"To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." The German philosopher Theodor Adorno made this statement for the first time in 1949. It implies at least two seemingly mutually incompatible questions: can there ever be a language that is adequate to describe atrocity; and, simultaneously, how dare we minimise atrocity by finding a language that claims to allow us to make sense of it?
A good deal of poetry since those dark political times has struggled with that question. Seamus Heaney, famously, suggested that poets act as "custodians of the language"; Michael D Higgins, in response to Peter Casey's shocking verbal attacks on the Traveller community in 2018, stressed that "Words matter. Words can hurt. Words can heal. Words can empower. Words can divide." Perhaps the question to ask now, attentive as we should be to the President here, is this: what happens when political language itself becomes so vicious and degraded that it itself becomes an occasion of atrocity?
That is increasingly the situation with which the world's advanced economies have to deal. The political rhetoric of our contemporary moment – conditioned partly by a voice that is informed by Fox News, such as the battered and reductive lexicon of Donald Trump – is conditioned by boastful egocentricity, insult, diatribe, and hardly concealed violence. In its celebration of resentment and anger, it is often barely coherent; it prefers coercion to charm; it demands thoughtless affirmation based on tribal affiliation; it determinedly reduces the range of thought as it infantilises the vocabulary in which political and civil debate can occur.
This is not simply a matter of how our contemporary politicians have made lying into a professional habit. As Jane Austen would surely have said, were she alive today, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that politicians do not always tell the truth". Hannah Arendt reminded us in the 1970s that "no one has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues", and that "lies have always been regarded as necessary and justifiable tools not only of the politician's or the demagogue's but also of the statesman's trade". The issue after 2016, however, is not that we cannot see through the lies: we can. The issue is that lying has become so endemic that truth itself is no longer regarded as even being available to us.
We would usually expect that we can measure and judge political claims against empirical realities; and we then choose whether to support those claims or not. In 2016, this structure was reversed. Trump’s lies, like those of the English Brexiteers, were so pervasive that they had a different point and purpose. The point was to break down entirely any idea that linguistic claims can be tested against empirical realities at all. When the difference between truth and lies vanishes, we enter a state of real political decay and decadence – the very state that led to historical atrocities such as Auschwitz in the 1940s.
Government by cliche
In 1946, George Orwell made the link between the state of a language and the condition of politics. He wrote, in Politics and the English Language that most people would agree that "the English language is in a bad way", and he went on to argue that "our civilisation is decadent and our language . . . must inevitably share in the general collapse". Degeneracy in economic and political actuality produces degenerate language as a new norm. It is as if the language seeks the appropriate vocabulary for a malevolent social condition and finds that the only vocabulary or lexicon is one that itself falls into decay.
The result is government by cliche, by a language that is designed to arrest critical thinking and to replace it with rehearsed banality. The result is that the less thoughtful a political speech is, the more it is claimed as “authentic” and as an accurate representation of the vox-pop, and of the “will of the people” – as if people are incapable of extending our vocabulary and thereby widening the range of our critical perceptions. It is this that leads to a condition in which political discourse increasingly tends to eschew argued nuance and to permit and even encourage the resolution of political difference through a resort to the immediacy of “gut-feeling” and its attendant physical response, leading eventually to the normalisation of violence instead of dialogue as a means of resolving differences. A narrowed vocabulary narrows the range of human possibilities – another phrase for which is “human freedom”. If, as Carl von Clausewitz once argued, war is a continuation of politics by other means, might we also see that a degraded political language as the first skirmish in the provocation towards actual violence and war? After all, it happened before.
A significant part of all political debate requires a rhetoric that seeks to persuade people to accept a specific inflection of historical events, and thereby to secure the voices of the general public and their assent for a particular course of political action. Much of that rhetoric, historically, has been entertaining and at least mildly scabrous. Think of Winston Churchill's comments on Clement Attlee: "An empty taxi pulled up at Downing Street and Mr Attlee got out", or Denis Healey describing Margaret Thatcher as "La Pasionaria of middle-class privilege", and saying that debating with Geoffrey Howe was "like being savaged by a dead sheep". In less guarded moments, however, the rhetoric is less amusing and can become threatening. Think of Charles Haughey's famous response to John Waters in 1984 about what angered him in Irish politics: "I could instance a load of f**kers whose throats I'd cut and push over the nearest cliff, but there's no percentage in that," followed by him laughing. Boris Johnson was overheard saying, "F**k business". Nicolas Sarkozy described the disenfranchised in French city suburbs as "bandes de racaille", (rabble, or scum); the near-unprintable insults made by Silvio Berlusconi or Rodrigo Duterte. Vladimir Putin's language against his critics is liberally peppered with excremental savagery.
