George Orwell’s novel 1984 depicted Earth as a totalitarian planet. Twenty years after that date, most of the world–and America specifically–has avoided his dystopian vision. Even if Big Brother is watching, no one is required to love him. And, at a minimum, he quadrennially faces the voters.
Still, a new study finds Orwell’s ghost haunting America’s public dialogue. More accurately, the hollow and oxymoronic rhetoric the late British writer described thrives in the United States.
Mark Schmidt, an adjunct scholar with the National Taxpayers Union Foundation, has penned “The Orwellian Language of Big Government,” a concise meditation on how politicians contort words to “turn citizens into subjects.” As Orwell himself warned, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”
“At the national level in particular, elected positions are dominated by career-minded officials who repeat empty and often deliberately misleading or untruthful slogans,” Schmidt writes. “Consider the two most recent Presidential campaigns. After ‘reinventing government,’ we ‘crossed a bridge into the twenty-first century’ to a place where ‘no child is left behind,’ thanks to the wonders of ‘compassionate conservatism.’”
Do those phrases mean anything? Absent Clinton-Gore, would America still be trapped in the 20th century? Were conservatives cruel and coal-hearted before Bush-Cheney? John Kerry’s most memorable utterance this year–”Bring it on!”–doesn’t tell us much, either.
“If this trend continues,” Schmidt fears, “our language will ultimately be useless to express the ideas that form the basis of rational political discourse in a healthy republic.”
Schmidt analyzes numerous sound bites that are so routine most Americans accept them without detecting their internal circularity or outright vacuity.
”The era of big government is over.”–Bill Clinton’s declaration in his 1996 State of the Union address tantalized free-marketeers. If only he meant it. Three years later, he proposed $305 billion in fresh spending, with another $125 billion on the table in 2000. Schmidt writes, “It was truly Orwellian for a President who involved the federal leviathan with the issue of uniforms in local public elementary schools to claim that the era of big government was over.”
Government spending as “investment”–President Bush’s FY 2004 budget boasts “major new investments in…education, Medicare, health care, homeland security, energy independence, the environment, compassion, and the unemployed.” This is one of the Bush White House’s most treasured Clintonian heirlooms. Under Democrats and Republicans, government “investment” suggests that spending tax dollars creates equity-style returns. While some initiatives may be legitimate, disbursing Treasury checks is not the same as purchasing shares of General Electric or Genentech.
”Voluntary compliance”–This term explains the Internal Revenue Service’s notion that taxpayers donate their money to the Treasury. According to the IRS publication Why Do I Have to Pay Taxes?: “Voluntary compliance means that each of us is responsible for filing a tax return when required and for determining and paying the correct amount of tax.” Those who violate this compulsory voluntarism can wind up in handcuffs.
”Undocumented worker”–While the term “illegal alien” grates on sensitive ears, it often is a more honest term than “undocumented worker.” As Schmidt notes, many of those who come to America without permission possess bogus or expired documents. Likewise, some illegal immigrants labor diligently in the informal economy while others are here to treat America’s social safety net as a giant hammock. “Undocumented worker” lulls Americans into overlooking these realities.
”Security”–Since September 11, lawmakers promiscuously stamp “security” on their pet projects. Thus one congressman claimed that a $3.5 billion peanut subsidy “strengthens America’s national security.”
”Working families”–Most offensive of all, this battered cliche‚ paints a populist portrait of blue-collar employees who “work” while the landed gentry play croquet and treat martinis as a food group, pausing only to gauge how much their trust funds have grown. Such nonsense subtly forgives higher taxes on the affluent and forgets that well-paid surgeons, screenwriters, and even trial lawyers actually must work to get paid.
Mark Schmidt urges Americans to listen carefully and critically to the often duplicitous words that roll off of politicians’ tongues. As George Orwell taught us: “The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”