Truth & Reality: Democracy in a Time of Doublespeak

compiled by Steve Parks and Eileen Schell

We are, admittedly, “reality” freaks.
Arzhang Fallahi

Of course, it is difficult to maintain a commitment to reality in the current national climate. Thanks to media such as Fox News, many still believe that Iraq had direct links to 9/11/01 and stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. (Not True.) ABC, NBC, and CBS consistently used the red/blue electoral map to conclude that the country could be neatly split into one section that supports traditional conservative values and another that supports progressive liberal values. (Not accurate.)

Numerous polls indicate that “values” (undefined) were a key factor in individual voting decisions. This led some to conclude that Kerry voters lacked values. (Not true or useful.) It would be possible to accept this world of untrue, inaccurate, undefined and unusable media culture.

We remain, however, reality freaks.

Indeed what is so troubling about the recent rhetoric of the Bush administration and its conservative allies is the extent to which they have actively participated in creating this “otherworld” of facts and conclusions. After years of being told by the Right that “truth is truth” and that we need to return to a “spin-free zone,” we find ourselves in a world where conservative politicians and pundits argue reality is mutable, unstable, and rewritable.

Moreover, the Bush Administration and its allies openly question the value of studying reality as a means to judge its policies. In Ron Suskind’s October 17, 2004 New York Times Magazine piece, “Without a Doubt,” a Bush aide states for the record:

“That’s not the way the world really works anymore... We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors...and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

This is a challenging time, then, for those of us seeking to restore a democratic society where truth and reality prevail. At such a moment, it might be useful for us to remember George Orwell’s 1948 novel, 1984. As part of a national effort, the National Council of Teachers of English is sponsoring events where Orwell’s novel is publicly read and debated. The novel tells the story of Winston Smith, who lives in a totalitarian society organized around “Big Brother.” Smith’s job is to systematically rewrite history to insure that the pronouncements of Big Brother and the “Party” are never wrong – literally going back and altering newspaper accounts, doctoring photos, and erasing life histories of political opponents.

As teachers of rhetoric and writing, we see parallels between the current moment and Orwell’s portrayal of a government that rewrites history to retain power, denies its mistakes, and crafts a language justifying its leaps in logic. We see the role media such as Fox News play in rewriting reality to suit political ends. In Orwell’s words, the nation is being asked to engage in “doublespeak” – a situation where words obviously don’t match reality but listeners must believe them anyway.

Of course, it is too simple to equate Bush, the Republicans, and Fox News with “Big Brother.” Unlike Big Brother, Bush appears to actually exist. There is also no need to alter previous newspaper accounts since Vice-President Cheney simply denies ever making certain statements despite proof to the contrary – such as his claim that there is a connection between 9/11 and Iraq. And while Fox News might claim to be “fair and balanced,” it is hard to believe even it would claim to be in the business of reporting “objective reality.” (Nor should it be assumed that Democrats are somehow immune from such practices; they are merely less effective.)
What will we learn if we contrast the key slogans of 1984 with the rhetorical and political practices of the Bush Administration?

War is Peace
Within the novel, the Party argues that the continual war being waged against Eurasia (and then Oceania) is the ultimate guarantor of peace. Today we are continually being told that the War against Terror will be victorious at the same time we are being told it will never end. “I’m not sure you can win the war on terror,” Bush has said.

Freedom is Slavery
Since 9/11, the Bush administration has imprisoned over 5,000 foreign nationals (convicting none), allowed the torture of Iraqi prisoners and allowed the FBI to lead a “door to door” investigation of those planning to protest the 2004 Republican convention. The Patriot Act allows law enforcement to conduct searches, monitor phone and Internet communication, and provides access to personal medical, financial, mental health, and student records with little judicial oversight. Expanded anti-terrorism laws under the Patriot Act also allow for investigation of “domestic terrorism,” which could expose political organizations to surveillance, wiretapping, harassment, and criminal action for political advocacy. We are safer, it seems, by enslaving others and eroding our own civil liberties.

Ignorance is Strength
Smith lives in a world where the party line is to withhold information for the safety of citizens. Similarly Bush withheld from the public the results of a congressional investigation into Saudi Arabia’s relationship to 9/11. His administration withheld the records of Cheney’s Energy Task Force and spent $120 to classify documents for every $1 spent to declassify them. Under the Patriot Act law enforcement officials can demand that librarians supply your library records without your consent. We are stronger, it seems, for what we do not know.

In a world where words mean their opposite, what can we grasp onto for making decisions? What is the foundational principle being offered to guide our actions? Once again, Orwell’s novel is instructive.

As Smith endures torture and brainwashing to make him love Big Brother (see Abu Ghraib), he invents a slogan: “God is power.” Having accepted this final precept, Smith “accepted everything. The past was alterable. The past never had been altered…. He remembered remembering contrary things, but those were false memories, products of self-deception. How easy it was. Only surrender, and everything else followed.”

Ultimately, Bush and the Republican Right want us to discover “God,” to replace reason and reality with faith and doublespeak. (Witness the recent attempts by the Religious Right in Kansas to replace evolution with “intelligent design.”)

Will They Succeed?
Only time will tell if the Bush Administration and the Republicans will succeed. Smith was frightened into accepting Big Brother and the logic of doublespeak by the threat of rats eating his face. He endured daily “two-minute hate” sessions where the enemy was projected on a telescreen (evening news) and encouraged to show his patriotism by shouting slogans and physically demonstrating his disgust and loathing for the other (conservative talk radio). Today, we are constantly told gay marriage, illegal immigrants, multi-color threat alerts, and “liberals from Massachusetts” will eat away at the foundations of our society. Will these “threats” lead us to find “religion”?

As concerned citizens, we must work to repair a national discourse that has been weakened and distorted by conservative attack dogs and politicians. As an engaged public, we need to have an informed debate about issues of concern — the war on Iraq, the budget, health care, social security – based on evidence and facts. As citizens, we must restore meaning to “fair and balanced.”

It is because we believe in truth, reality, and democracy that we cannot endorse a world where some “create reality” and others accept it or have it foisted on them. To study reality is to create a citizenry who will not accept their own disenfranchisement. Democracy defeats Doublespeak. It expands collective power. It enfranchises everyone to help craft the future.

In one of Winston Smith’s first attempts to step outside of Doublespeak and reconnect with reality, he writes, “Freedom is the Freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” Creating a world where citizens move from political rhetoric to reality is one place to begin.

Let us see what follows.

Steve and Eileen are Associate Professors of Writing at Syracuse University. Eileen is a member of the SPC Advisory Committee.