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A profound look at political propaganda and manipulation
on November 2, 2007
This book is published to coincide with a one-day conference on "Orwell and the American society" to be held at the New York Public Library November 7, 2007 sponsored by the Open Society Institute and the graduate schools of journalism at UC Berkeley, Columbia, and the Annenberg School at USC. This year is chosen because it is near the 60th anniversary of the publication of George Orwell's famous essay, "Politics and the English Language" (1946).
But what this book is really about is the perversion of truth by the Bush administration and the concomitant failure of the American mass media to do anything about it or to even comprehend what is going on. Editor Andras Szanto writes in his "Editor's Note," "the deans of five prominent journalism schools...were worried about what was happening to political language, which seemed to be divorcing itself from reality at an alarming rate." (p. ix) This book with essays by 18 heavyweight political thinkers, cognitive scientists, psychologists, journalists and others is an attempt to address that worry.
Aside from the many Ministry of Truth sort of lies cynically concocted by the Bush administration, there is the striking and very scary fact that Bush is acting out the Orwellian nightmare in that he has put the United States on what appears to be a permanent "war" footing just as was the case with Oceania in Orwell's novel, 1984, and for pretty much the same reasons. As several of the contributors have noted, George W. Bush has invented an endless and fraudulent "war on terror" as a means to keep the populace in fear and to control both the Congress and the media in order to enhance his own power as chief executive.
But there is much more. As Drew Westen notes in his essay, "The New Frontier: The Instruments of Emotion," there is the example of "Polluters" drafting "a bill which became law," which was "named, as if in cynical tribute to Orwell, the 'Clear Skies Initiative.'" (pp. 75-76) Of course it was, and is, anything but. Westen goes on to make the salient point that "What Orwell could not have foretold is...Orwellian language can be as effective in a democracy as in a dictatorship." (p. 79) These are points that George Soros also makes in his essay, "What I Didn't Know: Open Society Reconsidered."
What strikes me is how corporate control of the media in all its aspects, including especially advertising and news reporting, can insure that only politicians sympathetic to corporate interests can possibly be elected, and once elected can work with their corporate sponsors to bring about something close to dictatorial control. Congresspersons and reporters in fear of losing their seats or their jobs are as easily controlled as citizens terrified of secret police and brown shirts. What Bush, Cheney, Karl Rove and the minions working for them have done--and this is the thrust of the book--is beyond what Orwell could possibly have foreseen. As George Lakoff explains in his essay, "What Orwell Didn't Know About the Brain, the Mind, and Language," we think metaphorically, and the many metaphors of life are charged with emotions that can be activated by certain political words or phrases, "War on Terror, tax relief, illegal immigration...abortion on demand...cut and run, flip-flop...," etc. These words "can activate large portions of the brain." (p. 70) He further notes, "every time such words and phrases are repeated, all the frames and metaphors and worldview structures are activated again and strengthened--because recurring activation strengthens neural connections." (p. 71)
Lakoff recalls how the word "liberal" was destroyed by conservatives through incessant repetition of such phrases as "tax and spend liberal, liberal elite, liberal media, limousine liberal," and so on. This is brainwashing postmodern style. Orville Schell in his introductory essay sees this sort of thing as "penetrating 'the inner heart' of individuals." (p. xx)
Nicholas Lemann in his essay "The Limits of Language" makes the point that the corruption of language, which is what Orwell was writing about in "Politics and the English Language," is one thing, but "an even more frightening political prospect" is "the corruption of information." (p. 15) Bush invaded Iraq under the auspices, as it were, of such a corruption of information. Lemann laments that "there often is no corrective mechanism at hand" when "the facts of a situation have been intentionally corrupted by people in power." (p. 15) Personally I am concerned about the truth hiding in plain sight, in news stories, in articles, in books, on the Internet, while remaining largely unrecognized and unappreciated amidst the massive information and misinformation overload that is burying all of us.
Mark Danner takes this quote from Orwell as the wellspring for his essay, "Words in a Time of War: On Rhetoric, Truth, and Power": "From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned." He goes on to show how this perfectly fits the mentality of Karl Rove, AKA "Bush's Brain." Quoting Ron Suskind, he reveals that Rove disdains what he calls "the reality-based community," opining that "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality...we'll act again, creating other new realities...." (p. 23)
I wish I had the space to say something about the other excellent essays in this collection, but I am up against Amazon's 1,000-word limit, so just let me say this is an outstanding book, wonderfully conceived, eminently topical and profound. I suspect it is going to appear on college reading lists all over America in the next few years, and hopefully it will help a new generation of Americans resist the kind of political propaganda and fact manipulation ubiquitous in recent years.
By the way, Orwell's famous essay appears as an appendix.