Words to Watch in 2006
Since this column was born again almost a year ago as a vantage point from which to observe the intersection of politics, culture and language, I resolve to continue stumbling along in Orwell's huge shoes with an aim toward simplifying English, so we ''are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.''
I resolve to ''bring about some improvement'' with ''the present political chaosconnected (to) the decay of language.'' That tremendous task is done, Orwell wrote in his famous essay on ''Politics and the English Language,'' ''by starting at the verbal end,'' so that ''when you make a stupid remark, its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.''
It's a necessary and honorable challenge, Orwell argued, because ''political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.''
And in keeping with the time-honored pundit tradition of contemplating the future, in this final column of the year, I offer a phrase to watch for in 2006: special collection program. This euphemism for governmental spying on its own citizens will be the subject of debate for a long time to come because it raises questions that cut right to the heart of democratic governance.
Stanley Kutler, University of Wisconsin professor emeritus and author of the book "The Wars of Watergate," summed it up for the Institute for Public Accuracy last week. ''Bush is arguing that the only restraint on him is self-restraint, but that's illegitimate. We are supposed to have checks and balances,'' Kutler said, adding that in the past, when overreaching constitutional powers, the executive branch had ''seemed to stake its constitutional authority on a claim that the president had succeeded to the sovereign powers of George III.''
Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, added: ''From its assertions that it could torture in the name of national security to its recent claim that it could engage in warrantless wiretapping of Americans, the Bush administration has moved us from a government responsible and accountable to the people to one that dictates to the people. Every American should be in a political rebellion against the criminals now running this country.''
Ever since Alexander Hamilton and James Madison first disputed the nature of presidential powers, there have been those Americans who argue for expanding executive authority. Some of them can even cite various Federalist Papers that make the case for giving the president what James Madison called ''auxiliary firmness and weight'' to oppose a dominant Congress.
Only God can predict if our modern-day Madisonians will have the change of heart and mind that their forerunner did. ''At least through 1791, (Madison) remained firmly convinced that legislative encroachments would pose the greatest danger to constitutional equilibrium. But after 1793, the growing prominence of questions of foreign policy led him to a new conclusion,'' writes Stanford University historian Jack Rakove in his Pulitzer-prize winning book "Original Meanings."
The conclusion that Madison came to, Rakove argues, was ''that it was the executive that wielded the greatest degree of power and initiative, and that the powers of the House had accordingly to be extended.''
And belatedly, I leave you with two future-related linguistic Christmas gifts. ''I always avoid prophesying beforehand, because it is a much better policy to prophesy after the event has already taken place,'' Winston Churchill said.
''In the long run, we're all dead,'' the esteemed economist John Maynard Keynes quipped. Of course, as one Keynesian critic put it: The problem is Keynes is dead, and we are the ones caught up in the long run. Dare I vow to not look forward to the future but be more attentive to the present?