Double Speak and the Politics of Dissent
August 20, 2004
One of the more significant marks of an authoritarian society is its willingness to distort the truth while simultaneously suppressing dissent. For instance, Umberto Eco argues that one element of proto-fascism is the rise of an Orwellian version of Newspeak, or what he labels as the language of “eternal fascism,” whose purpose is to produce “an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax [whose consequence is] to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.” 
Under the Bush administration, especially since the horrible events of September 11th, we have witnessed an extension of the concept of war to include not only traditional, strategic, defense-oriented objectives, but also to discipline civil society, reproduce all aspects of public life in the image of official power, and inject the ideology of militarism as the very foundation of politics. Accompanying this increasing form of discursive and material repression is an attempt to refashion the tools of language, sound, and image in an effort to diminish the capacity of the American public to think critically. As the critical power of language is reduced in official discourse to the simulacra of communication, it becomes more difficult for the American public to engage in critical debates, translate private considerations into public concerns, and recognize the distortions and lies that underlie much of the current government policies. What happens to critical language under the emergence of official Newspeak can be seen in the various ways in which the Bush administration and its official supporters both misrepresent by mis-naming government policies and simply engage in lying to cover up their own regressive politics and policies. 
Many people have pointed to Bush himself as a mangler of the English language, but this charge simply repeats the obvious while privatizing a much more important issue connecting language to power. Bush’s discursive ineptness may be fodder for late night comics, but such analyses miss the more strategic issue of how the Bush administration actually manipulates discourse. For instance, Bush describes himself as a “reformer” while he promotes policies that expand corporate welfare, give tax benefits to the rich, and “erode the financial capacity of the state to undertake any but the most minimal welfare functions.”  He defines himself as a “compassionate conservative,” but he implements policies that result in “billions of dollars in cuts...proposed for food stamp and child nutrition programs, and for health care for the poor.”  Bush’s public speeches, often mimicked in the media, are filled with what Renana Brooks has called “empty language,” that is, statements that are so abstract as to be relatively meaningless, except to reinforce in simplistic terms an often reactionary ideological position. Brooks cites the example of Bush’s comment on the complex relationship between malpractice suits and skyrocketing health care, which he reduces to “No one has ever been healed by a frivolous lawsuit.”  While Bush’s own ideological position becomes clear in this comment, the complexity of the issue is completely trivialized and removed from public discussion. Sometimes the distortions of official language are hard to miss, even among the media guards so quick to invoke patriotic correctness. One glaring example happened in an interview between Terry Gross, host of National Public Radio’s, Fresh Air, and Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, also considered to be the chief architect of President Bush’s tax plan. The topic for discussion was the estate tax, reviled as the “death tax” by conservative elites to gain popular support for its repeal, though the vast majority of Americans will not be affected by this tax. Gross suggested that since the estate tax only effects a small minority of people who get over $2 million in inheritance, the law eliminating it clearly privileges the rich, not the average American. Norquist responded by arguing that the morality behind her argument was comparable to the same type of morality that resulted in the death of millions of Jews under the Holocaust. When Gross challenged this specious analogy, Norquist argued illogically that people (read liberals) who attacked the estate tax could now be placed on the same moral plane as the Nazis who killed over six million Jews, and untold others.  Under this logic, any critique of a minority group, but especially the rich, can be dismissed as being comparable to the kind of discrimination waged by the perpetrators of one of the worse mass murders in human history. Of course, there is the further implication that liberal critics should also be punished for these views just as the Nazis were punished in Nuremberg for their crimes against humanity. This is not just a matter of using a desperate logic to dismiss counter-arguments, or of silencing one’s critics through distortion, but actually demonizing those who hold the “wrong” views. Norquist’s position is a contortion that fails to hide the fundamentalism that often drives this type of language.
Official Newspeak also trades in the rhetoric of fear in order to manipulate the public into state of servile political dependency and unquestioning ideological support. Fear and its attendant use of moral panics create not only a rhetorical umbrella to promote other agendas, but also a sense of helplessness and cynicism throughout the body politic. Hence, Bush’s increased dependency upon issuing terror and security alerts and panic-inducing references to 9/11 is almost always framed in Manichean language of absolute good and evil. Bush’s doublespeak also employs the discourse of evangelicalism, and its attendant suggestion that whatever wisdom Bush has results from his direct communion with God--a position not unlike that of Moses on Mount Sinai, and which, of course, cannot be challenged by mere mortals. 
