On Politics and Language

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Before hurling myself back into the local political campaigns, I thought to follow on my most recent column, “The Virtue of Civility.”

Given the response, it seems that you, too, lament the decline of that virtue in our political discourse. Which segues to this week’s subject: language and its abuse in politics. Civility, after all, requires the thoughtful use of words.

First a disclaimer: I’ve been known to use the full-range of the English language, particularly when we watch televised baseball games, and most particularly when the Los Anaheim Angels play poorly. In my defense, at these moments the television is merely the passive recipient of such language, though the dog does tend to leave the room. Besides, baseball historically has offered an appealing – and, I think, healthy — outlet for a fan’s frustration at the world’s shortcomings, baseball and otherwise. And because baseball’s a game, we can always say, as they did in pre-1955 Brooklyn when the Dodgers had yet again fallen short of the World Series championship, “Wait ‘til next year.”

The stakes are higher in politics, though. Bad policy and shoddy governance affect everyone’s quality of life. People can live or die based on the decisions made in Washington, D.C., Sacramento, Santa Ana and Newport Beach. That’s why it’s essential to hold our politicians accountable, as well as our commentators and ourselves, to a more ethical use of language.

This is not a new idea.

I’ve been chewing on it since college, when I encountered George Orwell’s classic essay of 1946, “Politics and the English Language.” Reflecting on the political maelstrom of the World War II era, Orwell charged, “Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists” — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

Orwell cautioned that the political use of vague and abstract language serves as a warning that we’re being gamed. He considered it a moral issue.

It’s not that the Democrats don’t manipulate the language, but that the Republicans have absolutely embedded the concept into their message. They do it chillingly well. I noticed this in 1988, when George H.W. Bush opposed Michael Dukakis in the presidential election. Bush is known as a congenial man – as I mentioned recently, he and Nancy Pelosi were able to find common ground during his presidency. But in this campaign, Bush repeatedly attacked Dukakis as “a liberal.” Bush turned the term into a pejorative, as in “lib’ruhl.”

Thus has it stuck.

Yet the liberal tradition in this country is an honorable one. Coming as I do from the New York tradition of liberal Republicanism, I know well that good, moral ideas come out of the left as well as the right.

To return to baseball for a moment, consider Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in major-league baseball in 1947. One of the earliest white sports writers who led the call for the integration of organized baseball was Lester Rodney. At the risk of spiking blood pressure levels among my conservative friends, I must point out that Rodney was the young sports editor of the New York Daily Worker. That’s right, a certifiable Communist.

The Republican Party of Orange County’s orthodoxy that has hardened over recent decades into stone – no tax increases, no abortions under any circumstances – is reflected in its endorsement of “real” conservatives and “real” Republicans. As the Register’s columnist, Barbara Venezia, recently commented, “I wondered – how many ‘fake’ Republicans are out there?”


This is what Orwell railed against more than 60 years ago. By the use of one short word, “real,” the GOP de-legitimizes Republican candidates who deviate from its orthodoxy and marginalizes lib’ruhl and moderate Republican voters.

The term “real” is also inaccurate. Substitute “obedient, orthodox-thinking” and you’ll get closer to the intent. In the end, the term “real Republican” is meaningless; instead the meaning is found in who uses it: the GOP’s power elite – as in, “This is our approved candidate.”

Finally, consider the term “fiscal conservative.” Most politicians claim it these days, and I happen to like that, expecting that they would presumably be good stewards of our money.

It doesn’t prove out that way.

In this, the Republicans have proved to be myopic and self-interested. Consider the party’s support of the nonsensical farm subsidies for BigAg or the economic consequences of Prop. 13, sold to California voters as a way to keep grandma in her home but with nifty loopholes for corporate landholders such as Disney and the Irvine Company. (To better understand the death-spiral of California’s education system, check out the effects of Prop. 13.)

When a politician claims to be fiscally conservative, remember George Orwell. (His essay is easily Googled: https://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/orwell46.htm.) Read the fine print in campaign flyers and op-eds and ask embarrassing questions.

Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself using the full range of the English language.


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