No Comment — July 16, 2007, 9:14 pm

Making Murder Respectable

The great chronicler of the corruption of language, George Orwell, noted in Politics and the English Language (1946) that “political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The dangers presented by the proliferation of such language are ominous. Victor Klemperer carefully recorded them in his book, Lingua tertii imperii (The Language of the Third Reich, 1947), perhaps the greatest account ever written of the power of simple twists of language to work murderous evil. And when the homicidal misrepresentations of the warmongers slither into the realm of news reporting, the situation becomes graver still. America has long prided itself on its independent guardian press, but this hardly ever was the case and assuredly is not so today. Even the best of the print media—publications like the New York Times and Washington Post–show the corrosive effects of corrupted language.

Last year, I tracked the Times’s use of the word “torture” over a period of six weeks. The results? “Torture” is used to described the excessively loud music coming from a neighbor’s apartment; a clash in accessories accompanying formalwear; drudgery or highly repetitive and monotonous office work. But what about things that really are torture: waterboarding, beating a person’s face to a pulp, the use of electroshocks, long-time standing—or as the KGB calls it, stoika, the cold cell? These things appeared many times, and the word “torture” never appeared next to them other than inside of quotation marks. No, the words the Times preferred to use were “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Orwell would crack an anxious smile. He would say: so you see, it’s well underway. Who could imagine a better example than this?

And currently we see much the same thing going on in reporting on the air and in print surrounding Congress. Remember just a bit more than two years ago, when on a single occasion the Democrats threatened to filibuster a judicial nominee? It was raised as a threat to the Constitution and our form of government. The media quaked and trembled. The horror! At length, the Democrats folded under this pressure and allowed a number of grossly unqualified persons to obtain lifetime appointments to the federal bench.

And today? Hardly a week now passes in which the Republicans, now reduced to the minority, fail to use the filibuster. They use it even to obstruct “sense of the Congress” resolutions—that is, nonbinding statements. And they’ve let it slip that their intention is purely to obstruct: to insure that the Democratic Congress is unable to do anything—that it continues to be viewed by the public as essentially impotent. Senator Kent Conrad in an interview this weekend:

The leader has had to file cloture now over 40 times already this year. And cloture, as you know, is a special procedure to stop debate, to stop filibusters, in order to reach conclusion on legislation. I had a Republican colleague tell me it is the Republican strategy to try to prevent any accomplishment of the Democratic Congress. That is set in their caucus openly and directly that they don’t intend to allow Democrats to have any legislative successes, and they intend to do it by repeated filibuster.

And how is this reported in the media? The word “filibuster” never appears. Look for it. You’ll see that there was a “procedural vote,” or that Republicans relied upon a “procedural device to block a vote.” And here’s a Reuters article out this evening that is positively comic in its twists and turns to avoid using the word “filibuster.” Why exactly? Because, I am told, the “Republican leadership would be upset if we used that word.” Ahha, now we understand how news copy is written. That’s the “liberal media” for you.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

August 2016

Four in Prose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Don the Realtor

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Atlas Aggregated

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Origins of Speech

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Four in Verse

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Sigh and a Salute

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Martin Amis on the rise of Trump, Tom Wolfe on the origins of speech, Art Spiegelman on Si Lewen, a story by Diane Williams, and more

In Havana, the past year has been marked by a parade of bold-faced names from the north — John Kerry reopening the United States Embassy; Andrew Cuomo bringing a delegation of American business leaders; celebrities ranging from Joe Torre, traveling on behalf of Major League Baseball to oversee an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team, to Jimmy Buffett, said to be considering opening one of his Margaritaville restaurants there. All this culminated with a three-day trip in March by Barack Obama, the first American president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. But to those who know the city well, perhaps nothing said as much about the transformation of political relations between the United States and Cuba that began in December 2014 as a concert in the Tribuna Antiimperialista.

Illustration by Darrel Rees
Article
Don the Realtor·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"If you have ever wondered what it’s like, being a young and avaricious teetotal German-American philistine on the make in Manhattan, then your curiosity will be quenched by The Art of the Deal."
Photograph (detail) © Polly Borland/Exclusive by Getty Images
Article
The Origins of Speech·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"To Chomsky...every child’s language organ could use the 'deep structure,' 'universal grammar,' and 'language acquisition device' he was born with to express what he had to say, no matter whether it came out of his mouth in English or Urdu or Nagamese."
Illustration (detail) by Darrel Rees. Source photograph © Miroslav Dakov/Alamy Live News
Article
A Sigh and a Salute·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together 'so they could talk to each other.' This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work."
Artwork (detail) by Si Lewen
Article
El Bloqueo·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Amid the festivities and the flood of celebrities, it would be easy for Americans to miss that the central plank of the long-standing cold war against Cuba — the economic embargo — remains very much alive and well."
Photograph (detail) by Rose Marie Cromwell

Chances that a Republican man believes that “poor people have hard lives”:

1 in 4

A school in South Korea was planning to deploy a robot to protect students from unwanted seductions.

Nuremberg’s Neues Museum filed a criminal complaint against a 91-year-old woman who completed a crossword puzzle that was in fact a $116,000 piece of avant-garde Danish art.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today