Newspeak and the War on Terror

If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done remains undone; if this remains undone, morals and art will deteriorate; if justice goes astray, the people will stand about in helpless confusion. Hence there must be no arbitrariness in what is said. This matters above everything.

– Confucius on the “Rectification of Names” (正名)

This is (somewhat) old news, but I don’t think this was given the amount of coverage it deserves:

The Obama administration appears to be backing away from the phrase “global war on terror,” a signature rhetorical legacy of its predecessor.

In a memo e-mailed this week to Pentagon staff members, the Defense Department’s office of security review noted thatthis administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror’ [GWOT.] Please useOverseas Contingency Operation.’ ”

‘Global War on Terror’ Is Given New Name

The Orwellian distortion of language continues. It constantly amazes me how government officials, journalists, etc. are simply incapable of calling a spade a spade. Nobody ever talks about “wanton killing of civilians“. Instead, we talk about the “global war on terror” “overseas contingency operations”.

It must be understood that everybody running for public office in this country is a pathological liar, irregardless of their party affiliation.

Irregardless of the politically correct Newspeak, the war continues under Obama. It is absolutely vital that we do not confuse a change in terminology or even a change in leadership, for actual change in reality. George Orwell understood this very well when he wrote:

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.

Politics and the English Language

Confucius also understood this, even though he lived thousands of years ago:

Tsze-lu asked,
“If the Duke of Wei made you an advisor,
what would you address as the very first priority?”

Confucius replied,
“The most important thing
is to use the correct words.”
“What?” Tsze-lu replied.
“That’s your first priority? The right words?”

Confucius said,
“You really are simple, Yu.
The Sage keeps his mouth shut
when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about!

“If we don’t use the correct words,
we live public lies.
If we live public lies,
the political system is a sham.

“When the political system is a sham,
civil order and refinement deteriorate.
When civil order and refinement deteriorate,
injustice multiplies.
As injustice multiplies,
eventually the electorate is paralyzed
by public lawlessness.

“So the Sage takes for granted that he use the appropriate words,
and follow through on his promises with the appropriate deeds.

“The Sage must simply never speak lies.”

The Analects, Book 13 Verse 3

Language is power. If we do not understand this, than that power can (and will) be used to bind us and blind us.


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10 Responses to “Newspeak and the War on Terror”

  1. Luna Says:

    It’s funny how some of the smartest people I know are still so naieve about politics. In tenth grade, I had to read a thousand pages of whichever author I chose for a year-long project, and I chose Orwell. After reading the tiniest bit about Newspeak, I said to myself, “Well, Orwell was right, but he was a little melodramatic about it.”

    The truth is, a system doesn’t have to control the minutiae of its citizens’ lives in order to reorder their thinking. It’s a heck of a lot easier to have flashy games, and slowly construct an illusory world that is more comfortable than reality. The television doesn’t have to watch us as long as we watch the television.

    Now, America has a President who is a much better politician than it has had in the last eight years– he’s more ‘American,’ and he knows how to talk to hundreds of millions of people, which is no small talent. But it’s not as though he’s a revolutionary.

    The thing is– it is very possible to, in some sense, ‘opt-out’ of our social contract. I stopped getting too worked up about American politics some time ago. The future isn’t Nations and States, and it’s okay just to let the clock wind down on its own rather than expending a lot of energy trying to hit it with a hammer.

    But on language– that’s where you’re on to something. Truth is a war, my friend.

  2. Χάος Says:

    Hi Luna,

    Thanks for dropping by. I totally agree that you don’t need a totalitarian system to control people’s thinking. There’s an old Zen Buddhist proverb which says that if you want to keep a cow under control, give it a big pasture—-that’s in reference to the mind, but it works with society as well.

    I’m not so sure it is possible to opt out of the social contract. As long as I’m still paying taxes, that money goes to various causes, including various “overseas contingency operations”. I can stop caring, of course, but in the end I think that’s what the powers that be want.

