The latest episode of world affairs has divided a complex world into a simplistic Manichean binary. On one side stand a party that poses as vanguards of freedom; and on the other side stands the accursed horde of tyranny. Both these parties choose for themselves the former whilst attributing the latter to ‘the enemy.’ Via the press blitzkrieg, the masses are forced into choosing a side and ‘taking a stand’ – anyone who doesn’t can be accused of ‘siding with the enemy.’ Yet this tribalist language is itself incommunicado. This essay will tell the tale of how those in power have distorted language in order to hold on to power.
The historian Tacitus wrote in his Annals : ‘The Egyptians were the first to represent ideas by means of animals; these early memorials to human ingenuity are still seen today carved in stone. They claim to be the first inventors of writing. From them the Phoenicians who had control of the sea are said to have brought the script to Greece and are given the credit of discovering what they had only borrowed.’
Abu Bakr ibn Wahshiyya, a 9th century Iraqi historian, demonstrated in his book Kitab Shawq al-Mustaham that the Arabic script originated from the Egyptian hieroglyphics. Both Tacitus and Ibn Wahshiyya’s hypothesis that the Egyptians invented writing has been accepted in modern academia. The Egyptian script was adapted by the Phoenicians, and their script was adapted by the Arabs and Jews in the East; and the Greeks and Romans in the West. So why did Egyptian writing remain unchanged whilst Phoenician continued to evolve?
The first possible reason is that whilst Egyptian hieroglyphics had hundreds of intricate characters, the Phoenicians were traders and needed simpler writing for practical reasons. Correspondence for trade and business generally required speed of execution; as simpler signs are quicker to write, the writing output can be increased.
The second reason was probably because the Egyptian priesthood were against any kind of innovation of an economic or cultural nature. If the script became accessible, the priesthood’s monopoly over the nation’s religion and academics would be under threat and it is for this reason that the priesthood tried for centuries to prevent the reform of hieroglyphics. This inevitably led to a cultural ossification as new ideas could not be incorporated to update Egyptian culture. As a result, Phoraonic Egypt declined and was annexed.
This is not the only time that this phenomenon has occurred in history. In the Middle Ages, the priesthood of the Papacy was able to hold on to power, by allowing only the official Vulgate, Latin version of the Bible to be used. This meant that the vast majority of people who did not understand Latin were disabled from understanding this divine text or resisting any diversion by the priesthood. The inaccessibility also meant that the Church could develop invented complex theorems that only a handful of the priestly class could understand such as the doctrine of the Trinity, transubstantion, papal infallibility, episcopal initiation, and purgatory.
In 1522 Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale translated it into English in 1535 and Jacques d’Etaples translated to French in 1530. These translations were an attempt by the Reformers to allow the masses to understand the Bible in their own tongue as a means to resist priestly divergence from truth.
Sensing that the Reformation would take away its religious monopoly, the Church launched the counter-Reformation which bathed Europe in a tsunami of blood in what is now called the European Wars of Religion. The consequences were dire and Harold Laski summarizes the entire Reformation thus, “In the name of a theory of religious truth, existing ecclesiastical institutions were overthrown.”
The overthrow of religious institutions closed the chapter of the medieval age and paved the way for the French Revolution in 1789 which dramatically opened the chapter of modernity and its tumults which we experience today. Edmund Burke wrote in On the French Revolution, “The age of chivalry is gone. An age of sophists, economists and calculators has triumphed.”
It was after two World Wars, which can be called the European Civil War, that the new power elite entrenched their power by writing the blueprint of the new age at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944. By 1961, the American President, Dwight Eisenhower, warned the world of a power that might subvert governance. In the nineteenth century, Proudhon had called this new power ‘La Sect’ and by the twentieth century, they had mutated into what Eisenhower termed the Military-Industrial Complex.
