It is usually a waste of time to suggest that: “Everybody should see this” or “Everybody should read that,” because “Everybody” pays absolutely no attention. But I make an exception in this case. In a political season, everybody should read or re-read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” It doesn’t take long, perhaps ten minutes to absorb the whole thing, and it works like a kind of linguistic flu shot. Next time a toxic cloud of political rhetoric comes your way you will find to your surprise and relief that you are completely immune.
Orwell’s essay is more than half a century old, but it is as on target now as it was then. His subject is political language which, in his words, “Is designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He attacks the clichés that political candidates have always loved, and still do: our children’s future, the healing process, to reach out, time for change, vision, diversity, this great state, this great nation – and of course the ever popular at this point in time and going forward – all ways to keep talking while saying nothing. Such clichés are a sure sign that the speaker is not thinking, and doesn’t expect his audience to think either.
Then there are what Orwell calls “Verbal false limbs” – empty phrases whose only purpose is to avoid direct and unambiguous verbs and nouns: to render inoperative; to militate against; to have the effect of – instead of simple words like stop, prevent, cause. And pretentious words for simple things: expedite and clandestine instead of speed up and secret, ameliorate and liquidate instead of improve and kill.
Above all political language is full of code words and phrases that are essentially meaningless: family values, natural resources, human rights, the melting pot, the American dream, fair trade, global leadership, national security, and so on. These all sound splendid, but they are impossible to define. We are all in favor of human rights, for example. But what does it mean? Nobody can agree.
To be fair it’s not easy being a politician in an age of total exposure, at least not at election time. Candidates must talk continuously, unhesitatingly, and with apparent authority about all the wonderful things they will accomplish if elected. Any sign of a pause for thought will be penalized by the electorate and the media as a sign of indecision. No thoughts are allowed, let alone second thoughts. At the same time, candidates must keep the words flowing without ever saying anything clear or definite that will be held against them later.
Politicians depend very heavily on their speechwriters, who have made this kind of non-communicating language into an art form. We have seen how the TV pundits and comedians are reduced to silence when their writers go on strike. A strike of political speechwriters would be interesting. Perhaps we would hear the candidates’ real voices at last, or silence, which would be even more revealing. Or perhaps the striking comedy writers might be persuaded to cross the political picket line and bring their satirical skills to the campaign trail. Then at least we would get some entertainment out of the democratic process.
Since we can’t make much sense of what candidates say, it all comes down to how they look, and how we feel about them. This may be a good way to choose a piece of fish or a new hat, but it’s an insane way to choose a political leader. We need to know how they think, and what they would say if they could only find the words.