State Sanctioned Lying

The most revolutionary thing one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening.” – Rosa Luxemburg

A few years ago (seems like a lifetime now), a dear friend gave me a collection of George Orwell essays as a gift. Orwell, of course, is best known for his magnificent fiction, including Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But Orwell was also a stunning essayist, and many of his essays make the connection between degraded language and political deceit: “Political language,” he said, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

One essay in particular that has stayed with me is The Prevention of Literature (1946) in which he argues that the organised lying in a totalitarian state is not a temporary measure in which ‘the means justifies the end’, as in military deception. “[Lying] is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary.”

Totalitarianism in fact requires the continuous alternation of the past in order to support current political goals, and “in the long run probably demands a disbelief in the very existence of objective truth”.

But this state of affairs does not affect everyone the same in society. In Orwell’s view, scientists could survive relatively unscathed and maybe even thrive in a totalitarian dictatorship, because as long as governments need equipment and machinery, the laws of science cannot be falsified, at least not for long – two and two must equal four or your plane will not take off the ground. But frequent, organized lying spells a death blow to the artist, and to writers in particular: “The destruction of intellectual liberty cripples the journalist, the sociological writer, the historian, the novelist, the critic, and the poet, in that order.”

Those abetting and excusing state-santioned lying usually argue that since absolute truth is not attainable, a big lie is no worse than a little lie. But any writer who finds excuses for the falsification of reality destroys him/herself as a writer, says Orwell. There is no way out of this, my emphasis.

Totalitarian seems like an archaic word, but the point is that confusion is the wind on which an oppressive state sails – and even today, in the kind of country that has some level of openness, in the form of a supposedly thriving media sector and abundant information. It is the story of Kenya today, which is hailed for being a global leader in tech, mobile penetration, internet connectivity and what seems, on surface level, to be an open and progressive society.

But there is a dark side, which begins when words lose their meaning and cease to matter.

And here’s:

  • What We’re Reading: The latest issue of literary journal down river road (drr), whose theme this time is Asphyxia. Excited that this issue features Baraza Media Lab’s own design & comms associate Kedolwa Waziri, who reminds us that our bodies are the first site of protest.
  • What We’re Watching: The Vow, a true crime documentary that revolves around the cult NXIVM (pronounced nix-ium) and its leader Keith Raniere. My takeaway was, like one review said, that it’s not only “religious zealots” who can become ensnared by manipulative powerful people. Usually people are simply vulnerable, and eager to do good.
  • What We’re Listening To: Talking Africa, a weekly editor’s talk by the Africa Report, discussing one topic about the continent. The latest episode features Oby Ezekewsili’s soon-to-be timeless words: “Get interested by politics, or be ruled by idiots.”

    Yours, as always:
    Christine Mungai
    Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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