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The Sceptical Scholar
Revising Language: Recent Twistings
Wilfred Cude, Cape Breton NS

It is scarcely any surprise now that our once-comfortable world of western democracies has been turned upside-down, through a whirlwind of political manipulations twisting our very thoughts into pretzels of what went before.  Wherever we live in North America or western Europe, we wake up daily into the turbulence of “fake news” and “alternative facts” and the pernicious prevalence of false equivalency in argument, unable to see much beyond the twinned political and economic disasters threatening civic life all around us – the near-chaotic self-inflicted lunacy spilling out of London’s Brexit, and the stomach-churning parody of principled governance wreaking havoc from Washington D.C.

But we must somehow begin to impose appropriate rationality on what is happening, and there’s no better place to attempt such a move than with George Orwell’s ever-relevant essay “Politics and the English Language.”   While the piece is open to criticism that might be directed at some of the author’s pet linguistic and political peeves, its main premise is never open to challenge, and remains the perfect reason for its enduring popularity.  Convoluted political discourse, Orwell argues “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give the appearance of solidity to pure wind.”   Wherever language is needlessly flabby and obscure, he insists, it necessarily drifts away from truth, and can thus be deliberately conscripted into the service of outright falsehood.

To illustrate the point, he offers a mock-modern translation of one of the most expressive passages from the King James version of the Bible.  Ecclesiastes IX,11 reads: “ I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”   After quoting the verse as it stands, Orwell renders it again in what he deems contemporary politicized doubletalk.  “Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.”

With this example, he demonstrates how readily the clarity of simple and direct statement can be dissipated and thence lost.  “ Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make their meaning clearer,”  he observes: rather “ it consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug.”   Obscurity becomes the handmaid of falsehood, which in turn will eventually emerge in many different verbal guises to subvert all belief in truth itself.  So here we are today, floundering about in a virtual tsunami of language wrenched almost out of recognition as having any connection with objectively verifiable reality.  Consider, as the most painfully egregious instance of perverse political thinking, the term “fake news.”

Taken at face value, the term is pretty well self-explanatory.  Anything in the public media posturing as true, yet nonetheless can conclusively be shown to be false, should legitimately be exposed as “fake news.”   And entire swathes of western media today could and should – from North America right on through western Europe – be so exposed, and contradicted, and denounced.  Starting with one of the longest-established and most profitable exemplars of the genre, the American junk rag National Enquirer.  There was a time, indeed not very long ago, that nobody of any seriousness ever took the publication at face value: it blared its inanities from magazine newsstands close by grocery store checkouts, maintaining primacy over an array of equally wing-nut competitors with the sheer startling foolishness of its contents.  But that was then, and this is now.

Gone, and long gone, are the days when the Enquirer assured its readers that John Francis Kennedy was alive in a body cast and held captive in Havana.  Those days dwindled into history after the Enquirer assured its readers, during the frenzied 2016 Republican party primary campaign, that Rafael Bienvenido Cruz had been photographed assisting Lee Harvey Oswald just prior to President Kennedy’s assassination.  Pastor Rafael Cruz is the father of Senator Ted Cruz, who was then Donald Trump’s chief rival for the party’s presidential nomination, and The Donald used the story to hint broadly on Fox News that his rival’s father was guilty of complicity with North America’s most notorious assassin.  And not content with that, The Donald immediately went on to laud The Enquirer in language never before applied to such a tacky outfit.  “This is a magazine that should be respected,” he allowed, an “outstanding journal” worthy of “Pulitzer prizes.”

That was a key publicity stunt instrumental in propelling Trump towards the presidency, for mainstream journalists seized on the entire fabrication, pursuing Ted Cruz’s denials, interviewing photography experts on the plausibility of the grainy picture the Enquirer posted as evidence, and even speculating – especially Sean Hannity of Fox News – that the absolutely bizarre yarn might conceivably be true.  Which of course it obviously never was.  But no matter.  The Enquirer, thus endowed with faux authenticity, assumed totally unwarranted credibility with millions of gullible readers: and the full wacky incident constitutes our most daunting evidence to date that the media philosophy of Adolph Hitler’s mastermind of vile misinformation continues unabated into our era.  “It is not propaganda’s task to be intelligent,” said Joseph Goebbels, “its task is to lead to success.”  And in what might well have been the inspiration for Steve Bannon of Breitbart News, Trump’s guru of far-spanning falsehood, Goebbels exhorted all wannabe imitators, “ think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play:”  and he added, most tellingly, “ words can be molded until they clothe ideas and disguise.”

