Book Review - What Orwell Didn’t Know Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics

Cultic Studies Review, 7, (3), 2008, 307-315

What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics

Edited by András Szántó

Reviewed by Joseph P. Szimhart

Publication of this collection of essays by twenty writers coincided with a symposium at Columbia University in New York to honor the sixtieth anniversary of Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” George Orwell (pen name for Eric Arthur Blair, 1903–1950) wrote his classic commentary on misuse of language in 1946, three years before he published his apocalyptic novel 1984 (or Nineteen Eighty-Four). The novel reflects Orwell’s prognosis that language as propaganda can augment a social dystopia or totalitarian regime. Orwell argues that language should reflect reality as directly as possible. “Politics and the English Language” is reproduced in full in the appendix of this volume. The editor, András Szántó, who resides in New York, is a writer and consultant to philanthropic organizations. He is also a freelance journalist.

Most of the essays in this anthology reflect on our current state of politics, and that includes criticizing the Bush administration and its handling of the war in Iraq. The book project began when the deans of five prominent journalism schools commiserated about the sad state of political language and how rapidly it seemed to be disconnecting from reality. Despite the book’s overall leftist lean (Orwell, a socialist, should have been pleased with that), a few essayists strike notes that cut left and right through political jargon. As Szántó notes, “It goes without saying that politicians have always taken liberties with the truth” (p. x). However, Szántó already overlooks two Orwell rules (1 and 3) for writers here: “It goes without saying that” is better stated as “Invariably” or “Notoriously.”

Before I go on, let us look at Orwell’s six rules for writers, from his essay:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Now I feel better because I can make this review simply to the point. Of course, I am being facetious, or should I say coy? These are not simple rules to follow without professional discipline. I will try. Orwell’s rules might be decent guidelines for editing, but they are also a death knell for totalitarian propaganda. As Robert J. Lifton stated, “Totalist language then, is repetitiously centered on all-encompassing jargon, prematurely abstract, highly categorical, relentlessly judging, and to anyone but its most devoted advocate, deadly dull: in Lionel Trilling's phrase, ‘the language of nonthought’” (see Lifton, 1961, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, chapter 22: Loading the Language). Several of the essayists refer to Lifton.

Orwell’s rules indicate the power of language to inform and enlighten, and to confuse and deceive. With that in mind, allow me to comment on the essays.

The introduction is by Orville Schell, a journalist who authored twelve books. He currently is director of the Asia Society’s Center on China-U.S. relations. Schell argues that manipulative language has evolved since the 19th century with the advent of a deeper understanding of the human psyche and the effects of communication technology. He believes that several evolutionary breakthroughs led to a level of “efficaciousness” in propaganda today that would astound Orwell. The first step came about when Chinese Communists imbued Stalinist propaganda with Chinese characteristics, thus creating “Mao Zedong Thought.” The second step married old-style politics with Freudian insights about what triggers human response. Not surprisingly, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, developed new psychological mechanisms to induce people to buy more consumer goods by tapping desires and overriding needs. Bernays is “the father of public relations” who developed mass persuasion ideas for advertising. The last evolutionary step came on the new wave of electronic technology and the Internet. Schell finishes his discussion with brainwashing in China that combines Confucian tradition of self-cultivation and obligation to community with a Maoist worldview. He cites Robert Lifton and writer Milan Kundera as particularly observant of how this all works. In the end, Schell states, “…propaganda’s evolution has hardly run its course.”

Part One, Language and Politics, begins with “Orwell Then and Now” by David Rieff, who is a contributing writer to The New York Times and author of eight books. Rieff discusses the fates of successful writers, most of whom fade into obscurity shortly after they die, if not before. Orwell struck a chord that still rings loud in our political arenas. Nearly everyone with an education understands what Orwellian indicates. Rieff compares and contrasts Orwell with Simone Weil: “Both Weil and Orwell were ‘judgers’… Their standards were high and their opinions severe.” Rieff sees a writer’s influence ‘evolving’ over time. Orwell, clearly a man of the left, is today claimed by both sides of the political debate. Opponents of the George Bush regime describe it as a propaganda machine that uses “Newspeak,” whereas proponents see Bush with Orwell, fighting totalitarianism. Neither side has a right to claim Orwell, Rieff says. To attempt it is a “vulgar quest … We haven’t a clue what Orwell would have thought or what side he would have taken.”

