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UFPPC ( Digging Deeper XLIII: March 24, 2008, 7:00 p.m.

András Szántó, What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of
American Politics (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007).

Editor’s Note: The book is an offshoot what side he would have taken” today;
of a conference at the New York Public he is “a writer, not a guide” (8).
Library organized by “the deans of five
prominent journalism schools” around Nicholas Lemann, “The Limits of
the 60th anniversary of Orwell’s classic Language.” Commentary on and praise
essay, “Politics and the English for “Politics and the English Language,”
Language” (ix). Focus of the volume: which was “one of more than 100 pieces
the present (x). Review of contents (xi- Orwell published in 1946,” shortly before
xii). “The point of this book is to urge writing 1984 and dying in January 1950
politicians on all sides to keep their words (10; 9-13). But there are limits to what
tethered to facts” (xii). Experiences language can do (14-15). “Corruption of
growing up in Hungary (xiii-xiv). information” is even more frightening
Friendship with Orville Schell (xv). than corruption of language (15).

Introduction: Orville Schell, “Follies Mark Danner, “Words in a Time of

of Orthodoxy.” Orwell understood War: On Rhetoric, Truth, and Power.”
“almost intuitively” the nature and The “war on terror” is Orwellian; 1984
sources of propaganda (xvii-xix). From describes “the power of virtual war to
the vantage point of the present, he has reduce and refine boulders of
a “somewhat innocent” belief in the inner international armed conflict down to their
ability of the individual to resist most valuable political ore” (18-19,
propaganda (xix-xx). But Chinese emphasis in original; 16-19). Dec. 14,
developments in propaganda, depth 2004, award of Medals of Freedom to
psychology, public relations theory, and Gen. (ret.) Tommy Franks, L. Paul Bremer
electronic media have overcome this (xx- III, and George Tenet evoked Orwell’s
xxii). In China, the Confucian tradition of “History is something to be created
self-study as a means both of becoming rather than learned,” from another 1946
an exemplary person and restoring order essay, “The Prevention of Literature” (19-
to society was grafted onto Marxism- 21). As the May 1, 2003, spectacle on
Leninism to create a “new psycho- the USS Abraham Lincoln showed, power
political remolding process” (xxv; xxii- today exhibits “a kind of . . .
xxvii). Milan Kundera’s analysis (xxvii- knowingness, perhaps even an ironic self-
xxx). In the U.S., “politics, psychology, awareness, that would have been
and commercial advertising” are being unthinkable in 1934” (22, ellipsis and
poisoned by propaganda in new ways emphasis in original; 21-24). Of 9/11:
that are the subject of this book (xxx- “The weapon that day was the television
xxxi). set” (25). The response to 9/11 showed
a belief in power alone (25-27). U.S.
PART ONE: LANGUAGE AND POLITICS response to 9/11 played into al-Qaeda’s
hands (27-29). The belief that power
David Rieff, “Orwell Then and Now.” creates reality contributed to making this
Orwell’s status as writer of importance possible (29-30). Ironically, Bush
has endured, but at the cost of administration officials actually did
misappropriation (3-7). “We haven’t a believe Iraq had WMDs, though they
clue what Orwell would have thought or exaggerated the evidence; “It is nigh
unto miraculous that the Iraqi regime,
even with the help of the United Nations, Francine Prose, “Sloppiness and the
managed so thoroughly to destroy its English Language.” Orwell’s essay is
once existing stockpile” (31; 30-33). It is “as timely as if it had been written
one of the “painful principles of our age” yesterday” (59; 57-63).
that scandals like torture remain before
us, “things we have learned to live with” PART TWO: SYMBOLS AND
(33-34). Horrific anecdote; reflections on BATTLEGROUNDS
“words in a time of war” (34-36).
George Lakoff, “What Orwell Didn’t
Patricia J. Williams, “An Egregious Know About the Brain, the Mind, and
Collocation of Vocables.” Things have Language.” Orwell’s essay “an
gotten worse since Orwell’s day: “No anachronism” (67; N.B. Lakoff is grossly
longer is the collective discourse one of misusing this word). It is “dangerously
competing theories of constitutional naïve” (67). His view of language is
interpretation. These days it is a rivalry “false” (68). By far the greater part of
between completely different textual reasoning is unconscious and emotional
universes: between due process and (68). Thought is structured in “frames,”
none at all; between the courts and of which cultural narratives are an
unfettered executive discretion; between example (69-70). “Words are neural links
personal privacy and super-surveillance; between spoken and written expressions
between public accountability and official and frames, metaphors, and narratives.
holes of dark and unfathomable mystery” . . . Words are not just words” (70).
(39-40; 38-40) An Orwell-inspired list of Repeated use of words changes the brain
the maladies of our time: the death of (70-71). Misuse of language can be
metaphor; “the wishful immediate,” the countered by “mark[ing] the idea” or
“passive explosive,” pretending that the alternative framing, but “[n]either is
present is very different from the past, quick or easy” (71). Orwell didn’t know
universal suspicion, millenarianism (40- this; no one did in 1947 (72). The
47). Orwell failed to foresee “a privatized Democratic Party is still stuck in
but global corporate oligarchy whose antiquated views of language, but the
police power comes wrapped in a Republicans have made the shift (72-74).
sheepish ideology of laissez-faire, “It is time to exorcise Orwell’s ghost”
sanctified as God’s will” (48). (74).

