Orwell's Vision Becomes Reality

By William Pfaff, Tribune Media Services,
Pfaff, William
Posted 04/26/2011 at 5:00 pm EST

PARIS -- "The purpose of Newspeak," George Orwell, wrote in his novel "1984," "was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc (Orwell's name for the ruling regime in "1984"), but to make all other modes of thought impossible." The purpose of Newspeak was to replace what we now call Standard English so that language no longer possesses the vocabulary in which to express forbidden thoughts.

Orwell's was not entirely a fantasy, as we know from the prevalence of politically anesthetized and "corrected" language in American and British speech today, particularly in academic circles and government. Take, for example, official and newspaper reports during recent days on the classified military documents dealing with the Guantanamo military facility and its inmates, provided to the McClatchy newspapers by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks and reproduced in other Western news media.

The inmates, as everyone now knows, are not "prisoners" but "detainees." They are not prisoners because prisoners, according to the dictionary, are persons held in safe custody after commitment by lawful authority for committing crimes, or are awaiting trial for crime.

The men (and some boys) at Guantanamo who have been "detained" have never, since the facility at the U.S. naval base in Cuba was created in 2002, been formally charged in law with a crime or been sentenced, and as matters presently stand, they have no prospect of ever being presented before American civil courts or courts martial. The Barack Obama administration has recently announced that they might face "military commissions," a form of trial in which they would not have the rights of defendants in civilian or normal military jurisdictions in the United States, or in international criminal tribunals under international law. (In any case, the George W. Bush administration renounced observance of international law in the "war on terror.")

The "detainees" are deprived of the right of charged criminals to legal representation, a bill of charges, and access to the evidence against them, such as it may be. (According to a New York Times report, "the leaked files ... (lay) bare the patchwork and contradictory evidence that in many cases would never have stood up in criminal court or a military tribunal.") They have no reasonable expectation of acquittal or discharge.

They mostly were scooped up on the battlefield or sold to American forces in response to offers of reward for capture of al-Qaeda members. The original motive for holding them was that they were plausible sources of intelligence about the enemy, which some have been, before or after torture, and some have not. The charges on which they continued to be held were often without common-sense legal substance (they were "illegal combatants" because they fought Americans in an undeclared war without wearing uniforms; one was said to have "murdered" an American soldier in battle; they refused to cooperate in interrogations -- "a Qaeda resistance technique," according to the 17-page guide provided to the American military interrogators).

All of this scarcely merits reiteration nine years after the scandal began, and at a time when its rectification no longer seems possible, despite the promise and efforts of the Obama presidency.

Yet something still might usefully be said about this situation, obviously a phenomenon of totalitarian character, emulating, no doubt wittingly, the destruction of judicial constraint in the Nazi system by means of arbitrary imprisonment in concentration camps and by methods generalized in Gestapo and SS practice, and in Stalinist Russia by its secret police and forced labor camps. In the last, bizarrely enough, a system of known (or knowable) sentences existed in places -- a system of cause and effect -- which has never existed at Guantanamo, an absence apparently exploited deliberately as a means of terrorization and the psychological destruction of prisoners. Sentences did end for those who survived the Gulag.

Guantanamo has also been a factor in what it is not unreasonable to call the totalitarianization of American political culture, taking place through the effective prohibition (or demonization) of certain political stances, or the advocacy of certain political positions, deemed "unpatriotic" and therefore unacceptable in the political discourse of the nation -- including, in some cases, in congressional discourse and debate.

This amounts to the development of an American version of Newspeak. You can speak of certain things only in politically antisepticised and inherently falsified language. In combination with the domination of electoral politics by paid political advertising, thereby disqualifying candidates lacking the funds of their rivals, and the Supreme Court's rejection in 1976 of the argument that "an unconstitutional means test for election" to public office in the United States thereby exists, a plutocratic form of government has been legally ratified.

This was reinforced by the court's ruling last year in the Citizens United case, reaffirming that money spent on political campaigns is a form of constitutionally protected free speech, and therefore no limit exists on corporate or special-interest spending. It is extremely difficult to see how such a barrier to an equitable exercise of free speech in American elections can be removed. The present system is in practice irreversible. The American public might therefore be described as now politically "locked in," with no apparent recourse.

There is no way to change the situation, only to worsen it.

(Visit William Pfaff's Web site for more on his latest book, "The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy" (Walker & Co., $25), at www.williampfaff.com.)

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