Nicholas Lemann is dean of Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a staff writer for The New Yorker. In “The Limits of Language,” he points out that Orwell’s “particular targets were intellectuals of the left” (and “not the state,” as we might guess) who use “fancy, pretentious and imprecise language.” However, today’s propaganda is usually well-written and not with the clumsy language that Orwell noted in referring to the propagandists of his day. In a way, Orwell’s proposition that precise language will reduce totalitarian power is wrong. Lemann cites a Bush speech post-9/11 that was precise and used common speech, or “the words of everyday life,” that now presents as “Orwellian” only in hindsight. When it was first presented, almost no one saw the Bush speech that way. Lemann is concerned or frightened less over the implications of corruption of language than he is about the corruption of information and how it is gathered. Weapons of mass destruction are a serious matter if they exist.

Mark Danner, currently a professor at Bard and U.C. Berkeley, has authored several books on the Middle East. He argues that the Bush/Cheney team created a “virtual war [that] begets real war” with vague propaganda such as “War on Terror.” Danner quotes Orwell: “From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned.” He implies that our administration is practicing a totalitarian approach to history as illustrated in Orwell’s 1984. In that novel, the super states of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia are in a perpetual world war designed to better control their minions through fear. Danner ends his discussion with memories of a poignant visit he made to Baghdad more than a year ago. Real people are suffering, some collecting body parts of relatives for burial. An American soldier he interviewed—dead the following week. These are the real actors in history, not people “creating their own reality,” as high-level politicos do.

A columnist for The Nation and Professor of Law at Columbia, Patricia Williams states, “…Orwell would have had no trouble cutting through the cowpokey folksiness and spewed malapropisms of President George W. Bush.” She proposes a list of rules Orwell might apply today, and then uses the list to skewer Bush’s fundamentalist backers and the “Fox-and-fear driven media.” I had fun reading this essay despite its over-the-top, near stereotypical language. I surmise that Orwell would have cringed at this essay’s title: “An Egregious Collocation of Vocables.”

The aptly named Francine Prose, the author of eleven novels and teacher at Bard, laments the “sad” state of reading ability among students today compared to Orwell’s day—sixty years ago. She takes “Bush-Cheney” to task for getting us into Iraq with an abuse of language, using freedom, patriotism, and liberty with false meaning. “Clarity of thought and attention to linguistic nuance are essential tools in subverting propaganda.” Prose marvels at how much Orwell can still teach us.

Part Two of the collection covers Symbols and Battlegrounds and begins with George Lakoff’s “What Orwell Didn’t Know About the Brain, the Mind, and Language.” Lakoff is a professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at U.C. Berkeley whose new book The Political Mind is due in 2008. Lakoff’s is my favorite essay in the entire anthology because his view requires a scientific orientation to the brain function that was not available to Orwell, and he offers a foundation for critiquing all the other essays. We are all bound to biases ingrained in our brains, whether we profess progressive or conservative views. Brain change will occur over time as we absorb repeated slogans and images—“Uneraseable brain change,” says Lakoff. We can counter this process, but only with effort—we have to stop and think, and that can hurt. Conservatives, for example, mounted an attack on “liberal,” which was a positive idea that flourished in the 1960s. They succeeded to demonize liberal to the point that even Democrats have been scrambling for decades to restructure their ideas without using liberal. Lakoff mentions that a reverse strategy is occurring with a smart effort by new Democrat candidates to reframe “conservative” with notions such as “Conservatives cannot be trusted to guide the government they scorn … they get the world wrong.” Of course, this refers to the symbol of conservative in a president who appears clumsy and pedestrian when addressing other worldviews; thus, the inept initial handling of the war in Iraq. Lakoff points to Al Gore’s successful campaign and film about global warming as a good example of the proper use of “real mechanisms of mind … to tell important truths.” Gore’s film producers used a host of influence techniques, including personal narratives, emotions, images, and worldviews to get the point across. If they had merely stuck to the facts, the project would have flopped.

