Paul Krugman vs. George Orwell. (Hint: Orwell wins.)

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He's right.

Nobel economist Paul Krugman is a smart guy.  So why does he use clichés?  His article today, “The World as He Finds It” refers to President Obama‘s “soaring rhetoric.”  Lordy, I am tired of that term.  A google search for the phrase turned up 136,000 usages for “soaring rhetoric” and Obama — for one suggestive, if not entirely reliable, measure.

To quote George Orwell‘s matchless “Politics and the English Language” (always worth a rereading) this usage falls into a class of “dying metaphors,” notwithstanding its airborne nature:

He's wrong.

Dying metaphors. A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically “dead” (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.

Thank goodness Krugman didn’t use “progressives” rather than “liberals,” another cliché, or rather, a marketing term, or maybe just wishful thinking.

“Progressive” always assumes you know which way history is going, and are somehow are ahead of it or on top of it.  Unfortunately, we learned in the 20th century that the road of “progress” usually detours towards the gas chambers, the crematorium, the concentration camps, or the killing fields.  I’m not sure that detour is something I’d want to represent.

In other words, it’s a great marketing term … but isn’t that the same as propaganda?

Late night postscript from Jeff McMahon, or rather from Martin Amis channeled by Jeff McMahon: Martin Amis: “To idealise: All writing is a war against cliché. Not just the clichés of the pen but the clichés of the mind and the clichés of the heart.”  [Joseph Brodsky used to call this "the vulgarity of the human heart."]


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10 Responses to “Paul Krugman vs. George Orwell. (Hint: Orwell wins.)”

  1. Elena Danielson Says:

    perhaps “soaring rhetoric” is ironic???

  2. David Sucher Says:

    Can you offer an example (even one) where “progressives” (self-described or otherwise) have built gas chambers etc etc?

    I am sincerely puzzled by your remark. Of course Glenn Beck refers to Woodrow Wilson; are you part of his crowd? do you include Teddy Roosevelt to be a progressive who built concentration camps?

    Certainly the term progressive can be called presumptuous (though in fact it is usually correct in the long run.) But gas chambers? Lead to “progressives.”

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Of course, as I say in the post, Krugman didn’t use the term “progressive” in this article. My point is about language, about how certain words are used without regard to their content. “Progressive” has become simply a form of tribalism and social signaling, a way of feeling important and good by being a member of a particular club. “Liberal” is the old brand.

    But what exactly does the word “progressive” signify? Many movements of the 20th century saw what they were doing as “progress.” One such movement in my lifetime is Communism, one which many people saw as the inescapable sign of progress. So much so that when Czeslaw Milosz defected, Neruda derided him as “the man who ran away” from “progress.”

    I have to say I’ve never read or heard Glenn Beck, so I have no idea what he says.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    @elena: In this column, it would not only have been irony, but sarcasm. However, the tone of this column is anything but sarcastic — it’s somewhat sorrowing and concerned. Hence, the cliche hit me like a slap.

    In fairness, however, Paul Krugman is only doing what zillions of others have done throughout time — glued two words together into a phrase that dulls thought. Or rather, he repeated such a phrase he had heard again and again without thinking.

    He didn’t get his Nobel for literature, after all. But nonetheless, I still expect more from the New York Times and such an eminent columnist.

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    More for David: The question is always, who defines what “progress” is? The word is an empty bucket that anything can be poured into — hence, it has little political meaning outside of propaganda. That’s why I’m wary of it as a label, and troubled when I see friends using it increasingly as a feel-good word for identification with a group. Linguistic self-anesthetization.

    It also suggests that history is always moving us in a positive direction. I’m not willing to give time that much credit.

    Ian Morris (I have a post about him this month) was telling me recently that we refused to interfere in some genocides because we figured some people were “behind” history (e.g., the Cambodians) and needed to “catch up.” We were willing to overlook genocide if it was part of the “catching up” process. “Progress” of sorts, I guess…

  6. David Sucher Says:

    I agree. Of course the word “progressive” is somewhat useless; that’s why I was troubled by Obama’s use of “change.” but nevertheless we know what the word “progressive” means in the context of American politics of whatever era we are discussing.

    And since you imply that “progressives” or “progressive thought” has in fact lead to gas chambers, other horrors etc etc, I’d like to ask if you can offer any such examples?

    Who? When?

    Thx.

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    That’s not what I said.

    I said that many disastrous movements in the last century highjacked the term “progress” for their own ends, and poured whatever meaning into it they wished. See example of Neruda and Milosz above: Communism was “progress”; Milosz was “running away” from it. The Memorial Society of Russia is still tracking down what was done in the name of such “progress.”

    Of course, in one sense everyone defines whatever future direction they wish as “progress.” Maybe I’m less sure than you are what “progressive” means in terms of American politics. I’m suspicious of all labels; people seem to take such comfort in them nowadays, and they seem more an expression of tribal affiliation and class than any political program. In general, it seems like a liberal agenda — if so, why the rebranding? What is wrong with the less pretentious term “liberal”? I am also suspicious of the self-righteousness that seems to go with the new rebranded term.

    It’s akin to when the right-wing highjacked the term “values” — they were the people “with values”; the people they opposed didn’t have “values.” But even Hitler had values — for example, his values included the elimination of the European Jewry. So the word is meaningless unless you specify exactly what values you hold. (With the exception of countering nihilism, I suppose — nihilists might be the only ones who are valueless.) It’s a way to feel better than others without providing any substance except an adherence to a word. I’m still surprised so many people let one subset of society comandeer this word.

    Why I’m further suspicious of “progress” as a catch-all phrase (“change” is another, as you point out) is that there is a future-orientation to it I found troubling. As someone steeped in the humanities, I would like to see a healthier knowledge of and absorption of our past. I don’t see the future as a bringer only of good things, and the great move forward is often profoundly mistaken.

  8. Roseanne Sullivan Says:

    Good point about Hilter’s values.

  9. Paul S. Says:

    David, her point was not that “progressives” (self-identified or otherwise) build gas chambers or that the Nazis were “progressives” or anything of the sort. Rather, it was to point out that the metaphor of ‘progress’ applied to political ideologies is often deceptive and serves propaganda interests more than the truth. Keep calm.

  10. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You’re late to the table, Paul, but thank you. You put it more succinctly than I did.

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