24 June 2003

Orwellian newspeak is here

By Tapani Lausti

At the time of the centenary of George Orwell's birth we are witnessing a period of deep dishonesty in government and media, not dissimilar to the kind of lying which shocked Orwell during the Spanish civil war. He was upset by the way the war — and the revolution — was being misreported. He was horrified by this sort of falsification, and finally, in his famous novel 1984, drew his conclusions about the dangers of distorting the truth.

We are now experiencing something similar to Orwell's worst fears. Words are being used in a most deceptive way. Aggression is self defence, occupation is liberation, oppression is peacekeeping, war criminals are men of peace, extremely hierarchical societies are democracies, private plunder of common resources is the way to prosperity, destabilising most of the world is war against terrorism, etc.

The attack on Iraq has been a most Orwellian experience. Fortunately not that many people have been fooled. Observant citizens immediately understood that the reasons given for the attack were lies. Now even more people have begun to understand the depth of deception about the reality of the "Iraqi threat", not to speak of weapons of mass destruction.

Media Lens editors David Cromwell and David Edwards wrote recently: "... in the prelude to the US-led invasion and subsequent occupation to Iraq, a largely uncritical mass media has endlessly relayed US and UK government rhetoric, distortions and lies, while consigning great chunks of history and relevant context to Orwell's infamous 'memory hole'."

Cromwell and Edwards also wrote: "In a democratic society Blair would stand no chance of surviving such a severe abuse of power and people. Every single British and American soldier, and every single Iraqi, who lost his or her life in the war died because Bush and Blair lied." (Stenographers To Power, Media Lens, 19 June 2003)

Official Finland and the country's media are not beyond participating in these deceptions. Yet, there seems to be a difference. As far as I know, no British journalist has drawn any comparisons between Finnish and British political cultures after the Finnish Prime Minister resigned over matters related to the attack against Iraq. Anneli Jäätteenmäki resigned because she had been telling half-truths — if not lies — about how she obtained confidential information on her predecessor's talks with George W. Bush in Washington in December 2002. Jäätteenmäki — quite legitimately — was worried that Paavo Lipponen had been too accomodating towards Bush's intentions about Iraq.

In the end, Jäätteenmäki had to go. She realised that by her conduct she had lost the trust necessary to govern a country. Unlike Blair, however, she had not caused anybody's death.

In spite of Blair's irresponsible behaviour, there have not been serious demands for his resignation. Jäätteenmäki, on the other hand, resigned before anyone had actually demanded her resignation — although it was coming to that. In her resignation statement, she expressed belief in "the healing power of truth" and "democratic and open debate".

Compare this belief in "the healing power of truth" with what has been going on in Britain. Even the government-level dissidents have been behaving in a strange way. Clare Short added to the Orwellian lexicon a new concept, "honourable deception". Future historians will have fun with the concept.

It is true that many British commentators have been shocked by their government's behaviour — but there doesn't seem to be enough outraged commentary judging by the fact that normal political life seems to be continuing. Citizens should be furious, and maybe they are.

Yet, I get the feeling that British people have been confused by the Orwellian behaviour of the media. Neil Clark, for one, reminded his compatriots that they have been lied to before, in connection of NATO's bombardment of Serbia during the Kosovo crisis: "For amid the present furore over the no-show of Iraqi WMDs, let us remember that in Kosovo our humanitarian Prime Minister dragged this country into an illegal, US-sponsored war on grounds which later proved to be fraudulent." (How the battle lines were drawn, The Spectator, 14 June 2003)

However, because of media complicity, most Britons seem to be under the illusion that NATO attack was humanitarian in nature. Indeed, many people in Britain have been talking about the necessity to wage war to defend human rights. To these dinner party bombers I would say that the only morally credible stance would be to honestly declare one's own willingness to give one's life in defence of these rights. Without this kind of serious commitment sending others to their death is reprehensible. One may still end up supporting an illegal and immoral war but at least the mistake would be based on deeply felt principles, not off-hand remarks uttered while eating one's pudding.

Orwell had a lot say about personal responsibility. In his essay "Looking Back on the Spanish War". he seemed disgusted by attitudes towards war and suffering among comfortably living citizens. He was upset about how unaware the British and American intelligentsia were of the reality of war. Orwell warned against any attempts to romanticise a war: "The essential horror of army life (whoever has been a soldier will know what I mean by the essential horror of army life) is barely affected by the nature of war you happen to be fighting in."

A little bit later Orwell added in parenthesis: "People forget that a soldier anywhere near the front line is usually too hungry, or frightened, or cold, or, above all, too tired to bother about the political origins of the war." (Orwell in Spain, ed. by Peter Davison, Penguin Books 2001, p. 345.)

And this is only about soldiers. For many dinner party bombers, the civilian victims seem to be an acceptable price to pay, if the end seems good. Without any personal experience of suffering, they coolly count the (supposed) number of victims and declare that it has been tolerably small. And so it goes.

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