Really Bad Political Writing

‘Tis the season for such dreck, but of course it’s always the season. No one pays much attention to George Orwell anymore, but he did a great service to us all in his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” Here, God bless him, is an excerpt:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line”. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. . . . 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. . . .

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.

Bad political writing and boring political speeches are so prevalent today that we have come to take them for granted. Below are some recent specimens. Disclosure: I used to write political speeches, which I’d never want to reread at this juncture.

Margaret Hartmann in NY Mag (her vapid opening sentence in a piece about Trump’s nuclear documents): “Normal people probably shouldn’t insist the government’s allegations against them are a complete fabrication if they know it’s highly likely that the Feds have evidence that proves them wrong.”

Matt McManus in Aereo (a liberal socialist writing about bad left-wing writing): “As Thomas Piketty points out, one of the motivators behind the recent surge in right wing populism—itself a distinctly postmodern phenomenon—was a sense that that the left has cut itself off from its humble working class roots and evolved in a Brahminesque direction, spouting impenetrable wisdom about vaguely radical change on behalf of marginalized people in prose that requires ten solid years at graduate school to understand.”

President Biden’s Remarks at the Pentagon 9/11 Memorial Ceremony, Sept. 11, 2022: “And to all our service members and their families, our veterans, our Gold Star families, all the survivors and caregivers and loved ones who have sacrificed so much for our nation: We owe you. We owe you an incredible—an incredible debt, a debt that can never be repaid but will never fail to meet the sacred obligation to you to properly prepare and equip those that we send into harm’s way and care for those and their families when they come home—and to never, ever, ever forget. . . . When future generations come here to sit in the shade of the Maple trees that shelter the memorial and grown tall and strong with passing years, they will find the names of patriots.”

The President’s speeches have gotten more feisty since he decided to go after the MAGA Mafia. Still, one wishes that he could stop the cliché responses to events and speak the language of the people directly. As Orwell put it, “one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end.”

The Intractable Boneheads

Contrary to what you may have heard, the best way to deal with the boneheads that ever more dominate our lives is to ignore them. You can’t talk to them; they speak an alien language unrelated to human thought or history. Reasoning with them only makes them angry and reinforces their fantasies. The only thing that will change Governor Abbott’s behavior is political pressure. Ditto for the Republican toadies.

At the Capitol on January 6 you saw the ultimate bonehead fantasies of religion, conspiracy and nationalism all merged and confounded. Trump’s evangelical followers are usually high on some form of political deception, as Michael Luo recently documented:

nearly three-quarters of white evangelical Republicans believe widespread voter fraud took place in the 2020 election, compared with fifty-four per cent of non-evangelical Republicans; sixty per cent of white evangelical Republicans believe that Antifa, the antifascist group, was mostly responsible for the violence in the Capitol riot, compared with forty-two per cent of non-evangelical Republicans [my emphasis].

There’s a long tradition here, a vibrant history of religious nuttiness in American life. Luo talks about some of this, and the full treatment can be found in Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1966), still valid and strong after all these years. I talked a little about these tendencies in another post, “A Culture of Ignorance.” Since then the culture has gotten worse and become the succubus of the Republican party.

Many boneheads refuse to take the Covid vaccine. Some still fixate on QAnon and its “cabal of left-wing, satanic pedophiles,” per Sarah Posner. Others are seized by the fervent mix of evangelism and Trump lies, as we saw on January 6. Nicholas Kristof humanely tells us “How to Reach People Who Are Wrong.” I say leave ‘em alone; asking reasonable questions will only make them more entrenched.

President Biden’s approach has been to avoid morally challenging these idiots and to focus on political actions that clearly benefit the majority. He did make a slip the other day in accusing the governors of Texas and Mississippi of “Neanderthal thinking” for abruptly lifting all Covid restrictions. Well, you can’t blame the man for speaking the truth.

Yet I am quite certain that Biden’s efforts to deal amicably with the Republicans will fail. Fooling around with arcane Senate rules and reconciliation maneuvers won’t get the transformative measures through that most of us are hoping for. You can’t deal forthrightly with people who have no moral or humanitarian center. You can’t overcome the filibuster. You can’t build trust with people who have no soul.

A Sharp Dressed Man

Imposter that he is, Trump dressed like a Mafia Don. Biden is playing the long game and dresses like a president should. You can’t beat a navy blue pinstripe suit. I am reminded of the great ZZ Top tune from 1983, “Sharp Dressed Man,” and, not least, how power dressing used to count for something in public life. Mitch McConnell in his off-white suits doesn’t really get that.

Most of us are entirely worn out with the pandemic, the stimulus negotiations, the Greene affair, and the daily GOP turmoils. Republicans are thrashing around trying to patch up their broken party and keep in the game while Joe Biden is quietly upstaging them at every turn. Yesterday the House Dems voted to kick M.T. Greene off her committees, even while Kevin McCarthy, the GOP’s top turkey, gave her a pass.

Before this, Joe coolly met for two hours with ten Republican senators and overshadowed them all, likely winning the stimulus battle. Maybe the pinstripe didn’t matter. But maybe subliminally it did.