News & Politics

Word-Watch: Orwell Reborn

I announce the rebirth of this column as a vehicle for exploring the political language of our day, an effort to "simplify," as Orwell did; to expose "stupid remarks" in all of their obvious "stupidity."
I know you think we are in the year 2005 but we're not. We are living in the year 1984. And this is the word (and the world) according to Orwell.

Witness the thought-police out in full force, cloaked in "patriotism." Any criticism of our government's policies is popularly labeled "anti-American."

Notice the proliferation of false, child-like dichotomies such as "either you're with us or against us" and "we're-good, they're evil," international law, the Geneva Conventions and Abu Ghraib aside.

In his essay on "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell offers this penetrating insight:
"One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark, its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.
"Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
It is with that preface that I announce the rebirth of this column as a vehicle for exploring the political language of our day, an effort to "simplify," as Orwell did; to expose "stupid remarks" in all of their obvious "stupidity." The assumption I'm operating on is the same that Orwell implicitly offered; namely that it is dangerous and wrong-headed to "make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

I'm also with Orwell in his view that these things cannot be changed all at once but, "if one jeers loudly enough" it is possible to "send some worn-out and useless phrase" – such as war on terrorism, junk science, death tax, reverse racism, collateral damage, few bad apples "or other lump of verbal refuse - into the dustbin where it belongs."

The opinions expressed may not always be correct, but the process and effort will serve a good purpose insofar as it exercises the reader in the discipline of intellectual jujitsu.

Let's begin with perhaps the most vague word used in politics today – freedom.

Freedom: "the condition of being free; the power to act or speak or think without externally imposed restraints; immunity from an obligation or duty."

Freedom: "that which has its centre in itself; exists in and with itself; self-contained existence; I am free ... when my existence depends upon myself."

Freedom: "The subjective experience of having a rich and realistic set of alternative actions that one may undertake."

Whenever someone starts talking about freedom I always ask: freedom for whom and freedom to do what?

But, clearly, if we are going to have a fruitful discussion about freedom, we need to get on the same page and start asking some hard questions like: Can a person or society be called free if the individual or collection of individuals does not have the "subjective experience of having a rich and realistic set of alternative actions that may be undertaken?"

If you think freedom boils down to self-reliance, as the second definition suggests (and as I imagine many conservatives would concur), what about the insights of the world's great religious leaders and scientists who say all existence is interdependent; that, as Martin Luther King said, we are caught up an intricate web of mutuality?

If you think freedom is essentially "immunity from an obligation or duty," the next logical question is: what obligations and duties are you and I immune from? Voting? Taxes? Am I my brother's keeper?

The answer to that biblical question, the great faiths agree, is an unequivocal yes. So does that mean Bible-believers ought to reject the idea that freedom is about immunity from obligations or duties?

The most illuminating definition of freedom I've heard is: "freedom is not a license to do whatever you want. It's the opportunity to become who you are." Or as the old Greek adage has it: "become what thou art."
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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