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Andrew Sullivan and the English Language

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George Orwell begins his famous essay on Charles Dickens with the observation that “Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing. Even the burial of his body in Westminster Abbey was a species of theft, if you come to think of it.” 80 years after that essay was first published, and more than 70 years after Orwell’s own death, the same can be said of Orwell himself. The lifelong socialist who excoriated modern capitalist societies with a mordant eloquence that has rarely been matched, has since has had his work stolen countless times by right wing ideologues, who represent everything the great English essayist despised.

For example, here we have Andrew Sullivan, who is a huge fan of both Orwell and white supremacy, which is something he denies even exists:

To give you a sense of the completely abstract bullshit involved here, take a style guide given out to journalists by trans activists, instructing them on how to cover transgender questions. (I’m wondering how Orwell would respond if given such a sheet of words he can and cannot use. Let’s just say: not like reporters for the Washington Post.) Here’s the guide’s definition of “gender nonconforming”: “[it] refers to gender presentations outside typical gendered expectations. Note that gender nonconforming is not a synonym for non-binary. While many non-binary people are gender nonconforming, many gender nonconforming people are also cisgender.”

This is a kind of bewildering, private language. But the whole point of the guide is to make it our public language, to force other people to use these invented words, to make the entire society learn and repeat the equivalent of their own post-modern sanskrit. This is our contemporary version of what Orwell went on to describe as “newspeak” in Nineteen Eighty-Four: a vocabulary designed to make certain ideas literally unthinkable because woke language has banished them from use. Repeat the words “structural racism” and “white supremacy” and “cisheteropatriarchy” often enough, and people come to believe these things exist unquestioningly. Talk about the LGBTQIA2S+ community and eventually, people will believe it exists (spoiler alert: it doesn’t).

And that is the only recourse an average citizen has when buried by this avalanche of abstraction: ask the language-launderers what they are really talking about. When some doofus apologizes for the “terrible pain” they have caused to the whatever community, ask them to give a specific example of that “pain.” When someone says “structural racism,” ask: what actual “structures” are you referring to? How do they actually work? Give concrete examples.

I suppose this is a kind of bewildering, private language to people who don’t have access to Google and Wikipedia, i.e., literally no one who is reading Sullivan’s hysterics and nodding along in sage approval, aka the I’m Not a Racist But crowd.

Jargon can and often is abused, especially by academics, but complex and little-understood social phenomena often need to be described by technical terms, that are invented for that purpose. Thus a term like “cisheteropatriarchy” tries to function as a shorthand for a whole set of arguments about the role of gender in a patriarchal society (I suppose Sullivan doesn’t believe patriarchy exists either, but I’m not subscribing to Substack to find out).

But what’s particularly revealing here is that a term like “white supremacy,” which is hardly an arcane or technical phrase, is treated by Sullivan as if it’s just another one of those crazy unintelligible terms invented by the woke cancellers of Western Civilization. “Structural racism” is a little more abstruse, I suppose, but here, per his request, is a nice straightforward example of what Sullivan believes are the imaginary “structures” that reflect this supposedly non-existent thing:

In 1967, Black households at the 20th percentile of Black household income earned 55.0% as much money as White households at the 20th percentile of White household income. In 2019 — the most recent year for which these data are available — the same comparison reveals that Black households earned . . . 54.8% as much money as the comparable White households.

Now for the first 25 years or so after the civil rights reforms of the 1960s, the complete failure of those reforms to do anything about the income and wealth gap between Black and White Americans was ascribed by right wing propagandists, and in particular by Sullivan’s great good friend, Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray, to the insidious effects of the welfare state, which mysteriously enough sapped initiative from Black people much more powerfully than it did from their White counterparts. Just toss out the social safety net, the argument went, and return to the social Darwinist paradise of the original Gilded Age, and this gap would disappear, or at least be ameliorated quite a bit.

So the experiment was performed: More than 25 years ago, welfare “reform” destroyed most of America’s already relatively modest safety net. And we see the result in the statistics I quote above.

What could possibly be the explanation for this? There are at this point only two candidates: Black people make only a little bit more than half as much as White people because of the profound economic and social effects of a structural racism that is both a legacy and an ongoing daily consequence of the fact that America has always been and remains a white supremacist nation, or Black people make a little bit more than half as much as White people because they’re just naturally inferior to them, so whadddaya going to do?

Beyond all this, the notion that Orwellian concepts like newspeak and thoughtcrime are particularly applicable to the tiny percentage of Americans who have ever used the word “cisgender,” as opposed to, say, the people who labor with tremendous success to stunt the possibility of actual thought by deploying utterly vague and frankly mystical terms such as “freedom,” “America,” “the Constitution,” and of course the unanimous first-ballot Hall of Fame term for such purposes, “God,” is not very plausible.

For several weeks, always at about the same time of day, the file of old women had hobbled past the house with their firewood, and though they had registered themselves on my eyeballs I cannot truly say that I had seen them. Firewood was passing – that was how I saw it. It was only that one day I happened to be walking behind them, and the curious up-and-down motion of a load of wood drew my attention to the human being underneath it. Then for the first time I noticed the poor old earth-coloured bodies, bodies reduced to bones and leathery skin, bent double under the crushing weight. Yet I suppose I had not been five minutes on Moroccan soil before I noticed the overloading of the donkeys and was infuriated by it. There is no question that the donkeys are damnably treated. The Moroccan donkey is hardly bigger than a St. Bernard dog, it carries a load which in the British army would be considered too much for a fifteen-hands mule, and very often its pack-saddle is not taken off its back for weeks together. But what is peculiarly pitiful is that it is the most willing creature on earth, it follows its master like a dog and does not need either bridle or halter. After a dozen years of devoted work it suddenly drops dead, whereupon its master tips it into the ditch and the village dogs have torn its guts out before it is cold.

This kind of thing makes one’s blood boil, whereas – on the whole – the plight of the human beings does not. I am not commenting, merely pointing to a fact. People with brown skins are next door to invisible. Anyone can be sorry for the donkey with its galled back, but it is generally owing to some kind of accident if one even notices the old woman under her load of sticks.

As the storks flew northward the Negroes were marching southward – a long, dusty column, infantry, screw-gun batteries and then more infantry, four or five thousand men in all, winding up the road with a clumping of boots and a clatter of iron wheels.

They were Senegalese, the blackest Negroes in Africa, so black that sometimes it is difficult to see whereabouts on their necks the hair begins. Their splendid bodies were hidden in reach-me-down khaki uniforms, their feet squashed into boots that looked like blocks of wood, and every tin hat seemed to be a couple of sizes too small. It was very hot and the men had marched a long way. They slumped under the weight of their packs and the curiously sensitive black faces were glistening with sweat.

As they went past a tall, very young Negro turned and caught my eye. But the look he gave me was not in the least the kind of look you might expect. Not hostile, not contemptuous, not sullen, not even inquisitive. It was the shy, wide-eyed Negro look, which actually is a look of profound respect. I saw how it was. This wretched boy, who is a French citizen and has therefore been dragged from the forest to scrub floors and catch syphilis in garrison towns, actually has feelings of reverence before a white skin. He has been taught that the white race are his masters, and he still believes it.

But there is one thought which every white man (and in this connection it doesn’t matter twopence if he calls himself a Socialist) thinks when he sees a black army marching past. ‘How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction?’

It was curious, really. Every white man there has this thought stowed somewhere or other in his mind. I had it, so had the other onlookers, so had the officers on their sweating chargers and the white N.C.O.s marching in the ranks. It was a kind of secret which we all knew and were too clever to tell . . .Orwell, “Marrakech” (1939)

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