The Gadfly Bytes -- April, 2006
Newspeak and the Corruption of Politics
|All issues are political issues, and politics itself
is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When
the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect
to find ... that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all
deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of
George Orwell (1946)
Language is the constant yet unnoticed current that carries our thoughts. Thus, in the game of politics, the party which controls the language, controls the contest.
Newt Gingrich knows this, GOP strategist Frank Luntz knows this, and George Orwell, their apparent mentor, knew this.
So why don’t the Democrats know this?
I don’t mean to suggest that we are necessarily captive to the currents of language. Like a skilled navigator, one can factor the currents of language into the calculations of one’s judgment. But only if a person or a party takes the trouble to pause and take notice of the language.
Regrettably, the Democrats have not. For a party that is allegedly preferred by intellectuals, the Democrats have been tactically naïve and stupid, prisoners of their discredited habits. To be sure, astute scholars such as George Lakoff and Geoffrey Ninberg have offered the Democratic Party chiefs the key to their jail cells and have shown them the way out, but they have been told, in effect, “Thanks, but no thanks.” And Noam Chomsky is regarded as “too extreme” and an embarrassment. Never mind that he is the foremost linguist of our time.
In “The Principles of Newspeak,” an appendix to his novel, 1984, George Orwell wrote:
The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the [Party's] world-view and mental habits ... , but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought - that is, a thought diverging from the principles of [the Party] - should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words, and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings... Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought...
Orwell wrote this as a warning. The Right has apparently adopted it as
its strategy. Thus we find “Newspeak” at work in Newt Gingrich’s
self-explanatory memo, “Language as a Political Weapon.” And GOP strategist
Frank Luntz has played the English language like Itzhak Perlman plays his
“Liberalism,” then and now.
Consider, for example, what the word-meisters of The Right have done to the word “liberal.”
Webster’s Dictionary gives us this traditional definition of “liberal:”
“From the latin, liberalis – of or pertaining to a freeman. Favoring reform or progress, as in religion, education, etc.; specifically, favoring political reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual. Progressive.”
Throughout our history, up to the late twentieth century, "liberal" has been an honored word, applied approvingly by our founders. George Washington, for example, wrote: "As mankind becomes more liberal, they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protections of civil government. I hope ever to see American among the foremost nations of justice and liberality."
Today, however, the propaganda mills of the right, and especially the
regressive screech merchants of AM radio and cable TV, have
turned the word “liberal” into an epithet, like a piece of rotten fruit to
be hurled at the candidate or political commentator willing to be called a
“liberal.” Remember the 2004 GOP ads? “Brie-eating, chardonnay-drinking,
latte-sipping, French-speaking, Volvo-driving, New York Times reading, elite
liberals.” The word connotes “tax and spend,” “welfare cheats,” bureaucratic
interference in “free enterprise,” and a weak military. To Ann Coulter, it
means nothing less than “treason.”
Thus it is no surprise that when pollsters ask the ordinary citizens to describe their political orientation, “conservative” comes out ahead, followed by “moderate,” with “liberal” a poor third.
And yet, when the same citizens are asked their opinions on Social Security, Medicare, environmental protection, public education, economic justice, racial tolerance, and the separation of church and state, by substantial majorities they endorse the traditional liberal agenda. In short, the American public remains liberal, even though it has been persuaded to despise and reject the word “liberal.” And that should be regarded as good news by The Left, for it is the ideology and the program that matter. "Liberal" is merely a word.
Recall the quotation from Orwell above:
“... a thought diverging from the principles of [the Party] - should be literally unthinkable... This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words, and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings...”
Now try to explain and defend the “liberal” ideas of Franklin Roosevelt,
Adlai Stevenson, and the Kennedys. You can no longer do so simply by casually
dropping the word "liberal" in conversation and debate. The word “liberal”
has been spoiled by the relentless assault upon it by The Right, and thus
today it has become useless and even harmful in ordinary discourse. In
Orwell’s words, right-wing propaganda has succeeded in “eliminating” this
“undesirable word,” “liberal,” thus making its original meaning simply
“unthinkable.” And there is no word available yet to take its place. So what
is the (old-definition) liberal to do? The remedy is simple: drop the word
“liberal” and give the program a new name: “progressive.” Unfortunately, it
will take some time for this new word for old ideas to take hold in the general
The Right has learned its lesson well from its mentor, George Orwell.
Who is a “Conservative.”
