"He Only Got The Year Wrong" - But Did He?
Nineteen Eighty-Four, people tend to forget, was a joke. Eric Blair, or George Orwell as he's more famously known, was only kidding when he wrote it because, just like all great political commentators, he was above all else a satirist. With his so-called parable of the future he was exaggerating the developing tendancies of the totalitarian Governments (not just the Communist ones I should stress) of the 1940's and taking them to their bizarrest, fullest extreme. So were it possible for us to meet the author himself, those of us who treat the story with not merely admiration but reverance would probably be met with polite frowns and shakes of the head. He would benignly remind us not to take it quite as seriously as that.
But this isn't to say that he'd instruct us not to take it seriously at all. As with all good satire, behind the mockery there is a very true, very serious dimension. The hidden, and not-so-hidden, warnings are very real and very disturbing. All the more so that they were meant as a satire as there's nothing more hideous than something that is obviously ridiculous and yet all too capable of coming true. Ronald Reagan becoming President of the United States was an example of that, as indeed is the current incumbent at the White House, and all the newspaper cartoons mocking them day in, day out also have an underlying warning that is equally disturbing and serious. If you're given to wonder why Orwell didn't just tell us straight what he was so afraid of, remember that mockery is what underlines a serious point most pertinently.
And have no doubt, the society of Oceania is as deserving of mockery as it is of terror. It is a truly preposterous social and political order where the entire purpose of being is not power, as O'Brien claimed, but imprisonment. Imprisonment of everyone, as surely that is what happens to everyone, and I do mean everyone. The proles are imprisoned by grotesque poverty, the Outer Party are imprisoned by the Inner Party, and the Inner Party are imprisoned by their own lust for power. It's not just an old cliche, I'm serious when I say it, the Inner Party have imprisoned everyone, even themselves. For as O'Brien says, the Inner Party are interested in power entirely for its own sake. They are not interested in using it to gain justice or happiness or even self-enrichment. Not even the exercise of power matters to them especially, it is simply the possession of power in itself that is important, and to such an extent that they will happily sacrifice absolutely anything to retain it. Not only will they sacrifice every prole or Outer Party member they have to in order to keep what's theirs, they have even sacrificed their own freedom. This must be true for they monitor evey slightest movement of every single Outer Party member for every hour of every day of their lives. In order to accomplish this they must surely dedicate every hour of every day of their own lives to watching and surveying everyone. Therefore they pursue a mad, jealous quest to retain and defend their authority, a quest that is so total and so consuming that they never have any time or freedom to enjoy the fruits of their power, or even to lead relatively full lives. Sure, they get to eat more and better food than those beneath them, and yes, they live in nicer accommodation, but they don't get any time to appreciate the perks fully.
So ludicrously, we have an entire population that imprisons itself from top to bottom. A truly insane society, even a laughable one, and that's what makes it so terrifying, for anything ludicrous that can also come true will always be dangerous if it ever does. The question is, how is one to interpret the vision of this society in relation to the real world? Which is to say, how do Orwell's predictions shape up in comparison to the times he warned us about? Did it, in short, actually happen? Well, these days a lot of people sneer that he obviously didn't know what he was talking about as the society he foresaw, on the face of it, hasn't remotely come to pass even some twenty years after the time he suggested. There aren't three massive political super-blocs controlling every inch of land on the planet, there's no single party state ruled over in the name of some mythical 'Big Brother' figurehead, master of all he surveys. The world has instead remained far more pluralist and diverse. Therefore Nineteen Eighty-Four was clearly just a collection of the usual ramblings of some paranoid from the loony left who could never tell when he should shut up about his romantic fantasies of a fair and just society, or his endless prophecies of doom about the opposite direction in which he so earnestly believed we were heading.
