The Perversion of Language; or, Orwell Revisited

One of George Orwell's most famous and frequently republished articles, "Politics and the English Language," originally appeared in 1946. It deals mainly with the use of clichés and obscurantism in the writing of our language, quoting (with embarrassing effect) some of the great literary names of the day. Orwell even conceded towards the end of the piece that he probably was guilty of some of the same abuses. His major concern, however, was not merely with literary niceties but with the moral consequences of linguistic obfuscation.

He put the point thus: "The decline of language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer." He was particularly irritated with the way political words were used "in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition." Far too many political articles, he wrote, consisted "largely of euphemisms, question begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness." Such usages were "deliberately intended to deceive."

Well, here we are more than six decades later, and how much worse the situation has become, particularly in the American press. In recent times, I have begun to make a list of political terms in common usage that are, in fact, private definitions, as Orwell calls them. Perhaps many readers of this journal could add to it. Here are just a few.

Precision in language is an expression of accuracy in thought--or, as Orwell put it, "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts."

"Activist." This word did not even exist in the American media stylebook until sometime in the late 1960s. Before then, people were described as butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers--folks engaged in real jobs doing real things. Now, however, the press respectfully treats political agitation as a profession in itself, or at least is never indiscreet enough to ask the leftists they glowingly profile what they do at their day jobs. (Maybe, thanks to the generosity of George Soros and the Ford, Rockefeller, and MacArthur Foundations, they no longer need one. Their cause is their job.) One example is Mrs. Cynthia Sheehan, who in the old days would simply have been described as an angry housewife (or perhaps, more generously, as a grieving mother seeking attention and celebrity). Now, however, she is an "anti-war activist." Contrast that with the recent disrespectful treatment of grass-roots demonstrators against President Obama's health-care proposals, particularly the artful use of quotations around the word "grassroots," intended to convey the notion that such people are "Astroturf"--phonies.

"Civil-rights leader." A half-century ago, when many states in this country denied black people the right to vote or sit where they wished on buses or dine in restaurants of their choice, this term had some real meaning. People risked their lives and well-being to challenge laws that were unfair. However, since the passage of so much legislation in the last 50 years--not just the Civil Rights Act but also the Voting Rights Act--as well as the various forms of "affirmative action" and court-ordered reapportionments of congressional districts to ensure maximum black representation, it is difficult to see what possible dictionary definition "civil-rights leader" could have except "black agitator," "shakedown artist," or "poverty pimp." Martin Luther King Jr. was a civil rights leader; Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson--to take just two of many tawdry examples--are merely cruel caricatures of the same. Too bad the media can't see the difference.

"Diversity." This used to be a conservative word. Well do I remember reading a tart observation by the English novelist Evelyn Waugh that "instead of the Liberty, Equality and Fraternity of America, Europe offers its artists Liberty, Diversity, and Privacy." A lot has changed in Europe since then, and "diversity" nowadays means just the opposite of what it was originally intended to mean: artificially created differences organized by social engineers and left-wing politicians and university administrators. I remember asking a young woman from Atlanta, an Asian-American as a matter of fact, who worked at CNN--she had come to fetch me for some program I was to appear on--what she thought of Washington, D.C. She said, despairingly, "Oh, it's much less diverse." I wondered what she meant. I still do.

"Progressive." Here is a term that at least those of us over 50 learned at school to identify with Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, or perhaps William Jennings Bryan. Lately, however, it has become a euphemism for liberalism, left-liberalism, or plain old leftism. Even bomb-throwing Communists or self-described revolutionaries (for example, Angela Davis or Van Jones) are no longer characterized as "Reds" or even "Marxists"; they are merely lumped into the category of harmless "progressives." To be sure, most people on the left end of our political spectrum could best be characterized as liberal (in the American rather than the European, or classical, sense). That's what they used to be called. Why has the word "liberal" suddenly disappeared? The answer is simple. Thanks to real-life experience, many people have understandably come to associate the word "liberal" with high taxes, a permissive attitude towards crime and criminals, and social engineering of the most obnoxious sort (school busing, racial preferences, etc.). To force the medicine down one final time, it needs to be rebottled under yet another new label.

It's interesting to contrast the use of "progressive" with another label that has lately come into use--"right-wing" or "extreme right-wing." From context it is usually clear that the writer has something in mind more than just people who object to liberal policies; between the lines we can hear the marching feet of fascist militias. Likewise, when you see the apparently neutral label "conservative" applied to a person or a policy, you can be sure that what is going to follow will not be complimentary.

