“Liberal,” “Conservative,” and Other Useless Terms

What good are the political terms “liberal” and “conservative”?  The patron saint of this blog, G. Orwell, championed clarity in prose and precision in terminology; from that point of view, the terms are as useless as money in the afterlife. Worse, they function as chutes through which to pass mind-numbing, rote discussions and debates, as well as profiles of mass mediated punditing.  The theater of oscillation between the terms is as mechanical as a metronome.  The Oscillator is THE mold into which most of our political discourse is poured.

Let us first stipulate that the two major political parties in the U.S. are corrupt and cult-like, ensconcing amphibians like McConnell and Schumer in atrophied institutions.  That said, “conservatives” represent evil in a way “liberals” usually don’t, although “liberals” distinguish themselves chiefly by their ineptitude and taking on such evil.

“Conservative” has nothing to do with preserving “values,” limiting government, preserving “individual freedom, and so on.  The Republican Party conserves White Supremacy through various means: the Southern Strategy, voter suppression, & de facto segregation of the economy, education, and neighborhoods.  It is more likely to blow up the budget than the Democratic Party.  It refuses to accepts the science behind global warming and thus conserves suicidal ignorance.  It has been Red-baiting and race-bating since the 1950s.  If you substituted “White Supremacist” for “Conservative” as you listen and read, you would achieve greater terminological clarity.

Thanks to the White Supremacist Party (GOP), “liberal” has come to connote intellectual interests (as a bad thing), support for government-located programs to help people (as a bad thing), environmentalism (as a bad thing), diversity (as a bad thing), and women in politics who aren’t Stepfordites (as a bad thing).  Liberals are antagonists in a drama produced and directed by White Supremacists. Remember Gingrich’s “tax-and-spend liberals” was of language?  Note that the Constitution constituted a government empowered to a) tax, and b) spend.

In reality, Democrats massage the interests of large corporations and the military-industrial complex as much as Republicans.  Little difference there. True, they are more likely to support Voting Rights, more likely to include and support people from a wide range of backgrounds (in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class-status); that they do this, when they do this, in order to hold power, not out of altruism, is a given. Still, it’s better than a sharp White Supremacist stick in the eye. Still, part two, “The Feckless” describes “liberals” better than “liberal.”

At the moment, the White Supremacists control all three branches of the federal government.  Among what they conserve is racism, environmental collapse, body- and sex-policing, poverty, addiction to war, torture, hatred of women, hatred of education, rampant death by guns, and hatred of empirical evidence.  I’m missing a few embodiments of evil here–including Christian hypocrisy raised to a fugue-state, thanks to the support of Trump– but you get the drift.  The Feckless enable this evil by various means. What amazes me (it shouldn’t) is the extent to which American political discourse, political self-identification, and policy rely on these this useless bifurcation of “conservative” v. “evil” and help make the country and the world more vulnerable to impulsive stupidity and a political culture dedicated to awful decisions, not to mention depravity. Dump these terms.

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The Pseudocracy Takes the “Com” Out of “Communication”

Yes, most of us will remember Marshal McLuan’s dictum, “the medium is the message,” the message of which is there is no message except the experience of the medium.  More charming even than this dictum were two examples of it in popular culture: Henry Gibson’s utterance on Laugh In, “Marshal McLuan, what’re you doin’?” and, in a Woody Allen film, Allen’s character and another character in line to see a movie, chatting about McCluan, whereupon McCluan himself appears, as himself.

Electronic media and the pseudocracy, with regard to “political communication,” have . . . . what?  Expanded, perfected, refined (?) the mode McLuan characterized.

Thus, we experience what have been called “dog whistle politics.” Politicians, political machines (literally: computers), surrogates, and consultants utter, by various means, words, phrases, sentences, and memes meant solely to induce masses of people to react, non-rationally, immediately, reflexively. “Government takeover” is such a meme. “Heartless budget,” from the Dem side, is another. All Parties and various parties may seemly evoke panic with “time is running out,” “disaster [in an upcoming election] looms.” After the whistle is blown, we dogs are, in addition to reacting, click on the link to give money, or at least to remain in a state of perpetual, unreflective, simmering rage.

Thus, the “com” in “communication” has been removed. We are not being communicated with. We are being -municated to. Sometimes the phenomenon or mass-practice takes on paradoxical, parodic form. For example, a cable crooner (the political persuasion matters not) may ask “us” (it isn’t personal; it just seems that way) to weigh in on a “poll,” using our phone, which we carry around, more or less like a dog with a toy. “Tell us what YOU think.” Right. We use the phone to communicate with the floating image on a screen. As if!