But others are a lot cannier and make clear their belief that he got very little wrong at all. Just because it didn't come true quite as soon as he was expecting doesn't mean the prediction is negated outright. It's not as if on the Seventh Day God did say unto the people of Earth, "After my son's one thousand nine hundred and eighty-fourth birthday, it shall not be possible for this Earth to be ruled by a totalitarian if it is not already." A dictatorship could start up anywhere, any time, and in any number of different forms. So if Orwell got the year wrong, say the novel's supporters, well he was unlikely to be very precise anyway as fortune telling is not a very exact science, but the point is that it may only be the year that he got wrong.
But did he even get that wrong? I look at the world we are in now and I compare it to the state of Oceania and I find myself increasingly veering toward the idea that the differences are far more superficial than we've reassured ourselves.
When reading O'Brien's speech, "If you want a picture of the future... imagine a boot stamping on a human face - forever", I'm reminded of George W. Bush's uninspired and overly-definitive rhetoric before the current War On Terrorism. Bush told the nations of the world, "Either you're with us or you're against us." It's stupid, narrow-minded, belligerent, threatening and dishonest, and this in fact demonstrates that his mentality matches that of the Inner Party of Oceania.
Furthermore, the Inner Party have mentally conditioned everyone, including themselves, to believe their own lies and to forget that a lie was ever told in the first place. That is the very essence of the tedious spin doctoring that dominates modern politics. Politicians tell lies all the time, but they tell them with such sincerity that they almost start to believe them themselves (although at least in the real world most of the public still don't... usually). The Inner Party believe with a patriotic fervour that they will win a war that they've artificially engineered to be impossible for anyone to win. This is parallelled in reality by the War On Terrorism; how can it ever be won when, by nature, the enemy is undefined and can develop and spread in any way? And there's no doubt that prominent motivations for that war and for the war in Nineteen Eighty-Four are identical. They both serve to give a disgruntled population an external enemy to unite against and take their boiling frustrations out on.
History and its persistent, rolling elimination by the Party is probably the most disturbing and tearful horror of Oceania. The destruction of history is the destruction of the entire basis of culture, as well as the severing of the links between people and what makes them who they are. Everyone at some point in their lives will self-analyse, try to assess who they are, why they are that way, and what shaped and molded them into that unique identity. History, personal and collective, is what teaches us so much of that, and yet that is the very thing that the Party destroys and rewrites time and again, so often that nobody can ever be sure what the original truth ever was.
Is that really very remote from any country in history? Even today? After all, when was the USA ever honest about its own history? For example, take the War of Independence. It makes me hoot with laughter every July 4th when I hear Americans proudly trumpeting their ancestors' righteous war for freedom against the oppressive Royal Government of Great Britain. An absurd claim, chiefly because the American War of Independence was no more about freedom or democracy than the English Civil Wars were. It was about money, and the desire of a small proportion of rich colonials to hang onto it. Almost as many Americans fought for the crown in that war as fought against it, the rebel factions fought the war with sickening dishonourable methods, and final independence wouldn't even have happened were it not for French intervention. Even after victory it was decades before America could even tenuously be considered a democratic or just country (it was certainly no more a representatively-governed country than the one it had broken off from, which was arguably the country that had invented the idea in the first place), and it took the USA fully sixty years longer than the UK to, for instance, abolish slavery. How can any land that endorses mass slavery possibly pontificate in the name of freedom and "inalienable human rights"?
But incredibly, none of these facts seem to be common knowledge in the United States of America. Many people there seem unshakably convinced that practically the entire colonial population supported the idea of independence, that it was achieved entirely by the colonials without any external interference, that only the Loyalist British forces violated the rules of war, and that from the moment the British surrendered at Georgetown the USA became a free and democratic country. The thing is, you'll certainly never find an American politician correcting anybody propogating these myths (in fact most references they make to them will likely reinforce them), and very few history books written in America try very hard to set the record straight either. And of those that do, most seem suspiciously hard to find copies of.
