Orwell knew the inherent power of the big lie

Published 4:09 pm Thursday, June 10, 2021

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”—George Orwell

ROLLING FORK—The truth can, indeed, set you free, but the lie can also enslave you.

Perhaps no one knew that better than George Orwell.

As Europe was staggering to its feet in the aftermath of the heavyweight fight on its soil we now recognize as World War II, Orwell set about trying to explain to his generation and those who would follow, what had just happened and what would lie ahead should we ever again allow lie to overwhelm truth.

As is happening today.

In 1946, Orwell penned his perilously underrated essay now basically confined to English classrooms in very good schools on the dangers of sloppy thinking and the siren song that is propaganda, “Politics and the English Language,” then three years later followed that up with his better known, if not necessarily understood dystopian warning about how totalitarianism becomes self-propagating and internalized through totalitarian thinking, “1984.”

That a little hard to wrap your ahead around? Just go to a Donald Trump rally and instead of wearing a stupid hat and clapping and yelling when the idiot next to you does, listen—I mean, really listen—to the words being spoken and I think it will come to you.

And to be fair, the good Mr. Orwell had a pretty important advantage over you—that of proximity. He had just lived through, indeed, had barely but escaped from, the nightmare visage of what he wrote.

Because even though you may hear the term tossed about quite a bit these days, it really was none other than Adolph Hitler who was the first to describe the technique of telling a lie so often that people came to believe it. Ironically enough, he called it the “Big Lie.”

Language matters, people. Words matter.

Orwell knew that, which is why he so openly attacked the insidious euphemism, the seemingly innocent enough, but in truth venomous tool used by both the extreme left-wing and extreme left-wing parties and their governments—from communism to fascism. He knew, because he had seen in action the phenomenon that if people could be persuaded to accept vernacular reframing, some of them would then be subject to altering their conceptions of reality.

In other words, exactly what has happened and is continuing to happen to about 30 percent of the American electorate today.

Doubt that? Flat reject that?

All right, let us consider for a moment both the word and the concept of torture.

Everybody knows torture is wrong, monstrous. Torture is against the very rules of war. Torture is prohibited by the Geneva Conventions. Throughout this country’s history, Americans absolutely, positively did not torture.

Until we did. (Longtime readers of this column may remember my having quite a bit to say on that subject.)

But we could not admit it, of course. “Torture” is too terrible a word. So we rebranded it in the wake of and justified the action itself in the name of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

When we waterboarded other humans, we weren’t “torturing” them; we were conducting “enhanced interrogation.” When we whisked captives away to friendly nations whose laws governing prisoners were not quite as limiting as ours, we referred to that action as a “rendition.” The internal documents that detailed what we were doing weren’t really censored from prying eyes and that messy old Freedom of Information Act, they were “redacted.”

Oh, ole George would have loved those words—rendition, redacted, enhanced. They are so perfectly bureaucratic, so inherently government-friendly, so reality-altering.

We didn’t secret some poor bastard off to a Turkish prison; we just gave him a rendition.

And lo, the pols looked upon their handiwork and they said that “this is good.”

And they—both parties, conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats—have been doing it ever since: the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind, etc. Want to do something a mite controversial, find a euphemism.

For who could oppose things like that? They are not names of legislation; they are marketing campaigns. Trump took the wretched business to a new level, but the earlier efforts laid the groundwork for him to do so.

The foundation of the American democratic republic, like the foundations of all others before and after is language—words—the language of the Declaration of Independence, the words of the Constitution. And all democratic republics are toppled not from their rooftops, but from within at their foundational levels.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the chipping away at the language, the weakening of the words.

Ray Mosby is editor and publisher of the Deer Creek Pilot in Rolling Fork.