Writing in 1946, at the end of the Second World War, George Orwell stands at the bloody intersection between language and politics and tells us what he sees. “In our time,” Orwell begins. At this point, near the end of “Politics and the English Language,” he arrives at the beginning of his jeremiad. Imperialism, purges, deportations, atom bombs–these 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.” For Orwell, vicious arguments are made palatable, normative by euphemism. He deplores euphemism because it is an instrument of propaganda, one that creates an enormous ethical schism between act and representation; between what we do and how we represent those actions to ourselves, individually and collectively.
Orwell’s point about language that works to broaden the schism between act and representation is especially relevant to the role of literary satire, which demands that we acknowledge the distance between how things actually are and how they are represented. Now, more than seventy years after the publication of Orwell’s essay, we live within an incessant stream of flashing messages and images shaped by the intellectual descendants of the most effective propagandists in human history, the Nazis. For those descendants, the ability to build consensus en masse, whether selling slaughter or dishwashing soap, has become a thing to be admired because it is the foundation of a consumer economy, an economy that situates profit as the central and abiding value of our culture.
The ability to say one thing and mean another, an aspect of satire, is the heart of advertising’s darkness. Over time, we have become used to the yoking of the trivial and the serious; the inconvenient and the immoral. We have learned not to ask about the effect of a product on the environment despite what we know about climate change; to demur at the differences between free speech and hate speech when a politician claims all Mexicans are murderers; and to be too busy to bother with the pesky details of history when the next foreign crisis winds its way through the news cycle.
For Orwell, political language will remain “the defence of the indefensible” until our own revolutionary turn in consciousness, the point at which we turn away from blind obeisance to critical questioning. That turn requires that we demand from our politicians and ourselves language that does not short circuit critical thinking by appealing immediately to deep and commonly held fears, or that puts us to sleep with its bureaucratic layers of woolly abstraction, repetition, and terms of art.
Why don’t we just eat Irish children, Jonathan Swift proposed, modestly? “I HAVE been assured by a very knowing American of my Acquaintance in London;” he tells us,
that a young healthy Child, well-nursed, is, at a Year old, a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome Food; whether Stewed, Roasted, Baked or Boiled; and, I make no doubt, that it will equally serve in a Fricasie, or Ragoust. [italics original]
Your policies kill Irish children, Swift tells his audience. You may as well eat them. Doing so would be pragmatic and tasty–if not exactly humane. Written in 1729, Swift’s language still shocks–though we should remember that his “Modest Proposal” did nothing to ameliorate the suffering of the Irish in the approaching famine of 1740, or the famines that followed in the nineteenth century under continued English rule. Satire is no substitute for clear-sighted social policy. We don’t demand that a sonnet sequence turn swords into ploughshares, so why place such onerous demands on satire?
As Swift explains in a 1725 letter to Alexander Pope:
…the chief end I propose to my self in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it….
Perhaps that is all satire can ever accomplish: the vexation of a powerful, enfranchised class and the sad acknowledgement by the rest of us as to how things are. Remove Irish children from Swift’s proposal. Substitute Guatemalan and Salvadoran children as if you were swapping ingredients in a recipe or objects in a long caravan of Iran-contra chicks come home to roost.
Does the satire vex you, or does it waken you to injustice, to the cupidity of the human heart?