In April 1946, George Orwell published in the journal Horizon what has since become perhaps his most celebrated essay, “Politics and the English Language.”1 The author had completed Animal Farm the previous year and would soon set to work on his masterwork, Nineteen Eight-Four, when he penned this article. The “Politics” essay represented a call to arms of a sort, in which Orwell enjoined all English language writers to write as simply and clearly as possible. He offered his argument not only for its own sake, but also in the name of ensuring the possibility of truly democratic politics. In particular, Orwell decried complex and wordy constructions that did little besides cloud meaning and intent, as illustrated by this example by a well-known professor of English of the time:
Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilde.2
Such writing, Orwell contended, is ever stale and imprecise. Its vagueness and incompetence had become in his view, the “most marked characteristic of modern English prose.”3 If this was true generally, Orwell reserved special venom for what he called political writing:
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. … In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.4
This argument presaged his much more developed contention in Nineteen Eight-Four, which found Big Brother deliberately obscuring speech and engaging in wholesale attempts to manipulate and misinform the citizenry in often heinous ways, but most deeply and disturbingly by depriving individuals of their capacity for independent thought altogether. Writing when he did, in the aftermath of a horrific world war that had seen propaganda unleashed on a scale theretofore unimagined, Orwell placed a carefully circumscribed hope in the power of clear language to prevent the continued degradation of freedom by such artifice. As he memorably put this point,
… one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists—is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.5
Columbia University School of Journalism professor and New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Lemann developed this argument in a thoughtful analysis of Orwell’s “Politics” essay in 2007. There, he distinguished helpfully between pompous ambiguity in political rhetoric and willful propaganda, and contended that while both were likely to undermine any sort of genuine deliberative political dialogue the latter was the more dangerous of the two since it could be both eloquent and persuasive.6 Lemann specifically cited President George W. Bush’s September 30, 2001 address introducing the “War on Terror” as an example. That speech placed the United States in a state of undefined and unending war against enemies of freedom, rather than any specific nation or group. As Orwell had before him, Lemann expressed hope that political rhetoric of all stripes was at least subject to debate in the public square, where ideas would compete for salience and could be tested for their truthful content.
While I share this expectation, I have lately begun to wonder how far it may extend and with what relative efficacy when so many actors entering the public theater come armed not only with artful rhetoric and often propaganda, but also with an abiding belief in the absolute truth of their views and a similar perspective on the errancy, villainy or worse of their perceived opponents. In this crucible, all strategies and tactics are fair game—truthful, obscurantist or untrue alike—as they are perceived by their transmitters as advancing the “righteous” in the face of the “malignant.” That is, political propaganda, as Lemann and Orwell defined it, surely characterizes a strong share of today’s political rhetoric.
Here are a few examples. President Ronald Reagan, who had gained office by demonizing government, taxes and taxation, relabeled a tax increase he came to embrace as a need for “revenue enhancements” in an effort to obscure the character of his action. Among the many morally repugnant dimensions of the George W. Bush administration’s embrace of torture was its attempt to relabel those acts for the public as “enhanced interrogation.” A law designed to increase our national government’s capacities to engage in surveillance of its people and that decreased that population’s civil liberties was purposely called The USA Patriot Act by the George W. Bush administration to disguise its aims. Meanwhile, that same presidency’s so-called No Child Left Behind educational “reform” law has resulted in precisely the opposite of its supposed aspiration for millions of children. Likewise, some 22 GOP-controlled states have enacted stricter voter identification laws justified publicly and vigorously as efforts to address the (factually non-existent) “scourge” of vote fraud. These have resulted in a disproportionate decline in voting by minority groups especially, a population less likely on average to vote for Republican candidates, a plainly partisan aim. One other example of this sort of propagandistic “doublethink,” as Orwell labeled it in Nineteen Eight-Four, are state laws supposedly aimed at “protecting” the religious freedom of Christian social conservatives vis-à-vis gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals. These statutes have lately been roundly and rightly attacked as an artifice instead designed to permit continued discrimination against such groups by an important GOP constituency.
These examples suggest that the concern that Orwell raised is real. Political interests, corporations and elected leaders all now employ doublethink and deliberately misleading rhetoric and propaganda for profit and to gain and maintain power. Each also strives to outdo its “opponents” in its shrill claims regarding purportedly dreaded “others,” purveyors of all manner of (mostly) imagined maladies.
There is much evidence that large swathes of the U.S. electorate are typically uninformed about politics and policymaking at all scales and that major sections of the population are splintering among media outlets and political leaders offering simplistic sloganeering as alternatives to governance. The fact that many of these individuals and entities also deliberately propagate doublethink in their mobilization efforts is a matter of urgent democratic concern. One may ask, as Orwell did, that the proselytizers of these half-truths and false claims stop offering them because they are immoral, but the evidence today suggests that a positive response to such requests is unlikely, for the obvious reason that propagandizing seems to “work.” “Work” in this context connotes political power and profits, extremely alluring incentives for the corporations and public officials so engaged.
Finally, Lemann has also suggested that a deeper concern than Orwell’s fear of a politics suffused by knowing misinformation and doublethink is the fact that some individuals control information and data on which others must rely to engage in anything resembling a public deliberative conversation. The difficulty for democracy is only compounded when public officials or representatives of other interests calculatingly distort and mislead people concerning the information only they possess, for ideological or other purposes. Lemann cited the fact that Saddam Hussein never possessed an ability to produce weapons of mass destruction and that many of those who argued otherwise to rally the U.S. to war knew the truth when they did so. Those officials nonetheless used the argument to manipulate public opinion to secure other purposes.
It seems fitting during this anniversary month of publication of Orwell’s essay to ponder how well situated our polity is today to counter the obvious efforts of many interests within it to practice just the tactics and strategies that he warned would prove so dangerous to democratic deliberation. There is much evidence that Orwell was prescient, and too little that Americans and their current politics are appropriately situated to address his vital concerns. Too many U.S. citizens today instead find themselves enmeshed in a persisting and absolutist tidal rush of doublethink and fear mongering, unable to make decisions on the basis of anything like a steady moral compass or purposive democratic reasoning.
1 George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Horizon (April 1946), https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm, Accessed April 9, 2015. This essay was one of 100 articles the then free-lancing Orwell produced in 1946.
6 Nicholas Lemann, “The Limits of Clear Language,” The Columbia Journalism Review, November/December 2007, http://www.cjr.org/essay/the_limits_of_language.php, Accessed, April 9, 2015.