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16 June 2010


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Great piece. If you can't describe a problem accurately, how well can you solve it?


Thank you, Mr Sale. What is shocking is that all these people you mention are almost certainly college-educated (although anyone who has attended or taught a university class recently would not find this surprising).

Your post reminds me of George Orwell's wonderful essay "Politics and the English Language." Complementing your observations, Orwell writes:

"Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language — so the argument runs — must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to 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. The point is that the process is reversible.


...one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin where it belongs."



oh kyra phillips is her own special branch of insulting stupidity .. remember the young child whose family was killed by an errant u.s. missile and he was left without arms and legs -- from 2003 via wiki:

"CNN hit rock bottom on Wednesday morning, when anchor Kyra Phillips interviewed Ali's doctor in Kuwait, Dr Imad al- Najada explained that, although Ali told reporters he was grateful for his treatment, he also hopes no other 'children in the war will suffer like what he suffered'.

Phillips seemed shocked by Ali's apparent inability to understand we were only trying to help him. 'Doctor, does he understand why this war took place? Has he talked about Operation Iraqi Freedom and the meaning. Does he understand it?'"

Brett J

Worthwhile to think on, if put in a rather over-the-top way.

Personally, I would place more blame on the development of a non-stop news reportage cycle, over reporters not having a first-hand familiarity with the topic they're reporting on. With no time to reflect on something and synthesize , how can reasonable conclusions be uncovered and communicated?



To employ a phrase that Orwell would despise, "you stole my thunder" with the reference to his essay. I would hope most people here have either read or will read his essay (one of the seminal essays of the 20th century). His lashing of cliches is the best I've ever read. I would add that the Colonel's use of language, whether he's read Orwell's piece or not, is an example of how one should write.

Here's what I think is the best example found in his paper:

"Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account."


As Orwell (courtesy of Twit's link) said:

"The point is that the process is reversible."

When one presumes their income is contingent on pleasing the boss rather than adhering to one's - and one's employer's, integrity, we quickly arrive just where we see the majority of the media and the pundits. It is also easier to check a few blogs to obtain your opinion rather than do actual reseach work or think critically, regardless of your skill with the language.

If I can ask, what happened to the post on gitmo that was temporarily up?

Roy G

You folks beat me to the Sunday punch by a country mile in referencing Orwell.

Seriously, I recently reread 'Politics and the English Language' in preparation for a writing project, and its clarity of presentation on both subjects puts the large majority of today's pundits and writers to shame--if they had any.

Big Media realized a long time ago that viewers want entertainment, not news--the same way kids want candy instead of real food. The ratings spread between CNN and PBS NewsHour confirms this.

It is a great irony that The Daily Show delivers more truth in reportage than most of the so-called news shows. Here's a recent gem, where Jon Stewart takes down the nincompoops on 'Fox and Friends,' whatever that is.

Here's a key exchange that neatly illustrate's Mr Sale's thesis:

CARLSON: You have this country, that is in the middle of a huge war, BUT... there's money to be found there, so who is going to now suddenly want to take over Afghanistan? What about the Taliban? What about China?

DOOCY: Sure. Because China is not too far away, and it's a great big country that needs a whole bunch of stuff.

KILMEADE: They can be transformed into the mining center of the world. So there you go. All right, now they can pay for the war, perhaps.


It's all too easy to pick on FOX, but this kind of fatuous stupidity is ascendant in today's media. Any insight or intelligent information is quickly leveled off by a snarky comment or a false equivalency. Alfred E. Neuman reigns over this landscape--although today, he'd be botoxed, tanned and wearing a natty Brioni suit.

anna missed

Often these tropes take on the dimension of characterizing a sort of conventional wisdom. During the Clinton impeachment, the phrase "begs the question" became a ubiquitous expression on the news, that legitimized the descent into taboo (sex on the news) territory to further political ends. Another example would be that Saddam "kicked out the inspectors" that was (an out and out lie) parroted universally on the news to justify the subsequent invasion. Or more recently, the use of the word "surge" - a word normally used (in political context) to indicate a candidates rise in poll numbers, being used as a (positive) euphemism for the (negative) word "escalation" in the war context.
When all the talking heads on the news gravitate towards one of these kinds of "universal" tropes, you can be pretty sure the fix is in, and the "conventional wisdom" has already been established.

anna missed

Interesting, that no one has used the word "surge" to name what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico.


