Day 20 – What’s in a word?

(This post is part of the 30 for 30 challenge).

I am reminded every election year that words matter. Language is very powerful as a motivating force in political rhetoric. Coupled with the right personality and the right amount of charisma, words can lead a nation towards inspirational, lofty visions  (The Gettysburg Address, civil rights, the moon landing), but they can also manipulate fears and insecurities towards engaging in unspeakable actions (internment camps, death camps).

As I wrote in an earlier post, 1984, by George Orwell, is one of the books that most significantly shaped how I see the world around me – especially as it relates to that of political bodies and governments. Don’t get me wrong.  There is a lot of good done by governments for citizens, not the least of which includes programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the National Highway System, to name a few. But I have also seen innumerable instances where, both in my life time and in past decades, governments have acted in ways that are wholly self-serving, corrupt and dangerous.

So as we enter the last ten months of the 2016 elections, let us all keep in mind three key phrases from 1984 – three mantras, if you will –  that are used in the novel to control and paralyze people, and that have existing forms in modern U.S. political rhetoric.

The following three phrases are used as a guiding mantras in the novel as a way not only to control people’s thinking, but also to allow Big Brother (the government) to use dichotomous language to confuse, and change priorities on a whim.  But because the populace holds the prevailing government message in such high regard, it doesn’t matter whether or not the two concepts are polar opposites.

“War is Peace” – In the book, this phrase is used in the same way modern war hawks argue for preemptive war. When politicians argue that we must maintain the position as the world’d superpower, and how “our nuclear arsenal helps maintain peace.”, and that “we must topple dictators in order to bring peace.” , we are engaging in this philosophy.  A key tool that the early Bush Administration used after the 9/11 terror attacks to control the public alertness (fear?) level was the color coded, “homeland security advisory system“.

“Freedom is Slavery” – This slogan is often used in the context of granting more rights and privileges to citizens.  Most especially, when the subject of entitlements comes up.  It is said by some political groups that, in effect, if the government grants you more “things” then  you are in essence a slave to the government, and/or at the mercy of the government.  It is argued by some that “the government need not offer these things, or if they already exist take them away. Things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, education assistance, unemployment assistance, universal healthcare, universal education – all of which are certainly forms of indentured servitude.  Or at least that’s what some say.   They are all forms of government overreach into our “freedom” to live poor, uneducated, unhealthy lives. And, if the government tries to do something about it, our family will pay for it for generations to come. Little do they care to acknowledge how many of these programs could all be paid for through simple changes to law (i.e., Social Security taxable income is currently limited only to $118,500.  If they simply taxed all income for Social Security, it would make the system solvent).

“Ignorance is Strength” – This mantra plays into the idea of blindly following a particular party line. In other words, not thinking for yourself and following the pack. It also speaks to the rhetoric we often hear coming out of certain politicians and news outlets concerning complex policy and/or scientific matters.  Take for instance the new health care law enacted by President Obama. Republicans complained it was too long – too complicated.  The assertion being that a National Healthcare Policy should be simple enough to fit on the back of a Reader’s Digest column.  Anti-intellectual dogma at its best.

We see this too with climate change.  Assertions from politicians that because they experience a cold winter with snow (go figure), the planet is clearly not experiencing a warming trend. This kind of “Joe the Plumber politics”, which supports ignorance and anti-intellectualism over education and scientific inquiry, is at the heart of the mantra : ignorance is strength.  When what matters is not a thoughtful discourse on the realities of our political and economic situation as a country, but platitudes that mindlessly prop up ignorance over true education and inquiry, we are living in a time when ignorance is strength to be bolstered and upheld.

Granted, the United States is not yet at a point where complete blind adherence to a political doctrine or party is the majority viewpoint. Thankfully, there are still vast strongholds of intellectual, educated, rational human beings in charge of many areas of our public life. However, there is a very strong feeling in our current national politic whereby the mantras of  “ignorance is strength”, “war is peace”, and “freedom is slavery” hold some sway over the mindsets of many. I fear that we are currently at the trail-head to the path of tyranny. And, I worry that if this current rhetoric continues on the course of its logical progression, we will find ourselves as a country taking a path we will soon wish we did not follow.


Author: Zack Hayhurst

New Yorker enthusiast, cartoon caption contest contender, book hoarder, cultural omnivore, writer

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