Aryeh Neier, “Freedom, Liberty, and Drew Westen, “The New Frontier:
Rights: Three Cautionary Tales.” The The Instruments of Emotion.” Orwell
rhetoric of freedom in the 2002 “National should have titled 1984 2004 instead
Security Strategy of the United States of (75-78). He did not anticipate the
America” displayed an aggressiveness condition that allowed Orwellian
that can be traced back to the Reagan language to prevail in a democracy:
era but links to economics (free trade is a “[w]hen one side knows how to
“moral principle”) and politics in new communicate effectively with the public
ways, implicitly grounded in religion (49- . . . and the other side has little idea how
51). The appropriation of the languages to communicate” (79). This has been the
of rights both by the left and by case since the mid-1960s (79-80).
international law for economic and social Analysis of 1984 “It’s morning again in
desiderata “makes nonsense out of the America” Reagan-Bush ad (80-85). Use
idea of rights” by making them of negative ads (85-86).
conditional on the availability of
resources (54-55; 52-56). Frances FitzGerald, “Stellar Spin.”
The U.S. Missile Defense program
(originally the Strategic Defense Initiative media machine into a global red-alert,
or ‘Star Wars’) was “a case study in just and a holocaust in Africa can be
what George Orwell warned about: the marginalized as a sidebar story” (143).
power of rhetoric over reality (87-96). Profit-making drives the show (143-45).
The Internet represents a frail hope (145-
Alice O’Connor, “Bad Knowledge.” 46).
Rails against suppression, ignorance, or
suppression of “social or scientific Victor Navasky, “Neither Snow, Nor
intelligence” by “idea mills of the right,” Rain, Nor Heat, Nor Gloom of Night
offering examples and advice (97-109). Will Stay the Couriers from the Swift
Completion of Their Appointed
Konstanty Gebert, “Black and White, Rounds—but What About Big
or Gray: A Polish Conundrum.” Post- Media?” Big Media (“fifty giant
1989 Polish experience shows that the corporations”) are now a danger equal to
things Orwell warned against in his essay the ones Orwell feared, Big Brother and
work well on TV (110-21). abuse and misuse of the English
language (147-48). Magazines
Susan Harding, “After the endangered by new policy that
Falwellians.” “Religious right preachers eliminates their postal subsidy (149-57).
were pioneers in revoicing the language
of liberalism” in a way that “displaced Geoffrey Cowan, “Reporters and
liberal ‘reality-based’ versions of social Rhetoric.” NBC’s decision in November
policy, political economics, and 2006 to begin calling Iraq a “civil war”
geopolitics with conservative ‘faith- showed mainstream media “still has the
based’ ones” in a way that goes well ability to help define or shape debates
beyond the phenomena Orwell’s essay and to help determine what language we
condemned (126; 122-34). use” (165; 159-65).

