Politics and the American Language

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In William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well (updated last year) he has a chapter titled “Clutter” which discusses the use of unnecessary words that obscure and weaken what is being said. What better place to turn to for examples than politicians?

Clutter is the language of the Pentagon calling an invasion a “reinforced protective reaction strike” and justifying its vast budgets on the need for “counterforce deterrence.” As George Orwell pointed out in “Politics and the English Language,” an essay written in 1946 but often cited during the wars in Cambodia, Vietnam and Iraq, “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Orwell’s warning that clutter is not just a nuisance but a deadly tool has come true in recent decades of American military adventurism. It was during George W. Bush’s presidency that “civilian casualties” in Iraq became “collateral damage.”

Verbal camouflage reached new heights during General Alexander Haig’s tenure as President Reagan’s secretary of state. Before Haig nobody had thought of saying “at this juncture of maturization” to mean “now.” He told the American people that terrorism could be fought with “meaningful sanctionary teeth” and that intermediate nuclear missiles were “at the vortex of cruciality.” As for any worries that the public might harbor, his message was “leave it to Al,” though what he actually said was: “We must push this to a lower decibel of public fixation. I don’t think there’s much of a learning curve to be achieved in this area of content.”

3:11 pm on March 28, 2007