I was surprised when I found that the American academic Stanley Fish described Orwell's famous article “Politics and the English Language” as “perhaps the worst essay ever written by a major figure”. Fish made his remark at the beginning of a debate that can be seen on YouTube (link at the end of this article).
Orwell's essay has been cited thousands of times as a masterpiece. In it, Orwell provided examples taken from British books and newspapers that show how stale phrases and abstract language can be used to distort facts and hide the truth (link at the end of this article). It introduced many of the ideas that later Orwell developed in 1984.
Stanley Fish's caricature
After the host finished presentations, Stanley Fish mounts his attack (starts at 6.30 in the video).
Fish, a linguist who lectures on law, hate speech, and university politics —among other issues— and whose contributions —according to the Wikipedia— decorate the editorial pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, tells us that “nothing is sillier” than Orwell's essay. Fish adds that it was “not only linguistically naive and philosophically inept but was absolutely racist through and through”.
He chastises Orwell for saying that language had been infected by politics and citing Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany as instances of that disease. Orwell feared that this disease was infecting the English language. According to Fish, Orwell's advice was to use only good Anglo-Saxon words and avoid borrowing from French and Italian. That is something that the English —Fish adds— have been saying for 800 years, namely, that the French and Italian stand for effeminate decadence. Fish says that Orwell told his readers not to use words, to think without words as far as possible, and put into words thoughts that have been fully formed. By this time the audience seems very amused and laughs at Orwell's naive solution: think in pictures, to which Fish retorts “pictures of what?” He asserts that objects are distinguished from each other only within a language, so even if you use pictures, you rely on a system of language. To complete his caricature of the article, Fish mocks the “English antidote” to the ill that caused Orwell's concern. Fish finds it in Johnathan Swift's Gulliver Travels, in which we are told about a curious country where people try to avoid words and therefore carry with them bags with objects so that when they have to refer to them, they pick them out and just showed the objects to other people. By this time the audience laughs loud.
The other academic in the debate, the linguist and English literature professor John McWorther, does not join the general merriment but apart from looking down when Fish makes his attack on Orwell, he does not contradict any part of it.
The charge that the essay is “racist through and trough”
It seems that at the beginning of the XXI century, a progressive American academic cannot make a point without adding the charge of racism to his arguments. But think a bit: the English race —if there is such thing— is not so different from the German race —if there is such thing. It is difficult to assume, as Fish does, that Orwell had a racial prejudice against other white European people. But more importantly, Orwell does not put the blame for bad English on foreign influence. Right on the second paragraph of the essay he writes that English has become “ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He adds that “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed”. That is according to Orwell the main reason for bad English, not effeminate European words.
Then Orwell enumerates four key defects: dying metaphors, operators or verbal false limbs, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. Orwell only mentions borrowing from other languages —including Latin— as one of the many ways in which one incurs the third fault, pretentious diction. One might say the same thing about German writers borrowing from English or academics using unnecessary jargon.
In one of the most interesting parts of his essay Orwell shows how a paragraph in good English can be translated into bad English. And he admits that perhaps he himself would have used the bad version, simply because it is easier. None of that is a property of this or that language, or of race.
So the charge of racism is silly (to use Fish's adjective). Moreover, if Fish or people in the audience had had any interest in Orwell's work, they would have discovered that he also wrote about the sins of nationalism (“Notes on Nationalism” link). There he said:
"By 'nationalism' I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled 'good' or 'bad'. But secondly —and this is much more important— I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”
And in a footnote to that paragraph, Orwell added:
“Patently absurd remarks such as ‘Germany is naturally treacherous’ are to be found in any newspaper one opens and reckless generalization about national character (‘The Spaniard is a natural aristocrat’ or ‘Every Englishman is a hypocrite’) are uttered by almost everyone. Intermittently these generalizations are seen to be unfounded, but the habit of making them persists, and people of professedly international outlook, e.g., Tolstoy or Bernard Shaw, are often guilty of them.”
So much for the charge that Orwell hated Germans or any other nationals, or that he made any assumptions about their national character, or classified humans as good or bad according to their race. But there is more. In July 1939 Orwell published his article “Not Counting Niggers.” We must remember that shortly after that, the 1st of September of that year, Germany invaded Poland and that two days later the United Kingdom and France declared war to Germany. In his article Orwell criticized a book that made a proposal for confronting Hitler but failed to take into account the voices of the subjugated peoples of Africa and Asia. If there is something to object in that article, it is an underestimation of the Nazi menace and the assertion that the European dominion over its colonies was an evil worse than the Nazi regime, a comparison that Orwell tried to base, among other things, by showing that salaries were much lower in British India than in Nazi Germany. In the last lines of the article Orwell expressed his hope that a mass party would emerge “whose first pledges are to refuse war and to right imperial injustice” —all that written days before the war. Surely that wasn't one of Orwell's most insightful pieces. But the one thing that cannot be said about the article is that it showed hatred or disregard for other races.
Perhaps Stanley Fish ignored all that. But one would think that John MacWorther, who according to the Wikipedia teaches comparative literature at Columbia, would have some acquaintance with Orwell's work. If that was the case, he chose not to spoil the merriment by pointing out the errors in Fish's caricature.
The rise of fake scholarship
Not satisfied with his attack against Orwell, Stanley Fish further increased the ignorance of his audience by linking Francis Bacon, the renowned politician and philosopher, with a medieval project to reinstate the language used in the Garden of Eden. But “ignorance”, the plain lack of knowledge, is not the right word to describe the result of Stanley Fish's efforts. He spreads disinformation. As any undergraduate knows, or should know, Bacon was one of first thinkers who successfully promoted modern ways of reasoning against medieval scholasticism. He wrote “The New Organon” to replace the old one that had prevailed since antiquity. If you simply ignore that, you may open an encyclopedia, search the web, or —better— read Bacon's books. But once you have learned a distortion, your chances to gain true knowledge are drastically reduced.
Stanley Fish has written against fake news, but he engages in something far worse. From high academic positions and from mass media he supplies vast audiences with caricatures of Bacon and Orwell. He makes his readers and listeners believe that they can laugh at the naive thoughts of previous generations. Unlike plain ignorance, which offers an opportunity for future knowledge, then people would be satisfied that they don't need to waste time reading Orwell's silly article or Bacon's preposterous medieval project. Once a man comes to them surrounded by an aura of academic titles and sells a story that not merely simplifies but distorts ideas, there is a huge obstacle on their path to knowledge.
Fake scholarship has an influence that goes deeper than fake news. And Stanley Fish is not alone in pursuing that enterprise. Besides, fake news are usually promptly refuted so only some blockheads remain persuaded by them. But fake scholarship deludes a far larger number of people, those who looked for knowledge and think that they have gained it after attending events such as the one in the video. Consequently, academics who don't engage in fake scholarship should understand that it is not enough to laugh in private at the nonsense taught to general audiences. They should make a stand against it.