George Orwell, the brilliant political writer and philosopher of the 1950s, saw the possibility we might drift into a seductive totalitarian society. Orwell wrote that it would be with the help of a new language; “Newspeak” he called it.. That development, he prophesied, would require a new tongue disguising truth with subtle elisions from word to word, concept to concept, in a simplistic fashion that would be easily propagated. The new language was to become the common speech by 1950 preparing the way for the new homogenized tyranny that would descend by 1984.
Orwell’s timetable, mercifully, has turned out to be very wrong. We may still float into that gruesome emasculating society – decades later than his fiction predicted. Many pessimistic observers see many signs of the drift he outlined. But if the timetable is off, have we not begun to develop that remarkable language he hypothesized for the new authoritarianism? It turns out our public figures are so taken by their own egos that they can spin monstrous lies into accepted truth before our very eyes using much of the same old tired phraseology..
John Comey’s almost five-hour testimony to a Congressional committee on his investigation of Hillary Clinton’s alleged violation of the laws protecting national secrets is a dramatic illustration of the trend. The accusation that Comey, with his highly publicized reputation for probity and integrity, cannot easily be set aside. He may, indeed, have simply succumbed to Washington’s intricate political intrigues and is, so to speak, letting Hillary off the hook
But in his almost five hours of testimony before a Congressional committee, Comey mercilessly parsed every word. In the process, he was able to determine that Clinton – a woman who has already occupied highly and significant roles in U.S. political life — was nevertheless wanting in “technical sophistication” about guarding government classified material. He was able to draw a distinction between “reckless disregard” for the literature of American security and “extremely careless” handling of such material which is prohibited in the language of the law. Even a dictionary isn’t much help in making these not very perceptive distinctions between the words and their meanings.
Comey used this language as an escape from what many saw as the logical progression which had followed his revelations of the FBI investigation into whether Clinton had indeed violated the law protecting national security. After citing all the reasons why Clinton had violated the restrictions on access to these classified documents – including the possibility that by destroying some of the thousands of e-mails on her non-government servers she had committed an obstruction of justice – Comey made a convoluted argument for why he would not proceed with any action against her,. That included the argument that there was no “intent” to violate the law, always an extremely booby trapped discussion involving what is usually an even more ambiguous question of “motive”. He even more cleverly argued that although the law involved had existed for decades, the number of people successfully prosecuted under it was minimal. [But, Mama, Joe is doing it!]
At the same time, Comey has chosen to completely disregard the text of the law that specifically does not rule out inadvertence or lack of knowledge of it to free the violator of incrimination. That, of course, brings the whole logical argument back to the level of the language that is being manipulated.
This growing elitist language is being created at the time that the common speech of most Americans, and the rest of the English-speaking world, is becoming less and less specific and more given to trendy pieces of slang, quickly discarded for the next ones. These are often a popluar advertisement for a consumer product.
It also suggests why the growing separation of a self-appointed elite in Washington, New York and Los Angeles and much of the rest of the population is growing. That, in turn, had produced the somewhat amorphous but highly energized political revolt represented by Donald Trump and his “movement”. The Trumpets are reacting to what they perceive, somewhat incoherently, as oppression by a favored elite with their hands on the levers of power.
That division of opinion it is to a considerable extent inchoate, a reflection of the growing language differences between the two poles in the body politic. Furthermore, the polarization is increasingly self evident in all aspects of American life – once despite the earlier lower level of communication and transportation and equally massive numbers of immigrants – a much more homogenous society.
As the Trump phenomenon has indicated, however vague this new cultural divide is – or is recognized – it will have an enormous influence on future events in the fast moving world of the U.S. in the rest of the 21st century. It acts as a spur and indeed a complement of the enormous digital revolution affecting all aspects of American life through the increasing use of technology at every level of modern life.