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Newspeak In The Language Of Politics In The Post-totalitarian Era: The Case Of Bulgaria

By       Message Rossen Vassilev       (Page 1 of 9 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   2 comments

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This article will deal with the totalitarian legacies in the language of politics in Bulgaria, an ex-Communist country that has now become an integral part of the community of free and democratic nations after formally joining NATO in 2004 and the European Union (EU) in 2007. It will focus on the nature of the political language that has been in use ever since the November 10, 1989 palace coup toppled Bulgaria's long-time Communist leader Todor Zhivkov and set this country on the rocky road to democracy and capitalism. The qualitative analysis used below will explore in particular how the new Bulgaria's language of politics looks and behaves in the more open and democratic public discourse of the post-Communist era. The analysis will show, among other things, that the new, more open and democratic political discourse that was to have replaced what John Wesley Young has labeled as the "totalitarian language" of Communism--in his words, an "antecedent" of the "Newspeak" of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1)--is yet to overcome its communist totalitarian past.[tag]

From Bulgaria-0743 - Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum
Bulgaria-0743 - Plovdiv Regional Ethnographic Museum
(Image by archer10 (Dennis))
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"Totalitarian language," as defined in Blaga Dimitrova's work, relates to the official "language" of the Communist state and is characterized by "semantic atrophy" (2) and "deformities of speech." (3) In it, "Changes in linguistic expression take place somewhere in the back of our minds. We are not aware of them in everyday usage..." (4), even as this practice "has dragged us into the old trap of cruel obscurantism." (5) As a result, "A language within a language is created. This tendency to deform the meaning and sound of the word is typical of the totalitarian regimes." (6) As George Orwell saw it, "Totalitarianism demands, in fact, the continuous alteration of the past"" (7), as well as ""the falsification of reality." (8) In his opinion, "it is at this point that the special connection between politics and the debasement of language becomes clear." (9) Orwell also warned that "To be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country." (10) As legendary American journalist I. F. Stone often reminded his readers: "All governments are run by liars and nothing they say should be believed."

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Using content analysis, this study examines the presence of totalitarian vestiges such as the use of propaganda to mislead the public and conceal the ugly truth, the resort to duplicitous and euphemistic phraseology, the corruption of words, the reliance on internalized linguistic stereotypes, and other abuses of language as defined by Orwell (11), Dimitrova (12), Young (13), and others, which can still be found in the published speeches, political writings, public lectures, interviews, TV and radio broadcasts, and other political pronouncements of Bulgarian politicians.

Socioeconomic and political background

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Bulgaria has fared very poorly in its transition to Western-style democracy and market-based capitalism. By nearly every macroeconomic indicator, the country is in a much worse shape now than in the Communist past. Official statistics show that both the annual gross national product (GNP) and the per capita income of the population have plummeted, the social-safety net has largely disintegrated, and even the physical survival of many impoverished Bulgarians may be in peril. The side effects of market-oriented reforms have included economic stagnation, unemployment, inflation, outrageous inequality of incomes, widespread poverty, and even malnutrition. Organized crime and endemic corruption in the form of nepotism and cronyism, graft on the job, embezzlement, bribe taking, influence peddling, smuggling, and protection rackets have also exacted a heavy toll on post-Communist living standards and livelihoods. Another unfortunate effect is the widespread neglect of the economic and social rights of ordinary Bulgarians, which has lessened the value of the newly-acquired political and civil liberties. (14)

The disastrous economic environment has in turn generated a rather volatile and unpredictable political climate. No cabinet government elected during the turbulent post-Communist period has survived in office for more than one term (and often even less than that). Elections have frequently brought to power newly-founded and largely untested political parties, movements or coalitions, some of which have all but disappeared from the political scene once they were thrown out of office. Thus, in a blow to the formerly dominant parties, especially the ruling Socialists (ex-Communists), the newly-created Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (Grazhdani za evropeisko razvitie na Bulgaria or GERB) won a resounding victory in the latest parliamentary election of July 5, 2009 and formed a single-party government under its authoritarian party boss, ex-national police chief Boyko Borisov. The right-wing GERB's electoral success again illustrates the unstable and unpredictable nature of politics in Bulgaria due to the catastrophic economic situation and the glaring inability of the existing parties to offer a credible solution to it. Fed up with pervasive government corruption, rampant crime, sharp economic decline, and widespread poverty, many Bulgarians have greeted the self-styled "tough law-and-order guy" Boyko Borisov as the latest savior on a white horse who has come to rescue their crisis-ridden country from what they see as the stranglehold on power by incompetent, self-serving, corrupt, and criminalized cliques of party politicians pursuing personal gain. Still more surprisingly, Borisov, the current Mussolini-like Prime Minister, rose to power even after the public's bitter disappointments with previous failed messiahs, such as former King Simeon II who served as Bulgaria's deeply unpopular prime minister from 2001 to 2005.

