Orwell, Freud, and the Syrian Ruse

Reality by other means

We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.

— Karl Rove speaking to a small group of reporters at a cocktail party in 2004…… printed in the Washington Post

The adjective ‘Orwellian’ is so overused mostly because it is so incredibly apt on a daily basis. George Orwell’s basic concept reflects a simple tenet of propaganda: the thing you are hiding is often hid behind its exact opposite. Orwell expressed this concept in 1984 with the government slogans, “War is Peace,” “Ignorance is Strength,” and “Freedom is Slavery.” The Austrian psychologist Sigmund Freud evidently suggested something similar about human nature: that to discover our true human nature, we need merely to reverse society’s moral maxims: if a commandment forbids adultery, it’s because we want to commit it. In other words, for both Orwell and Freud, we often disguise what we are doing behind claims that we are doing the opposite. We aren’t committing adultery; we’re practicing fidelity. We aren’t precipitating war; we’re pressing for peace. We aren’t seeking our own self-interest; we’re doing it all for others.

When applied to U.S. propaganda, the formula is revealing. To discover what your government is hiding, just reverse the media narrative. If the papers all say Russia is an imperial aggressor, it’s likely because Washington is. If the news networks say that Assad is a murderous monster, it’s likely because the groups we’re backing are. If the mainstream says Communism is a dire threat, it’s likely because capitalism is a dire threat. All of these examples are demonstrably true.

What confuses many readers is the fact that the first premise–that Russia, Assad, and Communism are all threats–usually has an element of truth to it, though not to the degree that it is portrayed. And so intelligent propaganda doesn’t simply traffic in lies, but rather half-truths, distortions, and omissions that themselves further distort a narrative. It is this sophisticated blend of fact, fiction, hyperbole and omission that makes propaganda so difficult to unpack for the average reader, who has little time, inclination, and practice in deciphering state-directed doctrine.

Reversing Reality

If Freud was correct, then we tend to publicly deny our greatest desires when they run counter to prevailing morality, shielding our base wishes behind a curtain of rectitude, even as we quietly pursue them. The modern instances of this in government are boundless. Example: FISA legitimates the surveillance it was designed to deter. Example: Congress abets the executive it was created to check. Example: ‘Defense’ becomes the aggression it was devised to defend against. Example: Healthcare becomes a bureaucracy built on denial of care in the name of its provision. Example. Journalism: the adversarial role of the fourth estate, becomes the adversary of the truth it was intended to protect. Journalists transcribe the diktats of power. Like the senators that notarize the mandates of the executive. Like the federal agents that entrap citizens in order to protect them. Like the drones that destroy lives to save them. Like the citizens who signal liberal values in support of imperial conquerors. Like the social justice warriors who legislate the intolerance they seek to eradicate. It seems to be a socio-political reality that the forcible assertion of one value guarantees a renaissance of its antitheses. Or is it that we forcibly assert a moral value to disguise a flowering of vice?

The process of turning a story into its opposite is fairly straightforward. If the U.S. is aggressively violating human rights, it needs to be rewritten as a defender of human rights. What this means in practice is switching the roles each of the actors assume in the narrative. Heroes become villains; villains become heroes; and victims are either genuine victims or villains depicted as martyrs for a righteous cause. This requires a good bit of romanticizing your side, demonizing the enemy, and eulogizing the victims. And then, as the author of Mein Kampf recommended, keep it simple. Your side wants one thing: peace. Your enemy wants one thing: war. And the victims want one thing: freedom.

Exhibit A

Take Syria as a recent example. The media narrative states that the U.S. and its freedom-loving allies have cautiously backed a loose confederation of rebels who rose up against Syrian tyrant Bashar al-Assad in 2011. In actuality, the U.S. and its freedom-hating allies have incautiously backed a loose confederation of foreign terrorists who have been paid to overthrow the elected Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Only occasionally is the real backstory hinted at, which includes weakening Shia strongholds and destabilizing independent states in the region.

In turning the truth around to justify its war of aggression, the state and its supplicant media seized upon a handful of facts as the bedrock on which it constructed a false historical narrative. Which is what you’d expect from the Orwell-Freud model. And so…Are there elements of Syrian civil society that protested Assad in 2011? Absolutely. Are there actual Syrians fighting against Assad now? Sure. Are there elements of corruption and repression in Assad’s history? Definitely. But each of these truths are used to disguise the much larger facts of unmitigated U.S. aggression.