But even Goebbels would have been astounded at the overwhelming success his thinking has achieved throughout the major western democracies during this profoundly disturbing year.  Ranked behind the Enquirer in North America is a phalanx of Alt-Right propaganda, headed by Breitbart News, supported by untold anonymous internet websites, and surreptitiously funded by Russian intelligence.  And positioned ahead of the Enquirer in North America is the supposedly mainstream media empire of the extremely right-wing mogul, Rupert Murdoch, which runs from the respected conservative Wall Street Journal to the not-so-much respected television Fox News.  And oozing out of this vast mechanism for the proliferation of flat-out lies, oozing from an undercurrent of mind-boggling stupidity circulating through the nether regions of Google and Facebook, came stories so other-worldly that one cannot fathom what sort of imagination could create them.  Like “Pizzagate,” postulating Hillary Clinton as coordinating a paedophile sex ring out of a Washington D.C. pizza parlour, prompting one semi-crazed armed vigilante to attend that same restaurant and fire a few rounds, terrorizing the customers as he conducted his own personal investigation.

Honestly, folks, as recently as two or three years ago, you could not make this stuff up.  Yet here we are, with President Donald J. Trump in office twelve months and change, with his own personalized response to the mordant crisis of “fake news” gnawing away at truth everywhere.  In a simple stroke of logical inversion, one that would have left Goebbels himself breathless in admiration, the President of the United States, pronouncing from his high eminence, declares the “fake news” supporting him to be the genuine article – and the genuine article questioning him to be the actual “fake news.”  And it’s working!  Not with everyone, clearly: but with the crowd that elected him, it is going down well.  Tens of millions of American voters continue enthralled by this gobbledegook, shunning the mainstream media as “lamestream,” endorsing wholeheartedly the President’s hour-long press conference tirade on 15 February, 2017, which featured abuse of the “failing” New York Times and the “fake” reporting of CNN, as well as effusive praise for the Fox News morning show “Fox & Friends.”  Basically, the pitch is stunningly straightforward: news supportive of Donald Trump is real news, and news critical of Donald Trump is “fake news.”  And for tens of millions of American voters, that’s just fine.

Looking back in bemused hindsight, we just might have seen this coming.  The whole scenario was prefigured in real time, looming up with the jaw-dropping debacle of the United Kingdom’s Brexit folly.  Instead of Donald Trump, there was the flamboyantly vacuous Boris Johnson, a clone of the other, right down to the haircut.  Instead of Steve Bannon, there was the querulously malignant Nigel Farage, founder and head of the Alt-Right United Kingdom Independence Party.  Instead of the National Enquirer, there was Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid press empire, primarily The Sun and The Sunday Times, fostering animosity towards the European Union and thumping the tub for Brexit.  And lurking completely unrecognized in and about the reaches of Google and Facebook, there was that cousinage of subversive websites (funded by Russian intelligence?), all grinding out anti-immigrant hatred to further Brexit’s isolationist theme.  And topping it all off, there was the repeated and totally unsubstantiated big lie, Boris Johnson’s claim that a successful Brexit would mean the United Kingdom could divert a weekly sum of 350 million pounds sterling from EU funding to the British National Health Service.  It wasn’t true then, and isn’t true now, but that doesn’t stop Johnson from constantly saying it.

At this stage, we really haven’t begun to reckon the havoc all this is unleashing at the very centre of our fundamental intellectual and social structures.  The Johnson/Trump adaptation of the philosophy of Herr Goebbels infects far more than politics, as dangerous and disruptive as that must indisputably be.  Far more dangerous and disruptive is the attendant extension of that philosophy into what presently goes under the rubric of “alternative facts.”  To say “Black is White” and “Down is Up” in politics is one thing, quite awful enough: but to persist with the same approach in regards to physical reality is quite another thing altogether, actually distorting perception – right on down towards mental derangement.  Notwithstanding the perils of that dreadful prospect, we have gone that far already, given the Trump crowd’s behaviour in office with respect to every dimension of environmental stewardship.  The physical world is a reality impervious to our self-delusions, and it is what it is, no less and no more.  And it is changing irrevocably around us, changing precisely because of our numbers and industrial impact on the atmosphere, and it is incumbent upon us all to modify our behaviour or face increasingly terrible consequences.

