Watching some of the Dem Convention last night, something crystallized in my mind. It had been tickling around in my head for a few months, ever since I watched two Iraq vets “debate”–to smear a word with a distinguished history– on Chris Matthews’ show. One of the vets actually tried to engage with the questions, whereas the other simply strung together one talking-points cliche after another like an on-message automaton. Nothing original, nothing surprising, nothing that betrayed any hint that a thinking as opposed to merely reacting mind was at work.
Naturally, it came to me last night, Orwell noted this depressing phenomenon long ago as he listened to countless party hacks, Communist and non-, echo their party lines. Here’s what he wrote in “Politics and the English Language.”
The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.
I’ll watch a few “highlights” this week and next during the GOP carnival, but anyone with a live brain can only take so much of this “reduced state of consciousness.”
By the way, the above helps to explain one of the most irritiating rituals of political conventions, the “interview” from the floor. Consider the dynamics:
The Party Hack has only one purpose: to get out the Line of the Day/Week, etc. He/she will not be deterred from spitting out the spiel. By the time these people have been at it a few years, there is nothing the most astute interrogator on earth could do to shake loose an unplanned syllable. Halfway through your question, you could produce a 150-pound snapping turtle and make it clamp those iron jaws onto the pol’s neck, but the drearily predictable babble would still flow.
The interviewer knows all this, of course, but he/she can’t just walk away, because that would be the end of the show. But the journalist is inwardly angry, because he knows he’s being used to publicize the Line of the Day. So he tries to get sharp and edgy and maybe a little insulting, which does nothing to throw the hack off stride, but people watching at home get upset with the journalist or the hack because 1) the viewer is a stone partisan, and actually believes the line being spewed, or 2) the viewer is undecided and would actually like a little news, y’know, usable info, perhaps an insight or two, and of course there’s none of that to be had. And so it goes.