by Scott D. OReilly
July 21, 2003
In 1946 George Orwell published his essay "Politics and the English Language." Orwell's thesis in this essay is at once simple and deep the decline and corruption of language disguises deceitful and foolish political thinking, and with self-reinforcing circularity poor mental hygiene further debases political discourse leading to a vicious cycle. Rereading Orwell's essay as the Bush administration's rhetoric continues to deceive the American public, alarm our friends and allies, and inflame world opinion against the United States, I couldn't help but wonder how Orwell can help us make sense of, what we might call, Bushspeak.
For Orwell the "great enemy of language is insincerity." "Where there is a gap," Orwell writes, "between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms." Bush, with his seemingly limitless ability to mangle the English language, may avoid long words but he is adept at exploiting stock phrases and clich้s to create the impression he wants. That impression is invariably at odds with his real intentions.
Take, for example, the subject of the Bush tax cuts (the paramount factor in the now exploding deficit). Bush sold his initial tax cut scheme even if the majority of the electorate didn't buy the idea by using stock phrases about returning "the people's money" and "trusting the American people." It sounds all well and good, except when one looks passed the rhetoric and sees the ulterior motive behind the seemingly innocuous oratory the tax cut was never a genuine economic policy, but a political ploy to shrink popular government programs and recast the Democrats as the party that raises taxes. This game plan has been run effectively by Republicans in the Deep South where the idea of a low tax, low service government plays well despite devastating health, environmental, and social consequences. Texas under Governor Bush may have ranked near the bottom in terms of crime, health insurance for women and children, and on the environment, but at least their tax burden was low. It is in this context that one can understand why Bush justified his massive tax cut by arguing for the need to give the surplus back to the people (before government wastes it), and later arguing (in the face of mounting deficits), that the best way to return the federal government to a surplus is to cut taxes again. Of course, the notion that we could have it all massive tax cuts, increased defense spending, a new prescription benefit program for seniors, while saving social security and paying down the debt all at the same time, as Bush pledged, was a classic illustration of Orwellian Doublethink the ability to entertain two or more contradictory ideas at the same time, and to believe all of them of them.
The deceptions underlying Bush's economic agenda, however serious, pale in comparison to the lengths the administration is willing to go to sell the nation on the need for a pre-emptive war against Iraq. Especially troubling is Bush's linguistic slight of hand when he deliberately conflates Al Qaeda with 'Al Qaeda type' organizations said to exist in Iraq. It's a variation on the bait and switch tactics the administration uses in so many contexts and it helps misrepresent the threat posed by Saddam as imminent and directly aimed at the United States, while effectively precluding alternatives to war such as increased inspections, expanded no-fly zones, and continued containment which has kept the aging dictator bottled-up for twelve years. (Notice too, the Orwellian flavor to the administration's championing the notion of 'pre-emptive or elective war' in its National Security Strategy, and when the time comes claiming that the administration has 'no choice' but to go to war). To heap injury upon irony, thus far, Bush's radical new doctrine of pre-emptive war has already prompted the North Koreans (not to mention the Iranians) to develop a crash nuclear weapons program as they recognized how the administration is willing to deal with regimes lacking a nuclear deterrent. Bush's bellicose rhetoric, intended to dissuade nuclear proliferation (neither word comes easily to Bush), has in fact helped to unleash the nuclear genie in Asia. One might call this outcome pretzel logic, where faulty assumptions and policies lead to outcomes precisely opposite of what is expressly stated or intended.
Of course, in a twist of irony Orwell would certainly appreciate, Pakistan our new ally on the war on terror has been a key supplier towards North Korea's nuclear program, supplying vital missile technology in exchange for North Korea's expertise in enriching uranium. With Al-Qaeda sympathizers permeating Pakistan's intelligences services one should hardly be surprised if, one day soon, Pakistan finds itself on the axis-of-evil list. If history is any guide alliances can shift fairly quickly in this region of the globe. After all, the United States itself was a key supplier of Saddam's arsenal during the Iran-Iraq war under Reagan/Bush(I), with officials like Donald Rumsfeld going so far as to look the other way or even tacitly approve as Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran and the Kurds. Adding to the irony, at the time we supported the Mujahadeen (and the likes of Osama bin Laden) in the war against the Soviet Union (the former Evil Empire has since morphed into our ally in the war on terror). Orwell was hardly far off in Nineteen Eighty-Four when he imagined a population that could not even remember that their enemies had changed Oceania was first allied with Eastasia in a war against Eurasia, but this was subject to reversal in a perpetual war for peace. No wonder, nearly forty-five percent of Americans now believe that Saddam Hussein was one of the key instigators behind 9/11, displacing the real inspiration behind 9/11, Osama bin Laden, as public enemy number one.
In Nineteen-Eighty-Four a continual bombardment of propaganda or Newspeak from the Ministry of Truth produced a form of amnesia and thought constriction among the subjects of Orwell's dystopia. Integral to this form of mind control was the ability of the state to rewrite the news and history in ways that suited the shifting needs of Big Brother. The Bush administration has taken a considerable step in this direction by effectively rescinding the Freedom of Information Act (by executive order in the wake of 9/11) and essentially denying historians and scholars access to Presidential records that had, until Bush ordered otherwise, been assumed to belong to the public. Critics of the Bush administration contend that Bush (II) signed the executive order in order to protect his father (Bush I) from possibly embarrassing revelations concerning the arms for hostages crisis with Iran, the so called Iran/Contra affair. There are ample reasons to suggest this is part of the rationale. But the real effect of this radical policy shift will be to further insulate the executive branch from accountability to the public, and further alienate citizens from understanding the issues and decisions made on their behalf. Without the ability to examine the public record how will it be possible the challenge the "official" version of history? And if this comes to pass will we even need citizens to think for themselves?
