Eyes Like Blank Discs – The Guardian’s Steven Poole On George Orwell’s Politics And The English Language
January 21, ‘Orwell Day’, marked the 63rd anniversary of George Orwell’s death, Steven Poole notes in the Guardian. To commemorate 110 years since Orwell was born (June 25), BBC radio will broadcast a series about his life while Penguin will publish a new edition of his essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’. This essay, Poole comments, is Orwell’s ‘most famous shorter work, and probably the most wildly overrated of any of his writings’.
Why ‘wildly overrated’?
‘Much of it is the kind of nonsense screed against linguistic pet hates that anyone today might compose in a green-text email to the newspapers.’
The essay’s ‘assault on political euphemism’, it seems, ‘is righteous but limited’, while its more general attacks ‘on what he perceives to be bad style are often outright ridiculous, parading a comically arbitrary collection of intolerances’.
This is strong stuff indeed. Was one of Orwell’s most highly-regarded essays really about venting ‘linguistic pet hates’? The answer is in the essay. Orwell noted that the writing he admired was generally provided by ‘some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line”. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style’.
As for the mainstream productions of his day – the ‘pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos’:
‘one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them’.
This typically dramatic and disturbing passage makes clear that Orwell was not focusing on ‘linguistic pet hates’. Rather, he was motivated to resist a process of social dehumanisation facilitated by ‘imitative’ and ‘lifeless’ communication, by a toxic ‘orthodoxy’. He underlined his reasoning:
‘I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.’
If this was a crucial issue in Orwell’s time, it is even more so today.
In his book The Sane Society, published five years after Orwell’s death, Erich Fromm explored the ‘curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being’ with his analysis of the ‘marketing orientation’:
‘In this orientation, man experiences himself as a thing to be employed successfully on the market. He does not experience himself as an active agent, as the bearer of human powers. He is alienated from these powers. His aim is to successfully sell himself on the market.’ (Fromm, The Sane Society, Rinehart and Winston, 1955, pp.137-8)
‘Being employed, he is not an active agent, has no responsibility except the proper performance of the isolated piece of work he is doing… Nothing more is expected of him, or wanted from him. He is part of the equipment hired by capital, and his role and function are determined by this quality of being a piece of equipment.’ (Ibid., pp.175-6)
This, Fromm argued, was symptomatic of the rise of a ‘machine society’, which ‘has been described most imaginatively by Orwell and Aldous Huxley’. (Fromm, The Revolution Of Hope, Harper & Row, 1968, p.41)
Orwell and Fromm understood that broader political and ethical concerns were being eliminated from awareness by state-corporate forces persuading people to view themselves as producers and consumers rather than as responsible human beings.
More recently, American physicist Jeff Schmidt, who edited Physics Today magazine for 19 years, describes how media professionals are trained in exactly this way to internalise the understanding that they should not ‘question the politics built into their work’:
‘The resulting professional is an obedient thinker, an intellectual property whom employers can trust to experiment, theorise, innovate and create safely within the confines of an assigned ideology. The political and intellectual timidity of today’s most highly educated employees is no accident.’ (Schmidt, Disciplined Minds, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, p.16)
Ironically, Poole’s review of Orwell is itself a textbook example of the kind of alienated response described by Orwell, Fromm and Schmidt.
Far-Off Sandy Places And Pre-Emptive War
Whereas Orwell’s essay is the work of an impassioned, outspoken individual opposing 'the machine society’, Poole’s article is the work of a corporate professional operating ‘within the confines of an assigned ideology’.
Indicatively, Poole writes that Orwell’s essay ‘is savagely contemptuous of politicians and what they say’. True, but Poole omits to mention that it is also ‘savagely contemptuous’ of ‘pamphlets’ and ‘leading articles’ – that is, of Poole’s own profession. Clearly, it would have been absurd for Orwell to focus solely on the political abuse of language while ignoring mainstream journalism. But as we have documented many times, honest analysis of this issue is deeply problematic for any corporate media employee. Imagine Poole agreeing with, or even mentioning, this comment from Orwell's essay 'England Your England':
'Is the English press honest or dishonest? At normal times it is deeply dishonest. All the papers that matter live off their advertisements, and the advertisers exercise an indirect censorship over news.'
‘Media invocations of Orwell's virtues increased markedly after 9/11, when it seemed to some opportunist intellectuals as though his life and oeuvre prophetically justified the pre-emptive invasion of far-off sandy places.’
Orwell would have enjoyed the breezy reference to ‘far-off sandy places’ in describing British and American bloodbaths constituting some of the greatest crimes of the modern era. He would also have noticed Poole’s reference to ‘pre-emptive invasion’ and his omission of the key adjective ‘illegal’. In reality, of course, there was no question of the West acting to stop an intended attack by Iraq or Afghanistan. Noam Chomsky commented:
‘The [Bush regime's] strategy asserts the right of the US to undertake “preventive war” at will: Preventive, not pre-emptive. Pre-emptive war might fall within the framework of international law. Thus if bombers had been detected approaching the US from a military base in Grenada, then, under a reasonable interpretation of the UN Charter, a pre-emptive attack destroying the planes and perhaps even the Grenadan base would have been justifiable.
‘But the justifications for pre-emptive war do not hold for preventive war, particularly as that concept is interpreted by its current enthusiasts: the use of military force to eliminate an imagined or invented threat. Preventive war falls within the category of war crimes.’
