Democracy Beyond Sloganeering

By J.F. McKenna

Have The Day Big Brother Planned For You.

The bumper sticker initially coaxed a smirk from me as I stopped-started through midday traffic. America, I mused, boasts a limitless supply of satiric epigrams. That highway sentiment would have typically passed through my brain-pan as quickly as it had appeared, but current events have extended the expiration date of the Volvo’s right-lane editorial. Maybe the message is as timely as it is terse.

Only hours before my car ride started, I had read John Stossel’s syndicated lament that quoted Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, an entrepreneur in and out of the sports market. Stossel repeated Cuban’s own lament that he wouldn’t be as successful today because of seemingly limitless government regulation. “Now,” Cuban said, “there’s so much paperwork and regulation, so many things you have to sign up for, that you have a better chance of getting in trouble than you do of being successful.”

Stossel, the cable-TV scold who regularly stumps for free enterprise as vigilantly as any libertarian, didn’t stop there, either. “It’s not just big corporations that get hassled by regulators, the way progressives might like to imagine,” he continued. “Kids’ lemonade stands are sometimes shut down for not having business licenses. When Chloe Stirling was 11 years old, health officials shut down her home cupcake-making business.”

Cupcake-making regulations for11 year olds? Not exactly in keeping with the spirit of what Publius, aka Alexander Hamilton, wrote in The Federalist No. 22: “The fabric of American Empire ought to rest on the solid basis of THE CONSENT OF PEOPLE. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from the pure original fountain of all legitimate authority.”

Too damned-bad that Volvo can’t accommodate such a long and weighty sentiment on its bumper, no? Sure, we’d have to cut speed limits considerably to increase reading time —and I guess that’s just not going to happen in our age of Twitter and $3.75-a-gallon gasoline.

So allow me to offer an additional message suitable for the back of the car: If Thought Corrupts Language, Language Can Also Corrupt Thought.

In addition to being brief enough for safe on-road consumption, it has a direct pedigree with the Volvo’s current message: The line is from George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” That’s right, the same George Orwell who gave us the original Big Brother in the dystopian fictional classic, 1984.

More important, it’s an especially timely message as America’s discontent grows with ginned-up economic stats about our actually anemic economy, IRS shenanigans with citizens’ privacy, and growing questions about the Obama administration’s handling of the deadly jihadist attack on Americans in Benghazi in 2012. Most of us plain-speaking Yankees are starting to really see through the “most transparent administration” in our history.

“In the case of a word like democracy,” Orwell writes, “not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.”

At the essay’s conclusion Orwell declares that “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” but nonetheless holds out the belief that “the decadence of our language is probably curable.” And that such rehabilitation can beget democracy agreed on by all.

That, of course, will take more than just a slogan on a bumper.


J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a veteran business journalist and marketing-communications consultant. He is a former staff editor of such magazines as Industry Week and Northern Ohio Live. His online work also appears on the site Steinbeck Now. A native of Cleveland, he and his wife, Carol, now live in Pittsburgh with their dogs, Duchess Holly and Lord Max. Reach him at .


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