Consider the extent to which you, as a political pet of one kind or another, are kept barking, are inundated constantly with -municative noises: questions, statements, phrases, words, pictures, “memos,” memes, “messages,” loud music, etc., all operating as jolts of electricity to make your mental tendons contract like one of Frankenstein’s-Monster’s limbs, as he lies on the slab. Please know, as I assume you already do, that no one wants to hear from you. It isn’t an exchange.

“The Road Not Taken” Syndrome

You are probably familiar with Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.” If you are, and if you believe the poem implicitly encourages taking the figuratively less well-trod path in life, then you belong to a vast majority, and you are in error.

A main point of this post, however, is not to correct your error, per se, but to use the established meaning of the poem as a reference-point as we all continue to consider the pseudocracy–the reign of seeming, government by deception and willing self-deception, and media of misinformation.

Two excerpts will demonstrate what the poem actually “says”:

1:Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.

This describes the “other” road. Note that, in effect, the roads are similar in appearance and wear.

2: I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Note that the teller is speaking from the present and that he is predicting what he will say and that what he will say has no bearing on his having taken “the other” road. How could it? For in that present moment, NOTHING has resulted from his taken the road he took. In fact, the speaker is more or less admitting that whatever the consequences, if any, will be, he will say (with a sigh) what he will say. One might say, then, that the past and past choices will be what we say they will be.

However, it truly no longer matters what the words in the poem convey because the culture at large has decided what the poem means; indeed, the culture at large may not even know that the phrase “the road less traveled” alludes to the poem. The culture at large has absorbed the alleged lesson that one should take the road less traveled, even though if everyone took that advice, the less traveled road would be the most traveled one.

Similarly, in the pseudocracy, beliefs and psuedo-facts are impervious to observation and information. Thus, no matter what the Act says or what people are experiencing, “Obamacare,” to many, will be Obamacare, not the AHCA, and it will be “a government takeover,” and it will be “more expensive,” and it will be an example of socialism.

And: the Democratic Party will be the party of “the little guy.”

And: White conservative Christians will be under siege, the ultimate victims.

The Republican Party will be the party of judicious financing and small government.

The Democratic Party will be the party that protects the environment.

And: the proper foreign policy will be to make the world afraid of us, and making the world afraid of us will be a good thing.

President Obama will have been born in Kenya, and will not be a Christian.

It will be only a co-incidence that most of the U.S. Senators are White, wealthy men.

And so on.

As Yogi Berra might have said, Nobody takes the road less traveled anymore because it’s so crowded.

We shall be talking about the pseudocracy, with a sigh, ages and ages hence.

The Homosexual Agenda and Weather

The Homosexual Agenda and Weather

“Defend and Proclaim the Faith Ministries’ Founder and Pastor John McTernan has blamed Hurricane Sandy on homosexuals and President Obama, reports Gay Star News [October 29, 2012]”

I see where a pastor opined
that a big tropical storm
arose because of the homosexual
agenda, which I gather
goes as follows:

1. Call to Order
2. Approve minutes from the previous homosexual meeting.
3. Old Business: continuing to be who we are.
4. New Business: affecting the weather.
5. Adjournment.

–Hans Ostrom, 2012

Main Points, Revisited, of Orwell’s Famous Essay

In a variety of venues, my co-blogger Wild Bill and I have been pointing out the degree to which George Orwell’s famous essay, “Politics and the English Language,” has some problems and is often remembered (we argue) for the wrong reasons—namely, some points about such things as using foreign words and using the passive voice. We think it deserves to be remembered more for its major point, or premise, which is that political language, broadly defined, and other kinds of official language can harm people’s thinking, people’s capacity to analyze, and that this harm, in turn, can further make language more slippery.

We don’t imagine our critique of the weak parts of the essay will or could damage its stature, nor is that our aim. We do imagine that it is possible to line up the stature with what we think is really good and often missed about the essay.
That said, my purpose in this post is to summarize Orwell’s major points and put the minor ones in proper proportion, and I realize “major,” “minor,” and “proper proportion” are arguable.

Anyway, here goes:

Orwell’s main points, with some interpretation:

1. English is “in a bad way” because it’s been abused—sorry about the passive voice, George—by writers and speakers engaged in or affected by politics, which is by nature deceptive. (Orwell concentrates on writers, not speakers.)

