by Joe Auciello – February, 2005
Last August Arundhati Roy began a speech to the American Sociological Association by referring to a problem with language. Words, she said, have been “butchered and bled of meaning.” (Her talk, “Public Power in the Age of Empire,” has been published by Seven Stories Press).
This is indeed a time of big lies, when a war of plunder and conquest is praised by its perpetrators as a struggle for liberty and freedom, and few persons on the public stage either know or tell the truth.
In this way the present links firmly to the past. Neither George Orwell nor Bertolt Brecht, for instance, would fail to recognize the hallucinatory language of today’s presidents and prime ministers, having so effectively analyzed the fraudulent phrases and dogmas of their own era.
George Orwell’s best-known essay, “Politics and the English Language,” concludes with this observation: “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Brecht also explored the abuses of language in an essay entitled, “Writing the Truth: Five Difficulties.”
Both Orwell and Brecht taught this lesson: Language shapes and limits thoughts. Mere opinion can be delivered with the weight of fact, and fact can
dissolve in the heat of opinion. Without this deceitful manipulation of words, the repressive practice of modern state politics would be far more difficult. Major media assists the politicians in ruling the subjects of even the most democratic
capitalist government by restricting the range of permissible opinion and thereby limiting the level and depth of critical thought.
But the big lie is not the only source of misinformation and deception. Half-truth, omission, innuendo, “weasel words,” all contribute to the misdirection and misleading of public opinion. These more subtle methods of propaganda are less easily noticed than the big lies, but, just for that reason, the accumulation of smaller deceptions may prove equally potent.
For the sake of argument, put aside the more obvious and crude propagandists: the Rush Limbaughs, Ann Coulters, Fox News, and so on. Consider, instead, the bellwether of respectable opinion, The New York Times,
a newspaper widely derided by the right as a semi-treasonous voice of unrepentant liberalism. (In her latest book, Ann Coulter, for instance, accuses
The Times of a “crusade against capitalism”).
They doth protest too much. Any serious analysis of the media would conclude that Fox News, CNN, The New York Times, etc., share the same essential beliefs and therefore present news and opinion in ways that are largely complementary.
The central value expressed by the media, conservative or liberal, is patriotism. An unquestioned certainty in the fundamental rightness of the government of the United States—despite criticisms that might be raised
against individuals or even branches of government—is pervasive, common as air, and almost as invisible.
This state of affairs is not so much a conspiracy as a consensus of proper opinion, a narrow range of belief-as-truth written every day in newsprint and
spoken every day over the airwaves or through the cable wires. Deviation from the consensus is a disinvitation to be heard.
Even a brief sample can reveal how language and propaganda today shapes public opinion and stakes out the limit of permissible thought. The following
paragraph is taken from The New York Times Book Review of Dec. 12, 2004. This review of “The Persian Puzzle” by Kenneth M. Pollack was written by Ernest R. May: The pivot of Pollack’s narrative is the CIA-sponsored
1953 coup that unseated the demagogic reformer Mohammed Mossadegh and entrenched young Mohammed Reza Shah. The coup created among Iranians a lasting belief that the United States not only wanted to but could
control Iranian politics.
Early on, Pollack quotes Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s 2000 St. Patrick’s Day speech expressing regret at the “setback for Iran’s political
development.” He returns to it toward the end of the book, insisting that, however small the immediate result, confession of past errors is the starting
point for avoiding future mistakes.
Nothing in the excerpt above is factually incorrect. At first glance, it appears as straightforward and benign. Few readers would give it a second thought.
After all, the language is inoffensive and the tone is temperate. But a first glance is misleading.
A closer look shows a pattern of language designed to excuse a reality that cannot be ignored. Here, words are verbal pollution, intended to befog the brain. To understand this paragraph, it is necessary to read carefully and parse the grammar of deception. Then the truth emerges.
Mossadegh in this account is merely “unseated,” a milder term for “overthrown.” More significantly, he is labeled as “demagogic.” A “demagogue” is a wily, manipulative leader—not, in other words, a legitimate,
honest leader. A demagogue is, to put it bluntly, a bad person. “Demagogue” neutralizes the more positive term, “reformer.” A “demagogic reformer” is a phrase equivalent to a “false hero.”
Mossadegh, then, was someone who did not deserve to be trusted; someone who instead needed to be removed from office. So, “the CIA-sponsored 1953 coup” was, arguably, necessary and deserved. Overall, the language of this paragraph implies the coup was quite a positive step.
Equally significant is what the reviewer omitted. Mossadegh was not merely “unseated;” he was arrested and jailed. His crime? He had nationalized his
country’s oil fields. Further, his imprisonment meant the end of democracy in Iraq. The paragraph fails to mention that point, as well.
A democratically elected government was overthrown by a foreign power—namely, the United States—to further the economic and political interests of that power.
