Among the more
bizarre and troubling aspects of the 'regime change' debate is ... well, the phrase 'regime change.'
According to various neo-conservatives and Iraq-hawks, George Orwell is a dedicated Iraq-hawk and thoroughgoing supporter of regime change. This may well be the case. I'm never able to predict such things. But I would have imagined that were Orwell alive today the phrase 'regime change' itself would be one he would quickly set upon with a knife and a fork.
Everybody's favorite Orwell text is his 1946 essay 'Politics and the English Language.' I wouldn't be foolish enough to try to summarize it. But one key point of the essay is that vagueness, euphemism and abstraction abet muddled thinking, evasions of responsibility, and lies. Put it another way: There is a tight connection between clear thinking and clear language. And clear thinking and clear speech are the beginning of, or at least the handmaidens of, honest thinking and honest speech.
Here's one passage from the essay ...
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Which brings us back to 'regime change.' Like many phrases Orwell had at, 'regime change' is one that comes with the evasion and concealment prepackaged within it. We all know more or less what the phrase means: the violent otherthrow of one government and its replacemnet with another, chosen by the power which overthrew the first one, or, in other words, by us
. So why not say so? Using an abstract and antiseptic phrase like 'regime change' for a process which is neither abstract nor antiseptic is corrupting.
You can imagine various instances where we might try the same stunt in our daily lives. The fifty-five year-old man who dumps his graying middle-aged wife for a busty, blonde, twenty-eight year-old ad-exec. This is 'spousal replacement.' And so forth.
In the Weekly Standard this week David Brooks has a review of Christopher Hitchens' new book Why Orwell Matters. The rather unhappy conclusion of Brooks' review is how relatively little Orwell really does matter today. And reading Brooks' review it's hard not to agree with his conclusion, at least in the sense in which he means it. That is, that the basic issues Orwell concerned himself with -- the Soviet Union, socialism, fascism, and so forth, the ones that were paramount in his day -- simply aren't the ones that are central to anything that's crucial in politics or global affairs today.
For language, politics, and truth, though, Orwell remains quite timely.
I don't pretend that the short-hand of 'regime change' is the end of the world in itself. But it is the exposed tip of an extremely dishonest public debate -- one in which assertions which are widely understood to be false are stated and not corrected, in which important distinctions are clouded with obscuring phrases, and in which discussion of the long-term consequences of specific actions are trumped by slogans. And that's a very big deal.
The lack of serious debate is not limited to the hawks. The opponents of deposing Saddam are often similarly muddled. Many Democrats have busied themselves with asking good questions rather than proposing a credible alternative policy. Meanwhile, many people in the peace camp are simply not willing to face seriously the belligerence, recklessness and brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime. They are not willing in most cases to consider the consequences of a nuclear-armed Iraq under Saddam Hussein's control. They often won't face the pressing nature of the issue, one in which time is not necessarily on our side. But mostly these are simply matters of evasion, an unwillingness to seriously consider the issue. There's little of the casual making up of stories that is the staple of this administration's arguments.