Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Election Seasons and Some Parts of Horses

     In "Politics and the English Language" George Orwell noted that political language seems especially indifferent to whether or not words actually mean anything. The prose, he argued, "consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house."

     Orwell's first-rate advice about how to spot--and avoid--dying metaphors (e.g., "ride roughshod over"), verbal false limbs (e.g., "deserving of serious consideration"), pretentious diction ("deregionalise") and totally meaningless words ("patriotic") is as valuable today as it was in the year when he wrote the piece --1946--or any year before that. He also saw the clear and demonstrable connection between this kind of language and the way politicians and governments manipulate citizens into thinking that something intelligible has genuinely been communicated and that something worthwhile actually has been done.

     We are now, of course, coming upon one of the more treacherous times for linguistic coherence in our Republic, namely, election season.  True, our last election campaign does not appear really to have ended, particularly since Congressional leaders keep constantly chattering about the "mandate they have been given by the people" and even proclaim that their main priority is to ensure that the sitting President does not get re-elected.  Things are going to get worse, however.  The garden variety sniping that goes on every day in our political parties and their broadcasting acolytes is bound to reach industrial strength with a Presidential election year just a few blocks down the road.

     "Socialism" will, no doubt, be a favorite word for many of those in the running, since President Obama (and the whole Democratic Party) has been labelled "socialistic" since Day One of his administration.  The odds are that if one were to ask persons using the term what they mean by it, they would not be able to say anything even approaching clarity.  First, the word is difficult to define, and political philosophers have argued about its range for decades.  Is it a political term?  An economic one? A concept of political economy?  Is it the opposite of "capitalist"?  The opposite of "democratic"? The opposite of nothing in particular? But even if that were not the case and the word wore its cognitive credentials on its sleeve, those who like to use the term to characterize an opponent are not interested in its meaning; their aim is only to create an emotional effect in voters, to frighten them into thinking that the opponent is not really "one of us".  The word "communist" was used in the 40's and 50's mainly for the same purpose, as was "anarchist" (a.k.a. "foreigner") in the 20's.

     Many political candidates care only that the terms work effectively as stigmatizers, not as genuine carriers of sense. The term "un-American" is, incredibly, still a favorite in some quarters; "tax-and-spend liberal" another.  And what would election time be like without one politician accusing another of being "outside the mainstream of our way of life"? We've already heard the venerable "social engineering" rise from (what we thought was) the dead, and now its unexpected cousin  "right wing social engineering" has shown up at the family reunion. There will also be bizarre claims about the "real meaning" of this or that phrase in the United States Constitution by many whose next encounter with the document will be their first.  These legal scholars will, of course, decry the "activism" of our judges who keep "making the law" instead of "following the original meaning of our founders."  They will tell us how "Islamo-fascists" are those who "hate us for our freedom". And, to be sure, we are bound to have a great deal of discussion over whether "enhanced interrogation techniques" violate some amendment or other in the Bill of Rights.  (It's the eighth, but don't spread it around.)

     I think my father would have liked Orwell's 'prefabricated hen-house' comparison had he known about it, for he sometimes used animal analogies to get his point across as well.  He often said, for example, that the world contained a lot more horses' rear ends in it than horses.  He said it even more during election seasons.

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