Drew Weston is a psychologist and a professor at Emory with a particular focus on politics as a consultant with Western Strategies. He believes Orwell got the title of his novel wrong by two decades: 2004 marked a several-year period that was “the most Orwellian of American democracy.” Weston lists typical criticisms of the Bush administration’s positions on education, the environment, and waging “perpetual” war. He believes that Orwell would have recognized “No Child Left Behind” and “Clear Skies Initiative” as Newspeak. He might have been surprised at how well television images and Internet propaganda have increased manipulation of the public even in a democracy. He argues that Reagan was able to defeat Carter largely through “masterfully crafted” patriotic media adverts. Weston notes offensive manipulation of Barack Obama’s image by the “right” that has associated Obama with Muslims and Blackness. Weston suggests we combat 21st century Newspeak by exposing it as it happens.

Alice O’Connor writes in “Bad Knowledge” that the “‘faith-based’ administration” and the “right-wing” establishment battered “evidence-based knowledge” with their propaganda for war and misreading of evidence for global warming and stem-cell research. Her critique is not entirely partisan. The left also contributes to bad knowledge with its “technocratic think tanks” that pretend to an aura of neutrality as well as gravity. O’Connor refers to the conservative reaction to the “culture wars … in the 1970s and 1980s” against an increasingly permissive and “liberal” activism as one factor that contributes to our present state of political obfuscation. O’Connor teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and her latest book is Social Science for What? (2007).

Frances FitzGerald, author of several books and frequent contributor to The New Yorker (I recall her excellent 1986 New Yorker articles on the Rajneesh cult), follows the progression of U.S. defense policy from the Cold War years. In 1983 President Reagan announced plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative, or “star wars”; thus, FitzGerald’s essay “Stellar Spin.” Although there was never a viable technology to prevent enemy ballistic missiles from entering the United States, administrators continued to make policy as if they had something. “The U.S. National Missile Defense program is a case study in just what George Orwell warned us about: rhetoric over reality.”

Konstanty Gebert, a former Solidarity activist in Poland, is a columnist and reporter for Gazeta Wyborcza and visiting professor at universities in America. He writes in “Black and White, or Gray: A Polish Conundrum” that Orwell may have been naïve to think that democracy with its “freedoms” of speech would be an antidote to the Newspeak of totalitarian regimes. In Gebert’s native Poland, the current regime of Chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, with his twin brother Lech as president, created a coalition under their Law and Justice Party with the smaller Self-Defense (leftist and led by a former Communist) and the extreme right-wing League of Polish Families parties. Gebert argues that this post-totalitarian democracy has maneuvered into becoming a version of a “post-Communist monster” that it opposes. The coalition has done this by manipulating the “silent majority” of Poland to believe that it was both rooting out old Communist influences and relieving the guilt of those who supported Communism. In effect, Kaczynski has been suppressing media criticism of his alliance by using neo-Orwellian Newspeak.

Susan Harding teaches anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and has written a book critical of Reverend Jerry Falwell; thus, her essay “After the Falwellians.” Harding follows Lakoff above in pointing out that conservatives have undermined liberal agendas by reframing political language and burdening the liberal with creating a relativistic and immoral society. She takes the Falwellians to task for constricting the discussion about the secularization of society, but predicts that their challenge might lead to the emergence of a new social soul. The signs are among evangelicals who support environmental care and good science. She sees Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as an example of a “jeremiad” and a leftist adaptation of a faith-based style. She notes that Orwell would have agreed with Falwellians that the revolt against religion caused the “amputation of the soul” in modern society; however, Orwell defined soul as “the belief in human brotherhood.”

