George Orwell gave us some invaluable words: Newspeak, doublethink, thoughtcrime. Given the generosity of his gift to us, it is probably ungrateful to desire that he had given us a little more, but we could use a term for what he described as the use of “language as an instrument for concealing or preventing thought.” For lack of a genuine Orwellian coinage, I’ll use the word “antithought,” by which I mean a phrase or expression that is intended to prevent understanding rather than to enable it. Antithought includes elements of the linguistic meme, question-begging, and attempts to change the subject.
The great example of our time is the phrase “voting against their own interests,” popularized by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? Those words, or nearly identical ones, turn up everywhere: the beef-witted columns of Robert Reich, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, the Daily Kos, the Bangor Daily News, Alternet, the BBC, The New York Review of Books. Robert Schenkkan even put the phrase into the mouth of Bryan Cranston’s Lyndon Baines Johnson in his new play, All the Way.
As a phrase, “voting against their own interests” clearly has taken on a contagious life of its own, a genuine linguistic meme. But what is its function? Its ostensible function is to communicate the idea that conservative people of modest means, particularly in relatively poor Republican-leaning states, vote for candidates who are in fact hostile to their economic interests, having been beguiled into voting thus by the so-called social issues, by religion, by racism, by Fox News, or by whatever attendant boogeyman will do to swell progressivism, start a tweet or two. But its ostensible function is not its authentic function, nor can it be, because the antithought is engineered to foreclose discussion of the facts that it assumes, those being: (1) that conservative economic policies ill serve lower-income people, notably those in rural and agrarian areas; (2) that economic concerns should, as a matter of self-evident rationality, supersede non-economic concerns; and (3) that people in “Kansas” — that greater Kansas whose borders are not contiguous with those of the 34th state — would concede No. 1 and No. 2 if not for the nefarious operations of certain wicked social and political forces.
None of this should be taken as explaining away the economic difficulties facing the American middle class, the American poor, or, for that matter, the global poor, each of which groups is facing different but serious problems. The purpose of antithought in this context is, as Paul Ryan has been learning, to prevent discussion about why poor people are poor and what might be done about it. It is a tool used to avoid ever making explicit the implicit claim of progressives that the poor would cease being poor if a larger share of the economy were put under political discipline and made subject to the benevolent direction of institutions that progressives control.
Bad language can be good politics. On Sunday evening, I was dismayed, though not surprised, to read Paul Begala denouncing Ken Starr as “obsessed with sex,” Mr. Starr having indulged what Mr. Begala imagines to be some very specific and exotic perversion by submitting a brief in the Hobby Lobby religious-liberties case. Mr. Begala has enjoyed great success deploying the “obsessed with sex” antithought for a decade and a half now, ever since the Clinton machine began chanting it in the manner of an Arkansas-based cargo cult during the Lewinsky affair. That particular antithought was spectacularly successful: Bill Clinton caused the nation’s business to come to a halt because of his uncontrollable sexual appetites and the attendant shame that resulted in his being impeached on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. President Clinton was guilty at least of the perjury charge, as his subsequent disbarment affirmed, but, as my friend Andrew C. McCarthy points out, an impeachment is a political matter rather than a legal one, and the Clinton organization’s arsenal of antithought helped to see him through.
It was a masterpiece of antithought: President Clinton was so sex-obsessed that he was willing to risk his presidency and the national interest in exchange for treating the White House intern pool as his personal seraglio, he lied on national television about it, he betrayed his family and allies, and he suffered the shame of impeachment and disbarment — but it was Ken Starr who was “sex-obsessed” for investigating the crimes that President Clinton committed in the service of his libido. Mr. Begala, who himself once lost an election to Hank the Hallucination, an imaginary character from a cartoon strip, is no prisoner of reality. But then, neither are the members of the constituencies he seeks to build, most of whom are content to derive their understanding of real events and ideas from imaginary characters and middling comedians.
And neither are most voters. Understanding politics and policy is work, because thought is work. Antithought, on the other hand, is easy, which is why such content-free phrases as “X much?” (e.g., “Straw man much?” “Issues much?” etc.), “must have touched a nerve,” and the like pass for insight, even wit. This species of antithought does not quite rise to the level of a talking point, being somewhere between that and a simple grunt. Part of it is lazy thinking, but part of it is the conscious construction and propagation of antithought. “If thought corrupts language,” Orwell wrote, “language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better.” Among the main allures of such “debased language,” he argued, is that it is convenient: “Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy.”
That nothing desirable ever was easy is not advice that one could offer Bill Clinton with a straight face, so Paul Begala’s particular brand of well-engineered illiteracy, which is moral as well as intellectual, can be assumed to be as inevitable as the weather. Antithought is just another tool in the toolbox for campaign operatives and others of that ilk. But a culture of antithought is a different and dangerous thing for the free people of a self-governing republic if they expect to remain such.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent and the author of The End Is Near and It’s Going to Be Awesome.