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September 8, 1998

ORWELLIAN LOGIC 101:
A Few Simple Lessons

by Norman Solomon

After U.S. missiles hit sites in Sudan and Afghanistan, some Americans seemed uncomfortable. A vocal minority even voiced opposition. But approval was routine among those who had learned a few easy Orwellian lessons.

When terrorists attack, they're terrorizing. When we attack, we're retaliating. When they respond to our retaliation with further attacks, they're terrorizing again. When we respond with further attacks, we're retaliating again.

When people decry civilian deaths caused by the U.S. government, they're aiding propaganda efforts. In sharp contrast, when civilian deaths are caused by bombers who hate America, the perpetrators are evil and those deaths are tragedies.

When they put bombs in cars and kill people, they're uncivilized killers. When we put bombs on missiles and kill people, we're upholding civilized values.

When they kill, they're terrorists. When we kill, we're striking against terror.

At all times, Americans must be kept fully informed about who to hate and fear. When the United States found Osama bin Laden useful during the 1980s because of his tenacious violence against the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan, he was good, or at least not bad -- but now he's really bad.

No matter how many times they've lied in the past, U.S. officials are credible in the present. When they vaguely cite evidence that the bombed pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum was making ingredients for nerve gas, that should be good enough for us.

Might doesn't make right -- except in the real world, when it's American might. Only someone of dubious political orientation would split hairs about international law.

When the mass media in some foreign countries serve as megaphones for the rhetoric of their government, the result is ludicrous propaganda. When the mass media in our country serve as megaphones for the rhetoric of the U.S. government, the result is responsible journalism.

Unlike the TV anchors spouting the government line in places like Sudan and Afghanistan, ours don't have to be told what to say. They have the freedom to report as they choose.

"Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip," George Orwell observed, "but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip."

Orwell noted that language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." And his novel 1984 explained that "the special function of certain Newspeak words ... was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them."

National security. Western values. The world community. War against terrorism. Collateral damage. American interests.

What's so wondrous about Orwellian processes is that they tend to be very well camouflaged -- part of the normal scenery. Day in and day out, we take them for granted. And we're apt to stay away from uncharted mental paths.

In 1984, Orwell wrote about the conditioned reflex of "stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought ... and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction."

Orwell described "doublethink" as the willingness "to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed."

In his afterword to 1984, Erich Fromm emphasized "the point which is essential for the understanding of Orwell's book, namely that `doublethink' is already with us, and not merely something which will happen in the future, and in dictatorships."

Fifty-two years ago, Orwell wrote an essay titled "Politics and the English Language." Today, his words remain as relevant as ever: "In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible."

Repression and atrocities "can indeed be defended," Orwell added, "but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."

National security. Western values. The world community. War against terrorism. Collateral damage. American interests.


Norman Solomon is co-author of Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News and The Trouble With Dilbert: How Corporate Culture Gets the Last Laugh. Email Norman Solomon at mediabeat@igc.apc.org


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