Category Archives: Language

Minding Our Public Language

Mark Thompson, Enough Said:

What’s Gone Wrong With the Language of Politics 

          In Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics, Mark Thompson examines the role which “public language” — the language we use “when we discuss politics and policy, or make our case in court, or try to persuade anyone of anything else in a public context” (p.2) — plays in today’s cacophonous political debates.  Thompson, currently Chief Executive Officer of The New York Times and before that General Director of the BBC, contends that there is a crisis in contemporary democratic decision-making today that at heart is a crisis of political language.  Public language appears to be losing its power to explain and engage, thereby threatening the bond between people and politicians. “Intolerance and illiberalism are on the rise almost everywhere,” Thompson writes, and the way our public language has changed is an “important contributing and exacerbating factor” (p.297-98).

          Thompson seeks to revive the formal study of rhetoric as a means to understand and even reverse the contemporary crisis of public language.  Rhetoric is simply the “study of the theory and practice of public language” (p.2).  Rhetoric “helps us to make sense of the world and to share that understanding. It also teaches us to ‘pay heed’ to the ‘opposite side,’ the other” (p.361). Democracies need public debate and therefore competition in the mastery of public persuasion. Rhetoric, the language of explanation and persuasion, enables collective decision-making to take place.

        Across the book’s disparate parts, Thompson’s central concern is today’s angry and polarized political climate often referred to as “populist,” in which the word “compromise” has become pejorative, the adjective “uncompromising” is a compliment, and the “public presumption of good faith between opposing parties and factions” (p.97) seems to have largely evaporated.  Thompson recognizes that the current populist wave is founded upon a severe distrust of elites.  Given his highest-of-high-level positions at the BBC and The New York Times (along with a degree from Oxford University), Thompson is about as elite as one can become.  He thus observes from the top of a besieged citadel.  Unsurprisingly, Thompson brings a well-informed Anglo-American perspective to his observations, and he shines in pointing to commonalities as well as differences between Great Britain and the United States. There are occasional glances at continental Europe and elsewhere – Silvio Berlusconi’s rhetorical skills are examined, for example – but for the most part this is an analysis of public language at work in contemporary Britain and the United States.

          In the book’s first half, Thompson uses the terminology of classical rhetoric to frame an examination of what he considers the root causes of today’s crisis in public language. Among them are the impact of social media on political discourse and how the pervasive use of sales and marketing language has devalued public debate.  Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have given rise to a “Darwinian natural selection of words and phrases,” he writes, in which, “by definition, the only kind of language that emerges from this process is language that works. You hear it, you get it, you pass it on. The art of persuasion, once the grandest of the humanities and accessible at its highest level only to those of genius – a Demosthenes or a Cicero, a Lincoln or a Churchill – is acquiring many of the attributes of a computational science. Rhetoric not as art, but as algorithm” (p.187).  The use of language associated with sales and marketing serves further to give political language “some of the brevity, intensity and urgency we associate with the best marketing,” while stripping away its “explanatory and argumentative power” (p.191).

          In the second half, Thompson shifts way from applying notions of classical rhetoric to public debate and focuses more directly upon the debate itself in three settings: when scientific consensus confronts spurious scientific claims; when claims for tolerance and respect for racial, religious or ethnic minorities seek to override untrammeled freedom of expression; and when, after the unprecedented and still unfathomable devastation of the 20th century’s world wars, leaders seek to take their country into war.  Thompson’s analyses of these situations are lucid and clearheaded, but for all the common sense and good judgment that he brings to them, I found this section more conventional and less original than the book’s first half, and consequently less intriguing.

* * *

       Thompson starts with a compelling example to which he returns throughout the book, involving the once ubiquitous Sarah Palin and her rhetorical attack on the Affordable Care Act (ACA), better known as Obamacare. Before the ACA was signed into law, one Elizabeth McCaughey, an analyst with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, looked at a single clause among the 1,000 plus pages of the proposed legislation and drew the conclusion that the act required patients over a certain age to be counseled by a panel of experts on the options available for ending their lives. McCaughey’s conclusion was dead wrong. The clause merely clarified that expenses would be covered for those who desired such counseling, as proponents of the legislation made clear from the outset.

