“A spectre is haunting America”, began last week’s retch by the National Rifle Association, and it seems odd that a largely ultra-Republican group should upchuck an unreferenced scramble to the Communist Manifesto. But the misuse of Karl Marx only seems odd for a moment. To read this screed by a gun-toting organisation with Australia in its sights is to be lost in a polluted field where words are no longer reliably hitched to meaning. In a plea for deregulation of Australian gun controls, language itself is deregulated by the NRA. Here, you can borrow one of socialist literature’s best-known sentences and use it for your own ultra-conservative project. And then, you can accuse the Australian government of giving its laws “Orwellian” descriptions when what you yourself have done, here and elsewhere, is commit an utterly Orwellian newspeak.
The name chosen for law passed by the Howard government following the 1996 Port Arthur shootings was, claims the NRA, Orwellian. The National Firearms Agreement, which was met by widespread national agreement on firearms, is, apparently, as misleadingly applied as the newspeak word for “free”. If you’re confused enough not to understand, that’s the point of newspeak when it’s used by the NRA, the government of Orwell’s Oceania or anyone. In an attempt to clarify: we unfree Australians are being deluded by a legislative change that did exactly what it said it would do. So, in this case, “Orwellian” means “to describe things accurately to the electorate”.
Words are no longer hitched to meaning for the NRA and, as is also the case in 1984, conclusions are no longer dependent on facts. The erroneously named National Firearms Agreement, an agreement on firearms with which the nation overwhelmingly agreed, was not free. Instead, says the NRA, its cost was “a massive price in liberty”. Selecting a range of Australian gun death statistics and moments of local protest with a partial care that shames even the best cherry picker, the post, “Australia: There Will Be Blood”, is a Ministry of Truth moment. It’s newspeak, and it’s also violent propaganda. If written by a foreign Muslim organisation, this horrifying nonsense would be immediately subject to local terror laws, and its representatives would be banned from visiting Australia faster than Snoop Dogg.
The American freedom to promote the antiquated Second Amendment is upheld by recourse to a much more admirable First and so, those US citizens who retain an interest in not dying horribly can do little to hush the National Rifle Association. When the powerful organisation advances its case with slogans like “Guns don’t kill people, people do”, even in the face of Newtown or Charleston or Columbine, where maximum killing efficiency was clearly achieved with guns, Americans are forced to listen. When the NRA brings its lunacy to analysis of Australia, though, it’s tempting to champion our lack of a bill of rights and shut these online terrorists up with a bit of deep-packet inspection.
Of course, to those of us who read and were duly warned by Orwell, such censorship is abhorrent. Yes, even for an armed and foreign lobby group that seeks to impose its will and its law on our nation. We cannot ethically stop them from speaking, even if our local anti-terror laws might demand it.
But perhaps what we should do is send them a copy of 1984 so that they can read, as others have, a work that cautions against the inept imposition of foreign law on sovereign nations, of the danger intrinsic to machines and of using absolute bullshit to advance a case.
If there is anything “Orwellian” here, it is the language of the NRA, which redefines “liberty” to mean the right to wield pump-action power, “growing consensus” to mean a few especially loud nutters and the term “Orwellian” itself to mean unusually frank political discussion. But we can’t blame the NRA entirely for its tendency to conceal meaning, because just about everybody’s doing it.
Detaching words from their usual order has long been a tactic of the powerful and in his popular 1989 work on the practice, Doublespeak, US English professor William Lutz shows how even the ancients used language to deceive. Writing of the Peloponnesian War in the fifth century BC, Thucydides was careful to describe acts of cowardice as “courage”. Describing a brutal massacre at Gaul, Julius Caesar used the term “pacification”. Newspeak isn’t especially new, but it has certainly become more common and is now hardly limited to protecting the interests of government.
Newspeak can be used by news organisations in the service of their prominence. Andrew Bolt, of course, does it often and loves to claim that social disadvantage is actually social advantage. And then, when he’s been both broadly published and read, he claims, on the front page of the Herald Sun, that he is being “silenced” even as he is shouting loudly to the largest possible audience. Recently, we read Mark Latham describe Rosie Batty as a tool of “left-feminist” agenda and not, as she plainly is in speech and as Latham likely knows her to be, an independent advocate who often concedes to her lack of familiarity with both feminism and politics.
There is perhaps no more curious and blatant moment of newspeak than that which had Rupert Murdoch describing his media competitors as “elites”. Those news organisations that dared criticise his own are not, in Murdoch’s description, smaller companies punching above their weight but powerful and privileged bullies picking on the little guys of News Corp.
There’s a spectre haunting public conversation, and it is the spectre of newspeak. We will not be unfree until we pay the high price of liberty and restore the Second Amendment rights of Australians who, to be truly unfree, must accept the law of the United States as their own. Or something. I can make little sense of all this because there is no sense to make. Save for the fact that there is one moment for which I remember Howard fondly and that is when he forced us to pay the “high price” of living with a diminished fear of bloody death.