Gregory Nunberg wrote in the New York Times on 22 June 2003 <http://www.nytimes.com/2003/06/22/weekinreview/simpler-terms-if-it-s-orwellian-it-s-probably-not.html> that “If It’s ‘Orwellian,’ It’s Probably Not.” Nunberg’s thesis, of course, was that almost every invocation of Orwell was beside the points of and in Orwell’s works. Wrote Nunberg, “”Orwellian” reduces Orwell’s palette to a single shade of noir. It brings to mind only sordid regimes of surveillance and thought control and the distortions of language that make them possible.”
From time to time I wish Nunberg were correct in this passage, for then “Orwellian” might be deployed less often to overstate the importance or efficacy of crude overstatements on blogs or placards.
In the New York Times on 21 February 2011 David Brooks demonstrated this tendency to attach “Orwellian” to feckless, mindless expressions with no chance of impressing or persuading anyone. Commenting about demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin, Mr. Brooks wrote:
“No place is hotter than Wisconsin. The leaders there have done everything possible to maximize conflict. Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, demanded cuts only from people in the other party. The public sector unions and their allies immediately flew into a rage, comparing Walker to Hitler, Mussolini and Mubarak.
“Walker’s critics are amusingly Orwellian. They liken the crowd in Madison to the ones in Tunisia and claim to be fighting for democracy. Whatever you might say about Walker, he and the Republican majorities in Wisconsin were elected, and they are doing exactly what they told voters they would do. It’s the Democratic minority that is thwarting the majority will by fleeing to Illinois. It’s the left that has suddenly embraced extralegal obstructionism.”
I am amused by Mr. Brooks’s inapt description of events in Madison, but I do not post regarding a pundit’s misleading drolleries. Rather, I post to protest the pundit’s exaggeration. Placards and canards comparing Governor Walker to dictators are ridiculous but they do not reek of 1984 or some such. They do not state as truth what could never be true. Rather, the demonstrators liken a cunning man to mad men. The demonstrators engaged in hyperbole. Every sapient life-form capable of reading the signs knows that the signs are untrue. No reasoning being would hold the signs to be true literally or figuratively.
The powerless or less powerful ridiculing the powerful or more powerful is not Orwellian by definition — or at least should not be called “Orwellian” by anyone who at all appreciated 1984. Orwell described totalitarian doubletalk, doublespeak, and doublethink by which the powerful few silenced the powerless masses and bent the powerless masses to the will of the powerful few. Mr. Brooks has cited exactly no evidence and could cite exactly no evidence that anyone brandishing a (non)parallel has the power to bend anything except perhaps posterboard and a staple.
For that reason, Mr. Brooks either errs in applying “Orwellian” or earns that label himself, if the definition of “Orwellian” be extended to cover Madison demonstrators.
Which is it, Mr. Brooks? Are you yourself amusingly Orwellian, or have you misapplied “Orwellian?”