In Bernie Sanders’ campaign platform The Thurgood Marshall Plan for Education, he rightly criticizes the woeful services provided to “ students of color, low-income students, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities.” Despite his claimed support for these students, though, countless media outlets both conservative and liberal questioned his supposed commitment to them as his platform concurrently opposed charter schools, a life-line for many minority students.
In other news, politicians and commentators have gone back and forth about a supposed ‘crisis at the board.’ Is it a humanitarian failure with children locked up in cages or a land of anarchy and criminality? Which is the reality behind the phrase ‘crisis at the border?’
As the 2020 election ramps up in America, it is a prudent time to reflect on the promises and buzzwords in campaign speeches and slogans. As writers who experienced some of the world’s most deceptive propaganda, Franz Kafka and George Orwell provide us with heedful warnings for making sense of political rhetoric.
Who do they fight for?
Candidates love to fight for the working man or down-trodden but an interrogation into their policy is always necessary. Kafka’s novel The Trial provides an absurd satire of this hypocrisy. The main character Joseph K. is arrested and placed on trial for a crime, the details of which he is never told. When he asks the officers the meaning of his arrest, they respond that they are too lowly to be told themselves. He meets with lawyers, writes defenses, undergoes questionings, and dies by execution never knowing the nature of the accusations against him.
It is at K.’s hearing that Kafka gives his satire of vacuous promises. Before his accusers, the protagonist gives a cinematic speech whose rhetorical motifs deserve a place next to Mark Anthony or Atticus Finch. At its climax, he proclaims:
“What has happened to me is not just an isolated case. If it were it would not be of much importance as it’s not of much importance to me, but it is a symptom of proceedings which are carried out against many. It’s on behalf of them that I stand here now, not for myself alone.”
Throughout the speech, he had been watching the audience’s reactions for signs of approval or distaste rather than carrying out a unified argument. At the end of it, here quoted, he declares himself in defense of all men in such a situation without knowing who those men are. He speaks with conviction but, with knowledge of the content of his case, his words carry no actual meaning. Similarly, declarations of support—for children, minorities, the middle class, or any demographic—carry with them rhetorical flair but guarantee no benefit.
Returning to Sanders’ opposition to charter schools, they have shown to be a definitive good for public education, raising test scores and saving money. In particular, a comprehensive study from Stanford found that minority students of all kinds outperform their peers at traditional public schools. Sanders declares himself in support of minorities, seemingly unaware of his proposed policy’s deleterious effects.
Tariffs are another issue that promise to protect U.S. made goods and jobs but whose end result is merely higher prices and disrupted supply chains. National Review ran a piece detailing one example wherein a U.S. based audio-equipment manufacturer—the kind of company that tariffs purport to protect—is struggling as steel tariffs have only worked to increase the price of their supplies and capital.
Upon what are these promises based? Sanders may believe that harm is innate to any privatized model of education like charter schools. Those who support tariffs may see that they superficially protect American jobs. In both cases, promises seek to court votes much like K.’s hope to win over the audience with his declaration to stand for many, but they are as empty of data as K.’s speech.
Define Your Terms
George Orwell is best known for his novels 1984 and Animal Farm, depicting the absurdities and atrocities present in totalitarian regimes. A skilled writer and ever perceptive of the risk for a descent into totalitarianism, he wrote an influential tract Politics and the English Language, where he analyzes the ways in which political figures can obscure their intentions in seemingly benevolent language. Aware that this tendency for concealment can be either intentional or accidental, he lays out six rules for writers to follow to keep their meaning clear. Three are relevant to this discussion:
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Needless to say, political discussions fail many of these rules.
Take for example “fake news,” a piece of political jargon which carries several definitions: it could simply mean biased news; it could reference a supposed epidemic of misinformation that is undermining American institutions; or it could reference a genre of writing wherein predominantly left-wing activists create fake fake-news to identify and take out far-right groups. Depending on who is using the word, it could carry any of the three definitions.
The list of words like this is unending. Border crisis, elites, and the highest good are just three that come to mind from recent news cycles. If these terms are thrown around without regard, both we and our politicians will find ourselves arguing about different topics mired, then, in misunderstood disagreement.
Before we discussed a contentious topic, my college roommate and I always curated a list of buzzwords that were banned from the conversation. For example, if we wanted to discuss immigration, neither of us would be allowed to refer to “the crisis at the border” but instead would choose other words to better describe what we meant. We shunned passing impressions for concrete, descriptive language. Is the crisis at the border one of humanitarian aid or crime? Is it really at crisis levels? After there’s data to answer those two questions, what really is the best means to ameliorate the problem? Sometimes it fostered productive debate but, more often than not, it exposed either our reliance upon catchphrases over facts or competing understandings of reality.
It’s easy at this point to throw out recommendations for what we want our politicians or political commentators to do. During debates, the moderators can press candidates and prevent them from coasting through with hollow dictums. Politicians, in turn, can lay out concrete proposals instead of generalities to support the working class. Though, most of us need to begin with a personal interrogation. Do we know what we’re saying or are we merely succumbing to the convulsions of our side?
Buzzwords and empty promises like those highlighted here are endemic to polarized political culture. Just like opposing nations may speak different languages, so too our political tribes use words that carry different meanings. Just like repeated chants can inculcate a religious mindset, so too can repeated promises convince us of false information. With familiar words and phrases, it’s easier to convince. Kafka and Orwell understood these problems and how they worked in authoritarian regimes. Perhaps it’s best we listen.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.