Along with our great literary writers, journalists should be the guardians of our language, especially our political language. But are journalists really performing their duty when they either refer to President Bush as "the leader of the Free World" or allow White House representatives to do so with impunity?
In examining and criticizing political language, journalists would do well to read George Orwell's analytical essay, "Politics and the English Language," in which Orwell defines and illustrates a number of abuses of political language. Imagine what Orwell would say about George Bush's phrase "the axis of evil." The phrase doesn't really make sense in describing the relationship existing among Iraq, Iran and North Korea. If we use a definition from "The American Heritage Dictionary," those countries do not fit the metaphorical political definition of an "axis," that is "an alliance of powers ... to promote mutual interests and policies." Iraq and Iran were, not so long ago, enemies in a protracted war, and North Korea has remained politically isolated, without a strong alliance with any other nation.
The phrase "axis of evil" is what Orwell in his essay would have called "meaningless words," words that don't make any logical sense, though they may have emotional power. He also illustrated such manipulations of language in his best known and most widely read works, "1984" and "Animal Farm." In "1984," for example, Big Brother uses slogans such as "Freedom is slavery" and "War is peace." And in "Animal Farm" one of the "Seven Commandments," the governing document of the animals, states, "All animals are equal," until the pigs, who seize power, add the qualification, "but some animals are more equal than others."
While it has become common for modern political leaders to attempt to manipulate and even deceive their people with meaningless language (as has been done so openly and blatantly by the Bush administration), the press should not become complicit in such deceit. Yet that happens quite regularly. Not only administration representatives, but also TV networks and mainstream newspapers frequently refer to Bush as "the leader of the Free World."
The phrase "Free World" is a product of the Cold War, when the United States and its allies were aligned against the Soviet Union and its allies, other Communist nations. Since the disbanding of the Soviet Union, the phrase "Free World" no longer fits the situation. Secondly, even in its day, when "Free World" clearly pointed to non-Communist nations, it was close to meaningless, since "the Free World" included the Union of South Africa (with its apartheid), Cuba (under Batista), Greece (with its military dictatorship) and numerous other countries in which citizens were hardly "free" by any objective political standard.
What, then, does the phrase "Free World" refer to now? Does it refer to non-Muslim countries, countries that have democratically elected governments, countries that specifically ally themselves with American policy, or something else?
How does such a definition fit such countries as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Pakistan and Tajikistan? "Free World" is largely meaningless. The phrase doesn't refer specifically and objectively to anything, unless it's "The Coalition of the Willing," the administration's appellation for the alliance the United States heads in Iraq.
The so-called "leader of the Free World" is not leading a very large contingent. The most powerful nations in Europe and elsewhere don't seem to be following Bush. Indeed, America's traditional allies such as France, Germany, Canada and many others have specifically opposed the policies of Bush on such important issues as the war in Iraq, the Palestinian situation, global warming and a host of other issues.
The Cold War has been over for 15 years. Isn't it about time that journalists stop using a phrase that is outdated, inaccurate, meaningless and politically deceptive?
Walter S. Minot is a professor emeritus of English, Gannon University in Erie, Pa. He now lives in Mobile.
© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution