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Newspeak: Orwell's most prophetic idea

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The grim prophecies of George Orwell's novel ''1984'' are much in the air this year. We are hearing that our democratic institutions have heroically resisted succumbing to the political tyranny represented by Big Brother. And we are hearing that, in truth, we are slipping into bondage of a more insidious kind, one that Orwell feared above all and which another prophet, Alexis de Tocqueville, warned against more than a century earlier when he wrote: ''The species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything which ever before existed in the world. . . . The old words despotism and tyranny are inappropriate: the thing itself is new,'' for ''it degrades men without tormenting them'' and ''does not tyrannize but compresses, enervates, extinguishes and stupefies.''

Although we associate ''1984'' most readily with the overt totalitarian authority of Big Brother, it is this subtler bondage anticipated by de Tocqueville that is Orwell's true subject and that gives ''1984'' compelling relevance to today's America. For in Orwell's novel, the state dominates and dehumanizes its citizens not so much through overt physical controls as through psychological manipulations that strip them of their ability to judge ideas and experience objectively; people thus have no alternative but to accept as necessary, true, and good whatever the state declares to be so.

Orwell gave the state many devices for achieving this end, but none was more effective - or instructive today - than Newspeak. Not just the barbarian language of the totalitarian state, Newspeak is a language devised to limit the range of thought by collapsing distinctions, undermining logic, and confining the vocabulary to a few easily pronounced and emotionally charged terms. A mind so limited cannot truly think at all; it can only respond as programmed. It will accept black as white, war as peace, hate as love; it will allow two plus two to equal five; it will adopt as ''goodthink'' all ideas that support the state and dismiss all others as ''oldthink'' or ''crimethink''; and it will let ''doublethink'' mask all contradiction. Reality itself thus becomes whatever those in authority decree - and history can be rewritten regularly to fit that reality.

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