excerpts from the book

What Orwell Didn't Know

Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics

Edited by Andras Szanto

PublicAffairs, 2007, paperback


Orville Schell about George Orwell and his essay "Politics and the English Language"

George Orwell examined how, by controlling language and discourse, and through the relentless repetition of half-truths and lies, official propaganda could sway and control the thinking of ordinary people.

Orville Schell about George Orwell and his essay "Politics and the English Language"

A man may take a drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is the same thing that is happening with the English language. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step towards political regeneration... Above all what is needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.'

Paul Mazur, the partner of Edward Bernays, the father of public relations and propaganda

We must shape a new mentality. Man's desires must overshadow his needs.

George Orwell in "Why I Write"

Every line of serious work I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.

George Washington

If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can. invite the consideration of mankind, 'wrote the first president, reason is of no use for us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

George Orwell in his essay "Politics and the English Language"

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

Nichalas Lemann, "The Limits of Language"

Propaganda is often quite beautifully and clearly written. When it works, it works by virtue of being simple and memorable. What is dangerous about propaganda is that it is misleading,

President George W. Bush to a joint session of Congress, September 20, 2001, unveiling the "War on Terror"

On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars - but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war - but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning. Americans have known surprise attacks - but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day - and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.

George Orwell in essay "The Prevention of Literature (1946), The Orwell Reader

From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought ( of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened.

Ron Suskind, New York Times, October 17, 2004, recounting a comment by Karl Rove

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 f out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.

Mark Danner

[George] Orwell feared Communism, Fascism, Totalitarianism... What he did not foresee was a privatized but global corporate oligarchy whose police power comes wrapped in a sheepish ideology of laissez-faire, sanctified as God's will.

George Orwell in his essay "Politics and the English Language"

In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of régime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using the word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.

George Orwell in his essay "Politics and the English Language"

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside ... this is called pacification .... People are imprisoned for years without trial ... this is called elimination of unreliable elements...

George Orwell in his essay "Politics and the English Language"

This invasion of one's mind by ready-made phrases... can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one's brain.

Political language-and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists-is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One-cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits...

George Orwell in his essay "Politics and the English Language"

If people are told the truth, they will reason to the right conclusions-unless they are stupid or ignorant. And ignorance can be cured by truths conveyed in good prose.

George Lakoff

Reason is inherently emotional. You can't even choose a goal, much less form a plan and carry it out, without a sense that it will satisfy you, not disgust you. Fear and anxiety will affect your plans and your actions. You act differently, and plan differently, out of hope and joy than out of fear and anxiety.

George Lakoff

Conservative "freedom" is utterly different than progressive "freedom".

George Lakoff

Today, sophisticated right-wing propaganda is very well written.

George Lakoff

Conservative think tanks, over thirty-five years, started with the conservative worldview and showed how to apply it everywhere on every issue, and even beyond issues in the acts of governance - cutting regulating budgets, reassigning regulators, using the courts to redefine the laws, changing the facts on Web sites, eliminating libraries. New Democratic think tanks haven't helped much. The problem is that they are policy think tanks. They mistakenly think that "rational" programs and policies constitute political ideas. They don't understand unconscious thought. It's the unspoken ideas behind the programs and the policies - the worldview, deep frames, metaphors, and cultural narratives - that need to be changed in the public mind.

Drew Westen

In a closed society, one party or despot has control over the instruments of mass communication and the power to enforce its will. Something very similar, however, can happen in a democratic society under specific conditions that are recognizable only in hindsight, although Orwell recognized] one of the most important, namely, when a government wages a "perpetual war" that keeps people terrified, focused in their hatred against external and internal enemies, and "patriotic" in the Orwellian sense.



Welcome to the Infotainment Freak Show
Martin Kaplan

In the year 1984, reflecting on the book 1984, sociologist Neil Postman gave a series of lectures at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication in which he raised the question: Were Americans doomed to inhabit George Orwell's authoritarian dystopia? His answer: No. We were veering instead toward the hedonic world depicted in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and were in imminent danger of amusing ourselves to death.

