One of the frightening aspects of ideology is how easy its governing principles can be obscured behind tautologies and reality-denying affirmations that are then effortlessly absorbed en masse simply through continuous repetition.
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Ideology articulated in tautological form is what Orwell captured in his novel 1984 when he reduced Ingsoc (English Socialism) to three infamous slogans intended to shape and discipline the minds of Oceania’s citizens: War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength. These statements appear to say two different things, but they actually say the same thing twice. They cannot be factually or logically refuted because they are self-reinforcing statements that point back to themselves. However, they do play an essential role in what Noam Chomsky has called the “manufacture of consent.”
In Orwell’s dystopia, such inversions of the meaning of words are precisely intended to render language, and indeed truth and reality, entirely malleable, subject to the arbitrariness of those who happen to be in power. During one of his torture sessions, Winston Smith objects that there is a real world outside the world of the Party. His torturer, O’Brien, assures him that “reality is simply whatever the party says it is.”
Today, there is no shortage of O’Brien-like politicians, bureaucrats, CEOs and media moguls who operate as if truth and reality are what they say it is. Of course, neither the fictional nor nonfictional O’Briens call what they do propaganda. In 1984, O’Brien refers to it as “reality control,” or in newspeak, “double-think.” Today we know it through individuals like Karl Rove as “reality-based community.”
“Capitalism is Freedom.”
In Rove’s own words, “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.” Reason and reality-defying statements and slogans, the continuous repetition of big lies, the desire to rewrite the past to make it consistent with present mendacities, the endless false equivalencies, are all depressing reminders that we are not that far removed from the dystopic world of 1984.
“Austerity is Abundance”
Let me offer a few concrete examples. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, we have been told over and over by famous economists and media talking heads that capitalism is the one true economic system – or as Milton Friedman might have said, in concise tautological form: “Capitalism is Freedom.” It matters not in the least that really existing capitalism, to use Noam Chomsky’s apt phrase, enriches the few, impoverishes the many and works to systematically undermine freedom. In other words, reality is whatever the powerful say it is.
Europeans are likewise assured again and again by members of the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) that “Austerity is Abundance.” Thus, it is not the redistribution of wealth through a graduated, fair tax system, the advocacy of living wages, reasonable working conditions or impartial labor laws that will lead to economic wealth and stability, but the imposition of brutal austerity measures directed wholly at the middle classes and working poor.
There is no need for citizens to be told anything about what rights are being taken from them and given to corporations during secret trade negotiation meetings.
The notion that austerity is necessary or inevitable does not derive its legitimacy from anything real or true about the world. It is “proof” by assertion – assertion that cannot be challenged or contradicted in mainstream media or official circles because doing so would not be in the interest of very powerful individuals and institutions.
Again, it is continuously repeated to Americans that if they are “patriots” who want to preserve the strength, security and integrity of their country, they must never be made aware of the extent to which their privacy and civil liberties have been compromised by an elaborate system of intrusive surveillance.
“Patriotism is Ignorance.”
Moreover, in this great bastion of “democracy” where “informed” political decisions are apparently championed, citizens are better off not knowing the grisly details of illegal imprisonment and torture that took place at Guantanamo (and likely still take place in CIA black sites around the world). Neither do they need to be apprised of how their president, Barack Obama, determines who shall be the next target of a drone strike.
Finally, there is no need for citizens to be told anything about what rights are being taken from them and given to corporations during secret trade negotiation meetings. In tautological form this wholesale truth and reality-denying perspective could easily be summed up in the Orwellian-like slogan “Patriotism is Ignorance.”
These examples are not merely intended to underscore some abstruse academic point. We are, by now, familiar with how the fabrication of reality by powerful political leaders can be made plausible merely by the repeated association of certain words: Saddam Hussein – September 11th – weapons of mass destruction.