         No matter. Palin grabbed the ball McCaughey had thrown out and ran with it. In one of her most Palinesque moments, the one-term Alaska governor wrote on her Facebook page:

The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their “level of productivity in society,” whether they are worthy of heath care. Such a system is downright evil (p.4-5).

By placing the words “death panel” and “level of productivity in society” in quotation marks, Palin left the impression that she was quoting from the statute itself.  Thus presented, the words conjured up early 20th century eugenics and Nazi doctors at death camps.  To her supporters, Palin had uncovered “nothing less than a conspiracy to murder” (p.7).

        In the terminology of classical rhetoric, “death panel” was an enthymeme, words that might not mean much to a neutral observer but were all that Palin’s supporters needed to “fill in the missing parts of her argument to construct a complete critique of Obamacare” (p.30).   It had the power of compression, perfect for the world of Facebook and Twitter, and the effect of a synecdoche, in which the part stands for the whole.  Its words were prophetic, taking an imagined future scenario and presenting it as current reality.  Palin’s claim was symptomatic of today’s polarized political debate. It achieved its impact “by denying any complexity, conditionality or uncertainty,” building on a presumption of “irredeemable bad faith,” and rejecting “even the possibility of a rational debate” with the statute’s supporters (p.17).

        Thompson considers Palin’s rhetorical approach distinct in keys ways from that of Donald Trump.    Writing during the 2016 presidential campaign, Thompson observes that Trump had “rewritten the playbook of American political language” (p.80). Trumpian rhetoric avoids cleverness or sophistication:

There are no cunning mousetraps like the “death panel.” The shocking statements are not couched in witty or allusive language. His campaign slogan – Make America Great Again! – could hardly be less original or artful. Everything is intended to emphasize the break with the despised language of the men and women of the Washington machine. There is a wall between them and you, Trump seems to say to his audience, but I am on this side of the wall alongside you. They treat you as stupid, but you understand things far better than they do. The guarantee that I see the world as you do is the fact that I speak in your language, not theirs (p.79-80).

        Yet Thompson roots both Palin’s populism and that of Trump in a rhetorical approach that dates from the 18th century Enlightenment termed “authenticism,” a mode of expression that prioritizes emotion and simplicity of language, and purports to engage with the “lowliest members of the chosen community” (p.155).  To the authenticst, if something “feels true, then in some sense it must be true” (p.155).  Since the Enlightenment, authenticism has been in tension with “rhetorical rationalism,” which venerates fact-based arguments and empirical thinking.  Authenticism rises as trust in public leaders declines.   Authenticists take what their rationalist opponents regard as their most egregious failings, “fantasies dressed up as facts, petulance, tribalism, loss of control of one’s own emotions,” and “flip them into strengths.”  Rationalists may consider authenticism “pitifully cruel, impossible to sustain, downright crazy,” but it can be a compelling rhetorical approach for the “right audience in the right season” (p.356).

        Authenticism found the right audience in the right season in Brexit, Britain’s June 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union, with people voting for Brexit because they were “sick and tired of spin, prevarication and policy jargon” (p.351).   A single topic referendum such as Brexit, unlike a general election, requires a “minimum level of understanding of the issues and trade-offs involved,” Thompson writes. By this standard, the Brexit referendum should be considered a “disgrace” (p.347).  Those opposing Brexit had little to offer “in the way of positivity to counterbalance the threats; its Tory and Labour leaders seemed scarcely more enthusiastic about Britain’s membership [in] the EU than their opponents.  Their campaign was lackluster and low-energy.  They deserved to lose” (p.347).

        In understanding how classical rhetoric influences public debate, Thompson attaches particular significance to George Orwell’s famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” the “best-known and most influential reflection on public language written in English in the twentieth century” (p.136).  Although Orwell claimed that his main concern in the essay was clarity of language, what he cared most about, Thompson contends, was the “beauty of language . . . Orwell associated beauty of language with clarity, and clarity with the ability of language to express rather than prevent thought and, by so doing, to support truthful and effective political debate” (p.143).  Orwell’s essay thus embodied the “classical understanding of rhetoric,” specifically the “ancient belief that the civic value of a given piece of rhetoric is correlated with its excellence as a piece of expression” (p.143).

* * *

      In the book’s second half, Thompson looks at the public debate over a host of contentious issues that have riveted the United Kingdom and the United States in recent years, beginning with the deference that democratic debate should accord to questionable scientific claims.  So-called climate skeptics, who challenge the overwhelming scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming, can make what superficially sounds like a compelling case that their views should be entitled to equal time in forums dedicated to the elaboration of public issues, such as those provided by the BBC or The New York Times.  Minority scientific views have themselves frequently evolved into accepted scientific understanding (one 19th century example was the underlying cause of the Irish potato famine, discussed here  in 2014 in my review of John Kelly’s The Graves Are Walking).  Refusal to accord a forum for such views can easily be cast as a “cover up.”

         Thompson shows how members of Britain’s most distinguished scientific body, the Royal Society, once responded to public skepticism over global warming by becoming advocates, presenting the scientific consensus on the need for action in terms unburdened by the caution and caveats that are usually part of scientific explanation, and emphasizing the bad faith of climate change skeptics. Its efforts largely backfired. The more scientists sound like politicians with an agenda, the “less convincing they are likely to be” (p.211).   The same issue arose when a British medical researcher claimed to have a found connection between autism and measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations. The research was subsequently found to be fraudulent, but not before a handful of celebrities and a few politicians jumped aboard an anti-vaccination movement (including, in the United States, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., and Donald Trump, when he was more celebrity than politician), with an uncountable number of parents opting not to have their children vaccinated.

       Thompson’s discussion of the boundaries of tolerance and free speech raises a similar issue: to what degree should democratic forums include those whose views are antithetical to democratic norms. While at the BBC, Thompson needed to decide whether the BBC would invite the British National Party (BNP), which flirted with Holocaust denial but had demonstrated a substantial following at the ballot box, to a broadcast that involved representatives of Britain’s major parties. In the face of strident opposition, Thompson elected to include the BNP representative and explains why here: the public “had the right to see him and listen to him responding to questions put to him by a studio audience itself made up of people like them. They did so and drew their own conclusions” (p.263).

       Thompson also delivers a full-throated rebuke to American universities that have disinvited speakers because students objected to their views.  The way to defeat extremists and their defenders, whether in faculty lounges or the halls of power, is simply to out-argue them, he contends.  Freedom of expression is best considered a right to be enjoyed “not just by those with something public to say but by everyone” (p.262-63), as a means by which an audience can seek to reach its own judgment. With a few exceptions like child pornography or incitement to violence, Thompson finds no support for the notion that suppressing ideas of which we disapprove is a better way to defeat them in a modern democracy than confronting and debating them in public.

       In a chapter entitled simply “War,” Thompson argues that war is today the greatest rhetorical test for a political leader:

To convince a country to got to war, or to rally a people’s courage and optimism during the course of that war, depends on your ability to persuade those who are listening to you to risk sacrificing themselves and their children for some wider public purpose. It is words against life and limb. [It includes the] need for length and detail as you explain the justification of the war; the simultaneous need for brevity and emotional impact; authenticity, rationality, authority; the search for a persuasiveness that does not – cannot— sound anything like marketing given the blood and treasure that are at stake” (p.219).

        Today, it is almost impossible for any war to be well received in a democracy, except in the very short term.  This is undoubtedly an advance over the days when war was celebrated for its gallantry and chivalry. But, drawing upon the opposition to the Vietnam War in the United States in the 1960s, and to Britain’s decision to join the United States in the second Iraq war in 2003, Thompson faults anti-war rhetoric for its tendency to assume bad faith almost immediately, to “omit awkward arguments or to downplay unresolved issues, to pretend that difficult choices are easy, to talk straight past the other side in the debate, to oversimplify everything” (p.254-55).

* * *

      Thompson does not see today’s populist wave receding any time soon. “One can believe that populism always fails in the end – because of the crudity of its policies, its unwillingness to do unpopular but necessary things, its underlying divisiveness and intolerance – yet still accept that it will be a political fact of life in many western countries for years to come” (p.363).  He ends by abandoning the measured, “this-too-shall-pass” tone that prevails throughout most of his wide-ranging book to conclude on a near-apocalyptic note.   A storm is gathering, he writes, which threatens to be:

greater than any seen since the global infernos of the twentieth century. If the first premonitory gusts of a global populist storm were enough to blow Britain out of Europe and Donald Trump into the White House, what will the main blasts do? If the foretaste of the economic and social disruption to come was enough to show our public language to be almost wholly wanting in 2016, what will happen when the hurricane arrives?” (p.364).

       Is there anything we can do to restore the power of public language to cement the bonds of trust between the public and its leaders?  Can rhetorical rationalists regain the upper hand in public debate? Thompson argues that we need to “put public language at the heart of the teaching of civics . . . We need to teach our children how to parse every kind of public language” (p.322).  Secondary school and university students need to know “how to listen, how to know when someone is trying to manipulate them, how to discriminate between good arguments and bad ones, how to fight their own corner clearly and honestly” (p.366).   This seems like a sensible starting place.  But it may not be sufficient to withstand the hurricane.

Thomas H. Peebles

Bordeaux, France

January 18, 2018












Filed under American Politics, British History, Intellectual History, Language, Politics

Complementary Lives

Thomas Ricks, Churchill & Orwell:

The Fight For Freedom 

       Winston Churchill and George Orwell seem like an unlikely pairing for a dual biography. They were of different generations — Churchill was born in 1874, Orwell was born as Eric Blair in 1903; they pursued different career paths, Churchill as a career politician par excellence, Orwell as a journalist and writer; and there is no record that they ever met.  In Churchill & Orwell: The Fight For Freedom, Thomas Ricks seeks to give a new twist to both men in a work that, in highly condensed form, emphasizes their complementary lives in the 1930s and 1940s.  Ricks, among the foremost contemporary writers on war, with a talent for explaining complex military operations without over-simplifying, contends that Churchill and Orwell “led the way, politically and intellectually, in responding to the twin totalitarian threats of fascism and communism” (p.3).

       Unlike most of their peers, Ricks argues, Churchill and Orwell recognized that the 20th century’s key question was “not who controlled the means of production, as Marx thought, or how the human psyche functioned, as Freud taught, but rather how to preserve the liberty of the individual during an age when the state was becoming powerfully intrusive into private life” (p.3). The legacies of the two men were also complementary: Churchill’s wartime leadership “gave us the liberty we enjoy now. Orwell’s writing about liberty affects how we think about it now” (p.5).

        Churchill and Orwell further shared an uncommon facility with language: each was able to articulate the challenges which 20th century democracy faced in robust, unflinching English prose.  Churchill was “intoxicated by language, reveling in the nuances and sounds of words” (p.11).  Orwell added several words and expressions to the English language, such as “doublethink” and “Big Brother,” and had a distinct style in examining politics and culture that has become the “accepted manner of modern discussion of such issues” (p.262).

            Ricks identifies additional commonalities in the two men’s backgrounds.  Each had a privileged upbringing.  Churchill was a descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was a prominent Conservative Party Member of Parliament.  Orwell’s father was a high level civil servant in India, where Orwell was born.  Neither felt close to his father.    Both attended “public schools,” upper class boarding schools, with Churchill’s father telling young Winston that he was just another of the “public school failures” (p.9).  Although Orwell once described his background as “lower upper middle class,” he attended Eton, England’s uppermost public school.  Each had experience in Britain’s far-flung empire: Orwell, who was born in India, spent a formative period in the 1920s in Burma as a policeman; Churchill had youthful adventures in India and the Sudan and served as a war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer War, 1899-1902.  Orwell too had a brief stint as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39.

