In the interests of truth-telling we reprint this column from the Otago Daily Times of October 11, 2002. Chris Trotter is editor of the New Zealand Political Review.
George Orwell, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, has enriched our political vocabulary in many ways. His concept of "doublethink", for example, is even more relevant today than it was in 1949, when 1984 was first published.
Orwell defined "doublethink" as the ability to "know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again."
I cannot help recalling this chilling description of the political bureaucrat's art as I listen to members of the Bush Administration explaining why the United States feels obliged to bring about a "regime change" in Iraq.
The United States Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfelt, is especially good at "doublethink". For example, he knows that he was President Ronald Reagan's special envoy to Iraq back in the early 1980s (when Saddam Hussein was at war with the Islamic Republic of Iran) and that he strongly advised the Reagan Administration to back President Saddam's regime with large quantities of military equipment. He also knows that as part of that military assistance, the United States Government authorised the export to Iraq of materials necessary to the manufacture of deadly chemical and biological weapons, and that satellite photographs of Iranian troop positions were passed to the Iraqi high command by the Americans so that those weapons could be deployed.
Secretary Rumsfelt knows all of these things, and yet he does not know them. It's a state of mind that allows him to remind us that President Saddam is in breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions while, at the very same moment, completely forgetting that the United States' ally Israel has been doing exactly the same thing for 50 years. That is the beauty of "doublethink": it allows a politician like Mr Rumsfelt to ignore glaring contradictions like the United States encouraging Iraq's use of weapons of mass destruction (mustard gas) against the Iranians in the 1980s, and then citing the possibility that Iraq may still possess such weapons as justification for unleashing a war against its people 20 years later. That the secretary is able to believe fervently in the morality of both positions only underscores "doublethink's" extraordinary political utility.
Another Orwellian expression currently enriching our political vocabulary is "memory hole". For those of you unfamiliar with 1984, memory holes were the final repositories for anything and everything which might give rise to the suggestion that "Big Brother" and/or "the party" had got something (or done something) wrong. The hero of Orwell's novel, Winston Smith, is employed at the "Ministry of Truth" to ensure that this cannot happen. His job is to "rectify" the past. If one of Big Brother's predictions proves incorrect, Winston and thousands like him will simply rewrite history in such a way that the party's omniscience remains completely unchallengeable. And any slip of paper, photograph or newspaper clipping suggesting otherwise would be immediately consigned to the nearest memory hole: "whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building".
As the American news media's constant drumbeat of support for the Bush Administration's war plans increases both in tempo and volume more and more critics of United States foreign policy are resorting to the metaphor of the "memory hole". Because, just as Mr Rumsfelt is able to forget his earlier support for Saddam Hussein, so too have America's news editors forgotten that in the film and sound archives of their networks, and in the morgues of their newspapers, millions of words and images exist through which the almost unbelievable hypocrisy of the Bush Administration could be exposed. The Presidents Bush, along with their interchangeable collections of corporate henchmen, would stand condemned out of their own mouths.
But it's as if American journalism, like Winston Smith, has succumbed to the allpervading fear of the "thought police". As if all recollections of the United States government's past lies and fabrications, from the Tonkin Gulf "incident" to Iran/Contra, have themselves been dumped down the American media's "memory holes".
It's worrying, because as the dissident Czech writer, Milan Kundera, reminds us: "The struggle of freedom against tyranny is the struggle of memory against forgetting." And vice versa.
(We reprint this column with an apology to Chris Trotter
for not managing to get in touch with him beforehand.)