John Brennan’s confirmation hearing on Thursday before the Senate Intelligence Committee struck many observers as a small but significant step in the direction of openness, a chink in the armor of secrecy that the last two presidential administrations have erected around the “war on terror.”
Maybe that will turn out to be correct, and the incoming CIA director – the principal architect of President Obama’s drone war, and until recently a defender of rendition and “enhanced interrogation” – will launch a new era of transparency in Langley. While we wait for that, would you like to see this bridge I’ve got for sale in Brooklyn?
Indeed, watching the Brennan hearing, and then struggling through the troubling Justice Department “white paper” spelling out the legal justification for the drone killings of American citizens (which was recently acquired and released by NBC News), left me with quite a different feeling. In large part, this was the feeling that our government’s imperial creep continues uninterrupted, that most people simply don’t care (irrespective of their supposed political views) and that almost everyone involved in this charade, especially those of us in the media who are supposed to serve as the watchdogs, has agreed to ignore the most obvious and glaring questions.
Beyond all that, and to a large extent underlying it, there is also the post-Orwellian creep of our language, and of all public discourse, towards emptiness. What Orwell described was a phenomenon distinct to the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century, the abrupt replacement of ordinary language with a propagandistic and bureaucratic Newspeak designed to make ideological resistance impossible.
In the electoral dictatorship now developing in the United States – and no, that isn’t a contradiction in terms – you can find sterling examples of such Newspeak and doublethink. But the most prominent American version, which I’m calling post-Orwellian, is subtler: Ordinary words whose meanings seem clear enough on the surface, such as “war” or “enemy” or “self-defense” or “imminent” (not to mention the ever-fraught “terrorism”) turn out not to mean anything at all, or to be legalistic terms of art with endlessly expansive frames of reference.