At the same time, politics has become by far the most profitable business in post-Communist Bulgaria--more profitable and also much less risky than any profit-making business activity. This has transformed the political parties into something akin to shark-like business corporations--well-organized coteries of unprincipled and predatory rent-seekers aspiring to take over the reigns of power in order to enrich themselves by exploiting the largely apathetic, cattle-like populace and plundering Bulgaria's resources (15), especially now that the country can count on receiving substantial amounts of foreign investment and aid, especially from the EU. (16) Powerful economic interests of both legitimate and criminal origins have lined up behind and financed each of the major political parties, adding strongly plutocratic elements to what is essentially a kleptocratic and mafia-like oligarchy. (17) Not surprisingly, Bulgarians today tend to refer to their own country as a "banana republic," a "circus," and "Absurd-istan."(18) The creeping criminalization of the political "elite" (to use here the favorite self-designation of its own highly-privileged members) has now gone a step further with the election of Prime Minister Borisov, whose controversial, albeit carefully hidden past as a loyal Communist Party member, a Communist state-security officer (with the rank of major) personally involved in Zhivkov's campaign of linguistic and cultural assimilation of Bulgarian Turks, and the politically savvy "godfather" of the powerful post-Communist mafia, is revealed in a popular recent book written by Bulgaria's most famous investigative journalist. (19)

Such persistent economic and political instability has impaired the political elite's ability to sustain public confidence in its own credibility, integrity, legitimacy and capacity to rule, thus greatly complicating the task of governing in an efficient, transparent, honest and democratic way. Faced with the daunting task of presiding over a cynical and deeply mistrustful nation that is politically unstable and in deep economic crisis, Bulgaria's party elites--both ex-Communist and non-Communist alike--have all too often reverted to using the rhetoric of the totalitarian past based on propaganda, demagoguery, indoctrination, and the manipulation of public opinion. What this article will show is that such vestiges of totalitarian mentality and culture persist to an amazing degree in the political language not only of the former Bulgarian Communists (now conveniently renamed Socialists), but also of the non-Communist parties and especially the anti-Communist politicians.

Orwell often complained about the political corruption of language and the deformities of speech that such corruption can generate: "In our age there is no such thing as 'keeping out of politics.' All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer". But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can be spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should know and do know better." (20) While the outward linguistic verbiage and perhaps even the substance of public discourse may have changed dramatically in post-Communist Bulgaria, deeply ingrained authoritarian and undemocratic attitudes, dispositions, and habits of thought seem much harder to die, thus feeding directly into the topsy-turvy propagandistic phraseology still present in today's politics. For, as we shall see below, politicians today still view public opinion as something to deceive and manipulate, if they bother to take it into consideration at all.

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Language of propaganda

"Totalitarian language" is, above all, the language of political propaganda, employing words deceitfully and perverting their meanings in order to distort reality, manipulate people's minds, and deprive ordinary citizens of their ability to think for themselves. Its rhetorical propensity is always to overstate the regime's merits and achievements and to understate its shortcomings and failures in order to hold fast its grip on the population. Former Bulgarian Vice-President (1992-1993) and anti-Communist author Blaga Dimitrova denounced the shameless manipulation of language in the totalitarian era, when "one thing is said but something else is understood implicitly." (21) For instance, when the Communist authorities praised to the skies their "successful collectivization" of Bulgarian agriculture which converted privately-owned land into "collective-labor agricultural farms" (TKZS), what they actually meant was the government's forcible expropriation of private landholdings and turning them into large state-owned farms (rather than the much-lauded "cooperative farms"). When the ruling Communists boasted about the supposed "equality" of all citizens ("uravnivilovka"), what they actually meant is that all Bulgarians were more or less equal among themselves--except for the nomenklatura cadres who were, of course, "more equal than the others" (to use Orwell's apt sarcastic phrase in Animal Farm). And when in the summer of 1989 over 300,000 Bulgarian Turks departed for neighboring Turkey to escape Zhivkov's policy of forced linguistic and cultural assimilation (euphemistically labeled as "vuzroditelen protzes" or "the national revival process"), the ever resourceful propaganda machine declared them all to be "tourists" going on vacation abroad (euphemistically, if not entirely sarcastically, referred to as the "Big Excursion"). (22) These are all unmistakable instances of what Orwell calls "reality control" or "doublethink" (23), and what Dimitrova refers to as utilizing "language as a substitute for reality" where people, "not without their participation, were pushed into a verbal reality, which had nothing in common with reality." (24)

