06 March 2005

Politics and the English Language—One of (Too Many) Sequels

Today's NYT includes a fascinating, if chickenlivered, account of linguistic legerdemain in the NYT's own coverage of the Palestinian question. Mr. Okrent describes some of the difficulties facing the staff when trying to describe, in a few short words, the complexities of that sad situation without seeming to take sides. The real problem, though, is that "not taking sides" seems to mean "not offending anyone," and that only.

The euphemisms and understatements described in the article all attempt to impose "neutrality" upon NYT reporting. Although Mr. Okrent does cite to one of Orwell's most-important articles—"Politics and the English Language"—for support for his position, he does so rather ineptly, throwing away the reference without examining its context. More tellingly, though, he fails to reach Orwell's most damning indictment of "neutral writing."

[N]o book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.

"Why I Write" (1946). This is even more true in "journalism," which necessarily has an immediacy that removes it from whatever distance an artist can contrive. Or, at least, it does if it's any good at all.

Perhaps the only way to "tell the truth" about the Israel/Palestine situation is to tell it, not to evade it. There is plenty of blame to go around. On the one hand, Hamas is a terrorist organization. Sure, it has some humanitarian-oriented operations, such as the vaunted free clinics. Those are good efforts. I don't even have to claim that they're mere camouflage—I don't know enough of the circumstances to judge, but the possibility certainly exists—to condemn the overwhelmingly violent tenor and means of the organization. On the other hand, the Israeli settlers are far closer in attitude and means to conquistadors than to the settlers of the American west… who themselves were not paragons of virtue. Then we have the evasion of historical responsibility by the governments of the surrounding Arabic nations, and for that matter the victors of the Second Thirty Years' War; the fight-terror-with-terror tactics used by all parties in the region, most publicly the Israeli military but just about everyone else, too; and the willingness to carry the conflict directly to other parts of the world, whether through relatively benign economic means or acts of war.

What I find most disturbing, though, is the total absence of a different "t" word from NYT accounts of the "struggle in the rubble:" Theocracy. Theocracy is incompatible with democracy, even when it is achieved through election of theocratic representatives of differing political ideologies (as is the case in Israel's government, and for that matter the Palestinian Authority). It all brings to mind something that Emmanuel Goldstein Orwell (again) said:

The object of power is power.

The sooner that Mr. Okrent stops trying to excuse the threadbare rhetoric of the emperor's new journalism, the better. And I'm picking on the NYT essentially because it asked for it; no other American media outlet of which I'm aware, whether MSM or supposed independents, is really any better. I haven't seen all of the media outlets in the rest of the world, so I can't judge the rest of the world, but the media Out There isn't any better.

Journalistic neutrality does not mean that one has no opinions. Even that is, as Orwell noted, an opinion. It means gathering the evidence without preconceived notions of the conclusions it will support. It means thorough analysis of the evidence from multiple perspective. And, in the end, it means calling a naked butt a naked butt, not a purposely unclothed gluteus maximus. Trying brutal honesty and actually blaming people for their misconduct can't possibly get us worse results in the Middle East than we have thus-far achieved.