Media Beat, June 23, 1993
By Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon
Orwell's Unhappy 90th Birthday
George Orwell would have reached his 90th birthday on June 25. The great English writer has been dead for several decades, but Orwellian language lives on.
These days we have plenty of good reasons to echo poet W.H. Auden: "Oh, how I wish that Orwell were still alive, so that I could read his comments on contemporary events!"
Today, in the United States, media coverage of political discourse attests to Orwell's observation that language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."
Anyone who pays attention to routine speeches by politicians is likely to recognize Orwell's description: "When one watches some tired hack on the platform, mechanically repeating the familiar phrases ... one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy."
News media frequently make things worse. Instead of scrutinizing the blather, reporters are inclined to solemnly relay it - while adding some of their own.
The standard jargon of U.S. politics in the 1990s is the type of facile rhetoric that appalled Orwell. This lexicon derives its power from unexamined repetition.
To carry on Orwell's efforts, we should question the buzzwords that swarm all around us. For instance:
"Centrist" - A term of endearment in elite circles, usually affixed to politicians who don't rock boats, even ones stuck in stagnant waters.
"Reform" - This word once described change aimed at removing corruption or privilege. Now the word offers a favorable sheen to any policy shift. A linguistic loophole vague and gaping enough to drive a truck through, whatever the political cargo.
"Bipartisan" - An adjective that hails the two major parties for showing great unity and national purpose: usually agreed to behind closed doors, out of view of the riffraff.
"Special interests" - A negative label commonly applied to mass constituencies of millions of people - seniors, the poor, racial minorities, union members, feminists, gays. ... Formerly a pejorative to describe monied interests that used dollars - since they lacked numbers of people - to influence politics.
"Sources say" - Leaks from on high, served up as journalistic champagne.
"Experts" - Oft-cited and carefully selected, they supply fertilizer for the next harvests of popular credulity.
"Defense budget" - Having precious little to do with actual defense of the country, these expenditures require the most innocent of names.
"Senior U.S. officials" - Unnamed, they are larger than life. In another culture they might be called "messengers of God."
"Rule of law" - What occurs when those who made the rules lay down the law - sometimes violently - overseas or at home.
"National security" - An ever-ready rationale for just about any diplomatic or military maneuver ... or any suppression of incriminating information.
"Stability in the region" - Can be a tidy phrase to justify the continuation of existing horrors.
"Western diplomats" - These bastions of patience and wisdom provide the compass for navigating in foreign geopolitical waters.
"The West" - Often used as a synonym for global forces of good.
George Orwell wrote his last novel, "1984," in the late 1940s - around the time the U.S. "War Department" became the "Defense Department." Orwell's novel anticipated that "the special function of certain Newspeak words" would be "not so much to express meanings as to destroy them."
The repetition of such words and phrases is never-ending. Like a constant drip on a stone, the cumulative effects are enormous.
Language, dialogue and debate are essential tools for a democratic process. But when words are wielded as blunt instruments, they bludgeon our minds rather than enhancing them.
The inflated shadow cast by words has grown in recent decades, but it is not new. "Identification of word with thing," Stuart Chase noted in 1938, "is well illustrated in the child's remark 'Pigs are rightly named, since they are such dirty animals."
Never better than imprecise symbols, words and phrases come to dominate the conceptual scenery - maps that are confused with the land itself. All too often, familiar words are used to label ideas and events instead of exploring them.
And over the years, evasive and euphemistic language - from "pacification programs" in Vietnam to "collateral damage" (killed civilians) in Iraq - has served as camouflage for inhuman policies.
George Orwell died young, succumbing to tuberculosis in 1950. But his acuity can be brought to life, to the extent that we probe beneath all the facile words and search out the realities they so often obscure.