Newspeak: Orwell c’est maintenant

Salon.  In the logic of perma-war, « imminent threat » is everywhere and drone attacks on Americans are no problem

John Brennan’s confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee struck many observers as a small but significant step in the direction of openness, a chink in the armor of secrecy that the last two presidential administrations have erected around the “war on terror.” Maybe that will turn out to be correct, and the incoming CIA director – the principal architect of President Obama’s drone war, and until recently a defender of rendition and “enhanced interrogation” – will launch a new era of transparency in Langley. While we wait for that, would you like to see this bridge I’ve got for sale in Brooklyn?

Indeed, watching the Brennan hearing, and then struggling through the troubling Justice Department “white paper” spelling out the legal justification for the drone killings of American citizens (which was recently acquired and released by NBC News), left me with quite a different feeling. In large part, this was the feeling that our government’s imperial creep continues uninterrupted, that most people simply don’t care (irrespective of their supposed political views) and that almost everyone involved in this charade, especially those of us in the media who are supposed to serve as the watchdogs, has agreed to ignore the most obvious and glaring questions.

Beyond all that, and to a large extent underlying it, there is also the post-Orwellian creep of our language, and of all public discourse, towards emptiness. What Orwell described was a phenomenon distinct to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, the abrupt replacement of ordinary language with a propagandistic and bureaucratic Newspeak designed to make ideological resistance impossible. In the electoral dictatorship now developing in the United States – and no, that isn’t a contradiction in terms – you can find sterling examples of such Newspeak and doublethink. But the most prominent American version, which I’m calling post-Orwellian, is subtler: Ordinary words whose meanings seem clear enough on the surface, such as “war” or “enemy” or “self-defense” or “imminent” (not to mention the ever-fraught “terrorism”) turn out not to mean anything at all, or to be legalistic terms of art with endlessly expansive frames of reference.

If this is starting to sound too much like a graduate seminar in literary theory, let’s remember that the real subject here is an amorphous 12-year war conducted largely in secret by two presidential administrations from opposing parties. Its result, if not its true purpose, has been the creation of an invisible and unaccountable national-security state apparatus and the consolidation of immense and unprecedented power in the executive branch. If the Bush administration claimed the right to detain and torture anyone it wanted to at “black sites” in insalubrious parts of the world, the Obama administration has arguably gone even further, claiming the right to kill anyone anywhere whom it deems to be an enemy combatant, including United States citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki and his teenage son, with long-range drone strikes piloted from afar.

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