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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 of a conference at the New York Public Library organized by “the deans of five prominent journalism schools” around the 60th anniversary of Orwell’s classic essay, “Politics and the English Language” (ix). Focus of the volume: the present (x). Review of contents (xixii). “The point of this book is to urge politicians on all sides to keep their words tethered to facts” (xii). Experiences growing up in Hungary (xiii-xiv). Friendship with Orville Schell (xv). Introduction: Orville Schell, “Follies of Orthodoxy.” Orwell understood “almost intuitively” the nature and sources of propaganda (xvii-xix). From the vantage point of the present, he has a “somewhat innocent” belief in the inner ability of the individual to resist propaganda (xix-xx). But Chinese developments in propaganda, depth psychology, public relations theory, and electronic media have overcome this (xxxxii). In China, the Confucian tradition of self-study as a means both of becoming an exemplary person and restoring order to society was grafted onto MarxismLeninism to create a “new psychopolitical remolding process” (xxv; xxiixxvii). Milan Kundera’s analysis (xxviixxx). In the U.S., “politics, psychology, and commercial advertising” are being poisoned by propaganda in new ways that are the subject of this book (xxxxxxi). PART ONE: LANGUAGE AND POLITICS David Rieff, “Orwell Then and Now.” Orwell’s status as writer of importance has endured, but at the cost of misappropriation (3-7). “We haven’t a clue what Orwell would have thought or what side he would have taken” today; he is “a writer, not a guide” (8). Nicholas Lemann, “The Limits of Language.” Commentary on and praise for “Politics and the English Language,” which was “one of more than 100 pieces Orwell published in 1946,” shortly before writing 1984 and dying in January 1950 (10; 9-13). But there are limits to what language can do (14-15). “Corruption of information” is even more frightening than corruption of language (15). Mark Danner, “Words in a Time of War: On Rhetoric, Truth, and Power.” The “war on terror” is Orwellian; 1984 describes “the power of virtual war to reduce and refine boulders of international armed conflict down to their most valuable political ore” (18-19, emphasis in original; 16-19). Dec. 14, 2004, award of Medals of Freedom to Gen. (ret.) Tommy Franks, L. Paul Bremer III, and George Tenet evoked Orwell’s “History is something to be created rather than learned,” from another 1946 essay, “The Prevention of Literature” (1921). As the May 1, 2003, spectacle on the USS Abraham Lincoln showed, power today exhibits “a kind of . . . knowingness, perhaps even an ironic selfawareness, that would have been unthinkable in 1934” (22, ellipsis and emphasis in original; 21-24). Of 9/11: “The weapon that day was the television set” (25). The response to 9/11 showed a belief in power alone (25-27). U.S. response to 9/11 played into al-Qaeda’s hands (27-29). The belief that power creates reality contributed to making this possible (29-30). Ironically, Bush administration officials actually did believe Iraq had WMDs, though they exaggerated the evidence; “It is nigh unto miraculous that the Iraqi regime,
even with the help of the United Nations, managed so thoroughly to destroy its once existing stockpile” (31; 30-33). It is one of the “painful principles of our age” that scandals like torture remain before us, “things we have learned to live with” (33-34). Horrific anecdote; reflections on “words in a time of war” (34-36). Patricia J. Williams, “An Egregious Collocation of Vocables.” Things have gotten worse since Orwell’s day: “No longer is the collective discourse one of competing theories of constitutional interpretation. These days it is a rivalry between completely different textual universes: between due process and none at all; between the courts and unfettered executive discretion; between personal privacy and super-surveillance; between public accountability and official holes of dark and unfathomable mystery” (39-40; 38-40) An Orwell-inspired list of the maladies of our time: the death of metaphor; “the wishful immediate,” the “passive explosive,” pretending that the present is very different from the past, universal suspicion, millenarianism (4047). Orwell failed to foresee “a privatized but global corporate oligarchy whose police power comes wrapped in a sheepish ideology of laissez-faire, sanctified as God’s will” (48). Aryeh Neier, “Freedom, Liberty, and Rights: Three Cautionary Tales.” The rhetoric of freedom in the 2002 “National Security Strategy of the United States of America” displayed an aggressiveness that can be traced back to the Reagan era but links to economics (free trade is a “moral principle”) and politics in new ways, implicitly grounded in religion (4951). The appropriation of the languages of rights both by the left and by international law for economic and social desiderata “makes nonsense out of the idea of rights” by making them conditional on the availability of resources (54-55; 52-56).
