Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Salmon Rushdie and Orwell

Salmon Rushdie has an article in the Toronto Star about misuse of language. Specificially, he is talking about our government's use of the phrase "extraordinary rendition" instead of plainer English words like kidnapping and torture. His point is that such Orwellian doubletalk is always an indication of evil intentions.

As indeed it is.

What has always puzzled me is why these words are even invented. At first glance you would think it is part of a scheme to hide criminal behavior from a public which might put a stop to it. That may be a part of it. But certainly not all. Even Hitler felt the need of these kinds of words, and he certainly was in no in fear of German public opinion. When he could have easily said "yes, we are actually killing all the Jews" he did not say that at all--instead he was silent on the matter and had Himmler talk about sending the Jews off "to the East."

I don't have an answer as to why these circumlocutions are used in place of the plain truth. It's true the public doesn't want to know--or at least that part of the public that supports a Hitler, or a low-grade nightmare like Bush, doesn't want to know. Maybe it comes down to something as simple as a guilty conscience, if not for Bush then for the red-state claque that put him in office.

The British Law Lords handed down an opinion on torture (quoted in the Rushdie article) notable for its straightforwardness. "Torture is an unqualified evil...It can never be justified. Rather, it must always be punished." Maybe the extraordinary renditionists still know this. I'm inclined to think some residual kernel of shame in the torturers impels them to use Orwellian language for what they do. Why else would someone like Himmler display queasiness over speaking plainly about what he was doing?

Plain language would seem to be the canary in the coal mine here. When ordinary words go missing, and someone substitutes these bizarre replacements like "extraordinary rendition" we know we know we are in serious difficulties. Houston, we have a problem.

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