“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
~~ George Orwell, 1984 ~~
The Daily Telegraph newspaper recently ran an article on the best 100 opening lines from a novel. There are other equally wonderful openers out there, but with western democracies now relentlessly spying on their citizens by the back door, with, or without permission, simply by circumnavigating current legislation, and imprisoning those citizens and foreign nationals without trial in the name of national security and freedoms, it just seems appropriate to me under the present circumstances to choose George Orwell`s 1984. The fact that government is showing the same disregard for personal freedom and free speech, in order to combat alien ideologies which advocate those same social and political criteria seems to have evaded them some what. The ends are seen to obviously justify the means, even if those means are corroding and corrupting the self same ideals which they are used as an excuse to defend.
Truth be told, there is nothing of Orwell`s work – whether fiction or non fiction, which is not political. His basic question is – why do we live like this? The quality of his prose and his moral authority stands above other writings on the subject. His years of failure, the constant trauma of being victimised by school bullies, and having seen first hand the horrors of war caused by people who sent others to fight, while they stood in safety issuing bellicose rantings and propaganda, all gave him him a unique luminescence in his work.
Think of all the laws accumulated over the centuries to protect civil liberties as a forest of trees: and if every one is systematically cut down in the name of “protecting” those freedoms by overweening government drunk on it`s own power, while claiming to act in our “best interests” and for the security of the state, where can you find shelter to protect your freedoms of expression, liberty, thought and interests, when the last tree is felled and there is nowhere else to shelter from totalitarianism?
Everything Orwell wrote, from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War until his death was infused with a hatred of totalitarianism. When he spoke of life at the bottom of the social heap, he did so from personal experience – he was there in the gutter along with all the other scullions and tramps. He had fought in war and seen people die, so he developed a deep suspicion and hatred of authority in all it`s chimeric guises; and of how it insidiously manipulates, cajoles and obliquely threatens people to do as it wishes, and of how it uses words to alter meaning and substance to suit it`s purpose for evasion and obfuscation.
Newspeak is a government`s weapon of choice in lying when seeming to tell the truth, or of putting a different meaning – or spin – on events by altering words and replacing them with something which softens and evades the truth. All shades of meaning are removed from language, and leaving simple dichotomies which reinforce the control of the state. In 1984, words with opposite meaning are removed as redundant; so “bad” becomes “ungood.” As many meaningful words as possible are removed from the language and boiled down to a single word that was a “yes” of some sort. An obedient word with which people answered when asked something.
The underlying concept of Newspeak is that if something cannot be said, then it cannot be thought. Are we defined by our language, or do we define it: can we communicate the need for revolution or freedom if we lack a linguistic means of defining it? Political rhetoric abounds with Newspeak, where two opposing sides lock horns by stringing together vacuous phrases so bereft of meaning and substance, they can be compared to the taunts that children throw at each other…….Both sides reducing verbal engagement down to the lowest intellectual common denominator of – let`s call it Playgroundspeak – “I`m good” or “You`re bad.”
Hand in hand with Newspeak is Doublespeak; it`s language which appears to communicate but doesn`t, it serves no usual purpose except to deceive; it makes the bad seem good, the negative seem positive, the unpleasant seem attractive. It avoids, shifts, evades, and denies responsibility like an ever changing desert of verbal moving sand, as it crawls and slithers away and around true meaning. It is language which hides or prevents genuinely enlightened thought. It is anti-thought.
Where Newspeak reduces language down to a common denominator, Doublespeak is language as smoke and mirrors; it uses language to cloak real meaning and empowers it`s users with thought control of another, far more subtle kind than it`s intellectual brother. The modern government thrives on it`s heady cocktail of linguistic vacuousness, and controls it`s citizenry with Doublespeak. A good example of this came from George W. Bush when he was attempting to justify his war in Iraq…………”I reminded ( the soldiers) and their families that the war in Iraq is really about peace.”
When you read George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, you come to the conclusion that between them, they really did have the vested interests that run the modern world banged to rights; we`re just given a longer lead to play with, which is lengthened and shortened as and when convenient. I think it`s a given, that we are losing those hard fought rights which were painfully pulled from the jaws of government, like a cossetted row of judicial teeth with which the ruling elites had bitten down hard upon a defenseless citizenry, merely there to serve and obey; and Doublespeak tells us that we are losing freedoms to preserve our freedoms……..But not in those terms. As George Orwell himself once said……….
“Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” We live in the great age of political windbaggery, when the air is gusty with hurricanes of pure linguistic obfuscation and sleight of hand. War is Peace, and removal of civil liberty is ensuring the civil liberty of the individual. Black is indeed white, because the powers that be tell us so.
George Orwell through the hard way, acquired an empathy with the ordinary historic foot soldiers, those silent, patient, put upon people generally taken for granted and only noticed when politicians need re-election, those ignored, pushed to one side and considered bereft of a worthwhile opinion, and squashed by events of one sort or another. He possessed what all writers and journalists crave for.The ability to tell the Truth, and nothing but the Truth.