The $50 million misunderstanding

Among his many superb essays, George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” stands as a timeless classic. Here is its beating heart:

In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a “party line.” Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestoes, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. 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.

The phenomenon that goes under the Orwellian rubric of “diversity” in higher education and elsewhere cries out for an Orwell to expose the routinized bureacratic absurdity of its language and its thought. In “Harvard’s Diversity Grovel,” Heather Mac Donald rises to the challenge of bringing Orwell’s sensibility to a close analysis of the rubbish in Harvard’s Report of the Task Force on Women Faculty. Mac Donald has slogged through the report’s deadening bureacratic mumbo jumbo with a scholar’s patience and with a satirist’s gimlet eye. She translates the report’s lifeless bureacratic prose into English and exposes the numerous errors and fallacies in its argument.
The report is of course part of the repentance of Harvard President Lawrence Summers for blurting the truth, the blueprint for Harvard’s $50 million Danegeld to the female faculty members who demanded his head on a platter. Call it the $50 million misunderstanding.
We called attention to Mac Donald’s essay this past Saturday, but it deserves recognition as some kind of contemporary masterpiece. Perhaps renaming it “Diversity and the English Language” would give it the proper frame of reference.
In the middle of her essay, for example, Mac Donald catches the report’s authors bungling their way to a truth that belies their entire project. The fourth strategy advocated by the report that Mac Donald considers is the renaming of Harvard’s “Outreach Fund” as the “Faculty Development and Diversity Fund” and a “Special Assistance Fund.” Mac Donald writes:

The “Faculty Development and Diversity Fund” and the “Special Assistance Fund” are identical to the “Outreach Fund,” simply renamed and split into two. No one will ever notice that continuity, the diversocrats assume, because the names are different.
The task force gives two reasons for renaming the “Outreach Fund.” Both demonstrate the catastrophic decline in intellectual skills in the academy. The task force claims that the term “‘outreach fund’ connotes civic or cultural improvement, but these funds are intended to identify and recruit top-flight faculty.” Huh? No one, hearing “outreach fund,” would think “civic or cultural improvement.” In fact, “outreach fund” suggests pretty much what the task force claims it doesn


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