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Politics and the English language at WaPo

When you get mildew, it's never just one plant. Whatever rotted Broder's sensibility and conscience infests everything. Take a look at this front page teaser today from Pravda on the Potomac:


It's all here, isn't it? All wrapped up in one little compact package.

1. The euphemisms: "Harsh Tactics" for torture -- and remember, in a headline, every character counts, so using the real word instead of a fake phrase would have saved 6 characters in a space that every newspaper person knows is critical. Obviously, maintaining the euphemisms was uppermost in the mind of whoever* crafted the teaser.

2. The insider-ese: Calling torture "divisive" is so bizarrely inappropriate that it boggles the mind. My mind, anyhow. A political campaign might be "divisive." But torture? Is rape "divisive"? Murder? And "divisive methods" is a second euphemism for torture.

3. The "he said/she said": The truth not may, but will "never be known" indeed if the press continues to cover the story this way. (One might Pravda's continuing coverage of torture to the many thousands of stories written about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. You would think that "he said/she said" would be a particularly appropriate approach to take in a story about a private and consensual relationship between two adults, but n-o-o-o-o. But torture? But apparently, discussing torture is to offensive to the delicate sensibilities of Pravda's editors, and they would prefer to let the matter drop. And if they have anything to with it, it will.

Oh, and then there's the identification of "U.S." with the government. Which does rather beg the question, doesn't it?

George Orwell wrote, in Politics and the English Language:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. ... 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 out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. ...

The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words ["efficacy," "divisive"] falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age 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. ...

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow. ... This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one's brain.

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. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs.

May I humbly suggest that Pravda on the Potomac begin its process of "change" by calling what is torture, torture?

NOTE * Written by editors, not reporters. The chain of command goes from reporter to editor to owner. We attack the reporters because we can get at them, but they're only doing -- to varying degrees, no doubt -- what their masters want. The editors are even worse, and the owners an order of magnitude worse than that (q.v. David Simon's essential interview, parts 1 and 2).

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Corner Stone's picture
Submitted by Corner Stone on

At least to me anyway, is the constant urging that the efficacy of torture must be considered. If the "debate' is framed by the allowance of debating how well the results served us then we're done.

Damon's picture
Submitted by Damon on

That the press is even asking about the efficacy of torture is mindblowing, as if it's something up to debate. I was going to make a post, today, asking what exactly would this government have to sanction/approve to cull widespead condemnation from the press or those in the outer-orbit of the establishment, and then I came to the disheartening realization that it'd include a lot of things (i.e. taxes, drug decriminalization) but probably not torture.

okanogen's picture
Submitted by okanogen on

A Pentagon report already called it torture 5 years ago. Plus it is the phrase commonly used to describe it at this time. If they wanted to indicate it was not proven they could have "quoted" it, just as they did 'harsh tactics'.

i admit I didn't click on the link, it's possible that the headline is descriptive of the story. But that just makes the story dishonest too.

The money quote in this entire episode is actually Shepard Smith's which cuts right to the heart of the matter like a surgical lazer:

" What this is about is a series of dots which people are now mentally connecting... If there was torture, that's a crime. If there was crime, there were criminals who ordered the torture," Smith said. "That's the problem. It's political. And the right is going, 'Get away from George Bush and his administration, it's over, remember look forward? Remember look forward?' And the other side's going, 'This is torture.'" "

It's not only "the Right' that is saying "remember look forward?", it's the entire Village, covering their cocktail weenie friend's asses. And their own, since they knew long ago that this was torture, their "anonymous sources" were bragging about it at the time.

The other key piece of newspeak is that the people who were blessed with these 'harsh tactics' are nearly always described as 'terrorists'. Rarely 'detainees', but NEVER 'presumed' terrorists. That is because it would 'shock the conscience' to entertain even the possibility that anyone subjected to 'harsh tactics' were in fact innocent, let alone whether the had any "intelligence" of any value.

The presumption of innocence may extend to John Yoo or Doug Feith, but never to someone with brown skin named Mohammed....