Political writing tends to be bad writing, noted George Orwell in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. Too often it's a tool for deception and obfuscation rather than clear communication.
Orwell criticizes particularly those who rely on political catch phrases devised by others, throwing their minds open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. It's an easy way of avoiding the hard work good writing demands, says Orwell. Catch phrases will construct your sentences for you - even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent - and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.
It's amusing how often the clich stringers don't even seem to realize what their fine-sounding phrases really mean or where they come from. Those who argue for an activist judiciary, for instance, often remind us that the Constitution created three separate but equal branches of government. Separate but equal has a nice, familiar ring to it, but it's not in the Constitution.
It comes from Plessy vs. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that ruled segregation perfectly legal.
And then there's the wrong side of history meme. The clich stringers like that one a lot: We don't have to do the hard work of really thinking through an issue. Our opponents' ideas are nothing but old-fashioned bigotry. History is on our side!
But where does one get the idea that human history is moving toward a specific inevitable end and that there is a set of ideas destined inevitably to triumph? Jonah Goldberg's new book The Tyranny of Clichs says the wrong side of history phrase is a Marxist tagline, which it certainly is. But it's an attitude that precedes Marx, common among many 18th- and 19th-century advocates of an all-powerful, charismatic leader as the key to human progress.
Hegel, for instance, spoke enthusiastically of a Caesar-like figure who would arise to lead the German people to their great destiny, throwing off the shackles of old-fashioned, outmoded thinking. Such men, says Hegel, may treat other great, even sacred, interests inconsiderately; conduct which indeed in obnoxious to moral reprehension. But so mighty a form must trample down many an innocent flower, crush to pieces many an object in its path.
Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Mobutu, Pol Pot: The 20th century produced plenty of charismatic leaders who promised their peoples a great destiny and dismissed their opponents to what the Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky called the dustbin of history. Do those who use the term wrong side of history today mean the same sort of thing? Do they think they have the right to trample and crush those who disagree with them? Are they even aware that they are echoing Trotsky? Or have they managed to hide their meaning even from themselves?
For all of this, Orwell offers a simple cure. Throw out the clichs and quit speaking in jargon. When you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.
Art Marmorstein, Aberdeen, is a professor of history at NSU. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views are his and do not represent
Northern State University.