No Comment — November 17, 2008, 7:18 pm

Justice ♡ Orwell

Why does Michael B. Mukasey have a portrait of George Orwell hanging in his office? Today I read a document that suggests that the spirit of Orwell–or more precisely Orwell’s nightmare–is indeed alive at the Department of Justice. Last week a whistleblower leaked a series of highly incriminating documents about the prosecution of former Alabama Governor Don E. Siegelman. The documents showed that aggressive claims made by the U.S. Attorney who brought the case–and who is close to Karl Rove–were “less than candid.” Indeed, the documents may be more damaging than that.

These documents should have been turned over to Congress, which issued a subpoena requiring their production. But today we see that notwithstanding the damage done to its credibility by the leaks, the Bush Justice Department is intent on stonewalling Congress for every day of their two remaining months. The problem is that they have no legal basis for denying the subpoena. And this is where Orwell gets useful–and where the soulless bureaucrat that Orwell despised knows just what to do. Craft some senseless lines that sound good and principled but are actually devoid of meaning. In a letter responding to the subpoena, Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Keith B. Nelson states:

We do not believe that a possible departure from those policies in any given matter, the details of which may not be known or knowable at this point, requires us to set them aside in any other matter.

Talkingpointsmemo quotes a Committee staffer suggesting that Keith Nelson has obviously hired Donald Rumsfeld to write his copy. But I disagree. This text is classic Orwellian doublespeak. The Justice Department’s main point is that disclosure of the documents would injure the Justice Department’s position in the Siegelman appeal, now slated to be argued in Atlanta on December 9.

Of course, recent disclosures show clearly that Nelson’s concern is well taken. The documents that leaked undercut claims made by the U.S. attorney in a statement submitted to Congress. In theory, Congress has a right to look into the honesty of the statements made to it, and act if it finds there was an effort to mislead. Viewed as a strategy for a cornered criminal defendant who’s run out of good arguments, Nelson’s letter looks fine.

I have no doubt that disclosure of this information would severely harm the Justice Department’s position in the Siegelman appeal, just as Nelson suggests. Indeed, any light shed on the inner workings of the Justice Department in this case would destroy it, just as strong sunlight disinfects a bacillus spore. Nelson is doing a good job for his client. Unfortunately for us, he seems to have lost track of the fact that his client is supposed to be the United States.

“Political language,” Orwell tells us in Politics and the English Language, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” The Justice Department has made his case.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

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

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2015

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Neoliberal Arts

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gangs of Karachi

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Romancing Kano·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:

The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.

leadership
service
integrity
creativity

Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.

Article
The Prisoner of Sex·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It is disappointing that parts of Purity read as though Franzen urgently wanted to telegraph a message to anyone who would defend his fiction from charges of chauvinism: ‘No, you’ve got me wrong. I really am sexist.’”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
Gangs of Karachi·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In Karachi, sometimes only the thinnest of polite fictions separates the politicians from the men who kill and extort on their behalf.”
Photograph © Asim Rafiqui/NOOR Images
Article
Weed Whackers·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Defining 'native' and 'invasive' in an ever-shifting natural world poses some problems. The camel, after all, is native to North America, though it went extinct here 8,000 years ago, while the sacrosanct redwood tree is invasive, having snuck in at some point in the past 65 million years.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Neoliberal Arts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.”
Artwork by Julie Cockburn

Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:

65

An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.

A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today