The Limited Language of Politics

By  Matt Hartman

The most striking feature of Orwell’s 1984 is the way he imagines a language’s alteration as a mode of control. The idea of limiting a vocabulary until merely thinking a insubordinate thought is impossible is an immensely powerful idea. The fact that social interaction is conditioned on communication is so basic that it is not often explicitly taken into account. Yet if we can focus on the way we communicate, it becomes evident that the perception–as developed in a historical context–of the particular language used in a politics goes a long way in determining how that politics is regarded.

This issue has been partially considered in recent months. After Senator Giffords was shot in Tucson early this year, an ongoing public debate began over the use of violent political language. And Jon Stewart made a grand mockery of the way Nazi comparisons are tossed around. These controversies, constructed for media ratings or political clout, show that the issues of language are not uncommon to the general public.

But what isn’t discussed as a public issue is how our perception of language can determine how a political movement is received and its implications for contemporary politics. These perceptions arise from a historical context, but their manifestation in language needs to be studied directly. Therefore, we must consider that we live in the wake of a century during which two world wars took place in the name of revolutionary and utopian change. The utter horror of these wars is known, but they also bankrupted the very word ‘revolution.’ The idea itself now consists of the gulag when considered seriously and as the hilariously ironic peddling of iconic images when considered popularly. Contemporary political language is now inherently conservative.

There is the popular image the word ‘revolution’ brings to mind–that of war and violence–and that more tame meaning which labels far-reaching, and peaceful, change. The latter meaning is more akin to the word when used in a phrase like “Agricultural revolution.” The word has had both positive and negative instantiations, but in politics it is the negative which dominates.

Any language that contains hints of far-reaching goals is decried with the negative connotations of the word ‘revolution.’ Obama tried to find new ways of discussing revolutionary change by claiming Hope and Change as his campaign slogans. And yet he was still decried by the Right as a new Stalin (just see any episode of Glenn Beck’s show for proof). Leftist thinkers in the Marxist vein such as Jacques Rancière and Alain Badiou have renamed revolutionary politics as “emancipatory politics” in an effort to avoid the adolescent image (of a teen sporting his Che t-shirt) attributed to those who seriously discuss revolution. We are currently undergoing a reformation of political speak as philosophers and politicians search for a way to discuss broad and revolutionary change.

Here we can see the crux of the problem: speaking plainly of revolutionary change is unacceptable in contemporary politics. Doing so either harkens back to the gulag or makes the speaker look infantile. As a result, revolutionary change is not a part of American political discourse. Many have called the Occupy protests naive for thinking far-reaching change was possible. And many others have decried them as criminal.

This is the result of bankrupting the language of revolution: either revolution is not possible, or its proponents are so excluded from typical politics that they are left to extreme measures. The popular image of revolution is a result of this linguistic perception.

What this means is that there is a failure of discourse. To discuss with any seriousness the possibility of revolutionary change, one must find new ways of speaking. Perhaps this can partially account for the current slogan culture of politics. It is certainly evident in the works of revolutionary thinkers, such as Badiou and Rancière, whose work is obscured by the invention of new technical ways of theorizing what could be stated plainly if the word ‘revolution’ had not been bankrupted.

The important question here is whether it is worthwhile to have a political culture in which the very idea of revolutionary change is something which cannot be discussed. A language which favors the status quo is one which forecloses the possibility of anything else, which forces those who believe in such possibilities out of politics, or at least to drastic measures. Do we really want a politics where it’s the status quo or torches and pitchforks?

UBELONG:Affordable International Volunteering

UBELONG is a new study abroad organization that was founded by two former classmates from Cornell University. Through this organization, the founders hope to encourage more volunteerism abroad at a low cost for students. Programs are currently offered in six countries across the world and growing every day.

I am fascinated by the fact that you were heading to Wall Street and the co-founder Raul was heading into academia. How did each of you stray from those paths and finally decide to start UBELONG? Why is this organization so important to you?


A volunteer in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in an orphanage.

I have been involved in international development work for over 13 years, and I have always managed to combine my work as a practitioner, consultant and social entrepreneur with teaching and research at universities. As a professor in international affairs I have never been confined to the ivory tower. Even as a doctoral student I was involved in multiple consulting assignments that took me to over 15 countries across the developing world. I now teach part-time at Johns Hopkins and Cornell.

Some people may think that my path is not conventional, but my work with students as a university professor moved me to co-found UBELONG with Cedric. What I still strive to do in my courses is to inspire others to add value to society, fulfill their potential as global citizens, and get involved in real issues at the ground level. That is exactly what we are doing at UBELONG but at a much larger scale. We are inspiring people of all backgrounds to share their talent in important causes and educating them about global issues.


Raul Roman during a visit to a shelter for street kids in Saigon, Vietnam, where UBELONG volunteers teach English.

From volunteering in a local hospital and with my town’s ambulance corps when I was in high school to giving my parents fits [for] travelling alone to Spain to bike the Camino de Santiago when I was fifteen, I have always had a passion for community service and travel. At Cornell I majored in economics and management and focused on international development courses. After graduating I worked in investment banking in New York. I had student loans to pay back and banks were the only ones hiring business majors at the time. From a networking and intellectual point of view my banking experience was incredible: I met a lot of smart people and learned skills that continue to help me today.

However, in 2009, after many all-night kick in the rear “where is my life going?” conversations with Raul, I decided to make the jump and launch UBELONG. Professionally it was an easy decision. We’re both passionate about international volunteering and together we have the experience, network and skills to create an organization as complex as UBELONG. The market is also wide open; there is no organization in the world that combines affordability, flexibility and quality like UBELONG.

