George Orwell recognized the seductive drift into a totalitarian society more than six decades ago. He predicted such a society would arrive with a new language he called “Newspeak.” This would disguise truth with subtle elisions from word to word, concept to concept, in a simplistic fashion that would be easily propagated. The new language was to become the lingua franca by the year 1950, leading to a new tyranny that would descend by the year 1984.
Orwell was wrong about the timetable, but not about the drift. Signs of the drift lie all about us. Public figures are so taken with their own egos they spin monstrous lies into accepted truth before our very eyes.
James Comey’s explanation to Congress of his conclusions of what his agents learned about Hillary Clinton’s email adventures dramatically illustrates the peril in the drift. Mr. Comey has a reputation for probity and integrity, which cannot easily be set aside. But he nevertheless showed that he, too, is vulnerable to Washington’s intricate political intrigues. His “explanation” was less explanation than confession that he let Hillary off the hook where she put herself.
Mr. Comey mercilessly parsed every word of his confession. Mrs. Clinton — a woman who occupied high and significant roles in U.S. political life — was in his view wanting only in “technical sophistication” about guarding government classified material. He drew an unpersuasive distinction between “reckless disregard” for American security and “extremely careless” handling of material plainly prohibited by the law.
Mr. Comey, as Orwell predicted the government would, used language to escape the logical progression of language following his revelations of the FBI investigation into whether Mrs. Clinton had indeed violated the law protecting national security. After citing the reasons why and how she violated the restrictions on access to classified documents — including the probability that by destroying thousands of emails on her email servers she obstructed justice — he retreated into a convoluted argument for why the government should not proceed against her: There was no “intent” to violate the law, and besides, the law at issue had been on the books for decades, and only a few people had been successfully prosecuted for breaking it.
Mr. Comey had to disregard the text of the law to make his argument, which brings the logical argument back to language, and how he manipulated it.
This new language comes into creation just at the time that the common speech of Americans generally is becoming less and less specific, and given more to bending meaning with clever slang invented to sell something, to be quickly discarded for the next adroit turn of phrase.
When words lose their meaning, so does the law, and the understanding of the rules necessary to make a free society work. This widens the gulf between the self-appointed elites in Washington, New York and Los Angeles on one hand, and everybody else on the other. This in turn produces the amorphous but energized political revolt represented by Donald Trump and his “movement” (similar to what happened in Britain with the revolt of the masses against the unelected bureaucrats of the European Union). The common folk react to what they perceive, if occasionally incoherently, as oppression by a favored elite with their hands on the levers of power.
They often pick up the first weapon at hand. The division of opinion dividing America is often unfocused and angry, a reflection of the growing differences between the head and the heart of the body politic. Polarization is evident elsewhere in American life, complicated by the arrival of large numbers of immigrants with no experience or knowledge of the language and traditions of the law.
As the Trump phenomenon demonstrates, this new cultural divide will have an enormous influence in the future, acting as spur and complement to the far-reaching digital revolution. It will affect and change all aspects of American life. We have been warned. Orwell’s drift quickens.