The ‘scourge’ of chemical weapons: Newspeak in the modern era
In a sense, modern usage of the word “Orwellian” is itself Orwellian, as it now refers to something Orwell himself consistently and eloquently opposed: the twisting of language to misinform, to distort the truth, even tell outright lies. In the modern sense, “Orwellian” actually refers to a particular aspect of Newspeak, the fictional language used in Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
In reality, both the standard dictionary definition of “Orwellian” and Orwell’s own very complex framing of Newspeak are broader than mere redefinition of words to mean their opposite, such as in “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” But in language, not all change is bad, and not all simplification is simplistic. (Who still uses the phrase “begs the question” in its original awkward and rarely applicable sense?)
Nineteen Eight-Four, and indeed much of Orwell’s writing, is nowadays seen as remarkably prescient, but in fact he was only observing the obvious, or what should have been. His now-famous dystopia was in his view the logical extreme of political behavior and misbehavior that in most cases was not behind closed doors of a “deep state” but right out in the open, visible to anyone who cared to see.
Orwell’s skills used to be fairly common in journalism: the ability to see through the smoke of political hype and obfuscation, the recognition that skepticism is of far greater and farther-reaching value than “access” and, certainly, “loyalty to the state.”
Orwell’s skills used to be fairly common in journalism: the ability to see through the smoke of political hype and obfuscation, the recognition that skepticism is of far greater and farther-reaching value than ‘access’ and, certainly, ‘loyalty to the state’
Eric Arthur Blair died in early 1950 of tuberculosis at the age of 46. Much has changed in the nearly seven decades since, including medical advances that might have prolonged his life, but a lot has not changed. One is the manipulation of language to promote war.
In Oceania, the super-state of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the entire system – economic, social – is kept in an environment of perpetual war, against other-worldly “enemies” demonized by the Ministry of Truth, a government propaganda organ to which “truth” of the pre-Newspeak destination is alien, even unlawful.
The seeds of Oceania in Orwell’s mind can be seen in his 1945 essay “You and the Atomic Bomb,” written weeks after the US nuclear attacks on Japan. In that essay, he envisaged a world divided into three super-states, the only ones wealthy and powerful enough, according to Orwell’s obviously limited knowledge at that time of nuclear technology, to produce atomic bombs.
That essay has since been criticized for overstating the actual political power provided by nuclear-weapons proficiency, and understating the relative ease with which atomic weapons can be produced. However, such criticisms miss a larger point.
Weapons of mass destruction, real or imagined, are a crucial element of the politics of fear that empower empires. To that end, the Ministries of Truth in Beijing, Moscow, Washington toil day and night just as they did in Orwell’s day, as he witnessed first-hand (and was wounded fighting against) the rise of fascism in Spain, and the run-up to yet another “war to end all wars” and those blinding flashes of fire and fury in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Examples of this pro-war propaganda are too numerous to list, one of the most famous being the hysterics leading up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. History shows that at least in the US and to only a slightly lesser degree in the UK, there was a dearth of George Orwells demanding that politicians justify their shrill cries for war. Instead, most of the US mainstream media not only took up that cry themselves, but stifled, ridiculed and even fired the few journalists who dared to dissent from the war frenzy. Entire nations were smeared (remember freedom fries?).
The chaos that ensued in Iraq and beyond after the invasion has ever since been castigated by finger-wagging pundits as a disaster, and yet some of that same bunch cried just as loudly for the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and are doing the same today regarding Syria, North Korea, and soon Iran, the new and improved “axis of evil.”
Hark: Is that Peter, Paul and Mary singing “When will they ever learn?”
Many have wondered why people shriek from the hilltops every time there is a report of a gas attack. Poison chemicals and nerve agents are nasty, no doubt, but is having your family blown to bits by a drone attack less horrible?
No; it’s another chorus of Newspeak. WMD all over again. But this time, it’s not non-existent nukes in Saddam Hussein’s basement – it’s the “scourge of chemical weapons.”
Many have wondered why people shriek from the hilltops every time there is a report of a gas attack. Poison chemicals and nerve agents are nasty, no doubt, but is having your family blown to bits by a drone attack less horrible? Is a cholera epidemic prolonged by a port blockade a bed of roses? Is mowing people down from a helicopter gunship so ho-hum that it deserves nary a headline? Is there a gruesomeness ranking somewhere that provides reliable advice on when to mount a “humanitarian intervention,” like, say, the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business” index, or the UN’s “World Happiness Report”?
After the unsubstantiated report in early April that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had “gassed his own people” in Douma, the corporate media and war-hungry politicians in Washington, Westminster and Paris reacted with predictable outrage. Even Asia Times was not to be left out; one article was headlined “Trump needs to take drastic action against gas attack.”
