October 19, 2003

Neoconservatives and the English language

By: Justin Logan

George Orwell wrote in “Politics and the English Language” that “[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.” Thus, with an eye for the Orwellian, we will take a look at the linguistic machinery of the ideology–neoconservatism–that guides our country today.

It is important to note first that the language of neoconservatism belies its core morality: “action” is good; “inaction” is bad. Whether in Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Liberia, the welfare state, or anywhere else, strong government action is the default neoconservative position. Policies, governments, and presidents characterized by terms like “robust”, “virile”, “potent”, “assertive”, “bold”, and (my favorite) “projecting power” have replaced the wimps who would use “humility” to advance America’s interests.

More importantly, neoconservatives have also demonstrated a willingness and ability to abuse language in promoting their policies. Many neoconservatives are excellent writers (Charles Krauthammer comes to mind), but they have shown the ability to make Clintonesque defenses of un-truths. Slate’s Michael Kinsley did the dirty linguistic work of disassembling the neoconservatives’ defense of the now-infamous “16 words” from President Bush’s State of the Union speech. Kinsley wrote, “It certainly is not possible to say that someone has ‘learned’ a piece of information without clearly intending to imply that you, the speaker, wish the listener to accept it as true.” Listening to Republican pundits defend the President against the truth was, at best, rather disturbing.

President Bush was heralded as a straight talker, a regular guy, anything but Clinton. Then, as we now hear so often, 9/11 changed everything. Today, President Bush’s torture of the English language rivals and may surpass that of his predecessor. At least the Clinton debate was over the rather interesting and timeless existential question of what it means to be. The defense of the Iraq War has been a web of crass, cynical political spin intended to cover over the truth.

The Administration has also orchestrated a campaign of omissions and misdirections to support its policies. Have a look at the following passage from the President’s September 7 speech, with my additions in brackets:

“…the former regime sponsored terror [against Israel], possessed and used weapons of mass destruction [against its own people], and for 12 years defied the clear demands of the United Nations Security Council [but we really don’t give a damn about the Security Council anyway].”

I notice the half-truths in the President’s claims because I work in public policy and I read op-eds and articles. But when the average retail clerk or farmer hears the President say that Iraq sponsored terror and had WMD, it’s pretty reasonable for that guy to infer, absent the full truth, that the President is talking about something that pertains to him. Might that be part of the reason that 70% of the country still thinks Saddam was behind 9/11?

In Washington, no one is ever wrong, and President Bush has stood by his case that the threat from Iraq was “emerging.” Brit Hume fairly exploded on Fox News Sunday last week when rebuking those who said the President presented the threat from Iraq as “imminent.” The Wall Street Journal’s editorial writers remarked that using an “imminence test” as an obstacle to making war is a “postwar invention, and [a] transparently political device to portray the war in Iraq in the worst possible light.”

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines “emerging” as “arising unexpectedly” or “calling for prompt action.” The third and fourth definitions may also be relevant: “arising as a natural or logical consequence” and “newly formed or prominent”, respectively. Regardless of which definition one chooses to use, something must exist to emerge. “Imminent”, on the other hand, means “ready to take place.” Isn’t all the bickering over “imminence” versus “emergence” just semantics? The Administration claimed that Iraq presented a real threat to US national security, but that simply wasn’t true.

Without question, the Administration has been misquoted and misrepresented in the press. But in many cases, the Administration has let pundits or government officials make allegations and, when questioned about those allegations, treated them as though they were factual. There may be some difference between making an assertion and commenting on an assertion as if it was true, but that’s a rather dishonest distinction to draw.

At the end of the run-up to war, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press to discuss the grounds for invasion. Cheney used several hypothetical situations and inferences to make the case for war. Cheney cited Saddam Hussein’s “long-standing relationship with terrorist groups, including the al Qaeda organization,” as well as stating that “we found out after the [first] Gulf War that he was within one or two years of having a nuclear weapon.” It wasn’t surprising, then, to hear Cheney waxing on the possibilities of what might happen if al Qaeda “had a nuclear weapon and detonated it in the middle of one of our cities.” Mr. Cheney’s use of different timeframes and skewed hypotheticals created a notion that has not been borne out in six months of occupation, but that sort of unfounded rhetoric did scare people enough to support a war.

Our intelligence services, as well as the committee charged with investigating 9/11, have unequivocally disavowed Mr. Cheney’s assertion regarding Mohammed Atta’s alleged meeting with Iraqi intelligence in Prague. Yet Mr. Cheney still won’t concede that it isn’t true. When one Administration official says one thing and another official says something different, how is one to evaluate the contradictory claims? Which is true?

Another piece of advice from Orwell seems to apply here. “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.” Politics is an ugly business, and we would be wise to question those who endeavor to turn the pure wind of a militaristic ideology into the morbid solidity of bloody wars.

Justin Logan is a freelance writer living in Bethesda, MD. His Web site is http://justinlogan.typepad.com.