Talking Points Memo Swirls Down the Drain…

by hiring Karl Rove sock puppet Matt Cooper. [See this thread & also this one, in which Josh Marshall reproves yours truly for raising issues that are not mentioned in polite progressive company, apparently.] I guess now that the Obama administration has taken over Josh Marshall aspires to be a player. Sad, really.

Update: How lame is this? Two tweets. Matt Cooper, master of new media! The larger question being, why the hell would we care where Cooper was & what he was doing?

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.

Dogs & Justice

Fred Clark points to interesting research that shows that a dog has a basic sense of fairness, at least when they are the ones being treated unfairly. If you have two dogs who know how to “shake” and you put them side by side, then ask them to shake, but reward only one with a treat, the one who doesn’t get rewarded will fairly quickly lose interest in cooperating with you. Clark also points out that the press reports of the research make a common error, confusing justice with envy, then makes an analogy to human justice:

The researchers might have conducted a parallel study while carrying out this research. They could have hired two graduate assistants, telling each of them that they would be paid $100 at the end of each day’s research. And then, at the end of each day, they could have paid the first assistant, but not the second — not the underdog. My theory is that the underdog would quickly become “less and less inclined” to continue showing up for work.

In the case of these hypothetical assistants, of course, no one would mischaracterize the unpaid underdog’s response as “envious.” She might be angry, but she’d be refusing to cooperate not because she’s jealous of the other assistant, but because she is the victim of an injustice — because the situation is clearly unfair. Her response is not motivated by envy but by a sense of justice.

The Times and National Geographic reports on the actual study do not allow for the possibility that a similar motive is at work in the dog’s response. They don’t seem to recognize the significant and crucial distinction between “angry at unfair treatment” and “envious.” National Geographic stumbles toward a clarification, conceding that “this kind of envy” is “really an aversion to unequal reward,” but then their article goes right back to using the word envy as though these two things were reliably interchangeable.

This particular confusion is, sadly, quite popular. We hear exactly this same bit of madness almost constantly from apologists for irresponsible wealth. Express any concern about inequality or about the plight of those who have less than the minimum amount they need to get by and they will say you are guilty of “the politics of envy.” Try to explain the distinction and they will, in turn, explain that they understand what you’re saying, they simply reject it. “Justice,” they will insist, is simply a polite euphemism for disguised envy. The virtue is just a mask for the vice.

It’s not surprising that they would argue such a thing. Of course they don’t believe there’s any such thing as justice in this life or any other. That’s what they’re banking on. Envy they accept as real. Justice they regard as mere superstition.