Friday, May 6, 2011

Politics and Double Speak

In this era of partisan politics run amok, there is no greater time for citizens to be attuned to what George Orwell called the politics of the English language. With that in mind, I always seek in my classroom to help my students become "people on whom nothing is lost." It is an imperative that they become astute and aware to manipulation by language. The example I give them at the beginning of the year is the clever wording that a Gingrich-led GOP was able to institute regarding taxation on inherited income. By effectively switching the terminology from the traditional "inheritance" or "estate" tax to the more negatively connoted "death tax," they re-framed the issue and fundamentally changed the debate. The problems of this were nowhere more evident than in a national poll where 75% of Americans said they supported the estate tax, but 75% of them opposed the death tax. It was the same poll to the same group of people - these potential voters were so manipulated by language, they didn't even know what they believed.

With this in mind, I think it's worth taking a look at what is arguably one of the greatest example of political doublespeak in the history of American politics. It's the infamous "whiskey speech" by Mississippi legislator Noah Sweat. This speech was delivered on the floor of the legislature in response to questions about his position of laws limiting the production and sale of alcohol.

My friends, I had not intended to discuss this controversial subject at this particular time. However, I want you to know that I do not shun controversy. On the contrary, I will take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it might be. You have asked me how I feel about whiskey. All right, here is how I feel about whiskey:
If when you say whiskey you mean the devil's brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children; if you mean the evil drink that topples the Christian man and woman from the pinnacle of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of degradation, and despair, and shame and helplessness, and hopelessness, then certainly I am against it.
But, if when you say whiskey you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips, and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean Christmas cheer; if you mean the stimulating drink that puts the spring in the old gentleman's step on a frosty, crispy morning; if you mean the drink which enables a man to magnify his joy, and his happiness, and to forget, if only for a little while, life's great tragedies, and heartaches, and sorrows; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars, which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our blind, our deaf, our dumb, our pitiful aged and infirm; to build highways and hospitals and schools, then certainly I am for it.
This is my stand. I will not retreat from it. I will not compromise.

Spoken like a true politician - a unique species always worthy of study.


Darren said...

Do you also mention "pro-choice"?

mmazenko said...

Yes, and I mention the "pro-birth" position which has nothing to do with being pro-life.