Political rhetoric obscures, not informs


Matteo Marjoram | Summer Trojan

We know “National Treasure” is a no-good piece of postmodern Hollywood refuse, improbable as it is banal, but if we somehow manage, with great effort, to overlook the movie’s myriad shortcomings, we might see in it a real respect for the past — a truly admirable thing in this day and age.

In one scene in particular, Nicholas Cage’s character — for the record, this opinion piece is by no means an endorsement of Cage’s “acting” — quotes a line from the Declaration of Independence and then mournfully observes, “People don’t talk that way any more.”

Press your ear up against the wall of Washington, D.C., and you’ll know he’s right: People really don’t talk that way any more. They talk worse.

Political discourse nowadays is an exercise in saying nothing with great panache: pat, esoteric phrases that obscure more than they illuminate, conceal more than they reveal. Well, that really isn’t anything new.

George Orwell famously wrote in his seminal essay “Politics and the English Language” that “the English language is in a bad way,” and there is a “special connection between politics and the debasement of language.” Of course, he wrote that in 1946, but the sad thing is, it’s still relevant today. Few have heeded Orwell’s advice to rethink their writing. The tendency of modern prose — political or otherwise — is still, as Orwell wrote, “away from concreteness.”

As a subscriber to President Obama’s Weekly Address — a free iTunes podcast, and an ill-advised effort to channel President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s well-known fireside chats — I get to let the president invade my personal space for about five minutes each week, which is plenty enough for me. Now, it’s not exactly Obama I can’t stand; it’s the deadening language of politics.

In Saturday’s Weekly Address, Obama began by saying, “Good morning. Over the past few months, as we have put in place a plan to speed our economic recovery, I have spoken repeatedly of the need to lay a new foundation for lasting prosperity.”

What struck me wasn’t what Obama was saying; it was how he was saying it. In his essay, Orwell specifically mentioned “lay the foundation” as one of the “ready-made phrases” that corrupts language and keeps us from not thinking — and there is Obama, so often praised for his articulate speeches, using it in his first sentence.

Now, this might sound like nitpicking, and it probably is. Obama shouldn’t be faulted for one cliché — especially when his predecessor had remarkable trouble formulating coherent sentences — because that’s the nature of the political beast: It strips people of their vividness and freshness, sucks them into the machine. But there is a sense that Obama isn’t as articulate as he once was. Recall that people, so enthusiastic after Obama’s praiseworthy speech on race, weren’t exactly impressed by his Inaugural Address. It was more clichéd than inspired. Obama is no Lincoln, that’s for sure.

There is something even worse than hackneyed phraseology, though. In Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan, a preeminent political pundit and former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, wrote a particularly illuminating piece on “the indecipherable language of government” and how it has “actually become dangerous to the well-being of the nation.” She cited Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius as an example. Sebelius, in Noonan’s mind, gave “obscure and impenetrable” answers to questions about the administration’s health care plan, exemplifying the trend in political discourse away from concreteness and toward obscurantism.

If anything, then, it looks as if it’s gotten worse since Orwell’s time. We’re past worrying about dying metaphors and the passive voice; we’re at the point where language has become a hindrance to understanding — esotericism over clarity. We need Orwell’s advice now more than ever.

But there is also this to consider: “When the general atmosphere is bad,” Orwell wrote, “language must suffer.” Without question, the general atmosphere is, and has been for a while, generally bad, but there are signs of change ahead. Perhaps when the general atmosphere is good, language will improve. But it stands to reason that it should go both ways: When language improves, so too will the general atmosphere.

If Obama wants to be the change Washington needs, he might consider rethinking not only the health care system but also the language of politics. It is an area ripe — overly ripe — for progress, and in need, one might say, of a new foundation.

Jason Kehe is a sophomore majoring in print journalism.