Monday, May 17, 2004

And the rhetoric shifts

The thing about the Bush administration which most fascinates me and repels me at the same time is its masterful use of language. The administration constantly twists and perverts language for the maximum possible advantage. Any criticism of the president's Iraq policy becomes "undermining the troops." Any criticism of domestic policy is "divisive" and "partisan." As someone who loves the English language, to see it warped so is sickening. But as a student of language and rhetoric, I can't help but be impressed. Bush really has some geniuses working for him.

Anyone even the slightest bit concerned about how the Bush administration is governing the country should read George Orwell's monumental 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. Orwell, of course, was an expert on how language is perverted for political ends. I often wonder if American society will end up a lot like Orwell's chilling vision. It's possible, especially if Bush gets four more years, and I think it's what the neoconservatives currently running the country would love to see.

Anyway, Orwell's essay isn't very long, and it's required reading for anyone who uses the English language. More to the point, it's uncannily prescient when you consider that it's almost 60 years old:

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.
Remind you of "enemy combatant"? "Evildoers"?

So to get to what brought all this on: The head of the Iraqi Governing Council was just assassinated. And here's what Paul Bremer had to say about it:

"The terrorists who are seeking to destroy Iraq have struck a cruel blow with this vile act today," Mr. Bremer said in a statement. "But they will be defeated." He added, "The Iraqi people will ensure that his vision of a democratic, free and prosperous Iraq will become a reality."
Pay attention: Bremer said this "in a statement," which means it came straight from the Ministry of Truth in the White House. But here's the rub: Note how the rhetoric has shifted.

The Iraqi people will ensure that Iraq becomes a democracy.

Brilliant. Bremer just shifted the entire responsibility for creating an Iraqi democracy onto the Iraqi people. Of course, for the past year the rhetoric has been all about how the United States will create a democracy in the Middle East. About how WE will help them and shepherd them and make sure that democracy becomes a reality. (Ignore for the moment the question of whether this was ever a possibility.) But now, if something bad happens, we ask: "What are the Iraqi people going to do about it?"

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