I hate spin. Really, really hate it, with an Orwellian passion. I bristle whenever I see it in print or hear it on TV. And I just saw a prime example of it in the New York Daily News gossip column, which is reporting that Jim Kelly, the managing editor of Time, is about to step down. Asked to comment, a Time spokeswoman replied, “Jim Kelly is very much in charge of charting the current and future course of Time magazine. Beyond that, we never comment on speculation regarding personnel matters.”
When I see that kind of statement, I reach for my garrote. A simple No comment would have been fine—but no, the unnamed spokeswoman in question had to take the opportunity to slip in a little grease, couched in slickly anti-human phrases that might just as easily have been generated by a Spin Robot.
A moment ago I alluded to George Orwell, whose 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” (which you can read here, and should if you haven’t already) is rightly regarded as the locus classicus of all discussions of modern euphemism. But I don’t think Orwell’s target, which was the corruption of language by political orthodoxy, is quite the same as mine. Here’s the key paragraph of his essay:
When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases—bestial atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder—one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favorable to political conformity….
Very good, and still very true. But the new kind of spin that enrages me is a different proposition altogether. It’s not unconscious: it’s wholly knowing, a deliberate attempt to use speech not for the purposes of communication but for the purposes of manipulation, to corrupt the whole process of human interaction by making no statement that is not agenda-driven. It’s as if our culture had been taken over by lawyers—which, of course, it has. For modern spin is not so much pol-speak as lawyer-speak, with a dollop of Madison Avenue stirred in for bad measure. It’s half Safety First (never admit anything, however insignificant, that could possibly be used against you in court) and half salesmanship (never pass up a chance, however gratuitous, to plug the product). When I hear official spokesmen emitting phrases like the ones I quoted above, I feel not as if I were watching a marionette, but as if they were trying to make me a marionette.
I’ve complained about this kind of thing before, on which occasion I quoted the greatest piece of unspin ever uttered by a public figure, General Joe Stilwell’s statement to the press after Japanese troops forced his men to retreat from Burma to India: “I claim we took a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, and go back and retake it.” No doubt I’ll quote it again, and no doubt I’ll do so, as before, in vain. Or maybe not. For I see no indication that lawyer-speak spin, endemic though it has become, is any more effective an instrument of public persuasion than the similarly synthetic taglines that Hollywood studios have been using for years to pitch their wares to the public. She was the first. This time it’s war. Who gives a crap? Anybody who decides to spend ten bucks on a movie because he sees a phrase like that on a poster deserves to see that movie, preferably ten times a day until he dies.
Yes, I’m feeling grumpy. This is one of my hobby horses, though I don’t make a habit of mounting it in public, and I promise not to do it again for a minimum of six months. But that doesn’t mean I’m not bristling.