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Greg Rickford in Stephen Harper's Ministry of Truth

In George Orwell's "1984", the main character, Winston Smith, works in the Ministry of Truth, where he “alters historical records to fit the needs of the ruling Party”. The Party is headed by an invisible personage known only as Big Brother.

In Orwell’s novel, the Party promotes an invented language called Newspeak, designed to prevent political rebellion by eliminating all words related to it. Even thinking rebellious thoughts is declared illegal.

In Canada today, we are seeing a revival variant of Newspeak, as well as a government headed by a shadowy figure.

Of course there are differences. Our "shadowy figure" has a name, and is visible as a physical person. He is the opaque and inscrutable Stephen Harper, who publicly reveals little about his inner workings and motivations, preferring to shape his appearance and his pronouncements around a carefully groomed "persona".

That carefully constructed persona manifests as a calm, emotionally neutral individual, who uses carefully modulated speech and makes constant reference to caring for "ordinary Canadians". No sudden or brusque movements, no intemperate language, no emotional intensity, no revelatory asides.

But it is in use of language that Stephen Harper, and the conservative government in general, have become the proponents of 21st century "Newspeak". In a burst of linguistic creativity, designed to cloak his hard-line, rigid and sometimes obviously ideological goals, the Prime Minister and his representatives have taken language manipulation to unusual lengths.

The first step in this transformation has been to perfect the art of avoiding giving answers. Phrases like "I won't get into the reasons for…" or "I cannot comment on that…" occur routinely in presentations by conservative leaders. When such pronouncements are challenged, the response is always to simply repeat them over and over – never to explain why an answer is being withheld.

The next step has been to simply avoid using certain words. Searching high and low through pronouncements by Stephen Harper and his associates, the word "environment", or it's even more pernicious cousin, "ecosystem", can almost never be found. In its place, words like "the economy", "jobs" or "prosperity" are used as mantras for all future developments on planet Earth. The planet itself? Well, it's not actually there – at least not in so many words.

Then there's the true Newspeak approach. This is where the real creativity comes into play. This means, for example, stating that when in a position of aggressive political conflict, the government is nevertheless a "willing partner". This means addressing intense controversies associated with the two recent Omnibus bills (C-38 and C-45) by stating that "we are proud of our achievements". The Harper administration is making politically-flavoured mincemeat out of the rules of normal discourse.

But there’s one problem. Unlike George Orwell's Oceania, the mythical nation headed by Big Brother and controlling the entire world, the Harper Conservatives control only a small area of the Earth's surface. Dissent and criticism can occur in parallel with pronouncements made by the government. Winston Smith, in Orwell’s work, is tortured into blank submission; no such thing is likely in Canada.

But that doesn't stop Harper and the pundits within the Conservative Party's inner circle from brutalizing the rules of language, and trying vainly to make black (or brown, or more specifically red) turn into white.

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