Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Newspeak of Freedom

We are all familiar with George Orwell's remarkably insightful focus in 1984 on how perversion of language controls thought and discourse. In Orwell's world the "Ministry of Truth" redefines freedom as slavery, war becomes peace and anyone who notes a discrepancy between reality and definition must be re-educated in Room 101. Unfortunately, we too often reassure ourselves with the lie that Newspeak is "just fiction" or simply a critique of Nazi and Stalinist propaganda. We don't like to believe that it is being practiced on us now, here in the United States of 2009.

The Orwellian perversions of language start with the titles of organizations. The Heritage Foundation is only interested in the heritage of fascism which it constantly promotes for the United States. The Manhattan Institute's name is meant to evoke the urgency of the World War II Manhattan Project when it's real focus is nuking American institutions, particularly free public education. The very term Conservative in politics has nothing to do with a conservation or deliberation that might have been recognizeable to Theodore Roosevelt, Everett Dirksen or even Barry Goldwater. It is an entirely different creature that is wholly owned by major corporate sponsors, a cadre of ultra-rich oligarchs and neo-fascist lunatics who have spent forty years attempting to destroy government with the deregulation and militant jingoism that has succeeded in destroying American power in the world and the world economy with it.

But there is a far more perverse and insidious use of Newspeak that seeks to murderously distort the very language of our human and civil rights for the purpose of destroying those very rights. I've noticed this for a long time but what has gotten me exercised at present is my listening to an alleged bastion of Liberal "bias". Recently a Seattle NPR affiliate spoke with a couple of practitioners of the current incarnation of Newspeak and largely let their perversions of language and ideas go unchallenged.

The first instance came in a discussion of same-sex marriage a Joseph Backholm of one of those Orwellian-named organizations, the Family Policy Institute, put forward the bald faced lie that legalizing same-sex marriage would infringe the "religious freedom" of "people of faith".

The first bit of nonsense in that assertion involves in defining "people of faith". By Mr. Backholm's construction same-sex couples are not and can never be "people of faith" and that no "person of faith" could believe that same-sex couples have the right to marry as do couples of mixed sexes. That implied assertion is nonsense on its face. He is actually saying that the people he represents, afflicted by a narrow, bigoted, shallow religiosity rather than anything resembling true religious feeling, oppose same-sex marriage. The fanatical people who fixate on a few select scriptural passages rather than a large overview of their religion's writings would be challenged by general availability and recognition of same-sex marriage.

In a sense Mr. Backholm is correct. The minority of religious fanatics who share his views will be offended by the general availability and recognition of same-sex marriage...just as Holocaust deniers are offended by the newsreel footage of the Nazi death camps. To which we should simply say, "Screw them!"

But the truly appalling bit of Newspeak in Mr. Backholm's specious argument is that legalizing and recognizing same-sex marriage is an assault on freedom of religion. I am tempted to assert that only the Prince of Lies could put forward a perversion of the concept of freedom - let alone religion - as extreme and horrible as that. In fact, what Mr. Backholm is asserting is that his narrow, bigoted religiosity is threatened with suppression by the free expression of a differing view of religion. I do not think that it is news to Mr. Backholm that his one, specious assertion of "freedom" should not, should never suppress the the freedom of others. In point of fact, Mr Backholm's argument amounts to an assertion that the practice of any religion at variance with the one he espouses should not be permitted. The whole point of creating the United States as a secular state in which religious freedom is guaranteed was to prevent fanatics and bigots such as Mr. Backholm from suppressing the religious expression of others.

But Mr. Backholm has no shame. He claims that a religious organization, for example, Catholic Charities, that refused to place children for adoption with same-sex couples would have its freedom of religion infringed. He asserts that this very thing has already happened in Massachusetts. But lets examine that a little closer.