            There is even a mirror image similarity to the two men’s situations in the 1930s. Churchill was a man of the political right who was never fully trusted by his fellow conservatives, and had a nearly complete fallout with the Conservative Party over appeasement of Hitler in the late 1930s.  Orwell was a conventional left-wing socialist until his experiences in the Spanish Civil War opened his eyes to the brutality and dogmatism that could be found on the political left. But their career trajectories moved in opposite directions during World War II and its aftermath. Churchill came off the political sidelines in the 1930s to peak as an inspirational politician and war leader in 1940 and 1941.  Thereafter, Ricks argues, he went into downward slide that never reversed itself.  Orwell remained an obscure, mid-level writer throughout World War II.  His career took off only after publication of his anti-Soviet parable  Animal Farm in 1945, followed four years later by his dystopian classic, 1984.  Orwell’s reputation as a seminal writer, Riggs emphasizes, was established mostly posthumously, after his death from tuberculosis at age 47 in 1950.

          But while Churchill and Orwell recognized the threat that totalitarian systems posed, their political visions were at best only partially overlapping.  The need to preserve the British Empire animated Churchill both during and after World War II, whereas Orwell found the notion of colonization abhorrent.   Orwell’s apprehensions about powerfully intrusive states also arising in the West most likely intrigued but did not consume Churchill. As long as Britain stayed out of Stalin’s clutches, it is unlikely that Churchill fretted much about it evolving into the bleak, all-controlling state Orwell described in 1984.  Ricks’ formulation of the common denominator of their political vision – the need to preserve individual liberty in the face of powerful state intrusions into private life – applies aptly to Orwell.  But the formulation seems less apt as applied to Churchill.

* * *

          Riggs’ dual biographical narrative begins to gather momentum with the 1930s, years that were  “horrible in many ways.”  With communism and fascism on the rise in Europe, and an economic depression spreading across the globe, there was a “growing sense that a new Dark Age was at hand” (p.45). But for Churchill, the 1930s constituted what he termed his “wilderness years,” which he spent mostly on the political sidelines.  By this time, he was considered somewhat of a crank within Conservative Party circles, “flighty, with more energy than judgment, immovable in his views but loose in party loyalties” (p.54).  He had spent much of the 1920s railing against the threat that Indian independence and the Soviet Union posed to Britain. In the 1930s he targeted an even more ominous menace: Adolph Hitler, whose Nazi party came to power in Germany in 1933. One reason that Churchill’s foreboding speeches on Germany were greeted with skepticism, Ricks notes, was that he had been “equally intense about the dangers of Indian independence” (p.47).

      Churchill’s fulminations against the Nazi regime were not what fellow Conservative Party members wanted to hear. Many British conservatives regarded Nazi Germany as a needed bulwark against the Bolshevik menace emanating from Moscow. Churchill’s rupture with Conservative party hierarchy seemed complete after the 1938 Munich accords, engineered by Conservative Party Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, which dismembered the democratic state of Czechoslovakia.  For Churchill, Munich was a “disaster of the first making . . . the beginning of the reckoning” (p.60).  He issued what Ricks terms an “almost Biblical” warning about the consequences of Munich: “This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and marital vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time” (p.60).

            Orwell in the 1930s, still using his birth name Eric Blair for many purposes, was a “writer [and] minor author of mediocre novels that had not been selling well” (p.2-3).  Yet he had already discovered what Ricks terms his “core theme,” the abuse of power, a thread that “runs throughout all his writings, from his early works to the very end” (p.23).  When civil war broke out in Spain in 1936, Orwell volunteered to fight for the Republican side against Franco’s Nationalist uprising. What Orwell saw during his seven months in Spain “would inform all his subsequent work,” Ricks writes. “There is a direct line from the streets of Barcelona in 1937 to the torture chambers of 1984” (p.65).

