George Orwell, Down the Rabbit Hole

George Orwell, BBC writer and broadcaster, and world-class word-wrestler. (BBC)

George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” is one of those classics of letters that bears repeated reading throughout life. It remains a hectoring challenge to anyone who tries to write, as Orwell did, always wrestling with a deceptively simple language to articulate what we want it to say.

I first read his essay, as nearly everyone who has did, in undergraduate school and promptly forgot it amid a flood of impressions.  I returned to it much later later to find his blunt advice and weird prophesy calling out like one of those burned-out stars that still shines like a beacon across the eons.

And of course, like any thoughtful piece of writing that gives back over the course of a life (The Gettysburg Address and The Great Gatsby come to mind), I came back to this article after working in public diplomacy during wartime and found it to be a nuanced source of interest and inspiration.

Orwell is often quoted from this article that “[p]olitical language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The ellipsis is critical (it’s always quoted with the ellipsis) — he attacks across the spectrum, from Conservatives and Anarchists.  The edit takes quite a bit of the sting out of the quote. And the quote itself hurts much more when removed from the context of the essay, which is his most practical manual for good, clear, political writing.

This is interesting because for a few years Orwell was what might be pejoratively called a propagandist — he wrote (and wrote well by all accounts) for the BBC during World War II, when the broadcasting arm of the British empire had a specifically political purpose in mobilizing and energizing the colonies to protect the crown from fascism. Orwell did not particularly dislike this mission (although he did hate phrases like “not particularly dislike”), but he was utterly dispirited by the waste, bureaucracy, and the “trash” and “bile” broadcast each day.

In other words, he thought the BBC could propagandize better, and this essay was in part an attempt to understand why political language was so imbecilic, dull, flat and dim. “Politics and the English Language” was one of his first comprehensive examinations of and remedies for this problem.

In fact “Politics” was part of a less-known series of articles Orwell wrote following the war, all on a theme: the nexus of language, politics, democracy and freedom.  “Propaganda and Demotic Speech” (1944) is perhaps the best known after “Politics,” but then come “Politics vs. Literature” (1946), “The Prevention of Literature” (1946), and “Writers and Leviathan” (1948). These all lead, in most scholars’ understanding, to Animal Farm and 1984, and particularly Orwell’s extraordinary development of Newspeak. But taken together, they also are an expansive exploration of the relationship between politics and language and, more specifically, how we use language (specifically English), to communicate political ideas.

Orwell thought we used English badly. (“Modern English, especially written English, is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble,” he wrote.) After some thought and reading, I decided to take issue with his conclusion.  I believe that the language itself is the problem regarding its carrying capacity for political ideas. Due to theoretical constructs built up for too long in the past we lack the vocabulary to express basic political concepts. Those ideas that we can express invariably come out in the cliches that Orwell despised.

The only remedy is what I have been doing on this site: to develop and substitute a new conceptual vocabulary to describe political ideas, experiences and realities.  The following essay, “Democracy and Political Language,” is an homage to Orwell and another effort to expand that vocabulary.

I will attack one cliche at a time, but it feels at time as though I am brandishing a sword (or pen) at a waterfall.  Fortunately we also have a mighty shield — Orwell’s own words. He struggled himself with the cliches he hated, wrestled the words to say what he thought. And that in turn shaped how he thought:  “If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.”  Surely, I’m on to something.


Your Inalienable Right to Rock

The Plastic People of the Universe (Czech Radio)

The recent death of the dissident playwright and Czech President Vaclav Havel reminded me again how badly misunderstood politics and power are in the waning age of totalitarian regimes.  I wrote about Havel’s attempts to galvanize the opposition in Czechoslovakia during the 1970s and ’80s through the experience of the least-known famous rock band of all time, the Plastic People of the Universe. The Plastics, as they are still known, were critical to the formation of a coherent Opposition at a key moment during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. As a result, they have a lot to teach us about the nature of politics and the concept of the political.

I spent quite some time trying to publish what was, in its final form, an awkward, over-long hybrid essay combining the history of the Velvet Revolution with a theoretical treatise. But I still think it’s important because it demonstrates how political judgments can overwhelm what should be strictly left alone to the culture, and that in closed authoritarian or totalitarian states those political judgments are controlled exclusively by the state power what is left to the public in open, democratic countries.

At the core of the Plastics’ predicament in the 1970s was this: do you have an inalienable right to rock?  This is really a question of aesthetics, not politics, and in open, free states the dividing line between aesthetics and politics is broad and rarely crossed.  But under the old communist regime, nothing passed without official political judgment — including aesthetics, which served the state.  After the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, the authorities reached the point where they believed the Plastics threatened civic order and arrested the band and their fans. In effect, the state determined there was no space in the entire country free from its political judgment and control.

The galvanizing moment came when Havel and his fellow literati dissidents joined with the Catholic opposition, the labor unions and others who had until that point been organizing separately against the regime. The Plastics’ arrest was a step too far for all of them, who realized that if pure art could be under threat then there was at last no safe space free from government control. This common threat brought them all together under the aegis of Charter 77, which threw down the gauntlet under the Helsinki Accords which Czechoslovakia (along with the rest of the Warsaw Pact) had signed pledging their countries to uphold human rights.

At least as importantly, despite a decade of persecution, Charter 77 united the Opposition as an effective shadow government to challenge and negotiate the regime out of power when street protests crescendoed in 1989. None of this could have happened without the Plastic People of the Universe.

Which makes the Plastics’ avowed lack of interest in any political agenda so much more intriguing. While we in the West almost expect our cultural figures to take sides in the political debate, the Plastics wanted no part of it. Their innocence of politics makes their arrest so much more significant: because the authorities came down on them just for playing rock’n’roll, the violation had a more acute, if not necessarily higher profile than the arrest of a rabble-rousing pamphleteer like Havel.

The story of the Plastics, Havel, Charter 77 and the Velvet Revolution helped me answer one deceptively simple question: what do we mean when we talk about the political?  This had already been answered definitively, it seemed, by the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt, who defined the political as state interests against external enemies. Leo Strauss, in commentary on Schmitt’s “The Concept of the Political,” lightened this harsh assessment by arguing Schmitt’s dialectic implied the political equates with the moral. But if that were true, then the two words would be interchangeable, and they are not.

I go one step further by referring to the political as the normative. When we talk about the political, we are talking about normative values we are choosing collectively or for others.  To put it more simply, any time we say “we should,” we are implicating the political. There is a certain moral hazard about the political, in which we are applying to or for others the values we hold for ourselves. This is best done in democratic systems but horrifying when applied without recourse in repressive, totalitarian or authoritarian systems.

The story of the Plastics, while sobering — many members of the band, but also including Havel, spent years in prison — is one of faith in politics and political change over many years, and we can take heart in their example. Indeed, their innocence is most heartening of all. Hundreds of thousands of people across Eastern Europe, the Balkans, the Caucasus, and now the Mahgreb and the Persian Gulf are following their faith.