James Holmes

The Orwellian Debate Over Isolationism

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James Holmes

The Orwellian Debate Over Isolationism

“The great George would have a field day with the debate over whether to intervene in Syria.”

Amazing, isn't it, how much of political discourse comes down to hanging an unflattering label on your opponents? After all, if people assume your opponent is a nasty so-and-so of one type or another, no one will listen to him. You win by default. This practice infuriated George Orwell, mainly, it seems, because it involved using words imprecisely. Name-calling debased and impoverished the English language, whereas restoring clarity and precision to the language was Orwell's lifelong quest.

Exhibit A: the term fascist. Orwell published a hilarious essay in the Tribune in 1944, showing that serious people had called every major political movement in English society fascist. Conservatives, socialists, godless commies, pro-war types, war resisters — all were fascists!

A term that describes everything describes nothing. From this Orwell concluded that the term had become "essentially meaningless." He returned to this point in his classic essay on "Politics and the English Language," with which I torment new students at the beginning of every term. Orwell concludes that "The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" Many different abstract words — "democracy" and so forth — likewise stand at risk of losing all meaning.

The great George would have a field day with the debate over whether to intervene in Syria. In some quarters it appears that opposing military action qualifies a skeptic as an "isolationist." This is clearly something not desirable in the dominant reading of U.S. diplomatic history.

Isolationism — or "isolationism, so called," in the words of University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall — ran rampant in interwar America, fueled by inordinate fears of a new world war. It neutered the League of Nations while delaying rearmament for the eventual showdown with the Axis. Lesson: Isolationism = Bad.

But were the isolationists really isolationist? America was no Hermit Kingdom like North Korea. It was no Japan under the Tokugawa shoguns, a country that secluded itself from the world for over two centuries until being pried open by Commodore Perry's black ships at gunpoint. Now that's isolation.

Isolationist politicians like Senator Arthur Vandenberg and Senator William Borah were comfortable with carrying on foreign commerce, and with maintaining diplomatic relations with foreign countries. At most they were selectively isolationist, imploring the United States to shun military alliances and other entanglements. McDougall maintains that "unilateralism" — retaining Washington's liberty of action rather than committing in advance to the use of force — is a more fitting term for the Vandenbergs and Borahs of the foreign-policy world.

So let's infuse some Orwellian perspective into the debate over Syria. If an opponent of intervention wants not just to forego punishing the Assad regime but to cancel all overseas ventures involving force, then fine. He may qualify as an isolationist to the limited extent that the interwar isolationists did. If not, it's time to find another term — even though it may not be as much fun as tarring those with whom you disagree.