PART THREE: MEDIA AND MESSAGE Farnaz Fassihi, “Lessons from the
War Zone.” Reporters, mostly Iraqis,
Martin Kaplan, “Welcome to the have been imprisoned for not reporting
Infotainment Freak Show.” Neil advance knowledge of attacks, though at
Postman’s jeremiad against the culture of Columbia’s Graduate School of
entertainment (Amusing Ourselves to Journalism in the late 1990s, this was the
Death, 1985) did not prevent that culture position professors advocated (166-70).
from vanquishing the epistemology of Reporters must say both what officials
the Enlightenment (137-39). “Orwell report and what they witness on the
famously worried about the divorce of ground (171-73).
public discourse, including journalism,
from truth, but he did not anticipate its Michael Massing, “Our Own Thought
remarriage to entertainment” (139). Police.” Iraq war coverage has both
Consequences for journalism (139-43). been Orwellian, and not (174-75). “In a
“Journalism, especially television disturbing twist on the Orwellian
journalism, has tremendous ability to nightmare, the American people have
control the tone of what it covers. . . . become their own thought police,
The notion that professional news purging the news of unwanted and
judgment—a reliable journalistic rule unwelcome features with an efficiency
book—is what really drives the nature that government censors and military
and kind of coverage is hopelessly flacks can only envy” (176). Kevin Sites’s
quaint. The truth is that a missing white filming of a Marine killing a wounded
woman can easily be turned by the Iraqi in a mosque in November 2004
(176-77). The Haditha massacre, late opinion have become respectable” (195).
2005, covered extensively only after Rep. This “casts doubt on the concept of the
John Murtha validated it (177-79). Raw open society as it was formulated by Karl
accounts “airbrushed out of news Popper and later adopted by others,
accounts” (180; 179-83, citing Colby including me” (196). The open society
Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq; can only be maintained through
Kayla Williams, Love My Rifle More Than democracy if there is “a commitment to
You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army; the pursuit of truth” (196). Post-9/11
Joshua Key, The Deserter’s Tale; events demonstrates that this is so (196-
Operation Homecoming—these books 98). “There is an important role here for
show widespread drug use, the ubiquity the media, the political elite, and the
of pornography, frequent stealing from educational system, which must all act
Iraqis, racist language, routine responsibly in their commitment to the
mistreatment of Iraqis in house raids, the principles of the open society. They have
killing of innocent Iraqis at checkpoints, to act as watchdogs protecting a less
and the high civilian death toll in Iraq). well-informed and more gullible public”
These aspects remain hidden “[b]ecause (199). Coda: Soros’s experience as
most Americans don’t want to know it” victim of right-wing attacks during the
(183). Evan Wright’s Generation Kill 2004 campaign (199-203).
(184-86). “Orwell operated on the
assumption that people want to know the Appendix: George Orwell, “Politics
truth. Often, though, they don’t. . . . The and the English Language” (1946).
public has become its own collective Slovenly language may be an effect of
Ministry of Truth—a reality that, in many other causes, but it can itself become a
ways, is even more chilling than the one cause with further effects (205-06). Five
Orwell envisioned” (186). specimens of contemporary language by
Harold Laski, Lancelot Hogben, an essay
Epilogue: George Soros, “What I in Politics, a Communist pamphlet, and a
Didn’t Know: Open Society letter in Tribune (206-08). All exhibit
Remembered.” It is “most troubling” “staleness of imagery” and “lack of
that the public is “so susceptible to precision” (208). “As soon as certain
manipulation,” as its loathness to topics are raised, the concrete melts into
question the false metaphor of “war on the abstract and no one seems able to
terror” shows (187-88). A philosophical think of turns of speech that are not
argument: “reflexivity” interferes with hackneyed: prose consists less and less
the separation of mind’s “cognitive of words chosen for the sake of their
