May 3, 2012
By Sinclair Soul
The term “Orwellian” has entered the American lexicon to the point where it has almost become a meaningless cliche. This once potent term came from the profound later works of brilliant English writer and philosopher George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair, 1903-1950), which set up allegories that brilliantly illustrated how power can be abused through propaganda and misinformation.
A committed socialist who actually fought on the side of the Marxists during the Spanish Civil War, Orwell did not practice the typical (and much easier) attacks on his ideological converse, capitalism. Instead, Orwell took on the implementation of his own belief system by exploring how social injustice is often remedied by totalitarianism when socialist theories are actually put into practice. Orwell’s skepticism about the future of socialist societies stemmed from the aftermath of the Hitler-Stalin Non-aggression pact, which basically gave Germany the green light to invade Poland in 1939, commencing World War II. Orwell was horrified by the Hitler apologists that emerged among his comrades, adopting the ridiculous Nazi line that the Poles were actually the aggressors in an effort to provide cover for any action by the Soviet Union and Josef Stalin.
Orwell’s eyes were open and after much research revealed similar apologistic rhetoric by Western journalists over past Soviet atrocities, he began work on the allegorical fable Animal Farm. This short story brilliantly mirrored the Bolshevik Revolution and the migration of policies as power struggles ensued. But no one in the West would publish this work during the war in fear of offending our Soviet “allies”. It was eventually published and became widely popular setting the stage for Orwell to compose his final masterpiece, the dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, as his health deteriorated in the late 1940s.
But back to the true meaning of the term “Orwellian”, which stems from the author’s greatest contribution – his passion for clarity in language. In each of these later works, language is manipulated, muddled, and altered in order to fit the current political ends of the regime in power. In Animal Farm, doctrinaire “commandments” are constantly altered to fit the practices of the ruling “pigs” until they are reduced to the one absurd proclamation;
All animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others…
Nineteen Eighty-Four confronts the manipulation of language more directly, as the protagonist Winston Smith works as an editor revising historical records to concord the past to the contemporary party line orthodoxy, which changes daily. Smith is also under constant pressure to use the latest revision of Newspeak, a distorted version of English which progressively eliminates words and terms in order to manipulate thoughts and memories. For example, all negative words are eliminated so “ungood” replaces “bad” and “doubleplusungood” replaces something like “horrible” or “terrible”. “Ingsoc”, the title of the regime itself, is derived from the traditional “English Socialism” but no one really remembers this fact because they have been subject to so much inconsistent and revised propaganda over the years. Nor does anyone understand (or dare question) the absurd, contradictory slogans which they are fed daily, such as “War is Peace”, “Freedom is Slavery”, and “Ignorance is Strength”. Although the novel speaks of all types of methods employed by “Big Brother” to induce terror and obedience on the citizens, Orwell wanted the language issue to be the focal point so much so that he appended an academic essay to the novel called “The Principles of Newspeak”.
So the term “Orwellian” in contemporary times should be applied to the manipulation and distortion of language. But unfortunately, it is either misunderstood or retro-fitted to advance an ideology (which is “Orwellian” in of itself). For example, this past Sunday on 60 Minutes, Leslie Stahl was interviewing Jose Rodriguez, the Director of the National Clandestine Service of the CIA post-9/11. Rodriguez gave clear and precise details of the enhanced interrogation techniques used on high-value detainees during 2002 and 2003. When it came to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks), Rodriguez explained that the terrorist was fed Ensure because he was overweight when captured, to which an indignant Stahl replied, “Dietary manipulation? That sounds Orwellian.” Really?
Ironically, there are plenty of examples in modern day American life of true Orwellian language being used, mimicked, and repeated without thought or reflection. We can start by going down nearly the entire dictionary of politically correct terms which are used primarily to limit and chill debate on controversial subjects. I’ll examine just one – the term “green”. Not very long ago, “green” was used in differing, unflattering ways, such as to describe jealousy and envy or someone who was ignorant or inexperienced. But now the term is embraced as an umbrella term for “new” types of energy. Ironically, this energy is not new nor is this energy “green” as wind and solar come from “blue” sky, and decidely not from the “green” Earth. Energy from Earth includes wood, coal, oil, natural gas, shale, hydro, and nuclear. But those who call themselves “green” oppose the use of most of these sources. The point is the unthinking aspect of it all – a term is coined and the bandwagon cascades even to the point of a major national network adopting a “Green is Universal” slogan.
In politics, Orwellian phrases are used all the times. Think about the oft-repeated term “paying for tax cuts”, used several times by the President himself. Think about how money is created and flows and try to rationalize this term as accurate. Then there is “Gay Marriage”. Full disclosure, I support all the principles behind this issue – rights of spousal benefits, hospital visitation, major life decisions, etc. – I support it all except for the Orwellian term itself. Marriage is an ancient term that has had an unwavering definition for millenia right up until recent years. Name any great society in history – the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Incas, the Mayans, the Ottomans, the Ming Dynasty, etc., etc., etc. – you will not find a trace of “Gay Marriage” in any of these (although homosexuality surely existed in ALL of them). I believe that America, the greatest beacon of freedom anytime or anywhere (more on this in a later article), Civil Unions between committed couples, but when these couple are of the same sex it is not marriage and to declare so IS Orwellian.
The underlying mission of all of this Newspeak is to ultimately NOT resolve any societal issues. Most responsible people are happy to conserve energy and be frugal and less wasteful. But when insane restrictions are put on any effort to become energy independent and the evangelists of “green” show complete disregard to reduce their own “carbon footprint”, the ultimate result is nothing getting done conservation-wise. And when freedom-loving people like myself are in favor of Civil Unions which would offer the exact same benefit of the “Orwellian” Gay marriage but we are told that we’re somehow against “civil rights” (or worse), an easily remedied issue becomes more and more polarized and political, which may be exactly what the “Orwellian” ideologues wanted all along.