Just as World War II ended, the writer George Orwell was working on a novel that was to become so well-read and so prescient that its title and key phrases are still powerful expressions of the dangers of government control.
“Big Brother,” “Doublespeak, ‘The Thought Police” and the very title of that book – “Nineteen Eighty-four” – are ideas Orwell developed to express the dangers he saw mid-century in the fascism of Germany, Italy and Spain and communism in the Soviet Union. Fifty years later, we still invoke those same terms whenever governments — our own or foreign — revert to euphemisms, spin and the artful lie to “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” as Orwell wrote.
And it is likely that generations well into the future will use Orwellian terms to decry authoritarian governments and even democracies that employ Big Brother techniques in the name of self-preservation.
Orwell was also critical of those who accepted and parroted the party line, whichever party that may be. As Orwell scholar, the late author Richard Rovere has written, Orwell admonished knee-jerk followers to clear “their minds of cant … liberalism had a way of stiffening into illiberal orthodoxies…”
On June 25, Orwell’s devotees will mark his 111th birthday. We include writers, journalists, academics, maybe even a few politicians and everyday people who disdain, as he did, the “sheer humbug” produced by the political class.
In “Nineteen Eighty-four,” “Animal Farm,” his allegorical novel about the Stalinist Russia, and his famous essay, “Politics and the English Language” Orwell exposed how the powerful abuse words to control how we think and act so we can buy the lies they are selling.
“Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” Orwell wrote in that 1946 essay.
Orwell hoped that would not always be the case, that “the process is reversible … if one is willing to take the necessary trouble.”
But that was one time that Orwell was not much of a prophet. Governments, politicians, political parties, ideologues, advocates and corporations are better than ever at language designed for “concealing or preventing thought.”
Orwell’s post-war examples included such euphemisms as “pacification” for bombing villages (a phrase used in the Vietnam war as well); “transfer of population” for forcing townspeople out of their homes; and “elimination of unreliable elements,” the term Communists used for shooting or imprisoning the disloyal, real and suspected.
Orwell could have as well cited the Nazi program titled, ‘The Final Solution,” perverse bureaucratese for eliminating a people from Europe, or the Ottoman Empire’s 1915 “Temporary Law of Deportation,” which gave the Young Turks the legal cover to do with 1.5 million Armenians what the Germans later did to Jews.
Today, Orwellian speech isn’t used to cover up only atrocities and genocide. Doublespeak comes in handy for lesser crimes and at all levels of government:
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he is not trying to annex eastern Ukraine: “The key issue is providing guarantees to these people. Our role is to facilitate a solution in Ukraine …” he has said.
Right. And “War is Peace” in “Nineteen Eighty-four’s” Oceania.
Look at how the U.S. has titled its agencies and programs. Until the late 1940s, we had a War Department, a good, straightforward description of its role. Then it became the more benign Department of Defense.
The Internal Revenue Services, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency are cant and would be more honestly called the National Tax Collector, Spy Central I and Spy Central II.
Whatever you think of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), its affordability is a long way from being certain — even if we knew what that vague term meant.
I take no side in the debate over health care: The Republicans’ titles for their anti-ACA bills are no better than President Obama’s. One was called “Associated Health Plans.”
Both are examples of the “sheer cloudy vagueness” that Orwell said political parties employ along with euphemism and question-begging when their actual aims “do not square with (their) professed aims.”
The Tea Party is another example of what basketball players call a head fake. Its name is meant to wrap a highly-ideological mission in the language of the original American patriots.
I suppose it’s naïve to hope such groups would name themselves more accurately, such as, “The Right-wing Zealots.”
On the other end of the political spectrum, we have the progressive group, MoveOn.org, with the subtitle “Democracy in Action.” That’s much more all-American sounding than, say, “The League of Lefties.”
In “Nineteen Eighty-four,” propaganda is produced by, naturally, the Ministry of Truth. No one would go that far, these days, would they, to try to have the state determine what is true?
One state has.
Earlier this year, Maine Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, proposed that the state’s ethics commission entertain complaints about false campaign advertising and decide if the ad was true or false.
If the bill had passed – it did not get far – we would have had a Maine Department of Truth.
Even local governments are getting into the game.
Municipalities in every state but Arizona offer businesses something called Tax Increment Financing. But it is not a tax — it’s almost the opposite. It’s a tax scheme that lets local governments divert property taxes from the towns’ treasuries to other purposes, including effectively giving the property taxes that a new business pays back to the business.
All over the country there are other tax-avoidance deals that go by such good-natured names as Empire Zones, Pine Tree Zones, Enterprise Florida, etc. While they may or may not be good policy – most economists say they are not — if they were called “Tax Breaks for Big Business,” would legislatures be so eager to approve them.
Orwell’s critique also attacked the lazy thinking of zealots who believe their version of what is right excuses a failure to consider any flaws in their ideology.
“Orthodoxy,” Orwell wrote in “Nineteen Eighty-four” “is unconsciousness.”
Life is so much easier when we can recede into conformity, when we can “escape from freedom” and never doubt the received wisdom, to quote another Forties-era thinker, Erich Fromm. (His book with that title was on the list of required reading when I was a student in the Sixties, along with Orwell’s most famous works.)
Rovere, in his introduction to “The Orwell Reader” explains that Orwell, although a socialist, was at war with fellow socialist intellectuals who had surrendered their critical faculties about the dangers of authoritarianism on the left.
Orwell, Rovere explained, saw those intellectuals “give up the right to be critics, iconoclasts, Bohemians, individualists” for “the Cause.”
Rovere wrote that in 1956, when he said, “conformity continues to be quite a problem … and that’s one of the reasons Orwell’s needed today.”
As he is now.
I see and hear orthodoxy in the name of one cause or another in my small Maine city, where liberal orthodoxy runs the show, and through some of my Facebook and golf acquaintances, where the opposite holds true.
The liberals want to hear no facts that will alter their minds even five degrees on the question of our conservative, foul-mouthed governor. I will acknowledge to them that he is obsessed with welfare cheating and provides fodder for national media ridicule. Then I ask them to just consider the documented fact that LePage repaired the state’s balance sheet by paying off many millions in Medicare debt to local hospitals and dramatically reducing the unfunded debt to the state’s pension system.
“I don’t want to know anything good about Paul LePage,” they reply.
I’ve been told that more than once.
The conservatives I speak and email with have a filtering problem. Whatever information, whatever news story goes into their heads, it all gets run through an Obama filter. Although lately they have switched back to their Hillary filter.
Benghazi, Bergdahl, health care, the IRS, mass shootings, climate change – probably even the Red Sox losing streak – it all goes to show Obama-Hillary are nascent despots undermining the Constitution.
But, I reply, what about welfare reform under the Clintons and saving the economy under Obama (I try to get them to admit their portfolios are doing just fine these days) and the president’s proposed immigration reform – aren’t true conservatives for that?
I don’t know why I engage in these conversations. I can’t seem to get anyone to jettison their “smelly little orthodoxies” — Orwell’s words.
“If liberty means anything at all,” Orwell wrote, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
That can be our birthday gift to George Orwell.
John Christie is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, a non-profit, independent investigative news service based in Augusta, Maine. His column “Who Ya Kidding?,” critiques the comments of public officials a la Orwell.