Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Politics and Language

At the beginning of my teaching career, I taught George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" every semester. It had been an iconic essay for a long time by then, and it may well have been at the peak of its popularity among teachers of writing. It is still well known, of course, but I don't know how widely it's used now. I haven't read it in years, but if memory serves, one of Orwell's main theses is that politicians and bureaucrats degrade language so that they may cover up mistakes, wrongdoing, corrupt motives, and/or evil, that consumers of such language (not just readers but listeners and now viewers) swallow the deceptive language and maybe regurgitate it themselves, and that a cycle of language-degradation ensues.

It's both amusing and depressing to examine political language through the Orwell lens from time to time, especially if you're a poet or otherwise work closely with words. Or if you just get sick of politicians.

For example, if John McCain were truly on the "Straight Talk Express," wouldn't he use straight talk and refer to the vehicle as a "bus"? Only someone on the Crooked Talk Express would refer to the bus as the Straight Talk Express, according to Orwell's thinking.

Every candidate invokes "the American people." Which ones? It's ludicrous to speak of the American people as a single unit.

"Sanctity of life." This seems to be uttered most often by people who favor capital punishment and oppose abortion, so it seems to refer to sanctity of the life of my choice (I choose an unborn baby over a murderer), but I thought they were against choice? I wish Huckabee or someone like him would come out against capital punishment because I would enjoy the reactions to such consistency.

The Dems seem to prefer "progressive" to "liberal" now. I guess 20 years of getting beaten over the head with "liberal" by Newt Gangrene will do that. But what does "progressive" mean? Aren't we all moving forward (chronologically) whether we like it or not? One of them should claim to be a "freeze-frame" Democrat, just for grins. Ron Paul seems to be "regressive" (no offense intended), in the sense that he wants to go back to the gold standard and such. I love the way his competitors just shake their heads when he speaks instead of taking on his arguments. They're so condescending. I have no idea if he's right or wrong most of the issues, but how can he be wrong when he says we can't afford to go to war? The ledger seems to prove him right. I just wish they'd argue with him straight up. He's no more loony than the others.

"Health care." This is Orwellian. Don't we want doctors to care for our illnesses, or for us as we have illnesses? When I'm healthy, I don't need care that much--how about you? "Managed care" is even worse. When I was growing up, we visited a general practitioner in a town 70 miles away. You sat in his office until it was your turn to see him. He greeted everybody pleasantly and took on whatever affliction arrived that day. His nurse "managed" the office by telling people when they could go in. That non-managed care seemed to work better than the labyrinths we enter now, but I hasten to add that the advances in medicine have been astonishing, so we must give scientists, docs, and especially those savvy nurses their due. But anyway, I liked "going to the doctor" as opposed to "seeking health care." The former is so concrete.

"Surge." Please. Classic Orwell. Just say "more soldiers and more tours for current soldiers." "Surge" makes it sound all dramatic and wave-like, and it assumes success. More troops means more troops will get killed. During the Viet Nam War, "escalation" was one similar buzzword. "Cut and run." A hideous phrase. It refers, I believe, to men and women in battle who retreat in a hurry, chiefly because they have deduced the battle is hopeless. Sounds like good sense to me. It sounded that way to Lincoln, too. He had to sign every execution-order for deserters, and he confessed that, for him, the most difficult cases (some of whom he didn't have killed, which is less Orwellian that "execute") were what he called "the leg men": men who ran away from slaughter. Lincoln assumed he might do the same thing. "Cut and run" seems to be used most often by people who haven't served in the military. In fact, I don't know that I've heard McCain use the phrase, even though he supported sending more troops--and he does sink to using Bush's word, "Surge." I would never presume to use the phrase except to quote it because I've never been in battle.

"Compassionate conservative." As opposed to the mainstream conservatives, who are--one infers--cruel? If you have to add that adjective, then there's trouble to begin with. Same goes for Dems who use "fiscal conservative." One would hope (and be insane to do so) that all of Congress would be fiscally conservative, just like everyone on a budget in the U.S. But of course, no one in Congress is a fiscal conservative (even Ron Paul) because the system absolutely depends on getting money for one's district--fast, because the term is only two years. It really is an insane system. Every other term for every congressperson should be declared a "pork-free" term when s/he is prevented from advocating for pork. If s/he's not re-elected to that term, the new person has to be pork free for her/his first term; no one escapes the pork-free two years. By the way, how did the poor pigs get associated with this practice? They work hard for living, snorting mud and eating all manner of slop--cheerfully! (They sound like us citizens.) Again, if you have to use the adjective "fiscal," you're suspect.

The "war on the middle class." Lou Dobbs likes this as much as he hates what he calls "illegal aliens," which I assume are beings from outer space whose saucers fly across the Mexican or Canadian borders and break the saucer speed-limit. Yes, I know it's hard being middle-class, raising a family, paying rent or a mortgage, and so on. But, by definition, it's even harder to be working class or in poverty. So it's really a war on the poor, a fierce skirmish with the middle class, and a dinner-date with the ruling class, which really does rule, when you think about. Bullshit talks and money walks, as they say.

A tip of the cap, then, to John Edwards, even though he doesn't have a prayer and is as much a politician as the next person. At least he's clear-eyed enough to see that, of course, those who are poor and those who are underpaid are the ones in real trouble, and he argues that the government needs to help them first and most. This seems incontrovertible. What exactly he would do to get them help, I'm not sure, but his plan for paying for "health care" seems in danger of adding up. But he's not getting near the White House, unless someone appoints him to the cabinet.

What about Huckabee and his assertion that we need to adjust the Constitution to God's view? That presumes we can know for sure what God's view is, so I'm wary of that. I mean, I know we have lots of religious texts, but nonetheless, it's humans interpreting the texts. And which texts are we supposed to use? Only the Bible? Only the New Testament? Or a wide array of revealed texts?

Also, if we agree with Huck, why not just can the Constitution (Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes have all taken a shot at it--Clinton, too, I guess) and use the Bible? Thomas Jefferson must be rolling over underneath his slave-dependent plantation; wasn't he terrified of linking government with any religion too strongly? But give Huckabee credit. He was apparently saying what he meant. He wasn't on the Eric Blair Express. Or was he?

"Trickle-down" economics. There's a blast from the past. Believe it or not, people accepted the phrase as describing a good thing! Right--so if I'm a working stiff in Reagan's America, I can count on drops of wealth trickling on me, like dirty water from a plumbing leak in the ceiling? Gee, that sounds great! People bought it. I'm afraid Orwell was right.
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