Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

Of Orwell and Ensign

 …It  is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts….

All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.

                                         —George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946

One of the reasons George Orwell was the greatest English-speaking journalist of the 20th century was his insistence on calling things by their actual names. Now more than ever, “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness,” as Orwell put it sixty-three years ago. In Orwell’s time, when defenseless villages were “bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned” and “the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets,” this was called “pacification.” 

In our own time, when the American government engages in known torture techniques–including waterboarding (183 times for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, 83 times for Abu Zubaydah), forced standing, freezing temperatures, Palestinian hanging (handcuffing a prisoner behind his back until fatigue sets in, the prisoner falls forward, and his full body weight rests on shoulders, thereby impairing breathing), sexual degradation (including the smearing of menstrual blood on prisoners’ faces), and bombardment for twenty-four hours a day with loud music–most of the mainstream press agrees, at the government’s request, to call these things “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

Then mindless “ethicists” like New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt write long pieces defending this shameful euphemism–although first prize for stupidity in this category surely belongs to NPR’s Ombdusman, Alicia Shepard, who told Glenn Greenwald, “There are two sides to the issue. And I’m not sure, why is it so important to call something torture?”

Among recent examples of Orwellian misrepresentation, all else pales in comparison with the whitewashing of waterboarding. Still, it is a source of considerable amusement to see Sarah Palin describe her decision to quit the Alaska governorship as the latest proof that she is a “fighter,” or, in the case of South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, have your spokesman re-invent an affair with “a dear friend from Argentina” as a hike up the Appalachian Trail.

But it is this week’s newly exploding Republican sex scandal which has inspired some of the most creative use of the English language of all. Earlier, Nevada senator John Ensign admitted that he had had an affair with Cindy Hampton, the wife of his former chief of staff, Doug Hampton.

During the affair, Cindy worked for both the Senator’s re-election committee and his political action committee, and had her salary doubled at both places while she shared her bed with her boss. At the same time, the national Republican party paid off Cindy’s teenaged son, and her husband got a job with a consulting firm run by two more of the senator’s friends, and then another job with an airline owned by an Ensign contributor.

However, all of this this largesse was not nearly enough to shut up the ex-mistress or, particularly, her husband–-both of whom (nearly alone among Republicans) are now calling for Ensign’s resignation from the Senate.

Doug Hampton told a cable-TV interviewer in Nevada earlier this week that his wife had actually received a kind of severance payment of $25,000 from the senator when the affair was winding down. (Hampton also said the payment was an idea of Oklahoma senator Tom Coburn. Coburn denied that he had suggested the payoff, and then said he would never testify about this to anyone, because “I was counseling him as a physician and as an ordained deacon,” and therefore this was “privileged communication that I will never reveal to anybody.”)

The report of a $25,000 payment was quickly knocked down by Senator Ensign’s lawyer, Paul Coggin. Coggin said the the payment was actually nearly four times that much–$96,000 for the Hamptons and their children. And since it all came from the senator’s parents, “no laws were violated,” as they might have been, had the money come from the senator’s campaign or political action committee.

But the really creative part of Coggin’s statement was the way he re-branded Ensign’s affair with his former staffer, and its impact on her family. The payments from the senator’s parents, Coggin explained, “are consistent with a pattern of generosity by the Ensign family to the Hamptons.” 

Well, I guess if you ignore the affair and just count the four jobs found for Mr. And Mrs. Hampton and the one job secured for their son, “a pattern of generosity” is exactly what it was.
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For the definitive account of this tangled mess, see the transcript of Rachel Maddow’s Thursday night broadcast.