Column by Tim Hartnett.
Exclusive to STR
In June 1949 when 1984 hit the bookstands, Joseph Stalin had nearly four years to live and was busy as ever waging war against his comrades. It was Uncle Joe’s second wind for massacre after racking up a toll of millions that had already knocked Hitler out of contention for greatest psycho of all time. Nothing on that kind of scale had ever gone on in states west of the Rhine. Whatever its faults, Oceania wasn’t anywhere near as far gone as the Soviet Empire when Orwell died in 1950. His last book would remain unknown for a long time in a bloc of countries that had been living it for a quarter century or more.
Eric Blair’s direct knowledge of political persecution was derived from his months serving the Loyalist faction of the Spanish Civil War. He narrowly escaped Spain, and Stalin’s henchmen, himself in 1937. They tried and convicted him in abstentia for various offenses that led the defendants remaining in custody to unmarked graves. He came to loathe both sides in the conflict.
By the time Winston Smith was being invented for the pages of 1984, Chekists in the USSR had been using truncheons and informants like the Thought Police for at least a quarter century. The real life Lubyanka Prison had a bloodstained Room 101 where vodka-fueled riflemen slaughtered victims with assembly line efficiency unmatched by any other Soviet industry. Communist Russia was the model all of the book’s most lurid details were drawn from.
No official body was ever threatening the future 1984 author in England where his own wife worked in war censorship. There’s no evidence he altered any views with MI-6 in mind. The only reason he wasn’t published even faster than he was in the early '40s came from the fear of offending a wartime ally. The apocalyptic novel’s futuristic Britain was a hyperbolic warning the author hoped to avert.
Sixty some years later, it would be great to have him speak about Edward Snowden. No one can say definitively that Orwell would conclude it was the public Snowden’s pursuers are interested in hiding all those revelations from. But it’s easily a much better bet than the reverse. Government secrecy and obsessive surveillance are the most pervasive plot elements in 1984. Only the most bumptious people think the big ear in America is keeping track of mom’s daily communications for some altruistic purpose.
Wherever we stand now, the gap between where we were at midcentury and psychopathic despotism has been steadily closing. Rising prison populations, police militarization, oppressive technology, government secrecy, a network of snitches and agent provocateurs, rumors of war, clandestine skullduggery, media manipulation, politicizing history to a point of fantasy and other Orwellian visions are all things impelled by forces popular will has little effect upon. Mass paranoia is promoted by the ruling class of both parties as long as the government isn’t a suspect. Under the circumstances, some have begun to wonder if Osama bin Laden wasn’t as fictional as Emmanuel Goldstein; a few of those aren’t actually crazy.
The Snowdens and the Mannings of this world bring up controversies that are more vital to any semblance of “consent of the governed” than the question of personal privacy. A ruling power that can act with complete control over public knowledge is capable of anything. It’s great that someone wrote The Declaration of Independence, The Bill of Rights and The Emancipation Proclamation, but they don’t mean much if we’re all blind. The Ten Commandments went into print long before the sacred texts of the United States, but at last check, we’re not rid of sin.
The idea that sainthood prevails behind closed doors without examination only works for people satisfied with serfdom and ready for slavery. Ignorance is not strength and handing personal power over to a polity desperately demanding it is ultimately equal to treason. Guys like Wolf Blitzer, Sean Hannity and Thomas Friedman frequently tell us about threats we’ve been secretly saved from. Seldom is there any reason to believe these reports rest on evidence any more solid than when a child repeats a tale he wants to believe. One of the unfortunate realizations of adulthood is that people with motive often will lie. If government has invented an inoculation against that self-preservation technique, they are keeping it top secret.
However we define “free,” the truth can be a big help figuring out if we are anywhere close to that condition. Which, at this point, may be a mythical one. Governmental forces are never satisfied with mere editorial say-so over what version of their exploits reaches the public. They also require medals, achievement awards, gushing public rituals, congressional lobbyists, deference in the media and at least one television show dramatizing their endless heroism for self-interested ingrates who don’t deserve it. It’s a stubborn subject of the realm who still wants details after a browbeating like that. If the forces that be have any luck, peer pressure will be applied to the miscreants before G-Men have to turn any screws.
The Party slogan, “If you see something, say something” is exactly what undid Bradley Manning. The events that transpire on that first helicopter video aren’t nearly as gory as what Winston describes in his first diary entry:
“April 4th, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one of a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean. Audience much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away with a helicopter after him, first you saw him wallowing along in the water like a porpoise, then you saw him through the helicopters gunsights, then he was full of holes and the sea round him turned pink and he sank as suddenly as though the holes had let in the water, audience shouting with laughter when he sank. Then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it. There was a middle-aged woman might have been a jewess sitting up in the bow with a little boy about three years old in her arms. Little boy screaming with fright and hiding his head between her breasts as if he was trying to burrow right into her and the woman putting her arms round him and comforting him although she was blue with fright herself, all the time covering him up as much as possible as if she thought her arms could keep the bullets off him. Then the helicopter planted a 20 kilo bomb in among them terrific flash and the boat went all to matchwood. Then there was a wonderful shot of a child's arm going up up up right up into the air a helicopter with a camera in its nose must have followed it up and there was a lot of applause from the party seats but a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didn't oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didn't it ain't right not in front of kids it ain't until the police turned her turned her out I don't suppose anything happened to her nobody cares what the proles say typical prole reaction they never--”
But there is no shortage of disturbing similarities.
As things stand, we’ll probably never find out what snippet of info destined for the memory hole finally pushed Edward Snowden to the Eurasians. In the clutches of the Russian Big Brother, his sacrifices may even do the human race more harm than good.
Whatever anyone thinks of Putin’s NYT op-ed, American “exceptionalism” has a pretty blunt edge if popular support for the US regime must be sustained through faith rather than facts. The unofficial Party, headquartered in south Manhattan, the Hamptons, within the Beltway and places unknown, has all the straight dope on you and the slightest step in a reverse course they’re calling felony just short of treason. So anybody paying rapt attention to what’s going on from Moscow to Wall Street to the District is experiencing a sensation not too far removed from what the critters were seeing in the last line of Animal Farm:
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
They’ll probably never have to resort to mowing us down in droves like Hitler, Stalin and Mao did. It will do to simply purge all meaning out of prole existence. A free man content to be herded, prodded, slopped and bled white is worth more to them alive than dead.