[A]ll Nunberg can think to do is claim for the left an advantage that is irrelevant to his book's project: "Liberals have a linguistic advantage of their own, in the form of truth." That is to say (and he says it), the right's success is built on a structure of "distortions." "We" are truth tellers; "they" are political liars.Perhaps Orwell's essay fails to impress Nunberg and Fish because, over time, we citizens have gotten deeply in touch with our natural human revulsion for elaborate euphemisms and bureaucratese. The last sentence of Orwell's essay is: "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." Maybe enough time has passed, and we've absorbed his lesson. The jeering has gotten easy and reflexive. We forthrightly love straight talk these days, and we're not bamboozled by, but instinctively mistrust those who get caught up roundabout rhetoric -- as Senator Kerry learned in the last election.
This notion is particularly odd given an earlier section of the book in which Nunberg does a nice critical number on what is surely the most overrated essay in the modern canon, George Orwell's turgid, self-righteous and philosophically hopeless "Politics and the English Language." Commenting on Orwell's distinction between words politically inflected and words that plainly name things, Nunberg points out that plain language is as political as any other and will probably be all the more effective because it "seems to correspond to concrete perception." The point, as he has been saying all along, is not to strip all of the political overlay from your language but to make the language that carries your political message the lingua franca of the public sphere.
Dammit, I love the old Orwell essay.
Let's all go read it again. Or just read Orwell's great set of writing rules:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.We've seen it before, but it's still helpful. (Now let me read this one more time before posting and see if I can find some words to cut.)
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.