H. G. Wells in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language , called modern political speech “the defense of the indefensible”. According to Wells, political phraseology is developed to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. In other words, political language is designed to neuter language to the point that it loses most, if not all, of its honesty, deep meaning or symbolism. Our modern political language is deliberatley designed to cloak true intentions and hide any real commitment to an idea, and sometimes, as in extremely dishonest totalitarian countries or democracies for that matter, goes out of its way to dastardly cover up heinous practices.
Clearly, language is at its best when it invokes imagery and is deeply symbolic. This differs from clever or nuanced or legalistic language, because symbolic language is rich, open and can clearly be understood by everybody who seeks truth and equally has the ability to cause people to ponder or be moved. This type of language is motivated to lead people to action that betters themselves and others. It is language that leads to individual and collective problem-solving. Symbolic language seeks to enrich others rather than enrich itself. Symbolic language may appear to the disingenious to be the language of obscure mystery because it does take effort or experience to understand it. But to the honest of heart this language is not the language of confusion nor is it the language of flattery or the language that disparges. It’s language that is on a productive and creative offensive and not stridently and shrilling on the defensive. It is the language that has been typically attributed to the greatest spirits in history such as Christ, Jefferson, Lincoln, Gandhi, and yes, even Martin Luther King. Oh where has this rich moral and political speech gone?
Of course, with the advent of 24/7 news coverage and now with social media in full swing, we cannot blame our politicians for being so gun shy about saying anything meaningful or speaking at length about their issues because the media, no matter what bias it exhibits, is unforgiving of lengthy, deep or honest dialogue from our politicians. As Rolf Dobelli pointed out in his article, Avoid News: Towards A Healthy News Diet, “Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time…News is an interruption system. It seizes your attention only to scramble it.” Dobelli contends that news also messes with our memories. Politicians and their speech writers are very aware of this and therefore talk about important issues only in little packets of half truths, seeking to mostly divert our attention by pointing out the faults of the others and hoping something negative will resonate with us.
It is amazing that as a nation how little we demand not only from our politicians but our media when it comes to our large political issues. We should be demanding a full night devoted to a single issue during the last 30 days of the campaign. These lengthy debates would force candidates to eventually drop euphemisms and sound bites as they would become trite after an hour of use and allow them to speak meaningfully. But, the networks would never do that because they know that they would lose big time in the ratings. Because many of us would flip over to watch entertaining cable productions such as “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” or watch reruns of Sienfield rather than watch our politicians actually explain the issues and how they would address them.
So maybe we are at fault as well and I think we are as I watch supposedly the “best and brightest” celebrate ebulliently meaningless and empty words and euphemistic phrases during each party’s national conventions. I ask myself can they be serious? The candidate absolutely spoke on every side of the issue without really saying anything or having done anything remotely close to resolving an issue. But despite the fantasies offered and real contradictions, the crowds at these events go crazy over words that these candidates time and time again fail to deliver on. Do we really believe either of these candidates will solve Social Security, the largest welfare program in the world, during the next four years? Do we really think Social Security will get better or stronger in the next four years? What rational evidence do we have that flames this poltical faith? I have almost come to the conclusion that like most reality TV, everything we see including the cheering at these conventions is scripted because if it isn’t than we as modern and civilized people are certainly no less irrational and foolish than we claim our ancestors were in the past.