On George Orwell and J.K. Rowling

My latest contribution to The New Criterion is about what we can (and should) learn from George Orwell’s 1945 essay “Politics and the English Language.”

Ed Ruscha, Words…, 1987, acrylic on canvas, 64 x 64 inches. © Edward J. Ruscha IV

“The present degradation of political discourse is buttressed by the decline of language. This decline is nearly indistinguishable from the sort Orwell complained about in 1945—it is still a mixture of “vagueness and sheer incompetence.” When political language relies on “dying metaphors” (“a few bad apples”), “operators, or verbal false limbs” (“use our voices”), “pretentious diction” (“decolonize the museum”), and plain “lack of precision” (“defund the police”), actual meaning cannot manifest itself, and is supplanted by what Orwell called “emotional meaning”: “People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning—they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another—but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.” Instead of endeavoring to clarify their thinking by clarifying their language, political actors on all sides use terms with implied (but not always established) definitions.”