  3. Luna Says:

    I’m not arguing for apathy, just appropriate response. I mean, if you are really concerned about people dying, in some infinitesimal part because of the taxes you pay, or in the name of a nation that considers you a citizen because of the circumstances of your birth, it seems to me that the only plausible way to respond would be revolution. And, in reference to what you wrote in another post about “protests,” I think we could both agree that waving signs isn’t going to do it.

    As for me, the government has never actually kept any of my money– I always get back what I put in, and since having my first child I usually get back a heck of a lot more. Even if it did, given the inefficiency of this lumbering, headless machine, what does a grand buy it?

    And even if you could claim your tax money had some partial responsibility for some deaths in Afghanistan, the truth of the matter is that people are murdering people and making war all over the globe, and have been for as long as we can tell. There are better ways to think about moving forward, in my mind, than getting upset over the caprice of a young and powerful nation.

    I suppose that some of this sounds like apathy, but it’s not. I’m very concerned about where humanity’s headed; I’m just not overly concerned with nations, or even the bad reasons that justify rather pointless death to ignorant Americans. Instead, I prefer to focus my attention on the communities of humans who are already moving beyond nationalism. They are the future, and they will shake the world. My vision is of grave concern for something so much higher and more beautiful than even the concept of a nation, that my interest in nations has become… more scientific, I suppose? Ants are marvelous creatures, and fascinating to study– one may even study them so that one can understand how to interact with a colony in the most mutually beneficial way– but one doesn’t lose a lot of sleep over wars between ant hills.

    It may seem a little callous. You might even point out that, in this case, these are ants who could kill me almost randomly in the cross-fire of one of their wars. But, in the end, one of the concepts that will elevate us is an affirmation of our own deaths, our own suffering, no matter how and where it finds us. One doesn’t swear vengeance against the ant-colony, either.

  4. Χάος Says:

    Hey again Luna,

    Thanks for your response, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Revolution would certainly be an appropriate way of responding, but it’s also not something the American people have much of a stomach for. Even now most people are content to play with the “flashy games” you mentioned, or else with purely symbolic forms of “dissent” that don’t actually change anything.

    I certainly agree that war and murder has been part and parcel of the human condition for most if not all of recorded history. That doesn’t, however, excuse the practice in my mind. Human beings aren’t ants, and try as I might, I can’t see them as ants. Ethically speaking I’m not sure that kind of “scientific” detachment is something we should be striving for, anyway.

    The nation-state is at best a step in the evolution of human community, but I’m curious about what you mean by “communities which have moved beyond nationalism.” I’ve yet to encounter a community that has done so in any actual or meaningful way.

  5. Luna Says:

    War and murder are actions, but those actions in and of themselves, removed from their context, have no value. Death and suffering are not only a necessary part of existence, not only unavoidable, but things that we should not be looking to avoid completely.

    I think a better stance towards war, violence, death and suffering is not that the world would be better off if they weren’t around– indeed, the humanity would not long survive if the only cause of death was “natural,” accidental and old-age. Our spirit would die long before our bodies, and the death of the human spirit is all around us. No, a better stance would be, for what do we wish to die, kill or suffer? What is worth our suffering, our death, or profound responsibility that comes along with taking a life?

    I understand when you say that you can’t see humans as ants, and it is figurative. What I mean to say is that just because humans are humans, doesn’t mean that they all have the same value. Strive or not, we are all detached from something, and an appropriate level of detachment isn’t something we should shy from. Again, it’s about a spirited response to the situation, rather than detachment due to circumstance and unquestioned training. The nationalist– the American, say– is trained to have some level of detachment for people from other nations. The “liberal”– a word here used to mean the psuedointellectual movement in Western politics set against the “conservatives” (also known as the farce on the left and the farce on the right)– is trained to quell this detachment as antithetical to our moral responsibility, but really he goes on detaching himself from a broad swath of “conservatives,” and goes on about his business happy and detached in the face of terrors that would threaten to overwhelm the greatest of us. Detachment is a great thing– but we don’t need to be blindly detached. We can choose who we are detached from, and perhaps more importantly, why.