The pathology Postman diagnosed derived from what he termed the epistemology of entertainment, which was on the verge of displacing the epistemology of the Enlightenment. Entertainment substitutes juxtaposition for order, storytelling for truth telling, graphics for texts, sensation for reason, spectacle for seriousness, combat for discourse, play for purpose, sizzle for steak. "Our priests and presidents," he wrote, "our surgeons and lawyers, our educators and newscasters need worry less about satisfying the demands of their discipline than the demands of good showmanship. Had Irving Berlin changed one word in the title of his celebrated song, he would have been as prophetic, albeit more terse, as Aldous Huxley. He need only have written, There's No Business But Show Business."

Today, the clock strikes thirteen every hour in America. .That startling digit is not evidence that Big Brother rules, but rather that entertainment reigns. In contemporary America, and arguably in most industrial democracies, the imperative of practically every domain of human existence is to grab and hold the attention of audiences. In politics, it is now more important for a candidate to have big name recognition, and the money to buy big media, than it is to have big ideas. In news, it is absolutely essential to have high ratings, but it is only optional to have high accuracy. These days, a university can get by with average scholarship, but without a strong brand identity n the educational marketplace, it will surely perish. A museum at fails to mount blockbuster traveling shows, complete with a killer gift shop, is on a fast track to losing revenues, patrons, and public subsidies. To attract tourists, cities now turn to starchitects, whose glitzy creations rival Hollywood and Babel. Commerce, once about goods and services, is today about experiences and aspirations; every store promises a little bit of Disneyland. Even our interior lives are played out through the tropes of entertainment. It is now normal to experience clothing as wardrobe, furniture as set decoration, other people as characters, conversation as dialogue, and events as plot points in the narratives of our life stories, which come complete with voice-overs and flashbacks.

Postman's jeremiad clearly failed to stem entertainment's tide, just as Orwell's fables failed to vanquish Totalitarianism. Our present moment in the history of consciousness is widely known as postmodernity - "pomo," in a fun shorthand fitting for the age of show business. In the first part of the twentieth century, Karl Popper said that philosophy's task was to demarcate between what is scientific and what is not, and he linked the project of science to the robustness of open societies. But by the twilight of that century, porno intellectuals were declaring the Popperian project dead, and their doppelgangers in popular culture have since been dancing on its grave. By now we all know the postmodern mantra: Objective knowledge is a mirage. There is no such thing as epistemology without a knowing subject. Science is no longer a privileged realm, designed to weigh the truth of competing claims, but is yet another act in the porno circus, where knowledge based on rigorous trial and error is on the same footing as all other tribal belief systems. All reality is socially constructed. Everything, even truth, is politics. Politics, once conceived as the craft of decisionmaking, has been remade as the art of attention getting. Communication, rather than striving to convey truth and meaning, now prizes informing an audience less than having an audience. The public interest has been redefined as what the public is interested in; the public sphere has become a theater, where citizenship is a performance.

Orwell famously worried about the divorce of public discourse, including journalism, from truth, but he did not anticipate its remarriage to entertainment. Journalism, whose practitioners in high-end newspapers and early broadcast outlets once saw their task as recording the truth, now largely functions to hold up a mirror for us to see our fun-house reflection. The old journalistic paradigm posited a search for accuracy, objectivity, and fairness. The new porno paradigm declares those goals misbegotten; they are inherently unachievable. because everyone possesses and advocates for his or her own truth, the job of the reporter is not to adjudicate among competing assertions, but to assemble them into a de facto collage. The fairness of contemporary journalism resembles not the fairness of a judge and jury weighing evidence within a framework of rules, but rather the fairground of the carnival midway, where barkers out on behalf of their wares.

Whereas accuracy can never be achieved, "balance"-the new lowest common denominator and deceptive battle cry - is an easy goal; all you need to do is open up your airwaves and column inches to everyone. Better yet, open the public square to combatants, in polarized pairs. There's no surer way to attract an audience than a bear fight, and no dispute is too nuanced not to be reducible by modern journalism to he-says versus she-says. Instead of trying to tell us what's true, journalism now prides itself on finding two sides to every story, no matter how feeble one side may be. There's no grand narrative making sense the progression of current events; there are just dueling narratives, competing story lines, alternate and equally plausible ways to connect the dots. It's as though a generation of journalists has been weaned on Jacques Derrida and deconstruction, and their only recourse in the Dada zoo is pastiche.

