Politics & Policy

Orwell’s Orphans

The meaning of meaningless jargon.

This guy gives a piece of matzoh to a blind man. The blind man says, “Who writes this stuff?”

Now if you don’t get that, it’s probably because you don’t know what matzoh is — it’s that flat, crackery unleavened bread my people first started eating when we had to blow out of Egypt in a rush. The blind guy thinks it’s Braille… get it?

Now, consider this:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

If you don’t get that, it’s because you are a relatively smart and reasonable person.

Maybe I’m revealing too much about my middle-brow-ness, but I think the bumps on a piece of matzoh are more decipherable to a blind man than this passage.

Who wrote it? Well, Homi Bhabha of course. Who’s Homi Bhabha? Where’ve you been, buddy? Homi’s one of the hottest “post-colonial theorists” in the world — which is not unlike saying “the best Octoberfest in Orlando.”

When Harvard snatched this “prize catch” from the University of Chicago, according to the New York Times, it was “regarded as a major coup, as if Sammy Sosa had defected to the Boston Red Sox.” The chairman of the English department declared, “He’s manifestly one of the most distinguished cultural theorists of the postcolonial and diasporic experience in the world.” Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of the Afro-American studies department, told the Times, “It was our dream to get Homi Bhabha.”

Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to spend any more time on postmodernism and post-colonial gobbledygook today. I’m not even going to talk about Homi Bhabha that much. Though I should note that the above passage, by the “Sammy Sosa” of the academic world, came in second in Philosophy and Literature’s annual bad writing contest. The winner came from Judith Butler, a gender theorist at Berkeley. Her entry:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

To cram so much indecipherability into a single sentence is the linguistic equivalent of stuffing ten pounds of manure into a five-pound bag.

Anyway, I have nothing to say about the “substance” of Ms. Butler’s comments either — largely because I have no idea what she’s saying (though my college exposure to much more gender theory than post-colonial theory makes it a bit less indecipherable than the other passage, I’m ashamed to say).

Denis Dutton, the editor who launched the bad writing contest (and who launched the incalculably valuable site Arts & Letters Daily), summed it up nicely: “To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.”

Orphaning Orwell

I’m not sure I totally agree with that. In fact, I think miscommunication has everything to do with it. But I’m sure Dutton would agree with me when I say that if George Orwell were alive today, he would beat these people into submission with a London phonebook.

Why drag Orwell into this? Well, because he is the secular saint of clean writing and clear thinking.

Orwell argued that bad thinking and bad language are, in the parlance of today’s twelve-step culture, mutual enablers. “A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, but then fail all the more completely because he drinks,” Orwell noted by way of illustration. The English language “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

This was especially true in the realm of political speech. He noted in his brilliant 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” that “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible.” The “transfer of populations” or the “elimination of unreliable elements” were, for example, what people say when they really mean, “I believe in killing my opponents when I can get good results by doing so.”

Orwell’s essay could have been written today, and if you haven’t read it, you should. Indeed, some of his observations are flatly depressing because they reveal how bad things have been for so long. For example, Orwell writes: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable.’” Anybody who’s listened to some college kid — or professor — denounce some new on-campus parking policy or a change in financial aid as “fascist,” knows exactly what Orwell’s talking about.

That the English language has not improved much since Orwell’s day in a sense makes the current plight much more unforgivable. Orwell was writing during perhaps the most political age in human history. In the period from, say, 1930 to 1950, more people’s lives were changed or ended by the demands of politics than during any other. Orwell often wrote about the moral obligation he felt to write on political issues because politics was killing people. As he illustrated in 1984, the crime of totalitarianism was only secondarily that it destroyed language when it made lies into the truth — “War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” “Ignorance is Strength,” 2+2 equals whatever the state tells you it means.

No, the crime of totalitarianism was first and foremost that it killed and brutalized people. The abuse of language was just the cover-up which, like with booze and the boozer, made ever more heinous atrocities possible. Orwell writes: “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 the mental pictures of them.”

