(This post entirely Gabriel Duquette‘s fault. I totally made a resolution not to argue with idiots on my blog unless I have a point other than “idiot over there is an idiot,” but he asked nicely and I am incapable of not doing favors for friends.)
First of all, if they believe that what Orwell was complaining about does not happen today, they clearly haven’t spent much time watching the news. “Democracy” is used to justify atrocities; “fascist” has no meaning other than “generic bad thing”; self-interested foreign policy is given the weight of myth through use of words like “destiny” and “freedom.” He wrote about how leftists use long strings of jargon that don’t actually mean anything– without having ever met a radical queer! (I have spent many an amusing evening trying to figure out how the hell you, oh, “center love and respect for women and femmes.” Does it involve putting a I ❤ Femmes sign in the middle of the room?)
In addition, “I am a plain-speaking bluff honest man calling it as I see it” was not an unknown rhetorical device in Orwell’s time. See Sinclair Lewis’s brilliant It Can’t Happen Here, which satirizes that sort of rhetoric, as well as “traditional American family values” and the rest of that rot. My point, other than “people should read more novels by pissy cynical thirties socialists,” is that maybe Orwell didn’t talk about the problems of plain speech because he’s actually making a completely different point.
Orwell’s claim is that unclear, vague, ugly, cliche writing is all too often used to make a shitty idea look better. If no one can tell what you’re talking about, then they can’t debunk your shitty ideas. If your writing is bad enough, even you might not be able to tell how bad your ideas are. Whether plain writing can also be used to make a shitty idea look better is completely irrelevant to the topic of the essay.
Not to mention that writing can be superficially “plain” and still be unclear, vague, ugly, and cliche. Bullshit peddlers are clever and can use a patina of plain-speaking bluffness to hide that they’re obfuscating the issue, but they’re still fucking obfuscating the issue. “Looking clear” is not the same thing as “being clear.”
The New Statesman criticizes Orwell for lacking evidence. This is unfortunate, because the New Statesman’s primary evidence is sheer Bardolatry. Iago was made up. Iago’s rhetorical techniques being persuasive in the play says nothing about whether the rhetorical techniques are persuasive in real life, because it’s fiction and the characters are persuaded if the author says they are. (I guess you could argue for Shakespeare’s closely observed psychological realism, but… Iago.)
Furthermore, The New Statesman does everyone’s favorite technique: quote a random sentence a Shakespeare character says out of context and then attribute it to “the Bard’s eternal wisdom.” I kind of wonder if five hundred years from now everyone will be talking about how Ron said not to trust Snape and that means that J. K. Rowling is teaching us not to trust people who have done evil things in the past. Well, at least the author isn’t quoting Polonius.
I am not saying that Politics and the English Language is perfect. For one thing, Orwell has a curmudgeonly dislike for the perfectly respectable rhetorical device litotes. But if you are writing nonfiction intended for a general audience, your writing needs to be understandable to that audience. If people cannot tell what you’re talking about, you’ve failed. If you’re not actually saying anything, you’ve failed. The fact that you can make a point that other people can understand and it’s also wrong is as relevant as saying that because cars can have wheels and a broken engine wheels are overrated.