THE VOCABULARY OF DESTRUCTION
That public education is a vital component of a civil and just society is inarguable. The education of children in any society is the means by which social values are projected into the future. Education has been and remains an integral and defining aspect of our community and our social contract. What we now witnessing is a widespread assault on public education and by extension, the community, being waged by a spectrum of business and political interests. David M. Steiner, whose work is admired by the current US Secretary of Education was asked in 2007 about public education as a public good and responded to the interviewer: “Social justice promotes hatred. Hatred for the established order.”The “established order” comment immediately called to mind George Orwell’s 1949 novel 1984.
Throughout, a song recurs in Winston’s mind:
Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me—
Orwell described a world in which people sold each other out in a dystopian society overseen by “Big Brother“. The overseers spoke in what Orwell called “Newspeak” a reconstruction of language in which normal usage and understanding are inverted and subverted to undermine reasoning, perception and community. Newspeak required the use of “doublethink” as part of its methodology to reinforce the established order.
To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary.
The distortion of language is a frequent and favored tool of demagoguery. What more deceitful and despicable form of thought control than the destruction of the common language and meaning of a society and thus its collective understanding and commitment to social justice? Under this scheme common vocabulary is recast and redefined to, among other purposes, deliberately isolate and ultimately demonize troublesome minority groups such as racial and ethnic minorities, political activists, labor unions and teachers. The aim is to isolate and then pit these groups and social strata against each other – a form of class warfare. Those in charge must of course deny this as class warfare lest the natives begin to suspect something other than what they are saying is going on.
I was again reminded of 1984 recently as I read a web post in which the author referred to public education as “government education”. Ominous sounding? Sinister even? You bet and it was intended to be. “Government education” sounds a lot like the former Maoist system of re-education camps where those who resisted intimidation and sheep-like following of orders were sent to have their thinking and behavior adjusted. Government as the big bad boogie-man enslaving the country with taxes, regulatory agencies and public education. This use of language to discredit public education and, for that matter, public service and the common polis is sociopathic, a selling out of the common good. Calling things what they are not is one of the means employed to destroy the social contract that has held this society together from its beginnings – to divide and thus recast the society to an end in which everyone and everything is owned by a few. A few as in 1%. In 1984, the Ministry of Peace is concerned with war, the Ministry of Love is concerned with torture, and the Ministry of Plenty is concerned with starvation. The three slogans of the Party: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, and Ignorance is Strength. And now we are given another Orwellian re- construction, public education becomes “government education”. Newspeak – doublethink.
We are presently seeing a sinister display of deliberately deceptive language not only in recasting and demeaning democratic social practices and institutions but most artfully in the naming of political action committees as “foundations” and “institutes”. The monikers are sprinkled with sweet-sounding words such as “Freedom”, “Open”, “National Committee” or “National Council”, “Choice”, “Transformation”, “Liberty”, “Democracy”, “Family”, “Open”, “Prosperity”, “Values”; I have collected a list of over 250 of these outfits and, when reading the titles, I can almost hear strains of patriotic music in the background and the snap of “Old Glory” in the breeze. So deceitful, so cleverly designed to mask their ultimate purposes: to sow cognitive dissonance and cover their tracks.
And why this barrage of deceptive language? Public education, instead of being held as the community’s common commitment to the education of the young, is now seen as a potential income stream by people like the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch, who has claimed a stake in what he recently assessed as a $500 billion opportunity2. Rupert is joined by numbers of private, for-profit corporations with noble-sounding names that cleverly direct attention away from their objective of privatizing and “profitizing” public education. Billionaires “donate” millions to the campaigns of political hopefuls and in return expect the skids to be greased for the eventual replacement of public education with privatized and industrialized schooling from which they will profit. Those IOUs are coming due – teachers and students beware.
