Biden’s Orwellian language
Posted by metaphorical on 1 February 2007
Joe Biden is getting a lot of grief for what he said about fellow Democratic Senator and fellow 2008 Presidential candidate Barak Obama. People are asking whether Biden’s remark was, if not racist, at least insensitive. But the problem isn’t what Biden meant, it’s just the opposite. The problem is that Biden uses language that has no meaning at all.
Sixty years ago, George Orwell described Biden’s problem in “Politics and the English Language.”
“The English language is in a bad way,” he says. It suffers from two problems:
The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house.
Let’s look at what Biden said. According to the NY Times article, he called Obama “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Now, the statement, if taken literally, is obviously not true. When asked what he meant, Biden said,
“Barack Obama is probably the most exciting candidate that the Democratic or Republican party has produced at least since I’ve been around,” he said, adding: “Call Senator Obama. He knew what I meant by it. The idea was very straightforward and simple. This guy is something brand new that nobody has seen before.”
It’s just not possible that Biden thinks Obama represents something brand new. He can’t have failed to remember the “Run Jesse Run” of 1988; a black civil rights activist won the Michigan primary as well as bunch of others in southern states. For a while he was a front-running who came out of nowhere, an out-of-the-mainstream candidacy that drew not only black votes (though he got plenty of those) but a labor vote as well, traditional white white-collar working-class voters of the sort who didn’t vote for McGovern or, probably, Mondale, in years past. It was a black activist campaign on the verge of going mainstream. (It’s hard not to remember the Howard Dean outsider-become-frontrunner experience here.)
Biden can’t possibly have forgotten the incredibly successful Jesse Jackson campaign of 1988 because he himself ran in that race, dropping out way before a black candidate who was surely “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
So what did Biden mean? Going back to the Times story:
On Comedy Central, he told Mr. Stewart: “What got me in trouble was using the word clean. I should have said fresh. What I meant was he’s got new ideas.”
Here we see what Orwell would diagnose as the sin of meaningless words. Words like “articulate” and “bright” have no actual meaning for Biden. Certainly two qualities that each and every black candidate for president like Jackson, Chisholm, Mosley-Braun, and even Sharpton have had in common are articulateness and brightness. Orwell wrote: “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’.” Similarly, “articulate and bright,” if it doesn’t actually mean “sounds white,” must mean something like “sounds good enough to be an American presidential candidate” or just “is a desirable candidate.”
Similarly, “clean” and “fresh,” if they aren’t equally meaningless, commit another of Orwell’s sins, that of the dying metaphor. These words are often used metaphorically, but they really have no place describing politicians. According to the Times article, Sharpton called Biden on that very thing:
Mr. Sharpton said that when Mr. Biden called him to apologize, Mr. Sharpton started off the conversation reassuring Mr. Biden about his hygienic practices. “I told him I take a bath every day,” Mr. Sharpton said.
According to the Times story Biden also talked about Iraq, saying that the president had “dug America into a very big hole.” It would be interesting to see if Biden could talk about something as important as the war in Iraq without using metaphors as dead as digging a very big hole.
The Times also quoted Biden as saying,
“I deeply regret any offense my remark in the New York Observer might have caused anyone,” he said. “That was not my intent and I expressed that to Senator Obama.”
“Expressed” commits yet another of Orwell’s sins, pretentious diction. “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” Orwell cautions. Can a politician like Biden ever regret something but not deeply? Probably not. “Might have caused anyone” is another wonderous phrase—a passive construction isn’t cautious enough, let’s make it the conditional tense as well.
The problem with Joe Biden isn’t what he said about Barak Obama; it’s that he can’t say much of anything in a meaningful way.
“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” Orwell wrote.
A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient…. This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.
Political language—and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists–is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable. and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
Here’s an idea: Let’s not even consider for office any politicians who can’t—or won’t—speak to us in meaningful English. If Biden is going to be, in Orwell’s words, “almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not,” then we should be indifferent to his words, and his candidacy.
2 February 2007: [A folllow-up on Obama and “articulate” can be found here.]
8 February 2007: [A more recent post on Biden’s hopelessly failed candidacy is here.]