Imagine that you meet a visitor from abroad who is fluent in English and well acquainted with American history. However, he knows nothing about contemporary American politics and its rhetoric, and he is eager to learn about it.
You explain that there are two contending political ideologies:
One ideology is out to uproot the founding documents of our republic, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and take our society and economy back to the condition it was in over a hundred years ago. The other steadfastly endorses and defends those founding documents, and defends the gains in economic and social justice painfully obtained throughout the history of the American republic.
You then tell the visitor that one of these ideologies calls itself “conservative.” Which one would he reasonably conclude that you were referring to? If he selects the second, he is in agreement with Webster's, which thus defines “conservative:” “The practice of preserving what is established; disposition to oppose change in established institutions and methods.”
How then should one describe this first ideology, which advocates and strives to achieve a return to an earlier condition of the economy and society. Clearly “conservative” won’t do. How about “regressive.” That’s what I’ve chosen, and I urge that you do likewise. If the Democrats were to adopt “regressive” to describe the policies of the Republicans, and if they were to use the word “regressive” persistently in their publications, speeches, and media appearances, it might have a devastating effect on the GOP.
In fact, “liberal vs. conservative” is a false dichotomy. It is possible to be both, and indeed a thoughtful progressive is both. Janus-like, the progressive looks both backward and forward in time: backward, by cherishing and preserving the priceless legacies of the past; and forward, identifying injustices to be set right and anticipating problems that must be faced and dealt with.
Accordingly, the progressive should never refer to his opponents on the right as “conservatives.”
Wikipedia defines “doublespeak” as “language deliberately constructed to disguise or distort its actual meaning.” (It does not appear in Orwell’s novel, but emerged shortly after its publication in 1948, probably as a conflation of Orwell’s “Newspeak” and “Doublethink.”) In the hands of the GOP wordsmiths, words are often “distorted” to the point of outright contradiction. We are all familiar with Bushista doublespeak:
“Clear Skies Initiative”. (Relaxes clean air standards for industry).
“Healthy Forests Initiative”. (Allows clear cutting in federal land).
“Clean Water” proposal. (Exempts Clean Water Act protection of 70% of US streams).
Finally, Bush tells us that the objective of his foreign policy is to
“spread democracy.” We’re all in favor of democracy, of course, and would
like to see it “spread.” But take a closer look. Can one really believe that
Bush wants to “spread democracy”? Apparently our foreign policy amounts to
approval of “the peoples’ democratic choices abroad” so long as they are our
choices as well. But if not, we try to impose alternative “choices.” For
example, in Palestine, Belarus, Venezuela and, yes, Iraq. In addition,
consider what Bush is doing to our democracy. As one wit put it, if
the Iraqis want a new Constitution, they can have ours -- we're not using
Far more subtle, and therefore insidious and seductive, are cognitive “frames,” a concept famously brought to public attention by George Lakoff, who describes them as “mental structures that shape the way we see the world.” Lakoff continues:
You can’t see or hear frames. They are part of what cognitive scientists call the “cognitive unconscious” – structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access, but know by their consequences: the way we reason and what counts as common sense. (George Lakoff: Don’t Think of an Elephant. p. xv).
From the concept of framing, Lakoff derives this warning: “When you are
arguing against the other side: do not use their language. Their language
picks out a frame – and it won’t be the frame you want.” The Republicans are
well aware of the framing phenomenon, and use it with consummate skill. The
Democrats carelessly take the bait and fall into the GOP trap by adopting
the GOP language, with the able assistance of the mainstream media, of
Lakoff offers the example of the term “tax relief.” “Relief” suggests an “affliction.” “And the person who takes it away,” says Lakoff, “is a hero, and anyone who tries to stop him is a bad guy.” But Oliver Wendell Holmes suggests a different frame: “taxes are the price we pay for civilization.” According to this frame, taxes are the “dues” of citizenship. But you are unlikely to encounter this frame in current political debate, not even from the Democrats. Thus the game is lost even before it begins.
The “false dilemma” is one of the demagogues’ favorite framing devices. From the cold war we had, “better dead than red.” (How about neither?) Today it’s: “we’re fighting them over there so that we don’t have to fight them over here.” (How about negotiating instead? And what evidence is there that if we don’t “fight them over there” our enemies will immediately pack up and set up shop in the United States?).
Another device is the “implied opposite.” The anti-abortion movement uses this to great effect. For example, if you are not “pro-life,” then you must be “pro-death” or “anti-life.”