In such a carnivalesque media ecology, people are patsies for propagandists. Even if a near majority of authorities holds one view about reality (on the causes of global warming, say, or the validity of evolution, the risks of mercury pollution, the existence of WMD in Iraq, the success of abstinence-only as a sex education strategy), a television "news" booker is always delighted to invite a fringe spokesperson onto a program as "balance," to convey the notion that these are all wide-open questions. Journalists have recused themselves from ranking the legitimacy of "experts," so corporate and political front groups with lofty names (Discovery Institute, Heritage Foundation, National Center for Policy Analysis, National Association of Scholars, et al. have the same opportunity to inject themselves into public debate as research institutions that still cling to old-fashioned standards of evidence and accuracy. These "think tanks" manufacture debate. That's what they do: Their aim is to create the illusion of controversy, even when the facts are indisputable, because they know how enslaved contemporary journalism is by the tyranny of false equivalence. What's more, the louder you are, the more outrageous your claim, the less civil your discourse, the farther you stand from common ground, the more welcome you will be as a guest and a source. It is not necessary to be right; to make the sale, it is only necessary to get attention.

The old paradigm depended on a hierarchy of gatekeepers. Within journalistic institutions, reporters were vetted by editors, copy editors, and executives; judgments were tempered by the time span of the daily news cycle. Among journalistic outlets, print publications set the gold standard, and national newspapers set the standard among them. But now, the brand names of old-guard institutions mean little to mass audiences. The Internet has made everyone a reporter, videographer, and distributor of content. This may well be a good thing in itself, but the Internet is also putting out to pasture the professionals who presided over the accumulation, fairness, and accuracy of the news.

The need to hold audiences round the clock has put a premium not on the information journalists see as important for citizens to know, but instead on the "content" that corporate owners bet will mesmerize consumers. The turning point probably came in the mid-1980s, when CBS News discovered that 60 Minutes could be a reliable cash cow. Today, nearly universally, news is programmed not as a public service but as a profit center. Its messages are designed to appeal to humans' hardwiring. In Johan Huizinga's formulation, we are not Homo sapiens, the creature who knows; we are Homo ludens, the creature who plays. Like it or not, our species is a sucker for novelty; sex, fear, pictures, motion, noise, scatology; fin; we can't stop our eyes from turning toward celebrity and spectacle. Journalism's job today is not to find and deliver us the worthwhile hidden in the muck, but rather to stream the muck at us, 24/7, and to sell our captive eyeballs to advertisers.

When Ted Turner launched CNN in 1980, there were high hopes for the broad diffusion of news. The results of the twenty-five-year experiment in round-the-clock cable "news," which now includes Fox and MSNBC, are now in. Here's what cable news is really good at: trapped miners, Michael Jackson, runaway brides, missing blondes, Christmas Eve murders, Princess Di, Paris Hilton, hurricanes, tsunamis, disinformation, whiz-bang graphics, scary theme music, polls, gotcha, HeadOn ads, "Thanks for having me," people who begin every answer to antagonistic questions with "Look," people who say, "I didn't interrupt you when you were talking," and anchors who say, "We'll have to leave it there." Here's what cable news is not so good at insight, context, depth, reflection, proportion, perspective, relevance, humility, information, analysis, news.

There is nothing that pomo news likes more than Armageddon. When the Hezbollah kidnapping of Israeli soldiers in 2006 escalated into a war between Israel and Lebanon, it was covered as a tinderbox about to explode, a downward-spiraling crisis, the tipping point of a regional conflagration, the start of World War III. We were told it could trigger an oil crisis worse than the one in the late 1970s, resulting in gas lines and rationing and $20-per-gallon at the pump. It could spark worldwide inflation, recession, depression. It was the most dangerous moment since (fill in the blank). To be sure, it was a dangerous situation. But much of what the news media delivered was in fact crisis porn, fed to an insatiable audience, and itself a likely cause of the escalation of the crisis.

Journalism, especially television journalism, has tremendous ability to control the tone of what it covers. The quantity, the music, the graphics, the word choices can all be dialed up or down. The notion that professional news judgment-a reliable journalistic rule book - is what really drives the nature and kind of coverage is hopelessly quaint. The truth is that a missing white woman can easily be turned by the media machine into a global red-alert, and a holocaust in Africa can be marginalized as a sidebar story. When it comes to holding audiences' attention, the only thing better than suspense is suspense about carnage, and the only thing better than suspense about carnage is suspense about the apocalypse. Terrorists, especially stateless terrorists, depend on the media's addiction to fear and crisis. They have gamed the media system; they bank on getting their message amplified. This is not to diminish the legitimate news value of the horrors they perpetrate. But it's also true that attempts to cool things off, reduce tensions, and back off from the brink are at odds with the sexy Nielsens that accompany realtime coverage of the end of the world. It is chilling that the arbiter we used to rely on for the facts is itself now a stakeholder with a vested interest in imagining the worst.

