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Notes From Stone

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We Won’t Accept New Newspeak

Notes on the importance of the Humanities in 2017, by Sam Schindler.


The era of New-newspeak is upon us.

Obviously, Orwell’s 1984 is popular again. Its unrelenting description of an autocratic dystopia is chilling and, suddenly, all too realistic. Co-option of language is dangerous. This is not a new thing; political actors have for a long time used clever wording to hijack political issues and obfuscate truth. Recall terminological genius like: “Compassionate Conservatives,” “Pro-Life” and “Death-panels” and you’ll see what I mean.

But, today’s assault on language --often spewed forth via the 21st century version of the telescreen: twitter—is much less nuanced; in fact it’s about as subtle as an ax blow to the head. The purpose of newspeak is to literally deaden language; to eradicate shades of meaning so that people no longer have the will or the means to access varying degrees of thoughts and emotions, and therefore are essentially thought-neutered; most importantly, they can’t produce any degree of dissent.

As a humanities teacher, I find that the need to protect linguistic variety and richness is paramount. The death of language leads immediately to the death of culture. This is clearly evident from the destruction of indigenous culture here in the Western Hemisphere, a 500-year process which is almost, but not quite complete.

This American Holocaust, as it is aptly if controversially called by historian David Stannard, is an ongoing event that is largely and deliberately forgotten. There’s purpose and intentionality to this forgetting. An orchestrated rewriting of history is elemental in 1984, as it is in the small but effective (and at times, thrilling) time-travel novel The Rewind Files by Claire Willette. Like Orwell, Willette writes of a time not far in the future. Yet here, time-travel has been invented, and then of course, immediately used for nefarious purposes. Rogue agents have rewritten parts of the past, leading to a disastrous present. This is also what happens in 1984, as a deluge of alternative facts work to expunge people, events and ideas on a daily basis, emulsifying “history” and in effect, creating a reality in which only the present exists.

The leader of the free world currently utilizes this formula. He tweets in words that are simple and meant to inflame. They aren’t even remotely true. But it’s the sheer volume of them that matters. The more garbage he emits, the more buried the truth becomes. It’s no longer of concern that he’s contradicting testimony given by the former director of the FBI at a congressional hearing while it’s happening, all that matters is that his words blot out the others.

I feel the urge to be a fierce protector of language, and of history.

Mike Simpson