Thinking was actively discouraged among the citizens of Oceania in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four by the impoverishment of language, the constant barrage of propaganda, and by maintaining a perpetual state of fear in which Big Brother held up as the great protector. Everyday the citizens of Oceania would gather before great televisions to experience "two-minutes of hate" while the image of Emmanuel Goldstein The Enemy of the People" menaced viewers while hordes of expressionless soldiers goose-stepped in the background. Needless to say, Goldstein never failed to stir up fear and revulsion as the "commander of a vast shadowy army, a network of conspirators dedicated to the overthrow of the State," much as the icons of evil Saddam, the Ayatollah, Noregia, bin Laden, etc., are paraded on the evening news as the mortal enemies of Goodness in a Manichean universe.
A succession of bogeymen have been trotted out before the American public in order to justify military adventures for as long as anyone can remember. Manuel Noregia brandishing his machete, Saddam Hussein blasting his rifle into the air, Osama bin Laden cradling an AK-47 as he spouts threats against America, or Kim Jung Il reviewing a parade of Scuds, the stock images appear on the evening news, the same footage played repeatedly on segments with names like "Showdown with Saddam" or "Target Iraq." Some times the threats are real, most often they are exaggerated and individuals and entire societies are caricatured. The result is that with the advent of cable news you can now get your two-minutes of hate twenty-four hours a day.
Bombarded perpetually with images of menacing villains juxtaposed with images of innocent victims the need for verbal explanations for going to war against such evil might seem superfluous. Nevertheless, our benign leadership still feels compelled to justify going to war with words. In order to "make murder respectable," as Orwell put it, a parade of stock phrases and clich้s are trotted out like cavalry horses, to use one of Orwell's images. Invariably the President trots out well worn phrase like "we are called on to defend the safety of our people, and the hopes of all mankind," "terrible threats to the civilized world," "no victory is free from sorrow," and "this nation fights reluctantly." For Orwell, such bland and readymade clich้s anaesthetize one's brain. They certainly do much to disguise the horrific face of modern warfare, insuring the general population remains largely ignorant of the organized slaughter waged on their behalf.
The defining characteristics of Orwell's dystopia are 1) a complete asymmetry of knowledge (and hence power) the guardians manipulate news and information in ways that completely disenfranchise the subjects of Oceania. And 2) the subjects of Oceania come to believe whatever Big Brother tells them: that two plus two equals five, war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. Already we have witnessed an unprecedented shift away from civil liberties and open government under the Bush administration. It may only be the beginning. John Poindexter, convicted of lying to Congress in Iran/ Contra affair, is constructing surveillance system many critics feel will be a precursor to Big Brother the Total Information Awareness System. And already many are being led to believe that deficits are good economics, tax cuts for the wealthy amount to social justice, and pre-emptive war will lead to peace.
As George Winston, the beleaguered hero of Nineteen-Eighty-Four, leafed through Emmanuel Goldstein's subversive tract "The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism" he learns the rationale that underlies the mobilization for perpetual war. According to the principles of doublethink, Winston reads, it does not matter if the war is not real or if it is real, if victory is not possible what matters is that the masses are kept are kept in a relative state of deprivation. Thus the purpose of war is to destroy surplus wealth in order to maintain the structure of society the status quo. As Orwell baldly puts it, a hierarchical society is only possible on the basis of poverty and ignorance and war is waged by the ruling class on the state's own subjects. Such thoughts may seem farfetched today in a country that still maintains relatively high standards of living for most of its citizens, and faces real and determined enemies. But Orwell's stark vision provides an unsettlingly compelling way of understanding phenomena like the endless Drug War that seems to victimize the under classes more than the drugs themselves. And given that dramatically increased spending for the war on terror, the campaign against Iraq, and homeland security is taking place against a backdrop of massive tax cuts for the wealthiest there can be little doubt that the American middle class will soon find themselves under ever greater economic assault. There will be greater losses however.
Already signs are becoming apparent that the war on terror may be morphing into something most Americans are likely to regret secret and indefinite detentions (roundups where suspect immigrants disappear down a legal black hole, reminiscent of Orwell's "unpersons"), the accelerating rise of the surveillance society, the corresponding lack of transparency and accountability in executive decision making (with the ability of the executive branch to control and manipulate the historical record), and perhaps most ominously, the equation of dissent with disloyalty (Orwell's 'thoughtcrime' -- remember Ari Fliescher's admonition that "we all have to watch what we say").
"O, what a tangled web we weave," Walter Scott wrote, "when we first practice to deceive." Bush's disastrous economic stewardship has arguably impelled the administration towards a foreign military campaign which might serve as the only possible way to sell the public on a second term. Curiously, and in Orwellian fashion the fact that the threat of war is dampening economic prospects becomes itself a rationale for launching the war and getting it over with (James Baker used a similar ploy to argue against Al Gore's recount efforts, suggesting, falsely, that a slide in the stock market would subside once George Bush's election was secure). Once again, self-interest trumps sound argument. In its domestic and foreign policies, its economic and environmental agendas, the Bush administration has repeatedly made arguments that amount to 2+2=5. They seem to have everything on their side, except the truth.
Scott D. O'Reilly is an independent writer. He has been published in Philosophy Now, Think, and The Philosophers' Magazine. This article first appeared at Alternative Press Review (www.altpr.org)