On the watch for substance, specificity

In 1946, George Orwell penned an enduring little essay titled "Politics and the English Language."

In this 15-page rant, he reasoned that murky language and bad politics go hand in glove -- though he would've slapped my gloved wrist for deigning to use such a hackneyed metaphor. (See his rule No. 1: "Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.")

Here's how Orwell deduced the link between language and politics: "A man may take a drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts."

I wager proof of this circular chicken-and-the-egg conundrum will be found in every stump speech we'll hear between now and November from the candidates of all the parties.

Let's start with recent examples from the presumptive presidential nominees of the two major political parties, and then we'll let the master pick them apart from more than six decades before they were spoken.

This is what Democrat Barack Obama said about his Republican opponent, John McCain, while harping on his ever-present theme of change: "It's not change when he offers four more years of Bush economic policies that have failed to create well-paying jobs, or insure our workers, or help Americans afford the skyrocketing cost of college -- policies that have lowered the real incomes of the average American family, widened the gap between Wall Street and Main Street, and left our children with a mountain of debt."

And this is McCain, also on the topic of change: "As president, I intend to act quickly and decisively to promote growth and opportunity. I intend to keep the current low income and investment tax rates. And I will pursue tax reform that supports the wage-earners and job creators who make this economy run, and help them to succeed in a global economy. Serious reform is needed to help American companies compete in international markets."

What did either say of real substance and specificity? Both painted a vague picture that sounds a lot like Orwell's description of how the "concrete melts into the abstract" and "prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house."

Each candidate, as Orwell predicted, expressed a dislike of one thing and a solidarity with another, but showed little interest in the details of what he is saying.

As you watch the various politicians speak in the coming months, I'd encourage you to watch closely and see if Orwell's description of the "tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating familiar phrases" does not in fact make you think that you are not watching a live human being.

In making this observation, Orwell turned a fresh and apt metaphor. He noted how the feeling of watching what we now might call an automaton becomes stronger "when the light catches the speaker's spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them." Or soul. Or brain.

If I'd been Orwell's editor at the time, perhaps I'd have recommended he rename his essay to something like: "How to Listen to a Political Speech and Not Be Bamboozled by Hollow Rhetoric and Vapid Vagueness."

We probably can't command this tide to not roll in, but at least we at the Review-Journal promise to listen to Orwell's admonitions and attempt to pry specifics and details out of the candidates as our reporters and editors track them on the stump and interview them.

I'm not sure how successful we'll be, but in the meantime I encourage everyone to listen with a more discerning ear to the meaning of the words and not just be lulled by the resonance of the rhetoric, but recognize that many of these speeches consist of "gumming together long strips of words ... and making the results presentable by sheer humbug."

Thomas Mitchell is editor of the Review-Journal and writes about the role of the press and access to public information. He may be contacted at 383-0261 or via e-mail at tmitchell@reviewjournal.com.