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Tuesday, October 04, 2011

I really hate the new ThinkProgress format. For one thing, I can't comment on Matt Yglesias anywhere that anyone reads. I can't stand this.

Commenting here.

Now he's messing with Orwell. I agree entirely with this post which argues that language can't be neutral. Rather the decision by the MSM or establishment or whoever that some phrasing is neutral is, and must be, a political act. It is not possible to balance without a fulcrum.

However, he quotes Rorty criticizing Orwell. In theory, I believe that all writers should be criticized, but I can't let this pass without counterargument.

Critiquing George Orwell, Richard Rorty notes that in practice, newspeak tactics fail. “Ethnic cleansing” was developed by thugs during the Bosnian Civil War as a newspeak term that was supposed to replace “genocide” with a phrase (“cleansing”) that has positive affect. The practical impact was to turn “ethnic cleansing” into a chilling term that connotes genocide.

Rorty's argument is nonsense. The world is not Oceania. Rorty proved that attempted brainwashing fails if the people whose brains you intend to watch have a free press and free debate. Newspeak was enforced through terror. It was not a tool to convince people. Rather it was a tool to humiliate them. In 1984, Orwell didn't suggest that it would work without the thought police. Minitrue without Minilove was not considered in that book.

The above paragraph may be unfair to Rorty. The error is referring to abuse of language as Newspeak. This invokes 1984, which did not consider abuse of language separate from terror. The word "Newspeak" is not in quotation marks, so it might be Yglesias's error not Rorty's. Notably, the ethnic cleansers did not have total power over the debate concerning Bosnia. They didn't even in Serbia proper which, soon after the coining of "ethnic cleansing" set a new record for consecutive days of protest. The issue was the Belgrade municipal election. Milosovic is a depraved criminal, but even in his wildest dreams, he wasn't Big Brother.

The relevant work by Orwell is "Politics and the English Language." To claim that the case of "ethnic cleansing" disproves Orwell, Rorty must argue that the abuse of language discussed in "Politics and the English Language" is effective so the side that abuses language wins debates it should lose. But this has nothing to do with the actual essay. Orwell asserted that all sides abuse language. There was no prediction.

More importantly, Orwell didn't write much about the effectiveness of abuse of language in "Politics and the English Language." He described the abuse of language at length. He described damaging consequences for the thought of the speaker. I think he argued that people can manage to avoid thinking clearly by abusing language. I don't recall (I am analysing from memory) any claim that the listener or reader can be infected even if the listener tries to resist.

I can't recite the essay from memory and I might have missed something, but I don't recall anything contradicted by the case of "ethnic cleansing."


Hans Suter said...

So Rorty (Rorty!) thought that Orwell would have seen the thugs's attempt to hide the genocide with the word "ethnic cleansing" as a possible outcome ?

Anonymous said...

why would anyone care about thinkprogress ?
so far as I can tell, 90% plus is criticism of right wing loonies; there is nothing positive; I bet they don't even have a banner on their website with 10 ways to help OWS
the left spends way way to much time on easy targets like M Bachmann; but you don't win a war by just criticizing the enemy; you need to do something postive; at least OWS is doing something; I've noticed the sarcastic and dismissive tone of all the "left" blogs, all the bloggers, sitting there trying to look important, well naturally they are mad that someone is actually doing something, cause then you ahve to ask, what, if anything has thinkprogress contributed ? aside from putdowns of bachmann cain etc etc

ezra s abrams

Robert said...

I don't really know what Rorty wrote on Orwell and "ethnic cleansing." I am really working just from the quoted snippet. "Newspeak" like many of Orwell's neologisms has become part of the language and doesn't necessarily refer to 1984 (which is first a menace, second a book, only rarely just a year, and hardly ever just a number).

The comments on ThinkProgress are on Matt Yglesias. Notably he doesn't just pick on right wing loonies. He also discusses newspeak, "ethnic cleansing," Orwell, Rorty and the proper use of quotation marks.

And lots of things (unfortunately including monetary policy).

Anonymous said...

I agree that the new format sucks. But then, being an Yglesias commenter has never been a bed of roses.

John Emerson said...

Here in the US the way the major media has has skewed discussions to the right is an example of Newspeak. For example, calling Krugman left or far left. He's one of the furthest left in the major media, and the most vocal of the major left, but he's actually only center left. Certainly on a European scale, but even in the US today I'm pretty sure that 10-15% of the population is to his left.

In discussion of US foreign and military policy there's tons of Newspeak. Likewise in the financial collapse.