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Guest Commentary

Tales of two atrocities: political ads and language

11/19/2014

Tale I: Next to the biblical “In the beginning…,” the best-recalled opening line in literature likely is, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” from Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”

Given today’s “times,” if you believe the recent campaign ads, we might shorten that to “It was the worst of times.”

Granted, we’re all enjoying a respite from awful political ads — at least until caucus time.

But the relief from campaign ads is like feeling good because you no longer have symptoms of a terminal disease, even though the prognosis has not changed. You’re in trouble; the absence of symptoms doesn’t change that.

Bad as the ads were, it’s even worse that they are the symptoms of an awful sickness in the body politic.

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Among other things, those ads of the past several months:

• Testify to how dysfunctional our government is.

• Are evidence of how polarized our society is, and how we may opt for the worst in us.

• Reveal how short-term hot button issues are politicians’ escape hatches from addressing long-term problems.

• Should warn us that the great experiment in self government envisioned by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson has been corrupted by moneyed interests and factionalism. Self-interest and folly trump pressing societal concerns.

So, enjoy the respite, but we have to be concerned that the symptoms will return; the illness will continue its dreadful ways.

The language of political ads calls to mind George Orwell’s classic 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language.” He wrote about the ads of 2014: “…the English language…becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

Orwell was frustrated because he saw “…language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”

Author Gore Vidal lamented, “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: You liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.”

Tale II: If you think Orwell’s or Vidal’s concerns about abuse of language should not apply to bare-knuckle political brawls, consider the language atrocities in sports, particularly in the NCAA.

The Big 10 athletic conference has 14 teams; the Big 12 has 10 teams; the Atlantic 10 has 14 teams. And everyone has only “student athletes,” a characterization the NCAA insists upon. And that’s even at North Carolina where as Businessweek summed it up: “The latest in a series of university-sponsored investigations revealed that over 18 years — from 1993 through 2011 — some 3,100 students took ‘paper classes’ with no faculty oversight and no actual class attendance. Almost half the students enrolled in the phony courses were athletes.”

Awash in such hyperbole and deception, small wonder you can fall into Orwell’s vicious cycle of foolish thinking leading to ugly language leading to more foolish thoughts.

And of course, the sports rhetoric about courage is “ugly and inaccurate,” as Orwell would have it. Is there any doubt about this: You will find more courage in one day at the Blank Children’s Hospital, John Stoddard Cancer Center or similar facilities than you will find in a season of Big 10/14, Big 12/10 or Atlantic 10/14 football.

strentz21You can’t excuse the nonsense under the escape hatch of “Well, you know what they mean.” As Orwell and Vidal suggest, even “they” have no idea what they mean, and that is at the heart of the tale of two atrocities. That and this line from Edmund Burke (1729-1797) — given the almost record low voter turnout this November: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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