La Sect, keeping Proudhon’s definition, have employed their priesthood, or economists, to mask their power by the use of language. Today, the field of economics is replete with concepts and instruments which are used and traded and which only a select group can understand. This means that the Sect can operate with impunity because governors cannot understand them:
credit default swap
interest rate swap
the Black Scholes model
efficient market hypothesis
After the financial collapse of 2008 Queen Elizabeth asked a group of academics from the London School of Economics, “Why did nobody notice the awful financial crisis earlier?” A group of preeminent economists gathered to answer this question. They then wrote a letter of reply to the Queen citing “a failure of the collective imagination of many bright people”. In other words, they did not know or more likely, they did not want to reveal the fraudulent nature on which their professions are built.
These historical and contemporary examples indicate how language has been (mis)used in order to hold on to power. The very same strategy has been adopted by the political class and in order to understand this new power, one can look to the example of Russia.
Vladislav Surkov is a high-ranking PR strategist for President Vladimir Putin. In his documentary, Hypernomalisation, Adam Curtis says, “Surkov is one of President Putin’s advisors and has helped him to maintain his power for fifteen years. And he has done it in a new way. He came originally from the avant-garde art world. Those who have studied his career say what Surkov has done was to import ideas from conceptual art into the very heart of politics. His aim is to undermine people’s perception of the world so that they can never know what is really happening… Surkov turned Russian politics into a bewildering, constantly changing, piece of theatre. He sponsored all kinds of groups – from neo-Nazi skin-heads, to human-rights groups; he even backed parties which were opposed to President Putin. The key thing was Surkov then let it be known that it was he who was doing them. Which meant that no one knew what was real or fake. As one journalist put it, ‘It is a strategy of power that keeps any opposition constantly confused. A ceaseless shape shifting that is unstoppable because it is undefinable.’”
That is to say, it cannot be resisted because it cannot be defined and understood. This was the means by which the financial elite, the Catholic Clergy and Pharoanic Priesthood maintained their grip on power. Surkov calls this non-linear warfare. This strategy has worked both in Russia and outside of it. A clear case study is how the Kremlin acted during its annexation of Crimea in 2014 – manipulating transnational financial interconnections, spinning the media, and reconfiguring geo-political alliances. It was a bewildering blurring of fact and fiction which left the international community unable to act.
This “ceaseless shape shifting” has spilled over into American politics. Donald Trump has managed to defeat journalism by making contradictory statements:
‘Look, I’m very pro-choice.’ (NBC News, Oct 24 1999)
‘I am very, very proud to say that I’m pro-life.’ (Cleveland, Ohio, 6 Aug 2015)
‘I think the institution of marriage should be between a man and a woman.’ (The Advocate, 15 Feb 2000)
‘If two people dig each other, they dig each other.’ (Trump University ‘Trump Blog’ 22 Dec 2005)
‘I think NATO is a good thing.’ (Washington Post 21 Mar 2016)
‘I think NATO is obsolete.’ (ABC News 27 Mar 2016)
‘Angela Merkel is doing a fantastic job.’ (Twitter 3 Oct 2013)
‘She’s ruining Germany.’ (Twitter, 9 December 2015)
‘I’m an environmentalist.’ (CNN 28 April 2010)
‘Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!’( Twitter, 6Dec 2013)
These are only a few of many contradictory statements that Donald Trump has made. The idea is to misuse language in order to create a blurred line between fiction and reality. After the missile strike on Iran’s most powerful General, the US officials have been unable to offer a clear stance. David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a global think tank, said about the incident, “Explanations have been bungled at I don’t know how many levels by the contradictory statements”. Miller continued, “From the very get-go, the public messaging has raised all kinds of questions about whether or not there was sufficient motivation to launch an attack to kill arguably the second most powerful man in Iran.”
Ian Dallas writes that, “losing language is losing reality. Clear language is sanity itself.” This is not only a political argument, but one that has psychological and spiritual consequences as well. Thus, the overarching challenge facing humanity is how can we distinguish between fiction and reality.