The sad truth is that even America has always rewritten its history to suit its immediate needs and to make its people think more highly of it, and it's shocking how much of the present its Government tries to hide as well. Witness the passing in late 2001 of the Patriot Act, which theoretically allows the Government to arrest without trial anybody criticising the nation's overall policy of war against presumed terrorist countries in the Middle East, or the passing of the anti-terrorism laws in the UK that allow anyone even suspected of terrorist activity to be imprisoned (also without trial). And with the UK basically in America's pocket politically (just as Airstrip One was merely the easternmost appendage of Oceania), the political situation in the Western world mirrors Nineteen Eighty-Four rather more closely than we might like to tell ourselves, certainly far more so than can make us comfortable.
And it's not just the erosion of history. There's the erosion of language as well. It's not as deliberate perhaps, and it hasn't been initiated by the same forces or for quite the same reasons, but it's been at least as insidious in the real world as it is in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Every year words are phased out of general use in the English language to be replaced by ugly, garbled, rambling, mish-mash phrasiology that's overflowing with consonants and syllables. Subtle shades of meaning become harder to express as we find ourselves having to substitute words of similarity for others that are associated by fashion with offensiveness. We can no longer say 'black', so we've had to redirect the words 'dusky', 'ebony' and 'coloured' from their own unique meanings to make them cover this other meaning that they never truly had. The same phenomenon means we can no longer say 'Paki' and we must be cautious in using the word 'gay', even though they both mean merely 'happy'. We can, it seems, no longer speak our language at its fullest and most beautiful. The reflex people have to avoid using the forbidden words is such that all they can think about is the avoidance itself. They can never think enough about the topic they're actually trying to discuss. Suppression of constructive thought, you might say. It's mind control.
As English dies in our world, so the dialect in Oceania is becoming ever more eroded and compressed. It's a more rigid and deliberate business for certain. Words are being syphoned out as different shades of meaning are dismissed as unnecessary and even dangerous. Sometimes all the words for a particular group of similar meanings are removed to be replaced with a single, brand new word to cover the whole lot. These words are simple, require no thought or concentration to pronounce, and are ugly and guttural in shape. They are uninspiring in every sense and therefore reduce the impulse to think about them even as they are uttered. Suppression of constructive thought, you might say. It's mind control.
Again the only real difference between the two phenomena lies in the names. In Oceania they call it Newspeak. Here, we call it political correctness. In any important sense there's no difference at all.
The parallels don't stop there, for we live in an age of digital technology. It cannot be denied that technology gives us far more comfortable lives than the citizens of Oceania would ever know - Harold McMillan was absolutely right when he said that we've never had it so good, you know - but that technology has a very down side. Is Big Brother really watching us? You betcha. There are satellites orbiting the Earth right now that have cameras that can clearly read the print on a newspaper some one hundred miles below. So you can imagine how easily they can identify you. And if you're thinking of drawing the curtains against them, don't bother. The entirety of the Earth's atmosphere doesn't block anything, and even solid objects do very little to resist the lasers and x-ray mechanisms that these devices possess. There is literally nowhere to hide.
Now you can sneer if you like, "Hah! So what if they can see me? It doesn't mean they actually want to. I mean why would they watch me, what have I done?" Well, that's the point. They want to know what you've done and what you might do. Nothing personal, they want that from everyone, but in the end you just don't know if they're watching you, when they'd be watching you, or why. The only thing you know is that, whoever they are, they can see practically anything you do at practically any time they choose.
In short, while the world depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four was a wild exaggeration of the era that it was written in, it is nothing more absurd than a distortion of the era that it was written about. And this is still that era, as the world hasn't changed all that much in the twenty years since. Oh sure, the lines on the map of Eastern Europe have moved around slightly, and Islamic Fundamentalism has supplanted Communism as the great bogeyman that Western leaders use to frighten their followers into continuing to support them, but these are just nomenclatures. So much else has happened in much the manner that Orwell foresaw, only with a few different arrangements and names. It's fair to say that the world we live in isn't quite as awful as that one (although many parts of it are actually even worse), but does it really need to be precisely that bad in order to make the broad meaning of the story correct? I think not.
So it seems that both the large bodies of opinion were wrong. Orwell did know exactly what he was talking about. And he didn't even get the year wrong.