The distortion of words in secret to preserve hidden powers appears to be endemic to post–September 11 American governance…. In his essay, Orwell observed that “political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible,” and he condemned the use of words “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” It’s hard to escape the valence of that description to our contemporary politics.
These policies—mass surveillance, torture, and targeted killing—have systematically violated civil liberty, but the Newspeak-inspired approach to language that has facilitated them is a frontal assault on (to borrow another Orwell phrase) “intellectual liberty” as well.
What good are words—and the laws with which we write them—when the government saps them of their ordinary meanings? One great power of language in a democracy lies in its ability to set the terms of the government’s compact with the governed—to grant the state power only upon popular consent. But a government threatens its own legitimacy by relying on its own dictionary. Policies erected on corrupted language are inherently corrupt.