Orwell Watch #25: passive-aggressive scare quotes

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He’s right, anyway, whatever he said.

The Orwell Watch is back again, thanks to Patrick L. Smith of Salon, who pointed out in “Chomsky’s right: The New York Times’ latest big lie” ….

Never before have I written a column concerning nothing more than a pair of quotation marks. Then again, never until now have I seen the power of punctuation so perniciously deployed.

It is not a new trick. Very popular in hackdom during the Cold War decades. Enclose something in quotation marks and all between them is instantly de-legitimized; no argument or explanation need be made. Here, try it:

“… the Cuban ‘doctors’ sent to Angola…”

Or: “… Soviet-made ‘farm equipment’ in Portugal since its 1974 revolution…”

Well, they were doctors and it was farm equipment. In the latter category I sat in a Soviet tractor out in the Portuguese vineyards, and damn it if the camponês did not find it useful.

In the end, this kind of thing is simply passive aggression, my least favorite neurosis. No one actively lies such that one can confront and reveal. It is lying by misleading and by implication, so sending us off full of groundless conviction and prejudice.

scarequotesCome to think of it, I have seen this particular maneuver lots.  How do you quarrel with the airy dismissal provided by scare quotes? To quarrel with the iddy biddy quotation marks seems trivial and picayune.  The thrust of Smith’s article concerns the current negotiations with Iran – you can read the whole thing here.  The arguments and subject are beyond the scope of the Book Haven; its criticism of the use of language is not.

But here’s my gripe:  nowhere is Noam Chomsky mentioned in the article.  Not even a first name or a hyperlink. What did he have to do with anything?

I did a little digging around to find out, and discovered this in Christopher Wise‘s Chomsky and Deconstruction (Palgrave Macmillan): “Chomsky often places scare quotes around words that harbor difficult and complicated questions, especially those that tend to undermine his views.” But Smith said he’s right on this one.

Go figure.


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