28 September 2008


The word "Orwellian" is overused and practically a cliche. Here is a Wikipedia overview. Often, it refers to the sort of double-speak and propaganda he dramatizes in 1984, the book for which he is most famous. George Orwell was a journalist and essayist. In 1946, he wrote an iconic essay entitled "Politics and the English Language," (read it, go ahead, then come back; we're not going anywhere) in which he argued that debasement of the English language betokens a debility of political thought. Here's a quote:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly? But you are not obliged to go to all this trouble. You can shirk it by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you -- even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent -- and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. It is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear.
(It is as true of the spoken language as it is of written discourse.)

This phrase was brought to mind recently by this interview (and this blog post) with the person who was selected by the Republican candidate for President of the United States of America as his running mate, the person who will be one 72-year old heartbeat away from being the leader of the so-called "free world":

It's a jumble. Word salad. Talking point mish-mash. Incoherent. Stupid. It's as if she's trying to say things that will please the listener—she's obviously trying really hard. She wants Couric (and her morning show constituency) to like her and she wants to sell a palatable political product. But because it is so obviously canned (and garbled), the listener can't determine what it is she's selling—whether it's a pig in a poke or well-reasoned policy formulation. "Don't worry about the verbiage. Trust us. It doesn't matter what we say, we're Republicans. We're the good guys. Those other people are bad. You can tell because they come off all high-and-mighty. Elitists, don'tcha know. They want to talk to the enemy. We're tough and we will take a stand. We just can't articulate it right now."

Did her job interview with Senator McCain go equally as well. Did he even talk to her before selecting her? If this woman applied for a job as your office manager, would you hire her? What about your CFO? COO? CEO? If she botches simple declarative sentences this badly, how much worse will she botch the job of Vice Presidency?

Words matter.


HumanProject said...

The average person doesn't speak fluently when they have to talk without notes on a complicated topic. They pause, stumble, say "uhm", back track, restart, etc. They know they do this, and they worry that it makes them look inarticulate and unconfident. Because of this, they keep quiet.

Because people know hard it is to be articulate when speaking, they rehearse even a toast at a wedding. They may be shy about public speaking -- sometimes painfully so, begging off from making announcements or running a meeting. They decide not to ask a question after a book reading. They keep quiet.

How is it that Sarah Palin doesn't know how bad she sounds???

Anonymous said...


It's true. I was less than empathetic about Palin's stumbling approach to her interview. But I have high expectations for anyone running for the position of respect and honor she seeks.

I think she does know how bad she sounds and that's why she's been sequestered for the debate tonight. I expect, frankly, that she will do relatively well. Her answers will not be nuanced or fact-filled, and she will resort to her characteristic strengths: charismatic banter, flirting, vague generalities, substanceless answers that evade the question but sound almost like she's saying something, and key phrases which are code words for her base of supporters (such as 'culture of life', 'get government off the backs of the average Joe six-pack of which I am one'...that sort of thing). Frankly, I expect a sort of 'beauty-pageant poise' from her which will come across to many as adequate. Also, I expect her to attack, attack, attack! using falsehoods, misquotes, mischaracterizations, etc., to try and distract her opponent and, more importantly, her audience from her inadequacies.

Thanks for reading and commenting. I look forward to checking out your blog as well.

Jim H.

PS. If you're into Jungian psych at all, I'd be interested to know what you think of my latest couple posts on Echo & Narcissus.

HumanProject said...

Morning after the debate, we see you were exactly right! Folksy phrases that are code words, high wattage smile, relentless attack.

Post-debate interviews suggest that listeners outside the base were not fooled.

What I was implying with "how does she not know how bad she sounds" --> Is this a case of "Politician personality" which could be seen as an extreme form of extroversion and, yes, narcissism, in which one has reduced access to accurate self-perception.

But I agree with you that she did know how badly she sounded. Maybe politician personality is the only thing that would allow someone to keep going after the national humiliation following those Katie Couric interviews.

Re: Echo & Narcissus. I'll take a look.