'Politricks' and the English Language

An infallible sign of cognitive degradation is the mutilation of language, a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly widespread in the current (anti) intellectual milieu. What George Orwell despaired of in the chronic usages of political language in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language"—it is “designed to make lies truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”—seems even more so today. Orwell’s “six rules” for good writing are not so much the issue here, and some of these have been ably contested by reputable authors. But he is right when he says that clear thinking “is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” Poor thinking corrupts language; slovenly language corrupts thinking—and the inevitable result of these twin perversions is moral corruption and political barbarism.

Of course, one frequently comes across in the political writing of both the left and the right, “progressivists” and conservatives, all manner of less degrading blemishes -- grammatical solecisms, logical infelicities, bad paragraphing, sloppy editing practices generating an abundance of typos (my favorites: the “Untied States,” the “Pubic Wars”), and the like. This is to be expected in the Age of the Internet, when one writes an article in the morning and posts it in the afternoon, rather than submit it to several days’ worth of revision. The Age of Rapidly Breaking News leads to critically broken prose. That we also live in the Age of Declining Educational Standards in which rigorous language training -- spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, grammatical concinnity, reading with understanding -- has gone by the board and in which the Image has come to predominate over the Word almost guarantees that far too many professional journalists and bloggers can no longer write properly --  which means that they can no longer think coherently or even string two or three sentences into a meaningful thought-unit.

But such misfortunes seem like mere peccadilloes when compared to the willful devastation of language used almost exclusively for the transmission of lies and the practice of slander rather than for disciplined argument and conveying empirical verities. Regrettably, linguistic debasement has always been a mainstay of political discourse, whether for “reasons of state,” military purposes, electoral advantage, self-promotion, or the arts of persuasion. What we might call “word deformation” is a staple of political life and should not surprise us.

It must also be said that the receiver of the message is equally complicit with the sender, having put his critical faculties to sleep and accepted the eidolon for the thought. The legions of the credulous are ready to take it all in, crook, crime and stinker. Fiction and subterfuge serve the strategic purpose of convincing a pampered and affluent society of its moral virtue, as James Burnham points out in Suicide of the West, “by affirming [its] loyalty to the correct egalitarian principles…without costing undue personal inconvenience.” In other words, we need to feel good about what we feel bad about. We accomplish this feat by a kind of moral polarity, reversing the actual valence of objects or events in order to represent what they are not, and thus sparing ourselves the need to examine our motives, make genuine sacrifices, grapple with disagreeable issues and actively seek out truth.

There are, however, degrees of semantic depravity. Its most malignant form is inexorably associated with totalitarian regimes, wholly invested in the dissemination of what Goebbels called “the Big Lie,” the suppression or vitiation of truth and the inflation of its opposite as a systemic function of both governance and statecraft. Orwell’s 1984 is the classic text in the study and exposure of totalitarian discourse, though it is a mistake to read the book solely as an example of dystopian fiction or as a cautionary tale. It is a mirror held up to the actual practice of tyrannical and oppressively monolithic regimes. In recent historical times we have seen its pestilential force in fascist, communist and theo-political systems of mind-control: Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and now triumphalist Islam.

This, too, should not surprise us. But what should not cease to astonish is the extent to which the language sickness has spread to the democratic West. Far from a mere aberration or an occupational hazard, the Big Lie has been installed among us as the primary form of political and cultural address along the entire gamut of disinformation, from outright interment of fact and customizing of inconvenient truths to unmitigated calumny and virulent libel. The Western media and the “progressivist” left-liberal political class have, over the years, incrementally adopted the discursive techniques of totalitarian states and theocratic dispensations.

One sees the neutralizing or flattening of language intended to mislead especially with regard to Islam. Muslim rapists and felons in the UK and Scandinavia are routinely referred to as “Asians”—a demographic blend that serves as a linguistic cowcatcher sweeping law-abiding Korean, Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese and Filipino immigrants into its purview. The distinction between “Islamic” and “Islamist” is another such evasion. A recent column in the National Post, relying on the default position of the MSM, speaks of “the perverted values governing entire Islamist-dominated regimes” (italics mine). But where are such “Islamist” regimes to be found? Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Qatar, Indonesia, Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Syria, Iraq, Hizbollah/Lebanon and Iran, among the 49 Muslim-majority countries in the world, are not Islamist regimes, but self-avowedly Islamic. Indeed, Pakistan designates itself officially as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, not the Islamist Republic of Pakistan. Iran is the Islamic Republic of Iran, not the Islamist Republic of Iran. The terror regime that now controls one third of Iraq calls itself the Islamic State, not the Islamist State.