Day of Conscience

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.
–George Orwell

Carpal tunnel syndrome and long work days are making me terse these days. But someone has designated today as Day of Conscience for Sudan, and that makes me think of politics and the English language.

Words have such power. Here in the US, we put a five-second delay on live TV shows in case viewers are struck by the force of a word.

We shield ourselves, too, from the force of the word ‘genocide’. It is so powerful that when a government names it it is under legal obligation to fight it. An eight-letter word, in the right mouth, can mobilize armies, doctors, diplomats, logistics experts, and lawyers. Rafael Lemkin spent his whole life struggling to get that level of moral and legal authority for the word he coined. It didn’t occur to him, I suppose, that we would dodge his intent by simply renaming of what we saw. It costs no tanks or taxes to condemn ‘atrocities’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘Bad Things’.

Here’s a _New Yorker_ article by the dazzling Ms. Samantha Power: Dying in Darfur

Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders use money well.

8 thoughts on “Day of Conscience”

  1. I haven’t visited the pages of for years and find them in disarray. A current link to one of the former inhabitants can be found at It”s nice to know that all its former occupants have not moved on to populating Yuppiedom City.

    Since Dervala links to the Orwell piece at I’m curious if that’s coincidental or by intent. Perhaps God Google led her there or…

    I always try to remind myself that Orwell was at his best as a writer of political fiction, not as a political or ethical philosopher.

    “It costs no tanks or taxes to condemn ‘atrocities’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘Bad Things’.” – an interesting thought and it’s good to know that idealism is alive and well in the hearts of man (or woman in this instance). Innate, self-evident, and other truths are hard to find these days and too often seek a consensus, a futile endeavor at best in a political world too often driven by money (soft, big or otherwise), or just plain ignorance.

    Quite a post! Dervala should not abuse her readers by infusing so many things into their consciousness with a single injection.

    There’s even a plug for Doctors Without Borders, a commodity in short supply, not to mention that there are many places unsafe for them to do their work, one of the ironies of our time.


  2. It was Google serendipity, Jerry, since I was stealing time from work to find the quickest link to my favorite essay on language. I’d never seen the Resort, but it looks like fun.

    I wonder if I was clear when I said “It costs no tanks or taxes to condemn ‘atrocities’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ or ‘Bad Things’”?

    In case not, I meant that it *should* sometimes cost taxes and tanks, not just empty words. I’m haunted by every account of General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian UN commander in Rwanda, who heard nothing but those kinds of empty condemnations from his superiors at a time when all he needed was 5,000 soldiers to prevent 800,000 deaths. But no one would say the magic word ‘genocide’ that would have authorized such a mobilization in advance of the killing.

    General Dallaire is one of my heroes, but these days he’s a broken man. Words, words, words. They can be so powerful sometimes, and so empty at others.


  3. The European Union has decided that Darfur does not meet the requirement of “genocide” recently, because of the strength of that word. I presume that the linked artcile refers to that but I haven’t had time to peruse it.

    I have to strongly disagree with Jerry that Orwell was at his best as a writer of politcial fiction, and not as a political or ethical philosopher, not least because all his political fiction was thinly disguised political philosophy. He was also a better essayist than a writer of fiction, to my mind, but that is a matter of style.

    Describing him as just a writer of “political fiction” is as if to lump him into the same camp as Iam Fleming, and other writers of political pot-boilers.


  4. I also find the piece on grammar fascinating. At one time I probably had it memorized. But I also believe like most preconceived ideas, Orwell conveniently chose support for his first premise, the historical method used by virtually all philosophers. From there one has a building block for the complete outline and details that follow (Philosophy 101).

    I like the piece because it makes several points I’ve not seen elsewhere. Returning to Orwell as a writer, I’ve read all his fiction (several times) and like the “minor novels” that critics have generallly panned because (most often) they claim the political philosophy is too blatant and that Orwell handles realism poortly. But I find enough of what is found elsewhere in the the great novels, “1984” and “Animal Farm,” to enjoy reading them.

    Understand that I’m approaching Orwell’s views from a literary standpoint, in part, as most of my reading has been his fiction. I may be wrong. But Orwell as a “political writer,” per se, has had little or no impact on political thinking. When he’s at his best in creating fiction from his imagination, as in the two well known novels, I think he rises above purely political ideas and created works that stand alone as literature. Orwell of course is considered the best English speaking writer of “political fiction” of the 20th Century. I think his fiction will also survive, one of a small group which would include Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner and a few ohers.

    His political writings, per se, have had no influence. There’s nothing especially original in them. In the 1930’s his ideas were clones of what Marx and others had written. I think he had some original insights into those ideas, but again I find it lacks originality and to date he’s had no influence.

    The two big novels on the other hand have had substantial influences in literature. And I personally wouldn’t classify one as better than the other.

    As for “inate ideas” I tend towards the conservative, probably just sticking with Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on “inalienable” rights. Too often one group’s victory in war is the other’s massacre. I certainly don’t disagree with the views on Rwanda, for example, and you’ve given name to the man I’ve forgotten who I also consider a hero. The world has stood by or waited to long in places like Liberia and of course the present concern is in the Sudan. Children are still starving in a country where we picked up and left about sustaining 18 killed. We at least were providing some protection, which disappeared, to aid organizationns supplying food.

    I mistrust “innate” ideas, possibly because I’m too stupid to trust myself. 😉

    I support the 87 billion $$ we allocated for Iraq to keep the Abrams tanks and Humvees gassed up and running. I support a stupid war that’s been run poorly, but much of the infrastructure problems of our military and intelligence services can be blamed on Clinton as much as Shrub II (and Shrub I for that matter), but only because we’ve discovered after the fact that Saddam was the greatest evil since Stalin and Hitler.

    American foreign policy has sucked since we became a “super power.” As a people we don’t handle dealing with the peoples of the world well. We may no longer be isolationists, but we still know as little about the world at large as ever. Perhaps technology will help educate us. After all a few years ago you wouldn’t have been able to visit a webcam site and chat with a sweet young thing in Rumania, age 18, for $2.95 per minute. 😉

    Good grief another rant. I obviously learned how to read (a bit) with my undergraduate triple major in English, Philosophy and History, but I never learned how to write. 😦 (I’m also philosophically opposed to clicking on “preview” and always click only on “post.”)

    General Dallaire. I won’t forget his name again. Thank you.


  5. (writing to myself)

    I see no one was so foolish as to read last night’s lengthy post. For whatever reason I just did.

    OMG, it seems I’m an “expert” or authority on all sorts of things. I racked up a tripple major in the Liberal Arts, leaving me little, if anything, yet to learn.



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