George Orwell argues, in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” that bad politics and unclear thoughts lead to bad language. And he continues with the converse so that the cycle becomes interminable:
But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. 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.
Orwell has a simple solution to this infinitely regressive problem. If language gets cleaned up then the thoughts and politics that correlate with language will too become clearer. Orwell seems to claim that undoing back politics is much harder than reversing the trends of sloppy language. So deal with the language thing, and the politics will follow.
Orwell’s insight seems to have become more pertinent in the last few years. The sloppy language and infantile distinctions that Bush the Younger employed – e.g., good and evil, with us or against us, stared into his soul (re Putin), etc. – were both a cause and an effect of his sloppy use of American power and authority.
And then came Obama. And it was so obvious that he used language differently than those in power who’d come before. It seemed similarly obvious that this meant his thoughts and politics must be different as well. The man was combating a political malaise that had blanketed America with a refreshingly cogent kind of language which would in turn recreate America’s politics like Charlie Christian’s use of solo lead-guitar lines recreated the politics of the guitar.
But what happened then? Why hasn’t Obama’s clearer use of language been able to commensurately alter politics? I mean, it isn’t as if Obama has been all bad. Certainly he’s accomplished some valuable things. For example, while he hasn’t tacked from the Bushian strategy of preemptive strikes and what not, he certainly has recalibrated America’s position within an international and multilateral world. But remember the days when Obama stated confidently that the choice between security and values was a false choice and that American didn’t need to sacrifice its values for the sake of security? In the fullness of his first term, it seems now that Obama no longer treats this as a false choice.
And then there is the economy? Why has the economy and the general domestic landscape been so impervious to regeneration?
Perhaps there are many reasons. Perhaps he didn’t appoint the right people to advise him. Perhaps the people that advise him have really been slow-walking him. Perhaps the structural and procedural requirements of Washington have unwittingly constrained him, made actual change impossible.
And then, while reading through the speech on the economy that Obama gave the other day, I was hit by another thought. Because here he was at it again, making a great speech and using language like he was its master and not, as was the case with Bush the Younger, overwhelmed by its complexity. An excerpt:
When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, it drags down the entire economy, from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity — that’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars they made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.
Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsized voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. And it leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them — that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans.
This isn’t socialism. It’s conceding that unbridled excesses of capitalism and non-regulation ought to be curbed, like yellow lines should be drawn down the middle of the road so everyone knows where to drive. It shouldn’t be so hard to get the rest of Washington to acknowledge this stuff.
But why do I have so little faith that Obama will be able to effect anything? Why, while admitting that he can still talk a sweet game, do I now think that his walk is all tired and limpy. Why is it that I feel like regardless of the fact that Obama clearly identifies the structural problems with political economies, and speaks well about these problems, he seems so powerless to do anything about it?
Perhaps it’s because the negative of Orwell’s statement doesn’t hold. Sadly, good language does not, necessarily, produce good politics.