I can’t help but wonder what John le Carré might have written about the Trump golpe de Estado of 6 January. Le Carré passed away the month before, on 12 December 2020. A contemporary and prolific British writer, he had a knack for telling a story with a moral, if that isn’t too quaint a word, though I suspect a good part of his audience was more attentive to the thrill of his subject matter–spies, treachery, and all manner of intrigue. In commemoration of his death, DemocracyNow! ran an interview le Carré had given ten years earlier, in 2010. In that interview, he tells the program’s co-hosts he feels well and wants to retreat and dedicate whatever time is left to him to write.
Asked to read a passage from Our Kind of Traitor, published that same year, le Carré obliges, describing the novel’s main character, Perry. At the age of thirty, poor Perry is an academic in crisis, shattered by the question he asks his undergraduate audience:
“Would Orwell have believed it possible that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addiction to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement, were happily in place in 2009?”
Perry’s interest in Orwell evokes not only Orwell’s opposition to fascism in the 1930s but also Orwell’s arguments about the relationship between fascism and a particular (mis)use of language, a key concern of le Carré’s.
For Orwell, clarity of expression carries a moral weight, reflecting our willingness to see the world and to respond judiciously. His jeremiad against euphemism in “Politics and the English Language” bears remembering. Imperialism, purges, deportations, and atom bombs are all defensible, he tells us, “but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties.” Euphemism blocks us from seeing the brutality of our actions. It makes the brutality of others easy to rationalize. It makes lying, to ourselves and others, a matter of easy habit, like a terrible coat we don in an act of self-preservation and forgetting.
Latinate “phraseology” allows people who should and do know better the ability “to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” In 1946 Orwell offers these examples:
“Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine−gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.”
Now, Seventy-five years later, we can offer our own examples of the (mis)use of language: “collateral damage,” “shock and awe,” “surgical strikes,” “peacekeeping,” “detainees,” “detention center,” “drawdown,” “black site.” The point of such phrases is to keep us from seeing the shredded bodies of old women and children; how war has become peace; how prisoners of war have become defiled corpses; how habeus corpus has been suspended. [Read more…]