    If Americans don’t have the stomach for revolution– if they consistently choose ignorance, comfort and the illusion of security over a more real engagement with life– perhaps it is realistic to consider the group calling itself “Americans” as something far, far beneath us.

    As to these communities, I believe that they are nascent. There are strange and wonderful movements, the first gropings in the dark, the birth pangs of something powerful. When the printing press came about, the Kingdom fell. Now, we have the internet, and Linux is making user-friendly robust products that can compete with all but the highest-end products on the market; Wikipedia has ridiculous power as a collaborative project that has very little to do with the concept of nationality; and the creative commons movement in inspiring.

    As I said, these are the first pangs– most of the people that are involved in these projects have a sort of “in the moment” enthusiasm for them, without realizing all of the social potential embodied in their work. A society or community that took something from these models and, with a little more attention to the “whys,” might find itself higher than any nation. Nor with more guns, not with more ability to project force or dominate, but literally higher. A man doesn’t need to be able to kill a pack of wolves with his bare hands to be above the wolves.

    If it’s something you’re interested in– well, that’s what I’m trying to put together.

  6. Χάος Says:

    Hi Luna,

    Death is certainly inevitable and I agree that rather than trying to avoid death one should ask what’s worth dying for. Suffering I think is more of a mental condition which can be transcended, but pain is inevitable so I think minus some terminological differences, we’re on the same page.

    Detachment is not only useful, it is necessary. I’m not arguing against detachment. But detachment must go hand in hand with compassion. And entwined together compassion and detachment must flower into action. I don’t find the deaths of innocents shocking or unexpected or emotionally crushing—but knowing that they are dying does have an effect, and I want to translate that effect into action.

    And yes, I’d be very much interested in building that kind of community—what do you have in mind?

  7. Luna Says:

    Hey there,

    I didn’t realize that you were Buddhist, though I could pick up on some of the Buddhist perspectives in your posts– particularly in your stance toward suffering. I suppose that knowing you’re Buddhist puts a few of your comments in perspective.

    I’d be interested in writing more back and forth on suffering and compassion, and understanding what you understand of Buddhism. It seems that Buddhism is little more a monolith than Christianity or any other religious or philosophical practice– and one’s conception of both the goal and the mean by which the goal is achieved vary extraordinarily depending on the practitioner.

    When you talk of suffering as a mental condition, I cannot help but think of a word away from “medical condition,” as though it’s a thing to be cured– you say, transcended. We may or may not be on the same page, and here more than ever the particulars of words may make a large difference. I would say that suffering is a thing that can be overcome– it is something that does not rule the awakened spirit, but it is something that the awakened spirit revels in and affirms, just at it revels in its joy and affirms that. And I do mean suffering here, not just pain.

    Compassion is also a powerful thing, and a feeling and action to be both reveled in, and affirmed– but, what is the Buddhist phrase?– expedient means? I probably take quite a different meaning to that phrase. To me, compassion is not universally applicable. Or, and perhaps this is where it may become confusing, one may feel compassion for all things, but this does not preclude one feeling detachment from those things. Not all moments of compassion require or even warrant an action that would prevent the moment of compassion from recurring. Just because we see a dog dying in the street does not mean we ought to sacrifice or even put our life at great risk to save that dog. Because we see a war does not mean that we should sacrifice or even risk our life to end that war. The devil, as they say, is in the details. We shouldn’t make the mistake of morality– attempting to objectify a kind of action and give too much reality to that objectification so that we may judge events based on that objectification rather than the moment. It may be useful to speak of war, or to speak of murder, but it is not very useful to me to take a standardized stance of action on “war” and “murder.”

