The return of '1984'
The return of '1984'
By H.D.S. Greenway | June 24, 2005
IF YOU TAKE something to read at the beach this summer make sure it is not one of George Orwell's books. The comparison with current events will ruin your day.
In what was then the futuristic, nightmare world of ''1984," written in 1949, Orwell introduced the concepts of ''newspeak," ''doublethink," and ''the mutability of the past," all concepts that seem to be alive and well in 2005, half a century after Orwell's death. In the ever-changing rationale of why we went to war in Iraq, we can imagine ourselves working in Orwell's ''Ministry of Truth," in which ''reality control" is used to ensure that ''the lie passed into history and became the truth."
And what about the Bush administration's insistence that all is going well in Iraq? In the Ministry of Truth, statistics are adjustable to suit politics -- ''merely the substitution of one piece of nonsense for another," Orwell wrote. ''Most of the material that you were dealing with had no connection to anything in the real world, not even the kind of connection that is contained in a direct lie. Statistics were just as much a fantasy in their original version as in the rectified version." Welcome to the Iraq war, Mr. Orwell.
What of Donald Rumsfeld's newspeak, or was it doublethink, saying that ''no detention facility in the history of warfare has been more transparent" than Guantanamo? We have the FBI's word for it that prisoners were chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, left for 18 to 24 hours with no food and no water, left to defecate and urinate on themselves.
The deaths by torture in Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan sound very much like what happens in Orwell's fictional torture chamber: Room 101.
He might as well have been writing about the Bush administration's redefinition of torture when he wrote about using ''logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it."
In Orwell's profoundly pessimistic view: ''Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
There is something profoundly Orwellian, too, about the administration's attempts to impose thought control on public broadcasting. The sometimes secret machinations to place impositions on editorial freedom, the efforts to see which people interviewed by Bill Moyers might be considered anti-Bush or anti-Defense Department or insufficiently conservative, were just the kind of efforts to squash intellectual opposition to state power that Orwell wrote about.
I was amused to see even a conservative Republican senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, was branded as a ''liberal" because he dared criticize the Pentagon -- a ''thought criminal" in Orwell's parlance.
The drum beat by some conservatives to bring down an independent judiciary is another case in point. We learned from the case of unfortunate, blind, and brain-dead Terri Schiavo that it isn't activist judges who are the enemy. It is judges who are not active in the correct causes.
It is the intended persecution of Michael Schiavo, who defended his wife's right to die, however, that has for me the most sinister echoes of Orwell. Florida Governor Jeb Bush, according to news reports, will have the case reopened after 15 years to investigate how long it took Schiavo to dial 911. Thus will Michael Schiavo feel the displeasure of the state for challenging the conservative orthodoxy.
In the effort to squash dissent, as evidenced by moves to change the Sentate's filibuster rules, there seems to be the belief among the majority that they will always stay in the majority, that they will never lose the Senate, and, therefore, never themselves need to filibuster.
Orwell had something to say about this too. ''Power worship blurs political judgment," he wrote in an essay, ''because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible."
There are any number of Guantanamo defenders who could fit neatly into George Orwell's essay when he wrote: ''In our time, political speech and writing is largely the defense of the indefensible."
H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.