2. I think what Orwell means by “the English language” is really public discourse in the form of political speeches, comments by punditry, political ads, and so on. That is, I’m not sure politics or anything but extinction can put “the English language” in its totality in a bad way. English exists and evolves, a protean phenomenon. People use it well or badly or just all right. It’s language in the public arena that’s in trouble—according to Orwell.

3. The misuses of English affect how people analyze writing and speech, how they interpret information, and how they make decision. That is, bad use of the language can lead to bad concrete effects such as terrible decisions and severely misinformed, badly duped citizens. The situation may become a spiral.

About those who use the language badly, often on purpose but sometimes just through bad habits, not malevolence:

1. Insincere people use it to deceive other people, to make bad things sound okay, and to delay doing the right thing. Orwell pins responsibility on insincerity. His version of “make bad things sound okay” is to make murder seem respectable (my paraphrase). A more current example is the description of torture as “enhanced techniques of interrogation.”
2. One main deception is to hide responsibility, according to Orwell. “Mistakes were made” is a classic example, one in which the passive voice does indeed hide “the agent,” the one who made the mistake.
3. Sometimes the misuse springs more from laziness and carelessness than it does from insincerity. You know the degree to which we all, including journalists, pundits, those who work in governmental and corporate communication, politicians, academics, and “public intellectuals” (like academics who go on TV) get careless or lazy.
What does Orwell mean by this alleged misuse/abuse of English?

Specifically, he mentions things like clichés, dead metaphors (metaphors we’ve heard and seen a million times, such as “you can’t teach a dog new tricks), ready-made phrases (like the tired, hyperbolic phrase I just used, “a million times”).

As noted, he doesn’t like the passive voice, although he uses it quite a bit in the essay.

He doesn’t like foreign words/phrases because he thinks people use them to sound important or smart, to puff themselves up by puffing up their rhetoric.

He doesn’t like euphemisms (“enhanced techniques of interrogation”).

He doesn’t like specialized words—jargon.

This last part—specific alleged abuses that Orwell doesn’t like—is where Wild Bill and I think Orwell’s case is weak. For example, writers and speakers can use the passive voice and still be clear and have sincere motives, and they can use it and still pinpoint responsibility. Also, sometimes specialized words are fine, as are foreign words. Sometimes you need a specialized word or term, such as voi dire, to be precise. Same goes for foreign words/terms, like schadenfreude. We get his larger point about puffing up rhetoric, but we think he makes too much of some examples. Sometimes even metaphors that have been around a long time work fine, such as trying to teach an old dog new tricks.

We have two more objections that are related to the point above and that we think amount to a more significant critique. Let’s put the first in the form of a rhetorical question. George, is it really the passive voice and foreign words that have made the language of politics, political advertising, political journalism, and political punditry & partisanship so awful?

A second objection: is lack of clarity or directness always the main problem? For instance, when a candidate says, “I want to create jobs,” he or she is being clear and pithy. The problem is that the statement is empty. Another problem is that when, for instance, Newt Gingrich, echoing Romney’s economic “plan,” says (I paraphrase), “Yeah, some teachers and fire-fighters are going to lose their jobs—tough break”– and roughly 50% of the citizenry metaphorically nods in agreement. Too many teaching and fire-fighting jobs—that really the big economic problem? Cuts there are really the solution?

But let’s not get hung up on the policy-stuff or on GOPers v. Dems.

The point is that Romney, Gingrich, Obama, and politicians from across the spectrum often speak/write directly and clearly and still deceive. Now, it may be that fuzzy, slippery language helped to soften up some of the citizens so that they’re less likely to say, “Hey, wait a minute—that doesn’t make sense.” We grant that Orwell may be right about that. But in the specific instance, an absence of clarity isn’t the problem.

What to do, as a writer, not to get on Orwell’s enemies-list:

Make yourself write clearly, but of course keep the rhetorical situation in mind: the purposes and audience of what you’re writing. For instance, Wild Bill may write something in a political science article that seems unclear to me but only because I’m not part of his intended audience. People in his line of work will read what I read and in no way think it’s unclear.

Work on eliminating bad habits. Be less lazy and careless as you write and especially as you revise. When you revise, be kind of tough on yourself–but not pathologically so. It’s possible to get so compulsive you can’t get your work done.

