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Newspeak's Comeback and the Invincible Sincerity of America's Liberal Elite

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The president was not lying when he promised that people could keep their existing health insurance. He was using Newspeak, a language which allows reigning liberals to convince themselves that they aren't restricting others' liberties.

Did President Obama lie to the American people when he said that those who liked their current health insurance policies could keep them? Or was he simply out of the loop when it came down to the details of his health care reform, as he has claimed in his own defense — a defense that, in the minds of some of his critics at least, comes suspiciously close to Bart Simpson’s “I didn’t do it. Nobody saw me do it. You can’t prove anything.” After all, how could a man of Obama’s obvious intelligence fail to know something so critical to the success of his most significant piece of legislation? Since Obama is not a fool, he must be a liar.

But there’s another possible interpretation: Obama is neither a liar nor a fool. He was simply talking Newspeak, and talking it with the deepest sincerity. This, after all, is one of the characteristics that makes Newspeak different from ordinary “spin.” The spin artist knows he is twisting the truth a bit. He is not taken in by his own spin. But he who speaks Newspeak is sincerely deluded by his own words.

Orwell’s Fears and the USSR’s Fall

George Orwell introduced the idea of Newspeak in his novel 1984, famous for its relentlessly bleak depiction of a totalitarian state that aimed not only to control all human action but even the innermost recesses of the human mind. This unprecedented degree of thought control was to be achieved by Newspeak, a radical retooling of Oldspeak (i.e., the English language as we know it), purposely designed to make it impossible to think clearly about anything. Thanks to Newspeak, even the most self-contradictory ideas could be embraced with sincerity and without intellectual qualms. Freedom and slavery, for example, were no longer the polar opposites of each other. On the contrary, as the Ministry of Truth reminded everyone in its slogans, freedom is slavery, just as war is peace and ignorance is strength.

Obama's victory in 2008 led to a radical departure from old-fashioned liberal politics.

Orwell’s idea of Newspeak was an elaborate parody of the Soviet Union’s policy of historical revisionism as practiced under Joseph Stalin — a policy that required the systematic elimination of all documentary evidence that might tend to discredit the official version of Soviet history that was being peddled at any particular time. Only, in Orwell’s version, this revision was not limited to excising embarrassing historical truths, such as Trotsky’s actual role in the Russian Revolution, but was aimed at the elimination of all traces — including the removal of the word “God” from lines of poetry — of what civilized life had been like on our planet prior to the coming of the perfected totalitarianism. The point of Newspeak was to deprive the ordinary person of the ability to think forbidden thoughts by making such thoughts impossible to articulate in the newly constructed language — or, as one of the characters in 1984 explains, “don’t you see that the whole point of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?”

This narrowing was achieved by the creation of a whole new Newspeak vocabulary. Take, for example, the important term “blackwhite.”  This is how Orwell defines it: “This word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary.” [Italics mine.]

When 1984 was published in 1950, it was set well in the future — the future as imagined and dreaded by those men and women who, like Orwell, were fearful of seeing the rise of Moloch states capable of grinding to dust the hapless individuals caught up in them. Such states, after all, had existed prior to Orwell’s writing of 1984, as embodied in the Nazi state; and such states still existed when Orwell published the book, in the already matured form of Stalin’s Soviet Union and, contemporaneously with the book’s publication, in Mao Zedong’s founding of the People’s Republic of China.  Might not such states triumph, in the long run, over less brutal forms of governance? It certainly seemed possible when Orwell wrote his book, as it did from the perspective of 1962, when I read it.

Might not smarter and more sophisticated scientists, equipped with new paradigms and methods, succeed in doing what Soviet commissars could not hope to achieve?

But in the years since that time, something unforeseen happened. The year 1984 passed, and seven years later, so did the Soviet regime. Totalitarianism, despite its image of monolithic solidity, proved far more fragile than anyone suspected, except for a handful of wild-eyed visionaries like Ronald Reagan. More particularly, despite the best endeavors of the Soviet Union to manipulate the thoughts and consciousness of its subject populations, all efforts to do so were ultimately unable to keep people from seeing the manifest failures of the regime. In particular, the lively cult of mimeographed dissent in the last decades of the Soviet Union demonstrated the futility of even the most draconian attempts at manipulating public opinion when these attempts emanate directly from the state apparatus.

At first glance, this conclusion would appear to be reassuring. If a state as resourcefully repressive as the USSR could not achieve thought control over its population, then it is tempting to think that there is something about human beings that makes them inherently resistant to what was once called “psychological brainwashing.” Perhaps some inherent thirst to be free.

Behavioral Psychology and a Gentler Thought Control

Yet what if the problem with Soviet-style brainwashing was that it was simply too crude and coarse, lacking in subtlety because it was based on defective assumptions and bad science? Might not smarter and more sophisticated scientists, equipped with new paradigms and methods, succeed in doing what Soviet commissars could not hope to achieve?

Ordinary people could be guided to do whatever you wanted them to do, without ever letting them for a moment suspect that you were manipulating them.

