Hiding the Truth

I’ve been generally pleased with the progressive policies advanced by the Obama administration, but this really pushes my buttons. I said just before and then again just after the election that the birght line standard by which I would judge Obama consisted of his actions regarding torture and wiretapping. Everything the administration has said and done indicates that they will not abuse their power in the blatent manner of the previous administration, but they are also preserving the legal structures that would allow them to do so if they chose. The Obama administration also has settled on the formula that if it happend before we got here we don’t want to look at it. I think there is a little more moral wiggle room on this one, but not much. There are short term political reasons for not going after the Bush violations of law and fundamental American valuse, but in the long run this moral rot will emerge. And since the legal structures will still be in place, the moral rot will be defended and protected as a way of defending and protecting executive power.

Why Study the Humanities?

There’s a piece in the NY Times this morning about the crisis in the Humanities. Why study the Humanities? Because, without a nuanced access to your own language and history, you wind up talking like George W. Bush and Bobby Jindal. And when you have only limited access to your own language and history, you make bad policy decisions, like George W. Bush and Bobby Jindal. You become proudly inhumane. You will believe nonsense. Will the Humanities guarantee humane citizens and leaders? Of course not. There are plenty of examples of cultured monsters, which you would know if you studied the Humanities. What the Humanities do is give one an opportunity to stand apart from the monsters of history, to understand and even oppose them. The Humanities give us a chance.

Note: Here is a link to the speech Andrew refers to in his comment.

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.


The recognition that the Bush administration, especially Cheney and Rumsfeld, authorized and directed the torture of prisoners is now taken for granted by Newsweek. What’s that say about the state of the nation? In the linked article, it wasn’t so much the information — which has been widely known for a long time — but the tone that struck me. I don’t think they should hang, but not because they don’t deserve it — because we’d be better off being merciful. Of course, we’ll be lucky, as a country, if we get a public apology. More likely, Bush will give everyone, including himself,  a pardon & we’ll be told that it’s better for the nation of we just let bygones be bygones.

What I Care about Politically

Okay, I have a couple of non-political posts in the hopper, but I want to get this down in pixils before returning to regularly scheduled programming. So, here’s what I care about at the present political moment:

  1. Real health care reform that does not simply reorganize the current domination of insurance and pharmaceutical companies. I would prefer a national single payer plan, but I am open to innovation.
  2. An economic stimulus plan that pushes investment in infrastructure, education, and and green energy.
  3. A complete and unambiguous repudiation of extraordinary rendition, torture, and the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens.
  4. A complete & final withdrawal from Iraq & no escalation in Afghanistan.

Number three will be a bright line indicator for me of the Obama administration’s moral seriousness. There are also several things I don’t give a hoot about:

  1. Hillary as Secretary of State — might create something of a circus atmosphere, but if Obama wants her I don’t have any objections.
  2. Same goes for bringing in seasoned professionals from the Clinton administration. I seem to recall that, long ago, in what seems like a fairy tale, president Clinton presided over eight years of peace and prosperity despite the frothing radical right’s attempts to destroy him.
  3. Prosecuting Bush / Cheney for war crimes. Some on the left are disappointed that this appears unlikely & yes the invasion of Iraq was a crime, but a prosecution wasn’t / isn’t ever going to happen in any case & would consume all of Obama’s political capital if it did. That’s just not the way the system works & I’m not going to spend too much time regretting this. History, as Bush himself has said hopefully, will judge. (I think his hope is misplaced & that he will be judged harshly.)