In the 1930s George Orwell, well aware of contemporary politics, particularly the propaganda of Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, and the contenders in the Spanish Civil War, became concerned with the corruption of language and communications. Work for the BBC during the Second World War increased these concerns, to the extent that he wrote an essay titled Politics and the English Language in 1946, in which he asserted: "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". He argued that "one ought to recognise that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end". This concern became widely shared during the Cold War, when words became weapons and vast propaganda edifices were created to brand opponents and justify policies. The same process quickly became central to "the war on terrorism".
However, the conduct of public affairs, particularly the language of political communication, has reached new depths of duplicity in the past twelve months. An all-pervasive "culture of spin" has smothered rational analysis and debate. All the talk about "weapons of mass destruction", "links with international terrorism", "acquisition of nuclear weapons" and so on was based on deliberate misrepresentation. All their insistence that, despite extensive "pre-deployment" of massive military forces, Bush and Blair and Howard were "men of peace" who had not yet made a "final decision" about war, was utter falsehood. Much of the material presented to the public to justify the need for war in Iraq was equally false. This was made abundantly clear during the Hutton Inquiry in the United Kingdom, into the public naming (and subsequent suicide) of weapons expert Dr Kelly, whose concerns about the misuse of "intelligence" were used by a journalist to claim that the famous Blair Dossier had been "sexed up" for political purposes. The Inquiry revealed the machinations through which the Blair dossier on Iraqi "weapons of mass destruction" was fabricated using information known to be spurious.
Equally creative effort and disregard for truth has gone into the American saga of "Saving Private Lynch". This lack of regard for integrity has promoted even greater lack of public respect for the political process itself. In July this year, outgoing head of the Uniting Church in Australia, the Reverend James Haire, told the Church’s National Assembly that the recent policies of the Howard government (and the inability of the Opposition to do its job properly) had plunged the nation into "new depths of moral depravity". A range of policies, from the Tampa incident through welfare matters to the war on Iraq, displayed "abysmal moral standards". He went on: "When truth becomes a commodity manufactured by spin doctors and aided and abetted by government departments and political minions afraid to tell it like it is [we are] in a powerless moral state." Similar "abysmal moral standards" were being displayed in the United States and the United Kingdom.
The process of deliberately and aggressively using propaganda, distortion, misinformation and outright lies, as a substitute for honest policy formulation and presentation, in relation to the American case for war on Iraq, has recently been subject to scrutiny by Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, from the Centre for Media and Democracy, a watchdog organization that monitors the public relations industry. Their book, Weapons of Mass Deception: The Uses of Propaganda in Bush's War on Iraq, exposes the interconnections between the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and a number of America's largest public relations and advertising firms. One such firm was Benador Associates, "a high-powered media relations company that acted as a sort of booking agent" for Middle East "experts" affiliated with neoconservative think tanks. According to Rampton and Stauber, Benador's success in filling the media with the views of their clients "was all the more striking in comparison with the slight attention that media and policymakers paid to the 1,400 full-time faculty members who specialise in Middle East studies at American universities". Thus "weapons of mass deception" consisted of the continuous manufacture of post-September 11 fear by terror alerts, raids and deportations, the flooding of an uncritical media with endlessly repeated government statements and supporting commentary, the use of emotive language (such as "regime change", "liberation" and "coalition of the willing") that concealed reality, and the displacement of independent assessment by self-chosen 'experts' from lavishly funded support groups and think tanks.
A recent Australian study by Don Watson, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, reinforces this concern for the corruption of language. Watson illustrates how mindlessly repetitive corporate jargon, incorporated in "mission statements" and "organisational systems and processes", displaces genuine articulation of beliefs and values. He laments that:
The language of management - for which read the language of virtually all corporations and companies, large and small, public service departments, government agencies, libraries, galleries and universities, the military, intelligence organisations and, increasingly, politics - is language that cannot describe or convey any human emotion, including the most basic ones such as happiness, sympathy, greed, envy, love or lust. You cannot tell a joke in this language, or write a poem, or sing a song. It is language without human provenance or possibility.
What is even worse is the political embracement of this language, and the complete failure of the media to challenge its shallowness and duplicity. Watson makes the point:
Politicians are attracted to managerial language because it is an endless fund of clichés; of interchangeable phrases that can be rolled out interminably. The pressure of the media makes these instant weasel words - words with the meaning sucked out of them - invaluable. And the media, for reasons I don't quite understand, play along with it. They never ask what these vacuous phrases mean. They never object to them on our behalf. They seek the truth in a language that has no truth in it.
Whether the media really seeks the truth is a matter of opinion. But human beings have long recognised the inhumanity of war; and those who fail to heed the past are destined to repeat it. In 1509 the famous Dutch Renaissance humanist, Erasmus, wrote scathingly in his Praise of Folly:
War is something so monstrous that it befits wild beasts rather than men, so crazy that the poets even imagine that it is let loose by Furies, so deadly that it sweeps like a plague through the world, so unjust that it is best generally carried on by the worst type of bandits, so impious that it is quite alien to Christ; and yet they leave everything to devote themselves to war alone. Here even decrepit old men can be seen showing the vigour of youths in their prime, undaunted by the cost, unwearied by hardship, not a whit deterred though they turn law, religion, peace and all humanity upside down. And there’s no lack of learned sycophants to put the name of zeal, piety and valour to this manifest insanity, ...
This article was published in the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies’ newsletter PeaceWrites No.2 2003.