Monday, June 06, 2016

A look at some of the ways George Orwell’s ‘1984’ has come true

A look at some of the ways George Orwell’s ‘1984’ has come true

Actually, most of it was already true in 1948, when it was written.

George Orwell was dying in the bleak and desolate countryside when he wrote 1984. Cut off from the literal warmth of nature and the figurative warmth of humanity, in great physical agony, Orwell poured all of his pain into one of the most depressing works of literature ever composed. He took all the worst elements of human society, all the most corrupt and soul-destroying elements of government, and all the darkest angels of our nature, and whipped them into his famous dystopia.

Most of his world was based on Soviet Russia, of course. Stalin's habit of changing the past to suit himself and his ideology, coupled with the complete disappearance of Stalin's former colleagues from state photographs, formed the basis of Winston Smith's job at the ministry of information. My ex-girlfriend is Russian, and I have often mentioned to her that studying history in the USSR is the only time when it was really fun to be a historian, because if the facts didn't conform to your hypothesis or ideology, there was no need to change your opinion. If you were high enough in the Party, you could just change the past instead.

Stalin's control of the borders and literature, his employment of children to spy on their ideologically impure parents, and his complete state control of the media, formed additional elements of the world of 1984. Also derived from observations of Russia are the universal unsmiling, humorless, ash-gray look of the people, and the ubiquitous outdated technology.

Stalin, however, was never strong on salesmanship and psychology. Rather than convincing people of his positions, he preferred killing them if they disagreed. But they were never really persuaded. They just learned to shut up. Russians didn't have a completely accurate picture of the world because the state controlled their information, but they have been a cynical and intellectual people throughout their cultural history, and have always been distrustful of their leadership. Their artists and writers had the same problems before Communism. Let's face it, they got the gist of what was going on in their country. Pretty much every educated Russian knew that the whole system was bullshit; they just couldn't do anything about it. Rather than a Russia-like country where jaded people secretly laugh at their government, Orwell wanted a more sinister, insidious state presence for his future world. He wanted a society where the populace actually believed the official state bullshit. He had to turn, therefore, to the recently defeated empire of Nazi Germany to provide the spirit of his propaganda machine. The contribution of Nazi Germany to the Orwell vision was that Goebbels actually got people to believe his lies through a systematic program starting with children's education and moving into patriotic public rallies, always keeping the people inspired to fight against real or imaginary threats, always allowing people to blame internal and external bugbears for the fact that conditions were not better.

England, too, contributed its share to Orwell's vision. The politicians of a free society practice their own form of mind control, what we would call "spin" today, but what we have always known as hypocrisy. For the twenty years after WW1, England educated its people that Russia was the enemy. For a brief period in the first half of the 40s, the spin doctors in the U.K. (and the USA) got to work and said, "No, Russia is not the enemy. They are our beloved allies and friends. Germany is the enemy." When the war was over, within just a few months, the spin doctors were saying, "No, Russia is our enemy. They have always been our enemy". Looking back from a half-century later, you may think that the need to fight Germany was obvious, but America and England were filled with a highly sizeable minority who believed that Nazi Germany was our best defense against the spread of Communism. The enemy of our enemy was our friend. To get people "thinking right", spin doctors worked full time then, as they do now.

Churchill, the great hero of the 20th century, was about the only man on the planet who saw through the spin. He had no love for Stalin, but when the USSR went to war with Germany in 1941, Churchill was proud to offer Russia assistance. When criticized by opposition party members for supporting a monster like Stalin, Churchill expressed the idea as clearly and accurately as any politician has ever expressed any thought: "If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons." It was Churchill's ability to see through the spin that inspired Orwell to name his freethinking 1984 hero Winston Smith.

Orwell took the worst elements of all those societies and spun his tale, adding an element of futuristic technology that was a Stalinist wet dream, a sort of interactive two-way television set that seemed to be everywhere. The overall presence of the state was called Big Brother, and BB watched everyone through the TV sets, at the same time that he was spewing out his propaganda and false news. (We have since learned that Russia was once getting very close to this condition. The Russians revealed a few years ago that they have tapes of almost every word that Lee Harvey Oswald spoke in his houses while he lived there. Can you imagine the size of their information archives, which were assembled before digitization?)

When 1984 actually came around, many people thought that Orwell had not only missed the boat, but perhaps couldn't even have found the ocean. The world seemed to be liberalizing and democratizing. The Evil Empire was collapsing. Stalin had been stripped from Russia's pantheon and his methods were recognized as monstrous even within the borders of the Soviet Union. The world economy was starting to boom at the beginning of Reagan's second term. The quality of life seemed to be improving. Nothing seemed to be happening as Orwell foresaw it. The brighter angels of our nature seemed to have a chance to triumph over darkness after all.

In the year 1984, the book and films named "1984" seemed to be about the distant past, not the present or future. They seemed to take place in 1948, the time that Orwell wrote it, not in 1984. Orwell's thought process seemed paranoid and quaint when his magic year finally arrived.

It seems a lot less quaint today.

Mark Twain is supposed to have said (but did not), "When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years." We might say something similar of Orwell. In 1984 he seemed like a hopeless maroon. He seems to have learned a lot since then.

In the past three decades, the human race has taken some steps backwards in some ways. The current regime in North Korea is the best example. It seems to be almost identical to the world of Orwell, controlling the borders, controlling the information flow, keeping the populace cowed with false war fears, militaristic to the nth degree, with smiling posters of Big Brother and the thought police everywhere.

Some people see elements of Big Brotherhood in the existing trends in the United States as well. Fears have grown that the government is developing an ever more intrusive network to spy on its citizens, while justifying the curtailment of rights in the name of security, meanwhile whipping the populace into a war frenzy in ways somewhat similar to those pictured in 1984, using a permanent state of war (the ongoing war on terrorism) as a justification to treat prisoners as "enemy combatants" and thus deprive them of the rights they would have as "criminals".

Of course, the United States is a long way from Orwellian, isn't it? For one thing, I am free to type these words. We have the First Amendment, a free press, and an opposing party to provide at least some ongoing checks and balances against the abuse of power. I am free to vote for the opposition next time. Life in a democracy, after all, is about cycles.

But there have been recent times when Orwell seems to be speaking to us again.

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