Upon this foundation, the typical narrative is constructed. The United States government is romanticized as a virtuous mediator concerned with supporting the freedom fighters and helping them achieve the freedoms they’ve yearned for. Assad is demonized as the autocratic mass murderer who repeatedly denies these freedoms, and tortures thousands before destroying the bodies. And the Syrian people, engine of the largest refugee crisis since World War Two, are shown as the valiant victims of the war, particularly in Aleppo, where the destruction of the city in an attempt to uproot the terrorist army is leveraged to milk as much emotional content from the war as possible and to further cement Assad’s reputation as a moral monster.

The MSM didn’t stop there. It followed with a series of attempts to further demonize Assad. A massive cache of photos purportedly detailing “regime” torture. This cache was delivered from somebody named “Caesar,” a defector not unlike the fake defector, “Curveball” from the run-up to the Iraq War. Twice false flags have been utilized to claim that the evil optometrist in Damascus has in a fit of pique demanded that innocent Syrians be sprayed with chemical weapons. Now a “crematorium” where Assad supposedly cremates all the Syrian citizens he is slaughtering (supposedly because he hates humanity so much). It doesn’t particularly matter if these stories eventually unravel when evidence is shown to be lacking. The damage is done to the psyche of readers and listeners, who absorb the media reports with the uncritical acceptance of animals entering an abattoir.

The takfiri mercenaries brought in by the West to topple Assad are likewise romanticized by the press. Instead of labeling the terrorists we backed as extremists, the New York Times peddled a story that they were moderates. Beheading of children, tossing gays from rooftops, using citizens as human shields, staging rescue operations, and many other atrocities failed to prevent the media from intransigently pushing this storyline.

No Quick Fix

As you can see, there is no shortage of opportunities to apply the Orwellian label to modern reportage. That said, I’m not suggesting that the authors at The New York Times and the Washington Post are all conniving propagandists consciously preparing deceitful reportage. For every Edward Bernays, there are a dozen Brian Williams. Often, they have simply internalized the values of the institution that employs them. They recognize, perhaps consciously or subconsciously, that their careers depend on their willingness to follow a particular narrative. And they make their choice, rationalizing themselves into a clean conscience.

Which is no surprise. The human species could give a master class in self-deception. And there are psychological needs that appear more urgent for us than truth. Namely, the need to feel good about oneself and believe in one’s tribe. Set aside the need to situate the world in a comprehensible narrative, the need to fit in with one’s peer group, and the need to do meaningful work and self-actualize in society. The point is that all of these needs are undermined by the counter-narratives of the left. Counter-narratives destabilize our cleanly delineated understanding of the world; they often ostracize us from our peer group; and they threaten our ability to contribute to society in a manner approved of by society (i.e., generally contributing to the machinery of consumerism). Who has time for a reconstruction of one’s worldview, especially if it might lead to social alienation? This is why just throwing facts at heavily propagandized people doesn’t often work. There are other forces in play, which may remind us that politics is often little more than a value signaling device for human beings.

So most of us, whatever inklings we may receive of an alternative reality, will settle for doing nothing untoward, recusing ourselves from political debates, and hewing as closely to inoffensive blandishments in our speech as we can. (The only other major path is to adopt the ideologically bankrupt cop-out of lesser evilism and rant about how horrible the other party is. This provides the frisson of feeling at one with the herd, but does nothing to improve society.) In other words, we shackle ourselves to political groupthink and play the role of the conscientious centrist like any good straight man would. We have no time for the revolutionary urgency of the disenfranchised. It was Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor who argued that people don’t want intellectual freedom, but rather to be told what to believe. Only then will they be happy. Otherwise, we ruin our peace of mind through choice paralysis or some variety of existential angst, or through a lack of religious faith that leaves us with no guiding myth to sustain us. Given all these apolitical factors that inform whether or not one challenges the received narrative, is it any surprise that mental slavery and ignorance are as prevalent today as in Orwell’s time?

Jason Hirthler is a writer, political commentator, and veteran of the communications industry. He has written for many political communities. He is the recent author of Imperial Fictions, a collection of essays from between 2015-2017. He lives in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com. Read other articles by Jason.