Worse still, the word "conservative" is often used in ways that Edmund Burke would never recognize. It refers not only to American politicians who oppose high taxes or discrimination in hiring or promotions, but also to functionaries of the Chinese Communist party who resist any political opening in their country, or recalcitrant members of the old Soviet elite anxious to stifle reformist currents in Russia. Note please, also, that Republican officeholders or candidates who are, let us say, a bit shaky on their party's stated principles (as in the case of Ms. Scozzafava of recent memory) are always called moderate (a term of evident approval), although the word is rarely applied to Democrats (to be fair, this may be because it does not fit very many of them). Have you noticed, by way of contrast, that the term "leftist" is never used to describe any American politician, intellectual, or public figure? Noam Chomsky is not a leftist--no no no! If he cannot be credibly packaged under the catch-all term "progressive," the fallback word is "controversial."

Overseas Obfuscation

This same misuse of language is even more evident when the American media report on the world scene. "Dictators" exist only in countries that either are allied to the United States or at least do not openly oppose it; "leaders" are chiefs of state in countries hostile to American interests or allied to major adversaries. Thus, for example, dictators (almost unfailingly characterized as "U.S.-supported") exist (or rather, have existed) in Chile, Argentina, Nicaragua, and Cuba (under Batista), but "leaders" or "presidents" are found ruling in places like the old Soviet Union, Libya, Syria, and Iran, not to mention Cuba (under the Castro brothers) and Venezuela (where the "leader" is also often described as "socialist"--though Karl Marx would know how to identify him as something quite different).

When it comes to the sociology of international relations, the media has lately invented some fresh perversions of our language. Two shorthand terms are much relied upon whenever there is a meeting of the G-7 nations (and now the G-20)--"rich" nations and "poor" nations. The way these labels are bandied about, one might imagine that some countries enjoy a high standard of living because they had a wealthy grandfather who left them a trust fund, whereas other nations are poor because they did not. Actually, a few of the world's richest countries are almost totally devoid of natural resources--South Korea and Japan, for example. Moreover, the latter suffered massive bombing during World War II, and the former was almost completely flattened by the time the Panmunjom truce accords were signed in 1953. By way of contrast, some of the world's poorest nations, or at least those with some of the largest percentages of poor people--Indonesia and Brazil, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe--have fortunately remained outside the zone of world-power conflict and are among the wealthiest in terms of their natural resources. What is missing from this picture? It would be nice if the press would tell us.

Along the same line, one has the right to question the use of the term "developing nations" to describe a huge chunk of the membership of the U.N. The harsh truth is that many of these places are not developing at all. Some, in fact, like Argentina, are actually moving backwards. Presumably the term was coined to replace "underdeveloped countries" (common in the 1950s) because diplomats and goody-goody Council on Foreign Relations/United Nations Association types decided that it was not only disrespectful or insulting, but also too pessimistic. "Developing" sounds better, since it suggests forward movement, even when there is none at all.

The same could be said for "development assistance" (or, as the Europeans prefer to call it, "international cooperation"), a replacement for the old (and in the U.S., hugely unpopular) term "foreign aid." One wonders how the concept of "development assistance" has survived decades of evidence that there really is no such thing. No country has ever developed, and no country will ever develop, as the result of infusions of foreign assistance. One embarrassing counterexample (among several one might cite) is Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1989), which experienced its most dramatic and sustained period of economic growth precisely when it was being embargoed by all the right-thinking (that is, left-thinking) development agencies.

Over the years I have discussed this misuse of our language with many members of the working press, both in the U.S. and abroad. At first blush they seem confused and disoriented by the question; then they become defensive, and sometimes even angry. After all, they explain, they are working under deadline, and there are only so many column inches to spare, particularly for foreign news. This is usually followed by an elitist soliloquy on how stupid and provincial Americans are (not interested in anything but local news or sports, can't identify the difference between Belgium and the Belgian Congo, etc., etc.). But surely this is no excuse for polite lies like "developing countries"? Even "non-aligned" would be a better label. "Backward" or "corrupt" or "poverty-ridden" would be better still--certainly more accurate.

The excuses get particularly flimsy when it comes to reporting political tendencies within the United States. I once confronted a Washington Post reporter who had characterized me in print as a "conservative" Latin American specialist and asked if she had ever labeled anyone a "liberal" Latin American specialist. She thought for a long time and finally came up with precisely one name--astounding in a field in which liberalism, leftism, and outright Marxism of one flavor or another wholly dominate. (For the record, I am not sure I believe even in her single example.)

The prospect that mainstream journalists will sharpen their vocabulary and start calling things by their correct names is highly unlikely, for reasons that are well known to the readers of NRO. It is intimately related to the rapid decline of the traditional media, a decline not yet concluded. Precision in language is an expression of accuracy in thought--or, as Orwell put it, "the slovenliness of our language makes it easier to have foolish thoughts." The emergence of an independent media on the Internet may help to clarify meanings, or at least introduce a proper discussion of what words really mean. For the time being, one can only nod in the direction of Orwell's grave and hope for the best.

Mark Falcoff is an adjunct scholar at AEI.

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