Poole Contra Orwell on Language and Politics

Steven Poole at Unspeak:

George Packer at the New Yorker, whose writing I admire greatly, has had it up to here with the vocabulary of the current US election campaign:

When this is all over, certain half-dead words will need to be put out of their misery with a quick bullet to the back of the head. My candidates for a mercy verbicide: pivot, tank, cave, pushback, gravitas, message, game-changer, challenges, the entire litany of Palinesque nouns, attack dog, battleground, pork-barrel, earmark, impacting, and impactful. Other words that are too important to be executed will need to undergo a long and painful rehabilitation before they can be safely used again: change, experience, straight, truth, lie, victory, character, judgment, populist, and elite.

So far, so potentially interesting. But one’s heart sinks at what follows:

It was Orwell, of course, who first explained the relation between decadent language and corrupt politics.

Of course, it wasn’t. The relation had been explained previously by John Arbuthnot, Confucius, and Cicero, among many others, as I pointed out in the Introduction to Unspeak. Packer goes on:

“In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” [Orwell] wrote in “Politics and the English Language.” “Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness.” In our time, the corruption takes a different form. Instead of defending the Soviet purges with Latinate words like “liquidate,” politicians and journalists use clichés mainly borrowed from sports, war, and rural life in order to seem to be saying something tough-minded when in fact they’re saying nothing.

Saying nothing? I beg to differ: when George W. Bush assures the American public that prisoners are being “questioned by experts”, or when Condoleezza Rice refuses calls for a ceasefire on the grounds of seeking a “sustainable ceasefire”, or when Martin Amis complains that his society is unable to “pass judgment on any ethnicity”, they are definitely saying something. The task (heroically shouldered by this blog, among others) is to figure out what exactly that something is. Packer claims to be offering a different diagnosis than Orwell’s, but really they are making the same claim: that politicians are not worth listening to.

Such nihilism is, in my view, Orwell’s most malign influence.