But similar cynical ambiguity, equivocation, and double meaning continue to plague official language usage even today, when endemic political corruption, grave economic setbacks, and widespread popular frustration with the hardships and deprivations of the seemingly endless transition are threatening to undermine the prestige of the new authorities and even the population's belief in Western-style democracy and market-based capitalism. For example, when top public officials extol the "modernization" and "democratization" of Bulgaria's failing health-care system, what they actually mean is that Bulgarians now have to pay out of their own pockets for all previously free, government-provided medical services (25), even though they also have to pay income, real-estate, and sales or VAT taxes--something they did not do under the previous totalitarian regime. And when politicians boast of the "democratization," "modernization," and "Europeanization" of the country's deteriorating education system, what they actually mean is the monetization and/or privatization of the previously free educational services, especially in higher education and the new private schools, colleges, and universities where students have to pay for their training, including many fees that each student must pay for taking entrance exams and other mandatory tests required at every level of schooling. And the wholesale (and economically disastrous) liquidation of all "cooperative" farms, the TKZS, in 1991-1992 by Filip Dimitrov's short-lived center-right government was presented to the public as no more than the legal "restitution" of farmland to its pre-Communist owners. When explaining why more than a million Bulgarians, mostly young people, have voted with their feet by seeking greener pastures abroad (mass emigration has helped reduce post-Communist Bulgaria's population from close to 9 million in 1989 to around 7 million today) (26), the authorities demagogically blame it all on the newly-acquired personal rights and liberties, especially the new freedom of movement. Complaining about the current GERB government's moves to increase fees and taxes, cut salaries and pensions, raise the age of retirement, and even possibly eliminate the 5-year difference between the retirement age of men and women, the left-nationalist magazine Nova Zora complained: "And all such outrageous steps are disguised by using fanfare words like 'reforms,' 'combating corruption,' 'health-care improvements,' "modernization," and so on and so forth." (27)

Today's politicians still resort occasionally to what Dimitrova decries as the deception and "blatant lies" of the totalitarian past (28) which were employed by the Communist regime to manipulate public opinion on politically sensitive issues. In the old days, for example, official propaganda used transparent euphemisms like "fraternal assistance" and "selfless internationalist help" to explain the Soviet-led invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. The government-controlled mass media tried to justify Bulgaria's participation in this joint military operation of the Warsaw Pact armies by accusing Czechoslovakia's reformist Communist leader, Alexander Dubcek, of harboring plans to pull his country out of the "socialist camp," join NATO, and even have U.S. military bases and nuclear weapons deployed on Czechoslovak territory, thereby threatening the unity and security of the "community of socialist nations," including Bulgaria. When Communist Bulgaria's main ally and patron, the Soviet Union, invaded and occupied Afghanistan in December 1979, the Bulgarian mass media defended this act of aggression as "selfless brotherly assistance" provided to the "fraternal" Afghan government, army, and people to defeat the "dark forces" of "religious extremism," "terrorism," and "imperialist aggression" which were supposedly trying to undermine and overthrow all "progressive" and "anti-imperialist" regimes around the world. Dimitrova aptly warned about such propagandistic misuse of pathos: "Pathos is an infallible litmus test of totalitarianism." (29)

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Rossen V. Vassilev was a Bulgarian diplomat to the United Nations Headquarters in New York City in 1980-1988. He received a Ph.D. in political science from the Ohio State University in Columbus, OH, in 2000. Dr. Vassilev has been teaching various (more...)

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