Francine Prose, “Sloppiness and the English Language.” Orwell’s essay is “as timely as if it had been written yesterday” (59; 57-63). PART TWO: SYMBOLS AND BATTLEGROUNDS George Lakoff, “What Orwell Didn’t Know About the Brain, the Mind, and Language.” Orwell’s essay “an anachronism” (67; N.B. Lakoff is grossly misusing this word). It is “dangerously naïve” (67). His view of language is “false” (68). By far the greater part of reasoning is unconscious and emotional (68). Thought is structured in “frames,” of which cultural narratives are an example (69-70). “Words are neural links between spoken and written expressions and frames, metaphors, and narratives. . . . Words are not just words” (70). Repeated use of words changes the brain (70-71). Misuse of language can be countered by “mark[ing] the idea” or alternative framing, but “[n]either is quick or easy” (71). Orwell didn’t know this; no one did in 1947 (72). The Democratic Party is still stuck in antiquated views of language, but the Republicans have made the shift (72-74). “It is time to exorcise Orwell’s ghost” (74). Drew Westen, “The New Frontier: The Instruments of Emotion.” Orwell should have titled 1984 2004 instead (75-78). He did not anticipate the condition that allowed Orwellian language to prevail in a democracy: “[w]hen one side knows how to communicate effectively with the public . . . and the other side has little idea how to communicate” (79). This has been the case since the mid-1960s (79-80). Analysis of 1984 “It’s morning again in America” Reagan-Bush ad (80-85). Use of negative ads (85-86). Frances FitzGerald, “Stellar Spin.” The U.S. Missile Defense program
(originally the Strategic Defense Initiative or ‘Star Wars’) was “a case study in just what George Orwell warned about: the power of rhetoric over reality (87-96). Alice O’Connor, “Bad Knowledge.” Rails against suppression, ignorance, or suppression of “social or scientific intelligence” by “idea mills of the right,” offering examples and advice (97-109). Konstanty Gebert, “Black and White, or Gray: A Polish Conundrum.” Post1989 Polish experience shows that the things Orwell warned against in his essay work well on TV (110-21). Susan Harding, “After the Falwellians.” “Religious right preachers were pioneers in revoicing the language of liberalism” in a way that “displaced liberal ‘reality-based’ versions of social policy, political economics, and geopolitics with conservative ‘faithbased’ ones” in a way that goes well beyond the phenomena Orwell’s essay condemned (126; 122-34). PART THREE: MEDIA AND MESSAGE Martin Kaplan, “Welcome to the Infotainment Freak Show.” Neil Postman’s jeremiad against the culture of entertainment (Amusing Ourselves to Death, 1985) did not prevent that culture from vanquishing the epistemology of the Enlightenment (137-39). “Orwell famously worried about the divorce of public discourse, including journalism, from truth, but he did not anticipate its remarriage to entertainment” (139). Consequences for journalism (139-43). “Journalism, especially television journalism, has tremendous ability to control the tone of what it covers. . . . The notion that professional news judgment—a reliable journalistic rule book—is what really drives the nature and kind of coverage is hopelessly quaint. The truth is that a missing white woman can easily be turned by the
media machine into a global red-alert, and a holocaust in Africa can be marginalized as a sidebar story” (143). Profit-making drives the show (143-45). The Internet represents a frail hope (14546). Victor Navasky, “Neither Snow, Nor Rain, Nor Heat, Nor Gloom of Night Will Stay the Couriers from the Swift Completion of Their Appointed Rounds—but What About Big Media?” Big Media (“fifty giant corporations”) are now a danger equal to the ones Orwell feared, Big Brother and abuse and misuse of the English language (147-48). Magazines endangered by new policy that eliminates their postal subsidy (149-57). Geoffrey Cowan, “Reporters and Rhetoric.” NBC’s decision in November 2006 to begin calling Iraq a “civil war” showed mainstream media “still has the ability to help define or shape debates and to help determine what language we use” (165; 159-65). Farnaz Fassihi, “Lessons from the War Zone.” Reporters, mostly Iraqis, have been imprisoned for not reporting advance knowledge of attacks, though at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in the late 1990s, this was the position professors advocated (166-70). Reporters must say both what officials report and what they witness on the ground (171-73). Michael Massing, “Our Own Thought Police.” Iraq war coverage has both been Orwellian, and not (174-75). “In a disturbing twist on the Orwellian nightmare, the American people have become their own thought police, purging the news of unwanted and unwelcome features with an efficiency that government censors and military flacks can only envy” (176). Kevin Sites’s filming of a Marine killing a wounded Iraqi in a mosque in November 2004
