The Reactionary Utopian
                     August 10, 2006

by Joe Sobran

     I miss Hemingway.

     This may seem an odd time for literary lamentations, 
but it's not just my nostalgia speaking. The fog of war 
is aggravated by the fog of official language, and our 
rulers seem unable to open their mouths without emitting 
cant, cliche, dead metaphors, and useless abstractions -- 
about "democracy," "freedom," "terrorism," 
"Islamofascism," "diplomatic solutions," et cetera -- 
which, far from defining the problems we face, only 
compound the confusion.

     At times like this, we need clear, spare, specific 
language that acknowledges what we are really talking 
about, the kind of prose that made writers like Ernest 
Hemingway and George Orwell, both unsentimental war 
correspondents as well as novelists, so useful, 
invigorating, and even in a way consoling to read. Even 
today, when you read them, you know you aren't reading 
dated propaganda. Good reporters still, as ever, avoid 
the false, loaded language of politicians. This always 
irritates partisans, who suspect objectivity of being 
disloyal and treasonous. The more we kill, the more we 
seem to demand euphemism.

     You don't have to be neutral in order to be honest. 
You merely have to describe what you see and stick to 
what you really know. You must ruthlessly suppress 
anything that smacks of wishful thinking, letting the 
details do the talking even when they hurt your own side. 
Good writing should be calm, even cold, something the 
reader can trust amid all the shooting and shouting.

     This is a hard discipline, because impassioned 
people always want to justify their own side, no matter 
how urgent the need for the simple perspective of fact. 
It's no use denouncing "cowardly terrorists," for 
example, when terrorists are often fanatically, 
terrifyingly courageous and nothing is gained by 
pretending otherwise.

     Likewise it's no use complaining about "extremism" 
in an extreme situation, which is what war is. War by its 
nature inverts ordinary morality. The combatants do and 
approve things that would horrify them in peacetime. 
Devout Christians become murderers. Soldiers are honored 
for killing and dishonored, or worse, for refusing to 
fight. Atrocities are excused, except when the enemy 
commits them. Any scruples about killing are said to 
"handcuff" our own troops.

     At such times unflinching honesty becomes a rare 
virtue. Few can look at their own side with cold eyes, or 
admit that the enemy is essentially no different from a 
moral point of view, even if his cause is bad.

     In war we naturally adopt a double standard, with 
one vocabulary for our side and another for the enemy. 
Americans still cherish the memory of Axis atrocities in 
World War II and justify their own, particularly the 
intensive bombing of German and Japanese cities -- things 
nobody would have predicted, much less advocated, before 
the war broke out. Even today, we commonly justify the 
atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for "shortening 
the war" and even saving Japanese lives.

     But which side's rulers were tried and put to death 
for "war crimes" after the war? Which side is even now 
expected to do eternal penance for what it did during 
that war? America brought the world into the nuclear age, 
a permanent and irreversible horror. Was that a war 

     No, we fret that these weapons of mass murder and 
mass terror may fall into "the wrong hands." Ours, of 
course, are the "right" hands, in which they may be 
safely trusted. And we marvel that much of the world 
hates and fears us.

     This is why we need that rare minority who can, even 
in wartime, look at ourselves dispassionately and speak 
in the disillusioned language, without rhetorical 
embellishment, of men like Hemingway and Orwell. Such 
writers do still exist, plentifully enough to help keep 
us sane, and they are much more likely to be found, I 
regret to say, in the liberal than in the conservative 
press. I suppose this is because, since World War II, 
conservatives have abandoned their old skepticism of war. 
This is both an explanation and a fact that needs 
explaining itself.

     We live in terrible, confusing times, the worst I 
can remember. Events are so far beyond our control that 
about all we can hope to achieve is to keep our own minds 
clear. It's not just that our rulers lie to us; it's that 
they wouldn't know how to tell the truth if they wanted 
to. Honest language is among our few remaining hopes.


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