an egregious collocation of vocables

published in “What Orwell Didn’t Know” edited by Andraz Santo, New Press (2007)


An Egregious Collocation of Vocables


Patricia J. Williams

At the heart of Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and The English Language” is his fear that the unconsidered use of language makes it easier to “have foolish thoughts.” Foolish thoughts, in turn, make one susceptible to political manipulation whose end is “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” 

When I first read this essay in high school, Stalinism, Fascism and McCarthyism were more or less things of the past, and the Soviet Union was Someplace Else Entirely than my radar screen.  As a result, I viewed his warning about empty words as the punishingly academic exercise of a bad-tempered martinet. I was an adolescent, after all, and nothing is more comforrting to a teenager than sounding like everyone else.  Orwell did not speak to my unswerving determination  to rescue terms like “grooving” from underutilizaiton. 

These days, of course, I know that  Orwell (unlike my English teacher) wasn’t denouncing sloppy language simply for the sake of grammatical symmetry.  He worried about a loss of interpretive skills when the mind is submersed in a soothing mash of  cliches, soft and well-worn as cushions.  What was at stake for him was the discipline of communicative syntax.  He valued precision not for its own sake but rather because he thought  careless slippage confounded the algebraic equations of deeper meaning.  

Vexed as he was by Latinate enfrillments and vrai-Saxon bons mots, many of Orwell’s examples sound a bit precious by today’s metric of woe.  For all that, George Orwell would have had no trouble cutting through the cowpokey folksiness and spewed malapropisms of President George W. Bush.  In 1946, it was the “effete languors of Langham Place” (meaning the Etonion swells at the BBC) that lulled one into apolitical slumber. Orwell, I think, would have seen that in today’s America it is the argot of the straight-shooting, plain-speaking Average ÍJoe that is exploited for its divine political somnambulism.  “Pretentious diction” was not offensive to him because it sounded ridiculously high-faluting, but because it lent “an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgments.”  His emphasis, in other words, was as much on the pretense in pretension as on the dictum in the diction.

  After all, the real Eric Arthur Blair, writing sub nomine de George Orwell, was himself a professional propagandist who earned his chops producing purportedly impartial BBC broadcasts that were in fact engineered efforts to   provoke colonial India into war against Japan. The experience left him with an intense dislike of such manipulation.  He feared polemics that were purposely devoid of signification even as their multisyllabic surface glittered with promise of complexity.  

Orwell also knew that potent new devices of propaganda were emerging–new means of public hypnosis and mass influence, to say nothing of media-dispensed distraction.  Machiavelli notwithstanding, this scientifically-enhanced power to dictate political division and create desire was still very recent when Orwell wrote. The sociological insights derived from widespread data gathering and demographic analysis wasn’t even a coherent body of study until the 1930’s;  hence Orwell’s vision was just short of prophetic. As the hero in Orwell’s 1939 novel “Coming Up For Air” said about Hitler and Stalin:  “They aren’t like these chaps in the old days who crucified people and chopped their heads off and so forth, just for the fun of it … They’re something quite new – something that’s never been heard of before.”

   Today, the Bush administration’s mangled, tangled declarations of a sprawling war on terror have marked a watershed in the corruption of political language.  The laws, policies, and executive orders that have flowed from this administration are testament to the dizzying array of “mental vices” that Orwell so abhorred.  Suddenly we live in a world of bright-lined Good Guys and Bad Guys. Our “quickie” “cakewalk” of a foray into Iraq has morphed into a “decades long” adventure that has left an untold civilian death count, ruined museums, shattered mosques, plundered archeological sites and devastated universities throughout Iraq, and whose ongoing brutality risks  flattening every home, every block, every city in that nation. “Back to the Stone Age,” as Richard Armitage is said to have threatened President Musharaff if Pakistan failed to cooperate with American interests. America the Beautiful, meanwhile, has become a “homeland” secured; and our constitutive text is less the US Constitution than a shadow document called the USA Patriot Act.  No longer is the collective discourse one of competing theories of constitutional interpretation.  These days it is a rivalry between completely different textual universes:  between due process and none at all; between the courts and unfettered executive dôiscretion, between personal privacy and super-surveillance; between public accountability and official holes of dark and unfathomable secrecy..  

