George Orwell Has a Few Words for President Obama

A year or two ago, my friend Andrew sent me a digital copy of George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.” It was written in 1946 and connects poor writing with insincerity and political ideology. Generally, the text can be followed as an instruction manual for writers; it offers some basic advice that both beginners and professionals should remember. More specifically, it relates language to critical thinking and the use of ready-made phrases to laziness and insincerity, among other things.

As journalists, politicians, and other commentators continue to document and investigate the events developing in Egypt, my mind returns to this essay repeatedly. Obeying its rules has helped me improve my writing, but scrutinizing its political dimensions has taught me much more. With ease and directness, he clarifies how bad prose damages truthfulness and perpetuates both injustice and dishonesty. An excellent example of his insight  occurs near the essay’s end:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.” Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

“While freely conceding that the Soviet regime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigors which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.”

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. 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 spurting 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.

The last sentence reminds me of President Obama’s remarks about Egypt and Hosni Mubarak. Orwell makes it clear why Egyptians and many Arabs are so dissatisfied with American foreign policy; behind the mask of calm demands and measured criticisms is another message altogether, and it’s of the same kin as pacification, transfer of population, or the rectification of frontiers. Obama’s language is more insidious than that, though, because it pretends friendliness and allegiance to democracy without demonstrating it. Just look at the transcript of the remarks he made about Mubarak, Cairo, and Egypt yesterday:

And my administration has been in close contact with our Egyptian counterparts and a broad range of the Egyptian people, as well as others across the region and across the globe. And throughout this period, we’ve stood for a set of core principles.

Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders — only the Egyptian people can do that. What is clear, and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak, is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.

To the people of Egypt, particularly the young people of Egypt, I want to be clear, we hear your voices. I have an unyielding belief that you will determine your own destiny and seize the promise of a better future for your children and your grandchildren. And I say that as someone who is committed to a partnership between the United States and Egypt.

Though he enumerates several of his beliefs, Obama does not make it clear what core principles he and the American government stand for. He uses the word “democracy” once and mentions universal rights, but does not disclose precisely what those things would mean in Egypt, nor how he envisions their accomplishment. Asking for Mubarak to step down without publicly denouncing him only makes the American relationship with Egypt more suspect, and it weakens the convictions Obama claims to possess.

Meaningful, orderly transition is similarly vague.

Finally, Obama claims to hear the voices of the people of Egypt and reinforces his commitment to a partnership with them. The language is that of business, not universal human rights. The tone is that of timidity, not courage. His ability to hear the people of Egypt is impeded by a foreign policy that has consistently put America in questionable relationships with numerous autocrats.

The Egyptian people hear our government better than our government hears them. Worse, I’m beginning to think the Egyptian people hear our government more clearly than we do.

You can read all of “Politics and the English Language” by visiting this link or by downloading it at this link (PDF file).

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