Why So Serious?

A key element of state control in George Orwell’s 1984 is Newspeak. It’s not so much a language as a method for the destruction of language: Steady, purposeful reduction of vocabulary such that no words are left for the expression of concepts which call the imperatives of total state power into question. As one of its architects, Syme, puts it, “It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words.”

Lacking the power enjoyed by the Party in Orwell’s dystopia — the authority to simply strike words from acceptable usage by ukase — today’s real-world cultists of the omnipotent state are forced to settle for mutilating, through ubiquitous abuse, the concepts underlying those words.

Take, for example, the very old and useful English word “serious.”

Here’s a typical definition, from the 1913 edition of Webster’s Dictionary: “Important; weighty; not trifling; grave.”

In modern political usage, however, “serious” has come to mean “falling within an ever-narrowing set of political and social parameters deemed acceptable by the person using the word.” The edge from which the parameters narrow, of course, is the edge closest to any reduction of, or even halt to the expansion of, state power.

Propose a tax increase and you’re “serious.”

Propose keeping taxes as they are and you’re probably “serious.”

Debate whether or not to extend a set of infinitesimal tax cuts (such as US president George W. Bush’s tax “cut” package, set to expire this year, which came to a tiny fraction of 1% of the US government’s budget when it was passed, which comes to an even smaller fraction of that budget now, and which was actually not a “cut” at all but merely a deferment of collection — the money was still spent and added to the government’s debt) and you’re dancing on the edge of “seriousness.”

A substantial tax cut? “Unserious.”

Elimination of the income tax? “Manifestly unserious.”

Elimination of coercive taxation? “Fundamentally unserious.”

It seems to me that substantially cutting, or even eliminating, a tax (or taxation in general) would necessarily constitute an “important; weighty; not trifling; grave” proposal. “Serious,” however, no longer means “important; weighty; not trifling; grave.” Instead, it means “something I’m willing to consider.”

If you say anything the supporter of constantly and rapidly increasing state power doesn’t want to hear, you’re not “serious” and therefore no attention need be paid you … even if you’re generally a supporter of constantly and rapidly increasing state power yourself.

For example, if you’re US President Barack Obama and you favor responding to the possible existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program with extended and expanded international sanctions rather than with a third ongoing US military adventure in Asia, complete with a freshly stocked buffet of fat no-bid contracts for The Right Sort of People, the editors of the Wall Street Journal will deem you “unserious about Iran.”

“Serious” is a moving target, see, and it moves only in one direction. The wrong one.

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