Victor Davis Hanson Private Papers

The Politicization of the English Language

Victor Davis Hanson // Tribune Media Services

Last week, French President Francois Hollande met President Obama in Washington to discuss joint strategies for stopping the sort of radical Islamic terrorists who have killed dozens of innocents in Brussels, Paris and San Bernardino in recent months. Hollande at one point explicitly referred to the violence as “Islamist terrorism.”The White House initially deleted that phrase from the audio translation of the official video of the Hollande-Obama meeting, only to restore it when questioned. Did the Obama administration assume that if the public could not hear the translation of the French president saying “Islamist terrorism,” then perhaps Hollande did not really say it — and therefore perhaps Islamist terrorism does not really exist?The Obama administration must be aware that in the 1930s, the Soviet Union wiped clean all photos, recordings and films of Leon Trotsky on orders from Josef Stalin. Trotsky was deemed politically incorrect, and therefore his thoughts and photos simply vanished.
The Library of Congress, under pressure from Dartmouth College students, recently banned not just the term “illegal alien” in subject headings for literature about immigration, but “alien” as well. Will changing the vocabulary mean that from now on, foreign nationals who choose to enter and reside in the United States without being naturalized will not be in violation of the law and will no longer be considered citizens of their homeland?Did the Library of Congress ever read the work of the Greek historian Thucydides, who warned some 2,500 years ago that in times of social upheaval, partisans would make words “change their ordinary meaning and … take that which was now given them.”These latest linguistic contortions to advance ideological agendas follow an established pattern of the Obama administration and the departments beneath it.Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s described Egypt’s radical Muslim Brotherhood as “largely secular.” CIA Director John Brennan has called jihad “a legitimate tenet of Islam,” a mere effort “to purify oneself.”Other administration heads have airbrushed out Islamic terrorism by referring to it with phrases such as “man-caused disaster.” The effort to combat terrorism was called an “overseas contingency operation,” perhaps like Haitian earthquake relief.

The White House wordsmiths should reread George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” which warned that “political writing is bad writing” and “has to consist largely of euphemism.”

Obama has said the greatest threat to future generations is “climate change,” a term that metamorphosed from “global warming.” The now anachronistic term “global warming” used to describe a planet that was supposedly heating up rather quickly. But it did not account for the unpleasant fact that there has been negligible global temperature change since 1998.

Rather than modifying the phrase to “suspected global warming” or “episodic global warming,” the new term “climate change” was invented to replace it. That way, new realities could emerge. Changes of all sorts — historic snows, record cold, California drought, El Nino storms — could all be lumped together, supposedly caused by man-made carbon emissions.

Volatile weather such as tornadoes, tsunamis and hurricanes was sometimes rebranded as “climate chaos” — as if Western industry and consumer lifestyles were responsible for what used to be seen as fairly normal occurrences.

The term “sanctuary cities” describes municipalities that in neo-Confederate fashion deny the primacy of federal immigration law and refuse to enforce it.

Attorney General Loretta Lynch used the term “justice-involved youth” to describe young criminals arrested and charged with crimes. From such terminology, one might think the offenders’ “involvement” meant that they were parole officers or young lawyers.

So what is the point of trying to change reality by making up new names and phrases?

It’s mostly politics. If Hollande had used the label “skinheads” to describe European right-wing movements, the White House might not have altered the video. If a half-million right-wing Cubans were pouring illegally into Florida each year, or if 100,000 Serbs were crossing the border from Canada, the Library of Congress might not object to calling them “illegal aliens.” Clapper and Brennan are unlikely to claim that the Crusades were largely secular or an exercise in self-purification.

The Obama administration probably would not describe rogue police officers charged with crimes as “justice-involved police.” If cities with conservative mayors declined to enforce the Endangered Species Act or federal firearms statutes, they probably would not be known as “sanctuary cities,” but rather as “nullification cities.”

Orwell also wrote about a futuristic dystopia ruled by a Big Brother government that created politicized euphemisms to reinvent reality. He placed his novel in the year 1984, warning Westerners about what was in their future.

We are now 32 years beyond 1984, but we are at last living Orwell’s nightmare.

