In his famous essay, "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell wrote, "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 success of the Republican Party in the past two decades has stemmed significantly from their control of political discourse. As a result of their ingenuity and Democratic passivity, Republican words and phrases permeate the public sphere. Yet this political vocabulary is both intellectually dishonest and emotionally manipulative. It is "spin" operating at an atomic level. In an era of sound bites and attenuated, channel-surfing attention spans, linguistic micro-spin can have very serious consequences.
In his novel 1984, Orwell invented a language called Newspeak, his fictional State's method of controlling thought and suppressing opposition to its policies. Orwell describes Newspeak as being composed in part of "words which had been deliberately constructed for political purposes ... words which were intended to impose a desirable mental attitude upon the person using them ... No word in [this] vocabulary was ideologically neutral. A great many were euphemisms. [Some] meant almost the exact opposite of what they were supposed to mean."
An ideological charge often resides in a spinning adjective. Activist judges, the Death Tax, compassionate conservative, pro-life, faith-based, Big Government--each of these attempts to dictate our responses. Such phrases ("cut & run" is the latest) are designed to push our buttons--to arouse emotional responses and override rational processes. What could be worse for a democracy? In The Federalist Papers, both Hamilton and Madison express particular concern about the emotional manipulation of the electorate.
Other examples of Republican Newspeak are more complex. One tactic is to represent an oppositional position as a positive one--to turn an "anti" into a "pro." The term "pro-life" is a case in point. It is inaccurate, because "pro-lifers" are not so much for something as against something much more circumscribed. "Pro-life" does not really stand for an advocacy of human life in general (such as an opposition to the death penalty); it only means "against abortion." In a related rhetorical move, and one just as emotionally manipulative, anti-abortionists refer to fetuses as "the unborn," "babies," and even "children." Their opponents, who call themselves "pro-choice," are honest. These people are not "for abortion," but rather for an adult woman's right to decide whether she is prepared to bear a child. They have, however, failed to point out, publicly and frequently, the distortions of their opponents.
What can be done about this insidious trend? Democrats and their allies need to fight back. When Republicans talk about an "ownership society," Democrats should say this means a "you're-on-your-own society." When the Bush administration says it wants to "reform" Social Security, Democrats should protest that Bush really want to "dismantle" it. They might add that putting our retirement money on the stock market will result in "anti-Social Insecurity." They could refer to Fox News as "Pravda," because Fox functions as a government organ, much as the Soviet news organ ("pravda" means "true" or "truth")did.
More importantly, Democrats should make meta-comments, calling attention to the manipulative character of Republican Newspeak. "Cut & run," for example, is high-school jock talk, completely inappropriate for a serious discussion of foreign policy. (What's next-- "meet me at the flagpole"?)
Finally, our media should scrupulously monitor their own use of political language, echoing neither political party and striving for neutral, objective descriptions of legislation and policies.