George Orwell remains a valuable writer, though he died in 1950. He was a man who was an active participant in his times, and since the new century appears to be going down the same road as the last one, we can still learn from him.
His essay "Politics and the English Language" ought to be read by every journalist and by everyone who reads journalists or listens to the babble on television.
"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," he wrote. "When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.
"In our age, there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia," Orwell wrote. Earlier in the essay he had said, "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible."
Our time and his time remain the same. We invade a sovereign nation based on lies, destroy its infrastructure, depose its government and kill 30,000 of its people, and we call that "spreading democracy" or "defending freedom."
The phrase "war on terror" is a phony metaphor. We are not at war. Ninety-nine and 99/100ths percent of the American people are living the same way they’ve always lived. We have troops in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting an insurrection that our invasions of those countries caused. They are at war — a war of their own country’s making — but the rest of us are not. Waving a flag or putting a bumper sticker on one’s car cannot be called a war effort.
The "war" is being relegated to the inside pages, and it’s a safe bet that no matter what happens in Baghdad, the Academy Awards will receive more coverage and notice than the war. In our nutty society, the choice of a comedian to emcee a Hollywood trade show is considered big, national news.
What distinguishes us from other animals is language, and when we use language not to communicate truth as best we can determine it, but to deceive, mislead, obfuscate and obscure the facts, then we are committing the ultimate sin against humanity. We are playing a dangerous game with our own sanity.
Our own journalists sanitize even their skimpy coverage of the war. The American people must not be allowed to see the real face of war, lest they withdraw their support. The real face of war, of course, is broken bodies, blood, splattered brains and innards, horrible burns and other mutilations. There are no pleasant aspects of war. So, Americans are allowed to see soldiers giving candy to children, and occasionally an explosion on the horizon or the wreckage after the bodies have been removed.
In the meantime, the president and his folks blather on in carefully chosen euphemisms and newspeak just as if they were characters in an Orwell novel. At least the American people are at last beginning to catch on, and Bush’s approval rating is 34 percent and his vice president’s rating is 18 percent. That speaks well of the American people. They do trust their politicians, though that trust is often abused, but eventually they begin to check actions against words, facts against claims. Once they realized they’ve been bamboozled, then all the fancy words and euphemisms in the world won’t restore their trust.
Bush has been in trouble in Iraq and Europe and Asia, and now he appears to be in trouble at home. He has three more years, so it would be a great help if this year one or both of the houses of Congress shifted to Democratic control. That would restore the checks and balances so necessary to preserve liberty, not that Democrats are any prize. That doesn’t matter. The genius of our Founding Fathers is that they realized that as long as government fights itself, the liberty of the people is safe.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.