Tag Archive | "1984"

The Tyranny of Words

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“A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”  The familiar expression coined by American writer Gertrude Stein conveys a simple truth: no matter what something is called, its inherent qualities remain the same.  In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare expressed a similar view through the utterance of Juliet – “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

And yet, today, we live in an age in which a new form of language is utilized, often to circumvent the truth or conceal the fact that nothing much is actually being stated.  Who can forget the Presidency of William Jefferson Clinton.  A master of circumlocution and the parsing of words, President Clinton will forever be remembered for remarks like “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” and “It depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”  Of course, politicians have long been noted for “stretching” if not “shredding” the truth.  And, this behavior is not confined to one political ideology.  Consider that when Richard Nixon was found to have lied, his handlers characterized his remarks as “inoperative,” or that, in attempting to justify war with Iraq, George W. Bush stated that a search of Iraq uncovered “weapons of mass destruction-related program activities” – whatever it is that that means.  Today, as Congress debates healthcare reform, Democrats and Republicans alike choose their words with extreme care as they explain or answer questions regarding their respective positions on this issue, lest they reveal the unvarnished truth.

Totalitarian regimes have long known that by controlling language, they can control the thinking of their subjects.  Those who disagreed with political oppression were branded “enemies of the revolution” in Stalinist Russia and “enemies of the Reich” in Hitler’s Germany.

In free societies, framing the terms of debate facilitates political gain.  And so, adroit politicians such as Ronald Reagan demonized the term “Liberal” at the expense of their political opponents.  Likewise, Congressmen give euphemistic titles to their bills that belie the actual content of the legislation.

Of course, political expression owes much of its development to Madison Avenue where advertising think-tanks continually find new ways to promote products that separate consumers from their hard-earned money.  Using colorful adjectives and adverbs, advertising language can create in the mind of the consumer significant differences between essentially homogeneous products like gasoline or bottled water.

In the classic dystopian novel, 1984, George Orwell describes a fictional language that he terms “Newspeak.”  “Newspeak” is a scaled-down form of English employed by the despotic regime in power to maintain control over its subjects.  By narrowing the vocabulary of the language, the government could limit alternative ways of thinking and consolidate its power by eliminating words describing concepts such as freedom and revolution.  One wonders how close our language of today comes to the fictional “Newspeak” of 1984.

And so, when you read or hear a statement that you do not understand because the language employed is purposefully evasive, question the writer or speaker.  Force him to state his position in more concrete terms.  You may be striking a blow for freedom, or at the very least clarity.

Big Brother Is Coming!

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Local media reports indicate that Morris Township is moving closer to becoming Morris County’s first municipality to install red light cameras.  These cameras, already in use by other municipalities in New Jersey and other states, enable ticketing of motorists who run these red lights.  Owners of vehicles captured by these cameras receive a summons by mail with a hefty fine attached.  It is unclear what defense might be advanced for such a violation.


In George Orwell’s classic novel, “1984,” Big Brother, an icon of the ruling totalitarian regime, “watches” a subjugated populace via its television screens.  Since motorists on public streets should have no expectation of privacy, red light cameras clearly do not intrude upon any motorists rights.  Likewise, were a police officer a witness to a moving violation at an intersection, he or she could certainly ticket the violator.  Nonetheless, the presence of technology that enables the government to identify and enforce every single motor vehicle intersection infraction seems a little too “Orwellian” to this writer.


If the use of technology to enforce laws against motorists running red lights does not trouble you, how does the use of technology to enforce speed laws?  Most of us have seen those displays on roadsides (both temporary and permanent) apprizing motorists of the speeds of their vehicles.  Why not enforce speed limits using the same technology used to enforce intersection violations?


Perhaps, technology could be improved to identify not merely the vehicle involved in the violation but also its operator.  Then, in addition to a hefty fine, the violating motorist could be faced with points on his/her license, loss of license, and/or surcharges on auto insurance premiums!  Does the prospect of this type of enforcement disturb anyone other than me?


There is something disconcerting about receiving notification after-the-fact that you, or more precisely, the vehicle you own has violated a motor vehicle law.  Now, I’m not endorsing lawlessness.  But, if the average motorist thinks about it and is honest with himself, he would likely admit to committing any number of motor vehicle violations each day, even if the violations were for driving 26 in a 25 mile-per-hour zone or slowly rolling through a stop sign at a desolate intersection.  Should we expand technology to discover and punish all of these infractions?


Liberty is won with great difficulty and lost with ease.  It is a slippery slope from permitting cameras at intersections to permitting government surveillance of all public venues and activities.  And, it is but a relatively small step from the bottom of that slippery slope to government surveillance of private venues:  the scenario depicted in “1984.”


Of course, there is always a valid reason for such monitoring.  In the case of red light cameras, the rationale is to reduce accidents and promote public safety.  Does generating revenue for the municipalities enter into this equation?  I think so, and the thought of our local governments squeezing every dollar out of an already financially-strapped populace actually makes me feel somewhat better about the proposition.  Better a local government whose purpose in spying on its citizens is greed, than one whose purpose is behavior and mind control.

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