function” and its “manipulative function” meaning, and more and more of phrases
(189). “The Enlightenment failed to tacked together” (208). “Dying
recognize reflexivity” (190). “[T]he metaphors” (209), “operators of verbal
fallacy in the Enlightenment] lies in false limbs” (instead of simple verbs)
separating reason from reality” (191). (209-10), “pretentious diction” (210-11),
Only recently has Soros come to realize “meaningless words” (212-13). A
that “in political discourse the passage from Ecclesiastes rendered in
manipulating function takes precedence modern English (213-14). “[M]odern
over the cognitive function” (193). “I writing at its worst does not consist in
now recognize that the purpose of picking out words for the sake of their
political discourse in a democracy is to meaning and inventing images in order
get elected and stay in power” (193-94). to make the meaning clearer. It consists
The Enlightenment ideal of disembodied in gumming together long strips of words
reason has been revealed to be a fallacy which have already been set in order by
(194-95). Professional manipulators of someone else, and making the results
presentable by sheer humbug” (214). Communication. Mark Danner is
Such language is usually associated with professor of journalism at UC Berkeley.
a lack of thought (214-15). Farnaz Fassihi is senior Middle East
Contemporary political writing is bad correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.
writing, being “largely the defence of the Frances FitzGerald is an author and
indefensible,” leading to “euphemism, journalist. Konstanty Gebert is a
question-begging and sheer cloudy former Solidarity activist. Susan
vagueness” (217; 216-18). “The inflated Harding is professor of anthropology at
style is itself a kind of euphemism” (218). UC Santa Cruz. Martin Kaplan is
“In our age there is no such thing as Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment,
‘keeping out of politics.’ All issues are Media, and Society at the USC Annenberg
political issues, and politics itself is a School. George Lakoff is Goldman
mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and Distinguished Professor of Cognitive
schizophrenia. When the general Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley.
atmosphere is bad, language must Nicholas Lemann is dean of the
suffer” (218). “[T]he decadence of our Columbia University Graduate School of
language is probably curable” (219). Journalism. Michael Massing is a
Archaism and fake simplicity are not contributing editor of the Columbia
advocated (220). “What is above all Journalism Review. Victor Navasky is
needed is to let the meaning choose the publisher emeritus of the Nation. Aryeh
word, and not the other way about” (220- Neier is president of the Open Society
21). Think concretely for as long as Institute. Alice O’Connor is associate
possible before formulating your thought professor of history at UC Santa Barbara.
in words (221). Six rules: “1. Never use Francine Prose is a novelist, author of
a metaphor, simile or other figure of Blue Angel and A Changed Man. David
speech which you are used to seeing in Rieff is a contributing writer to the New
print. 2. Never use a long word where a York Times Magazine. Orville Schell is
short one will do. 3. If it is possible to cut former dean of the Graduate School of
a word out, always cut it out. 4. Never Journalism at UC Berkeley and the Arthur
use the passive where you can use the Ross Director of the Asia Society’s Center
active. 5. Never use a foreign phrase, a on U.S.-China relations. George Soros
scientific word or a jargon word if you can is founder of the Open Society Institute.
think of an everyday English equivalent. András Szántó is director of the NEA
6. Break any of these rules rather than Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia
say anything outright barbarous” (221). University. Drew Westen is professor of
A call to “change one’s own habits” psychology and of psychiatry at Emory
(222). University. Patricia Williams is John
Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia
Notes. 21 pp. University.

Author Biographies. Geoffrey Cowan

is dean of the USC Annenberg School for

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