Doublespeak & Political Framing

In George Orwell’s 1984, we read of a totalitarian state where the government monitors all aspects of the citizens’ lives. The world of Big Brother introduces the reader to an entirely new vocabulary, including:

  • Doublethink – the power to hold two completely contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accept both of them.
  • Newspeak – a propagandistic language designed to diminish the range of thought; all words describing ‘unorthodox’ political ideas have been removed to limit the range of ideas that can be expressed.

A modern word has been formed combining their meanings:

  • Doublespeak – deliberately evasive language that says one thing but means another, usually the opposite.

This evasive language is often used by our politicians to expand power or avoid responsibility. Joseph Goebbels knew the power of doublespeak very well, as propaganda minister for the Nazis. A few terms he came up with were:

  • concentration camp = labor/death camp (joycamp in Newspeak)
  • protective custody = imprisonment without due process of law
  • Verschärfte Vernehmung = German for ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques (for which some were found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death)..sound familiar?

I would like to highlight some of the new vocabulary commonly used by ourselves and by our leaders in the present day.

  • War on Terror – implies a ‘good vs. evil’ mentality that our imperialism is fighting for freedom while ‘terrorists’ are fighting against freedom
  • War in Iraq – in reality an unprovoked, illegal invasion and military occupation, not a war
  • patriotism – unquestioning loyalty to the administration’s interests
  • freedom fighter – terrorist supporting America’s interests
  • terrorist – political rebel working against America’s interests
  • ally – client state
  • terrorist insurgency – seemingly everyone we kill is reported a ‘terrorist’ or an ‘insurgent’, which implies there is no Iraqi resistance; in reality about a million Iraqi civilians have been killed.
  • Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Just Cause, Operation Enduring Freedom, A War to Liberate the Iraqi people, and the like – political slogans for military operations
  • Support the Troops – approve of war no matter what; in reality, it should be to keep our troops safe
  • freedom – supposed to be “what we’re fighting for” yet Bush has enacted programs curbing freedoms
  • the Patriot Act – legislation responsible for trimming the Bill of Rights and limiting our civil liberties
  • unlawful enemy combatant – term used to deny prisoners the writ of habeus corpus
  • advanced interrogation techniques = torture
  • extraordinary rendition – deportation of prisoners by one country to another not burdened by following international laws, for the purpose of torture (“The USA does not torture” = we take them to Syria for that)
  • national security letter (NSL) – document used to bypass judicial warrant for search and seizures
  • self-injurious behavior incidents – Pentagon’s phrase for suicide attempts by prisoners
  • material witness – someone jailed without probable cause
  • security alert level – arbitrary system of colored code designed to scare the general population
  • stop-loss program (back door draft) – changed voluntary service to involuntary service after 9/11 to prevent soldiers from leaving
  • national security – term used to justify countless actions
  • security directives – secret laws made by unelected officials that we are not allowed to see
  • US Department of Defense – up until 1949 it was called the Department of War
  • regime change – forceful change of government by a foreign power
  • manifest destiny = imperialism
  • No Child Left Behind – school program of standardized tests that under-funds districts that need it most
  • down-sizing – massive employment termination
  • privatization – transfer of former public sector services to management by private firms
  • pacify someone – subdue him by force
  • propaganda – information from an opposing viewpoint
  • embedded journalists – reporters invited to war that live with the military, usually restricted in what they can report and who they can talk to
  • spin – an effort to portray events in a light favorable to the presenter
  • fair & balanced – Fox New’s slogan when it is nothing of the sort
  • truthiness – knowing things intuitively “from the gut” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts (thank you Stephen Colbert)

We truly live in a world of Orwellian doublespeak as our perception of reality is framed by choice of words. Perform an experiment by listening to Bush talk about the war; see how many times he mentions the words freedom, peace, democracy, and terror. Bush uses the word ‘freedom’ to draw the most significant distinction from the word ‘terror’. He thus frames the fight against al Qaeda as a ‘struggle between freedom and terror’, a battle of ‘good against evil’.

These methods dramatically oversimplify the complicated arena of world politics; in fact, they are potentially dangerous in arousing jingoist sentiments and emotions. His “you’re either with us or against us” mentality blindly creates enemies where we haven’t any.

