Friday, August 1, 2008

What Orwell Didn't Know

The idea for this piece was stolen from the collection of essays by the same name. Overall a mediocre effort, but a worthy idea.

One of the first things that struck me about Orwell, as it does about many historical figures, is that both sides (in our polarized world, it is imagined that there are only two worldviews, to be taken in whole or not at all) claim him as their own. The right, recalling 1984 sees him as a virulent anti-Socialist and anti-Communist, though it is clear that it is the tyranny he opposes rather than the economics. The left, likewise, revels in his scathing of totalitarianism while simultaneously ignoring their own talent for the same. Orwell, himself, saw much the same pillaging of Dickens in his essay, Charles Dickens:

When Chesterton wrote his introduction to the Everyman edition of Dickens's works, it seemed quite natural to him to credit Dickens with his own highly individual brand of medievalism, and more recently a Marxist writer, Mr. T. A. Jackson, has made spirited efforts to turn Dickens into a bloodthirsty revolutionary. The Marxist claims him as "almost" a Marxist, the Catholic claims him as "almost" a Catholic.

The argument is baseless from the start, as Orwell was writing for his own time, not to please one side or the other of this counter-productive, mundane, polarized muck we've found ourselves in. But also, one of his prevailing themes is the use of language and its effect as a vehicle for propaganda and abuse. Who, having witnessed the banality of our current campaign season, cannot see examples of Newspeak and Orwellian language in abundance? If not used explicitly for propaganda, then at least to obfuscate the fact that the speaker, while profusely spilling forth words, is indeed saying very little.

What is clear from Orwell's writing, especially Politics and the English Language, is that he would achieve no favor in either camp, Obama a master of flashy vacuousness, and McCain a great utilizer of phrases which have assumed meanings but whose definitions he intentionally fails to apply. Citing the lack of precision in his contemporary prose:

The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

Both Obama and McCain are guilty of this fault, neither wishing to attach their prose to a specific meaning, preferring instead to allow the listener to paint their own canvas of what they want to hear. Boxing in their rhetoric with the concrete would force explanation and only inhibit their ability to woo as many people as possible.

The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

It seems that a men like John McCain and George Bush were no less prevalent in Orwell's time, as both embody Orwell's laments in the above passage. Both are rhetorical fans of freedom, democracy, and patriotism, but both are equally opposed to applying a concrete definition to the words. In speech, both are avid fans of Iraqi democracy and sovereignty. In practice, they see the country as nothing more than the 51st state which just happens to contain an obscene amount of oil. By throwing the words out, however, the listener applies their own meaning, and as such is capable of seeing a process in which 100s of thousands of Iraqis die as a humanitarian mission and "for their own good." Cluster bombs don't spread death, they spread democracy and freedom. The words, in true Orwellian fashion, hide from view the practical outcome of their true meaning.

Likewise, Obama is greatly aided by the fact that he, himself, is a blank canvas, which only further strengthens the effect of his equally-vacuous words and phrases. Obamas followers paint onto him their own hopes and dreams, their own wishes for a "new direction," and little attention is paid to his actual words. Much of the recent presumption of Obama flip-flops stems from the reality that many are hearing his words for the first time, although he has repeated them often.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

It is in this manner that killing thousands of people becomes an act of good will, the sending of other parents' children to die an act of bravery, the calling for the addition of troops and the addition of a new country in which to fight as anti-war. What's more, the electorate for the most part does not ask politicians to eliminate euphemism or vagueness. For the most part, the voting public has no more desire to see the dark face of reality than politicians have motive for giving it to them. As such, to a large extent, the American public censors itself and consigns itself to orthodoxy.

Controlling the public in a totalitarian world is simple, in democracy a little more tact is needed. Propaganda has developed since the time of Orwell in a manner which invites the target audience to do most of the censoring and imbibing of falsehoods themselves. Under the guise of a free society, the public is bombarded with false images and half-truths to the point that they censor themselves, they begin to take as fact total falsehoods without the ruling party lifting a finger.

Americans are bombarded with images of materialism on a daily basis, convinced that all they need to be happy is more toys, and in this pursuit they shed all skepticism of the political structure and cease to ask questions, preferring instead to chase pipe dreams and manufactured illusions. The public clamors for coverage of Obama's bowling average, engages in ritualistic shock at nearly every phrase consisting of anything more than pre-fabricated euphemisms and phrases, all the while ignoring any significant discussion of topics which might actually affect them.

Great pains are taken to paint the two candidates as inhabiting the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum, which sucks the public into a false, polarized debate which ignores virtually anything of substance and import. Presenting Obama and McCain as the extremes of acceptable thought rules out any possibility that the public might begin to think outside that range, might begin to question facets of the system itself. A public that willingly chases red herrings will keep quiet in the corridors of power. A public that censors itself won't ask questions or seek a return on the empty, vacuous rhetoric employed by politicians of all stripes.

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