Orwell was always making lists of rules or pseudo-rules that embodied  imperiled values as he saw it– the five rules for a politics of language, the seven shrinking commandments in Animal House (“All animals are equal but some are moe equal than others”), the enumerated slogans of NewSpeak in 1984, (“War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength).”   If he were alive to embellish those cautionary koans, here’s what I imagine he might have come up with:

1.  The Death of Metaphor.  Orwell was worried about “dying metaphors”–analogies so overused that they lose evocative power and signal only laziness on the speaker’s part. I worry that today’s American vernacular has killed metaphor outright. Mass media has surely enabled this corruption, on a cultural, even global scale. Television values “plain meanings” over the complex, “bright lines” over shades of grey, and “lowest common denominator” over any calculation. Similarly, fundamentalist religious leaders of all denominations  have divided the world into easy halves of Good and Evil.  More and more school systems prioritize the amassing of information above the acquisition of skills in critical analysis.  

Where there is no  sense of metaphor at all–no play, no elasticity between a word and its poetic echoes–totalism becomes easier. When this sort of fundamentalism rules in religion, it becomes easier to cast God AS the word.  Blasphemy becomes a palpable harm, punishable, grounds for excommunication or holy war.  If the Bible says God created the earth in six days, then that’s that. An “eye for any eye” becomes justification for killing abortion doctors. Parable turns into mandate, mandate into jihad.  Similarly, when linguistic fundamentalism rules in politics, the police power becomes an inflexible taskmaster. “Zero tolerance” policies depend on a lack of metaphor or interpretive give.  How else did we get to the point where any “sharp pointed object”–from a nail clipper to an Afro-pick–can be defined as a “weapon”? The war on substance abuse bars “drugs” from schools? Then you get suspended for having an aspirin in your backpack.  The word is infallable, inerrant, literally dictatorial.   

If strict textualism tends to rule contemporary American language at the popular level, this general lack of poetic sensibility is ripe for manipulation b:y the expert rhetoriticians who run Madison Avenue and who also write Presidential speeches.  Phrases like “Axis of Evil” have been deployed to depict everything from the ACLU to Saddam Hussein to French Fries as the work of Satan himself.  Who needs diplomacy when Armageddon is at hand?  The very term “War on Terror” defies political critique–it appeals to the unconscious rather than to history;  its force is located in the sphere of emotions rather than the cycle of history, it is epic and endless rather than discretely circumstantial.   Who votes for health care or education when you’re cowering under the bed?

  2. The Wishful Immediate. The loss of the subjunctive in American speech is a much under-rated if not altogether invisible cause for worry.  With its abandon by the collective culture, any shred of the contingent or conditional has disappeared as well. No word stands for anything but its plain meaning, and plain meaning runs no further than the present tense.  This is a slippage that advertisers have perfected;  it is the essence of commercial sloganeering.  In this brave new world, all things are possible, all things are present, all fantasies made real.  You didn’t just wish it were so, it WAS.  The present imaginary rewrites the past.  This is, I think, symptomatic of a national mood that routinely considers itself only a purchase away from perfection.  The American work ethic that for so long promised “anything” as possible has morphed into a wish ethic that tolerates no earthly limit.  It is a greedy state of mind, to say the least, but also one that glorifies lying, cheating, and dissembling as a kind of blind ambition.   When exploited as a feature of political discourse, it serves to divide us from history, from facts, from sinkholes in the road of life; and floats us gently into Wonderland.  “Mission Accomplished!”  “Colorblind Society!”  If only it were so.  

3. The Passive Explosive:  Here, the passive voice is used to bury agency and to reassign responsibility; conversely, the active voice is sometimes used to animate the passive.   For example, in the weeks before we invaded Iraq, there was endless official  iteration of the phrase “It’s Saddam’s choice.” Lord knows, went the subtext, we didn’t want to have to go in there and tear the place up, but if Saddam compelled us, well, Saddam was in the driver’s seat, Saddam was at the helm.  It was Saddam who faile)d to disprove the subsequently disproved rumors of yellow cake uranium and alumninum rods. No matter that teams of international inspectors had found no evidence of weapons of mass destruction–Saddam  made us do it.