(176-77). The Haditha massacre, late 2005, covered extensively only after Rep. John Murtha validated it (177-79). Raw accounts “airbrushed out of news accounts” (180; 179-83, citing Colby Buzzell, My War: Killing Time in Iraq; Kayla Williams, Love My Rifle More Than You: Young and Female in the U.S. Army; Joshua Key, The Deserter’s Tale; Operation Homecoming—these books show widespread drug use, the ubiquity of pornography, frequent stealing from Iraqis, racist language, routine mistreatment of Iraqis in house raids, the killing of innocent Iraqis at checkpoints, and the high civilian death toll in Iraq). These aspects remain hidden “[b]ecause most Americans don’t want to know it” (183). Evan Wright’s Generation Kill (184-86). “Orwell operated on the assumption that people want to know the truth. Often, though, they don’t. . . . The public has become its own collective Ministry of Truth—a reality that, in many ways, is even more chilling than the one Orwell envisioned” (186). Epilogue: George Soros, “What I Didn’t Know: Open Society Remembered.” It is “most troubling” that the public is “so susceptible to manipulation,” as its loathness to question the false metaphor of “war on terror” shows (187-88). A philosophical argument: “reflexivity” interferes with the separation of mind’s “cognitive function” and its “manipulative function” (189). “The Enlightenment failed to recognize reflexivity” (190). “[T]he fallacy in the Enlightenment] lies in separating reason from reality” (191). Only recently has Soros come to realize that “in political discourse the manipulating function takes precedence over the cognitive function” (193). “I now recognize that the purpose of political discourse in a democracy is to get elected and stay in power” (193-94). The Enlightenment ideal of disembodied reason has been revealed to be a fallacy (194-95). Professional manipulators of
opinion have become respectable” (195). This “casts doubt on the concept of the open society as it was formulated by Karl Popper and later adopted by others, including me” (196). The open society can only be maintained through democracy if there is “a commitment to the pursuit of truth” (196). Post-9/11 events demonstrates that this is so (19698). “There is an important role here for the media, the political elite, and the educational system, which must all act responsibly in their commitment to the principles of the open society. They have to act as watchdogs protecting a less well-informed and more gullible public” (199). Coda: Soros’s experience as victim of right-wing attacks during the 2004 campaign (199-203). Appendix: George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language” (1946). Slovenly language may be an effect of other causes, but it can itself become a cause with further effects (205-06). Five specimens of contemporary language by Harold Laski, Lancelot Hogben, an essay in Politics, a Communist pamphlet, and a letter in Tribune (206-08). All exhibit “staleness of imagery” and “lack of precision” (208). “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” (208). “Dying metaphors” (209), “operators of verbal false limbs” (instead of simple verbs) (209-10), “pretentious diction” (210-11), “meaningless words” (212-13). A passage from Ecclesiastes rendered in modern English (213-14). “[M]odern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results
presentable by sheer humbug” (214). Such language is usually associated with a lack of thought (214-15). Contemporary political writing is bad writing, being “largely the defence of the indefensible,” leading to “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” (217; 216-18). “The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism” (218). “In our age there is no such thing as ‘keeping out 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” (218). “[T]he decadence of our language is probably curable” (219). Archaism and fake simplicity are not advocated (220). “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about” (22021). Think concretely for as long as possible before formulating your thought in words (221). Six rules: “1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. 2. Never use a long word where a short one will do. 3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out. 4. Never use the passive where you can use the active. 5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. 6. Break any of these rules rather than say anything outright barbarous” (221). A call to “change one’s own habits” (222). Notes. 21 pp. Author Biographies. Geoffrey Cowan is dean of the USC Annenberg School for
Communication. Mark Danner is professor of journalism at UC Berkeley. Farnaz Fassihi is senior Middle East correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Frances FitzGerald is an author and journalist. Konstanty Gebert is a former Solidarity activist. Susan Harding is professor of anthropology at UC Santa Cruz. Martin Kaplan is Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media, and Society at the USC Annenberg School. George Lakoff is Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at UC Berkeley. Nicholas Lemann is dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Michael Massing is a contributing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Victor Navasky is publisher emeritus of the Nation. Aryeh Neier is president of the Open Society Institute. Alice O’Connor is associate professor of history at UC Santa Barbara. Francine Prose is a novelist, author of Blue Angel and A Changed Man. David Rieff is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. Orville Schell is former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley and the Arthur Ross Director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China relations. George Soros is founder of the Open Society Institute. András Szántó is director of the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. Drew Westen is professor of psychology and of psychiatry at Emory University. Patricia Williams is John Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University.
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