July 22, 2006

"The most overrated essay in the modern canon... turgid, self-righteous and philosophically hopeless."

I'm just noticing how harshly Stanley Fish slammed George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." This is in a review of a book that I've been reading lately: Geoffrey Nunberg's "Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show." Great title, no? It's a book about using language to sell your political program. Nunberg is quite taken with how well the right has done this and is trying to prod liberals to do better:
[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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
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.)


Elizabeth said...

I assign that essay in my freshman writing classes for that "great set of writing rules." I have no hope of getting them to read Strunk and White, but Orwell targets the essentials, in a clear, understandable way, and with a good argument for what he presents.

josil said...

and then there is legalese, which barely qualifies as english.

madawaskan said...

Damn it-I'm a sushi-eating, latte drinking, Volvo admiring, Prius-a-wanting, Goldwater Practicalarian.

Ann Althouse said...

Josil: All the law schools I've known teach students to write clearly. Maybe you're talking about some contracts and forms you've seen, but legal writing is supposed to be very sharp and effective. It's not about saying things like hereinbeforetoafter.

Alex Bensky said...

Well, I'm hardly surprised that Stanley Fish doesn't like Orwell's approach to writing. That says a lot about him and diminishes Orwell not in the least.

Alex Bensky said...

Hardly a surprise that Fish doesn't care for Orwell's approach to writing and thinking. That says a lot about Fish and doesn't diminish Orwell, of course.

garrison said...

Ann I came to your blog for the pictures of Madison (so I'm shallow). I return for the quality of the writing by both you and your commenters.
As a poor writer trying to improve, I especially appreciate this post. Thank you Ann

Craig Ranapia said...

Well, Professor Fish seems to have falled into the time-honoured academic trap of not bothering to critique the essay Orwell actually wrote. Orwell himself acknowledged over and again, that every point he made was far from exhaustively addressed and was wide open to objection; and that Orwell was as far as you can get from an academic literary critic or political scientist. Perhaps that's a little unnerving to a dedicated follower of academic fashion like Professor Fish?

Palladian said...

"Geoffrey Nunberg's "Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show."

Conservatives turned "Liberalism" into that stereotype? How like the stereotypical liberal to blame their problematic image on someone else.

No political philosophy has a monopoly on truth. I distrust and dislike people who love ideological monikers more than they love truth.

And is Stanley Fish just bitter because few writing professors assign his work to students? Elizabeth, I adore Strunk and White; amazing to me that students would be resistant to it. Well... being a teacher myself, sadly it's not amazing to me that students would resist anything assigned to them, entertaining or not.

ignacio said...

I recently read a biography of Orwell (by Bowker, I think). Painted in some ways rather a more all-too-human picture than I expected, particularly in regards to his relations with the opposite sex.

I certainly had never realized how his marriage to Sonia was at the last minute, when he was on his deathbed.

charlotte said...

catherine said...
Typical. Numberg commits to publication the thesis that style of message is more important than substance in its appeal to (moronic, incapable of discernment) American voters, and reviewer Fish declares that political truth about "conservative darkness" isn't being served at all by Numberg's point.

"Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn distinguished university professor of humanities and law at Florida International University. His most recent book is "How Milton Works."

IOW, he's expert on how Pair o' Dice wuz Lost because of those damned Repubs.

(Btw, when I reorganized the home library recently, eight copies of Strunk's Elements of Style surfaced. They propagated in the darkness of the lesser used shelves, apparently. I should pay them more attention.)

Paul Zrimsek said...

Aren't srguments of the Nunberg/Lakoff variety ultimately self-defeating for liberals? If they want to persuade us to turn, say, the provision of health insurance over to the state, you'd expect them to proceed (in part) by trying to persuade us that the things the state does are generally done for good reasons. Being told, instead, that it comes down to an empty sloganeering contest between rival teams of admen isn't much of a confidence-builder.

chessking said...

Orwell 1, Fish 0.

If Fish dislikes something, that virtually certifies it as 24k gold. Fish is punching way out of his class in taking on Orwell.

And as usual, he just takes his vituperative cheap shot in passing, not bothering to level any substantive criticism. All invective, no content; typical Fish.

Glenn Howes said...

For those who care about such things be sure to pick up the 3rd edition of The Elements of Style. The 4th edition was made more politically correct and less elegant.

Steven said...

Ah. Yet another book retreading the theme that conservatives win because of false consciousness.

Maybe the image of the elitist liberal is not a creation of the Right? Maybe it's instead the natural human reaction to being called a gullible fool by liberals for literally decades?

Nah. If that were the case, then the left would bear some blame for its own failures, and that can't be true. It's all those devious right-wingers!

Seven Machos said...

George Lakoff was the first thing I thought of, too. The idea that you can take a concept and get people to like it simply by changing the name is absurd.

In fact, the opposite is true. Take the word "welfare." It's a perfectly good word, and it means something good. However, until I was in my late, late teens, the word had a very negative connotation because to be "on welfare" meant to be poor and taking handouts as far as I had really ever seen the word used. ANd, of course, calling government handouts "welfare payments" was a Lakoff/Fish thing to do in the first place.

Having said all this, sometimes it is important to take ownership of words. "Federalism" is a great example. The "federalists" were not the federalists at all; they were in favor a strong central government and weaker local governments. The "anti-federalists" were really the federalists but they couldn't use their own word because their opponents had gotten to it and taken possession of it first.

JohnF said...

Well, this is weird. Geoff was a high school classmate of mine, and seems trapped in a cage of massive denial. Sure, words matter, but conservatives didn't capture the word "values" simply by being the first to use the term to signify traditional American, er, values.