While all governments sometimes resort to misrepresentations and lies, Bush’s doublespeak makes such action central to its maintenance of political power and its manipulation of the media and the public. Language is used in this context to say one thing, but to actually mean its opposite.  This type of discourse mimics George Orwell’s dystopian world of 1984 where the Ministry of Truth actually produces lies and the Ministry of Love is actually used to torture people. Ruth Rosen points out that the Bush administration engages in a kind of doublespeak right out of Orwell’s novel. For instance, Bush’s Healthy Forest Initiative “allows increased logging of protected wilderness. The ‘Clear Skies’ initiative permits greater industrial air pollution.”  With respect to the latter, the Bush administration has produced Spanish-language public service commercials hawking “Clear Skies” legislation, using ads that claim such legislation promotes “cleaner air,” when in fact it has weakened restrictions on corporate polluters and eased regulations on some toxic emissions such as mercury. In fact, J.P. Suarez, the Environmental Protection Agency’s chief of enforcement, recently notified his staff that “the agency would stop pursuing Clean Air Act enforcement cases against coal burning power plants.”  Eric Pianin reported in The Washington Post that “The Bush administration has decided to allow thousands of the nation’s dirtiest coal-fired power plants and refineries to upgrade their facilities without installing costly anti-pollution equipment as they now must do.”  In addition, the Bush administration has weakened federal programs for cleaning up dirty waters and has removed scientific studies offering evidence of global warming from government reports. 
Even when it comes to children, Bush is undaunted in his use of deceptive language. In arguing for legislation that would shift financial responsibility to the states for the highly successful Head Start program, which provides over 1 million poor children with early educational, health and nutrition services, Bush employed the phrase “opt in” to encourage Congress to pass new legislation reforming Head Start. While “opt in” sounds as if it refers to expanding the program, it actually undermines it because the states that are facing crushing deficits do not have the money to fund the programs. Thus, the legislation would drastically weaken Head Start. Such language calls to mind the Orwellian logic that “war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.” Not surprisingly, the Bush administration has just announced that it will cut funding for Head Start programs in the next budget.
There is also the now obvious ways in which the Bush administration manipulated intelligence to legitimate his claim for a pre-emptive war with Iraq. The list of misrepresentations and rhetorical contortions includes the claims that Iraq was building nuclear weapons, was engaged in the production of biological and chemical agents, and that Saddam Hussein was working with Osama bin Laden and had direct ties to Al Qaeda.  Even after the CIA reported that the charge that Saddam Hussein had bought uranium from the African country of Niger in pursuit of developing a nuclear weapon was fabricated, Bush included the assertion in his 2003 State of the Union Address.  And, of course, Dick Cheney seems relentless in repeating these lies in practically every speech and interview, even when they are rebuked by the high ranking intelligence services, who cannot credibly support such misrepresentations any longer.
Charges of Newspeak do not come exclusively from the left or from cantankerous critics. New York Times op-ed writer and economist, Paul Krugman, asserts that “misrepresentation and deception are standard operating procedure for [the Bush] administration, which–to an extent never before seen in U.S. history–systematically and brazenly distorts the facts.” And, in referring to Bush’s record on the selling of the Iraqi war, he argues that it “is arguably the worst scandal in American political history–worse than Watergate, worse than Iran-contra. Indeed, the idea that we were deceived into war makes many commentators so uncomfortable that they refuse to admit the possibility.” 
In what has to rank as either one of the most egregious distortions (or maybe just delusional ravings as the New York Daily News suggests)  that has emerged from the Bush administration, President Bush in an interview with New Yorker reporter Ken Auletta claimed that “No president has ever done more for human rights than I have.”  Such a statement is extraordinary given that Amnesty International condemned the United States in 2002 for being one of the world leaders in human rights violations. Similarly a number of organizations such as Human Rights Watch, U.S. Human Rights Network, the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Amnesty International have accused the Bush administration itself of engaging in various human rights violations, including preventing foreign nationals held as prisoners at Guantanamo Bay from gaining access to US courts, executing juvenile offenders, engaging in racial profiling, detention, inhumane treatment, and deportation of Muslim immigrants after September 11, 2001, and the refusing to ratify the American convention on Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and numerous other international agreements aimed at protecting human rights.
