With my blog and social media I try to avoid straying too far into the political arena. That’s not what this outlet is for. However, sometimes it becomes necessary to make a statement. Maybe you are avoiding such topics right now, or maybe you’re wary about being lectured at, but I wanted to share some of my thoughts and I hope that you will take them at face value and find some value in them yourself.
George Orwell was born Eric Blair, the son of a British Civil Servant. He was raised in Britain and schooled at Eton. He joined the India Imperial Police Force in 1922 where he served in Burma for five years. He married in 1936 and later that year he and his wife, Eileen, moved to Spain where he joined the militia fighting Franco in the Spanish Civil War. At the beginning of the Second World War Eileen joined the Censorship Department at the British Ministry of War, where she continued to work until 1942. As a skilled and sought after writer, Orwell contributed to the British Propaganda machine. He wrote essays and journalistic pieces and for a time worked for the BBC as a producer. Orwell, throughout his career, dealt in the business of politics and society to the extent that he has been both acclaimed and decried: In Spain he was indicted as a traitor, he earned the esteem of his peers and his government and his books have been banned in various countries as revolutionary. However, what I find most striking is the continued relevance of his work.
George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty Four soon after the end of the Second World War. For those that have to yet to discover the novel, it is dystopian satire of a highly developed totalitarian society. The main character of the novel is Winston Smith, who is a low-ranking member of the ruling party of his society of Oceania. The Party monitors everything, even thoughts, to ensure absolute obedience and compliance with society’s laws. It is the ultimate nanny state lead by the figurehead, Big Brother.
Winston works in the Ministry of Truth where he alters historical facts to fit whatever truth The Party imposes. Oceania is always allied with one of the two other continental societies (Eurasia or Eastasia) and at war with the other. This changes from time to time and history is altered to suit the current reality. Winston is troubled by this enforcement of a fake truth and by the Party’s attempts to even alter language to Newspeak.
Ostensibly the novel concerns Winston’s rebellion against the Party and Big Brother, his affair with a co-worker called Julia and ultimately what happens to them and their relationship. However the political and sociological themes are undeniable: This is not a romance or a dystopian teen-angst novel. Nineteen Eighty Four is herald. It is a warning against the dangers of totalitarianism and the fragility of privacy, self-determination and self-expression. It’s incredible and also troubling how relevant those themes are in modern society.
In 1944, before the end of the Second World War, Orwell wrote a letter to Noel Willmett who asked “whether totalitarianism, leader-worship etc. are really on the up-grade” given “that they are not apparently growing in [England] and the USA”. In response Orwell wrote:
“Hitler, no doubt, will soon disappear, but only at the expense of strengthening (a) Stalin, (b) the Anglo-American millionaires and (c) all sorts of petty fuhrers of the type of de Gaulle. All the national movements everywhere, even those that originate in resistance to German domination, seem to take non-democratic forms, to group themselves round some superhuman fuhrer (Hitler, Stalin, Salazar, Franco, Gandhi, De Valera are all varying examples) and to adopt the theory that the end justifies the means. Everywhere the world movement seems to be in the direction of centralised economies which can be made to ‘work’ in an economic sense but which are not democratically organised and which tend to establish a caste system. With this go the horrors of emotional nationalism and a tendency to disbelieve in the existence of objective truth because all the facts have to fit in with the words and prophecies of some infallible fuhrer. Already history has in a sense ceased to exist, ie. there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences are endangered as soon as military necessity ceases to keep people up to the mark. Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives that will become official history.”
He went on to write:
“As to the comparative immunity of Britain and the USA. Whatever the pacifists etc. may say, we have not gone totalitarian yet and this is a very hopeful symptom. I believe very deeply, as I explained in my book The Lion and the Unicorn, in the English people and in their capacity to centralise their economy without destroying freedom in doing so. But one must remember that Britain and the USA haven’t been really tried, they haven’t known defeat or severe suffering, and there are some bad symptoms to balance the good ones. To begin with there is the general indifference to the decay of democracy. Do you realise, for instance, that no one in England under 26 now has a vote and that so far as one can see the great mass of people of that age don’t give a damn for this? Secondly there is the fact that the intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. On the whole the English intelligentsia have opposed Hitler, but only at the price of accepting Stalin. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side.”
Without doubt reading these extracts I can see the embryo of Nineteen Eighty Four, most likely born out of deep-rooted concerns that Orwell had developed while Eileen was working in the Censorship Department and while Orwell himself was helping to disseminate propaganda to the British public. He knew first hand how easy it was to manipulate public opinion and, indeed manipulate fact itself.
Most of the time Nineteen Eighty Four is referenced alongside arguments for privacy and against the surveillance state. That has always troubled me because I felt that the novel highlighted issues far greater than CCTV, internet cookies or government surveillance. These things, properly used, properly governed and legislated, properly authorised and monitored in their deployment (who watches the watchers?) and not entirely a bad thing. Enter “alt-facts”. Enter the Thought Police. These things are truly dangerous.
Make no mistake, Nineteen Eighty Four was written almost seven decades ago but it is a dire warning to you and me right now, today. Every day the Trump administration, and many other individuals, organisations and governments around the world, re-write history with “alternative facts”. Every day they are trying to convince you and me that Islam is the enemy, that Terrorists from the Middle East are coming to your homes and your supermarkets and your schools to rain down death and destruction while the truth is that gun violence, bigotry and intolerance and white supremacy has cost more lives on American soil than any Islamic Fundamentalist attack since 9/11. On the flip side ISIS and their associated groups convince their followers that the west is the danger, that we are coming to their homes to enslave them with our customs and remove their rights to observe their faith. Both views are true. Both views are lies.
We are all being manipulated. We are deliberately being made fearful for the purposes of others. Next week, if it suits them they will tell a different lie. Meanwhile people become afraid to speak out: I have British friends in the USA right now who have been living there for several years. One of them is due to apply for a Green Card having been unable to work. That person is afraid to say anything against the US Government in fear that they will be refused. Trump has already threatened to punish organisations that oppose him, how long will it be until journalists or peaceful protesters end up in jail as they have done in North Korea, Egypt and Russia?
If Orwell had possessed a crystal ball he might as well have called his novel Two Thousand Seventeen.
So what can you do? What can I do? What can anyone do?
Orwell had no solution, but reading Nineteen Eighty Four is a good place to start. Everyone will have to find their own way through this mess we call society and politics. Here’s my personal advice:
Don’t argue with those than can’t be convinced, don’t rail against that which can’t be changed, but remain vigilant and educated. Do what you can to remain true to your own values whether that’s going out on the street with a banner or donating to organisations that stand up for those values under threat. When faced with a so-called fact, from either side, question it, research it, learn your own truth and pass that along to those that will listen. If you’re an author, write. Write with passion, write furiously, write honestly. Hopefully none of us will be writing the next Nineteen Eighty Four for some future generation but there is power in thought and there is nothing more able to provoke it than art, poetry, film and prose. And know, like Orwell knew, that “Hitler, no doubt, will soon disappear”. Our job as the current generation is to protect against the rise of something just as insidious.
I hope that you enjoyed this post and that you found it helpful, if only in recommending Nineteen Eighty Four as a thought-provoking read. Normal service will resume next week.