Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mistakes Were Made. Again.

I opened my newspaper the other day and learned that, once again, "Mistakes were made." In this case, the mistakes involved Bernie Kerik, a associate of Rudy Giuliani who is under investigation for suspected entanglements with organized crime. You will notice that the subject of the previous sentence is "mistakes." The former mayor used the same construction in his non-admission of what was a serious lapse in judgment. "There were mistakes made with Bernie Kerik," Giuliani told a reporter.

Who made these mistakes? What spectral being or elusive force could have been responsible? Thanks to his adroit use of the passive voice, we are left guessing. If I were Rhetoric Czar – oh, and by the way, I am – I would impose a fine on this affront to candor. When sentences have no subjects – no human ones, anyway – no one is ever accountable for anything. Along with George Orwell, I believe that creeping passive voice is a sign of moral bankruptcy. He wrote in his classic essay, The Politics of the English Language, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity."

It is as true in our time as it was 60 years ago that political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Language dictates thought, and the diabolical part is that language that is intended to mislead and manipulate works—even when we are fully aware it's a con.

Our newspapers parrot Administration phraseology that tries to "name things without calling up mental pictures of them," as Orwell wrote. This is why we read about "the Special Removal Unit" (kidnappers) tasked to perform "extraordinary rendition" (outsourcing torture, also know as "enhanced interrogation"). "Political language," according to Orwell, "is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable... "

And if there are lies, there must also be liars, right? But not Condeleeza Rice, who merely "misspoke herself," when she testified before the 9/11 Commission that she'd received no warnings about Al Quada's plans.

Then there is "opposite talk," an attempt to legitimize a policy by giving it a name that is directly contrary to its actual aims. The Administration's Clear Skies Initiative, for example, was anything but; it substantially weakened pollution controls. And of course there is the Protect America Act. If there were truth in naming, would be called the Police America Act, as it broadly expands the government's power to spy on Americans.

So who will police the policers? Who will point out to the public the discrepancies between language and reality? Journalism should have a "rhetoric beat," according to an essay by Brent Cunningham in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. He argues that people ought to be following and reporting on the ways that political language is twisted to influence thinking.

Sign me up. As Rhetoric Czar, I will do my best to identify the latest linguistic offenses against clarity and truth as they occur. (With the presidential campaign heating up, I expect an avalanche.)

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