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.

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.)

Disappointing, to Say the Least

I’ve been posting furious denunciations of Lieberman at TPM & reading the bland responses at 538 in disbelief, where the consensus is that the DFHs really need to just get over Lieberman & move on (doncha know), but I won’t go nuts here on my own weblog. I’ll just say that: 1) I feel dissed by the Democratic Party, including Barack Obama, just after spending a lot of time & money getting Obama elected; and 2) if this really is a window into Obama’s soul, then I don’t expect much in the way of progressive politics from the incoming administration. Centrism is corporatism is conservatism. I thought that’s what the country just rejected, but, hey, I’m just a dirty fucking hippie (DFH) out here in the netroots — useful to the party leadership at election time, but kind of embarrassing, doncha know? Anyway, via 3Quarks, here is the most useful thing I’ve seen on the subject, from Simon Critchley at Adbusters. [Rachel Maddow video via Pas Au-dela.]


Note: I began this post several days ago, but I haven’t felt much like writing. Partly this is mid-semester slump, partly that I have been busy with other things, about which I’ll have something to say anon.

It does feel different, doesn’t it, the country having elected Barack Obama president? For one thing, it appears to have driven the far right completely around the bend & that cannot be a bad thing. And though I am no kind oc constitutional literalist, it feels good to have a former Con Law prof as president-elect; after eight years of an extra-constitutional unitary executive, I was particularly happy to see this orgganization chart. And listening the the president-elect’s first news conference, I was struck by the tone of thoughtful intelligence and, yes, the use of complete sentences that followed sensibly from one to the next. The use of language marks a political divide in the modern US, as it probably always has, of course. High tone versus low down.

In fact, I heard the NY Times reporter David Kirkpatrick make an argument about the current state of the Republican party the other day on NPR that made the distinction between the “high” Republicanism of David Brooks and George Will and the “low” Republicanism of Sarah Palin & Rush Limbaugh. It is a division revealed by language and may be more important at the moment, according to Kirkpatrick, than the more usual divisons between fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, and imperialist neoconservative foreign policy hawks. Less remarked upon is a similar division on the left, between inside-the-beltway establishment liberals and the progressive grassroots, which has been newly energized by Barack Obama’s campaign. The blogger Digby at Hullabaloo, refers to these two camps as Villagers (the establishment) and DFHs (dirty fucking hippies). And one of the main things that marks these different groups is their use of language, which in turn reflects their different attitudes toward the intellect.

It does seem if Republicans are retreating toward their most radical core beliefs & adopting the attitudes of “low” conservatism & the rhetoric of small town bigotry, but that sort of politics seems to be losing its purchase in many places. Levittown voted for Obama. Michael Sokolove, author of the previously linked article, writes:

My article in The New York Times Magazine reported that his [Obama’s] words were coming across as lofty and abstract to people more attuned to concrete concerns like the hourly wage and the monthly car payment. The article was published on the morning before Mr. Obama made his one big gaffe of the campaign, telling attendees at a San Francisco fund-raiser that some blue-collar voters have been so beaten down that “it’s not surprising that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion….”

Sokolove concludes that a combination of race & “his manner of speaking” made it difficult for the blue coller workers of Levittown, initially, to trust Obama’s message; ultimately, they voted for him, along with similar workers in suburban Detroit and other places. On the other hand, his race & manner of speaking cut no ice with the voters of the rural south and Appalachia, where race continues to dominate. In Macomb County Michigan & Levittown, on the other hand, the fading of racism allowed Obama’s message, ultimately, to cut through the class markers embedded in language.

Those linguistic class markers interest me as a poet. It appears that particular uses of language, at least on the political right, distinguish “high” from “low” modalities. (This may also be true on the left but the cases are not parallel.) Sarah Palin’s soccer mom dialect delighted her fans partly because they heard their own voices in it, while the mandarins of conservatism found her repulsive. We on the left laughed at her because we associate mangled syntax with stupidity. Palin’s truly pyrotechnic dismantling of syntax seems to me to be a desperate & only partly conscious effort to mask her ignorance — what high school & college students knowingly call bullshitting (as a term of art) when they write papers on books they haven’t read. All of this gets amped up & fed back by audiences celebrating their own ignorance & taking comfort from the spectacle of Palin celebrating hers. So the demotic is in bad repute at the moment, having been turned to destructive purposes. What seems so horribly wrong about Palin’s speech is that it borrows the strngth of demotic English, not to express thought forcefully — as ordinary, even “ungrammatical” English can do — but to cover for dishonesty and moral aridity.

Demotic language — comedy, pop music, even advertising — can, used honestly, drive toward the truth; they can of course also be used to to deceive, cajole, flatter, & pander. My sense of president-elect Obama is that he understands this, though he strikes me as being a little uncomfortable with the demotic. But I feel a real sense of satisfaction that I now have a president who speaks, not in Bushian bursts of static or Palinesque knots of blather, but in recognizable sentences that link togehter into coherent thoughts. In order to lie to the public, Bush & Palin had to lie first to themselves. I don’t think the president-elect is lying to himself & consequently I don’t think he will lie to me.


Carole & I voted this morning before 8:00 at our rural Community Center. I think there are fewer than 300 voters in our voting district and I was number 64. I think turnout is going to be huge, especially among Democrats. People were in a very good mood this morning at the polling place & I think most of them were Obama voters. I think a lot of nominal Republicans are just going to stay home today.

Anyway, I was just fantasizing the beginning of a John McCain concession speech: “My friends, we ran a sleazy campaign of lies and character assassination and it blew up in our faces. . .” Right, that’s likely.

Update: Here is a link to photos Carole took of our polling place.