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Thursday, November 02, 2006


Revising and suppressing George Orwell

Todd Epp was on a panel at Augustana College (the Norwegian branch in Sioux Falls) that discussed Orwell's 1984. The discussion prefaces a play version that is coming to Sioux Falls. There is a reason that Orwell and 1984 are being examined and discussed extensively throughout the United States: most of the symptoms of a society going totalitarian that Orwell portrayed in his novel have become stunningly apparent in the U.S.A. of the 21st century.

I was not at the discussion, so I have to rely on news accounts of what was said. But the Argus Leader reported that Todd said that three slogans emphasized in the novel have become the hallmarks of the Bush administration:

The first slogan, Todd said, mirrors the foreign policy of the Bush administration, and the last reflects its efforts to frustrate the press and keep the public from having any knowledge of how it operates.

The newspaper account earned Todd one of those scurrilous personal attacks which is the blog South Dakota Politics most distinquishing aspect. When some of the posters on that blog encounter something that refutes their mindset, they launch into a barrage of insult and abuse (often based upon their other characteristic device of misquotation) that asserts that their erstwhile opponent is not only bereft of reason but has some defect of mentality that makes them incapable of reason. This time Todd Epp was portrayed as having a straw brain, like the scarecrow of Oz fame. This kind of playground invective is what the blogger has in the past called witty repartee.

The poster asserts that Todd Epp's parallels are absurd: "No reasonable person could suppose that the Newspeak slogans of 1984 "fit" this or any other administration." He prefaces this comment with the charge that Todd Epp "now deems himself a professor, qualified to comment on literature."

Many blogs, such as SDP, are often the product of personality issues. Todd Epp being selected to speak on 1984 obviously piqued a sense of unique eminence and the wounded ego replied through a blog. But 1984 is what is termed a thesis novel of cultural criticism. Orwell's career included being a colonial police officer, a participant on the communist side of the Spanish Civil War, and later a propaganda analyst for the British government. He was a student of how totalitarianism became instituted, and 1984 is a fictional examination of the principles he identified. While many readers assumed that 1984 was a critique of the Soviet Union, it was a novel that dealt with how some of the techniques of repression and control used in the Soviet Union were a threat even within democratic societies.

Orwell noted that the totalitarian impulse was a constant in human society, and that democracy is in a constant struggle with it. There are certain human traits that could be manipulated into dominance through the use of the electronic media. This is a major theme in the novel, and his description of it has a startling accuracy for how the media is used today to set up and elicit conditioned responses from a large portion of the populace.

The war on Iraq has precise parallels to how war was fomented and maintained as a neverending means of keeping the population of Oceania under the control under the pretense of patriotism. People are never as cohesive as when they perceive an enemy that threatens them. Bush used the impetus from 9/11 to launch the war on Iraq, although the reasons he gave at the time--WMDs and links to Al Qaida--were proven to be totally false. But once the war was launched, his adminstration had a means to manipulate a trusting populace into seeing him as the Big Brother that was making them secure and protecting them from terrorists. Dissidents were, as is described in detail in the novel, as enemies of the state. Forty-some percent of U.S. citizens objected to the war on Iraq, but they were portrayed by the Bush administration as unpatriotic enemies of the people and traitors. Recall the ads run during the Daschle campaign that pictured him with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden because he had criticised the rush to combat and the eschewal of diplomacy in attacking Iraq. That same technique was used in the attack on Todd Epp when he was portrayed by a picture of the straw-brained scarecrow. We call this scurrilous propaganda. Totalitarian minds call it witty repartee.

It does not take a professor of literature--such as me (I have taught 1984 18 or 20 times)--or even an undergraduate English literature major such as Todd Epp to be able to read the parallels between the regime of Oceania and the regime of George Bush in waging a war as a means of retaining internal political power. He tells us that our peace is dependent on this war, hence, War is peace. The ploy worked. It got him re-elected in 2004. But now a majority of Americans see the wrongness and the self-destructive dangers of a war designed to do nothing but maintain the top leader's role of commander in chief.

This is one of the main reasons 1984 has a resurgence of interest and relevance. It fits our current situation.

Freedom is slavery reflects that argument that our insistence upon the Constitutional guarantees of freedom from illegal search and seizure, due process, and equality will make us slaves to Islamic terrorism, if we insist upon them. They impeded Big Brother's efforts to keep us safe. Therefore, we must relinquish them. This Newspeak argument is carefully laid out in the novel and it is precisely the kind of reasoning used by the Bush administration to justify its curtailments of personal privacy and due process.

And, of course, nearly every working journalist in D.C. has pointed out that the Bush adminstration has been the most secretive in our history. What the people don't know won't hurt them. But most of what the people don't know won't hurt the Bush regime. But the people are now in the know.

In writings other than 1984, Orwell gives more analytic perspectives on how totalitarianism works. I append some here. They are even more salient in defining some of the tactics of the Bush administration than 1984.

Here is a paragraph from "The Prevention of Literature:"

"In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, "I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so." "

And this:

"The organized lying practiced by totalitarian states is not, as is sometimes claimed, a temporary expedient of the same nature as military deception. It is something integral to totalitarianism, something that would still continue even if concentration camps and secret police forces had ceased to be necessary. Among intelligent Communists there is an underground legend to the effect that although the Russian government is obliged now to deal in lying propaganda, frame-up trials, and so forth, it is secretly recording the true facts and will publish them at some future time. We can, I believe, be quite certain that this is not the case, because the mentality implied by such an action is that of a liberal historian who believes that the past cannot be altered and that a correct knowledge of history is valuable as a matter of course. From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened. Then again, every major change in policy demands a corresponding change of doctrine and a revelation of prominent historical figures. This kind of thing happens everywhere, but is clearly likelier to lead to outright falsification in societies where only one opinion is permissible at any given moment. Totalitarianism however, does not so much promise an age of faith as an age of schizophrenia. A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial: that is, when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud. Such a society, no matter how long it persists, can never afford to become either tolerant or intellectually stable. It can never permit either the truthful recording of facts or the emotional sincerity that literary creation demands. But to be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country. The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for literary purposes. Wherever there is an enforced orthodoxy -- or even two orthodoxies, as often happens -- good writing stops. This was well illustrated by the Spanish civil war. To many English intellectuals the war was a deeply moving experience, but not an experience about which they could write sincerely. There were only two things that you were allowed to say, and both of them were palpable lies: as a result, the war produced acres of print but almost nothing worth reading."

And more:

"The friends of totalitarianism in this country usually tend to argue that since absolute truth is not attainable, a big lie is no worse than a little lie. It is pointed out that all historical records are biased and inaccurate, or on the other hand, that modern physics has proven that what seems to us the real world is an illusion, so that to believe in the evidence of one's senses is simply vulgar philistinism. A totalitarian society which succeeded in perpetuating itself would probably set up a schizophrenic system of thought, in which the laws of common sense held good in everyday life and in certain exact sciences, but could be disregarded by the politician, the historian, and the sociologist. Already there are countless people who would think it scandalous to falsify a scientific textbook, but would see nothing wrong in falsifying an historical fact. It is at the point where literature and politics cross that totalitarianism exerts its greatest pressure on the intellectual. The exact sciences are not, at this date, menaced to anything like the same extent. This partly accounts for the fact that in all countries it is easier for the scientists than for the writers to line up behind their respective governments."

Then, read the whole of his "Politics and the English Language."

Those who lust for totalitarian control over others will always resort to personal attacks and denigrations against those who threaten freedom for them. Wear your scarecrow mantel as a badge of honor, Mr. Epp. And keep reading and writing. That's what really scares them.

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