Michael's Essay: The Orwell Gospel

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George Orwell was prescient in so many ways.

This week, Michael discusses how an essay the author wrote in 1946 has much to say about political discourse in 2012. Language gurus train politicians in the fine art of never-ending conversation that is devoid of substance and truth. 

You can see it most clearly in the United States, but it's also creeping into political discussions north of the border.

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Sixty-six years ago this month, George Orwell published an essay in the British literary magazine, Horizon. It was called Politics and the English Language. Since its publication, it has become one of Orwell's most read, most cited and most popular essays.

In it, he tried to make connections between the decline in the proper use of English as he saw it and the degradation of politics in the world's democracies.

What he called slovenly language, in his mind invariably led to foolish, even dangerous ways of thinking about politics. QUOTE: "The decline of a language must ultimately have political and economical causes. In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible."

Orwell was writing shortly after the end of the Second World War, during which England had flirted with the idea of fascism. The country was struggling with the huge costs of the war, there was rationing and high unemployment and fearful things were being written about the state of its democracy.

A close reading of his essay suggests that his complaint about the debasement of English and its consequences have a certain relevance to our politics today, especially in North America. Political speech has become, in our time, what Orwell warned against in his - an instrument for concealing or preventing thought. The clearest example of this is what is happening in the politics of the United States.

A writer-slash-consultant named Frank Luntz has made a lot of money instructing politicians, particularly Republicans, in how to make successful use of political doublespeak. Mr. Luntz has been a guest speaker at Conservative gatherings in Canada. In his book Words that Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, he outlines how to manipulate the language to hide or at least fudgify reality.

For example, in economic discussions, never use the term capitalism. It has an unsavoury connotation. Instead say "economic freedom" or "free market."  Don't talk about government spending; call it government waste. Never say that government taxes the rich. Say instead "the government takes from the rich." Don't talk about huge payouts to bankers and CEOs as a bonus. Instead call them "pay for performance."

Elements of Luntzism have crept across the border. In Canada, our politicians at every level talk about savings instead of cuts to services. Unemployment insurance has become employment insurance. Oil companies have persuaded our media to use the term oil sands instead of tar sands even though the thick bitumen looks very much like runny tar. Oil sands, good; tar sands, bad.

Deficits, instead of calling them what they are, a fiscal tool in the economy, are called debt burdens we are leaving to our children. As Orwell put it in his essay, QUOTE: "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

Or as that other great public intellectual of modern times, George Costanza of Seinfeld, put it, QUOTE: "It's not a lie if you believe it."

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