20.3.08

In So Many Words

"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."
George Orwell, from "Politics and the English Language"

Any positive change in American politics will begin with an improvement in the language of political discourse. Hillary Clinton often attempts to write off Barack Obama's campaign with her now polished by overuse "just words" accusation. Meanwhile, she partakes in the political language favored by George Bush; tired, stock phrases used repeatedly that convey little or no meaning and always leave room for a speedy escape, stage left, from accountability.

Barack's speech the other day, in contrast, did as much to plead for a new, reasoned and informed political discussion in America as it did to address race in America. As much as I hope Obama is succesful and Americans move from discussing whether Saddam had WMD’s to whether the Fed should bail out banks for bad investments, I don’t think it will happen. Obama may be elected president, but it won't be because Americans reached a higher plane of political conciousness.

Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama delivered speeches this week on March 17th and 18th, respectively. Both were billed as major speeches. Clinton's, delivered at GW University, purported to detail her plans for Iraq. Obama’s addressed the comments of his pastor, Jeremiah Wright.
Hillary’s “What I Say I'll Do In Iraq, Maybe” Speech

"Now, withdrawal is not risk-free, but the risks of staying in Iraq are certain. And a well-planned withdrawal is the one and only path to a political solution. The only way to spur the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own future and to ensure that we don't bear that responsibility indefinitely. The only way to spur other countries to do their part to help secure stability in the region. The commitment to staying in Iraq has driven President Bush's foreign policy. It looks like it would drive Senator McCain's foreign policy as well, but it will not drive mine. My foreign policy will be driven by what is in America's national security interests."

This statement falls about ten paragraphs into Clinton's lengthy speech. After it, she launches into a detailed nine point plan and meticulously describes each action she would take to end the war in Iraq and bring our troops home while leaving a "small, elite strike force" behind for certain operations. But she's invalidated her entire plan in that one paragraph, and she knows it.

Clinton sets herself up nicely until the last sentence of the paragraph when one should expect a strong, declarative statement that breaks her with the disaster that is President Bush and the calamity that would be President McCain. But she skirts the opportunity: "My foreign policy will be driven by what is in America's national security interests." Contrary to what Clinton states in the two sentences prior to that statement, every single claim to power, force, and illegal use of executive privilege that Bush has made, and McCain would continue to make, has been in the name of "national security interests." Neither one has ever said they want to stay in Iraq for the sake of staying in Iraq, they both justify our occupation by saying it is in our national security interests to be in Iraq.
Clinton then launched into her detailed plan, but she'd already made the plan irrelevant. If she were elected, and decided to renege on any aspect of her plan – or all nine of them – she would simply say that her former plan is no longer in our national security interests. As Orwell writes in "Politics" – "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." Clinton accomplished that in a single sentence and layered the rest of her speech with an impenetrable fog of uncertainty; would she keep her word, or make use of her handy escape route?

What’s terrible about Clinton is she’s smart and doesn’t have to use these tired images and flakey promises. Bush has to use that stuff because he’s an imbecile on the level of the one in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” who sits in a cage covered in food, flies, and feces “chewing on a turd.” That’s not Clinton. She uses this phraseology strategically. She thinks she’s on the side of good, so she can use Bush’s powerful tools for the good guys and do good things with them. As Anakin Skywalker taught us, though, that is a sure path to the dark side.

An Eloquent President

“For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division and conflict and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies. We can do that. But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.”

Consider that passage next to Clinton’s opinion of Obama’s speeches:

“Senator Obama has said often that words matter. I strongly agree. But giving speeches alone won’t end the war and making campaign promises you might not keep cetainly won’t end it. In the end the true test is not the speeches a president delivers, it’s whether the president delivers on the speeches.”

Tim Russert asked Clinton in one of the debates why she thought she could create jobs nationally when she failed to do so in New York state after promising she would as senator. Clinton replied that she would “have more tools at [her] disposal” as president, with which she could stimulate job growth. This is the danger of Hillary Clinton in combination with her prepackaged, hazy speeches. Hillary and her second wave feminist friends believe that tools, that power wrested from those who’ve carried the batons for so long, is the way to affect change. But it is not. This struggle for the tools of power leads only to the dark side. It is not the person who wields power that corrupts, it is power that corrupts those who wield it.

Obama, on the other hand, knows, and has epitomized throughout his campaign, the maxim with which Orwell opens his essay, “Politics and the English Language” – “[The English 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… to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”

Obama’s campaign is not about the tools of the presidency – signing statements, the purse, executive privilege, influence, power… “a Jedi craves not these things.” Obama’s campaign, and his speech the other day, is an attempt to raise political discourse to something above the worn, meaningless phrases of Clinton, Bush, and McCain.

Our Failings

“In our age,” writes Orwell, “there is no such thing as ‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.” Obama is not interested in political conformity. His speech laid that issue to rest. No politician interested in political conformity would deliver such a sweeping indictment of American political involvement through the lens of our squirmiest of squimishnesses; race.

And so, rightly, Obama’s speech was called brave. And, ignorantly, it was called “risky.” Risky because it was not politically expedient, and he said as much himself. Risky because the journals and outlets which called it risky – The NY Times, WSJ, MSNBC, CNN – do nothing to challenge the status quo themselves.

The misfortune of Obama is that his speech may pass over the heads of Americans like a lofty breeze amongst the leaves of trees. In my generation, for every one person who supports Obama with a deep understanding of our nation’s position and our opportunities and needs for the future; there are ten who support Obama because Scarlett Johansen and Will.I.Am sang a pretty song about him and put it on YouTube. This generation of mine has not suddenly awoken to politics thanks to Obama, they’ve simply engaged in a cult of celebrity. This is his good fortune, of course, and I am glad they happen to support Obama in this instance but what does it mean for an election to be won on the votes of people who cast their ballot for all the wrong reasons? Or for no reason at all beyond celebrity? To be so uninformed makes one an easy target for demagogues and zealots, as a professor of mine once said. That said, I’ll take that over Hillary Clinton or John McCain any day.

Political change can do very little to affect human misery. And what it can do, tends to introduce new flavors of misery alongside any accomplishments. Perhaps this will hold true of Obama if elected, it most certainly would for Clinton, whose ambition is on perpetual and gaudy display. But if there is hope in our political future, words will not just be a part of that hope, words must be the sum of that hope.

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