I just bumped into this excellent post “Winston Smith of 1984 Still Relevant” and decided to share it with the few souls that manage to find my blog. It is truly worth reading, particularly if you haven’t yet read ‘1984’. I disagree with the article author’ statement that ” the present US does not match the Orwellian dystopia exactly”; I think we are already there, except that people are starting to realize it now thanks to Snowden. That’s when reality starts to resemble fiction. The many cases of police brutality and military teams invading homes (which our mainstream media refuses to publish) on account of ‘suspicions’ of a petty crime being committed, tell us that we are already in ‘1984’.
I first read George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 in 1968, when the date he used as the title of his book still seemed far in the future. I read Orwell’s book one slow summer in the heat of central Florida. Neither we nor anyone we knew could afford air conditioning, and so I read the book outdoors in the shade of a century-old oak tree. The book affected me profoundly.
Many of the terms Orwell coined in his masterpiece such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, and memory hole, became part of our language over time. My favorite Orwellian phrase has always been “down the memory hole.” A memory hole was a garbage chute leading to an incinerator; it was used to dispose of inconvenient evidence of past events when the Party wished to erase those events from history. The Party was not a political party involved in running for office, but simply the state.
The job of the protagonist, Winston Smith, was to re-write past newspaper articles, placing the original versions in the memory hole, so that the historical record would conform to the changing official Party version of history. A small group of elites, the Inner Party, controlled the masses via near-universal surveillance (only the Inner Party members themselves could opt out of it), propaganda, and brutal violence. The nation-state ruled by the Party was always at war, had always been at war, and would forever be at war, which was the general justification for state repression.
Orwell once observed in an essay on the English language that contemporary political language was “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” In the book we find that the Party does something similar; not only does it make lies sound truthful, but it manipulates language in order to make it it impossible to think critically about the Party. The public’s vocabulary is severely limited, while words are redefined so that thinking critically about the Party becomes grammatically impossible. Suspecting the party of lies would be a contradiction in terms, as what the Party says is by definition true.
Winston Smith was a party member, but he was not one of the Inner Party. Rather, he was a member of the Outer Party, a larger group of middle-class bureaucrats. At one point he says to an Inner Party member, regarding the Party’s actions, “I understand how, but I don’t understand why.” The Inner Party member explains:
We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. … We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. How does one man assert his power over another? By making him suffer. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. In our world, there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement – a world of fear and treachery and torment. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever.
Orwell captured the essential nature of the state perfectly in this speech. Far too many people have observed the federal government’s habit of expanding its own power without asking the question Winston asks. While the present US does not match the Orwellian dystopia exactly, there are many parallels between it and our reality, and the answer to Winston’s question remains relevant.
Thanks to the whistle blowing of Edward Snowden, we now know that the US government sees no real limits on its “right” to use surveillance against the general population. It is claimed that by computerized analysis of metadata collected by the National Security Agency, one can practically read the mind of the target. Apparently the US government expects to be able to read the minds of the masses, just as the Party did with its system of surveillance.
But the massive spying by the NSA is not the only aspect of the modern US reminiscent of 1984. The TSA is not only treating the flying public like criminals, but now apparently believes that they should be involved in searching people outside of airports as well. According to a report by KTTV, the Department of Homeland Security partnered with the Los Angeles County California Sheriff’s department and TSA agents recently to conduct an exercise that was described as a “full scale terrorism drill.” The drill was reported to have been taking place nationwide, with various agencies even using undercover agents, “looking for anything out of the ordinary.” US officials claimed that these drills were designed to make the public feel safe in light of rumors that the Boston bombers had planed a July 4th terror attack. According to Nicole Nishida of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the people will celebrate their independence from tyranny by submitting to random bag searches.
Winston Smith observed that your worst enemy in a surveillance state was your own nervous system, because at any moment, the internal tension caused by living in such a society was liable to translate itself into some visible symptom. The Party would notice this, and could use it as evidence to condemn you for thoughtcrime. Today our own state is working towards the capability to use real-time computer analysis to read thoughts, emotions, and intentions. They claim this will keep us safe from terrorists, but could very well be used to accuse any of us of “intended” crimes. Far from making them safer, the state is putting everyone at risk of being identified as an enemy of the state.
A few years ago, Wendy McElroy asked the question: does the US have police state powers now? Her answer:
Clearly it does. The American government exerts extreme control over society, down to dictating which foods you may eat. Its economic control borders on the absolute. It politicizes and presides over even the traditional bastion of privacy — the family. Camera and other surveillance of daily life has soared, with the Supreme Court recently expanding the “right” of police to perform warrantless searches. Enforcement is so draconian that the United States has more prisoners per capita than any other nation; and over the last few years, the police have been self-consciously militarizing their procedures and attitudes. Travel, formerly a right, is now a privilege granted by government agents at their whim. Several huge and tyrannical law-enforcement agencies monitor peaceful behavior rather than respond to crime. These agencies operate largely outside the restrictions of the Constitution; for example, the TSA conducts arbitrary searches in violation of Fourth Amendment guarantees.
I ran a Google search today on “US police state” and Google yielded just shy of one trillion hits. The question is not “is the USA becoming a police state” but rather the question is “why.” Why does the state continue to seize power for itself? It is not to keep you safe; your safety is the last thing on the minds of the rulers.
George Orwell answered the “why” in 1949 and the answer has not changed. It is part of human nature to want power over others, but we have known for thousands of years that power corrupts. There is no reason to expect that the state’s power will not continue to be abused, and to expand until Orwell’s dystopian vision is made manifest.
These photos not in the article.
State of siege in Boston searching for the Russian teen age ‘terrorist’. (state of siege = The surrounding and blockading of a city, town, or fortress by an army attempting to capture it.)
“Obey the orders, evacuate your home; it’s for your protection”. State of siege in Boston 2013.