From a personal standpoint the decision was more difficult. The tale of “entrepreneurs leaving it all behind and following their dreams into the sunset” is a Hollywood myth. Leaving a steady paycheck is scary and stepping from behind a big corporate name to stand alone can be invigorating but also very lonely. Moreover, the famously long hours that investment bankers work are part-time when compared to what you need to put in to launch an organization. Raul and I haven’t worked less than 90 hours a week since 2009, and with how rapidly UBELONG is growing that will continue into 2011.

But I love it. I don’t have a job, I have a passion. As challenging as launching UBELONG has been there is nothing else in the world I would rather be doing.

Globalizing Education

Many study abroad programs have sought an egalitarian liberal education objective, but many have fallen short.
By Conor Gaffney May 27th, 2008

Today’s study abroad programs, “the hottest new education market,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, are unlike the smaller and less common research-oriented international education programs of the 1960s. Undergraduates today choose from a dizzying array of options: working, volunteering, or studying on every continent, even Antarctica. International experience has become a common element of the American undergraduate education, and a credential much desired by employers. Two schools, Goucher College and Soka University of America, have already instituted mandatory study-abroad requirements for undergraduates, while other schools like Harvard and Duke are currently debating whether or not to follow suit.

Studying abroad, however, is just a single facet of a much larger educational trend that has repositioned the idea of a liberal education in American political and social life. Recruiting foreign students, creating international research groups, designing a multilingual and multicultural campus at home, and sending students to study in foreign countries around the globe are all efforts made by America’s colleges to master the profound, yet ill-understood effects of globalization. As part of the larger program of internationalization, adjustments in curricula, new initiatives, and the diminishing gap between campus and the market, reveal the reorientation of values in American education.

Internationalization is the new “diversification,” a social and educational vision that has profoundly changed the terms of a liberal education. Diversification, popularized by Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell in his in 1978 opinion in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, enshrined the idea of an ethnically diverse campus as reflective of American egalitarianism. By ruling that race could be used as a criterion of positive discrimination in college admissions, making affirmative action constitutional, Powell’s opinion helped establish diversity as a centerpiece of American liberal education.

Louis Menand, a cultural and intellectual historian at Harvard, notes that the consequences of diversification have reached far beyond the color of college campuses: “the changes are visible today in a new emphasis on multiculturalism (meaning exposure to specifically ethnic perspectives and traditions), and on values (an emphasis on the ethical implications of knowledge); in a renewed interest in service (manifested in the emergence of internship and off-campus social service programs) and in the idea of community; in what is called ‘education for citizenship.’” Diversification reoriented the values of a liberal education, enthroning cross-cultural understanding as the critical element of American citizenship.

For your pleasure … Lady Robot

by Dahlia Rizk

The year’s technology: hands-on and hassle free.

This past week the streets of America have been abuzz with technological news regarding items that until recently, we never knew we needed, but now, will never be able to live without. One such item has been the Apple iPad—the iPhone with the really big screen and a personal message that says, “Hey, you, average consumer. Give us more of your money for redundant-but -flashy gizmos. Love, Apple”. But that is not the technological wonder I am recommending you today. No, this device of which I speak is far more humane and comforting than the feel of cold steel and plexiglass in your palm.

Meet Roxxxy, the lady robot powered for your own hands-on experience. Marketers have labeled her the most advanced talking sex robot yet. According to her home at, she comes complete with soft silicone “skin”, voice recognition and speech-synthesis software, and even 5 distinct personalities in varying friskiness to match the consumer’s, er, preferences. She even has sensors in her womanly organs that are to gather a vocal response when touched. Barring any major malfunctions, and as long as her battery doesn’t run out, she is yours for about $7,000. While her creators have assumed that Roxxxy is only meant for a niche clientele (or at least one hopes) preorders have been flooding in, in the thousands, since her debut at the Las Vegas Adult Entertainment Expo last month.

This story is disturbing on so many levels, but where to begin? For me, personally, it’s not the idea that there are thousands of lonely (and gullible) men who are actually eager to spend $7,000 on a sex robot than say, on a high end prostitute, who is, at the very least, a real-live person. (I’m not trying to make an argument for prostitution; I’m only trying to argue the alternatives to such an investment). Rather, it’s the idea that today’s technology, as embodied by Roxxxy, can be manipulated and marketed to replace what is arguably the most human and intimate of functions—human procreation. Now, in 2010, there is no real need for single, lonely men who “have trouble meeting girls” to do anything to establish a real personal connection with a member of the opposite sex if they consider the idea just too horrifying or haven’t left their house for the past two months since they’ve started to build the next supercomputer by hand.

Similarly, the iPhone application Brushes offers “mobile painting”, and such “paintings” have actually appeared on the cover of the New Yorker several times. Why bother, Brushes argues, with years of training and tuition and messy paints when all you need is a gizmo on an iPhone? Once again, with the right amount of greenbacks and with not a whole lot of self-esteem, technology is trying to make things that are supposed to be difficult, very easy. Creating and sustaining relationships that might involve sex can be one of the most exhaustive things one can ever do, and yet, today, a high-tech blow-up doll has managed to do just that. Roxxxy may never turn into a real live human being, but hey, at least we humans are willing to settle for what we pay for, without having to put in too much effort. A Brushes painting may have not taken the training or contemplation that a normal painting would require, but if the New Yorker can put it on its cover, then clearly then it must be art enough, no? In other words, we’re finding all kinds of ways for the instrumentality of technology to replace tasks that would usually require input from our emotions, our moral judgment and human esthetic, and I’m starting to wonder if one day we’d like to get rid of these purely human capacities altogether. Just as long as we get the job done, we’re starting to care less and less how it’s done.

Well, as with my take on sex with robots, I think I’ll just have to say no.