Hills, Orwell, and Intellectuals

Rick Hills has certainly read his Orwell more recently than I, and he is quite right to insist that Orwell attacked intellectuals frequently.   I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise—only that his main targets in his best and most prominent work were politicians and bureaucrats.   It’s true, as Hills reminds me, that Politics and the English Language begins with examples of bad English written by professors.But its heart (at least in my opinion) is here:

When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the same familiar phrases— bestial atrocities, iron heel, blood-strained tyranny, freepeoples of the world —one has the curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy. … A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance towards turning himself into a machine. …In our time, political speech and writing are largely in defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan can indeed be defended, but only by arguments that are too brutal for most people to face. … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven into the countryside, the cattle machine gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.

I think it’s clear at this point that poor old Professor Laski, who Orwell deftly skewers at the beginning of the essay, is small potatoes: Orwell’s main gripe here is with political—not academic—writing. He ends with a powerful attack on “pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White Papers and the Speeches of Under Secretaries.” Some of these are no doubt written by intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals, but the worst abuses were and are from politicians, bureaucrats, and activists, both left and right, for whom Orwell expressed well-deserved contempt.

The type of obscurity Orwell condemns here is not the same as the type of obscurity we find in the work of, say, Judith Butler or Jacques Lacan or G.W.F. Hegel, for that matter (though Hills is right to insist Orwell expressed contempt for this kind of obscurity as well). Butler and Lacan are obviously and, in a sense, honestly obscure— even if their obscurity clothes some mundane insights in the garb of the profound, it’s obvious from the start that this is difficult writing that will require work to make heads or tails of—you know what you’re in for when you start in on Bodies That Matter * or Aggressivity in Psychoanalysis . What’s worse than even the most needlessly obscure pseudo-intellectualism (and before I get more hate mail than I’m due, I don’t say that Butler or Lacan fall into this category, but we all know of some work that does) is the type of jargon Orwell attacks at the end of  Politics: dying metaphors, hackneyed phrases, wooden jargon, which seem to everyone to mean something but actually mean nothing.

The problem here isn’t that we’re being bamboozled by something that pretends to depth and profundity but is in fact shallow or banal. The evil here is jargon and political doublespeak that is so familiar that we think the speaker is saying something plain and straightforward when in fact they’re just bullshitting (or what they’re actually saying is monstrous). It’s not the phrases that are conspicuously obscure but instead the meaningless phrases that become rote, so the sentences seem to write themselves. It’s not writing that requires more effort than it’s worth; it’s writing that doesn’t require any effort to read, or to write, for that matter, because it’s just a bunch of canned phrases taped together with some punctuation and some conjunctions. This is worse than obscure intellectualism, which is conspicuous and unfamiliar; instead it’s insidious and ubiquitous. So when the citizens of the Empire demand to know what their army is doing in India and why it is doing it, they get very easily digestible but empty jargon and slogans— “We’re fighting to help the free peoples of the world shake off the iron heel of a blood-stained tyranny guilty of bestial atrocities” —rather than a straight answer. Now I ask you, does that sound more like Judith Butler on gender identity or more like the Bush administration on Iraq? (And I take Orwell’s main point to be that this kind of blather is remarkably widespread—almost everyone is guilty of it: to be fair, my preferred candidate for the presidency, Barack Obama, is, at his worst, full of a similar kind of hot air.)

* Correction, June 9, 2008 : This post originally misstated the title of Bodies That Matter .