The firing, in the spring of 2007, of radio host Don Imus was depicted as a victory for civil discourse. In reality, the most important thing to know about Don Imus is that he was a financial gusher for Viacom and General Electric until his advertisers began peeling away. The only reason that shock jocks are on the air in the first place is that people pay attention to them. We lend our ears to Imus and his ilk because outrageousness amuses us. A merely curmudgeonly cowboy would not have pulled big numbers, and neither the political class nor the punditocracy would have returned his bookers' calls. What made the powerful kiss Imus's ring, and what made people tune in, was how bad-boy - how rude, disrespectful, licking-the-razor - he was. Clearly, large audiences liked to gasp at what he got away with, and CBS and NBC were champs at spinning those oh-my-Gods into ka-chings.

The same could still be said of the envelope-pushing by Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, and the dozens of other acts in the infotainment freak show. Their effect may be to debase discourse, inflame prejudice, sow ignorance, exculpate criminality, incite rancor, ruin reputations, and stoke the right-wing base-but their effect is not their job. Their job is to make money-for the-media conglomerates that employ them. We may revile them for being demagogues, but we are chumps if we ignore how relentlessly the companies that employ them monetize their noxious shtick. Those corporations are not in the news business, nor the public interest business, nor the patriotism business. They're in the profit business.

l Imagine if the audience's appetite for outrage extended to the atrophy of American democracy. Imagine if media bosses believed that we were insatiable for information about the apparent attempt to rig the 2008 election by politicizing the Justice Department and prosecuting phony voter fraud. Imagine if the same kind of blanket coverage that's currently conferred on loopy astronauts, bratty rehaboholics, and slandered basketball teams were afforded instead to the assault on civil liberties and democratic processes now underway in America. Would we watch it the same Pavlovian way we watch tits, twits, and tornadoes?

Media executives think not. They don't believe the jury is still out on that one. They don't think that we're addicted to junk news and shock jocks because it's the only diet they've offered us; they think the market for civically useful information is simply saturated. And they don't think that way because they're just tools of the vast right-wing conspiracy (though some, like Fox, have made that their market niche) or because it serves their economic self-interest (though the tax cuts and wealth transfers whose consequences they've declined to cover have benefited them handsomely). No, they air what they air, and cover what they cover, as a capitalist service to us. Us, in the form of our mutual funds, our pension funds, our IRAs and 401(k)s, our collective American existence as Wall Street. Entertainment is exquisitely sensitive to demand. As long as we demand quarterly growth in profits more aggressively than we demand real news, the clowns will always get more airtime than the fifth column of hacks who have penetrated the halls of Justice.

Surely this knack for pandering to our taste for sensationalism is not why the news business is the only for-profit enterprise to be protected by the Constitution. Nor is it likely that the modern journalistic project, defined as the imperative to obtain market share, will do its part to deliver the educated citizenry that Thomas Jefferson said democracy depends on. Perhaps the Internet, by exponentially increasing the number of channels through which we can receive news, and by enabling new knowledge-networks that can be mobilized for information gathering, will prove to be a powerful antidote to the brave new world of entertainment über al/es. But it is just as possible that the need to monetize cyberspace will have the same consequences for online information that it has had in the old media. On the Internet, no one knows if you're Big Brother.

In the United States, concentrated media ... Big Media, may have replaced Big Brother as the principal danger to the open public dialogue that makes democracy possible.

... The fifty men and women who dominate [the major media] corporations would fit in a large room. They constitute a new Ministry of lnformation and Culture.

Bill Moyers

Big media is ravenous. It never gets enough, always wants more. And it will stop at nothing to get it. These conglomerates are an empire. And they are imperial.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Michael J. Copps, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times

[U]nder pressure from media conglomerates previous commissions have eviscerated the [broadcast license] renewal process. Now we get what big broadcasters lovingly call 'postcard renewal' - the agency typically rubber-stamps an application without any substantive review.

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