    While all of this is of great interest to me, it’s not my primary interest to wage war on your understanding of the role or compassion or suffering. Perhaps I should stop this little battle for the moment, lest the sideshow attraction overwhelm the main event.

    I’m putting together a group of people through the internet– people who are to some degree awakened, and who are willing to engage each other on the battleground of truth without resentment and, most importantly, with an open mind. It is funny how an open mind often looks to a certain group like a dangerously closed mind– a person who is able to judge other souls might seem to a broad swath of the “educated liberal community” of the West to be closed minded and oppressive. But we judge because we wish to be judged ourselves– because we wish to be tried in the fires of life, and we have all experienced the jarring change that comes with upheaval and identified that upheaval as the source of our strength and our ability to grow.

    I do understand your impatience for action, and I have that impatience as well. But our present personal motives may at this moment so greatly differ that I have little in way of action to offer you, if the goal you have set for yourself is to end war, or even to end the war in Afghanistan. I don’t offer a way to change humanity, but a way to overcome it, and overcoming it may require a long view that will certainly try my patience. Overcoming humanity may not be something that you’re interested in, either– perhaps too much of the “bodhisattva of compassion” to leave men behind?

    In any case, I am hoping to make a community of men and women who can engage each other on the field of truth in order to grow beyond man– to become something more. But before we decide what the community would do, how it would, as a community, affect change in the world, it seems to me would would have to let that community grow. Life does not decide what an arm is for before growing one– it grows the arm, and if it is useful, the arm remains.

  8. Χάος Says:

    Hey Luna,

    The problem with virtual communities is that they are precisely that—virtual. Actual community is forsaken for a digital simulacrum. Maybe the group you’re building is different, but I’ve yet to find an internet group that has even a shred of actual communitas. But then again the (post)modern reaction to the real world is to create and live in a virtual world. This doesn’t strike me as an adequate solution.

    I also have to admit I have no interest in “overcoming” humanity, but then again the very concept of “overcoming humanity” doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I’d have to know more about what you mean before taking a position on that. Much of what you’ve written here strikes me as being Nietzschean, but that still doesn’t give me much to go on. What are you proposing, in concrete terms?

  9. The Internet Is Not a Solution! « Psychic Nomadism Says:

    […] Psychic Nomadism « Newspeak and the War on Terror […]

  10. Luna Says:

    I’m still thinking through what I’m proposing in concrete terms, however there’s perhaps a more thorough exploration of some of the possibilities here.

    I do like Nietzsche (and John Milton, and William Blake, and Origen), and I have a great amount of respect for him, but one place where he an I differ is on the necessity of revaluation and overcoming as a solitary activity. I think that a life is composed of both solitary struggles, and communal struggles– and that if something greater than man is to emerge from mankind, it will have to do so communally. I’m really not sure what kind of place community had in Nietzsche’s vision, and I think that may have been due to some of the restraints of his own time.

    In any case, the internet can be a vehicle for “virtual” communities (take SecondLife as one repugnant example), or it can be a vehicle for networking real communities. You’d hardly call a phone conversation a fake conversation, or a discourse through letters illusory, would you? And I’m not talking about a bunch of people who never meet face to face, but at least we can be honest about the degrees of contact that different media allow for. A Skype video-call is better long-range contact than your average low to medium income human has ever had access to– and it’s a kind of communication that they weren’t even dreaming about two hundred years ago.

    I’m talking about using the internet to maintain and build relationships between people who are awakened, and who can learn a great deal more about existence from each other than they can from any academic institution or political party. I’m talking about networking people who already feel a sense of detachment from political parties, and from politics in general because of its abysmal banality. Developing a social community between those people. Taking all the questions that we normally ask of governments, and applying them to a group of people who have allegiance to one another out of respect. Financial and physical support, as well as a community that creates it’s own culture. Maybe it sounds a little vague, but as I said, it’s something I’m working through.

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