There’s a character in George Orwell’s 1984, Syme, who from the point of view of the protagonist Winston Smith “sees too clearly and speaks too plainly.” Dangerous though such unconventional characteristics may be in Orwell’s fictional world, Syme is an expert in the language “Newspeak” and is therefore necessary to the narrative. Syme elucidates the true purpose behind Newspeak to us, the reader.
Newspeak is English emasculated — eradicated of many verbs and adjectives and even nouns in order to rid ordinary English of its “vagueness and its useless shades of meaning,” as Syme explains. It is composed of multiple portmanteaus like “ungood” and “crimethink.” Its ultimate point and purpose is to render complicated and critical thought difficult, if not impossible. “’Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” Syme continues. “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”
If this all sounds like fiction and fancy to you, think again. We have all been witnesses to how this kind of “narrowing of the range of human thought” can work. Words like “Benghazi” and “her emails” were as destructive and thought-limiting in the last election as “socialist” and “corporate Democrat” and “Burisma” no doubt will become in this election. Welcome to the new political mud, computerized, weaponized, distilled, dishonest and calculated to narrow the range of human thought. And far easier to pull off in this new age of the soundbite and the lie.
Reality is often complicated and requires explaining. That these explanations sometimes also resemble “spin” is both unfortunate and unavoidable. Sometimes we just need to shut up and pay attention to what is really meant by a word or a phrase, or we need to learn the whole sordid history behind the deception it can sometimes represent. “Benghazi” by rights should have been a badge of honor for Hillary Clinton. It should have been a storage register of a whole complicated narrative of eleven exonerations after eleven politically motivated, costly, wasteful and unnecessary investigations. Instead it became the new political mud.
We’ve seen one word mudslinging before, of course. “Gallipoli” was Churchill’s Benghazi. The difference is it was real mud composed of a real mistake, one of the biggest mistakes of Churchill’s life. Fairly or unfairly it was still being slung 25 years after the fact when Churchill was being tipped for Prime Minister.
These days truth plays, not a subservient role, but a sadly irrelevant role in modern political discourse. Should Joe Biden become the Democratic candidate then “Burisma” and “Crowdstrike” will continue to be his mud. Never mind that those words represent a fully debunked conspiracy theory. Never mind that the incompetent pursuit of that conspiracy theory got Donald Trump impeached. It will be slung as surely and as effectively as “Benghazi” and “her emails” was slung at Hillary Clinton.
Should Biden not be the candidate, talk of those bits of mud will evaporate faster than a Spring rain. They will then be replaced by some other mud, aimed at some other candidate, with equivalent disingenuous ferocity and the same counterfeit outrage that has become the Republican trademark. Millions will become attached to the narratives created by these new mud-slinging narratives.
Now I have some bad news for you. The notion that you can educate anyone away from these prejudicial attachments is a false one. Most people steadfastly refuse to be educated away from their fallacies. For example, I have never yet encountered a conspiracy theorist who was willing to even google — let alone read a book about — any alternative that contradicts their conspiracy theory. Most people simply refuse to consider the possibility they are wrong. Maddening though that might feel, it is reality, and we need to face it.
This is why we must unify. The idea that we can convert the low-information Trump-supporting rabble to rational thought is foolish. We can’t. Nor will the defeat and even imprisonment of Donald Trump teach them a meaningful lesson. We must focus on future ages, on educating the next generation in self-critical systems like science and rational political philosophy. But first we must defeat Donald Trump. That should be our first and most unifying goal.