The 21st century began with a series of well-publicized “revolutionary” breakthroughs in such fields as neuroscience and behavioral psychology. Equipping themselves with this new science of human behavior, highly trained experts were now in the position to create a new, kinder and gentler form of thought control. Ordinary people could be guided to do whatever you wanted them to do, without ever letting them for a moment suspect that you were manipulating them. Why not use this immense new power in order to improve ordinary people’s lives by “nudging” them into making better choices for themselves? 

Out of this conviction was born an utterly new kind of liberalism. In the past, liberals, like conservatives, made direct appeals to the interests of the voters. If this is what you want, then this is what we will give you. But Obama’s victory in 2008 led to a radical departure from old-fashioned liberal politics. The new maxim became, “We know what you really need and we’re going to make you want it.” 

Obamacare was widely supported by old-fashioned liberals, who looked upon it as a much-needed social reform no different from those they had long been familiar with, such as Social Security or Medicare. Right-wing conservatives attacked it as socialism. Neither grasped that Obamacare was the brainchild of those who shared the conviction that the recent insights of behavioral psychology offered them a new and unprecedented power to shape and mold society for the good — a view most closely identified with the scholars Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who gave their new political philosophy the suspiciously Orwellian name of libertarian paternalism and who envisioned applying its principles not only to health reform, but to improving our retirement plans and even to guiding us into making better and healthier choices at the grocery store. “Give us the power to nudge you and trust us to make your lives better” became the operating maxim of this new liberal elite.

Thanks to Newspeak, even the most self-contradictory ideas could be embraced with sincerity and without intellectual qualms.

Many old-fashioned liberals still remain unaware that they are supporting programs and policies devised by a new liberal elite, of whom they may have heard and with whom they have little in common. Otherwise ordinary liberals would have raised the same question that conservatives instinctively asked: should we really trust anyone with so much power over our lives? Perhaps such power might be used for society’s benefit — but what if those with the power decide to abuse it? How could people protect themselves from manipulation if they didn’t even know they were being manipulated? Better not to give such power to anyone.

The liberal elite that came to power under the Obama administration could have responded to this criticism in plain English by saying, “We are obviously the ones who should have such power — we are the elite, after all, with degrees from prestigious universities. We should have the right to push people around because we know what is best for them.” But instead they chose to resort to Newspeak: “We are only using the power of the state to guide people into making the kind of choices they would naturally make if only they were as rational as we are. We are not taking away anyone’s freedom. We are only enhancing it.”

For conservatives, this defense was egregious double-talk. The new liberal elite must be fully aware of what they are really up to — namely, grabbing power in order to impose their own agenda. Obviously, they had to be lying to us about their good intentions, just as Obama was obviously lying when he promised that individuals could keep their current health insurance if they liked it.

Totalitarianism, despite its image of monolithic solidity, proved far more fragile than anyone suspected, except for a handful of wild-eyed visionaries like Ronald Reagan.

The temptation to charge the new liberal elite with a lack of sincerity is certainly understandable, at least if you are a conservative, but it shows a fatal misunderstanding of how this elite imagines itself — an all too common failure among those on the right, far too many of whom see liberals in general as godless fiends who chuckle among themselves as they wreck what was once known as Western civilization and who, like Milton’s archfiend Satan, have declared: “Evil, be thou my good!”

What conservatives need to grasp is the invincible sincerity of America’s currently reigning liberal elite. They really believe they know what is best for everyone else. That is their trump card. Indeed, if they weren’t so sincere, they wouldn’t be so dangerous. They really don’t think that they are taking away our liberties. In their minds, they are looking after our liberties better than we could look after them ourselves. If they are deluding themselves, they are sincerely deluding themselves, which is why Newspeak is so indispensable to them. It is the only way they can continue to believe in the purity of their own motives and the sincerity of their good intentions. Without Newspeak, how could they convince themselves that by restricting your choices they really aren’t making choices for you? Or that by curbing your liberty they really aren’t compelling you to do something you prefer not to? Without Newspeak, how could they convince themselves that by raising your insurance rates they are really giving you more affordable health care? Or that it was only fair for a single man to insure himself in case of his own pregnancy?

In short, the advocates of Obamacare were compelled not only to sincerely believe that black is white, but to forget that it had ever been anything else. Thus they had no choice but to speak Newspeak, which also explains why President Obama was not lying when he promised people that they could keep their existing health insurance if they liked it. You can’t lie in Newspeak. But then again, you can’t tell the truth in it either.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Lee Harris also writes “When Nudge Comes to Shove,” “The Political Genius of Ted Cruz,” and “Why Obamacare Has Proved a Hard Sell.” John Steele Gordon contributes “George Orwell, Call Your Office,” while Robert McHenry shares “The Words, They Are A-Changing.” Alex J. Pollock cites Newspeak in “Central Bank Dreams, Monetary Realities” and Leon Aron looks back on the Soviet Union in “The Kremlin’s Propaganda Campaign and Russia’s Regression.” Kenneth P. Green describes “Obama’s Orwellian Overture.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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