Some things you can't say

Most readers will be familiar with George Orwell's concept of Newspeak, that diabolical instrument of totalitarian control that focuses on the primary instrument humans use to understand and communicate about the world they share: language. Newspeak, Orwell explains in 1984, operates "partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained or unorthodox meanings."

When I first read 1984 in high school, the gruesome scenes in which Winston is tortured and broken made the the most vivid impression on me. But as time has passed, I have come to think that Orwell's dissection of Newspeak is even more terrible. The examples Orwell used--"War is Peace," "Freedom is Slavery," etc.--were the sort of bald contradictions that most adolescents cheerfully accommodate because they haven't the foggiest idea of what they really mean or what a world in which people seriously believed that war is peace, or freedom is slavery, would be like. Heck, growing up in a small coastal town in Maine in the 1960s, most adolescents didn't really have any clear idea what "war" or "peace" or "freedom" or "slavery" was. I know I didn't. They were abstractions you could define, if someone asked, but you were happy to accept the contradiction of their conjunction because, deep down, you were innocent of their awful implications.

In any event, that bit of Orwell's book now strikes me as singularly grim because I now see the process he anatomizes at work all around me. Let me give three examples.

One: Last winter, Department of Homeland Security issued a document called "Terminology to Define the Terrorists: Recommendations from American Muslims." While you ponder why the Department of Homeland Security is gathering recommendations about how to combat radical Islam from American Muslims, let me mention a few things this document recommends.

Because we are supposed to be "communicating with, not confronting," Muslims, the document advises us not to "insult or confuse them with pejorative terms such as 'Islamo-fascism.' which are considered offensive by many Muslims." The word "progress" is OK, but--George Orwell, where are you?--"the experts consulted" rejected the word "liberty" "because because many around the world would discount the tern as a buzzword for American hegemony."

Breathtaking isn't it? Those leading the fight against terrorism assure us that "The fact is that Islam and secular democracy are fully compatible--in fact, they can make each other stronger." But where is the evidence of that? In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President Bush went to a mosque and told his audience that "Islam" meant "peace." Perhaps that was an emollient thing to do. Unfortunately, it is not true. Islam means "total submission to the will of Allah," and absent that submission what Muslims give us is not peace but jihad.