Blowing in the Political Wind

The Economist has a weekly commentary page, under the pseudonym “Lexington,” about events in the U.S.A. The July 13 Lexington column entitled “The War of the Words” is about politics and language. Predictably, therefore, it begins by quoting you-know-who:

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Really? Political talk is all just deception to cover up homicide? Sorry, I’m not buying that.

The quoted line must be the most famous sentence in the whole of George Orwell’s overquoted rant about bureaucratic usage and morality, “Politics and the English Language” (1946). But my recollections of political language (your mileage may differ) are not memories of mendacity concealing murder. To categorize political talk that way carries mistrust of politicians into the realm of paranoia. Politicians talk like this:

  • “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
  • “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.”
  • “Let us learn together and laugh together and work together and pray together.”
  • “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
  • “After all the bloodshed of this century, we know it is easy to say ‘never again,’ but much harder to make it so.”
  • “Some may belittle politics but we who are engaged in it know that it is where people stand tall.”

I think Winston Churchill, Jack Kennedy, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Tony Blair sincerely meant these statements that they made in such simple terms. I know of no reason to think they didn’t.

Asserting in such general terms that political language is dishonesty intent on covering up crimes is irresponsible talk, as meretricious as anything Orwell was warning us against. Such generalizations are expected from the lips of angry men in bar rooms, after a lot of beer has passed those lips in the opposite direction; but not from an admired essayist or a serious columnist.

Lexington quotes the standard clichés (“Collateral damage means killing people accidentally,” and so on), and stresses concreteness as a cardinal virtue. Orwell is quoted again, as saying that “the concrete melts into the abstract” whenever certain topics are raised, and Joseph Romm, the author of Language Intelligence, is reported as saying that “When Republicans and Democrats use different terms for the same thing, the Republican phrase is nearly always shorter and more concrete.” Lexington offers an illustrative example:

When arguing about abortion, Republicans favor “life” (evocative) while Democrats talk about “choice” (abstract).

I don’t know why the word life is called “evocative” instead of “abstract,” but I know that it is every bit as much an abstract noun as choice.

Lexington then goes on to defend the Democrats, praising Bill Clinton’s phrase “safe, legal and rare” as evidence that Democrats do not always talk in abstractions. But Clinton’s three adjectives all denote highly abstract properties: the property of being relatively protected from dangers specific to the circumstance at hand, the property of being in compliance with some defined framework of legislation overseen by a judicial system, and the property of having low frequency of occurrence relative to other comparable events. The examples given don’t even illustrate the point being made.

To endow this sort of discussion with the content it so grievously lacks you would have to (i) classify nouns as concrete or abstract independently of the particular uses under discussion, then (ii) count to see which political side uses more of one or the other, and by how much, and then (iii) draw your conclusions.

But instead we get sweeping generalizations backed by vague impressions. Lexington’s quotation of Orwell’s much-too-famous line seems designed to make lazy commentary sound truthful and unsupported opinion respectable, and to give the appearance of solid rhetorical analysis to pure wind.

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