The truly terrifying consequence of continuously repeating a big lie is not just that language is reduced to a propaganda delivery system. In the above case, the consequence of Bush II’s big lie was widespread destruction and the senseless suffering and death of hundreds of thousands of human beings in Iraq. Thirty-seven years before 9-11, President Johnson’s repetition of the false claim that two US ships were subjected to an unprovoked attack by North Vietnamese forces in the Gulf of Tonkin, served to perpetuate a war that would result in the needless death of 1.3 million souls.
The effect of flagrant misappropriations of truth and reality reduces language to a medium for propaganda, a mechanism of thought-control, entirely adaptable to the priorities and privileged perspectives of those in power.
More recently, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu repeated to a largely supportive American Congress a fabrication of reality through the use of a false equivalency: Iran is like Nazi Germany, a malevolent force determined to destroy the state of Israel. It is easy to see how, within Netanyahu’s distorted purview, the state of Israel must be continuously defended against Iranian and/or Palestinian aggression, since it is so often repeated by politicians, media talking heads, intellectuals, Israeli lobby groups like AIPAC that “Israel is a force for good” or “Israel is an icon of democracy” in the Middle East.
What is typically obscured by such propaganda is the brutish reality of Israel’s occupation of Gaza, its defiance of international criminal law, and its outrageously disproportionate use of destructive weapons against a comparatively defenseless Palestinian population – a superior military and firepower that in the 2008-2009 Operation Cast Lead offensive killed over 1,400 Palestinians (759 civilians, 344 children, 110 women) versus 72 Israelis (66 of whom were soldiers); firepower that in 2014 under Operation Protective Edge killed more than 2,100 Palestinians (1,462 civilians, 495 children and 253 women) versus 13 Israelis.
All of these modern perspectives couched in recognizable slogans rely on faux necessities that are persuasive not because they are true, but because they have come to be seen as “true” through relentless iterations by powerful individuals and institutions. Just as in Orwell’s 1984, the effect of flagrant misappropriations of truth and reality reduces language to a medium for propaganda, a mechanism of thought-control, entirely adaptable to the priorities and privileged perspectives of those in power. Thus, in each of the above cases, what is invoked by powerful and influential leaders is “necessity” of one kind or another – in the case of expanding American wars, it is the necessity of war to maintain a particular form of American exceptionalism; in the case of Israel, it is the necessity of maintaining the integrity of a particular kind of racially uncontaminated Jewish state; in the case of European austerity, it is the necessity of securing a particular concept of economic prosperity for the few.
But, what is it about necessity, even ersatz forms of necessity that attracts us? Perhaps there is a sense in which human beings desire the enveloping comfort of certain forms of necessity or absolutism because the latter give immediate purpose and meaning to the world. Chris Hedges exposed this aspect of the human psyche in his brilliant and disturbing work War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. Of course, in those cases where meaning and purpose are derived from fundamentalist religious tenets, political or economic authoritarianism, or the extreme circumstances manifest in war, there is an ongoing obligation to conform to conventional piety and suspend any desire to engage in critical judgment – or as Orwell’s O’Brien might say, “orthodoxy is unconsciousness.” Fundamentalist orthodoxies provide an absolutist context of meaning that relieves us of any responsibility to critically evaluate our perspectives or beliefs.
Finally, here in Canada, we will soon be asked to submit to the necessity of an anti-terrorism law that is ostensibly aimed at potential terrorists and “violent jihadists.” However, this is not legislation meant to address the external threat posed by terrorists, but the cynical employment of law as a tool for citizen control, political repression and population domestication. In other words, the vague and overly broad language of Bill C-51 is specifically intended to create a chilling effect on any Canadian citizen who might have the audacity to show their disagreement with government policy or corporate kleptocracy by engaging in grass-roots dissent, protest or civil disobedience.
One could reasonably conclude that at least one of the targets of this legislation is Canada’s increasingly activist indigenous peoples, who would like to put a end to destructive fossil fuel extraction, pipeline construction or fracking on their traditional lands.
The long-term objective is to undermine constitutional protections and unravel all of those antiquated notions of belonging, tolerance and multiculturalism Canadians were once internationally noted for.
