Orwellian Language Update

Imperialism and rising inequality call forth language innovations to put a nasty reality in a better light, or at least to take those responsible for the nastiness off-the-hook. One verbal device that helps obscure reality, and the responsibility for mass distress, is the use of the pronoun “we” for those responsible and the phrase “lack of political will” to explain policy failures. Thus, Thomas Frank writes that, “We beheld our powerlessness at the hands of the mighty and we decided that the thing to do was to make Wall Street even stronger. We accepted our powerlessness and then magnified it” (“Easy Chair,” Harper’s, September 2013). This is sort of self-contradictory, but it implies that ordinary citizens are in some fashion making the relevant decisions (“we decided” to make Wall Street stronger).

But this and other uses of “we” slither over the fact that most of us have not the slightest influence on policy choices—it is the folks who vet and fund potential political candidates and the vetted politicians themselves who comprise the tiny set of deciders. As George W. Bush laughingly said to a dining room full of big donors, “Some people call you the elite. I call you my base,” acknowleding that his constituency was not all of us. This split between the relevant “we” and the mass of ordinary citizens explains why polls consistently show “populist” views on the part of the “we” majority that don’t affect actual policy.

By the same token, it is not any lack of “political will” on the part of the general citizenry that explains this policy gap, it is the actual realized will on the part of the small power elite at the top who actually do have the political will to feather their own nests with feathers taken from the great mass of losers. Why can’t we have a policy of refusing to bail out giant banks that are failing through their own massive business errors? In a September 2, 2010 hearing before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, titled “Hearing on Too Big to Fail: Expectations and Impact of Extraordinary Government Intervention and the Role of Systemic Risk in the Financial Crisis,” Fed Chair Ben Bernanke explained it on the grounds that, “If there’s a lack of political will, there’s probably no solution that is sustainable” (cited in Donna Borak, “FCIC: Will Dodd-Frank Stop Future Bailouts?,” The American Banker, September 3, 2013). And the Washington Post editors explain that we can’t have government-provided medical insurance because the Democrats lack the political will: “[T]he liberals have long argued polls show wide support for the public option and even extending Medicare for all Americans and the lack of either proposal in the bill simply shows a lack of political will from Democrats” (“Should liberals be happy with the health-care legislation Congress could pass this weekend?” Washington Post, March 18, 2010).

I’ve been working this terrain of Orwellian language for many years, and find it interesting to see how much the earlier Orwellian language retains its pertinence even as fresh usage is brought forth to meet contemporary demands. In my first effort along this line, The Great Society Dictionary (with cartoons by Ron Cobb), which dates back to 1968 and the Vietnam War years (my God, how venerable is this author), I included words like:

  • Boondoggle: “A small welfare expenditure” (see “Defense Expenditure”)
  • Credibility: “The public’s capacity for absorbing official lies
  • Military-Industrial Complex:“The Pentagon and Its Hundred Neediest Cases”
  • Nation-building: “Nation-busting” (see “Save”)
  • Containment: “The exclusion of lesser powers from areas in which we intend to establish hegemony.” (Syn., “Expansion”)
  • Conservatism: “An ideology whose central tenet is that the Government Is Too Big, except for the police and military establishment”
  • Police: “The Fifth Estate and the only one outside of the law”
  • There are many others with continuing relevance. I added to them in a 1992 updated book entitled Beyond Hypocrisy, which had a “Doublespeak Dictionary” and many fine cartoons by Matt Wuerker. A few notables are:
  • Entitlements: “Claims to government aid by the Special Interests”( see “Special Interests”)
  • Special Interests: “Workers, women, farmers, the aged and infirm, the unemployed, blacks and other minorities; the general population; unimportant people”
  • Pro-life: “Strongly supportive of the rights of the fetus; often associated with a below average concern for post-fetal life”
  • Security, price of: “Whatever the arms establishment goes after”
  • Stability: “Political and economic conditions that satisfy our interests”
The earlier versions included the word “Extremist,” but an update today would supplement that with “Militant” (or “militant Islamist”), which in current usage is an oppositional figure who implicitly poses the threat of force (Militant has the same root as Military). As used in news reports, it is regularly applied to describe somebody who our forces have killed and who is allegedly not just a civilian and regrettable “collateral damage.” In the 1968 dictionary I had the category “Vietcong,” defined as “A Vietnamese peasant, especially one who we have killed.” The body counts of the Vietnam war were notorious for the inflation of numbers of alleged National Liberation Front and North Vietnamese soldiers killed by the inclusion of any Vietnamese victims, often peasants assassinated in “free fire zones” or as part of the Phoenix assassination program, a tradition that extends to the present with Militants and Collateral Damage.

There are other holdovers from earlier killing-machine word usage. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. government made periodic “peace moves” in the form of temporarily suspended bombing attacks, at the same time allegedly inviting the North Vietnamese to come to the bargaining table and “negotiate,” but secretly telling them that the terms were still surrender. The moves were getting nowhere, so the government then escalated the war. In recent years, U.S. leaders, now dominating a world without any power to contain them, hardly bother with peace moves; but they still have to deal with a restive domestic public somewhat impatient at the length and cost of multiple wars, so we have periodic “surges” that correspond to the former “escalation,” but with a word that provides a more positive aura. In the old days, also, we employed “mercenaries” in vast numbers, but now when we hire even larger numbers we give them a more benign name, “contractors.”

U.S. wars are always justified by the virtue of their “missions,” which may evolve when one of them turns out to be fraudulent beyond propaganda repair—most notably, the absence of Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” whose threat had been the nominal rationale for the 2003 U.S.-UK invasion. This mission lapse was quickly repaired by substituting the need to remove a dictator and give the surviving Iraqis (those still alive after our onslaught and the provoked civil war) a democratic order. We had to destroy the country to save it—from dictatorial rule. This was a late improvisation and remarkably selective as the Egyptian and Saudi dictatorships remained close and protected allies, but the ploy was effective in the U.S. propaganda system.