Politicians excel in the art of doublespeak, so try to call it out when you see it. If you’d like a test case, watch any of the presidential debates.

In Orwell’s world, it was the Ministry of Truth that concerned itself with lies, the Ministry of Peace with war, the Ministry of Plenty with starvation, and the Ministry of Love with torture. The motto of their country was: “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.”

And down is the new up.

(For a good, readable article on Political Framing, please click here.)

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Girl Punished for Being Raped

Recently in Saudi Arabia, a nineteen-year old gang rape victim was sentenced to six months in prison and two hundred lashes. You read that correctly. A gang rape victim was sentenced to six months in prison! The Shiite Muslim woman was convicted of violating Sharia law on contact between men and women.

The 19-year-old girl was traveling in a car with a male friend last October when the car was attacked by a gang of seven men who raped both of them. Four of the attackers were convicted of kidnapping, but the court also sentenced the rape victim and her friend to receive 90 lashes each for the crime of “illegal mingling”. Recently, the court increased the woman’s sentence to 200 lashes and six months in jail.

There has been little response from the US government, who considers King Abdullah and Saudi Arabia to be a key strategic ally in the region.

What does this say of our desire to promote human rights and “spread democracy in the Middle East“? We complain of the Taliban’s poor treatment of women, yet Saudi Arabia (our trusted ally) is the world’s most repressive regime. Women in the country are denied normal rights; they are not allowed to drive, vote, study engineering or law, travel without approval, testify in most courts, or work in most government offices.

The fact is that the United States government has a long history of supporting dictators and human rights violators, as will be shown concretely in future posts.

The Power of Money

We have seen that our political choices in this country are quite limited, but how did this occur? What are the forces that prevent the United States of America from becoming the model of democracy it claims to be?

The founders of our nation laid out a structure of government designed to preserve the power of wealthy landowners. As James Madison said at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the new government must “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” Control of political power in the new system was to be maintained by the “wealth of the nation,” for they understood the risk in losing their wealth for the benefit of society.

In the early years, only these white, wealthy landowners could elect their representative government. Over the next two centuries, the masses began to organize and exercise their Constitutional rights. Women’s suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, and trade unions all struggled to increase the rights of the individual; they ended slavery and segregation, established minimum wage and the eight hour work day, and gave the majority of the population their first chance to vote. Despite these popular stuggles’ advance towards democracy, the wealthy classes remain in control of political power in our country.

The aristocrats of yesterday (those wealthy landowners) have been replaced by more powerful entities, known commonly as ‘corporations’. While they possess the legal rights of an individual person, corporations cannot be prosecuted as such and are only partially liable for debts. Their reach of power extends far beyond our borders, to the international markets of a globalized world, yet there is no set of international laws to keep them in check.

They use their influence to convince foreign politicians to privatize their country’s resources, auctioned off to the highest corporate bidder at the expense of the local community: public water in Bolivia, bananas in Guatemala, oil in Nigeria or Burma, just about everything in Indonesia, etc. Not only do these mega-corporations have a strong hold on world power, they have a stranglehold on US politicians and control our entire ‘democratic’ election process.

We have seen that our election choices are usually limited to two wealthy, business elites. The structure of this bipartisan system reinforces a sense of defeatism among the American people, making them feel as if their vote makes no difference or that they are forced to choose between the lesser of two evils. In fact, we have one of the lower voter turnouts in the world; only 50% of eligible voters make it to the polls, compared with some other countries where voting is compulsory.

In reality, the system of government in the United States is what is called a polyarchy, in which mass participation is confined to choosing leaders in elections managed by competing elites of the business or corporate sector. This sector is in control of nearly all power and money in our country: banks, investment firms, oil companies, insurance providers, pharmaceutical companies, the technology industry, advertising, and let’s not forget, the corporate media.

We are told of a government “of the people, by the people, for the people,” but is it the will of the people guiding this great country to a better future? For now it may the almighty dollar that has the grip of power in our country, but we citizens cannot afford to sit on the sidelines while our quality of life is being deteriorated.

As the Declaration of Indepedence reveals, when our government becomes destructive to the will of the people, “it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government.” Our politicians and their corporate companions do not control the people; we control them, and we have an obligation to stand up and speak out when our government fails us. The crucial time has arrived for each one of us to pay close attention, get organized, and exercise our rights if we care to to see a better world for our children.