By Brian Austin
Over the past year, I have thought often of George Orwell’s novel 1984. Certain aspects of Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future have lingered with me since I first read his 1949 novel as a high school student, more years ago than I care to discuss. One of the parts of the book that made a lasting impression on me, far before my political consciousness fully emerged, was the use of doublespeak, language that deliberately distorts or reverses the meaning of words.
In Orwell’s novel, the government of Oceania was comprised of four ministries: the Ministry of Peace, which supported Oceania’s perpetual state of war, the Ministry of Truth, which was responsible for the complete rewriting of history to support the goals of the regime, the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for the severe rationing of basic necessities while claiming to be raising the standard of living, and the Ministry of Love, whose agents sought to identify and crush any form of dissidence against the government. In the nation of Oceania, war was peace, freedom was slavery, and ignorance was strength. Orwell’s novel highlighted the power of propaganda when combined with the fear produced by a totalitarian state.
I have become intensely interested in this subject with renewed enthusiasm in the past few years while watching the corporate takeover of our political system. That interest has peaked over the past 16 months while witnessing the attack in Wisconsin on workers, women, the poor, and the environment at the hands of our government.
We have seen a disturbing phenomenon over the past decade regarding the use of Orwellian-type doublespeak in the corporate takeover of America. In particular, the Republican Party has been absolutely masterful in utilizing language in a way that doesn’t merely change the meaning of words, but changes peoples’ perception of the very policies and conditions that affect their dailylives. Doublespeakhasbeenahuge factor in convincing people to vote against their own interests.
Over the past few years, as the GOP has become more and more extreme in its ideology and policy, an entire vocabulary of phrases has been intentionally concocted in the halls of right wing think tanks and spread with disciplined commitment by Republican politicians. These precise messages have been crafted by men like Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster andstrategist. Luntzhasbeenabsolutely instrumental in helping to create the language of today’s GOP. Luntz truly understands the power of language, as evidencedbythisexcerptfroman article he wrote in 2011 for the Huffington Post:
“Words matter. The most powerful words have helped launch social movements and cultural revolutions. The most effective words have instigated great change in public policy. The right words at the right time can literally change history.”
Luntz is a master of the use of language to redefine truth: He taught the GOP to use the phrase “death tax” instead of “estate tax,” the phrase “deep sea energy exploration” instead of “off-shore drilling,” and “economic freedom” instead of “capitalism.” And while his skills as a wordsmith are undeniable, his ethics are far more questionable. He has been censured by both the American Association for Public Opinion research and the National Council on Public Polls for suspect polling methods and results. He remains, however, extremely influential in the messaging of the Republican Party.
“Right to work,” for example, was a phrase concocted by the GOP and corporate lobbying groups to describe union-busting legislation that is sweeping Republican-controlled statehouses across the nation. “Right to work” has nothing to do with worker’s rights, unless you count the right of selfish workers to freeload benefits on the backs of dues-paying members.
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” – George Orwell, 1984
The creation of the phrase “job creators” is pure genius, because it taps right in to the core self-interest that currently motivates the majority of Americans. By calling the rich “job creators,” it delivers to people an implied warning that their future success, and their employment, is inextricably tied to the success of wealthy, so the masses better leave them alone. In reality, the middle and working class in this country are the job creators, because they drive our predominantly consumer-based economy. Henry Ford understood this when he took the unprecedented action of paying his workers a substantial wage of five dollars per day. Yet we see how powerful the phrase has been for the GOP in successfully promoting tax policies that favor the rich to a degree that would have made Ronald Reagan blush.
Freedom for What?
Another term that has been utterly distorted and savaged by the GOP is “Freedom.” Freedom used to mean something wonderful in America. In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt talked about his idea of freedom in his State of the Union address to the American public. Roosevelt told the nation that freedom was something that was achieved when the needs of all Americans were met, not just the needs of the wealthy. Roosevelt’s speech is well worth the read. It inspires me and renews my commitment to fight to restore the true values of this nation.
This notion of freedom, by the way, was once not limited to Democratic politicians. Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a vision of freedom that bears zero resemblance to the vision of the current Republican party. I have no doubt that this great man would have been defeated in a Tea Party primary if he ran today.
“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
“Only a fool would try to deprive working men and working women of their right to join the union of their choice.”
Today, the word freedom in GOP-speak means something far different, so different that it makes it almost impossible for me to reconcile that this is the party of Lincoln. It is the freedom of corporations to treat workers like chattel, pollute our environment, injure our citizens without fear of lawsuit, and move our industry overseas. It is the freedom of financial institutions to extract the wealth from our nation, collapse our economy through unbridled greed, and receive bail outs when the house of cards falls. It is the freedom of religious zealots to impose their beliefs on a secular society, to deny groups of people civil rights, to hurt others in God’s name, and to interpret scripture in a way thoroughly inconsistent with Judeo-Christian values. It is the freedom of employers to deny health care to cancer patients, as was just espoused by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson.
Earned Benefits or ‘Entitlements’
To my readers on the left, I am asking each and every one of you to commit to joining me in pushing back against the very language that is used to further the immoral agenda of today’s corporate right wing. Words can literally change history. Words can create greatness, but they can also devastate, particularly when used to deceive a populace, and we should never underestimate this power. Start tuning your ear to the GOP corporate doublespeak, and tirelessly challenge those who utilize it, particularly in the media. Don’t passively accept language that was created in the recesses of think tanks with the intent to deceive our nation. That language becomes reality when it is allowed to flourish. Instead, create your own terms that reflect the truth of the corporate domination of the GOP. Instead of “right to work,” call it “anti-worker legislation.” Instead of “job creators,” how about “Un-American tax dodgers”? Instead of “freedom from regulation,” call it “corporate lawlessness.” Use whatever terms you want, but stop legitimizing doublespeak through your silent acceptance.
To my readers in the center, all I ask of you is to start to question these terms when you hear them. Ask yourself if they reflect reality, or are merely being used to create a false reality. Make your own decision based on facts, and if you conclude I am right, I hope you feel compelled to help change the national vocabulary.
To the corporate right and your elected minions that control this nation, all I say to you is that you use this language at your own peril. Once the American people realize they have been deceived, they won’t be happy or charitable or kind. People just don’t like to be suckered, and you aren’t as charismatic as PT Barnum. Furthermore, understand that you are using a parlor trick of language that has a rich tradition in the most brutal regimes in the world’s history, all of which ultimately saw their own demise.
Finally, to the media, you have a responsibility to use language that was not created for the sole purpose of deceiving the public you are supposed to serve. I recognize that much of our media is controlled by corporate influences, and as such, the use of this language may be intentional. But for those journalists who use these terms out of convenience or sloth, you need to engage in some serious soul searching. By reporting on things such as Walker’s “reforms,” you are making an inherent value judgment that you are passing on to your consumers, and that value judgment is based upon artfully crafted lies. The public deserves better.
I will end as I began, with a quote:
“By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.” – Adolph Hitler, 1943
The power of words.
Brian Austin is a City of Madison police detective and member of the SWAT team as well as board member for his union. He is a founding member of “Cops for Labor,” and during the Wisconsin Uprising he worked long shifts on duty around the Capitol and joined the protest as soon as his shift ended. Austin blogs at cops4labor.blogspot.com.