A Few Thoughts on Political Language

I thought it would be good, on the morning before the inauguration of a new president -- especially one known for his oratory --  to reread George Orwell's famous essay, "Politics and the English Language."  When I first went into the classroom thirty years ago, I used to teach this essay; in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam war, a polemic against political & academic euphemism made sense. Like many at the time, I was appalled by the ease with which the American military & its supporting cast of politicians used language to obscure the plain truth of the war. Eliot Fremont-Smith, reviewing Mary McCarthy's Vietnam in the New York Times in 1967, wrote:

She ... visited American-built villages for Vietnamese "refugees" -- one of the euphemisms she is most caustic about. She notes that the Iron Triangle "refugees," for notorious example, "were moved by U.S. troops, who were systematically setting fire to their houses" during Operation Cedar Falls ("Clear and Destroy"). The use of euphemism (e.g., "Incinderjell" for napalm, "which makes it sound like Jello") has resulted, she believes, in American spokesmen in Vietnam not really understanding, or feeling in any moral sense, the horror of this war -- much less the impression they may give to those who do not share their satisfaction or optimism.

It didn't take long, though, before I soured on Orwell's proscriptions & exhortations. It's not so much that Orwell is wrong, as that his understanding of political language is superficial. He believes that by employing Anglo-Saxon roots & simplifying our language we can avoid political obfuscation. Orwell's essay is really a denunciation of "political language" as a mode. Orwell writes: "Political language--and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists--is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." How about this, then?

I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our people impel. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.

Like Orwell, I'm pretty skeptical about the political language of my time, which is often corrupt & illegitimate. I pay attention to language, and while I do not wholly subscribe to Orwell's definition of corruption in "Politics and the English Language," I accept his larger point, which is that the misuse of language reflects the -- witting or unwitting -- failure to think clearly. There is also the problem that Orwell's followers mistake what my students would now call "bad grammar" -- most often simply class-based variations in dialect & usage -- for corruption, largely ignoring the more profound evils of rhetorical misdirection and moral prestidigitation. I think the main problem is that Orwell offers a false distinction in his first paragraph, between language as natural phenomenon & language as instrument or tool. There is no reason to assume that it cannot be both. He then goes on to offer an equally false distinction between political language & some other kind of language that does not, presumably, partake of politics. But all language is social & thus political. I too distrust the political use of language, but, again, Orwell's analysis is too narrow: he is concerned only with what he calls "wind." His examples, though, only exhibit the clotted & knotted, not the high-flown & eloquent. We would do well to be suspicious, too, of eloquence. At this particular moment in US history, we are leaving behind an era in which "the leader of the free world" -- one of those kinds of phrases Orwell rightly admonishes us to excise from our thought, speech, and writing -- made a political asset of barely being able to speak a coherent sentence, to an era in which one of the new president's greatest political assets is eloquence. Bush spoke in little verbal squirts; Obama, at least on occasion, speaks in arias. Aesthetically, the aria is preferable, but it presents a symmetrical sort of political danger. Now, having said that, Obama usually limits his use of eloquence to occasiona wehre formal oratory is appropriate & I don't have a problem with that. When Obama answers questions or speaks informally, his speech is full of the sort of thoughtful hesitations that suggest real thought beneath the verbal surface. Interestingly, Bush's anti-rhetoric served him as well as Obama's command of rhetoric has served him. Plain style can be as dishonest as high style, Bush proves. And perhaps Obama will prove that high style can be honest. So, I'm on guard. And I am deeply suspicious of the new administration's supposed "post-partisanship." I think it likely that post-partisans are likely to get their political asses handed to them in short order (& perhaps that would be a good thing), but I'm taking a wait & see attitude. Who knows? Maybe the new president's courting of John McCain & Rick Warren is some kind of higher political jujitsu that is simply beyond my cynical ability to understand. I think that post-partisanship, as it's being practiced b y the incoming administration, is closely related to it faith in eloquence -- or perhaps post-partisanship is an example of being carried away by one's own eloquent rhetoric. As the new administration comes in, I will be watching in particular the sort of language they use to describe torture & the sort of language they use to discuss the social safety net. These are areas where euphemism & loaded terminology have predominated in recent decades. I am hopeful that the language in which the new administration frames these discussions will be clear, honest, & persuasive. Persuasive language in pursuit of what is right, as FDR demonstrated, need not be dismissed as "wind." We should not be so cynical that we dismiss the truth simply because it is delivered with rhetorical force. Later: An interesting piece by Michiko Kakutani in the Times about Barack Obama's reading habits & they way they have shaped his outlook. It is a great comfort, I must say, to have an intllectual (someone who does not swallow ideas whole but teases them apart) in a position of power.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

1 thought on “A Few Thoughts on Political Language”

  1. when i was teaching (as a graduate teaching fellow and part-time lecturer) classes in u.s. state and local government and in federal government in the two semesters of 1959 at north texas state college (as it was then known) in denton, texas i included a poem by lawrence ferlinghetti (that had the year or so before and read by everyone interested in justice, freedom, safety, and ethical values) as part of the courses. it was about the then president eisenhower and a dinner to impeach him.

    how far we have come when since then when our leaders have reached such criminal levels that the memory of eisenhower is equated as benign as that of president carter (that is, in comparison with the horrors that have followed).

    poetry then was truth and was dangerous because it was not then the lie in language, not then the self-referential evasion, not the safe retreat that it has become.

    edward mycue

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