The new politics of the English language: Part I

by Barry Bennett

The crucial tool of politics—and many other human endeavors—is language. Language is how we relate to each other, how we teach and how we learn. Language informs, it instructs, it describes. And it manipulates.

In his famous essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell condemned the increasing abuse of English, directing particular venom at the “swindles and perversions” that governments use to obfuscate and mislead in the most serious of situations: bombarding defenseless villages in wartime and driving out the inhabitants is pacification; imprisoning people for years without trial or sending them to die in Arctic labor camps is elimination of unreliable elements.

According to Orwell, political speech and writing had become largely “the defence of the indefensible.” Mundane, bureaucratic language allowed governments to name things “without calling up mental pictures of them”: after all, who can envision an “unreliable element”? Few would protest the elimination of such a nefarious abstraction.

Orwell wrote in 1946. Over half a century later, how well our leaders have mastered this dark art. When intelligence agencies torture terror suspects, they engage in “enhanced interrogation techniques.” When they send suspects to other countries to be tortured, they practice “extraordinary rendition.”

As with Orwell’s examples, “torture” elicits an emotional response that the bureaucratic language obscures. “Enhanced interrogation” at least suggests that someone is being questioned (perhaps loudly — but little more than that); “extraordinary rendition” is an unusual . . . well, one simply cannot tell.

But today’s political leaders have taken manipulative language in two new directions. First, they use it not only to disguise state-sanctioned brutality but to mask the more benign aspects of political and economic life. And second, they use it not only to hide true mental pictures but to create false pictures. Hence, to avoid acknowledging the country’s increasingly undemocratic system of government, politicians call Congress’s metaphorical torture of the nation with its continued inaction and paralysis (which has bequeathed us the sequester) a filibuster.

In the 17th century, pirates known as fleebooters (also called freebooters) raided Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. The Spanish word for the pirates was filibustero, and eventually the English evolved from fleebooter to filibuster. Meanwhile the usage evolved to include not only 17th-century pirates but 19th-century adventurers who traveled from the United States to Central America and the West Indies to stir up revolutions. Hence filibuster came to mean a pirate, an adventurer, or, more broadly, an insurrectionist or obstructer. Eventually the word invaded the United States Congress. As Senators took to making long, irrelevant speeches on the floor of the Senate to prevent voting on bills they opposed— as they obstructed Senate business — their tactic came to be called a filibuster.

For almost 200 years the word fairly described the tactic it named. To filibuster, a Senator had to hold the floor; that is, to prevent the Senate from conducting other business he had to obstruct. The longest individual filibuster in Senate history was Strom Thurmond’s 24 hour and 18 minute speech against the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which passed the Senate by a vote of 62 – 15 when Thurmond or his voice or his legs finally gave out.

Until near the end of the 20th century filibusters were not only physically obstructionist: at least partly for that reason, they were rare. From 1789 until 1990 there were 413 filibusters. Then everything changed. From 1990 to 2002 there were almost 600. In 2009 alone there were over 100. Once reserved for matters of great urgency or principle — even if, as in Strom Thurmond’s case, the principle was pernicious — they are now routinely used to block all but the least significant bills. The filibuster explosion was enabled by a 1975 change in Senate rules that eliminated the requirement to hold the floor. Today, all a Senator need do is state an intention to filibuster, and a bill is blocked. The Senator need not even be present; as the New York Times has reported, Senators are not “required to actually talk or even be anywhere near the Capitol when they filibuster a bill.” The filibuster of the unyielding Senatorial presence has become the filibuster in absentia.

The Senate can break a filibuster by invoking “cloture,” getting 60 Senators to vote to proceed with the bill. In a fractured Senate in which one party almost never controls 60 seats, this is no easy task. Hence the paralysis. And hence the routine press reports that a bill received a vote of “58-40 in support, and therefore failed.” The uninitiated will be startled by this pronouncement. How could a bill that obtained a majority vote of 58-40 fail? Is not majority rule the very definition of democracy?

Well, yes. Which is why it has become a stretch to call the Senate — and consequently our system of government — democratic. Yet it would be unseemly for Congress to admit that the world’s oldest continuing democracy is now based on super-majority rule; to admit without pretense that only when the minority decides to let the majority have its way does true democracy prevail. Therefore, even though no one holds the floor to physically prevent voting— that is, even though there is no piratical obstruction — both the Congress and the press still refer to the blockage as a filibuster.

Continued use of this term misleads in two ways. First, it suggests that the blockage of a bill is a singular and exceptional event, worthy of a special name, when in fact it is simply the way things work. Second (at least for voters old enough to remember the classic film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), it conjures an image of Jimmy Stewart nobly holding the Senate floor to exhaustion to expose political corruption; it suggests action when there is none. Thus it misleads by use of a tactic opposite to the one Orwell deplored: it is intended to create a mental picture rather than obscure one.

The Greeks, who coined the word democracy (and severely limited its application), contrasted it to “rule by an elite.” And just as a government would garner less support for destruction of villages than for pacification, it would find little enthusiasm for minority rule — not quite what our system is, but neither is it a system in which the majority can work its will. One can agree that the minority must have rights while still insisting that a democracy should function democratically. If the Senate will not invest “filibuster” with meaning by requiring Senators to hold the floor — if it will not make the picture real — it must abandon the word. Admit that the United States no longer runs by the rules of classical democracy and let the voters respond. Conjure no false images. Tell the people the truth.

Next week: the use of language to disguise the country’s continuing transfer of wealth to a tiny elite.

Barry Bennett is an attorney with the Bonneville Power Administration, an agency within the United States Department of Energy, and an adjunct instructor in the Marylhurst MBA program.