The Politics of Nice

In his essay on “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell critiqued insincere, pretentious verbiage masquerading as meaningful prose. But above all, he deplored the use of politically expedient euphemisms: “Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” After the incalculable horrors and suffering of Vietnam (e.g., “antipersonnel weapons”) and Iraq (“collateral damage” and the like), his words remain bluntly incisive: “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” In our contemporary “Botox society,” Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and others have kept alive the most endangered species of all, exiled and lonely truth.

Here I am grappling with another phenomenon: the exquisitely sensitive, over-refined sensibilities of “polite society”–in short, the shrinking away from disturbing, unpleasant social realities by some of the most educated among Americans. Of course this is often what politeness and “niceness” are all about: learning to avoid the bluntly truthful when a comforting euphemism or vague circumlocution will do. What is valued is pleasantness and comfort, even if someone is suffering anguish in the next room.

In part, this can be ascribed to arrested development: childish, wishful thinking about well-meaning but misguided elites such as Congress or the generals. In part, it stems from an over-identification and thus over-obedience to those who have reached the pinnacle of success in our society, i.e., the “power elite” which was so trenchantly described by C. Wright Mills over a half-century ago. Thus, you wouldn’t think of simply describing former President George W. Bush as a vicious mass murderer–although Vincent Bugliosi, in his The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder, proves that he is.

It just isn’t done: think of a fancy dinner party, with vintage wines and witty repartee–spoiled by such a faux pas. Unlike the often vulgar working-class, with their six-packs and Super Bowl, the professional-managerial class is refined: Barack Obama, for instance, is charming, highly educated, reasonable and conciliatory. It is simply in poor taste, don’t you see, to obsessively dwell on such things, particularly on the unsightly, gruesome details of children maimed and crippled by the thousands. “Why should we hear about body bags and deaths,” Barbara Bush once mused–“why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?”

Genteel hypocrisy is a more craven form of hypocrisy than that of, say, Wall Street buccaneers who pretend to be philanthropists. For it is ultimately based, not only on callous indifference but on a clinging to comforting lies and fairy tales at all costs. Contra Arendt, it is less a “banality of evil” than an “evil of banality.” Do not spoil my leisure and pleasant dreams with such in-your-face unpleasantries! It’s bad form and will soon cost you popularity and those coveted invitations. Be witty, ironic, above all entertaining; don’t bore me with such grisly details about phosphorus and depleted-uranium or with perplexing moral questions that are really beside the point. Yes, mistakes were made, Bush exaggerated the WMD, Cheney was a scoundrel, but we’re beyond that now. Don’t be such a humorless drudge: lighten up!

I thinking in particular of The New York Times: its banal, self-indulgent, trendy “Lifestyle” sections, and its fastidiously worded articles about the “conflict” in Iraq or the “mistakes” of Bush and company. Its readership is largely composed of a managerial-class which identifies with corporate interests, whether here or (imperialistically) abroad. But it is more than that: such people became successful through obedience, deference, and conformity to their “superiors,” whether in college, business school or the boardroom. (Think Condoleeza Rice, if you can.)

An upwardly-mobile manager is above all a team-player dedicated to the interests of the team, whether it happens to be the U.S. Army (Colin Powell) or BP (Tony Hayward). And successful team-players have good “social skills,” i.e., the right balance of flattery, decorum, discretion and reassuring lies. So remember: refined, educated people are kind people, people who would spare the feelings of that poor old, ailing gentleman Ariel Sharon. Learn good manners: never use an ugly (truthful) word when a comforting (lying) word will do. After all, you want to be a nice person, don’t you?

BILL MANSON previously taught social science at Columbia and Rutgers universities.