“Ignorance Is Strength” at Columbia U.

2010 December 7
by Turk Studzel

When President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize while simultaneously sending 50,000 more troops to Afghanistan and escalating Predator drone strikes in Pakistan, one could almost hear the Orwellian slogan “War Is Peace” intoned, dirge-like, across the land. Now, amid the furor over WikiLeaks, our local Ivy League university has emailed its students Big Brotherish advice about why “Ignorance Is Strength,” another of the slogans from Nineteen Eighty-Four.  Below, a memo published by The Huffington Post in which Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) tells its students to keep their eyes and mouths shut if they know what’s good for them:

From: Office of Career Services
Date: Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 3:26 PM
Subject: Wikileaks – Advice from an alum
To: “Office of Career Services (OCS)”

Hi students,

We received a call today from a SIPA alumnus who is working at the State Department. He asked us to pass along the following information to anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government, since all would require a background investigation and in some instances a security clearance.

The documents released during the past few months through Wikileaks are still considered classified documents. He recommends that you DO NOT post links to these documents nor make comments on social media sites such as Facebook or through Twitter. Engaging in these activities would call into question your ability to deal with confidential information, which is part of most positions with the federal government.

Office of Career Services

The ridiculous thing, of course, is that portions of these classified documents had already appeared in hundreds of online and print media outlets, not to mention the commentary filling uncountable pages on blogs and social media sites. The genie’s already been loosed from the bottle; asking students to avert their eyes is more or less futile. Except that—well, as the anonymous State Department employee puts it, “anyone who will be applying for jobs in the federal government” might want to consider the potential thoughtcrime of being associated with these taboo documents.

As it happened, the media got wind of this and raised obvious questions about the academic freedom, the First Amendment, and so forth. Several days later, perhaps embarrassed by the exposure, SIPA’s Dean Coatsworth felt compelled to reassure students that Columbia still believed in all that stuff, and that the school’s official position was that  “students have a right to discuss and debate any information in the public arena that they deem relevant to their studies or to their roles as global citizens, and to do so without fear of adverse consequences.”

But in the current climate, with prominent politicians calling for the death of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, with Obama’s Justice Department plotting new assaults on the Constitution to prosecute WikiLeaks, with journalists around the world stampeding in a bleating herd to publish new lies about Assange and his organization—in such a climate, to believe Dean Coatsworth’s platitudes would be naive.

In fact, what we have in Columbia’s about-face is a perfect example of a communication style the Obama administration has raised to a high art, and which is being emulated across the nation—the “institutional forked-tongue,” or as Orwell might have put it, doublespeak. The idea is to release two statements, more or less contradictory, one which states the administration’s true position, the other which is pure whitewash, pablum for the credulous masses. Those with something to lose will take seriously the statement which contains a more or less open threat of violence or coercion. The other statement smooths this over, providing “plausible deniability.” Like the “double bind” described by Gregory Bateson, you’re damned if you believe and damned if you don’t.

Doublespeak is the inevitable corollary of what Orwell named doublethink. The following is from Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. The Party intellectual knows in which direction his memories must be altered; he therefore knows he is playing tricks with reality; but by the exercise of doublethink he also satisfies himself that reality is not violated. The process has to be conscious, or it would not be carried out with sufficient precision, but it also has to be unconscious, or it would bring with it a feeling of falsity and hence of guilt…To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality that one denies—all this is indispensably necessary…

(Nineteen Eighty-Four’s third slogan, remember, was “Freedom Is Slavery.”)

Postscript— Glenn Greenwald, in a fine column today at Salon.com, pointed out the following press release from the State Department. This goes far beyond irony to what can only be called doublethink:

Press Statement
Philip J. Crowley
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Washington, DC
December 7, 2010

The United States is pleased to announce that it will host UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day event in 2011, from May 1 – May 3 in Washington, D.C. UNESCO is the only UN agency with the mandate to promote freedom of expression and its corollary, freedom of the press.

The theme for next year’s commemoration will be 21st Century Media: New Frontiers, New Barriers. The United States places technology and innovation at the forefront of its diplomatic and development efforts. New media has empowered citizens around the world to report on their circumstances, express opinions on world events, and exchange information in environments sometimes hostile to such exercises of individuals’ right to freedom of expression. At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information. We mark events such as World Press Freedom Day in the context of our enduring commitment to support and expand press freedom and the free flow of information in this digital age..

Post-postscript—Interestingly, Assistant Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley, whose name heads this release, was apparently lying through his teeth  last December when he denied any U.S. involvement in deadly airstrikes in Yemen that killed two dozen civilians.  See the following at Salon.com for the story.  It’s just this sort of exposure that gets the Imperial Court so pissed off.

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