However, this on-the-ground reality could never be officially admitted. Instead, the faux reality forwarded by the Harper Government is that Bill C-51 is a necessary response to the October 22 fatal shootings at Parliament Hill and the War Memorial. The lone shooter – Michael Zehaf-Bibeau – suffered from mental health and drug addiction issues and had no affiliation with any known radical Islamist group, either in Canada or abroad.
Behind this faux reality lies a truly insidious Conservative government perspective: that we live in a world surrounded by terrorists who hate Canadians and are continuously conspiring to intimidate us, undermine our economy and destroy our democratic way of life. The irony is that if Bill C-51 is passed, this distorted perspective will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, by promoting hatred, militarism and intolerance, we will, in fact, perpetuate it.
Accordingly, the goal of this legislation is not to protect Canadians from terrorists, or secure Canada from jihadist threats. Instead, the long-term objective is to undermine constitutional protections and unravel all of those antiquated notions of belonging, tolerance and multiculturalism Canadians were once internationally noted for. Implicit in this proposed legislation is an effort to create a climate where fear and suspicion of the “other” becomes the new normal, and where the price of security is the subordination of constitutionally protected civic freedom. Once again, we could sum this up in Orwellian-like terms. Under Harper’s proposed C-51 surveillance state, “Freedom is Servility.”
For those who are familiar with Stephen Harper’s reckless, undemocratic proroguing of parliament, hawkish militarism, suppression of scientific and social scientific research, restrictions on access to information and autocratic way of running the prime minister’s office and the country at large, the analogy with Orwell’s dystopia will seem quite appropriate.
The problem is that many Canadians are not aware of the deep cynicism and hatred this prime minister has for anyone who wants to build a Canada that is democratic, adheres to international law, is concerned with promoting peace, protects public goods and preserves constitutional rights. But, here’s the reality: The legislation proposed in the 61 pages of Bill C-51 is both destructive and unnecessary.
It is helpful to look through the analysis done by Clayton Ruby and Nader R. Hasan for the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). There you will find a concise overview of Bill C-51. In short, this is a bill that will “expand the powers of Canada’s spy agency, allow Canadians to be arrested on mere suspicion of future criminal activity, allow the minister of public safety to add Canadians to a ‘no-fly list’ with illusory rights of judicial review, and, perhaps most alarmingly, create a new speech-related criminal offense of ‘promoting’ or ‘advocating’ terrorism.”
Nowhere in this bill is there any recognition of the need for judicial review or citizen oversight. Moreover, it is abundantly clear that the Harper government would never tolerate the creation of a public advocate or ombudsman charged with the responsibility of ensuring the protection of civil liberties or constitutional rights potentially threatened by Bill-C51.
Can Canadians do anything to stop the bill? Well, in a word, yes! Resistance to this bill is gaining momentum across the country as information about the way it criminalizes dissent and other civil liberties becomes more widespread and available. Our best weapon now is knowledge – what one of Canada’s most important political writers and activists, Murray Dobbin, calls “civic literacy.” Dobbin reminds us that, “the extent to which the institutions of democracy can be assaulted and eroded is directly proportional to the level of civic literacy.”
Literacy works. In February, a poll stated that 82 percent of Canadians supported Bill C-51. As the implications of this bill became more generally known, a more recent poll showed that public support dropped to 45 percent. That is rather significant in the space of a few months.
Keep in mind also that we will have a chance to finally decide the fate of this bill in the upcoming federal election in October. If Harper is re-elected, Bill-C51 will be law and Canadians will have to live under the sort of fear Americans now suffer under their own Patriot Act. Opposing C-51 does not mean taking a “Wait and See” attitude prescribed by the mindless Liberals. Nor is it a matter of proposing “better language.” What is called for is wholesale rejection: that is, the repudiation of C-51, its authoritarian, unconstitutional proposals and the destructive hate-oriented philosophy its authors unquestioningly adhere to.
We must, at all costs, prevent the Harper government from building a future Canada where, “Reality is simply whatever the Conservative party says it is.”