January 07, 2007


GEORGE ORWELL WROTE “Politics and the English Language” in 1946, but the collective degeneration that prompted him to write this provocative essay has become so widespread (and so obviously induced), the passage of 60 years has transformed the following paragraphs from protest to prophecy:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language -- so the argument runs -- must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric lights or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible. Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration...

(O)ne ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark, its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. 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. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s habits…(Orwell, A Collection of Essays, A Harvest Book, Harcourt, Inc., New York: 1981; pgs. 156-157 and 170-171.)

Though Orwell would die in1950, he had already identified what by the 1960s would become the terminal affliction of the United States: the intellectual paralysis that enabled not only the slaying of the New Deal (and therefore the extinction of the American Dream) but also the assassination of the entire American experiment in constitutional democracy -- all victims of the deliberate process described today by a cunningly inoffensive and deceptively gentle label: “dumbing down.” Yet “dumbing down” is anything but gentle. Never mind how stealthy the assault or how slow the resultant death, “dumbing down” is nothing less than a murderous attack on the very skills that define our humanity -- the deliberate suppression of our individual intellects and thus our ability for collective action. “Dumbing down” is indeed the ultimate mechanism of sociopolitical control and socioeconomic predictability. It is the gradual imposition of a carefully cultivated mental retardation, a methodical zombification by which our corporate rulers (through their absolute control of public education and mass media) reduce us individually to mindless malleability and collectively to Moron Nation: this -- the process of forcible moronation -- obviously to make it that much easier to herd us all into the sweatshops of Global Capitalism. As Orwell said, “the decline of language must ultimately have political and economic causes…”

In which context compare the following two paragraphs:

A new business-backed group… mounting a highly visible attack against organized labor…ran full-page advertisements in national newspapers yesterday and started a website…asserting that many unions are corrupt and have hurt airlines, steel makers and automakers.

The worker's rights movement. I don't even want to say "labor movement" right now because that brings to mind unions and so many of them are corrupt too, doing very little to help protect worker's rights on a bigger scale.

The first paragraph is the lead of a news report, “Group Starts Anti-Union Campaign” by Steven Greenhouse, which appeared in The New York Times on 14 February 2006. The full text, for which free registration is required, is available here. The second paragraph -- identical in its condemnation of unions and unionism and rendered even more venomous by its distinctly personal tone -- appears in a 2 January 2007 moderators' post on Progressive Independent, a website that not only proclaims itself to be the cutting edge of leftist political thinking in the U.S., but anoints itself a virtual messiah, come “to shift the political center leftward to counteract the neo drift our country has been on for the last 40 years.” The post and its associated thread is linked here.

Never mind the issue of Orwellian meaninglessness evoked by the term “neo drift” (however much a “neo” -- whatever that is -- might be inclined to sink in a metaphoric sea). The point here is that the two superficially different websites -- one an unapologetic facilitator of corporate tyranny, the other a self-declared haven for those who label themselves “progressive” despite the huge contradiction of their definitively fascist attitude toward organized labor -- demonstrate identical hatred and contempt for those of us who recognize that union solidarity is our only defense against the wage-slave economy into which capitalism is undeniably transforming itself.

Thus are we led to a revealing lesson not only in the deterioration of language and the prevalence of the Big Lie, but in how the bigotry of the bourgeoisie -- the knee-jerk class-prejudice of the sneering yuppies who are the factotums of the real corporate Fat Cats -- shatters leftist solidarity even as it pretends to do the opposite. Until we in the working class recognize that affliction -- that is, until all of us who must sell our labor to survive understand not only that we are in the most merciless class war in human history but that we have been methodically denied the very language that would identify our plight (language that would also reveal rebuilding the labor movement as the logical first step toward our victory) -- we will continue to sink ever deeper into chaos and thus disempowerment. To paraphrase an old song of the coal-mine wars:

In this our stolen country
Neutrality’s a lie
You either stand with working folk
Or with the thieves ally

O which side are you on
Which side are you on?

Posted by Loren at January 7, 2007 06:49 PM | TrackBack

1984 v Brave New World comparisons are a dime a dozen and pretty cliched, but I had a great commentary differentiating the two especially when it comes to Big Brother-style displays or the lack thereof in America today.

Damn if I can find the link now though, I think it was posted on PI once but the fucking search feature there sucks

Posted by: Kid at January 7, 2007 10:28 PM

Exceptional Loren -- Little more than enablers of a class system they, themselves, take for granted-as if the advertisement of elevated socio-economic status makes their efforts so much more laudable, suggesting they could've been successful professionals, disappointing the folks--multimillionaire lawyers! Instead, they prostrate themselves in front of their mirror images and peer down their noses at those who discuss class inequity, while they feel better about the activist service they provide--protesting, demonstrating, waving banners for peace--platitudes replete with acceptance of political expedient realities--which make it all null and void.
Why pay attention to their mindless, clueless vain prattle and back-slapping about shared privilige, effort and sacrifice that we should be in awe of elevating themselves to banish others who may have had a different life path experience. Imagine the gross deceptive hypocrisy of touting unity after they bullied and booted those not in lock-step out. What a pathetic joke. Just like their new age guru, who talks the language of peace but doesn't make political votes to bak it up when there are lives actually in the balance.

Posted by: Raphaelle at January 8, 2007 09:27 AM

Interesting post. Much different from most of the blogs I read. Keep up the good work!

Posted by: PoliticalCritic at January 10, 2007 07:34 AM