Friday, July 10, 2009

Orwell in the news

A burst of semantic weirdness on NPR this morning is worth noting, if only to make clear that Your Editor is Not Procrastinating on That Chapter. Mara Liasson is summing up some of the latest turns of jargon and politically advantageous language from Our Capital. She starts with "legacy securities" for "toxic assets," then moves into more interesting territory:

LIASSON: National security is another area chock full of Washington buzzwords that are designed to obfuscate rather than communicate. (Here we get a bit on the use of "overseas contingency operations" for foreign wars.) Writer Joe Queenan thinks political euphemisms like "overseas contingency operations" are Orwellian, and they drive him crazy.

QUEENAN: "War on terror" is very, very specific. Everybody knows exactly what it means. "Overseas contingency operations," which is what is the official designation now, is just stupid. what if the Taliban started doing this? ....

With all due respect, but -- are you out of your mind? The great advantage of "war on terror" is that it's anything but "very, very specific." It's everything from a metaphor to an actual shooting war, and it happens everywhere from the Afghan-Pakistan border to whatever those suspicious neighbors of yours are up to behind the curtains there. It means vastly different things to different members of the audience. That's why -- at least partly why -- it works so well.

LIASSON: Queenan thinks leaching political language of its most powerful terms -- axis of evil, war on terror -- fits right in with President Obama's nonpolarizing, inclusive leadership style.

Hard to see a case for deeming those the "most powerful terms" in political language (compared to "freedom" or "democracy" or "Communist," they're distinctly second-tier). They're powerful in a particular way, under particular circumstances, for a particular part of the audience. To assume they exert some sort of universal magic, you have to buy into a speech-act approach -- proclaiming a "war on terror" makes the War on TerrorĀ® a real thing -- that really can't carry that much weight. If "axis of evil" was that powerful, you couldn't purge it from the language anyway, no matter what Orwell said.

Nice to see NPR paying attention to the language of politics, but it'd help to spend a little more time studying the terrain.



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

"War on terror" is very, very specific. Everybody knows exactly what it means.

But for everyone, that "exactly what it means" is different.

Which, as you say, is why it works so well. Everyone can come up with some meaning for (G)WOT that they can support...

9:56 AM, July 11, 2009  

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