The Word Thieves

In George Orwell's novel 1984, Newspeak is the government's attempt to control the thoughts of its citizens through strict control of language. Since words are direct expressions of thoughts and sentiments, limiting language effectively limits the thoughts that fill people's minds. Orwell's 1984 takes place during the transition period from Oldspeak (modern English) to Newspeak. Once Newspeak becomes fully implemented, the populace will be unable to express thoughts contrary to government ideals — these types of notions will literally become unthinkable.

Language is based on words; words are symbols for things, entities, and concepts. Look at any text in its original form from more than 100 years ago — it's quite easy to observe that language is extremely mutable. Words can morph and change. Gradually, they assume different meanings over time. They adapt like chameleons to the context of the writer or speaker. The capricious nature of words is not in and of itself a good or bad thing. It is, however, a characteristic of language which holds enormous power. As Orwell establishes, words are directly tied to thoughts.

A 19th century "liberal" was ideologically very different than the liberals of today. It used to be that a liberal was someone who espoused ideals which we now refer to as "libertarian": free trade, few or no taxes, ownership of one's body, and so on. But gradually, ideologues who embraced government intervention when it came to property rights, gun rights, taxes, social programs, and regulation of business co-opted the term. Modern liberals claimed for decades to value civil liberties as well. However, that aspect of the word's definition is becoming increasingly hazy as modern liberals champion such legislation as the Patriot Act and national ID cards.

Meanwhile, in the dialogue among modern libertarians, "liberal" in its former sense has been replaced by "classical liberal." The coinage of this phrase serves two purposes: first, it clarifies that the word "liberal" has changed in meaning since its inception; second, it defines and separates the political beliefs of libertarians from those of present day liberals.

A similar change occurred with the word "conservative." Just decades ago, "conservatives" believed (or at least claimed to believe) in smaller government, low taxes, and more personal responsibility. The term is now synonymous with a government expansion, unfathomable debt, and the waging of imperialistic wars around the globe. It's amazing that Neocons have managed to so drastically change the meaning of conservatism within such a short period of time.

"Conservative" was, and still is, an adjective often used to describe libertarians. But clearly under the present definition, that is not an accurate depiction. Many libertarians have tried to circumvent this by referring to themselves as "fiscally conservative, socially liberal." Unfortunately, the warping of both terms — "liberal" and "conservative" — makes this description unacceptable as well.

Some libertarians may have found these changes in jargon tolerable, or they may not have cared. But I must call attention to two more words which are currently being skewed by the maniacs in Washington. You might have guessed them already: they are "freedom" and "liberty."

Bush's inaugural speech was a dastardly example of the latest trend in corrupting these words. In his address, Bush repeats the word "freedom" 27 times and the word "liberty" 15 times. The subtle corruption of these two words is demonstrated by the context in which he places them.

"There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant, and that is the force of human freedom." Herein lays the association of freedom with force, two concepts that were always contrasted before. Bush uses the two as if they go hand in hand. The "force of freedom" rightly sounds awkward to most listeners. But in reality, it's more than just awkward phrasing — it's an association of two concepts which hardly belong together.

"The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world." Here, Bush rallies the troops by informing the listener that his own "freedom" is in jeopardy. Only by spreading the Bush brand of "freedom" can that threat be ameliorated. Implicitly, Bush states that we must protect our own interests by stopping at nothing to "expand freedom" around the globe — if this involves unbridled militarism and imperialism, so be it!

"Freedom, by its nature, must be chosen, and defended by citizens, and sustained by the rule of law and the protection of minorities." Here, Bush defines freedom as something the State must ensure, while simultaneously his "defended by citizens" line pegs freedom as a concept which can justly incite wars. The "protection of minorities" portion reinforces the victim status that governments often attribute to minorities of any sort, bolstering their dependence on the State.

Within the first 500 words of his speech, Bush has already contaminated the word "freedom" by associating it with force, imperialism, the State, and war. The remaining mentions of it reveal similar references.

"In America’s ideal of freedom, citizens find the dignity and security of economic independence, instead of laboring on the edge of subsistence. This is the broader definition of liberty that motivated the Homestead Act, the Social Security Act, and the G.I. Bill of Rights." Economic independence apparently now means State programs. They, evidently, are "America's ideal of freedom."

Surely another freedom-laden speech will follow the elections to be held in Iraq. An additional curious aspect of Bush's definition of freedom seems to be the simple ability to vote.

My own observations lead me to conclude that in general, people are not fond of statist ideas — at least when the ideas are presented honestly. The only people who really favor the tighter grip of government on every aspect of our lives are those who compose it. Power is universally enjoyed, though it can only be held by a few. And as Lord Acton explained, it corrupts absolutely.

Therefore, the only real way for statists to sell their ideas is to dress them up, like a wolf in sheep's clothing. Calling statism by a different name doesn't fool those who truly recognize it. But to the average person, branding such things as war, interventionism, and bureaucracy as "freedom" and "liberty" makes them much easier to swallow. What if Bush had not said, "we're going to bring freedom to the Iraqi people," but instead, "we're going to squander lives, livelihoods, money, and time destroying Iraq in the name of ambiguous rhetoric and falsehoods?" Who would have gone along for the ride?

Political orations tend to be well documented. Accordingly, they easily integrate with historical records, especially written ones. A particularly abstract and ideological speech such as Bush's second inaugural address, therefore, possesses great potential to influence the future definitions of words such as "freedom" and "liberty." The address clearly focuses on defining these two words; they shape its central themes and are repeated an excessive amount of times.

Apparently, it's not enough for the political elite to steal our peace of mind by fomenting hatred of Americans with inane foreign policy; our health and happiness through excessive regulation of our own bodies; our money through taxation. It seems that they wish to steal our words, too.

Don't relinquish liberty and freedom — literally or literarily.

January 29, 2005