Faced with potential discrimination complaints for refusing to place children with same-sex couples, the Archdiocese of Boston - the very organization where the scandals of church subornation of child abuse by priests originated - decided to withdraw from the state sponsored program and contracts under which it had placed adoptees for many years. Please note that it was the choice of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese, not an order by the state. Massachustts correctly determined that placing a child with a stable, loving couple, regardless of the sexes of the members of that couple, was a boon to the child. Just as it had determined that refusing to place children with families based on race, religion or ethnicity was prohibited discrimination, Massachusetts rightly included sexual orientation in that list of prohibited discriminatory practices. Having done so, the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church in Massachusetts, who had no visible moral compunctions or firm principles when it came to protecting a minority of abusive priests, suddenly grew a sense of morality and a set of unyielding principles and withdrew from the state sponsored, paid and contracted adoption system.

Note that Massachusetts officials expressed their regret at the withdrawal of Catholic Charities from the adoption system but no one tried to force Catholic Charities to place adoptees with same-sex couples. They simply shook their heads and waved goodbye. The Roman Catholic Church's freedom to practice its selective version of morality remains intact. The Archdiocese of Boston, if it is threatened at all, is under no threat except that of its own behavior in suborning child abuse. And, more to the point, a very questionable allocation of taxpayer funds to a religious organization has ended. No bands of torch-bearing same-sex couples have roamed through Boston burning Catholic Churches and Convents as the Protestant Know-Nothings did in the 1850s. Freedom of religion remains intact in Massachusetts and, happily, the separation of church and state so dear to the framers of the Constitution has been strengthened.

In a similar propagation of Newspeak the same radio station gave a forum to a con-artist from the ultra-rightist, labor-rights suppression group called the Evergreen "Freedom" Foundation. The subject was a bill, killed in this legislative session thanks to a stupid and ill-considered e-mail from a supporter, that would have given employees the right not to attend employer mandated meetings that have the purpose of expressing the employers views on politics, religion or union organizing. That doesn't seem so terrible, does it? Employers have held meetings in which they have implied that employees would lose their jobs if they did not vote the way the employer approved, joined a union or even did not accept the same religious dogma that the employer espouses. That seems like a clear violation of individual and civil rights.

But the Evergreen spokesperson Scott Dilley made the Orwellian assertion that this legislation to protect workers' freedoms is an infringement of the employer's freedom of speech. It's utter nonsense of course but for neo-fascist cultists like Scott Dilley it is an effective way of perverting the dialogue. What Mr. Dilley refuses to acknowledge is that we all have a freedom to speak or withhold our opinions and we have a concomitant freedom to listen or not. No one has to read this blog. In fact, were someone to attempt to force it on anyone, I would fight for that person's right to not read it. Not so Mr. Dilley.

What Mr. Dilley wants to sweep under the rug is the vast power gulf between employer and employee. A fanatic who owns a company can rant to his employees at will on any subject but employees exercise their freedom to ignore those rantings at the peril of their jobs. In an economy destroyed by the excesses of the very employers Mr. Dilley represents, no employee can take the whims of his or her employer lightly. In this era when workers need union protections more than at any time since the 1930s it is perfectly reasonable to rein in employers' excesses. But Mr. Dilley obfuscates by introducing the language of freedom and civil rights in service of enslavement to employers' whims.

Mr. Dilley's argument on behalf of employers is exactly the same as arguing that arresting and jailing a rapist or child molester is an infringement of his freedom of expression. It is an argument that deserves no credit and no unchallenged hearing. But George Orwell has been dead for over half a century and no one likes to think that a neo-fascist propaganda machine as effective and as vile as Josef Goebbels' is operating in 21st Century America.

After all, isn't Fox News "fair and balanced"?

[Note: In the many years I spent working in social services in the Boston Area I knew many Roman Catholic priests and nuns as well as Salvation Army officers and other people of faith whose religion was strong and broad and decent. All of whom were appalled at the minority of their fellows who abused their positions to abuse parishioners and even more so at the church structures that hid those abuses and allowed them to continue. The Archdiocese of Boston may have behaved appallingly but many individuals within it behaved responsibly, morally and in keeping with the expressed principles of their faith. It is their church heirarchy that has tarred them, not I.]