Book on Orwell Goes Full Kindle

Not that you asked, but the book my co-blogger and I wrote, Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” in the Age of Pseudocracy  is  available on Kindle now.

 

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A Simpler Explanation for the Use of Jargon, Buzzwords, etc.

As we know, Orwell in ‘Politics and the English Language,” came down Puritanically hard on the use of jargon, “foreign phrases” (provincial much, George?), and academic-insider diction and vocabulary.  He virtually makes such usage a moral issue.

A simpler explanation, and one that fits our age of communication-deluge, is that how we learn language and, via language, how we learn to fit into families, schools, jobs, and so on, induce us to use “the latest words.”

I’ve seen this fitting-in phenomenon in academia frequently.  New terms will spread like a flu-bug during a large or small academic conference, and people reflexively start using them, not necessarily because of their efficacy but just because they are new and moving up the popular charts,  and people do not want to be perceived as being not fully current, not being part of the group that’s using this language.

It seems as if younger academics may be more susceptible to this anxious need to keep up on new lingo, but even if this is true, it doesn’t mean academics of every stage don’t do the same thing.  That said, there also seems to come a time in most academics’ careers when an opposing reflex kicks in: generally weary, and acutely weary of academia, many academics become hostile to new things and new words, and they become increasingly likely to dismiss the latter and align themselves epistemologically with the credo, “There’s nothing new under the sun!  Therefore, leave me alone!”

But it can happen anywhere–job sites of every kind, political groups, social groups.  The right-wing servicer, Frank Luntz, developed dozens of slippery phrases, to a) lie in a most “Orwellian”way, b) heap scorn on “liberals” (a term he never had to define), and c) further fortify White-Right political identity.  Members of the group, new and old, lap up the new cream like kittens, not least of all because they like that feeling of being righteous and accepted.  Of course the same thing goes on in virtually every kind of group.  I do think it’s pretty clear that, in the U.S., the Republicans have been much better at this language-game than the flat-footed, befuddled Democrats, who haven’t exactly put effective roadblocks in the way of right-wing flim-flammers from Reagan to the current bloated, narcissistic loon, Our President, who is too lazy, and too rewarded for his laziness, to use new language.  He sticks with words like terrible, sad, tremendous, bad, and good.  Before the end of his term(s), he may just start grunting at his rallies and in his press conferences, and a large percentage of White folks will cheer each nuanced sound effect. Animal Farm, indeed.

In any event, counteracting both the keeping-up-with-the jargon mania and the curmudgeonly hostility any new words and terms can be difficult because to do so with the former requires checking the impulse to fit in immediately, and to do so with the latter means checking your own desire to stop learning.  In other words, discernment and self-discipline are crucial.

After all, in whatever specialized group one may think of, new language will arise, and much of it will be appropriate and useful–a reasonable acknowledgement (if I do say so myself) that is tough to find in Orwell’s essay.

Simple forms of such discernment come in the shape of questions: “Why am I using this new word/term, exactly?”  “Am I sure I know what it means?”  “Why are ‘they’ using this new word/term, exactly?” “Are people using this term more or less unthinkingly, out of reflex, habit, or an anxious need to fit it?”

Discernment in vocabulary and diction, in writing, speaking, and reading/consuming: a good aptitude to develop, and one distinct from Orwell’s clumsy eradication-policy vis a vis (foreign phrase!) “jargon.”

Drowning Government

One of two most famous quotations from Grover Norquist, who is not only famous for being famous (thank you, Woody Allen, who popularized Daniel Boorstin’s thinking in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America) but also powerful for being powerful, is . . .

“My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”  http://www.rightwingwatch.org/ content/americans-for-tax-reform

[This quotation competes with a variant on Mr. Norquist’s witticism: “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” http://www.npr.org/templates/ story/story.php?storyId=1123439]

If I interpret his waggery correctly, Mr. Norquist wants to murder the American government.  I’m certain that persons of a moderate political persuasion would think (do think) such a statement is extreme.  Mr. Norquist is in the news again, and being criticized, because the Super Committee is about to report and because he met with some “Patriotic Millionaires” who want to increase the tax-rate for millionaires. Apparently one of these millionaires told Norquist that if he wants to live in a country with no government and no taxes, Somalia is available. Money speaking truth to power? Hmmm.  [See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/ 11/17/patriotic-millionaires-grover-norquist-somalia_n_1098473.html]

But what I have not heard or read is a critique that suggests that either version of  Mr. Norquist’s famous quotation is unpatriotic, treasonous, or anarchically radical. If a member of one of the “Occupy” groups were to say, “I want to kill the U.S. government,” imagine how “news”-droners on Fox, NBC, CBS, and ABC would react to the quotation. But because Norquist’s language is couched in the acceptable nest that Reagan built–government is bad–Norquist is given something close to a free pass. Reagan’s operation was pretty good at creating the empty signifier into which people could pour their frustrations and thoughtless reactions; hence “big government,” which Reagan pronounced “big gubment.” Of course, Reagan rightly counted on the fact that his followers wouldn’t notice how much he swelled the Pentagon’s budget, for example. Or the country’s deficit. Imagine that! You reduce revenue by cutting taxes, and the deficit increases. Why, it’s like quitting your job but still using your credit cards. Louis in Casablanca would be “shocked.”