Great piece, Mr. Sale. Thank you.

Amy Goodman said much the same here, although she is bitching about reporters not telling the truth, and failing to talk to the stakeholders:


The constraint of public discourse to meaningless sound bites isn't stupid at all; it's deliberate and calculated. It is part of a deliberate process of destroying the political power of the lower classes as advocated by the acolytes of Leo Strauss. It began under Reagan with the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and reached full flower with the election of George W. Bush.

The American people are being deliberately dumbed down and lied to in order to keep them under control. Anything that the ruling elite does not wish them to hear is unreported or only slips in via foreign media over the internet, and that channel too will shortly be under attack (that is what "net neutrality" is all about).

Why do you think Michael Yon is no longer embedded with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan? Why is the blinding in one eye of Emily Henochowicz, an American, by an Israeli teargas round not reported last week? The public are fed meaningless slop by the media every day instead of good red meat.

The stupidity is everywhere. In other forums I'm consistently struggling against people who vilify the U.N., then see no contradiction in the next paragraph in piously chiding Iran for....not following the dictates of the U.N.

The confusing "speech", for want of a better term, of George W Bush as President was not accidental. It was designed totally to create false impressions. "911 changes everything" in what way? Why? Should we allow that to happen?

Obama presents a contrasting style, but the substance is the same. The public are not taken into the confidence of their leaders. The leaders do the bidding of an elite and conspire among themselves to invent plausible reasons for not giving the public what it wants. The result is increasing levels of misery and hopelessness.

We are currently watching the media begin a campaign to deliberately target "liberals" as the proximate cause of the misery that Americans will shortly experience when the financial Tsunami hits American shores. The schadenfreud of commentators over the European financial shake out is palpable and always followed by the reminder that these are socialist countries.

It will be interesting to watch their reaction to the British Horror budget in a week or Two. "You see why Socialism doesn't work?" "You see why generous welfare and health benefits are bad? Look at Britain!"

My guess is that the next President will be Republican and will initiate a new McCarthyism very quickly.

William R. Cumming

Great post and very important. What bothers me is that there does appear to be a desire by both the MSM and politicians to mask the underlying realities and given their dialectic explain how they reached any given point in their thinking, giving examples of study and research or whether just a guess. The Constitution is premised on an electorate having the information it needs to make choices. That is now currently denied the electorate by all parties, politicians and media. Don't ask for whom the bell tolls? It tolls for US!

Stephen Jones

Walrus writes above that:

"The constraint of public discourse to meaningless sound bites isn't stupid at all; it's deliberate and calculated."

Yes it is deliberate on several levels. But it is designed to make or keep people stupid or ininformed, to 'weaponize their ignorance' in such as a way that they, (the masses, the public, the angry or fearful rubes), can be deployed [typically] in support of schemes that are ultimately against their own best interest.


funny clip that highlights Fox News Steve Doucy's grasp of the Afghan situation:


Patrick Lang


"George Orwell is such a superb writer, and surely his essay “Politics and the English Language” is his most popular short piece.

However, I was not in fact attempting to address the distortions of language or usage produced by political bias. I was simply protesting against the gross incapacity of professional news people to report accurately on what they had heard or seen. To be clear in speech does not take study or training. A desire to be simple and accessible chiefly shows a concern for the hearer or reader. If the point of the news is to inform and indirectly to improve the public discourse, then it is puzzling why broadcasters seem to take no interest in what they are saying.

I would suggest that anyone who is interested in the language and negligence should read Swift’s “Hints Towards an Essay on Conversation,” or “To a Young Poet,” or Hume’s “The Standard of Taste,” or Jacques Barzun’s “The Necessity of a Common Tongue” that discuss the topic far more intelligently than I am able to do.

There are probably websites where the texts can be downloaded.

And I want to express thanks for the intelligent thoughtfulness of so many comments."

Richard Sale

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