Standing Orwell on His Head

Today, the situation is reversed. Here in America — the very place the Homi Bhabhas and Judith Butlers denounce as “hegemonic” whatchamacallits and “enunciatory” thingamajigs — there are no totalitarian crimes. They do not exist. America is a lovely place. We are not “transferring populations” or anything of the sort.

In Orwell’s day, the fog of jargon was a smoke screen to conceal real horrors; today the jargon is just so much smoke, to hide the fact that there’s no fire. Read pretty much anything by Cornel West and you’ll find all sorts of euphemisms brimming with racial or anti-capitalist sound and fury, signifying nothing.

This, in and of itself, can be a moral horror of a different sort. Take the word “ethnic cleansing” — a truly Orwellian word, worthy of Stalin when describing what happened in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda. But here at home it turns Orwell on his head. Here it is a euphemism to allege or elevate a “crime” that has not occurred at all. For example, when Rudy Giuliani proposed curtailing a remedial-reading program at City College, Bob Herbert of the New York Times compared the move to “ethnic cleansing.” Imagine if Herbert had instead said, simply, “Mayor Giuliani wants to round up underachieving black and Hispanic students and shoot them in the back of the head.” Using the plain meaning of the phrase doesn’t reveal the truth of Herbert’s point of view, it reveals that he’s hysterical.

Start looking around, you’ll find dozens of similar examples. The common comparison of various diseases, “global warming,” and even the Florida vote recount to the Holocaust comes to mind. So do the constant misuses of the word “terrorism.” Ken Lay isn’t an “economic terrorist,” you know, he is at worst a white-collar criminal. In fact, I like the word “terrorist” less and less in any context. We aren’t at war with generic “terrorists.” We are at war with Muslim fanatics. Calling them “terrorists” may be more convenient for diplomatic purposes, but it is indisputably less accurate. That is, unless you can point out a lot of radical Presbyterians in al Qaeda.

Tyranny of Euphemisms

Today’s intellectual elite — the stars of Harvard and Berkeley — speak in such gibberish precisely because if they spoke plainly, clearing the smoke from their ideas, we’d learn that their views cover the spectrum from boringly unoriginal to sand-poundingly stupid. So-called “new theories” and “path-breaking approaches” are most often little more than novel, but increasingly ugly, arrangements of the same old deck chairs on the Lido deck of the Titanic.

Think about the euphemisms in common currency on today’s campuses. Invariably, they’re new clothes for old ideas the young and enlightened are scared to admit they still enjoy. The “socially aware” aren’t left-wingers, and neither are “activists for social change.” The seeming neutrality of the phrases belies the obvious fact that they imply a very specific form of “social change” — otherwise the KKK would be activists for social change too. It also reveals the deep arrogance of the people who use them, because their language assumes an objective truth. “Sustainable growth” can only mean one form of Swedish economics, for example. “Tolerance” means accepting “sexual minorities” — but mocking religious majorities at every turn.

But, hey, that’s what makes them euphemisms. If “economic justice” could mean something other than some flavor of socialism, they’d have to come up with a new word for it. If “minority” could refer to Finnish Americans, they’d have to run back to the drawing board and come up with something else.

Last November, the New York Times visited a guest lecture by Homi Bhabha to a Harvard anthropology class. The course was entitled “Idealism 101,” its mission to contemplate how to become “ethically serious global citizens.” Mr. Bhabha’s remarks received “a sustained round of applause,” according to the Times. This was “proof positive,” said the class’s regular professor, “of what an agent of social change” Bhabha is.

The Times story concludes: “Afterward, Emma Firestone, an 18-year-old freshman, said that Mr. Bhabha had made a positive impression. Nevertheless, she admitted, ‘I couldn’t exactly follow everything he said.’”

Of course, if Bhabha was capable of explaining his ideas cogently, he would either be teaching at some third-tier community college or he’d be writing for The Nation. But one thing is certain: He’d have bored little Emma Firestone to death.


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