What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics

What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics is undoubtedly one of the most important books of the last few years, which is saying a lot, for the peculiar crises of our times have inspired a number of important political screeds. This anthology of essays was conceived when the deans of five American schools of journalism decided that it was time to address the state of public discourse in our country, especially the language used by politicians and journalists, which seems, in the words of the volume’s editor, Andr?s Sz?nt?, “to be divorcing itself from reality at an alarming rate.” The journalism deans “were especially concerned about the waning power — or inclination — of the press to bring political rhetoric in line with fact” , believing that the line between debate and propaganda had become dangerously obscured.

The deans’ discussion happened to coincide with the approaching 60th anniversary of George Orwell’s seminal essay “Politics and the English Language,” which made a connection between the corruption of political life and the debasement of language, famously characterizing political language as an idiom “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Though Orwell’s jeremiad had been written in response to the international situation of 1946 and with particular reference to the use of propaganda in totalitarian states like the Soviet Union, his concerns are only too clearly applicable to 21st-century America. What would, and what would not have surprised him about our current propaganda and political language? What didn’t Orwell know? This was the question put by the journalism deans (Orville Schell, Geoffrey Cowan, Nicholas Lemann, Joshua S. Fouts, and Ernest J. Wilson), editor Andr?s Sz?nt?, and George Soros, whose Open Society Institute underwrote this volume.

It is easy to see how propaganda can flourish unchecked in a totalitarian state like Nazi Germany or Maoist China. What Soros and his colleagues are concerned to point out is the surprising fact that it appears to do just as well in an open, pluralistic society like our own. “What Orwell knew well,” Sz?nt? points out, “was the threat of Totalitarianism: the horror of Fascism and the creeping shadow of Communism. What he didn’t know — what he couldn’t really know — was how modern consumer society would mold propaganda to its own form. Contemporary methods of persuasion are subtle, insidious, sugarcoated, focus-grouped, and market-tested — and comparable in their effectiveness to anything served up by despots and demagogues of the past?. If Big Brother had had these tools, he’d still be around.”

George Lakoff, an eminent professor of cognitive science and linguistics whose essay is possibly the most interesting in this volume, contends that there is something else Orwell didn’t know back in 1946: namely, how the human brain functions. “Probably 98 percent of your reasoning is unconscious — what your brain is doing behind the scenes. Reason is inherently emotional?. Thought is physical.” It is also structured in terms of what Lakoff calls “frames” — brain structures, such as cultural narratives, that control thought and come with emotional content. Carefully crafted political language can activate such frames in the brain, a fact which pollsters and members of think tanks know how to use. As Lakoff tells us,

A few words in political language can activate large portions of the brain: War on Terror, tax relief, illegal immigration, entitlements (turned to conservative use by Ronald Reagan), death tax, property rights, abortion on demand, cut and run, flip-flop, school choice, intelligent design, spending programs, partial birth abortion, surge, spreading freedom, private accounts, individual responsibility, energy independence.

When they are repeated every day, extensive areas of the brain are activated over and over, and this leads to brain change. Unerasable brain change?. And every time the words are repeated, all the frames and metaphors and worldview structures are activated again and strengthened — because recurring activation strengthens neural connections. Negation doesn’t help. “I’m against the War on Terror” just activates the War on Terror metaphor and strengthens what you’re against. Accepting the language of issue and arguing the other side just hurts your own cause.

Drew Westen, a psychology professor and political consultant, supports Lakoff’s statements as well as his contention that in America these techniques have been exploited far more intelligently by the political right than by the center and left, which are hampered by what Soros calls “the Enlightenment fallacy” — that is, the fallacious assumption (dating from the 18th century) that freedom of thought and speech will ensure that reason will prevail. The media and the Democratic leadership, Westen says, are unwittingly “smuggling Trojan horses into popular discourse” by parroting terminology created by those in power, “essentially advertising the ‘product line’ of the Republican party and selling its ‘brand.’ “

Martin Kaplan, a professor at the USC Annenberg School, provides a spirited attack on the journalistic culture that has acted as enabler to this agenda, a culture he dubs “Infotainment.” “Orwell famously worried about the divorce of public discourse, including journalism, from truth,” Kaplan reflects, “but he did not anticipate its remarriage to entertainment.” The old journalistic aims of accuracy, objectivity, and fairness have been deemed unachievable by the new postmodern paradigm. “here accuracy can never be achieved, ‘balance’ — the new lowest common denominator and battle cry — is an easy goal?. Instead of trying to tell us what’s true, journalism now prides itself on finding two sides to every story, no matter how feeble one side may be.” Hence the familiar “bearfight” formula, in which “a television ‘news’ booker is always delighted to invite a fringe spokesperson onto a program as balance.” A deeply disturbing chapter by journalist Farnaz Fassihi on her experiences covering the Iraq war for The Wall Street Journal illustrates Kaplan’s points only too well: the painstaking efforts of Fassihi and her fellow correspondents to provide “balance,” to give two sides to every story, come into fatal conflict with the journalistic — and moral — imperative to seek and expose the truth. The concept of objectivity seems to be mistaught in journalisms schools, or at any rate misinterpreted by the students.

Other interesting contributions to What Orwell Didn’t Know include essays by Alice O’Connor on distorted facts propagated by think tanks, Michael Massing on our disturbing willingness to act as our own thought police, Victor Navasky on the uncertain future of the journal of opinion, and a terrifying piece by Mark Danner on the current subservience of truth to power. “Critics will no doubt observe that the essayists are known for their progressive outlook,” Sz?nt? says. “Yet their concerns rise above specific parties or ideological camps. Only a fool could assume that disingenuousness will magically vanish once a new occupant moves into the White House.”

Not every contribution to this volume is of the highest quality, and the speed with which it was put together, in time for the Orwell anniversary and the New York Public Library symposium that accompanied it, is betrayed by some editorial sloppiness. In future editions the editors would do well to begin the volume with the Orwell essay (rather than putting it at the end, in an appendix) and then have the authors assume a knowledge of it on the reader’s part, which would cut out a good bit of repetition from essay to essay. But these are minor flaws compared with the authors’ noble efforts. As Soros writes, “Open society cannot be ensured merely by the division of powers, free speech, and free elections; it also requires a commitment to the pursuit of truth.” After considering the arguments brought together in this book, many a reader will wish to respond to the challenge posed by Navasky, “to persuade the public to come back to politics as active participants and cease to sit passively before a discussion conducted by experts and transcribed by journalists.”