BY DAVE PRAAMSMA
As readers of this column can tell you, Hard Tellin’ has been faithfully sidestepping news of any substance for almost 5 years now. (It’s been a matter of principle that this space has concerned itself only with the windy ramblings of a self-absorbed author.) If ever there have been events to sober the pen of a superficial storyteller however, it would be the tragic developments in Ukraine these past few weeks.
Like the rest of you I opened my newsfeeds on February 24 and learned that an aggressor nation had illegally and immorally invaded a sovereign nation. And the world confronted the reality that what we knew about our geopolitical world order was about to change dramatically.
Humanitarian relief, my inner voice was telling me, not comic relief, was what this tragically battered country desperately needed. Also needed was the complete attention of the world (and its newspapers/media) to look this story full in the face and demand the truth of this invasion be told to every corner of the earth, even to those in Russia where Putin controls his selective “narrative.”
The collective emotional responses today are certainly complex. We see what is happening and we feel outrage. We feel shock. We feel deep sadness. And we feel frustratingly ineffective with the limited range of options we have to help this brutalized nation.
If I have been at fault for too much casualness in this column over the years, let me also confess some inattentiveness as an English teacher (my day job): I have let my George Orwell get too dusty. For a couple of years now I have let the wisdom of this author sit dormant on my shelves — perhaps a literary sin from wrongheaded assumptions about an evolving and improving world. Or maybe a refusal to believe that Orwell’s prophetic vision would again visit us in red-hot relevance.
But it has.
Over the past weeks we again witnessed one of the most haunting and egregious displays of Orwell’s warnings. As hospitals and residential areas were being ruthlessly bombed, Russian audiences were fed nefariously-engineered lies of benevolent Russians soldiers serving humanitarian aid to Ukrainians. Independent news outlets were shut down. And the world was again astonished at the power and shocking audacity of a state to monopolize, manipulate and malign the news.
It goes without saying that references to Orwell over the years have become quite popular, but also a bit glib, I’m afraid. Yes, we know that Orwellian governments are oppressive and bad. And that Doublespeak has something to do with the manipulation of language. But what made Orwell’s work such an achievement is how well he understood the doctrine of deception of the state-sponsored lie.
The state-sponsored lie, both Orwell and Putin understand, is far from stand alone exaggerations, cover-ups and half-truths. It is the enterprise of architecting whole new realities. It is, in the words of one banned Russian independent newsman quoted in the New Yorker: “Lies and hatred on a fantastical scale.”
Like Orwell’s corrupt governments of “1984,” citizens are again being told — force-fed really – that 2+2=5. Reality is as the state decides. Trump and his campaign of “alternative facts” practiced this same strategy and much of the GOP has played along. And if language, in Orwell’s 1984, had to be outlawed so be it. (Readers of this book might remember Orwell’s famous “Newspeak” language which aimed to reduce words and therefore the range of thought.) As it stands today, Russian reporters using the word “war” or “invasion” could face up to 15 years imprisonment; and Republicans who haven’t bought into Trump’s big lie about the election being stolen are banished from the fold.
News, history, morality, and reality were all within the dictates of the government, and again Orwell’s words echoed: “The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their most essential command.” For embedded in the lies of the authoritarian government, are not just deceptions, but also threats – and therein lies the motivation to accept them.
It is difficult to witness the events of these past weeks and not reflect on questions of power, governance and truth. But also the sad, inescapable fact that despite all our humanistic hopefulness 20th Century misbehavior can easily be 21st Century misbehavior. The awful playbooks of history’s despots have not changed. They continue to be diabolically deceitful, brutally oppressive, flagrantly power-hungry and utterly unoriginal.
“Democracy dies in darkness,” the slogan of the Washington Post reminds us each week. We stand with Ukraine, but in the meantime we would do well to also remember the importance of truth, transparency and fidelity to reality in free societies. It is a lesson for those abroad and even those of us at home who need reminding that democracy demands a vigilantly guarded free press. (And perhaps even a little less exaggeration from glib story-telling columnists.)
Continue to pray for the good people of Ukraine.