Official Newspeak points to not only questions regarding the abuse of power, it also raises questions about what kind of cultural politics is necessary to expose such myths and defeat what Edward Said has called “the imposed silence and normalized quiet of unseen power wherever and whenever possible.”  This is both a political and pedagogical task that demands that intellectuals and others speak out, break through the haze of official discourse and memory, and take seriously a cultural politics that connects critical knowledge and understanding with the possibility of social engagement and transformation. At the very least, this suggests recognizing the many sites of pedagogy (from the Internet to alternative magazines) in which ideology can be challenged and rearticulated in the interest of transforming the conditions that impose both silence and human suffering. It means connecting the sites in which we work, whether in higher education, the arts, journalism, the media, or other dominant and alternative public spheres with those individuals, groups, and issues that make up everyday life. At stake here is the need to reconnect matters of theory and practice, critical understanding and civic engagement, and to do so from the recognition that we need to reach as many people as possible. Regardless the ideological oversights and theoretical sloppiness that marks Michael Moore’s work, he should be studied as a model for redefining public pedagogy as crucial tool for political engagement. Similarly, progressives and others need to become attentive to matters of audience and language, reaching out to young people and others who tend to be marginalized in the official languages of dominant power and unfortunately in the language of many progressives. Making the political more pedagogical means that progressives and others need to be attentive to how people connect intellectually and affectively to language, political issues, and values that shape their lives. This is no small matter because consciousness is the ground on which agency is developed and political action even becomes understandable. At the present moment, The F.B.I. is mounting a campaign to silence individuals planning to protest at the upcoming Republican Presidential Convention. This signals not only the crude way in which authoritarianism works, it also signals the power of critical discourse and its possibilities for disrupting ideologies and material relations of power. We need to both condemn such acts of government repression while at the same time expanding the conditions that make them necessary for those who hold power. Critical consciousness, autonomy, the ability to make power visible, to become aware of alternative histories and communities of struggle is the stuff of not simply political awareness but of what makes politics possible in the first place.
1. Umberto Eco, “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt,” The New York Review of Books (November-December 1995), p. 15.
2. Paul O’Neill, former Treasury Secretary who served in the Bush administration for two years, claimed on the January 11, 2004 television program 60 Minutes that Bush and his advisors started talking about invading Iraq 10 days after the inauguration, eight months before the tragic events of September 11th. See CBS News, “Bush Sought Way to Invade Iraq,” 60 Minutes Transcript (July 11th, 2004). For a chronicle of lies coming out of the Bush administration, see David Corn, The Lies of George Bush (New York: Crown, 2003).
3. Abbott Gleason, “The Hard Road to Fascism,” Boston Review (Summer 2003).
4. Bob Herbert, “Casualties at Home,” New York Times (March 27, 2003), p. A27.
5. Renana Brooks, “The Language of Power, Fear, and Emptiness,” The Nation (June 24, 2003).
6. The relevant excerpt from this interview can be found in Platform Section, “Millions and Millions Lost,” Harper’s Magazine (January 2004), p. 16
7. This insight comes from Juan Stam, “Bush’s Religious Language,” The Nation (December 22, 2003), p. 27.
8. Bush’s use of doublespeak is so pronounced that the National Council of Teachers of English awarded him its 2003 Doublespeak Award. See,
9. Ruth Rosen, “Bush Doublespeak,” San Francisco Chronicle (July 14, 2003). In January 2004, former Vice President Al Gore in a major speech on Bush’s environmental policies said “Indeed, they often use Orwellian language to disguise their true purposes. For example, a policy that opens national forests to destructive logging of old-growth trees is labeled Healthy Forest Initiative. A policy that vastly increases the amount of pollution that can be dumped into the air is called the Clear Skies Initiative.” Gore cited in Bob Herbert, “Masters of Deception,” The New York Times (January 16, 2004), p. A21.
10. Jennifer Lee, “U.S. Proposes Easing Rules on Emissions of Mercury,” The New York Times (December 3, 2003), p. A20.
11. Eric Pianin, “Clean Air Rules to Be Relaxed,” The Washington Post (August 23, 2003).
12. The New York Times reported that the Environmental Protection Agency actually eliminated references to any studies that “concluded that warming is at least partly caused by rising concentrations of smokestack and tail pipe emissions and could threaten health and ecosystems.” Cited in Huck Gutman, “On Science, War, and the Prevalence of Lies,” The Statesman (June 28, 2003).
13. For all of the direct government sources for these lies, see One Thousand Reasons to Dump George Bush, especially the section titled “Honesty.” Also see, David Corn, The Lies of George W. Bush (New York: Crown Publishers, 2003).
14. See David Corn, Ibid., The Lies of George W. Bush, pp. 228-230.
15. Both quotes can be found in Paul Krugman, “Standard Operating Procedure,” The New York Times (June 3, 2004). P. A17.
16. See Lloyd Grove, “Lowdown,” New York Daily News (January 11, 2004).
17. Cited in Paul Krugman, “Going for Broke,” The New York Times (January 20, 2004), p. A21.
18. Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 135.