Newspeak Spoken Here

Posted: Jan 29, 2014 12:01 AM
Newspeak Spoken Here

George Orwell's nightmarish vision of the future in his novel "1984" didn't end on its last page. For it left behind a whole language with its own rules, vocabulary, purpose, and still continuing relevance: Newspeak.

Nor did "1984" begin as fiction, being firmly rooted in the actual theory and practice of fascism and communism, the twin horrors of Orwell's time. The book retains its power to this day, a power the Soviets recognized when they banned it.

When we landed in what was still Leningrad in 1983 (it would not become St. Petersburg again till the Soviet Union imploded nearly a decade later), our group of visiting American editors was carefully questioned, our baggage searched, and subversive literature like "1984" confiscated. A fascist/communist regime can't be too careful. Ideas may prove contagious. As they would in the now happily former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which is just plain Russia once again.

A name is a powerful thing, and when it changes, it's a sign a lot of other things have changed -- or will. The same applies to words in general. They're not just words, they're signs of where we are and whither we are tending, to borrow a phrase of Mr. Lincoln's.

Vocabulary remains the Little Round Top of any struggle of ideas. It's the dominating height that can decide the outcome of the entire battle. Whoever seizes and holds it has a strategic advantage. It matters -- a lot -- whether people call it the death tax or the estate tax, Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act, racial quotas or affirmative action. It isn't just in totalitarian societies that language is used to restrict thought, not just express it.

It takes only a glance at today's political language to realize that Newspeak has outlasted the Soviet system that inspired it. Note this headline on the front page of my local paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the other Sunday: "Hundreds rally for women's rights." Who could be against women's rights?

The story's lede, or its opening paragraph, begins: "A few hundred people rallied outside the state Capitol on Saturday to advocate for abortion rights....." Not "legalized abortion," and certainly not "the destruction of innocent life," but abortion rights. Who could be against rights? George Orwell described what was going on here in his classic and all too prescient essay, "Politics and the English Language." In it, he noted:

"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. ... Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements."

Now millions of innocent lives are destroyed in the womb, even before they see their first light of day, and this is called abortion rights.

In our time, those same abortion rights are celebrated at a rally in front of the state Capitol. At this one, as Orwell would not have been surprised to see, the air was thick with euphemisms. ("The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.") Giving a detailed description of what happens in an abortion would have been considered in bad taste, but performing abortions -- by the millions year after year -- isn't.

This rally at Arkansas' state Capitol got to hear a statement from a professor at UALR's law school that could have served as model for modern Newspeak. It defended "reproductive rights and the right to choose...." Because, according to the professor, those rights are of fundamental importance for "women of color and poor women." As if half the babies aborted in this country every year weren't female. And since when is being born into poverty -- like a long line of Americans from Ben Franklin to Steve Jobs -- grounds for the death penalty?

But such thoughts come too close to being subversive in a society in the grip of what Pope John Paul II named the Culture of Death, a phrase that must be avoided at such rallies. Like so much else in the real world we live (and die) in, rather than the euphemized world in which abortion on demand has become just a subsection of our Reproductive Rights.

In his statement on this year's anniversary of Roe v. Wade, which has turned out to be a death sentence for millions, our president managed to defend abortion without actually using the a-word: "We reaffirm our steadfast commitment to protecting a woman's access to safe, affordable health care and her constitutional right to privacy, including the right to reproductive freedom."

The president's oldspeak may have grown rusty since he was swept into office in a different decade, but his Newspeak remains fluent. Just call it doubleplusgood, to use an adjective Orwell cited in his "The Principles of Newspeak," an appendix he attached to the text of "1984." "The purpose of Newspeak," he explained, "was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible."

A phrase like "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" from the Declaration of Independence would be unthinkable in Newspeak, at least in the way we understand it. It would have to be replaced by something like "reproductive freedom, security and the pursuit of equality." Or just blanked out, for it is a perfect example of forbidden oldspeak. And crimethink.

Winston Smith, slaving away somewhere in the bowels of the Ministry of Truth in 1984, would surely have approved of the president's statement on this year's anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Like so much of the language used at that Rally for Reproductive Justice, it's a classic example of goodthink. Newspeak even has a verb to describe the kind of orator who can rattle off such catch phrases without actually having to think about them: duckspeak. Let's just say our president is a doubleplusgood duckspeaker.