In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, George Orwell explains how the political use of language is more often employed to obscure meaning than to illuminate it. In his words,
The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed.
To wit: words have meanings. These meanings may be complex, but they are specific. When words don’t refer to specific things, we lose the ability to speak about those things. Anyone who is careless with the meaning of words is careless with reality, and should be viewed with suspicion.
This brings us to Giorgio Mammoliti. The Toronto Councillor for York West has always been a political clown, a kind of gross caricature of whatever ideology he currently thinks will serve his own self interest. Years ago, he was an NDP MPP and leader of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He is now a stooge for Rob Ford’s slobocracy, the guy they send out when they want to say something offensive but would rather the quote not be attached to the mayor. We should not expect much from this type of opportunist, but he keeps finding ways to disappoint our already low expectations
Giorgio, apparently tired of hearing from the ‘communists’ who presented at the marathon 22-hour City Council meeting on the proposed service cuts, has created a Facebook page called “Save the City…Support the Ford Administration” (I’ve linked to it, but I warn you that its utility is marginal). I have no problem with this in itself. Mammoliti can do whatever he wants on Facebook. But I do take issue with what he has been saying about the page. From The Globe:
“I don’t want to hear from communists,” he said. “I won’t be calling them communists on the site, but I will be using the word ‘whatever’ to reply to them. If you see that word you can be pretty sure they’re a communist and I’ll be cutting them off of the site.”
He maintains a broad definition of the term “communist” as “anyone who is able to work, doesn’t want to work and wants everything for free,” he said.
“I’m really sick and tired of hearing from the communists in this city,” he said in an interview. “I don’t want anything to do with them. I don’t want to listen to them. I don’t want to listen to their griping and their whining. I want to listen to people who are clearly working for a living, and wanting their tax dollars to be used in a particular way. I’m clearly trying to wean out the typical communist thinker who will be doing nothing but whining.”
What’s fascinating here is Giorgio’s frequent and brazen misuse of the term “communist”. Communism refers to a specific political and economic program which, among other things, calls for worker control of the means of production, collectivization of industry and agriculture, and the reconfiguration of the state as an instrument for economic planning. In practice, the term can also apply to states which refer to themselves as ‘communist’, such as China, Cuba, and North Korea. It does not apply to union members. Some of these individuals may be communists, but the connection is not a necessary one. Nor does ‘communist’ refer to people who are defending public services that enjoy broad support. It is also inappropriate for Mammoliti to apply this term to all of his critics simply for being critical, unless extensive public polling reveals that the majority of them do, in fact, hold communist views. I am unaware of any such research, but would be happy to review it should Mammoliti’s office make it available.
So why does Mammoliti call his critics communist? While I don’t doubt that he is largely ignorant of broad swaths of history and political theory, and may not actually know what ‘communist’ means, I think something else is going on here. He obviously intends it as a slur, a way of lumping together a diverse collection of individuals of a variety of different political viewpoints, united only by their opposition to his politics. His abuse of the term is a way of labeling and sidelining otherwise legitimate criticism, of presenting absolutely credible and mainstream views as somehow radical and extreme. Opposing cuts to services such as libraries and pools is a reasonable position for liberals, conservatives, and social democrats alike, but by labelling this opinion “communist” he is attempting to remove this argument from the range of acceptable policy options. It perverts the dialogue around public services and city finances, and is a form of exclusion unacceptable to anyone who cares about meaningful debate. Mammoliti’s abuse of language reveals a fondness for thug tactics and a distaste for democracy rather unbecoming of a democratically elected politician.
Orwell closes his essay by stating that”political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” By cynically exploiting the meaning of words, Mammoliti does little to dispel the widespread belief that the sum total of all his public comments amount to anything more than exactly this – pure wind.