In journalism school, budding reporters are taught the “five Ws” that they should always ask in order to get a news story right. Too often, especially now that getting a “breaking story” online before one’s competitors is crucial, corners are cut. And one of the first W’s to get the chop is often “Why?”
Why do powerful Western militaries need “to take drastic action” against a tinpot dictator who is no threat to their own regimes? And why, as a counterpoint, is there never any call for “drastic action” against, for example, the US for its indiscriminate drone attacks on Pakistan, its funding of Salafi jihadists in Syria, its destruction of Libya, its long history of murderous violence against progressive and land-reform movements in Latin America, the thousands of tons of bombs it dropped on Indochina in the 1970s that are still blowing kids’ legs off, or the fascist coups it has backed, if not instigated, most recently in Ukraine and Honduras?
And that brings us back to the chemical-weapons issue. The reason alleged attacks by these things so reliably get media pundits and opportunistic politicians in a frenzy is because that is what they are designed to do.
Early in their development, modern chemical weapons such as mustard gas were arguably used to positive (for the perpetrator) effect. But today they have no legitimate purpose on a battlefield – every warlike nation, including Syria, has vast stockpiles of far more efficient weapons. Their real usefulness – something that was even true back in the mustard-gas days, or when Saddam from time to time gassed Kurds and Iranians – is their efficiency at provoking fear.
However, as Assad has found out during the course of his country’s civil war (if he didn’t know already, which is very unlikely), that fear-provoking efficiency is a double-edged sword. It also makes their use – or even unproven allegations of their use – extremely useful propaganda fodder.
The story surrounding the alleged Douma attack and the response by the US and its faithful servants the UK and France is as tiresome as a rerun of a bad sitcom
The story surrounding the alleged Douma attack and the response by the US and its faithful servants the UK and France is as tiresome as a rerun of a bad sitcom. The US war industry went into a panic because Donald Trump dropped an offhand comment that he was tired of Syria and wanted to pull out, dumping it into the “too hard” basket. Of course no one, least of all the Pentagon, knew if he meant it, but they could not afford to take the chance.
And then, like magic, Assad made a just-in-time “gas attack on his own people” again, and the hand-wringing puppet-show media came to the fore with pictures of sobbing children and heroic White Helmets “risking their lives.” And just as reliably, Assad was his own worst enemy by blocking any possibility of an immediate independent investigation (not that it would have been believed anyway, any more than Hans Blix was in the early 2000s; and follow-up reports on the attack have quietly disappeared from the news cycle).
But warmongering is not an exact science. Sometimes there are enough people who still believe in the Five Ws or perhaps remember the “dodgy dossiers” and fake “yellowcake” reports of not that long ago to doubt the official narrative.
So when not one but two “chemical attacks” under very odd circumstances occurred in two different countries at almost the same time, and both were allegedly linked to our modern-day Emmanuel Goldstein, namely Vladimir Putin, some people started to smell a rat. And quietly the bizarre story of a retired double agent and his daughter somehow managing not only to survive an attempt by “the Russians” to murder them with a chemical “five to eight times more potent than VX” but go shopping, have a drink in a pub and take a walk in the park before collapsing – and then recovering – started to slink off the front pages of the London tabloids.
There is good evidence that the “drastic action” taken by the US, the UK and France at huge taxpayer expense against alleged chemical-weapons facilities in Syria on April 7 was a face-saving effort to spike the Douma story before it faced the same fate as the Skripal saga and those pesky Five Ws emerged again. Those clamoring for “drastic action” were appeased, as another “red line” had been enforced against a brutal dictator’s “continued use” (three alleged attacks in five years, at least one almost totally debunked as a false flag) of weapons of “mass destruction” – Newspeak for 40 deaths in Douma. (The notorious 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway, for which perpetrator Shoko Asahara was just executed, killed 12, but injured more than 1,000.)
The dreaded Five Ws did not, of course, pop up in the mainstream corporate media; no one asked, for example, how there could be almost zero casualties in an attack by more than 100 missiles on populated areas of Greater Homs and Damascus, or why there was no fear that the attack would cause the so-called chemicals to be dispersed to disastrous effect.
And, as has become the norm in modern “journalism,” those who did ask were smeared as “Putinbots” and “Assad apologists” and “conspiracy theorists.” Maybe some have been accused of “thoughtcrime.” Yet the game goes on, with yet another mysterious “Novichok attack” – this one apparently fatal – just down the road from the Skripals’ place, or, as the formerly cautious BBC is reporting, the “site of the Russian nerve-agent attack.”
But even for the doubters of official narratives there could be a silver lining. Perhaps some of them will go on to write dystopian novels from which versions of their pen names enter the English lexicon seven decades from now.