Debasing the Language

Writing in 1946 George Orwell of Animal Farm and 1984 fame, said, “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.”

Orwell’s world, distant as it seems today, was filled with worry about Stalinist Russia, the dying British Empire and the dawn of the nuclear age. Talking or writing politically about such things required, Orwell lamented, a studied ability to say something deceptive that only hinted at the real issues. Facts were incidental. Emotion and deception were then, and sadly still are, the currency of political language.

“ Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness,” Orwell wrote. “Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.”

Orwell’s concerns about the misuse of language were obviously relevant to the post-World War II period, but were he still with us he would notice the debasing of political language everywhere in the 21st Century. A few, but only a few, examples:

An Idaho State Senator, with shocking historical ignorance, but with maximum rhetorical impact, compares the Holocaust to the response of insurance companies under the Affordable Care Act – Obamacare. This kind of historically inaccurate comparison is in keeping with a growing trend of his opponents comparing the American president to the Austrian corporal. (And if you don’t get that reference, you really shouldn’t even try historical analogies.)

The apparently business savvy CEO of gourmet grocer Whole Foods compares the Obama’s Administration’s traditionally liberal approach to health care (which until 2009 was supported by many Republicans) as some how being like “fascism.” 

A recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Benghazi consulate tragedy brought analogies to the 9-11 attacks and some conservative commentators have actually said that Benghazi was a more serious example of government corruption than Watergate, a lawless series of events that forced the only resignation of a president in American history. The mouthpieces of the National Rifle Association simplify and distort the debate about mandatory background checks and bans on assault rifles by declaring that Obama is “coming for your guns.”

These random examples of political overstatement, untruths and, as Orwell might say, “question-begging” help explain why American politics has too often become a fact free zone. Outrageous argument (and incendiary words) have replaced facts as the currency of political discourse. We have come to treat Orwellian political language as a club to bash an opponent who usually merely differs with us on policy. At the same time we increasingly embrace the kind of faulty history that equates the Holocaust, the unspeakable crime of the 20th Century that targeted for murder every European Jew, with a domestic policy dispute – health care – that in fact has been a widely debated feature of American politics for at least one hundred years. Facts and real argument disappear in the fog of outlandish rhetoric.

When the Benghazi attack that tragically took the lives of four brave Americans, and the subsequent response to that attack, are equated to Watergate, it’s important to remember, as Paul Waldman wrote recently in the American Prospect, that the Nixon Administration engaged in a massive cover-up of the Watergate break-in that ultimately sent a number of very senior officials to jail.

“(J. Gordon) Liddy [for example] was convicted of conspiracy, burglary, and illegal wiretapping; today he is a popular conservative radio host,” Waldman writes. “Among those who ended up going to prison for their crimes in the Watergate scandal were the attorney general, the White House chief of staff, and the president’s chief domestic policy adviser. The scandal was so damning that facing impeachment and almost certain conviction, the president of the United States resigned.”

Reckless invocation of the Holocaust and the greatest political scandal in modern American history in order to highlight political or policy differences doesn’t just point out the historical ignorance of those who make such connections, but it also cheapens legitimate debate about important issues. George Orwell said it well: “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Words to remember almost any time you hear a politician make an historical connection when they should be trying to argue the merits of their position.

 

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