“But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother”.
As promised, Donald Trump is winning. An assault on American culture and values, aided by Congress and a press too interested in chasing the next scandal, is permitting Donald Trump to march from victory to victory. A focus on a lack of legislative success and the Russia scandal have the press and public distracted as the administration posts victories in a war to fundamentally change our nation. We smile and laugh at Trump’s antics as pundits and comedians drone on about various improprieties. Unfortunately, like his primary opponents the press and public are fighting the last war and the current battle is not going well.
The most recent assault on our values is the elimination of seven words from budget proposals of the CDC. Limiting the words that can be used in a budget limits the activities associated with those words. How does one study the environmental effects on fetal development of lead contaminated water without using the terms “fetus”, “vulnerable”, or “evidence-based”? When science and medicine are required to avoid words because those words are found to be unsuitable the outcome is that science will fall inline with political orthodoxy. As we limit words we limit the thought and meaning associated with them.
We laugh when we are told that the President speaks at the level of 5th grader, but this simplicity of speech limits thought. We are narrowing the language not only by eliminating specific words, but by accepting that the official utterances of the highest office are limited to 140 characters. A further linguistic attack is that phrases like “alternative facts” and “fake news”, reminiscent of Newspeak from the novel1984 by George Orwell, have found their way into the speech of intellectuals as much as their anti-intellectual creators. Newspeak was constructed to limit expression and thereby limit thought in order to maintain societal control. This is done partly through the invention of new words, but also through doing away with words or limiting their meaning to constrain thought and speech within approved political orthodoxy.
In Orwell’s dystopian novel the world is forever at war, where all-pervasive surveillance and an unabashed manipulation of the public are the norm. Sadly, this is reminiscent of our current conflicts. In 1984 the war is not total war, but war fought on the periphery of society in a way that does not create an existential threat. It is a war that can be fought forever against a faceless evil sufficient to create a patriotic fervor useful to divert the masses.
An assault on language is a one step. An assault on truth is another. If we can look at two pictures and know that the picture with fewer people has more people than a picture with more people we will have arrived at the Orwellian concept of Doublethink. Doublethink is more than the ability to believe black is white, it is to know black is white. Doublethink is the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs at the same time and know that both are true. Donald Trump may not know Orwell’s vision, it is doubtful if he ever read the book, but he embodies it and is changing culture to accommodate it. A further quote from George Orwell will help to frame the current culture war, “He who controls the present controls the past.”
The list of the President’s accomplishments as we move toward a society unrecognizable except to Orwell continues to grow. First is the attack on language, the invention of new words, the elimination of words that are politically inconvenient and the simplification of language as a whole. The charm of Newspeak is that it is thought control for the lazy. Second is the need to have surveillance at all times. Technology must take a hand. In 1984 there was an ever-present screen watching a person’s every movement. For us it is enough to say “Alexa – please meet my iPhone”. The allure of technology is that we happily sacrifice our privacy for the sake of convenience. Third is the need of a non-existential external threat sufficient to tamp down internal resistance. Finally, there must be an assault on truth. A campaign that has one deny their senses to accept falsehoods as true. These are the battles to fight in the current conflict. So far the response to this attack as been to laugh at the enemies of truth and ridicule the battle being waged. Our freedom I fear is going out not with a bang or a whimper, but with a chuckle.