This would be a truthful sentence, instead of the distorted account The New York Times printed. In contrast to Mossadegh, the Shah is “young”—generally a positive word in the sense of “fresh,” “new,” or “vibrant.” He was also a murderous dictator who created a powerful and hated secret police (SAVAK) that tortured dissenters.
Much of what the Bush administration has said about Saddam applies quite well to the Shah. Except, and this is what is important, after the Shah was
“entrenched,” he gave control of the Iranian oilfields to Britain and the United States and became the trusted ally and client of the U.S in that strategically vital part of the world. The paragraph omits these facts.
Verbal deception continues throughout the paragraph. Notice that the writer says the coup created a ”belief” that the U.S. “could control Iranian politics.” One can believe in something true or in something untrue. The writer is silent on this point, preferring not to mention that the popular Iranian “belief” is grounded squarely on fact.
Madeline Albright is cited for having expressed “regret” five years ago for “past errors.” By then, of course, a revolution in Iran had thrown out the Shah
and put an end to U.S. domination of the country. No formal diplomatic relations exist today between the U.S. and Iran. Ultimately, U.S. policy failed in Iran, so that a statement of “regret” hardly amounts to much. The losing side always nurses some regrets.
More telling is the linking of the words “errors” and “mistakes.” This language deliberately understates the reality. An “error,” according to “The American
Heritage Dictionary,” is “an unintentional deviation from what is correct, right, or true.” That is hardly a fitting term for a U.S. policy, supported by both Democratic and Republican presidents, that was coldly calculated, brutal, profitable, and sustained for some 16 years. The only “mistake” is that the Iranian people did not allow it to continue.
Ultimately, the impression given from this paragraph is that the U.S. government is a force for good in the world, and when this government might accidentally do something wrong, its leaders are willing to apologize so that mistakes can be avoided in the future. Thus, language that appears factual and politically neutral is anything but. It is instead a highly politicized but veiled propaganda that affirms loyalty to the dominant myth of American politics, the benevolence of the U.S. government.
What’s true for this one paragraph is also true for the entire review and is true as well for the other articles, since every author and every article must conform to the newspaper’s editorial policy.
That policy is pointed out conveniently enough in another article from the same issue of The New York Times Book Review, in an essay titled “The Anti-Anti-Americans” by Jonathan Tepperman. His review surveys “left-wing attacks on the United States” and the right-wing reaction to them.
Tepperman, not surprisingly to readers of The New York Times, finds a plague on both their houses and opts for the secure and sensible middle. In this way he intends to signal his broadmindedness, tolerance, and good judgment. No doubt some readers are fooled, but his writing is actually redolent of smugness, self-satisfaction, and simple-mindedness.
Tepperman is rankled by, among others, Arundhati Roy (“the Indian author of one good novel and many peevish essays”). In her book, “An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire,” Roy had the nerve to criticize the United
States for “a self-destructive impulse toward supremacy, stranglehold, global hegemony.” Perhaps more galling to the reviewer, Ms. Roy was none too
impressed by the courage of this country’s press.
Tepperman dismisses Roy with the back of his hand, calling her “hysterical”—a word that conveys two meanings. One definition is the neurosis characterized by blindness, paralysis, and extreme emotion, and the
second meaning is the sense of something that arouses uncontrolled laughter.
Thus, readers are instructed that the proper response to critics of American empire is mirth. Obviously, the rantings of extremists—and who else but an extremist could condemn an American empire?—ought not to be taken seriously.
In the “Letters” section of the Jan. 2, 2005, issue of The New York Times Book Review, Tepperman spells out just why some peevish writers deserve the phrase “anti-American”: “They haven’t merited the label simply because they criticize the United States. … constructively criticizing the country can be an
honorable act, with a tradition as old as the United States itself.
“Criticism becomes anti-American, however, when it eases to be constructive. Roy crosses this threshold. . .”
And what is this threshold that ought not to be crossed? What are the thoughts that must not be tolerated by respectable opinion, the “inaccuracy” that Tepperman finds “discouraging”? The answer is simple enough. Roy thinks the U.S. press is not so free, that U.S. democracy is not so democratic, and U.S. war in Iraq is more genocidal than generous. This assessment, says Tepperman, isn’t “fair-minded.” More’s the pity.
In “Politics and Public Power,” Arundhati Roy wrote, “The U.S. political system has been carefully crafted to ensure that no one who questions the natural
goodness of the military-industrial-corporate power structure will be allowed through the portals of power.”
The media that is part of this political system is crafted just as carefully. No one who questions the system in an essential way can pass through the portals of respectability and access mainstream publication.
Fortunately, there are better and more accurate alternatives to the sham and deception of the media establishment. More importantly, there is a growing
number of people who see through the distortions, who want to think for themselves, and who will settle for nothing less than the truth.