At any (tax) rate, it is potentially amusing to realize that an “Occupy” event intended in part to suggest that the super-wealthy should pay more taxes is portrayed as radical or disruptive while the expressed desire to kill the American government is portrayed as “conservative.” So it goes in the pseudocracy.

For similar “wit” from Mr. Norquist, cringe at http://thinkexist.com/ quotes/grover_norquist/.  Mr. Norquist personifies the sort of bombast that has become acceptable to some citizens and some media.  Indeed, Mr. Norquist passes for a pundit in some circles.

 

 

A Modest Proposal for Evaluating Presidential Candidates

No, this isn’t the sort of modest proposal Jonathan Swift wrote–a savagely satirical one. It really is modest:

Anyone who formally announces that she or he is running for the office of the U.S. presidency should be invited–and strongly induced by public, non-partisan pressure–to take an examination. No, I’m not suggesting that they should have their heads examined (in the old-fashioned parlance), although that couldn’t hurt the interests of the public, either.

I’m suggesting an examination on American history, the American Constitution, basic economics, and current world affairs. Maybe an examination of two hours, one hour one day, one the next. No trick-questions. The examination would have to be proctored because you just know some of them would try to cheat. It is their profession, after all–cheating, I mean.

We’d certainly find out how much they knew. We might also be able to deal a small blow to the pseudocracy by having the capacity–later, in debates, etc.–to tether their rhetoric to facts from the examination. For instance, a new Luntzism is “job creators,” a term used by Boehner and other GOPers to describe extremely rich people, whom President Obama would like to tax. Listening to some people who know something about economics, I’ve learned that working-class and middle-class consumers actually create most of the jobs by, well, consuming: buying goods and services. I know this sounds like common sense, but it also seems to reflect economic fact; and, of course, Luntzisms are designed to distract citizens from their common sense and from the facts.

Anyway, if candidate X argued in a debate that taxing the very rich would damage “job creators,” someone could point out that “in your correct answer–and by the way, congratulations!–on the test, you pointed out that ordinary consumers drove the economy. What’s up with that, Bucko, I mean, Governor Bucko?”

Moreover, if presidential candidates are anything like academics, and they are, they will not have read the Constitution, just as academics rarely read the Codes and By Laws that govern their employment. Neither group can be bothered with such trivial drudgery.

And let’s recall that you have to take tests in order to get a driver’s license (which you then have to show to someone in order to vote, especially if you are Black and live in the South), but you don’t have to take an exam in order to run for president. Good policy? You be the judge (he suggested, modestly).

Another Bad Analogy: Social Security = Ponzi Scheme

Wild Bill has this to say (to write, actually):

I had assumed that, when Ann Coulter(geist) asserted that “Social Security is a governmental Ponzi scheme,” that such an assertion would resound only among the unschooled and the feverish. Now that Gov. Perry has taken to repeating the claim, I guess I should direct you where to read up on it “economically.”

Please read the contributions at

to see how deficient Coultergeist’s proposition was.

However, take cautions.

First, Coulter and Perry have repeated a talking point. Talking points resemble Pavlovian cues more than civic propositions. They are not true. They are not false. They neither enlighten nor clarify. They are shibboleths — expressions that mobilize “us” and demonize “them.” It follows that to engage the talking point is to succumb to misdirection and to mistake eristic disputation for rational discourse. [I am of course sorry to inform you that Ann Coulter is neither engaged nor interested in rational discourse.]

Second, Coulter and Perry have spoken/written in metaphoric language. They thus may retreat into similes or similar defenses. “Social Security much resembles a scam” or “There are many elements of Social Security that are common in or to Ponzi schemes” are merely two of the retreats available to them.

Third, please do not imagine that, if Social Security were a Ponzi scheme or nearly a Ponzi scheme, Coulter’s or Perry’s contention would necessarily have relevance or consequences. If retirees were long ago taken in by a Ponzi scheme, they would have been victims of con men in high places. The misplaced reliance of our elderly on schemers would NOT justify cutting or eliminating Social Security benefits.