Well, I won't go on because I don't read Geoff's stuff and thus can't comment too much. But I am very distrustful of those who say that conservatives have "won" (yeah, right), not because of actual ideas or desires for how things ought to be, but because of tricks, linguistic or otherwise.

Are we to believe those guys over at National Review have just spent the last 50 years thinking of clever phrasings?

Lou Minatti said...

Orwell was a socialist, but he hated what socialism invariably becomes: Stalinism.

I spent an hour reading Part 1 of 1984 tonight, thanks to the site Ann linked to. Are 1984 and Animal Farm still required reading in public schools? I hope they are, although I suspect these two books have been weeded out.

Lou Minatti said...

Just wrote a post about this:

I just checked my local ISD and Animal Farm isn't mentioned for junior high kids. I think that is sad.


Dave said...

I had to read Fish in college and thought him a terrible writer.

Elizabeth said...

Palladian, I think I'll make a stab at getting The Elements of Style adopted in our freshman classes sometime in the future. We use it in more advanced writing classes, and if I recall correctly, I discovered it a couple of years into college, on the advice of a philosophy professor.

With freshmen, a large part of my goal is to help them see writing as something that's within their grasp, and a useful tool for understanding ideas, their own and those they encounter in school and the world. Some students are ready to grabble with style, but generally, it's one of the elements that marks a B and A student from a C student.

lou: most of my students are public school grads, or from run-of-the-mill Catholic schools, and yes, invariabley a few students recognize Orwell as "the guy who wrote 1984."

dearieme said...

For anyone who doesn't know it, may I recommend Gowers:-

dearieme said...


is worth a look as a source of advice on writing

Balfegor said...

George Lakoff was the first thing I thought of, too. The idea that you can take a concept and get people to like it simply by changing the name is absurd.

Well, on the face of it, it may seem absurd, but as an idea, it fits back with a broader concern (on both the Left and the Right) about controlling the frame of discourse.

Conservatives engage in this kind of meta fight about who gets to define the terms of discourse too. See, e.g. Ramesh Ponnuru's recent book -- he calls it Party of Death, not something more neutral, like, say, Abortion and its Discontents or whatever. And there is a concern among conservative abortion activists that news papers refer to them as "anti-abortion," rather than their preferred term -- "pro-life." Again with the newspapers, conservatives will sometimes go through and count the number of times conservatives or conservative organisations are referenced with a "right-wing" or "conservative" descriptor, and compare that against the number of times liberals or left-wing organisations are mentioned, and complain of bias when conservative organisations are categorised by ideology and liberal organisations are not. Why? Because they think they are at a disadvantage in the public debate, when their side (our side) gets stuck as the "conservative" view, and the other side is presented as a neutral view. This is the same kind of concern about framing that Nunberg and Lakoff are pointing to.

Of course, Lakoff certainly takes it much, much further -- I like his work generally, but his political analogies are awfully forced (and his political advice pretty useless). And I expect Nunberg does the same, although I have not read this particular book. But the basic concern about framing the discourse is one shared by conservatives. It's not this loony delusion left-wing linguistics professors cooked up all by themselves.

FXKLM said...

I haven't read the book, but I have seen this general idea adovated quite a bit.

As I understand it, the author claims that the left should try to control the language of politics and encourage the use of terms that are more favorable to the left. But all of the examples of the successful use of language by conservatives is exactly the opposite. Liberals chose the terms welfare and affirmative action because they sounded good. Then conservatives, instead of trying to control the language and substitute terms of their own, argued against those positions on the merits and were so successful that they turned the positive connotations of those words into negative connotations.

The author's own examples undermine his point. Liberals have traditionally been very successful in controlling the language of political discussion.

The most outrageous example is the left's appropriation of the word "liberal" which used to mean something more akin to libertarian. The left saw that the word had valuable brand equity, so they flipped the meaning around and stole it for themselves. It was only after decades of association with leftist policies that liberal became a dirty word. And then they have the nerve to complain that the right controls the language.

dklittl said...


I don't think anyone is saying that Democrats haven't used language to their advantage in the past, the point is that Democrats aren't using it as effectively or as much as Republicans. Some of the biggest current issues in America have been well framed in terms benifiting the "Republican Pary" And all that you have to do is read some of the reports by Republicans such as Frank Lutz who have actually steered fellow Republicans to utilize certain words at every turn. "Flip-flop", "Death tax", "Pro-life", "Activist judges", "Tax relief" and "Fight them over there and not here" are boilerplate language that every mainstream Republican uses and were developed relatively new. And the reason that they use them over and over again, is because it works. It isn't to say that the terms alone work, but the framing of the debate significantly tips the debate to friendly ground.

somross2 said...

Elizabeth notes that she'll try to use "Elements of Style" - at least three of Orwell's suggestions (as quoted by Ann) seem almost identical to advice in Strunk and White's "Elements."

John in Nashville said...

How much of political discourse and rhetoric is merely cunning linguistics?

aaron said...

"I know why were not reaching the public, weren't not convoluted enough."

aaron said...

Lou, I don't know about required reading, but we were assigned to read Animal Farm in elemetry.


"Flip-flop", "Death tax", "Pro-life", "Activist judges", "Tax relief" and "Fight them over there and not here"

These are all counter examples. The phrases were exhausted before they were even popular at the conventions. When people hear them, they tune out (knowing that the speaker is just reframing). They don't convince, they reinforce. Those words only spoke to the converted. It was only pols that thought they were clever, everyone else thought it was cute that the pols thought they were clever.

Kent said...

I have no hope of getting them to read Strunk and White

Strunk and White was required reading during my senior year at an (unusually good) public high school. To my surprise, I loved it.

Mary said...
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