No matter what the topic, newspeak and doublethink dominate our public narrative on a daily basis. A web site titled “obamamustgo.org” recounts Speaker of the House John Boehner’s response to President Obama’s and the Occupy Wall Street movement’s calls for higher taxes for the wealthy:
“Listen, I understand people’s frustrations. I understand their concerns, and I frankly understand that we have differences in America. We are not going to engage in class warfare. The president is out there doing it every day. I frankly think it’s unfortunate, because our job is to help all Americans, not to pit one set of Americans against another.”3
My take on this is that Boehner sincerely believes the class war is over and his side has won. The Occupy movement is giving him and his friends and donors some wobbles. Boehner and friends don’t like to be challenged by the underclass and they especially don’t like it when the underclass presumptuously resists being an underclass. This is the great awakening the Occupy movement is causing among the non-existent underclass across the country – “We exist”!
Of course, Boehner was one of the architects of the tax laws that gave the wealthy their lucrative tax breaks and his language is clearly intended to obscure and confuse. I see this as a case of what Theodor Adorno meant when, in his essay Education After Auschwitz4, he commented on Freud’s observation in Civilization and its Discontents, “… that civilization itself produces anti-civilization and increasingly reinforces it.” Adorno goes on to say, “A pattern that has been conformed throughout the entire history of persecutions is that the fury against the weak chooses for its target especially those who are perceived as weak …”. In the war to privatize schools and what Adorno characterized as the “fetishization of technology” teachers are considered as the weak. The propaganda campaign called No Child Left Behind is a perfect example of using language to divert attention from the real agenda which, in this case, is clearly to discredit teachers and public schools. Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education under George H.W. Bush, called it a “well-funded, well-coordinated campaign to privatize as many schools as possible.” Ms. Ravitch went further to characterize the No Child Left Behind Act as, “the death star of American education”. 5
At a retreat in October 2011, Patricia Levesque, a former advisor to Jeb Bush and former Florida colleague of New Mexico’s Secretary-Designate of Education, urged attendees whose interests were to mechanize and privatize public education to “spread” the teachers’ unions, to “play offense” by introducing “decoy” legislation and to instigate other union busting measures which would allow bills favoring charter schools to “fly under the radar”.5 Levesque’s business Meridian Strategies, LLC lobbies for several education-technology businesses and pushes for new laws to facilitate charter schools, academies and virtual learning. At this “retreat” for philanthropists and groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, all of which have an interest in education reform to privatize and mechanize learning, Ms. Levesque stated that she is fighting to “advance policies that will create a high quality digital learning environment”.6
In the end game the language employed will influence decision makers, legislators, the general public and even some parents who uncritically buy into the propaganda. Given the ultimate importance and influence of language, advocates for schools and children must compete using plain-spoken truth; the mechanistas, as I call them, must be exposed for what they are and for what their ulterior motives and ultimate goals are. I will say without hesitation that those whose purpose is to crucify public education on a cross of profit by distorting the public narrative with their vocabulary of destruction have defective moral compasses calibrated with dollar signs at all cardinal points.
This combat for public opinion recalls Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. It will be a dark world ahead indeed if the mechanistas succeed in their war against the common good, public education and the vocabulary of an open and democratic society. When I was a youngster, World War II had ended and the Great Depression was past, the pantheon of heroes was made up of, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers and Trigger and Dale Evans and Buttermilk – all heroes in the classic sense of good ascending above evil and subverting such wrongdoing as a heartless banker’s foreclosure of a poor widow’s ranch. In the eternal war between good and evil, good prevailed and that, as anodyne and naïve as it might have been, was the message. The narrative has changed and what we now see glorified in the popular culture is violence for the sake of violence, unbridled ambition and profit for the sake of profiteering no matter the social costs. Sadly these perversions are the behavior children are being exposed to now. The world has changed not for the better and if we are to turn it around we must call out the language of destruction for what it is, we must change the narrative with the language of community and social good.
1. “Education And The Crisis of Public Values”, Henry A. Giroux, Peter Lang, 2012 p 81.
2. Rupert’s assessment.
3. Boehner, OWS and “class warfare”.
6. The Nation, 11/17/11
This article first appeared in both the print and online editions of Light of New Mexico – December 2011.