         Orwell joined a unit known by the Spanish acronym POUM, Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista, the Workers Party of Unified Marxism, which Ricks describes as a “far-left splinter group. . . vaguely Trotskyite,” politically most distinctive for being anti-Stalinist and thus “anathema to the Soviet-controlled Communist Party in Spain” (p.67).  The NKVD, the Russian spy agency deeply involved in Spain during the Civil War, targeted the Spanish POUM for liquidation. “When the crackdown on POUM came in the spring of 1937,” Ricks writes, “Orwell and his fellows would become marked men” (p.68).

          Orwell almost died in May 1937 when he was shot in the neck while fighting against Franco’s insurgents in Barcelona. He was evacuated to Britain to recuperate. While in Britain, the Spanish Communist Party officially charged Orwell and his wife with spying and treason.  During his recuperation, Orwell wrote Homage to Catalonia, his most noteworthy book to date, in which he hammered two main points: “The first is that Soviet-dominated communism should not be trusted by other leftists. The second is that the left can be every bit as accepting of lies as the right” (p.76).  Orwell “went to Spain to fight fascism,” Ricks writes, “but instead wound up being hunted by communists. This is the central fact of his experience of the Spanish Civil War, and indeed it is the key fact of his entire life” (p.44). In Spain, Orwell “developed his political vision and with it the determination to criticize right and left with equal vigor” (p.77).

          The Soviet Union’s non-aggression pact with Germany, executed in August 1939, in which the two powers agreed to divide much of Eastern Europe between them, was a “final moment of clarity” for Orwell. “From this point on, his target was the abuse of power in all its forms, but especially by the totalitarian state, whether left or right” (p.82).  The pact “had the effect on Orwell that the Munich Agreement had on Churchill eleven months earlier, confirming his fears and making him all the more determined to follow the dissident political course he was on, in defiance of his mainstream leftist comrades” (p.81).

          Churchill in Ricks’ interpretation peaked in the period beginning in May 1940, when he became Britain’s Prime Minister at a time when Britain stood alone in Europe as the only force fighting Nazi tyranny. “These were the months in which Churchill became England’s symbolic rallying point” (p.110).  In June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union and, suddenly, Churchill’s nemesis from the 1920s was Britain’s ally.   “Any man or state who fights on against Nazism will have our aid,” Churchill told the British public in a radio broadcast.  “It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people” (p.142-43). When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war on the United States in December 1941, just as suddenly Churchill had a second powerful ally.

           In a chapter on the fraught months between May 1940 and December 1941, entitled “Fighting the Germans, Reaching Out to the Americans,” Ricks analyzes Churchill’s speeches as Prime Minister, still “good reading seventy-five years after their delivery” (p.110). He gives particular attention to Churchill’s speech to the United States Congress in late December 1941, in which the Prime Minister presented to representatives of his new wartime ally his vision of the Anglo-American partnership in wartime.  The address was what Ricks describes as a rhetorical “work of political genius . . . more than a speech, it was the diplomatic equivalent of a marriage proposal”(p.149-51).   But with that speech, Ricks argues, Churchill’s best days were already behind him.

            The 1943 meeting in Tehran between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin was a turning point for Churchill, the “first time Roosevelt began to act as if he held the senior role in the partnership. It was in Iran that Churchill realized that his dream of dominating a long-term Anglo-American alliance would not come to fruition” (p.169).  Churchill flew out of Tehran “in a black mood, anguished by the passing of British supremacy in the world. After that conference, his personality seemed to change. The dynamo of 1940 became the sluggard of 1944 – increasingly forgetful, less eloquent, and often terribly tired, napping more often and sleeping in late many mornings” (p 171).  Churchill was “off his game at the end of the war and after. The plain facts of British decline were becoming harder to ignore. Churchill’s oratory of this period ‘seemed in danger of degenerating into mere windy bombast’” (p.220), Ricks writes, quoting historian Simon Schama.

