[8 November 2007]
In last Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, there was an op-ed section on George Orwell. Dubbed “Why Orwell Matters”, the section featured four writers weighing in on Orwell’s relevance to the events of today. Their main target was his “Politics and the English Language” – which was billed as ”the classic essay on the relationship between words, truth, propaganda and politics.”
That essay has been less consumed than Orwell’s subsequent dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four. For those of us fortunate enough to have worked through it, (and assuming we have also kept our eyes open these past few years), we know how perceptive Orwell was concerning the manipulative machinations of those in power, especially via rhetoric and other dark arts of communication. Readers also appreciate how spot-on scary Orwell’s clairvoyance was. In the linguistic tricks of a totalitarian government like that of “Big Brother”, one not only discerns the voiceprints of Stalin or Mao, but also hears the ensuing echoes of Richard Nixon (“Peace with Honor”), Ronald Reagan (“The Evil Empire”), and especially this generation’s very own Dubya (“Compassionate Conservatism”, “The Axis of Evil”, “Weapons of Mass Destruction”).
In fact, although I wish to observe that Orwellian “doublespeak” seems to have been more a tool of Republican administrations, historically speaking, it also seems hands-down the weapon of first and final recourse for the White House incumbent. Which is extraordinary, when you think about it. After all, one wonders: “how could that possibly be . . . since Dubya hasn’t ever read a book in his life?”
But now is not the time to be glib. Alarm would seem more the order of the day. For clearly, someone in that White House has done his or her reading. And they have facilely gleaned and indubitably mastered one of the central tenets of Orwell’s astounding (and astonishingly accurate) political analysis: in a word, the fecundity of fear. They fathom that fear reaps enormous rewards for those in power. Not only does it manage to induce insecurity in a populace, it succeeds in purchasing the people’s acquiescence. Once achieved, it then creates the perception (if not sows the seeds for) a perpetual state of war. In short, by keeping the subjects in fear, our leaders stand to gain; fear is what enables them to remain empowered.
For those in charge, at least, (and consistent with Orwell’s axiom), “War is Peace”.
This is the point that Mark Danner emphasizes in his LA Times contribution. As he observes:
The central lesson Orwell brings us (is) about our own perpetual war: What terrorists ultimately produce is not death or mayhem but fear, and in an endless War on Terror, the rich political benefits of that most lucrative emotion will inevitably be shared—between the terrorists themselves and the political leaders who lead the fight against them. Fear bolsters power, and power makes truth—if, of course, we stand aside and let it.
It is a short hop-skip and jump to another of Orwell’s codifications: “Ignorance is Strength”. The only question being: for who?
While Nicholas Lehmann’s short piece may be a less satisfying a read, it does offer at least one important insight—or perhaps a caveat—about our current predicament (and here I intend, “our” to mean “the world’s”—insofar as the activities of the US government – the new-age incarnation of Big Brother—plays such a central hand in influencing global outcomes).
Lehmann’s passage is really about ignorance insofar as it pertains to information, or the lack thereof, and the consequences of that deficiency: a disadvantaged population’s weakness, a bolstered government’s power. He writes:
Information . . . is much less generally accessible than words. When the process of determining the facts of a situation has been intentionally corrupted by people in power (whether, let’s say, Saddam Hussein had the ability to produce nuclear weapons, or whether a new drug has harmful side effects), there often is no corrective mechanism at hand. Intellectual honesty about the gathering and use of facts and data is a riskier and more precious part of a free society than is intellectual honesty in language. We ought to guard it with the same zeal that animates Orwell’s work on political speech.
A call to arms, no less than Orwell’s. Pessimist that he was, though, Orwell openly worried in 1984 about the prospects for resistence. His worry was how, via communications-induced mind control, a ruler’s aphorisms might become fuzzy, then inverted. Directed at the conditioned, maleable, receptive, uncritical minds of a docile population, how easily words could be twisted to become their opposites. Orwell-cum-Lehmann urges us—one and all—to stop this reification; we must be vigilent in debunking a notion such as: “Strength is Ignorance”.
In his brief offering, Orville Schell focuses on Orwell’s deep appreciation of the abuses of language. Schell speaks of Orwell’s understanding of “propaganda’s capacity to distort and corrupt”. Most often, Orwell has shown us, distortions of language lead to governmental peridy, corruption not only of public trust but also, over time, in the ability of the public to discern when such trust has been broken. After an extended passage from “Politics and the English Language”, Schell revisits Orwell’s admonition that:
“Above all what is needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”
Were Orwell to have lived today, had he witnessed the US-led Iraqi incursion (and beyond), what might he have pointed to, by way of example?
How fast can one say “Mission Accomplished”?
A concluding piece by the aptly named Francine Prose, argues that today:
The dangers that George Orwell was warning his readers against—the ways in which the language of politics can be muddied and distorted in order to make the average, literate citizen incapable of thinking clearly—are no less (and perhaps more) threatening than they were in Orwell’s day.
She cites one passage by Orwell, in particular. A few lines that, though written in 1946, could easily have been penned in 2006, and no one would have thought anything of it. Times having not changed one whit. To wit:
“Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside . . . this is called pacification. ... People are imprisoned for years without trial ... this is called elimination of unreliable elements . . .”
The fact that we can read these words and immediately imagine the words “Afghanistan” or else “Guantanamo” would not surprise an Orwell returning to earth to take stock of civilization’s progress.
Orwell’s political slogans were something more like aphorisms for a world gone mad. They were “truths” for a populace conditioned to accept language devoid of meaning. On behalf of Big Brother, he famously coined:
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength
Propagandistic turns of phrase that could just have easily been constructed as logical propositions. Syllogisms along the lines of:
War is Freedom
Freedom is Strength
Therefore: War is Strength
A statement that, were it to emanate tomorrow from Fox News or the Bush White House would be received with nary a batted eyelash or blinked eye.
One suspects. (If not fears).
If on the other hand, by some feat of ontological prestidigitation, Orwell were to return to our earth and survey the current scene, such a phrase would certainly be met with an ironic smile, a disdainful twitch of the mouth, a forlorn drift in his gaze. Feeling thus, were he then to pluck up his pen—in the face of such rhetorical hocus-pocus, in opposition to irrepressible reality—would that he recast the logical sequence, in the following way:
War is Ignorance
Ignorance is Slavery
Therefore, War is Slavery
To help show us the way out of darkness. Since many of us would likely pay him attention.
Would that we could.