As Orwell knew, taking over the culture starts with corrupting the language.
By Victor Davis Hanson
Imagine if, during the campaign of 2008, someone had written the following: “If Barack Obama is elected president, then each year from now on the federal budget will be a trillion dollars in the red. He will pile up in two terms more debt than all previous presidents combined. Interest rates will stay at near zero; 7.6 percent unemployment will be proof of progress in creating jobs. Record use of food stamps, unemployment, and disability insurance will be hallmarks of recovery. The government will take over health care, and the costs will skyrocket. During Obama’s second term, ammunition will vanish from America’s store shelves in panic buying. Gay marriage will become uncontroversial. Women will be eligible for infantry combat. The only question about amnesty for illegal aliens will be when, not if, it is enacted. States will begin legalizing marijuana.” Obviously, such a conspiracist would have been dismissed as an unhinged nut.
You may object that Obama himself has hardly been responsible for all these radical transformations. True, but he helped to create, in brilliant fashion, a “hope and change,” quasi-revolutionary climate — the political cover, if you will, for the media, the universities, federal judges, state legislatures, and Congress to reinvent American popular culture and tradition in a manner rarely if ever seen in the past.
How, then, did the Obama team do that?
First were the necessary changes in language. In the Obama age, as in Orwell’s 1984, the natural meanings of words had to change. See the third book of Thucydides’ history for the details.
Running up serial trillion-dollar deficits was not profligacy, but rather making “investments” for “the children.” Irresponsible borrowing became “stimulus.” Indeed, “trillion” — not a frequently used part of most people’s vocabulary before 2009 — suddenly replaced “billion” as a familiar fiscal numerical adjective. A takeover of health care that would spike premiums and ration services, devices, and procedures was aptly named the “The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”
“Assault weapons” superseded “semi-automatic rifles,” even as “semi-automatic” and “automatic” were no longer distinct adjectives. The obvious purpose of rapid-fire weapons was to kill innocent children, not to protect your household from intruders, to shoot fast-moving game, or to practice a sport at a shooting range, much less to remind the government, in Second Amendment fashion, that the populace was autonomous and vigilant.
“Illegal alien” disappeared in favor of the inexact “undocumented immigrant” or “undocumented worker,” even though most illegal aliens never had proper documents of any sort, and sizable minorities of them were not working. The key was to convince the American public that millions of people had inadvertently wandered over the poorly demarcated border, all in search of work. They sort of lost track of both their bearings and their legal documents in the process. “Comprehensive immigration reform” superseded “amnesty,” as if the new proposed reforms focused mostly on hordes of brilliant Ph.D.s from the Czech Republic, queuing up to acquire legal authorization to work in Silicon Valley — rather than some 11 million or so Latin Americans who entered the country unlawfully, mostly without capital, English, or a high-school diploma.
“Homosexual” became a derogatory substitute for the proper term “gay,” and male homosexuality was redefined almost as an asexual act — a fun or “gay” Platonic experience rather than one connected with any particular sort of sexual congress.
“Global warming” begat “climate change,” which eventually begat “climate chaos,” once tornadoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis had to be enlisted in the good fight — given that there was no proof of rising temperatures in the last decade, and even the specter of melting polar ice caps, rising seas, and drowning polar bears had not proved enough to scare the public into banning coal and enacting cap-and-trade.
After the language changed, obfuscation followed, designed to wear down the opposition through a bewildering array of incomprehensible regulations that led to an attention overload and confusion of theories with facts. Nancy Pelosi astutely gauged the pulse of an exhausted public that wanted the drawn-out debate over Obamacare just to be done with and go away, when she promised that we could find out what was in the vast, 2,400-page Obamacare bill as soon as it was made law. Likewise, the new “comprehensive immigration reform” bill is reputed to be over 1,500 pages. As many will read that monstrosity as have read the Obamacare document. The “hockey stick” and tree rings from “11,000 years ago” proved global warming in a way that no one could quite fathom until private correspondence was leaked to the public giving the proper academic context. No one quite knows what the advent of gay marriage will entail, once the idea of marriage as the exclusivity of a single man, joined with a single woman, to promote procreation has ended. But the theoretical possibilities of bold new unions, both sincere and cynical, are now as endless as they are taboo to discuss publicly.
After language changed and facts were buried beneath bureaucratic avalanches, debate became almost un-American, either silenced or relegated to caricature. Legitimate worries about rising health-insurance premiums and restricted care translated into being against the “young” and “vulnerable.” Object to infringements on the Second Amendment, and Vice President Joe Biden (who, as so often in the mudslinging, was wheeled out to demonize opponents) will charge that one must suffer from some near-sexual fetish to want an “assault weapon” in one’s hands, a thrill like “driving a Ferrari.” (Most Americans, apparently unlike Biden, have no idea of what driving a Ferrari is like.) Biden instead advised the illegal act of blasting a shotgun into the air to scare off intruders. Concerns about the dangers of a nationwide gun registry were tantamount to membership in “the black-helicopter crowd.”
