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When Saying So Can Make it So:
Revisiting Orwell’s 1984

Illustration courtesy University of Florida

By Jill Chapin

September 17, 2007

If you ever read George Orwell’s 1984, you are likely still haunted by the depiction of our humanity being erased by the thought police. In that world, language became a tool of the state. Everyone was taught from birth that war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength.

But it was just a make-believe piece of science fiction, right? After we closed the book, we could get back into our real world where . . . what? Is our government today also speaking to us in such a way that would have us believe that black is white and up is down?

Consider these current-day pronouncements:

The FDA allows food to be labeled zero grams of trans fat per serving when in fact it could have one half of a gram of trans fat per serving. How far removed is "zero equals one half" from "two plus two equals five"? Does just saying zero make it zero? Keep in mind that three servings of "zero grams" of trans fats could actually have you ingesting one and a half grams.

Our government may allow the USDA to certify foods as organic even if they contain any of 38 non-organic substances, such as pesticides, chemicals, hormones and antibiotics. The very definition of organic, however, is the absence of these very things. Is there a rational reason for altering the definition of a word other than to allow large companies to reap the financial rewards inherent in using an organic label? Since this new certification defies reality, can the USDA then just hope that saying a food is organic will make you believe it to be so?

On the pretext of safety, our government does not want Americans purchasing drugs from Canada, even though they get the same drugs from the same overseas pharmaceuticals as we do. They would have us believe that those same pre-packaged, non-tampered-with drugs are somehow molecularly re-arranged as to present a health hazard if they should cross the U.S.- Canadian border. Does simply saying so make it so?

Could Vice President Dick Cheney claim executive privilege when he didn’t want to turn over sensitive material in one instance, and then deny that the vice president’s office is even part of the executive branch when it best serves his interest to separate himself from it? Can he be simultaneously a part of and separate from the executive branch? Apparently he can because he said so.

Then there is presidential candidate John Edwards’ truly Orwellian response to the question of evolution. He quickly answered yes when asked if he believed in it. When further asked if there was a conflict between his view of evolution with that of his church, he again quickly responded, "No, not at all." Now if he had said that he considered the church’s teaching to be more of an allegory, then he wouldn’t have appeared to be engaged in double-speak. Because how can humanity require both millions of years to evolve, and also be fully created in only one week? I can only assume that he is counting on the average American voter to believe that just saying so is good enough for them.

When Orwell wrote that ignorance is strength, he may have unwittingly hit on a new kind of truth in which we are living today. Because the dumber the voters, the stronger our government becomes in controlling us.

We should not be accepting these non-sensical statements as unequivocal truths without demanding an explanation. Instead, we should be interrupting those who are speaking words that defy reality to insist on clarification of their deliberate obfuscation. Politely tolerating the intolerable is not good manners; it is bad democracy. Because as Lewis Lapham once said, dissent is what rescues democracy from a quiet death behind closed doors.

And if we are to ever see the light of day on matters that most concern us, we need those doors wide open.





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