"(Newspeak's) vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meanings and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods." -- 1984, George Orwell
What the Ministry of Truth in Orwell's mythical land of Oceania did to the language in 1984 the far right in American politics has tried, with considerable success, to do in 21st century America with the consent, and in some cases, assistance of the news media.
Two terms best illustrate the right's skillful manipulation of the language: liberal and conservative.
There was a time, difficult as it may be to believe, that liberal was not a pejorative term. In fact it stood for much if not all that was socially and politically admirable. That tradition lives on in the dictionary, if nowhere else.
The adjective's many definitions include: "tolerant of views differing from one's own." And: "broad-minded, specifically not orthodox." And: "favoring reform or progress ... specifically favoring political reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual; progressive."
All right. So how did all those qualities get turned on their heads, and how did liberalism come to be just another social disease? Perhaps a ninth dictionary definition helps explain it: "Excessively free or indecorous in behavior; licentious." The dictionary calls that definition obsolete, but the dictionary speaks too soon, because that definition has been rescued from obsolescence by the Newspeak troubadours of the right who, at the same time, have consigned all the other definitions to history's dust bin.
Liberal now refers to something that is ineffectual at best, but more likely harmful to all that we ("We" being George Will, Thomas Sowell, Rush Limbaugh, Ollie North, the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal and other voices of Republican sweet reason) hold dear.
A liberal, far from embodying all of the admirable qualities mentioned above, becomes a do-gooder bent on wasting money on people as unworthy as he is. Far from being a defender of democracy and freedom, he is an agent bent on undermining those ideals.
And because every demonology requires an archenemy, the Limbaughs et al give us Ted Kennedy, their equivalent of Orwell's Emmanuel Goldstein, Enemy of the People.
All of this good work, of course, is being done in the name of conservatism. And how does the dictionary define conservative? Try this: "Conserving or tending to conserve; preservative." And: "Tending to preserve established traditions or institutions." And: "moderate, cautious."
Of course. What's not conservative about turning a national wildlife refuge into an oil field or national monuments into mines? What's not conservative about putting insurance companies' and HMOs' interests above those of the people they insure? And what's not conservative about lifting restrictions of air and water pollution if those restrictions inconvenience the people who have bankrolled your party into power?
And who, if not Bob Barr, Newt Gingrich, Larry Craig, Frank Murkowski, Dick Cheney and Tom DeLay are our true conservatives?
A cynic might suggest that the aforementioned and a score or more of their like-thinking Republican cronies would be better described as what they are: radicals. But don't hold your breath waiting for the media to make that honest distinction. They would much prefer to go on letting radical Republicans define themselves and their opponents than risk being labeled part of a liberal conspiracy.
Confused enough? If not, consider this. When Jim Jeffords "defected" (the loaded verb employed by much of the media to describe his break from the Republican Party), the same media described him as being one of a small and increasingly disenchanted band of Republican "moderates" at odds with the party's conservatives.
But wait. All of you who have been paying attention will recall that moderate and conservative are, as far as the dictionary is concerned, synonymous. That being the case, wouldn't "immoderate" be a better term than "conservative" to describe those Republicans who caused Jeffords to "defect?" It would, but would the gun-shy media dare use it?
Rossie is associate editor of the Press & Sun-Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. Write to him c/o P.O. Box 1270, Binghamton, N.Y. 13902-1270.
© 2001 Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin