I write this only from an American perspective with American media in mind. I believe that American culture is in transition (more on this in a moment); but American English is almost always in a state of transition, so it would be difficult to call American English decadent; the most anyone can call it is unstable, but I would argue against even that modifier if I wanted to take up more of your time.

“America today is in a decline, but this is not necessarily permanent. The world’s largest creditor nation has become, again, the world’s largest debtor nation. Thanks to an administration that most other nations of note have never trusted and now that fewer than half of Americans trust, America’s spot in the world has slipped. We can still ‘claim’ to be the standard-bearer of freedom and liberty, but we do not have the evidence to back it up. Europe doesn’t engage in extraordinary rendition (admittedly a phrase that Orwell would swoon over) to the point that some countries like Germany have been very upset to discover that their airports were used as transfer points for the horrific treatment. The current administration has so bungled everything it has touched (even when it tries to help—the Medicare drug benefit for instance or so-called No Child Left Behind) any credibility it had after the election battle of 2000 is now long gone.

“The irony is that the ‘values voters’ who made this possible would fight against any level of decadence because it is assumed that decadence is sinful (it may be if the term is used sexually or gastronomically; however, politically it would be essentially impossible for the values voter to argue that the nation is not in decline). Gotta love irony; it’s a large part of the cynic’s diet.

“I will avoid the glib statement I just deleted. Instead I will say that every 4 years the voters of the United States can elect a new president. Each new president comes with a level of hope that is difficult to come by in a parliamentary system. It is conceivable that the country can make a bad choice in November of next year, but it is difficult to imagine that it would be worse than the last go around at a general election. It is in this spirit that I think America’s decline can be stopped. The question I cannot answer is whether the decline will reverse or just level off.”

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