In the debate over illegal immigration, one paradigm was the DREAM Act. The new gospel was that 11 million illegal aliens were denied their futures as neurosurgeons and aeronautical engineers simply by lack of access to the appropriate university. No one was allowed to talk of an “un-DREAM Act” — to point out that for all the hard-working, crime-free, and long-residing illegal aliens, there must be at least some who were on public assistance, had criminal records, and or entered the country only recently in hopes of receiving amnesty. All illegal aliens were desirable newcomers; none were undesirable. Breaking the law, and cutting in front of others who did not, was noble, whereas drawing attention to those who did was ignoble. The illegal-alien debate was framed as involving those who wished to allow José López to finish his M.D., against racists who could not tolerate the idea that people from south of the border were outpacing them to the pinnacles of American success.
To ponder whether females could meet, without adjustments, the brutal physical requirements of Special Forces training was tantamount to being anti-woman. There could be no real debate over gay marriage. America was instead to have happily evolved from the Neanderthal 1990s, when homophobia had made such moral improvement impossible. That earlier public had been obsessed with illegitimate and improper concerns that particular types of sexual congress might lead to new worries over the spread of HIV or the recent transformation of hepatitis into a common sexually transmitted disease.
Anecdote, the age-old enemy of logic, now reigns supreme and trumps induction — as if the exception is always proof of the rule, as if the public will always forsake reason for emotion. Forget the statistics on Obamacare — my Uncle Joe was denied coverage after he lost his job. The economy is getting better, because my friend Will was offered a job today. Why enforce federal immigration law, when there is no nicer window washer than Herlinda, who comes to my house every Tuesday? It hailed in June here; therefore the world must be experiencing climate change. I would never shoot an AR-15, and therefore there is no need for anyone else to. My nephew is gay, and he’s a great guy; therefore gay marriage is great too. Sally yesterday lifted heavier weights than did three guys in the gym: Presto, female soldiers can do anything that male soldiers can.
Finally, to make the once controversial the new convention, demonization and character assassination were essential. Opposing trillion-dollar deficits meant that you were a fat cat who didn’t build your own business and didn’t know when you had made enough money, a suspect 1-percenter who did not pay “your fair share,” and who junketed to Las Vegas or lopped off patients’ limbs for profit. To oppose Obamacare meant that you wished the vulnerable like Sandra Fluke to have to choose between eating and having access to exorbitantly priced condoms. Or perhaps you wished those with lymphoma to go without medical treatment.
Wariness about Congress’s rush-to-judgment haste to infringe on the Second Amendment was proof that you were callous toward the parents of the Sandy Hook victims, with veritable blood on your hands in a repeat of the Gabby Giffords tragedy. Gun owners were now to be divided into the good Joe Biden and John Kerry types who, outfitted in proper L. L. Bean attire, each year ceremoniously fired off a few rounds at skeet from their Italian shotguns — and the overweight and sunburned clingers who, in places like southern Illinois and rural Pennsylvania, slaughtered deer for the hell of it with sinister black machine guns, when they weren’t indulging in militia play-acting in bandoliers and camouflage.
America may have had the most liberal immigration policy, both legal and illegal, in the world, which inordinately favored illegal entrants from Latin America. But nonetheless the desire to enforce federal legislation was tantamount to being a “nativist” and “racist” who, as “an old angry white guy” could not “get over” “the new demography” — incorrect behavior by “enemies” that warranted a vow from the president to “punish” them. Those who opposed gay marriage but were willing to accept civil unions were “homophobes” who had set out to demonize the children and grandchildren of us all.
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What are we to make of this creeping brave new world?
The scary part, at least for now, is not the ends so much as the means used to achieve them. The reason that Orwell, a man of the Left, made his farm animals and lost urban souls the victims of tyrannical left-wing megalomaniacs was his sense that the far Left, much more so than the far Right, could insidiously distort reality and destroy free expression. The right-wing dictator is typically an identifiable thug who transparently stifles free speech to benefit a small coterie of aristocrats and insiders. In contrast, the left-wing dictator is always a misunderstood reformer who was forced by counterrevolutionaries to break a few eggs in order to make the collective omelet. Think of the reaction to drones, renditions, and Guantanamo under Bush compared to that under Obama. After all, there are no Pinochet T-shirts on campus to rival the romantic depiction of Che — a psychopath in service to a Cuban autocracy that came to power killing far more than did Pinochet in Chile. We are long conditioned to airbrush the word “socialism” out of Hitler’s “National Socialism” and must only with care remark that the collectivist Mao was the greatest mass murderer in the history of civilization. Our popular culture is currently engaged in canonizing bombers and murderers from the 1960s campuses, but not the equally violent anti-abortion activists who likewise sometimes took the law into their own hands in service to their own purported sense of the greater good.
We are in revolutionary times, but of the French rather than the American sort. The popular effort is not to preserve liberty from an all-encompassing government, but rather to have an all-powerful state impose an egalitarianism of result — and increasingly by any means necessary.