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About victorhanson

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in Residence in Classics and Military History at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a professor of Classics Emeritus at California State University, Fresno, and a nationally syndicated columnist for Tribune Media Services. He is also the Wayne & Marcia Buske Distinguished Fellow in History, Hillsdale College, where he teaches each fall semester courses in military history and classical culture. He recently published an historical novel The End of Sparta (2012), a realistic retelling of Epaminondas invasion and liberation of Spartan-control Messenia. In The Father of Us All (2011), he collected earlier essays on warfare ancient and modern. His upcoming history The Savior Generals(2013) analyzes how five generals in the history of the West changed the course of battles against all odds. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson, who was the fifth successive generation to live in the same house on his family’s farm, was a full-time orchard and vineyard grower from 1980-1984, before joining the nearby CSU Fresno campus in 1984 to initiate a classical languages program. In 1991, he was awarded an American Philological Association Excellence in Teaching Award, which is given yearly to the country’s top undergraduate teachers of Greek and Latin. Hanson has been a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, California (1992-93), a visiting professor of classics at Stanford University (1991-92), a recipient of the Eric Breindel Award for opinion journalism (2002), an Alexander Onassis Fellow (2001), and was named alumnus of the year of the University of California, Santa Cruz (2002). He was also the visiting Shifrin Professor of Military History at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland (2002-3). He received the Manhattan Institute’s Wriston Lectureship in 2004, and the 2006 Nimitz Lectureship in Military History at UC Berkeley in 2006. Hanson is the author of hundreds of articles, book reviews, scholarly papers, and newspaper editorials on matters ranging from ancient Greek, agrarian and military history to foreign affairs, domestic politics, and contemporary culture. He has written or edited 17 books, including Warfare and Agriculture in Classical Greece (1983; paperback ed. University of California Press, 1998); The Western Way of War (Alfred Knopf, 1989; 2d paperback ed. University of California Press, 2000); Hoplites: The Ancient Greek Battle Experience (Routledge, 1991; paperback., 1992); The Other Greeks: The Family Farm and the Agrarian Roots of Western Civilization(Free Press, 1995; 2nd paperback ed., University of California Press, 2000);Fields without Dreams: Defending the Agrarian Idea (Free Press, 1996; paperback, Touchstone, 1997; The Bay Area Book reviewers Non-fiction winner for 1996); The Land Was Everything: Letters from an American Farmer (Free Press, 2000; a Los Angeles Times Notable book of the year); The Wars of the Ancient Greeks (Cassell, 1999; paperback, 2001); The Soul of Battle (Free Press, 1999, paperback, Anchor/Vintage, 2000); Carnage and Culture (Doubleday, 2001; Anchor/Vintage, 2002; a New York Times bestseller); An Autumn of War (Anchor/Vintage, 2002); Mexifornia: A State of Becoming (Encounter, 2003),Ripples of Battle (Doubleday, 2003), and Between War and Peace (Random House, 2004). A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War, was published by Random House in October 2005. It was named one of the New York Times Notable 100 Books of 2006. Hanson coauthored, with John Heath, Who Killed Homer? The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Free Press, 1998; paperback, Encounter Press, 2000); with Bruce Thornton and John Heath, Bonfire of the Humanities (ISI Books, 2001); and with Heather MacDonald, and Steven Malanga, The Immigration Solution: A Better Plan Than Today’s (Ivan Dee 2007). He edited a collection of essays on ancient warfare, Makers of Ancient Strategy (Princeton University Press, 2010). Hanson has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, International Herald Tribune, New York Post, National Review, Washington Times, Commentary, The Washington Post, Claremont Review of Books, American Heritage, New Criterion, Policy Review, Wilson Quarterly, Weekly Standard, Daily Telegraph, and has been interviewed often on National Public Radio, PBS Newshour, Fox News, CNN, and C-Span’s Book TV and In-Depth. He serves on the editorial board of the Military History Quarterly, and City Journal. Since 2001, Hanson has written a weekly column for National Review Online, and in 2004, began his weekly syndicated column for Tribune Media Services. In 2006, he also began thrice-weekly blog for Pajamas Media, Works and Days. Hanson was educated at the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA, Classics, 1975, ‘highest honors’ Classics, ‘college honors’, Cowell College), the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (regular member, 1978-79) and received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 1980. He divides his time between his forty-acre tree and vine farm near Selma, California, where he was born in 1953, and the Stanford campus.

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