Language in Rubble
I miss Hemingway.
This may seem
an odd time for literary lamentations, but its not just my
nostalgia speaking. The fog of war is aggravated by the fog of official
language, and our rulers seem unable to open their mouths without
emitting cant, cliché, dead metaphors, and useless abstractions
about democracy, freedom, terrorism,
Islamofascism, diplomatic solutions, et
cetera which, far from defining the problems we face, only
compound the confusion.
At times like
this, we need clear, spare, specific language that acknowledges
what we are really talking about, the kind of prose that made writers
like Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, both unsentimental war
correspondents as well as novelists, so useful, invigorating, and
even in a way consoling to read. Even today, when you read them,
you know you arent reading dated propaganda. Good reporters
still, as ever, avoid the false, loaded language of politicians.
This always irritates partisans, who suspect objectivity of being
disloyal and treasonous. The more we kill, the more we seem to demand
have to be neutral in order to be honest. You merely have to describe
what you see and stick to what you really know. You must ruthlessly
suppress anything that smacks of wishful thinking, letting the details
do the talking even when they hurt your own side. Good writing should
be calm, even cold, something the reader can trust amid all the
shooting and shouting.
This is a hard
discipline, because impassioned people always want to justify their
own side, no matter how urgent the need for the simple perspective
of fact. Its no use denouncing cowardly terrorists,
for example, when terrorists are often fanatically, terrifyingly
courageous and nothing is gained by pretending otherwise.
no use complaining about extremism in an extreme situation,
which is what war is. War by its nature inverts ordinary morality.
The combatants do and approve things that would horrify them in
peacetime. Devout Christians become murderers. Soldiers are honored
for killing and dishonored, or worse, for refusing to fight. Atrocities
are excused, except when the enemy commits them. Any scruples about
killing are said to handcuff our own troops.
At such times
unflinching honesty becomes a rare virtue. Few can look at their
own side with cold eyes, or admit that the enemy is essentially
no different from a moral point of view, even if his cause is bad.
In war we naturally
adopt a double standard, with one vocabulary for our side and another
for the enemy. Americans still cherish the memory of Axis atrocities
in World War II and justify their own, particularly the intensive
bombing of German and Japanese cities things nobody would
have predicted, much less advocated, before the war broke out. Even
today, we commonly justify the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
for shortening the war and even saving Japanese lives.
But which sides
rulers were tried and put to death for war crimes after
the war? Which side is even now expected to do eternal penance for
what it did during that war? America brought the world into the
nuclear age, a permanent and irreversible horror. Was that a war
No, we fret
that these weapons of mass murder and mass terror may fall into
the wrong hands. Ours, of course, are the right
hands, in which they may be safely trusted. And we marvel that much
of the world hates and fears us.
This is why
we need that rare minority who can, even in wartime, look at ourselves
dispassionately and speak in the disillusioned language, without
rhetorical embellishment, of men like Hemingway and Orwell. Such
writers do still exist, plentifully enough to help keep us sane,
and they are much more likely to be found, I regret to say, in the
liberal than in the conservative press. I suppose this is because,
since World War II, conservatives have abandoned their old skepticism
of war. This is both an explanation and a fact that needs explaining
We live in
terrible, confusing times, the worst I can remember. Events are
so far beyond our control that about all we can hope to achieve
is to keep our own minds clear. Its not just that our rulers
lie to us; its that they wouldnt know how to tell the
truth if they wanted to. Honest language is among our few remaining
Reactionary Utopian archives. Watch Sobran's last TV appearance
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Sobran (19462010), conservative turned libertarian, was one
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