Green Room

With all due respect, shun the nonbeliever

posted at 11:12 am on May 5, 2012 by

Certain words and phrases have found their way into contemporary political discussion, showing up so often that they have virtually lost their meaning. I propose that the Obama Administration, by executive order, in an attempt to keep our national discourse clear and civil, mandate alternatives. My humble suggestions for several are below.


This word refers, of course, to the dystopian literature of George Orwell, whose works of fiction painted devastating portraits of life under a totalitarian state. Often, however, the word is used simply as a synonym for any policy or state action the speaker finds generally repugnant.

Example: CBS’s Leslie Stahl said when questioning former Clandestine Service head Jose Rodriguez about enhanced interrogation techniques: “So sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation. I mean, this is Orwellian stuff. The United State doesn’t do that.”

Suggested alternative: Speakers cannot use the word “Orwellian” unless specifically citing a passage or example from an Orwell novel that corresponds to the circumstances mentioned, while also pointing out any contrasting circumstances that keep the usage from being a perfect analogy. If adopted, this rule would have meant Ms. Stahl saying something like this:

“So sleep deprivation, dietary manipulation. I mean, this is Orwellian stuff—in the sense that Winston Smith was tortured in the novel 1984 by O’Brien, except, of course, that O’Brien wasn’t trying to extract information from Winston on possible terror plots and suspects but was trying, instead, to simply ‘cure’ Winston of his ‘mental fallacies,’ and his success in this torture was achieved when O’Brien held up four fingers and got Winston to declare he was holding up five. The United State doesn’t do that.”

Notice how this new method enhances Ms. Stahl’s final comment – “The United States doesn’t do that.” No, Leslie, it doesn’t.

You have to admit that this new rule for the use of “Orwellian” would be both more interesting and instructive, providing many “teachable moments” for its users and listeners.

A similar technique could be adopted for the overused “McCarthyism” charge that is trotted out whenever politicos think they see overwrought accusations of disloyalty. Instead of citations to the record involving the communist-fighting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, however, I suggest that the word “McCarthyism” merely be followed by the simple statement: “Alger Hiss, however, was truly disloyal and proved as much by history.”  This will at least serve the purpose of instructing younger college graduates who have spent the past four years in the only remaining Alger-Hiss-supporting enclaves in America – that is, academe.



This phrase is typically used in lieu of an insult during a debate rebuttal to elegantly mask the speaker’s disdain. Since random outbursts of “Jane, you ignorant slut” are frowned upon, why not combine insult and elegance by rummaging through the treasure trove of Shakespearean smack talk.

Example: Let’s say that President Obama claims, in a debate, that all our economic problems are still George Bush’s fault. Instead of Mitt Romney beginning his rebuttal with “With all due respect,” he could use these lines from Henry IV:

“You starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s tongue, you bull’s pizzle, you stock-fish! O for breath to utter what is like thee! You tailor’s-yard, you sheath, you bowcase; you vile standing-tuck!”

And then, of course, he would go on to make his point: “Barack, the American people are tired of this blame game.”

Of course, if he favored brevity, Mr. Romney could always substitute this shorter line from the same play:

“I scorn you, scurvy companion.”



Politicians and pundits seem to use these phrases instead of the more truthful: why don’t they just chuck all their principles, get on board and agree with me, those scurvy companions?

My suggested alternative for the confusion created by these phrases is to force speakers to merely repeat, precisely as articulated in the amazingly moving video below (an excerpt from the elegant Charlie the Unicorn short here): Shun the nonbelievers, shun!

Just imagine it –Politico A, when saying something like, “We can’t seem to get those rapscallions across the aisle to build consensus,” would then have to turn to the camera and say, in this dramatic fashion:

There are many more examples, of course, of overused language in the political sphere. Stay tuned for updates throughout campaign season.


Libby Sternberg is a novelist.

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Jazz Shaw on May 5, 2012 at 3:47 PM

I like the ‘bull’s pizzle’ best. Not 100% sure what it refers to but can guess and as it most accurately describes our dear leader. Orwellian stuff is what he does best, see our latest unemployment numbers for proof.

Kissmygrits on May 5, 2012 at 11:57 AM

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