This puppetry of ventriloquized “choice” has cost the Bush Administration over time, and in turn us, the American people. It has even cost us the allegience of our very best friend in the Muslim world, Afghani President Hamid Kharzai, who recently denounced American maneuvers that resulted in at least ninety civilian deaths within ten days.  The American response to this misfortune blamed Al Quaeda for “choosing” to blend into civilian populations.  It was, therefore, entirely Al Quaeda’s fault.  Anyone else whose lives went up in a puff of smoke were mere unintendend “collateral damagLe.”  

This is a species of puppetry that short-circuits painful but crucial opportunities to reflect upon the complexities of power and its absolutes.  We have dulled our responses to the sharp moral questions we might otherwise have to  confront.  Consider another example closer to home: say a glassy-eyed drug addict runs naked through his neighborhood waving a steak knife and a pair of glow-in-the-dark knitting needles.  Police officers arrive and promptly shoot the man dead. Depending on the circumstances, it might be a reasonable reaction or an overreaction, an accident or negligence.  But can there be any doubt that one needs to consider more facts, or that there ought to be some detailed scrutiny for ultimate accountability?  In the last few years, however, such encounters increasingly have been labeled “police-assisted suicidUe,” or “suicide by cop.”  This unfortunate terminology shifts all the agency away from a public officer who, justifiably or not, actually made the decision to fire his weapon.  It redescribes the police as passive extensions of the outlandish will of the deceased. By law, police actions are constrained by the reasonable exercise of force;  but why bother with all that if dying was by the crazy person’s choice, rather than at the officer’s hand? 

Similarly, when three uncharged detainees committed suicide in the prison at Guantanamo Bay, our top brass called it “assymetrical warfare.”  The erasure of the self was styled as a rudely aggressive affirmative act of warfare against others.  Suicide became a peculiar form of public relations propaganda–unfair, out of proportion, designed to make the good guys look bad..  While it may indeed constitute bad press, this nomination diverts attention from more serious questions of moral accountability, such as the due process owed even the most reprehensible captives (to say nothing of those with no pending charges) under the Geneva Conventions.

5.  Epocha Disputanda.  While Orwell worried about the overuse of foreign words to obfuscate what is not implied, I worry about the use of  foreign places, mythic times and distant planets to do the same job.  This or that happened long ago, under someone else’s watch, not on American soil, or in a free trade zone where all of the usual rules were suspended   The Bush-Cheney administration has been masterful in the use of the epochal tense to obliterate causal connection.    The President cut a nobler profile than Buzz Lightyear as he promised a manned mission to Mars–to the future and beyond!–even as he installed a head of NASA who doesn’t believe there’s any such thing as global warming. (Of course the Mars thing was so obviously a a ploy for ratings that it didn’t anyone).  Similarly, distant times and places-that-never-were are constructed to isolate indiscretions. Recemtly the CIA was forced to declassify thousands of documents documenting assassinations, use of unwitting citizens for drug experimentation illegal wiretapping, sabotage of lawful political groups, and torture.  The documents, according to a spokesman, “provide a glimpse of a very different time and a very different agency.”   Ah the distant, mythic agency long-gone, the limbic other-world of epic creatures.  Like the Aeneid, we are transported to another dimension:  I sing of arms and the man and the CIA….

6.  Whatever Goes on Two Legs is An Enemy.  Growing up as a good little girl of the Cold War era, I learned to fear the KGB.  We read about Stalin and the tempermental Mr. Kruschev;   we welcomed the exiled novelists and dancers and athletes who fled from behind the Iron Curtain.  The USSR, we were told, was oppressive because of its system of secret police, and inhuman gulags and lack of due process. It is therefore quite astonishing to wake up and find our Bill of Rights effectively upended by so-called signing papers, unchecked executive privilege, unwarranted data mining, whimsical fishing expeditions, and secret searches of people’s homes.   Not only are citizens not “secure in their papers,” as the Fourth Amendment puts it, but neither are they secure in their computers, cellphones, automobile global positioning chips, elevator monitors, Medi-alert beepers, credit cards, nannycams, tracking devices or DNA trails. In a land where everyone’s a suspect, there’s suddenly probable cause to search everyone.  