          As World War II loomed, Orwell was “seen as a minor and somewhat cranky writer” (p.82), now out of favor with many of his former allies on the political left.  He was not able to enlist in the army because of ill health.  Yet, World War II “energized” him as a writer. Although the war “seemed to knock fiction writing out of Orwell for several years. . . [i]n 1940 alone he produced more than one hundred pieces of journalism – articles, essays, and reviews” (p.127).  His writings showed consistently strong support for Churchill’s war leadership — Churchill was the “only Conservative Orwell seems to have admired” (p.129).

           Orwell joined the BBC’s Overseas Service in August 1941. “There, for more than two years, working on broadcasts to India, he engaged in the kind of propaganda that he spent much of his writing life denouncing,” putting himself “in an occupation that ran deeply against his grain” (p.143).  Orwell’s tenure at the BBC “intensified his distrust of state control of information” (p.145). During the war years, Orwell began work on Animal Farm, published in 1945 as the war ended.

           Animal Farm is a tale of “political violence and betrayal of ideals” (p.176), in which the pigs lead other farm animals in a revolt against their human masters, only to become themselves enslavers. In Animal Farm, the pigs “steadily revise the rules of the farm to their own advantage, and along with it their accounts of the history of farm.”  A single sentence from the book — “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” — may be Orwell’s most lasting contribution to modern thought about totalitarianism.  Animal Farm foreshadows the concern that dominated 1984, that controlling the past as well as the present and future, was an “essential aspect of total state control” (p.178-79).

        Orwell was dying of tuberculosis with just seven months to live when 1984 was published in June 1949 (Orwell apparently chose his title by reversing the digits “4” and “8” of 1948, the year he finished the work). The 1943 Tehran conference influenced the world that Orwell described in 1984, consisting of three totalitarian super states, Oceania, Eastasia, and Euroasia, with England reduced to “Airstrip One.” The novel’s hero is a “miserable middle-aged Englishman” (p.225) named Winston Smith. It is unclear whether Orwell’s selection of the name had any relationship to Churchill. Riggs points out that Winston Smith’s life in England bore far more similarities to Orwell’s life than to that of Churchill.

           Smith’s world is one of universal surveillance, where the state’s watchword is “Big Brother is Watching You,” and the ruling party’s slogan’s are “”War is Peace,” “Freedom is Slavery,” and “Ignorance is Strength.”  Objective reality “does not exist or at least is deemed to be illegal by the all-seeing state” (p.226).  Smith’s most significant act is “simply to observe accurately the world around him. Collecting facts is a revolutionary act. Insisting on the right to do so is perhaps the most subversive action possible” (p.226-27).  At a time when Churchill was warning the post-war world that the Soviet Union had erected an Iron Curtain across Europe, 1984 was driven by Orwell’s concern that powerful states on both sides of the curtain would not only forbid people to express certain thought but would also tell them what to think.

          The immediate reaction to both Animal Farm and 1984 was middling at best. It was not until after Orwell’s death in 1950 that the two works attracted worldwide attention and made the former Eric Blair a familiar household name. How Orwell’s reputation took off after his death constitutes a major portion of Ricks’ treatment of Orwell.  Based upon references, allusions, and tributes appearing daily in the media around the world, Ricks concludes, Orwell is a “contemporary figure in our culture. In recent years, he may even have passed Churchill, not in terms of historical significance but of current influence. It has been one of the most extraordinary posthumous performances in British literary history” (p.245).

         While Orwell in 1984 “looked forward with horror,” Churchill spent the post war years working on his war memoirs, “looking back in triumph” (p.221).  Ricks provides an extensive analysis of those memoirs.   Orwell’s last published article was a review of Their Finest Hour, the second of the Churchill war memoirs. Orwell concluded his review by describing Churchill’s writings as “more like those of a human being than of a public figure” (p.233), high praise from the dying man.  There is no indication that Churchill ever read Animal Farm, but he may have read 1984 twice.