About that finding, there is no longer any debate, at any rate among those of our species most qualified to pronounce on the issues.  They are the scientists, over 16,000 and counting, speaking with one voice from 184 countries, and speaking from a spectrum of disciplines touching upon every conceivable aspect of environmental science.  And they offer a disturbing warning to everyone living everywhere.  Unless we embark upon a sustained international program of deep-seated and far-ranging reform, the planet – our “pale blue dot,” our only fragile refuge from the cold, sterile expanses of interstellar space – will sustain “substantial and irreversible” harm.  “People need to understand,” environmental scientist William Ripple of Oregon State University cautions us, “that we are trying to save ourselves from catastrophic huge misery.”  And who in reason anywhere, especially in the continental United States, would deny his point, viewed in the light of what that country alone has suffered from rogue weather this past year?  The entire Pacific coast, from California to Oregon and beyond into British Columbia, ravaged by an unprecedented furnace-intensity blast of forest fires.  The Gulf coast and southern Atlantic seaboard, flooded and smashed by an unprecedented onslaught of three Category 4 hurricanes: Harvey, Irma and Maria.  Drought in the summer’s agricultural Midwest, blizzards and ice storms in the previous winter for New England.

What a hammering that was, costing the economy tens of billions, wrecking essential infrastructure in many states, killing hundreds in weather-related deaths: who, especially in the United States, would argue with Professor Ripple and over 16,000 of his colleagues after all that?  Why the administration of President Trump, that’s who, armed with the Wizard-of-Oz mental aberration “alternative facts.”  The concept was unleashed by Kellyanne Conway, close advisor to The Donald, immediately following his January inaugural ceremony.  She had been confronted on a session of NBC’s “Meet the Press” by moderator Chuck Todd, who wanted to know how White House press secretary Sean Spicer could persist in defending Trump’s bizarre contention that his inaugural crowd “was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period”  when every available scrap of evidence demonstrated the absolute opposite.  Conway’s reply now resonates through modern history.  “Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts,” she calmly retorted, leaving a flabbergasted Chuck Todd to splutter: “look, alternative facts are not facts – they are falsehoods.”  But we now understand that he then just didn’t get it.  As Kellyanne was soon thereafter to expound, the term “alternative facts” embraces a complex of “additional facts and alternative information.”  Herr Goebbels would have gotten the message immediately.  And everyone else, just like Chuck Todd, had better study where it is presently taking us.

In brief, it is going to take us straight on down into environmental and cultural hell.  Donald Trump has a genuinely visceral response to any suggestion that man-made climate change is real.  “Not the same old climate change (global warming) bullshit,” he tweets: “I am tired of hearing this nonsense.”  So for him, man-made climate change doesn’t exist: that’s a fact, a very, very determinative alternative fact.  And since he is the President of the United States, that alternative fact also serves as a monstrous impediment to the rest of the world pursuing the settled scientific conclusions of over 16,000 prominent experts on what we must do to save ourselves from catastrophic huge misery.  With the simple slash of his pen, he removes the United States from the 2015 Paris Accord on climate change, taking the planet’s dominant economy totally out of sync with everything our species should strive after in self-preservation.  And by appointing Scott Pruitt as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, he not only ensures the sabotage of that department’s constitutional mandate to regulate preservation of the environment, he further empowers his doctrinaire underling to attempt the intellectual impossibility of subverting the settled scientific consensus on climate change.

And that’s a propaganda leap almost beyond belief, an assault on the rock-solid intellectual enterprise of the objective exploration of physical reality.  Pruitt, who earlier had described himself as “a leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda,” effectively on 31 October, 2017 commenced a purge of independent scientists from key departmental advisory boards, replacing them with industry insiders hard-wired to dispute even the most basic findings of years of objective study.  He plans not only that intelligent government expertise will be hollowed out, but also that a cadre of party hacks will group together at the EPA, striving to generate an Orwellian monster of anti-science “ solidity”  from nothing more than “ pure wind.”  This is the prevalence of false equivalency run amok, tearing destructive and unchecked through the valid practice of science.  An acceptance of “alternative facts” leads inevitably into perverse mental contortions involving “additional facts and alternative information,” which Pruitt fully intends to channel towards discrediting what those 16,000 environmental experts are trying to tell us.  “Measuring with precision, from my perspective, the degree of human contribution [to climate change],” he blandly asserts, “is very challenging.”  And his operational stance nakedly reveals that his approach to the challenge is to render it impossible.

If we wish to glimpse something of where Pruitt’s false equivalency could take world science, we need only look to where the same false equivalency has just taken Donald Trump’s American politics.  On the evening of Friday, 11 August, 2017, a 500-strong mob of Alt-Right thugs marched around Charlottesville, Virginia: costumed in pseudo-combat fatigues, carrying torches, brandishing assault rifles, flaunting Hitler’s WWII swastika banner, chanting “Jews will not replace us,” it was a Neo-Nazi rally re-enacting the appalling excesses of Kristalnacht.  On Saturday morning, a mini-mob of them marched outside the local synagogue, costumed in pseudo-combat fatigues, brandishing assault rifles and chanting anti-Semitic insults as the congregation assembled in worship: and they intimidated that congregation into sneaking out the back door, forcing American citizens to retreat in fear from their religious sanctuary, right at the heart of an American university town.  And on Saturday afternoon, one of the mob deployed a now-standard terrorist weapon, crashing his car at speed into protestors opposing the Neo-Nazis, killing one and wounding eighteen others.  Virulent anti-Semitism, replete with violence, bloodshed and murder.  Which moved the President of the United States to condemn “this egregious display of bigotry, hatred and violence – on many sides” and to remind everyone of “the very fine people” marching among those Neo-Nazi thugs.

This is false equivalency on steroids.  There weren’t “many sides”  in Charlottesville then: there were only two – the Neo-Nazi thugs who had been planning for months, and some hastily assembled private citizens protesting the disgraceful open display of “ bigotry, hatred and violence”  emanating exclusively from those Neo-Nazis.  Moreover, there weren’t any “very fine people” marching with the Neo-Nazis, not even one: they all elected to stand under Hitler’s swastika banner, a definitive statement of hate-impregnated commitment.  By suggesting that the intimidation and violence could have come at least in part from people opposed to the Bannon-inspired vicious Alt-Right provocation, Trump emitted his latest dog-whistle signal of support to the basest elements of his base: and in so doing, also underscored his enduring faith in the efficacy of the flat-out lie.  Paul Krugman, writing in the 23 November edition of The New York Times, spelt out two main takeaway lessons here.  With respect to American politics, “white supremacists are, of course, making a big comeback thanks to encouragement from the top;” furthermore, “so are anti-Semites, no surprise to those who remember their history.”  And with respect to world science, “even as old prejudices return, we’ve clearly entered a new age of politically potent anti-intellectualism.”

And this is where Krugman is most alarmed, even beyond what he sees of ugly political deterioration.  “This administration has been moving with stunning speed to get poisons back into our air and water,” he laments; “not to mention the growing odds of climate catastrophe.”  Underlying those developments is an evocative American political finding: “58 percent of Republicans now say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country, versus only 36 percent who see a positive effect.”  Nor is it, he continues, “that this turn against education is a reaction to political correctness.”  Rather, in a far more fundamental sense, “it’s about the nasty habit scholarship has of telling you things you don’t want to hear, like the fact that climate change is real.”

Krugman’s alarm is shared today among many intellectuals of every professional calling.  And perhaps Salman Rushdie put the matter most eloquently and succinctly.  We are now blundering about within a conceptual framework of “damaged reality,” he commented during an interview with Fareed Zakaria.  And by that, he meant the tragic refashioning of our perceptions of reality, much to the detriment of us all.  Truly, as the apocryphal Chinese maxim would have it, we live in interesting times.


           Wilfred Cude, BA (RMC), MA (Dalhousie), November 2017
                                     WEBSITE: www.wilfredcude.com §

 Wildred Cude is the author of A Due Sense of Differences, The PhD Trap (1987), The Ph.D. Trap Revisited, (2000), and Weapons of Mass Disruption: An Academic Whistleblower’s Tale, Oct 28 2014. He has lectured at colleges and universities across the country. He lives in rural Cape Breton.

An extract of this essay appeared in the Winter 2017-18 issue, Vol. 31, No. 2, of the print edition of Dialogue magazine (p.34)

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