Poole is unhappy with this, one of Orwell’s most celebrated passages:
‘In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness… Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’
‘What is worrying, however, is that Orwell's diagnosis of “cloudy vagueness” and “pure wind” might seem to sanction an impatient dismissal. Should we just assume that everything politicians say is hot air? To do so would be to let our guards down… Rather than waving it away as “pure wind”, it is necessary to listen all the more closely to this stuff, because you need to bring the buried argument out into the open in order to defeat it.’
These are really curious grounds for criticising such insightful and courageous comments. Orwell’s essay is precisely an exercise in bringing out the buried arguments in order to defeat them, as he makes clear:
‘One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs.’
Orwell’s concern was not at all with complacently ‘waving… away’ political speech, but with challenging and discrediting language that makes ‘murder respectable’.
Of The Critical Spirit And The Corporate Professional
Poole provides his own examples of the modern abuse of language:
‘Political rhetoric now as in Orwell's day exploits not only euphemism ("austerity") but dysphemism ("skivers") and loaded metaphor ("fiscal cliff")’
‘Take the ubiquitous calls today for European countries to do just what will “reassure the markets”, as though holders of government bonds were trembling, paranoid little flowers who must be psychically coddled at all costs.’
This is a feeble swipe, at best. Are these really the most toxic examples of modern ‘newspeak’? It is hard to imagine how anyone could write an article reviewing Orwell today without mentioning the endless use of the term ‘humanitarian intervention’ as a cover for savage Western realpolitik. Orwell would have found bitter significance in the fact that the destruction of Iraq – with one million dead as a result of the 2003 war – was part of an ‘ethical foreign policy': old-style imperialism conducted by 'New Labour'.
Similarly, to read Hans von Sponeck’s analysis of the sanctions regime imposed on Iraq at the cost of half a million infant lives, A Different Kind Of War (Berghahn Books, 2006), is to almost see the light catch on the spectacles of the international political system such that it ‘turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them’.
A further hard-to-miss classic of Orwellian ‘newspeak’ was the 2011 ‘no-fly zone’ used to enforce Nato’s ‘one-side-may-fight zone’ favouring Nato’s allies as part of the West’s cynical determination to impose regime change on Libya.
And how can we discuss Orwell’s views on thought control without mentioning, for example, that six media corporations closely allied to state power now control 90 per cent of what Americans read, watch and hear? The high-tech surveillance of an increasingly digitised world policed by untouchable killer robots fighting ‘perpetual war’ is also straight out of Orwell’s 1984.
By contrast, this mildly amusing episode of Poole’s Unspeak web-video series is closer to light comedy than to Orwell’s fierce political analysis.
Like so many corporate journalists, Poole writes with a detached, cynical tone. In our media culture, it is cool to mock, but decidedly uncool to become a ‘crusader’ for a cause in the way of Orwell, who was very nearly killed fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell was passionately engaged in attempts to change the world. He perceived suffering and injustice as his personal responsibility, his work was clearly driven by the intense anguish he felt.
But this is really not what the Guardian, or corporate journalism in general, is about. Why? Because journalists are employed professionals, 'part of the equipment hired by capital'. Poole, for example, is paid to write book reviews for his employer, the corporate Guardian. And yet he has the gall to suggest that Orwell’s ‘assault on political euphemism’ is ‘righteous but limited’.
Schmidt highlights the gulf that separates free-thinking dissidents like Orwell from the average media professional:
‘Real critical thinking means uncovering and questioning social, political and moral assumptions; applying and refining a personally developed worldview; and calling for action that advances a personally created agenda. An approach that backs away from any of these three components lacks the critical spirit.’
Apparently oblivious to the compassion that drove Orwell, Poole pours derision on his ‘linguistic xenophobia’:
‘His essay comforts, for example, the kind of Little Englander of the verbals who is suspicious of words from beyond these shores. If you ever feel tempted to say “status quo” or “cul de sac”, for instance, Orwell will sneer at you for “pretentious diction.”’
Why? ‘Because these phrases are of “foreign” origin.’ Poole adds:
‘Orwell's eccentric final tip-list includes “Never use a long word where a short one will do” (why ever not?), and “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” No good reason is offered or indeed imaginable…’
Again, Orwell’s real objection is clear: language should be ‘an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought’.
Poole reveals much when he writes that Orwell’s writing tips are ‘are all undone by the last: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” But, the eager student might ask, how is one to tell whether what one has said is barbarous or not? Orwell is silent on the matter. Presumably it ends up being a question of taste.’
Here a cold light really is glinting from the ‘blank discs’ of modern corporate culture. Fromm again:
‘To the degree to which a person conforms he cannot hear the voice of his conscience, much less act upon it. Conscience exists only when man experiences himself as man, not as a thing, as a commodity.’ (Fromm, The Sane Society, op. cit., p.168)
In our corporate age, questions of conscience make no sense. In the absence of some guiding authority they become a mere ‘question of taste’.
Poole concludes his piece:
‘Orwell even concedes, at the end of “Politics”, that you could follow all his rules and “still write bad English”. But then, compiling lists of writing tips is a pleasant work-avoidance strategy for writers, too.’
Is there anything in our modern world that might cause us to be impassioned, outraged, even compelled to act? It seems not.
Shepherding us towards this conclusion, it should hardly need saying, is a key function of our corporate, decidedly unfree press.