Part Three covers Media and Message and begins with Martin Kaplan’s “Welcome to the Infotainment Freak Show.” Kaplan was a campaign manager and chief speechwriter for Vice President Walter Mondale. He earned a Ph.D. from Stanford University, and he holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media, and Society at the USC Annenberg School. Kaplan writes that it is not so much Orwell’s 1984 world that should worry us, but rather, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which describes a society on the drug “Soma.” We are in “immanent danger of amusing ourselves to death.” In our media-driven lives, everything has to be entertaining—politics, sports, news, commerce, health care, self-image, law—or we will merely ignore it. Informing an audience is less important than having an audience. A postmodern consciousness or “pomo” of subjectivism has trumped the robustness of science and real journalism. Perhaps there is an antidote via the Internet, but Kaplan warns, “[o]n the Internet, no one knows if you are Big Brother.”

Victor Navasky asks “What About Big Media?” in his essay that discusses the changes in postal rates that now advantage the largest media corporations such as Time-Warner while all small publishers must pay much higher rates. The founding fathers of our nation wanted free fare for posted opinion magazines, to better inform the public and thus keep the citizen as free as possible. Since the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, the USPS demands that “each class of mail must pay its own way.” That Act was implemented in 1984, ironically. In 2007, after a decade of lobbying, Time-Warner convinced the USPS (a monopoly) “that in the name of ‘efficiency’ it ought to adopt an Orwellian plan whereby the smaller the magazine, the higher the postal rates.” Navasky reports that this newsworthy reversal of public policy “received little or no coverage in the conglomerated, mainstream media.” The number of Big Media companies is now in the single digits. Navasky asks, “Whatever happened to antitrust?” He doubts the Internet’s “unfact-checked blogosphere” will have any effect because studies show that any blog longer than 1,000 words is discouraged; thus, it is no substitute for the journal of opinion that flowed more freely through the snail-mail system in the past.

Geoffrey Cowan formerly directed Voice of America and is a professor at University of Southern California. His essay “Reporters and Rhetoric” discusses rhetoric deployed by the administration in recent events in Iraq. For example, there was a political debate over media reports of the so-called “surge” of troops in Iraq that Democrats called “escalation.” Also, the government resisted all media efforts, led by NBC-TV, to declare that “civil war” had broken out in Iraq. Fox TV commentator Bill O’Reilly insisted it was “out-of-control chaos, not civil war.” Noting Orwell’s admonition, Cowan urges that we continue to “struggle against the abuse of language.”

In “Lessons from the War Zone,” Farnaz Fassihi, an Iranian American born in the United States of America, discusses ethics and dilemmas of journalists. She worked as a journalist post-9/11 in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Fassihi ponders the role of a journalist who hears of an impending attack on U.S. troops. Does she have a duty to inform the troops, thus augmenting the news, or does she remain neutral to just report events? If a journalist challenges the official version of events, is he or she siding with the enemy? The truth is that war is very ugly—how much of that reality does one need to report, or can one report something that offends the purpose of the administration? Fassihi cites actual cases to illustrate these dilemmas. She concludes that journalists, following Orwell’s rules, need to be as truthful as possible.

Michael Massing is a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review and the author of Now They tell Us, about the American press in Iraq. In “Our Own Thought Police,” he notes how both the mass media and the public “filter” what they want to hear and see about the war, thus sanitizing the most gruesome aspects and behaviors of soldiers. Although Massing does not mention this, I was reminded of what T.S. Elliot wrote: Human kind cannot stand very much reality. Although American soldiers have reached out to Iraqis in outstanding acts of charity, Massing mentions a number of books and articles by soldiers that give a truly “un-sanitized” look at the horror of the Iraq war.

The Epilogue is by George Soros, who offers his thoughts on an “Open Society Reconsidered.” Soros is no friend of current “conservative” administration, but he does argue that “both Democrats and Republicans engage in deliberate deception” even if the radical right has more money to spend and is therefore more effective at it.

I have not done justice to this collection in my brief sketches. Whether I agreed with a writer or not, upon a second reading I found the anthology even more worthwhile. Orwell struck a deep chord for good, honest journalism that he believed was necessary for human freedom. Times have changed but the need for good journalism has not.