FBI agent Peter Strzok testifies before the the House Committees on the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform during a hearing on "Oversight of FBI and DOJ Actions Surrounding the 2016 Election," on Capitol Hill in Washington, July 12, 2018. Credit: Evan Vucci | AP

FBI agent Peter Strzok’s testimony last week before the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees reminded me of that old warhorse of college freshman composition, “Politics and the English Language.”

In 1946, British writer George Orwell connected the disorder of contemporary politics with the decay of clear, expressive language. Referring to politics, Orwell said, “When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.”

But if bad politics undermines clear language, bad writing and speaking make good politics increasingly elusive.

The English language, Orwell said, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

In other words, imprecise language spawns imprecise thinking — and vice versa. This premise was clearly reflected in the contentious testimony before the House committees.

Strzok was accused by House Republicans of “bias,” based on emails that Strzok exchanged with his mistress expressing his distaste for presidential candidate Donald Trump.

When the emails came to light, Strzok was immediately dismissed from his role in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. But House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, said Strzok’s dismissal was too late.

“The text and emails may have been discovered in May of 2017, but the bias existed and was manifest a year and a half before that. … It wasn’t the discovery of texts that got him fired, it was the bias manifest in those texts that made him unfit to objectively and dispassionately investigate.”

Orwell would have objected to that sloppy and tendentious use of the word “bias,” which nearly always has a negative connotation. Its definition includes the notion of prejudice or of a preconceived and unreasoned judgment.

Strzok’s late-night emails to his mistress were ill-advised, but there’s no reason to think that his political perspective on a potential Trump presidency was prejudiced, preconceived or unreasonable. Indeed, many Americans shared Strzok’s perspective at the time, and many to believe — quite reasonably — that Trump is a terrible and dangerous president.

But perspective and opinion are not bias. If Strzok had allowed his political opinions to color his role in the investigation of the Clinton emails or Mueller’s Russia probe, that act could properly be described as biased. But Strzok contended, under oath, that he did not; the Department of Justice inspector general’s inquiry reports that he did not; and Republicans have not presented evidence that he did.

What Strzok is guilty of is having an opinion, and then using poor judgment in expressing his opinion to his mistress in writing. We might imagine the universe in which intelligent, informed, concerned people like Strzok could not possibly have an opinion about the wisdom of electing a man like Trump, but such a place is a fantasy. Even FBI agents are citizens first and they have both a right and an obligation to have opinions about our country’s best interests. It’s unrealistic to expect them to do otherwise.

What we can expect — and demand — is that their political opinions have no impact on their commitment to the FBI’s mission. And the evidence indicates that Strzok’s opinions did not affect his investigative work.

But the Republicans’ imprecise use of a term like “bias” — and the public’s failure to demand more precision — transforms the Strzok episode, which is a minor event in the larger Russian interference episode, into one of the Republicans’ main weapons in the campaign to discredit the Mueller investigation. And, indeed, it has received particular emphasis precisely because there are so few others.

Orwell said, “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Thus President Trump often has trouble expressing himself clearly and often has to rely on reliable formulas and jargon.

The other great enemy of clear language and good politics is the use of imprecise language to achieve a political end. The goal is confusion rather than clarity, and the result is uncritical thinking and an expanding cycle of more imprecise language.

John M. Crisp is a Tribune News Service columnist. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

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