An appropriate reply to “Social Security is a Ponzi scheme” would be “You may want to study up on Ponzi schemes so that you can learn why Social Security is different from Ponzi schemes and why likeness to Ponzi schemes has few or no implications for policy.”

Inured to Wild Political Rhetoric

To become inured is to become accustomed–but accustomed to something undesirable, as several online dictionaries point out.

Thesis: It is probable that we (we Americans, we modern folk) have become inured to wilder and wilder rhetoric. Thesis 2: At the moment, the rhetoric of many Republicans seems much wilder than that of most Democrats, although I acknowledge that, for example, some Democrats/progressives toss around the other f-word, fascist, imprecisely.

Regarding thesis 2: Rick Perry suggested that Ben Bernanke may be a traitor for allowing the “Fed” to print money. Numerous current and former elected GOPers and their mouthpieces have suggested that President Obama doesn’t like America, isn’t a native of the U.S., is a socialist, is a Muslim, and so on. Of course, embedded in the charge that he is a Muslim is the assumption that to be a Muslim is a bad thing, not just that Obama lies when he asserts that his religious beliefs are Christian. The same goes for “socialist,” which must be a) bad and b) go undefined.

Of course, plenty of Democrats have used wild rhetoric in the past, but I believe a disinterested examination of the current rhetorical climate would show that Democrats tend to rely on less wild, more typical political rheto-trickery: not answering questions directly, using euphemisms (President Obama referred to “modifications” of “entitlements,” the former word being a euphemism, the latter–arguably–simply inaccurate), and so on.

In order to disagree with political opponents and their policies, or to try to prevail in elections or debates, the current GOP appears to get wilder and wilder in their rhetoric, so that the opponent “must” be un-American, not from here, abnormal, anti-American, traitorous, or evil.

So what? A fair question. One may simply stop taking this or that GOPer seriously, or “consider source,” or write off the rhetoric as “politics as usual.” But when what used to be the unusual–wild attacks–becomes the usual, we become inured, and perhaps we learn not miss more reasonable if not entirely untainted public and political discourse. We take hateful propaganda for granted, think of it as normative.

Another way of phrasing “So what?” is to ask, “What is or will be the cost of becoming inured?” Answer: I don’t know. But there must be some cost, and it may be more than simply considerable. I long for a day when a moderate Republican speaks out against prominent members of his or her own Party for their use of wild rhetoric. I recall when George Bush I criticized the head of the American Rifle Association for characterizing federal officials as “jack-booted” thugs, although “thugs” is probably a paraphrase. (Bush also withdrew his membership of the organization.) I thought at the time that it was a “stand-up” moment, and I suspected that part of Bush’s impulse was generational: he’d fought in a war against a nation truly “governed” by jack-booted thugs, so he may have taken the wild rhetoric personally.

Of course, it’s important for Democrats to criticize their own, too–for someone to say or to write that the use of a term like “modifications” is slippery, for example. However: slippery isn’t wild and hateful.

Michelle Bachmann professes to want to “take our country back.” She means take it back from President Obama, I assume, not take it back to some atavistic time. I rather wish some moderate Republicans would help to set a new rhetorical course for the Party, to take the Party back to more or less reasonable discourse. But how many moderate Republicans with some measure of power remain? This is not a rhetorical question.

Budget-Talks Yield Weary Metaphors

From the Fox News site I have learned that “White House Summit Fails To Yield Deal As Shutdown Approaches.”

What is the summit of the White House? How does a summit yield a deal or anything else? Is a shut-down approaching, or are “our” representatives approaching a shutdown?

I also learned the meeting (“summit”) was one with “high stakes” and that people spoke of “hammering out” a “deal.” Someone also said that “we’ve narrowed the issues considerably.” Maybe the issues are only one inch across now.

They are exploring “how deep[ly] to cut” and “what to ax” and whether to pass a stop-gap budget, presumably one that stops a gap full of narrow issues on a summit with an ax (or a scalpel) and a hammer and high stakes.

I learned that “meanwhile, the day-to-day functions of the government . . . were hanging in the balance.” I don’t know what that means, functions hanging in the balance. Good grief.

I learned that “lawmakers appeared to be caught in a political perfect storm.” What a horrid metaphor, for it makes it seem as if natural forces beyond the lawmakers’ control had visited the lawmakers all at once, when in fact most of the lawmakers are more predisposed to bicker, to stall, to play zero-sum games, to pose, to speak to empty chambers, etc., than they are to pass a budget in a timely, thoughtful, mature way.

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