Column by Alex Schroeder.
Exclusive to STR
War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Since the initial publication of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984, these statements have become part of our vocabulary; they exemplify the troubling extreme of authoritarian manipulation of language. Orwell understood, perhaps better than any other prominent novelist, the perils of totalitarianism and the means by which it can be sustained by controlling language. 1984 describes a world in which “the party,” Ingsoc, systematically maintains an oppressive hierarchy by denying the existence of objective reality, asserting that reality, including semantics, is ultimately what Ingsoc says it is. The authorities do not have to convince the masses that war, slavery, and ignorance are desirable. They rather manipulate the national vocabulary to inculcate in the exploited classes that these words mean their opposites.
Orwell’s novel is widely regarded as prophetic; public intellectual Christopher Hitchens has even comically queried whether Kim il-Sung used it as a model when creating North Korea’s repressive institutions. Language control, however, is utilized by the political classes in the West as well. There is arguably no better example of this than the euphemistic usage of “progressive” to refer to statist public policies.
Throughout human history, the overwhelming majority of peoples have lived in societies in which most economic activity was tightly managed by a relatively small collective of power mongers. Whether religious, monarchical, parliamentary, etc., these economically oppressive governance systems precluded those that were not politically connected from exercising economic freedom. This began to change with the Enlightenment, which coincided with the Industrial Revolution. Economies in the West began to liberalize, enabling the previously destitute to develop their skills and trade their products and services for monetary gain. That the poorest Westerners now live significantly better than previous generations could have fathomed is attributable to these two monumental phenomena.
The rise of progressivism in the United States in the early 1900s should rightly be viewed as a step towards the historical status quo. By what standard can an unprecedented governmental usurpation of economic power be regarded as progress? Among the most troubling events of this era were the creation of an American central bank and the country’s involvement in World War I, which some regard as the unofficial end of a largely isolationist foreign policy. While these are especially egregious examples, others certainly abound. Political control of the economy particularly increased under Woodrow Wilson and accelerated profoundly during the tenure of FDR. Yet these men are exemplars of progressive politics and heroes to many progressives.
The euphemistic usage of “progressive” is merely one contemporary example of governmental manipulation of language. Notice also how often members of the authoritarian elite, especially of the leftist persuasion, cloak justifications for the warfare state in the language of peace, and for the welfare state in the language of freedom. Language is perhaps the most potent tool true freedom advocates can employ to undermine the state and facilitate the rise of a more peaceful society. Some may not realize, however, that the tool itself may need to be protected against the adversarial manipulators. To paraphrase Orwell, ridding English speakers of their bad habits would enable them to think more clearly, which is “a necessary first step toward political regeneration.” To fight the statists, we must first know the nature of their agenda. That they are not affecting progress, but are rather incrementally supplanting progress with the historical status quo, is exactly what they hope to prevent you from recognizing through their destruction of language.