“The war on terror,” a metaphor, carries a huge baggage of presuppositions. “War” entails mobilizing the military, restricting civil liberties, and invading other countries.. But what if we instead treated terrorism, not as a “war” but as a “crime”? Our approach would be radically different, and would invite international cooperation.
Finally, there is Bush’s surveillance program. Call it a “domestic surveillance program” and it is downright un-American – Fourth Amendment and all that. But call it the “Terrorist Surveillance Program,” a name attached to the program after it was exposed, and, well, who can be against that?
According to the late cognitive psychologist, Lawrence Kohlberg, minds are changed and moral growth occurs when individuals are faced with dilemmas and contradictions. The resulting discomfort (“cognitive dissonance”) motivates one to search for new cognitive structures (“frames”) that will resolve the dissonance. For example, moral and political dilemmas that are irresolvable by authoritarian rule or conventional belief may be resolved from the perspective of “the social contract.” This, in fact, was the “solution” worked out by the framers of our republic.
Of course, cognitive dissonance can be destructive, depriving the individual of autonomy and initiative. This was the objective of The Party’s slogans in Orwell’s 1984: “War is Peace.” “Freedom is Slavery.” “Ignorance is strength.”
“Constructive dissonance” takes place when conventionally contrary concepts are appropriately combined. This can “break” the frames of one’s political adversaries, and prompt them to seek other frames – perchance, yours. Here are two examples:
When asked your political persuasion, say that you are a “conservative progressive.” Sounds like “freedom is slavery.” But as we noted above, the contradiction is only apparent. Change the conceptual frame, and the contradiction is resolved.
When asked my religious orientation, I answer that I am a “secular Christian.” But how is that possible? I reply that while I do not believe traditional Christian theology and prefer the scientific view of the origin of the universe, the earth, and life, I accept the ethics of Jesus of Nazareth. Upon encountering the seemingly incoherent concept of “secular Christianity,” one might take a fresh look at Christian ethics, and perhaps find common ground with someone thought to be an adversary.
In sum, the wise progressive – and in particular, the progressive aspiring to political office, or activity in the public media – should first of all step back and identify the “frames,” which is to say the hidden assumptions and implications of his opponents, and also of himself. Then one must refuse to accept the language or adopt the frame of the opponent.
George Lakoff advises against attacking an opponent’s frame directly, for it only reinforces it. Instead, the progressive should introduce and utilize the language and frames of progressivism. Specifically, avoid the word “liberal,” for it has been put in a negative frame by the right. Instead, identify yourself as a “progressive,” and act aggressively to give meaning to the word. Do not call the right “conservative.” They aren’t. They are regressive, so use that word, repeatedly, until it begins to “stick.”
The regressives have invested millions of dollars and devoted more than three decades to the task of establishing their agenda and policies. They have done so through their foundations, think-tanks, media control, and now their control of the federal government. And they have taken control of our political language. They are formidable opponents.
For all that, they are vulnerable. The right faces an invincible adversary: reality. Their denial of reality, which they label "faith" and "intuition," cannot abolish evolution or the laws of atmospheric physics and chemistry that determine climate change. Their "faith" will not put fossil fuels in the ground that are not there now, nor will their " faith" overcome the inevitable economic consequences of the approaching decline in oil production. Mitigation of the crises before us must come through scientific research, technological development, international cooperation, and government initiative, in contravention of regressive beliefs, policies and practices.
Remember too that the American public still accepts the liberal agenda, even though it rejects the word “liberalism.” But it’s only a word. Liberalism – the program and the ideology – is distinctly and inalienably American. It is in our founding documents. It is validated by our history of emancipation, of scientific and technological advancement, of the improvement of the workplace, of the emergence of the middle class, of the advancement of civil rights, and of the emergence of the environmental movement.
What we are enduring today is an aberration. The regressives are now in control, and they will be ruthless in their determination to remain in control. But their rotting foundation is beginning to crumble. Dissenting messages of truth and justice are breaking through in the mainstream media, while they are thriving in the alternative media. The public is waking up, as the approval ratings of the Bush and his crime syndicate continue to fall. The coalition of the right is falling apart, as libertarians, evangelicals and moderate republicans defect. We may all pay a terrible price in the struggle ahead to bring down this regressive regime. But a regime based upon groundless faith, lies, greed and injustice cannot stand forever.
Copyright 2006 by Ernest Partridge