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May 29th, 2017

Insight

Newspeak lives on

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Feb. 9, 2017

Newspeak lives on

Who says popular taste is always misguided? It can draw a bead of greatness like an officer with the Indian Imperial Police, which Eric Arthur Blair was, and for which, as he later wrote, "I was totally unsuited." As unsuited as he would later prove at making propaganda for the BBC. It was as a colonial police officer called on to shoot a rogue elephant that he knew he'd better get the job done with a single, sure shot. Because a second chance wasn't likely to arise as those charging tusks emerged out of a cloud of dust and desperation.

Of all the politically inspired authors of the last century, it is Blair, better known as George Orwell, who stands head and shoulders over the others, just as he did physically in his short but momentous life. To quote a statement from his publisher, Penguin Books, his writing captures the "fears, anxieties and even hopes" of readers to this day.

As generations of readers continue to discover, it is Orwell's "1984" that best captures the way our would-be saviors twist the language to suit their purpose of the moment. That the author had trouble finding a publisher when he wrote it may be the best evidence of how each successive wave of censors devises its own version of newspeak to rationalize its desires. Back then, in the 1940s, the book couldn't find a press that would print the manuscript lest it offend "our fighting Russian allies."

Some sentences that now have the ring of prophecy were deemed subversive back then. Consider just a couple of them that are typical of his journalism, which now has become literature:

"He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past." Which might explain the insistence of today's social engineers on protecting us from our own thoughts. These arbiters of taste tend to depict their current list of villains and heroes, whether headed by Donald J. Trump or Hillary Clinton, as fact. Disagree and you're likely to be told, as one editor was years ago when he refused to accept one of the smelly little orthodoxies of his time: "That is a mindset that must be crushed."

"If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever." As anyone who dares disagree with our oh-so-advanced thinkers may soon discover. For there is no proposition so devoid of common sense that it can't be accepted as gospel by today's avant-garde on college campuses looking for safe spaces to spout their nonsense. These savants are soon enough reduced to robotically repeating "1984"-like slogans like war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. And for those of us ordinary mortals who can see through such catch phrases, we'd better do as current fashion demands, for Big Brother -- or Big Sister -- is always watching.

To survive in such a poisonous atmosphere requires a mastery of what Orwell called doublethink, meaning the power of "holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them." It's a losing hand. Or as Winston Smith in "1984" said of the proles: "Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious."

Still in his teens when he joined the Indian Imperial Police, Eric Blair would die at 46, just half a year after "1984" was finally allowed to see the light of publication. And shed light on our times and all times, one generation after another. It's a wonder why anyone would give in to these ideological bullies then or now, for what are we so afraid of? Is it being out of fashion? This is, after all, still the United States of America, land of the free so long as she remains the home of the brave. Orwell saw right through all these bogeymen. All we need do is hold fast to the incontrovertible evidence of our own senses as opposed to the ideological fashions of the moment.

The highest compliment that may be paid a writer is to turn his name into an adjective, as when some premonition of the awful future is called Orwellian, meaning something dark and dreadful. The ironies involved in this discussion are many, for Orwellian takes its name from a writer who warned against the dark time.

Eric Blair, George Orwell, Englishman and citizen of the free world, after all this time and all these gyrations, you remain as influential as ever, if not more so. But the rest of us, ordinary mortals that we be, should not use your name without premeditation aforethought. Or we could wind up saying the opposite of what we intended.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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