As far back as in 1946, George Orwell described in his classic essay Politics and the English Language how politicians deliberately corrupt language so that certain political terms no longer have any core meaning but become infinitely malleable, designed to fit whatever need the politician has in mind.
The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies “something not desirable.” The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.
In their landmark book Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman showed how such distortions of language form an essential part of the process by which the populace is made to acquiesce in, and even approve of, actions that would seem horrific if they were called by their true names. They showed how the media plays a crucial role in this kind of propaganda system, in which crude forms of censorship become unnecessary because the government and the media represent the same interests and speak the same manipulative language.
Glenn Greenwald looks at the case of two Kentucky men accused of terrorism and how this word has become the latest victim of the process Orwell described and become infinitely malleable in the service of political ends.
I’ve often written that Terrorism is the most meaningless, and thus most manipulated, term in American political discourse. But while it lacks any objective meaning, it does have a functional one. It means: anyone — especially of the Muslim religion and/or Arab nationality — who fights against the United States and its allies or tries to impede their will. That’s what “Terrorism” is; that’s all it means. And it’s just extraordinary how we’ve created what we call “law” that is intended to do nothing other than justify all acts of American violence while delegitimizing, criminalizing, and converting into Terrorism any acts of resistance to that violence.
Just consider: in American political discourse, it’s not remotely criminal that the U.S. attacked Iraq, spent 7 years destroying the country, and left at least 100,000 people dead. To even suggest that American officials responsible for that attack should be held criminally liable is to marginalize oneself as a fringe and unSerious radical. It’s not an idea that’s even heard, let alone accepted. After all, all Good Patriotic Americans were horrified that an Iraqi citizen would so much as throw a shoe at George Bush; what did he do to deserve such treatment? The U.S. is endowed with the inalienable right to commit violence against anyone it wants without any consequences of any kind.
By contrast, any Iraqi who fights back in any way against the U.S. invasion — even by fighting against exclusively military targets — is not only a criminal, but a Terrorist: one who should be shipped to Guantanamo. And this notion is so engrained that no media account discussing this case would dare question the application of the “Terrorism” label to what they’ve done, even though it applies in no conceivable way.
The Obama administration has provided more examples of egregious political manipulation of language. Justin Raimondo looks at the risible claim that what Obama is waging in Libya is not a war but a ‘kinetic military action’ and that the sustained bombing of another country does not constitute ‘hostilities’ and thus he is not bound by the War Power Act.
Jonathan Shell says that Obama is simply continuing the practice of his predecessor in abusing language to serve his illegal and immoral purposes, that Obama’s not-war is similar to Bush’s not-torture.
For the Obama administration to go ahead with a war lacking any form of congressional authorization, it had to challenge either law or the common meaning of words. Either the law or language had to give.
It chose language.
If Orwell thought things were bad in 1946, imagine what his reaction would be today.