This high-tech voyeurism has any number of unsettling consequences.  In an executive branch dominated by fundamentalist Christians whose mission it seems to be to break down all boundary between church and state, the Doctrine of Total Depravity seems to be displacing the presumption of innocence. It also seems to   operate as a kind of theoretical underpinning for the administration’s use of preemptive detention as a justifiable check upon humanity’s presumptively inherent transgressivity.   In different but parallel evolution, youth culture revels heedlessly in the cyber-exposure of MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube.  Even as intelligence agencies troll the internet for foolish and illegal behavior, a whole generation positively frolics in the gaze of the panopticon, seemingly bent upon memorializing themselves naked, with bongs.  There’s an odd village-y communism about it–no secrets here!  It is as though the in-your-face voyeurism of Spring Break had become a righteous political s∫tance. Perhaps none of this is any any different from the antics of Careless Youth throughout the ages–the bearded, bare-breasted hoardes at Woodstock certainly frightened my parents.  But it’s worth wondering if we are not seeing a new brand of creative accommodation to totalistic oversight.

7. The Rupture of the Rapture.   The narrative of The Rapture has been popularized in recent years by Timothy LaHaye’s global best-sellers, the “Left Behind” series.  While fiction is , after all, just fiction, these books are some of the most widely-read in the world, and their apocalyptic inclination does seem to reflect something  beyond the bounds of a given genre.  The narrative of the rapture predicts that when God finally rains down His long-overdue wrath, the sanctified-in-Christ will rise to Heaven, and the sluggardly non-believers will be “left behind” to perish in eternal flame.  The LaHaye books propagandize this doomsday scenario  by casting the Devil as the Secretary of the United Nations.  The United Nations stands in for the Tower of Babel.  Peace among the nations of the earth is really only a Satanic plot to make good principled Christians settle for heathenish relativism and the dilution of the tribes.  

In a world as rigidly literal as ours, however, these images don’t always resonate as mere tropes, or even as fictive.  They are circulated within a Fox-and-fear-driven media brew where widely watched televangelists like Pat Roberson or the late Jimmy Falwell can roar that the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was not merely an “act of God” but the premeditated intervention of a punitive God.  A God, who, like Zeus with his thunderbolts, took specific aim at the Chocolate City of Sin, where far too many good times and much too much mumbo-gumbo had long been allowed to roll.  New Orleans, in other words, simply got what it deserved.

Religion aside, however, the political employ of “just desserts” has enjoyed renewed and growing currency  since the Reagan years.  The loaded, coded reference to those who are “deserving” as opposed to “undeserving”  rationalizes the status quo of a citizenry divided between an earthly heavens and hells–i.e., between suburban utopia and ghetto squalor, good white families and bad black men, the rights-endowed and “aliens,” the innately intelligent and dumb savage brutes, civilized taxpayers and the lazy underclass.  The sense of divine inevitability that informs this civic vision allows us to wash our hands of a whole raft of otherwise obvious political and Biblical injuctions:  feed the poor, heal the sick, educate the illiterate, house the homeless, rehabilitate the wounded.  Instead we have watched the divisions in the United States grow wider and wider.  The distance between rich and poor has never been greater.  The size of the prison population has never been bigger.  Nationally, public schools are more segregated than they were in 1954 when the Brown case was decided.  Health insurance has never been more expensive to obtain.

This tragic ongoing split in American society erupts from time to time–in riots, in immigration crises, in racist gang fights, in outbreaks of disease, in appalling rates of infant mortality, in the manifest negligence that allowed the city of New Orleans to drown.  

Orwell feared communism, fascism, totalitarianism, and all their attendant linguistic conceits.  What he did not foresee, perhaps, was a privatized but global corporate oligarchy whose police power comes wrapped in a sheepish ideology of laissez-faire, sanctified as God’s will.


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Filed under elections, ethics, george orwell, George W. Bush, karl rove, language and linguistics, political commentary, USA Patriot Act, zero tolerance

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