The title of What Orwell Didn’t Know (PublicAffairs, $14.95) suggests a catalog of facts that Orwell overlooked, like how India benefited from British colonization or the upside of constant video surveillance. In fact, most of the book’s twenty essays–a significant minority of them by Nation contributors–focus on the present-day usefulness of Orwell’s brand of vigilant skepticism about language, politics and the media. Orwell, no doubt, would have thanked everyone involved for the attention–and may have even nitpicked about the book’s title. What Orwell Didn’t Know? What? Why not What Orwell Knew Generally but Not Specifically or Conclusions Orwell Might Have Reached but Never Did Because He Died Fifty Years Ago?
The collection’s animating spirit is Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” In it, he argued that corrupt political thought creates and is furthered by sloppy language. Since so much orthodox political communication entails “the defence of the indefensible,” politicians and their apologists in the press, the business world and elsewhere regularly rely on “euphemism, question-begging, and sheer cloudy vagueness” to “name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” Slogans and ready-made phrases allow and encourage the public to bypass the hard mental work of identifying and judging the often abhorrent details behind vague statements. Orwell noticed that when millions of peasants were “robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry” it was called “transfer of population or rectification of frontiers.” Today “rendition” goes down easier than “torture.” The public winds up only half-aware of what government is up to and, what’s worse, poorly equipped to speak against it. “They will construct your sentences for you,” Orwell wrote, “and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.”
The conceit of many of the essays is, basically, were Orwell around today, he would surely deplore X, Y and Z aspects of political language as follows. Nation columnist Patricia J. Williams updates Orwell’s categories of linguistic deceit. To his “dying metaphors” and “pretentious diction,” she adds “the wishful immediate” of “Mission Accomplished”; the “passive explosive” that made the US invasion of Iraq “Saddam’s choice”; the “epochal tense” that banishes our national transgressions to the faraway past; and the American vocabulary of God-approved “just deserts.” These tools of distortion, she writes, do Big Brother’s work individual by individual. In the absence of an actual police state, Americans passively receive a “privatized but global corporate oligarchy whose police power comes wrapped in a sheepish ideology of laissez-faire, sanctified as God’s will.” It’s doubtful these conclusions will surprise liberal readers of Orwell (or of this magazine), but Williams’s rhetorical elegance and vigilant ear for trickery are their own rewards.
Other essays discuss how the self-disguising narratives of power like those Williams describes are transmitted and promoted. Nation publisher emeritus Victor Navasky argues that, absent explicit totalitarianism, homogenous and market-hungry Big Media plays a significant role in disseminating orthodox dishonesties. The quantity of like information put out by conglomerates discourages critical thinking and dissent, and those giants further squeeze the market by lobbying for increased postal rates for small, independent journals of opinion (as those who have been following the Great Postal Crisis of 2007 know all too much about).
Navasky doesn’t specify what makes the independent press more resistant than media conglomerates to Orwellian obfuscation, or why “historically, the best journals of opinion have functioned as voices of dissent” and “Big Media functions to inculcate, disseminate, and propagate (often by mere assumption) the dominant orthodoxy.” For such arguments, you will have to read his A Matter of Opinion or Ben Bagdikian’s The Media Monopoly (which Navasky cites approvingly). Within What Orwell Didn’t Know, turn to Martin Kaplan’s “Welcome to the Infotainment Freak Show” for an examination of how the news has been corrupted by business models borrowed from entertainment.
In “Our Own Thought Police,” Michael Massing agrees with Navasky and Kaplan that corporate media do a poor job of informing and encouraging honest democratic debate. He insists, however, that the media underreport on, say, the routinely disturbing conduct of US soldiers abroad because Americans don’t want to hear about it. When such stories make the news, people get either pissed off or bored, then change the channel or turn the page–or call the station in a huff, demanding that this anti-Americanism be taken off the air. “The public,” Massing writes, “has become its own collective Ministry of Truth.”
It’s a provocative claim, particularly since counterexamples of honest reporting and direct analysis abound even in decidedly mainstream sources. But one need only consider the astounding endurance of public support for George W. Bush and his invasion of Iraq long after its pretexts were debunked to see that Massing isn’t just being a doctrinaire pessimist or snob. If good political language is to make a difference, people must be willing to process it. It is worth knowing whether they are–and if not, how they someday might be.