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Gary Hart

Gary Hart

Posted: January 11, 2010 10:59 AM

Orwell and Language

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There is a lack of seriousness, especially where national security is concerned, among those who focus all their attention on a particular language or set of words they favor while more important issues are neglected. Take, for example, the recent inside-the-Beltway taffy-pull over whether President Obama does, or does not, use the phrase "war on terrorism."

Serious people care more about the policy and its effectiveness than the rhetoric surrounding it. It is important to note that those most concerned with the current president adopting the language of his predecessor are following the line of oppressive political figures of the extreme right and left who have understood over the years that he who controls the meaning of words, and who dictates the language to be used, also controls the outcome of the debate.

George Orwell, among others, has most effectively, and frighteningly, pointed this out.

Since Vietnam there has been a concerted effort on the part of some to suggest that one party cares more about national security than the other. They do so despite the fact that the party presumably weak on defense led us through World War I, World War II, the Korean war, and much of Vietnam. Nevertheless, if you start from that notion and convince enough people that terrorism is a function of war, then people must conclude that the party supported by the language hawks alone is equipped to respond to it.

The real issue behind this linguistic taffy-pull is what methods are to be used. If counter-terrorism is a "war," then traditional military measures, including big armies in the field (Iraq and Afghanistan) and invasions, are required. If terrorism is a somewhat sophisticated form of criminal activity, it will require special forces trained in irregular, unconventional warfare to combat it.

So, as inconsequential as the language tussle seems, it does have political and military consequences. How you characterize or describe a problem will usually determine what methods you use to address it. The more the language hawks prevail in demanding their special vocabulary, the more they will dictate our policies. For some of us the proof is in the policy not the words.

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