Politics and the English Language

At times of political crisis it is usually a good idea to reread George Orwell’s 1946 essay on “Politics and the English Language”. It is full of good advice, most of which I try to follow most of the time, although Orwell would no doubt dislike the number of foreign phrases I contrive to slip into my prose, and the length of some of my sentences. What a joy it is, then, on this occasion to come across these particular words:

“When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity.”

It is marvellous to find the cliché of the hour, “stand shoulder to shoulder”, in Orwell’s list, but the description that follows also speaks to the present moment. There are good reasons why W. sometimes comes across as a dummy rather than as a live human being, or why we feel that he might not be choosing his own words for himself, but I suspect that it is Mr Blair who is further along the path to transforming himself into a machine. (W. by contrast will always remain a cipher, a middle initial, or perhaps just an uncomplicated tool). Whereas W. needs to concentrate hard in order to get his words out at all, Blair can effortlessly disengage his thinking from his speaking parts, and is able to appear oblivious to the fact that his conversation in filmed interviews in quite inane. (While he does not sound as if he is “uttering the responses”, he always sounds as if he is in church, which is why he is the vicar of St Albion parish). Neither man is very good with verbs, the one because he cannot really talk, the other because he found it politically astute to dispense with them a long time ago.

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