* * *

          The Fight for Freedom is not a dual biography based on parallelism between two men’s lives, unlike  Allan Bullock’s masterful Parallel Lives, Hitler and Stalin. Nor is there quite the parallelism in Churchill and Orwell’s political visions that Ricks assumes.  Other factors add a strained quality to The Fight for Freedom.  Numerous digressions fit awkwardly into the narrative: e.g., Margaret Thatcher as “Churchill’s rightful political heir” (p.142); Tony Blair trying to be Churchillian as he took the country into the Iraq war; Martin Luther King forcing Americans to confront the realities of racial discrimination; and Keith Richards defending his dissipated life style by pointing to Churchill’s fondness for alcohol.  There is also a heavy reliance upon other writers’ assessments of the two men. The text thus reads at points like a Ph.D. dissertation or college term paper, with a “cut and paste” feel.  Then there are many Orwell quotations that, Ricks tells us, could have been written by Churchill; and Churchill quotations that could have come from Orwell’s pen. All this suggests that the threads linking the two men may be too thin to be stretched into a coherent narrative, even by a writer as skilled as Thomas Ricks.

Thomas H. Peebles

La Châtaigneraie, France

November 11, 2017








Filed under British History, English History, European History, History, Language, Political Theory, Politics

John McWhorter, Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care

[Note: This is the earliest book review I could locate, written in 2006 for the benefit of a small group of dear high school friends. Most of us had a charismatic English teacher in 9th grade who was passionate about grammar and, amazingly, was able to impart that passion to some of his 14 and 15 year old students. McWhorter’s book was published in 2003.]

John McWhorter is a former professor at Berkeley, now at the Manhattan Institute in New York. I was attracted to his book because, as the quotation on the cover states, the book addresses “America’s ineloquent babble” and “[c]}elebrates the English language and bemoans our present incapacity to use it in an elegant formal or elevated way.” While I am as likely as the next guy to bemoan America’s ineloquent babble and inelegant usages of the language of Chaucer and Shakespeare, I was more than a little surprised to find 19 sentences of the following nature in the book:

“…[T]his person is indistinguishable in mental sophistication from the semi-literate Third World villager who derives all of their information about the world beyond via conversation and gossip. (p.xxiv)”

“. . .[T]he upshot is that the speaker’s immediate access to vocabulary did not, at least in that segment of their utterance, even succeed in conveying just what they meant at all. (p.11).

“. . .[I]magine eavesdropping on a drunken businessman complaining under gaslight about what happened to them on the commodities market in the Panic of 1893 (.27-28).”

“. . .[T]he semi-literate dropout rarely had the ability to write about their lives later on (p.152).”

“In fact, no classical musician would venture such a gaffe, because now they are on the cultural defensive (p.204).”

And my favorite: “An English professor before the 1960s would never cast their ideas in prose of this kind, now matter how complex or nuanced their ideas might be, because the public norms of American society placed a high value on graceful prose composition (p.244).”

I asked myself throughout whether I was wrong in concluding that each of these sentences is grammatically incorrect, with – and I probably have this terminology wrong; far too many years have passed since the 9th grade — a singular subject that doesn’t correspond to the plural predicate. Have the rules of grammar so changed that these constructions no longer violate accepted rules?

I often hear constructions like these in spoken language and see them regularly in government memos, hardly a recommended venue for grammar purists. But I had never seen quite so many in a published book, let alone one by a language specialist pleading for more elegance in and reverence for the English language. My view is that these constructions are driven by political correctness: “his” is offensive to those who find it unfairly excludes the female half of the human race; “his or her” is awkward; and “her” sounds artificial or forced (and excludes the other half of the race). There is an easy solution that works most of the time, making the subject plural, e.g. “semi-literate dropouts,” “English professors before the 1960s” etc. But I still wonder whether the rules of grammar have changed, and whether I need to chill out and accept the new rules.


Filed under Language