Of Orwell and Space Ice

TEV mentions this article on Brit John Humphrys’ new book, Lost for Words, about the demise of the language. Humphrys bemoans Tony Blair’s English:

Humphrys notes Blair’s apparent fear of verbs and mocks his speeches, which are peppered with verbless phrases like “new challenges, new ideas,” or “for our young people, a brighter future” and “the age of achievement, at home and abroad.”

By using this technique, Humphrys says, Blair is simply evading responsibility.

“The point about verbs is that they commit the speaker,” he writes. “Verbs cement sentences to their meaning so it’s not surprising that politicians tend to mistrust them.”

Which is why the passive verb form is so popular in business, and politics, as exemplified by the timeless non-confession, “Mistakes were made.” I’m constantly making this point to my composition students, who have gotten terrible high school educations, and who have absorbed the banal language of politics and advertising and use passive verbs, or other horrendous constructions (“Dieters wishing to lose weight will find that Atkins is effective!”), writing papers in which nothing is decisively acted upon by no one. It’s hard for them to write clearly, with precision, and vividness. More than that, it’s unfamiliar.

Novelist and teacher Charles Baxter wrote a classic essay on this in the early nineties, which you can find here, courtesy of Ploughshares.

I’ve been thinking about this essay lately. He uncovered a trend which still exists — in political language, American cultural life, and literature — towards narratives of evasion. I don’t always agree with Baxter, but he makes some lovely, incendiary remarks on why it matters to the culture as a whole how our politicians talk, how it matters to the stories we tell:

What difference does it make to writers of stories if public figures are denying their responsibility for their own actions? So what if they are, in effect, refusing to tell their own stories accurately? So what if the President of the United States is making himself out to be, of all things, a victim? Well, to make an obvious point, they create a climate in which social narratives are designed to be deliberately incoherent and misleading. Such narratives humiliate the act of storytelling.

He points out that responsibility — showing losing ground as a feasible political position — is vital to interesting, fictionally powerful characters, something which is perhaps lost in the folding tea-towels (scroll down, way down, for reference) of some contemporary fiction:

Most of us are interested in characters who willingly give up their innocence and start to act like adults, with complex and worldly motivations. I am fascinated when they do so, when they admit that they did what they did for good and sufficient reasons. At such moments, the moral life becomes intelligible. It also becomes legibly political.

Character, in fiction as in life, is defined by decision making, particularly decisions made under duress. And by attaching ourselves (or our characters) to those decisions. (Verbs. You can’t live with ’em, you can’t live without ’em.)

Rochelle Gurstein (apparently another hopeless idealist like me), writing in the New Republic, also finds the language of politicians a dismaying sign of the times, and waxes nostalgic for a time when the president felt “an obligation not only to hold forth in a manner appropriate to his singular place in the world, but also to enunciate, with clarity and fluency, the political principles that give him the authority to speak in public at all.” She laments the paucity of imagination in today’s politicians:

Bush’s grammatical lapses are notorious and constitute a national embarrassment, but it is the utter impoverishment of his political imagination that makes me fear for our democracy, as this impoverishment is endemic to our time.

She goes on to make the interesting case that Kerry’s loss may have been in part due to his reliance on facts at the expense of such an imagination. Frightening, but perhaps true. We don’t just look to politicians for the facts, we look to them for a narrative, as James Carville recently insisted to the Dems.

Then, there is the classic: Orwell on politics and the English language:

A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

All of which, frankly, makes me want to drink.

But his call for clarity of language, his moral protests against obfuscation (a word which does an excellent job of doing precisely that), are as relevant now as they have ever been:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible . . . Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers . . . Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

For some latter day evidence, you only need conjure up a list of Rumsfield’s prose poems, pretty much any official comments on the war in Iraq, or even Wednesday’s Republican vote to change rules so that Tom Delay can remain house leader if he’s indicted for ethics violations. Seems they weren’t doing anything untoward in that, just making sure that they “fixed the rules so that Democrats cannot use our rules against us.” After all, as bill sponsor Representative Henry Bonilla of Texas says, “Attorneys tell me you can be indicted for just about anything in this country, in any county or community.”

Indictment! As random as getting hit by a feckless blob of space ice! Be careful out there, folks!

Or you can dispense with verbs and nouns altogether and just ban stuff. I missed this when it was happened a few weeks ago, and wouldn’t be surprised if you did too. Lynne Cheney successfully urged the destruction of 300,000 Department of Education pamphlets, entitled “Helping Your Child Learn History”, which followed the National Standards for United States History, a controversial set of teaching guidelines developed at UCLA, on the grounds that they were “too negative” about US history.

She has also been enormously successful in banning this from her own mind.

(I’m sorry, that was a terribly easy one, wasn’t it? I’ll try harder. I promise.)


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