When I look at America today, I see a nation failing in many ways. Economically, socially, culturally, politically. But also, now, in a deeper way than ever before. America is failing what I’ll call Orwell’s Test.
What do I mean? Orwell once said: “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” If that phrase were a test, would you say that we — in fact you, yourself — are passing or failing it?
Let me ask it a different way. Why don’t American seem to have any power over the authoritarian and fascist forces and tendencies in their midst? Why have those forces run amok, gleefully shattering institution after institution, norm after norm, to the point that concentration camps for infants have arisen in just two years — mere months — after the election of a demagogue?
Did you think that was possible? Probably not. So how did it become possible? How did Americans become powerless, impotent things, mocked and scorned by the very tyrants who now lead them?
American have no power to fight authoritarianism because they have chosen not to give themselves power over reality. That is what Orwell’s test is really about. What gives us power over reality? The words that we use are the thoughts that we think, which limit the actions that we take, individually and collectively. I’m sure you will grant me that much. Words are not just words — they are thoughts, too, and that was Orwell’s point, wasn’t it?
But here’s the curious thing. Americans refuse, flatly, to use the historically accurate and socially precise terms for what is happening to them. So they don’t just not speak simple but great truths of history anymore — they cannot think them, either. “It can’t happen here” thus led to it happening here. That ends them up in absurd places. “Tender age shelters” — not infant concentration camps. “Populism” — not authoritarianism (70% of Americans want healthcare my friends — populism is a foolish myth). Americans these days will do and say anything to avoid the following forbidden words: “fascism”, “authoritarianism”, “concentration camps”, “genocide”, “ethnic cleansing”. Have you noticed? I certainly have, and the world is noticing too.
The result is a bizarre, ironically stilted Soviet style of speech now, where weird, odd, code-phrases are used to refer to simple, obvious truths. But if the thoughts you have forbidden yourself are the very ones that are needed to clearly understand what is happening — then how can you be anything but impotent? So Americans have been rendered powerless over all the terrible things happening in their society because they are flunking Orwell’s test — and they are flunking it badly.
Why would some words — or thoughts — instead of others give you power? The reason is very simple. Some words — a tiny few, a privileged few — carry great might within them, because they are not just regular words at all. If I say “fascism” or “authoritarianism”, then I am using a word that carries at least five specific kinds of power. Social, cultural, political, philosophical, and psychological power — that I then exert over whomever I am talking to. Such words carry the power of history within them. They holds whole theories of human nature and society and politics in them, written over centuries. So they convey the tragedy and horror, the atrocity and folly, of the great mistakes of those centuries, and the lessons learned. They brim over with meaning, in other words — terrible and unforgiving meaning. The listener is immediately reminded of the Soviet Union, of Nazi Germany, of modern-day Russia. Of all their ignorance and hubris and ruin. In all that, they hold cause and effect — these nations destroyed themselves, we understand, through tyranny, through subjugation, through repression, which lead nowhere. All that is what “truth” is.
But the words Americans use contain none of that. Not a bit of it. No theories, philosophy, ideas. No choices between them. No history of humankind. No knowledge about cause and effect. No great truths are in the words Americans use to describe their own collapse, which are also the only thoughts Americans allow themselves to think, and so they are unable to understand it — much less fight it. And in that way, they have denied themselves the power to change their dismal and bitter reality. Let me prove it to you.
Imagine if instead of “fascism” and “authoritarianism,” I say “ethnonativism” and “populism.” Are they true in any way? Do such words bring anything to mind? Especially great and titanic truths of history? Things we have learned from, and must never forget? Not really, unless you’re talking to a professor of political science, whose theories have by now been soundly disproven, by the rise of concentration camps in America. To fight for the future, we must have the power to remember the past. As much of it as we can hold in a single word, or thought. To remind one another of those lessons. To aid one another in not repeating history, over and over again, like fools, like puppets, like cowards.
So the truths we allow ourselves to know, in other words, are what give us power over our worlds. The power to genuinely shape and alter our realities — by making “never forget” mean something. By thinking, learning, and knowing. By remembering the great and timeless lessons of history, philosophy, society, culture, and politics. But if the words we use mean nothing at all, then what can we fight with? They remind the listener, and ourselves, of precisely nothing, too. If our words, which are our thoughts, then, are empty of knowledge, of meaning, stripped of truth, they are nothing at all. We are not holding swords. We are fools, wearing no clothes.
When we don’t use words, or thoughts, which contain much knowledge, much truth, especially about terrible things, what are we really doing? We are sugarcoating reality. We are spinning it. We are massaging and doctoring it. That’s what we’ve been taught, by watching too much cable news, by gazing mindlessly at too much Twitter trash talk. Our expectations and standards have slowly corroded to the point that truth itself has become not only relativized, but denuded and decontextualized. We have internalized the reality model of the spin doctor. But when we are little spin doctors, pretending reality away, here is what we are not. Functioning human. Citizens. Cultural sense-makers. Moral agents. We take away all our very own power — moral, social, political, and cultural.
Let me give you another example. Imagine that instead of saying “infant concentration camps,” I use the absurd phrase “tender age shelters.” What is a tender age shelter? Who has ever built one before? What is its purpose? But a “concentration camp” is very different. They were built by a specific kind of people, for a specific purpose. They imply that the people building them are just those people, too — fascists. They bring to mind a clear, understandable, powerful, and above all, empirically true model of cause and effect — Jews ghettoized, trains rolling into Auschwitz, ashes.
Do you see how the choice of one over the other strips your very thoughts of knowledge, of cause and effect, of the history of society and politics, of the the mistakes made and the lessons learned, of concrete examples of both — and prevents you from then conveying all those, too? Do you see how you loseall your power — snap! just like that — when you refuse to speak the truth, which is also refusing to think the truth?
So why don’t we speak or think the truth today in America anymore? Why is it that we would rather ask the foolish, meaningless question “wait — are they really Nazis?! But they don’t Seig Heil!” than think the simple, clear, empowering thought: “what other kinds of belief systems build concentration camps?”
It is because we are playing a game of denial. When we use words like “fascism”, “authoritarianism”, and “concentration camps”, what happens to us, ourselves, the speakers of those words, on the inside? We feel a profound and abiding sense of shame. Of guilt. Of grief. Of fear, too. Ah, but that is exactly what you should feel at times like this. Not so that you are frightened, or so that you are punished. But for a better reason. So that you retain your humanity. Let me explain it this way.
What is complicity? It is ultimately the refusal to feel, isn’t it? To feel empathy for another. To feel the pain of another, even as they are being dragged away. To shut down your emotions. When you can shut down completely, as kids are being marched away to camps — then, my friend, you are a puppet, aren’t you? Then anything is possible, while you stand there and submit. But that is exactly what complicity is, isn’t it?
So by failing to use the correct and precise words, which are not words at all, but great and timeless ideas, you don’t feel the terrible guilt and shame that you should feel. And that way, you don’t know it, but you are already falling down the slippery slope into numbness. Impotence. Powerlessness. You become hard and cruel and stupid and blind, one day at a time. You turn off your feelings, little by little. You wall off the guilt and shame and grief and fear. You learn to shut down. You pretend not to see what is right in front of your eyes.
And that way, slowly, you lose your humanity. But that is exactly what they want, isn’t it? To turn you into a monster, too. Ah, you see. That is why you have no power to fight them yet.
You have been helping them all along. And now you know how. So stop it. Change. Give yourself the power to fight what is monstrous and wrong. That power comes only — only — from truth. You have been failing Orwell’s Test.
But you cannot fail it much longer, if it is a democracy you wish to keep for your children.