Keep in check any lurking desires to “sound” smarter or more important than you really are. If you’re using writing or speaking to deceive and you know the deception to be wrong (sometimes deception is not wrong), check yourself. Say, “All right, I’m being a bull-shitter here, it’s not right, and I’d better go back and get rid of the bullshit”

Sure, clichés, jargon, stock phrases, and euphemisms may come up in your writing and make it less clear, precise, and honest. If so, edit them out. But other types of words and phrases may cause more problems than these, so don’t treat Orwell’s examples as gospel, or a s formula. Think for yourself.

The Unintended Literature of Politics

Here is a brief quotation from a story in the San Jose Mercury News about Senator Santorum’s quitting the primary-campaign:

Bridget Nelson, a Tea Party activist who co-hosted a March 29 fundraiser for Santorum in Alamo, spoke with him Tuesday and said she’s “bummed” but will soldier on.

“I felt that for the first time in a long time, here’s a presidential candidate the conservatives can get behind who loves God first, country second,” she said. “He just said he wants to be involved still in politics and hopefully in the future possibly running again in 2016, but right now this is the best decision for him and his family.”

If this conversation were depicted as “overheard” in a novel like WAR AND PEACE, we’d be fascinated by all the ironies and nuances. Consider just the mixture of language itself:

“Tea Party,” “Alamo,” “bummed,” “soldier on,” “loves God first, country second.” The first two samples are often interpreted simplistically, but anyone who looks carefully into the Boston Tea Party and the defeat at the Alamo will ponder the unintended complexities in Ms. Nelson’s statement. Then comes “bummed,” straight out of “bum trip” or “bad acid trip,” from the 1960s. “Soldier on”: voters as PFCs. And finally, “loves God first, country second.” I don’t mean to be difficult, but shouldn’t all voters want a candidate who respects the country and more or less keeps his or her faith to himself? Aren’t a hefty number of Americans perturbed by some Muslims, who indeed love God first and country second, as their faith instructs?

If you haven’t read the first page of WAR AND PEACE in a while, you might give it a go. There’s a party going on–a high-class one–in St. Petersburg. War is about to happen. But the odd entanglements of language, egos, and petty desires–as they often do–intrude.

When/If The Lies Stop Working

When Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” he was lying–for (arguably) an honorable effect. He was deploying hyperbole rhetorically. Of course, lots of people feared other things besides fear, such as death. But Roosevelt and/or his advisers determined that some mass-reassurance was needed (I deduce), and so Roosevelt and/or speech-writers chose hyperbole and lofty phrasing to deliver the message, “This situation will be sorted out–eventually; be calm.” It is probably fair to characterize this kind of lying as appropriate because it is intentionally translucent: we see through the veil of rhetoric to a message that (whatever other faults it might have) isn’t, in spirit, dishonest.

Most political lying isn’t of this kind, however–however and obviously. Observing the GOP primary-process may provide a good opportunity to see the effects of typical lying that ceases to work. Thus:

Mitt Romney, lying about his deliberately crafted moderate past, said to CPAC, “I was . . . severely conservative.” You will probably agree that “severely” is/was ill chose and therefore a “tell.” You may agree that a better speech-writer may have found a way to phrase this so it didn’t sound like an obvious, awkward lie. At any rate, the audience didn’t seem to buy what Romney was selling; however, the long-term effect may be nil if he wins the nomination and the presidency.

We cannot know for sure, but Newt Gingrich probably lied about the “open-marriage” proposal. Gingrich himself aside, you’d have to go with the odds and guess that a cheating man would the liar in the situation. For the short term, the lie seemed to work, especially as Gingrich distracted people from it by attacking the media. But the long-term effect? –Hard to say because it’s hard to say what variables have played into Gingrich’s having sunk into the mire. A broader problem for Gingrich may be that the old 90’s, non-Rooseveltian hyperbole (Obama = “Illinois radical”) may be out of gas.

Rick Santorum lied when he claimed he didn’t confront a woman (she claimed Obama is a Muslim and is an “illegitimate president”) because she seemed physically infirm. The video shows a slightly embarrassed Santorum as he probably is deciding not to correct her because correcting her will tick off the audience, and because such beliefs about Obama work to the GOPer good. There is no evidence that this lying didn’t work for Santorum, as far as I know.

In this snap-shot, anyway, Romney’s lying seems awkward and ineffective, Gingrich’s seems tired, and Santorum’s seems just fine.

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