Monday, October 06, 2008

Language and Politics

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When these is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively as it were to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

George Orwell, Politics and the English Language (1946)

When I come across a statement like this, I too have an “instinctive reaction.” Mine is to immediately concur, and the more ancient the author, the greater the temptation to add that the misuse or abuse of language by today’s politicians is more true today than ever before.

Of course, just how one would go about verifying such a sentiment I have no idea. Theoretically, if a “politician” is defined as anyone willing to place his or her name before the public to contend for elective office , it might be possible to arrive at a very rough quantitative total of a country’s political class in any given year. At a minimum, the intrepid investigator should be able to establish a quantitative floor for this number by identifying all the elective offices in a country and multiplying by two. Where more than two political parties are known to have been viable contenders, the appropriate adjustments can be made.

Because we think of politicians in conjunction with populations that have some say in their form of government and some say in who will represent them (in lieu of a direct democracy where each citizen is obliged to legislate), the quantitative challenge is not overwhelmed by history. “Elections” as Orwell understood the term are notable more by their absence in history than by their use – and even where used the franchise was extremely restricted, usually to males who were landed or to “citizens” or to the rich hereditary houses of the state.

This subject came to mind again because of the way in which President Bush and some in the congressional leadership – i.e., those who are the “elite” among the political class – who should have known better initially approached the economic melt-down. As he has done in his tenure in the White House, Bush attempted to ram through a measure that would have permitted the executive to wrest Congress’ last constitutional power that has not been deeply compromised already: the power of the purse. Ironically, the initial power grab which would have allowed the Treasury Secretary to act independently of congressional scrutiny was rejected by the House Republicans.

With a revised plan in hand, the White House called out the “fear factor” as it had done in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S. by the 19 hijackers. The main difference between then and now is that today people don’t have any money to go out and shop as Bush suggested they do after 9/11.

And this brings up another point where there is a gap between the administration’s true intent and what they claim. For a number of days, some media outlets carried stories about the huge jump in arms sales by the U.S., sales that come on top of the money that the Pentagon is spending every month on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan -- $12 billion a month – on top of which is the “base budget” of more than $600 billion. Arms sales for the fiscal year just ended came in at $32 billion, a level not seen since 1991 right after the First Gulf War. Now we find out that the administration is selling $6.5 billion in arms to Taiwan. The justification to Congress will read that the sale enhances U.S. security.

This can only be seen as another deliberate slap at China – a continuation of the fiction that Richard Nixon, another Republican president, effectively repudiated when the U.S. finally recognized the Beijing government as the representative of the Chinese nation and Taiwan as a province of the one China.

But unlike Nixon, Bush needs China to keep pressure on North Korea in the six party talks about ending North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The fact that the North has announced it plans to restart its nuclear reactor may indicate that Beijing was aware of the impending sale – and this was their reply.

What all this adds up to is confirmation that the eight years of the Bush administration has done violence not only to our system of government but to the language of governance itself. The gap that Orwell alludes to is the gap in the people’s trust in the government to act in the interest of the general public.

Listen carefully to what is said in this economic crisis. The long words may not be there; Bush often has trouble pronouncing them. But when the “exhausted” idioms start, hold on to your wallets.

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