In other apologetic frames that serve the expansion program of the post-Soviet single superpower, we have the increased need for “Humanitarian Intervention” (HI) and the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), arguably just parts of a “Global War on Terror” GWOT). The first, HI, entails a “muscular” foreign policy that stresses the use of hard rather than soft power as demanded by the needs of that ever more influential old friend the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC). Using the products of the MIC like 500 pound bombs, depleted uranium, and cluster bombs entails a great deal of both collateral and non-collateral damage and is only humanitarian in purported rationale and excuses, not real reasons or effects. HI is a substitute for the much less expensive diplomacy or just minding one’s own business. R2P is also a creation of the post-Soviet order and also involves violence as a substitute for diplomacy or plain vanilla non-intervention. As these are violent manifestations of the GWOT, and highly selective in accord with the real aims and political alliances of the U.S. and its close allies, the GWOT is really a Global War OF Terror.

There is of course a “peace process” that has been going on between Israel and the Palestinians under U.S. supervision for decades. But that process has not brought peace and is not intended to do so. If there was a peace settlement that negotiated boundaries for Israel and Palestine, Israel would not be able to seize Palestinian property without crossing an accepted border and engaging in an open war of aggression. This would not do, so we have a “peace process” instead that will go on for some time. And we may be sure that R2P will not be applied in this case to protect the victims.

Among the remarkable features of the emergence of HI and R2P is that these supposedly benevolent rules have paralleled not only the phony “peace process” but also a growth of torture, extraordinary renditions and the seizure and indefinite incarceration of hundreds of individuals stripped of any legal rights by their designation as “enemy combatants.” These developments should have raised questions about the humanitarian aims of HI and R2P, given their sponsorship and enforcement by the same parties bringing torture and other ugly practices into wider use, but they didn’t do so in the mainstream, reflecting the power of the sponsors of both.

The concept “enemy combatant” is not to be found in international law, but torture is an important constituent of that law. The two are connected as declaring some captive to be an enemy combatant removes them from the protection of international law and makes them more easily subjected to torture, at least to the satisfaction of the torturers and their media. This is a questionable mode of behavior and not very humanitarian, but has been employed by the power that is both the main sponsor and practitioner of HI and R2P.

Torture is not a novel process, but just as it took on a new life in the U.S. sphere of influence in the counter-revolutionary spurt right after World War II (see Amnesty International’s 1974 “Report on Torture” and Chomsky and Herman’s 1979 Washington Connection), it took on renewed importance after 9/11 and the Bush-Cheney resort to torture as part of the war OF terror, with the open declaration of no moral constraint on methods (“taking off the gloves”). A remarkable debate took place in this country on whether waterboarding and other well-known torture techniques were really torture and whether the United States was bound by long-standing legal limits on these methods. With its slew of right-wing lawyers, the Bush-Cheney government found torture acceptable and used it, both directly and via transfers of prisoners to torturing states (“extraordinary renditions”), two of which were Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria. The leading Democrats raised no objections, and President Obama has refused to prosecute these law violations, in violation of his own oath of office.

The U.S. establishment has hated to use the word torture to apply to U.S. actions, with the result that a new torture lexicography emerged to evade it when applied to us. So we have “enhanced interrogation,” “coercive interrogation,” “harsh interrogation,” “interrogation in depth,” and “professional interrogation techniques.”

We also have some notable word and institutional innovations fitting the age of openly targeted assassinations carried out via drone bombings against “terrorists” and “militant Islamists” across the globe. This country carries out “signature strikes,” attacks based on “patterns of activity that are suspicious,” with the individuals killed commonly not identified by name. The threshold for killing at a distance was lowered in 2008 from “high value targets” or “personality strikes” to an alleged “reasonable man standard.” It was reported in 2012 that the Obama administration was continuing a policy whereby a signature strike “in effect counts all military aged males in a strike zone as combatants” (Micah Zenko. “How does the recent shift in U.S. drone policy impact ‘signature strikes’?,” Foreign Policy, June 11, 2013; Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” New York Times, May 30, 2012). The Administration has also developed a “disposition matrix,” a death list of targets (human beings, untried in any court) who are candidates for signature strikes, apparently discussed and decided on by the President at “Terror Tuesday” meetings.

There are important institutional and verbal shifts on the home front as well. Perhaps the foremost language innovation on the domestic scene was the “homeland security” coinage, accompanied by the creation of a Department of Homeland Security (DHS), now a major component of the rapidly growing domestic surveillance complex. The DHS is a huge and costly bureaucratic add-on to existing structures allegedly dealing with elements of security, which should have been anathema to conservatives hostile to Big Government. It is also likely that this new add-on and associated funds-flow contributes much more to public fears about security than it serves any real protective function. This DHS needs those fears to justify its large appropriations, as does the MIC.

One of my favorite language shifts over the years has been the move to “corrections facilities” from “jails” and “prisons.” What makes this verbal change so noteworthy and Orwellian is that jails and prisons have moved steadily away from any focus on rehabilitation to just getting prisoners out of circulation—that is, away from anything like “corrections.” It is reminiscent of the shift from Department of War to Department of Defense back in the late 1940s, coinciding with the shift in that Department’s real mission from defense to offense and expansion (i.e., “containment”).

There are endless riches in Orwellian usage in this great country, and they expand side-by-side with its regression in humanity and justice and the mainstream media’s protection of its outrages. We will have to return to this territory soon again.


Edward S. Herman is an economist, media, critic, and author of numous articles and books, including The Politics of Genocide (with David Petersen).