Today, the best English is not that spoken in Drumcondra, despite James Joyce's claims; rather, it is that spoken in America
There is a very special relevance in all of this for the English language specifically. This is so not only because English is widely spoken as a world language, but also because the very status of English as a language – and correspondingly of "the English" as a people – has been given, historically, an unwarranted privilege as "exceptional" or even as foundational. John Milton argued that "when God speaks, he speaks first of all to his Englishmen"; Bishop John Aylmer claimed that God was English; the King James Bible is supposedly the "Authorised Version" of a fundamental truth, aligning the English language with that foundation in true speaking. This is the ideology that lies behind the politics of the so-called Anglosphere, that far-right and white supremacist project that governs a good deal of the political shape of our contemporary societies.
‘The language of wealth’
Enoch Powell repeatedly described English as "the language for telling the truth in". Nigel Farage, visiting the US after Trump's election, stated that "our real friends in the world speak English". When Johnson's great hero, Churchill, wrote a world history, he called it a History of the English-Speaking Peoples. The arch-conservative historian, Andrew Roberts, has recently brought this history up to date, with his own History of the English-Speaking Peoples since 1900. The logic of both of these projects is astonishing – especially so in the case of Roberts. Churchill sees England as occupying a special place of world leadership, and ascribes this to the status of the language. Roberts adds to this, but measures the value of English as being demonstrated in terms of wealth. In one passage, he claims that "English is today the language of wealth". Mandarin speakers are worth a measly £448 billion, Russian-speakers £801 billion, German-speakers, £1 trillion and so on. English speakers are worth "a staggering £4.2 trillion". This, claims Roberts, proves the intrinsic worth of English as the language of truth. For him, it is a truth universally acknowledged that, in today's world, truth is measured by wealth. The richer you are, the more right you are, the more worthy you are – and the more ethnically English you are, as seen in your fundamental and intrinsic link to spoken English.
There is, however, one modification that the Anglospherist makes to this. Today, the best English is not that spoken in Drumcondra, despite James Joyce's claims; rather, it is that spoken in America. That is the English of Trump, where all nuance is lost under a sclerotic and minimalist lexicon of the "big", the "best", the "amazing", the "really excellent" – and nothing else. It is also a vocabulary that damages politics itself, replacing politics with violence. When a supporter suggested that the way to deal with migrants was to shoot them, Trump laughed; later that month, a man killed a number of migrants in El Paso. On May 18th, 2016, Trump's UK counterpart Farage told the BBC that "it's legitimate to say that if people feel they have lost control completely – and we have lost control . . . then violence is the next step"; a month later, the Labour MP and Remain supporter Jo Cox was shot and stabbed to death by a far-right extremist.
A good deal of this shapes Brexit. Leave aside the fact that English exceptionalists barely understand the existence of Ireland – they will, in all probability, be content if the social and civil war that is following on from the 2016 referendum can be outsourced to Ireland (or Scotland). Brexiteers subscribe to a myth of English exceptionalism, as inscribed in their God-given fundamentalist language – now demonstrably a language for lying in. In some political commentary, aware of the tacit ideas of ethnic supremacy inscribed in a fundamentalist English, Brexiteers have been compared to Nazis. Brexiteers are not Nazis. Of course they are not. However, we should also recall that most Nazis did not start out as Nazis. They simply failed to resist a specific language and its correspondent political trajectory, and thus became complicit in its disastrous and atrocious outcomes. The principal means of effecting this was through the Nazi scapegoating of others, including Romani people; and, today, especially in Brexit-England, that scapegoating is of the non-English, and the non-English speaker.
These historical references remain apposite. Much of the pro-Brexit argument depended upon a rhetorical language deriving from the mythology of England standing alone in the second World War. Johnson famously exploited this by claiming that the EU was "pursuing a similar goal to Hitler in trying to create a powerful superstate", and that the plucky English Brexiteers would "set the country free". Populist media took the linguistic hint, and invoked a nostalgia for an imagined and heroic past, in the midst of which Decca Records found a reason for re-issuing the songs of Vera Lynn. Johnson has recently continued this rhetoric, now directly from his prime ministerial office, by referring to the opposition as "collaborators", keen to "surrender" to the EU, which is now cast as an enemy of the UK state. He has further widened this rhetoric by referring to his opponents as a "junta". He might usefully recall another war-time slogan: "Careless talk costs lives". A specific meaning for that slogan might become all the more important if his Brexit project leads to a shortage of necessary medical supplies for cancer patients, epileptics, and others in the coming years.
The historical moment is dangerous. It recalls us to a profound awareness, given in the poetry of Heaney, in the politics of Higgins, of the governance of the tongue.
Thomas Docherty is Research Professor of English and of Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick. His book, Political English: Language and the Decay of Politics, is published by Bloomsbury