Today in Orwellian Nightmares

Last Sunday, Newt Gingrich said the following about Paul Ryan’s proposal to replace Medicare with defined-contribution subsidies for health insurance designed to replace a decreasing fraction of total cost from year to year:

I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate.

Gingrich then discovered that right-wing social engineering and imposing radical change from the right are what the contemporary Republican Party is all about. So he decided to back off.

Having done so, Gingrich now proclaims that “any ad that quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood, ’cause I have said publicly that those words were inaccurate and unfortunate.”


Got that? An accurate quotation is now a “falsehood,” because by retracting his remarks Gingrich has retroactively un-said them. (But did he un-say them three times while walking a circle widdershins?)

In Orwell’s realm of Oceania, purged politicians become “unpersons,” and references to them become retrospectively false. Part of Winston Smith’s job is rectifying old news accounts to remove references to unpersons; previous versions of the corrected stories are sent down the “memory hole.”

My offer is still on the table: I’ll stop calling Republicans “Orwellian” if they’ll stop using Nineteen Eighty-Four as an operations manual.

Footnote The Red punditry about Gingrich’s original comment is also instructive: it consists entirely of speculation about what the comment says about Gingrich, and how much damage it will do him politically. As far as I can tell, there has been absolutely no discussion about the merits of his original claim, in either of two respects: whether or not Ryan’s plan is actually radical right-wing social engineering, and whether or not radical right-wing social engineering is to be avoided.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

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Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.