The book 1984 by George Orwell (real name Eric Blair) reportedly hit the top of Amazon’s bestseller list shortly after Trump’s win and I’ve seen a number of stories last week about it and I even shared some on Twitter and Facebook last. Yet I can’t help but wonder why it is that the public thinks that with Trump, the dystopian nightmare of 1984 has now arrived. There are of course the lies the President has repeatedly told and the attempt to defend them as truths. These occurred all throughout the election campaign and it became a big story once the term “alternative facts” made its appearance last week. The most recent one being that a computer “glitch” was behind last weekend’s airport chaos and not his actions as President.
In some ways though, we owe Trump some credit, as much as we should be fearful. It’s Trump’s brash, bombastic, over-the-top, lack of subtly that has seemed to awaken the public to this issue of lies and half-truths being portrayed as truth and facts. This has been going on for sometime and it didn’t start with Trump. It’s actually rather hard to pick a moment in time when this began though there have been some more memorable and public moments.
Nixon was often accused of doublespeak, the well known term from 1984 used to describe language that deliberately attempts to obfuscate or distort meaning. But the examples in history are really too many to list. Pierre Trudeau’s government for instance passed the Protection of Privacy Act in the 1970s, a law designed to criminalize unauthorized wiretapping, sounded great, except it also permitted the government to legally engage in warrant-less covert wiretapping. In 1980 The National Council of Teachers of English gave Ronald Reagan the 1980 doublespeak award for his many inaccurate statements including claiming that Alaska had more oil than Saudi Arabia. The runner up that year was Jimmy Carter. Has the world forgotten the invention of the term “ethnic cleansing?” This was the way Western nations avoided intervening in the Rwandan genocide by doing their best to avoid using the word genocide to describe the genocide taking place (if they did use it they were obligated to intervene) and the US led the initiative in this regard. How about “collateral damage?” The phrase dates back to the ’60s but was used by collation forces to describe the unintentional deaths of civilians during the 1991 Gulf War. When you’re trying to kill people in war, can any deaths be considered unintentional? It was used again in the Kosovo conflict. How about the phrases the “War on Terror” or “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” (torture) “extra-juridical killings,” (assassination) even the media is to blame for participating in this madness, calling lies “falsehoods.” I could go on for some time because these are some of the most highly publicized examples, and don’t include the many laws politicians in many countries have passed that do the opposite of what their titles suggest or the many answers politicians give that avoid saying much of anything. Politicians have been leading the way in doublespeak and the destruction of words (along with Twitter perhaps) and until recently, the media have permitted it to go on.
What Trump has done is throw doublespeak in people’s faces, so much so that it just can’t be ignored, so for that I’m grateful but also worried. I’m grateful because it brings the issue to life as the media have started to join the rest of the public (finally!) and have now actually started using the word “lie” to describe some of Trump’s lies. I’m worried though because most people miss the real message about power in Orwell’s dystopian horror. Yes, there’s the danger of absolute power of the state and Party and yes there’s the suffocating of ideas, but most people in their reporting of the novel in recent weeks forget that the strength of Orwell’s message is that what enables doublespeak to become hegemonic in his book is people’s complacency. In the world of 1984 doublespeak became normal, so did the absolute power wielded by the state and Party. New editions of Newspeak were brought in gradually as each year a few more words were destroyed. The majority of people didn’t resist because it was all they knew, it was normal, and not worth the effort. Much the same is happening in our society. Think of all the examples of doublespeak I gave and the many more each of us have encountered (George Carlin has a long list). They are casually shrugged off even when doublespeak is being used to mask repressive laws in plain sight, and sanitize torture and assassination. Some of the examples I gave have even entered the lexicon, most people today would wonder why the phrase “collateral damage” is even an example of doublespeak it having already achieved normalcy (“isn’t it also the name of a movie? What’s wrong with that?”). So I’m grateful that Trump’s obnoxiousness has raised the public antenna but worried because as it continues, it will become normal, and his doublespeak is some of the most sensational we’ve seen in the West, at least since the propaganda of WW2. My worry is that before we know it, we may find ourselves anxiously awaiting the newest copy of Newspeak and inadvertently cheering the next time the chocolate ration gets increased.