Sunday, June 19, 2005

Orwell to the rescue ...

For those inclined to give Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin a pass on his remarks this past week comparing alleged bad behavior at Gitmo to the Holocaust, the Gulag, and the Cambodian Killing Fields, I link to George Orwell's Politics and the English Language.
Consider this: "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."
And this: "When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases -- bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder -- one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy ... And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved ...."
But read the whole thing. It will do wonders for your prose.

8 comments:

  1. Jon Stewart on the "Daily Show" last week gave Durbin the satirical drubbing he deserved, and then went on to show in a series of flashed images how these overwrought Hitler/Nazi references have been lamely used by people on various points of the political spectrum. Then he went on to give a comical, but effective, disquisition on why we really shouldn't use such language. It wasn't Orwell, but it was good. Thus proving, incidentally, that this "fake news" show is one of the best news shows on television -- doing, in fact, some of the journalistic functions that news outlets seem unwilling to do anymore, including showing us the flames when politicians indignantly insist they never put their own or someone else's pants on fire.
    Sincerely,
    Willis Wayde

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  2. I was going to mention last week's Daily Show, but I got a little case of writer's block. (You did it much better than I would have, even sans-block.)

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  3. I'm coming into this a little bit sideways, but I want to second the motion about George Orwell's "Politics and The English Lauguage." I've used the essay for over 20 years with my students as a way to open minds to deliberate abuse of the language, particularily the deception of the passive voice, heard rampantly in ad campaigns before elections. My creative writers love Orwell's list of "rules" late in the piece, especially his "Break any of the above rules rather than saying anything outright barbarous."

    For insight into political (and legal) nonsense speech, which is sometimes more malicious than benign neglect, I suggest too Max Shulman's "Love is A Fallacy," required reading in all of my Philosophy classes. It's from "The Secret Life of Dobie Gillis," and it's a narrative/essay that entertainingly teaches the common logical fallacies that politicians, lawyers (and sometimes professors) often deliberately commit to manipulate readers/listeners.

    James A. Freeman

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  5. James: Being probably one of the few extant admirers -- or even rememberers -- of Max Shulman, I feel compelled to note, respectfully, that the title of the book, which I have in front of me as I type, is actually "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis." I do not recall the contents of the chapter you mention, "Love Is a Fallacy" -- I will have go back and read it again -- but there is another, "The King's English," that is also an excellent lesson in language, not surprising in one who handled it so nimbly as Max Shulman.
    Sincerely,
    Willis Wayde

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  6. You're right, of course, Willis. Thanks for the Max Shulman update. He's quite under-appreciated.

    James A. Freeman

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  7. The army's criminal investigation into the brutal deaths of two detainees at detention center in Bagram, Afghanistan (NYT) said that the torture-murder of one innocent cabdriver by US Army interrogators "seemed driven by little more than boredom or cruelty, or both; one detainee [the cabdriver], who had been chained to the top of his cell by his wrists for many days, was taken for last abusive interrogation when most of interrogators believed he was innocent."

    This New York Times story made me face the fact that our troops are in some cases acting exactly like the Gestapo we learned to abhor as children. The army investigation was separate from the FBI reports on Guantanamo Bay which Durbin was quoting. Durbin's mistake was not in speaking out in revulsion over these reports, but in apologizing.

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  8. Dear John Hickey:
    The Gestapo's brutalities were the institution's trademarks. The incidents you cite are exceptions, not the rule. Of course, you're free to equate our military with the Gestapo. I just hope you remember to thank them for protecting your right to do so.

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