Column: Newspeak vs. Oldspeak

Victory is defeat. Lies are truth. Misinformation is information. As the midterm election results are counted and recounted, we find the losers celebrating, and the winners complaining about the contest they just won. The Democrats no longer hold a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, but their press releases are exuberant. They lost by so little.  How this is advantageous for their political party or the nation is not clear.

There were really only two factions in this contest: the Democrats and the Republicans.  Coming in second is noteworthy if you are in the New York marathon and arrive at the finish line ahead of several thousand other runners, but the Democrats came in second in a field of two.  They may hold onto their equivocal advantage in the Senate, but we must wait a month to see if an untrustworthy ex-football player is more appealing to the citizens of Georgia than an uninspiring ex-pastor.  Of course with Democrats like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema in the Senate, there is no need for a Republican majority to stifle Democratic initiatives.

Although Republicans won by enough votes to dominate Congress for the next two years, they are brooding over the ineffectiveness of their major offensive weapons: the debunked claim that the former President actually won re-election in 2020, the belief that most Americans want to outlaw all abortions, the view that insurrection is a political process gleefully embraced by most of the electorate, and the assumption that no conspiracy theory is too ridiculous to be dismissed by the average citizen.

And so, divided we stand.  The winners are gloomy, and the losers are joyful. We did not erupt in civil war as predicted by pundits on both sides of the political divide, but we did not come together in any sense of the word. Perhaps it is because of the words that we have adopted for political discourse. Perhaps Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, was right when he envisioned a society in which those few who controlled the language controlled the minds of the many over whom they ruled for no other reason than their desire to exercise power. 

In 1948 Blair looked at the wreckage of a continent emerging from a war in which tens of millions of innocents had been murdered.  He saw victors who distrusted each other and seemed more intent on expanding their own dominions than on devising systems that would make another bloodbath impossible. Rather than disarming, nations with weapons of mass destruction were building bigger bombs, more poisonous gases, and more lethal biological weapons.  Based on the trajectory of nations and international affairs in 1948, he wrote a profoundly dystopian novel entitled 1984. Some of what he envisioned has come to pass in industrialized nations, especially those that lost all traces of democracy on their way to the future.  Many of the leaders of nations that never had democratic institutions have adopted, intentionally or accidentally, many of the tools Blair described in his novel.

The most essential element, according to Blair, to hold onto power was the control of information.  In 1984, the government not only was the only source of information on current events; it also controlled history.  It revised history as it suited those in power. Information and misinformation were indistinguishable.  The winners and losers of the past and present were indistinguishable and consequently, of no consequence. It would be equivalent to proclaiming that the Presidential candidate in the 2016 election who got the most votes lost and the Presidential candidate in the 2020 election who got the least votes won. 

More insidious than devaluing the importance of facts was the government’s program in 1984 to corrupt language to the point that thinking became impractical. This was Newspeak. Old languages with all their subtleties and nuances, rules and meanings, were trivialized as Oldspeak. Newspeak did not need words like good or evil, right or wrong, useful or useless. By controlling the words, the government could control the ideas. In keeping with this approach, Russian forces taking control of the Ukrainian city of Kherson demanded that all publications, transactions, and conversations be conducted in Russian.  This would be like an invading force from the Netherlands retaking Manhattan and demanding that everyone on the island communicate in Dutch. It is a verbal straightjacket.

America has not suffered the fate of the mythical nation of Oceania in Blair’s book, but endless bickering, self-serving accusations, and tribal loyalties are pushing us in that direction. Politicians who swore to uphold the Constitution and defend it against all enemies, foreign and domestic, proudly participated in an Insurrection that nearly defeated the peaceful transfer of power in Washington, D.C., for the first time since the establishment of the republic. Religious leaders are demanding that their religion should be the national religion or at least be given special treatment, despite the separation of church and state insisted upon by the Founding Fathers. The highest court in the land seems intent upon destroying the rights gained by women and minorities through a century of struggles.  Paramilitary groups are springing up as fast as semiautomatic rifles can be manufactured with the expressed aims of advancing local agendas. Those agendas often contain cautionary messages for Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, and immigrants.

It looks like we made it through an election without chaos in our capitols or states declaring their right to ignore Federal laws, but the population desirous of chaos and disunity is still growing. Disinformation and misinformation are the engines behind their power.  America needs all hands on deck to get the ship of state from drifting into the morass where the dictionaries [or the Googles] of the future start deleting words like justice, altruism, empathy, and cooperation. We shall work together to keep this ship afloat or we shall sink together.

Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan.  He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.

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