Happy birthday, Eric Blair — the dystopian world you conjured is still here year after year, especially this year

I don’t know about you, but I’ve taken to placing a little sticky note over the camera atop by desktop computer. If former FBI Director James Comey and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg do it, so will I. Big and Little Brothers may be watching.

Happy birthday, Eric Blair.

On this day in 1903, Eric Blair was born in India.

But the year for which he is most noted is 1984, even though he died in 1950.

Under the pen name George Orwell, Blair penned the novels “Nineteen Eighty-four” and “Animal Farm,” as well as several other semi-autobiographical books and numerous essays.

Eric Blair as six weeks old

When Orwell wrote “Nineteen Eighty-four” he wasn’t forecasting a particular date, he simply transposed the last two digits in 1948, when he wrote much of the book. Though a life-long socialist he despised the totalitarian and despotic nature of communism, fascism and Nazism.

He added to the lexicon: Big Brother, thoughtcrime, newspeak, doublethink, Room 101, as well as the painted slogans WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

In “Nineteen Eighty-four” the warring nations kept changing enemies, sort of like today.

If you don’t think freedom is slavery, consider the “Life of Julia” — the Obama campaign video that showed a woman relying on government handouts from cradle to retirement. Julia, by the way, was Winston Smith’s girlfriend.

Ignorance is definitely strength, not for us but for politicians who the ignorant keep electing.

As for newspeak and doublethink, consider the language of both Obama and Trump. Obama said we were not fighting a war against terrorists but trying to prevent man-caused disasters. His Defense Department (They don’t call it the War Department anymore.) sent out a memo saying: “this administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror’ [GWOT.] Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.’” And a man standing on a table, firing a gun, shouting Allahu Akbar is merely workplace violence.

Trump was going to attack Iran for downing our drone, then the called it off. He was going to have ICE round-up immigrants who had been ordered deported, then he delayed it. He was going to impose tariffs, then he did not. During the election campaign he took 141 policy positions on 23 issues over the course of 510 days. He changed stances on immigration, ObamaCare, entitlement programs, gay rights, the Middle East and so much more.

How can there be any thoughtcrime if we are not allowed to use certain words. People aren’t in the country illegally, they are merely undocumented. And this too changes over time. Once the word negro was the preferred and the politically correct term, but now it is a slur.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” Orwell wrote in “Nineteen Eighty-four.” “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

Today’s cancel culture is Big Brother incarnate.

Statues are being torn down. Books are banned. Social media posts are censored. Speech is deemed the same violence. Silence is also violence. But violence is free speech. Any thought outside the strictly proscribed is a crime. Thoughtcrime literally.

The editorial page editor of the New York Times was ousted after fellow staffers demanded his scalp having the audacity of publishing an op-ed by a U.S. senator calling for sending troops to quell rioting. (It now has a lengthy editors’ note atop it online disavowing much of the op-ed’s content.) The editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer was forced to resign for daring to publish an opinion piece under the headline”Buildings Matter, Too.”

When President Trump tweeted, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts …” Twitter hid it behind warning label because it “glorifies violence.”

Movies and television shows are being canceled lest they offend the snowflakes.

Bowing to racial sensitivity, the Associated Press changed its stylebook to call for the capitalization of the “b” in the term Black when referring to people in a racial, ethnic or cultural context. It was reasoned that lowercase black is a color, not a person. But the AP still uses a lowercase “w” for white, whether a color or a person. Affirmative action run amok?

Back in 1975, David Goodman wrote in The Futurist magazine that 100 of 137 Orwell predictions in “Nineteen Eighty-four” had come true. With the advance of computer surveillance and drones, how many more have come true?

In 1983, while working as the city editor of the Shreveport Journal, I penned a soft feature tied to the 35th anniversary of the original publication of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

I observed in that piece that Orwell’s book was about a totalitarian dystopia in which BIG BROTHER WAS WATCHING YOU, suggesting this was like the infrared camera equipped drones or huge network of cybersnooping computers, long before the NSA revelations. 

“George Orwell respected language and railed against its abuse,” I wrote in 1983. “He was particularly offended by the propaganda — some of which he helped to write for the BBC in World War II. He saw firsthand the way the press was tricked and subverted for political purposes in the Spanish Civil War. Battles that never happened. Heroes who became traitors.”

In another piece posted here in 2013, I asked whether Orwell was a satirist or a prophet.

Walter Cronkite in a foreword to the 1983 paperback edition of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” claimed the book has failed as prophecy only because it has served so well as a warning — a warning against manipulation and power grabbing and the loss of privacy in the name of state security.

And Cronkite couldn’t resist adding: “1984 may not arrive on time, but there’s always 1985.”

Orwell himself called his book a satire and took pains to correct those who saw it merely as a denunciation of socialism.

In a letter written shortly after the publication of the book, Orwell wrote, “My novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labour party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable, and which have already been partly realized in Communism and fascism.

“I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”

A Newsweek article in 2018 asked the question: “Is Trump nudging America toward corrupt authoritarianism?” Isn’t corrupt authoritarianism redundant?

Back in 2008, when the Las Vegas Review-Journal launched its blogging section online, I engaged in a bit of self-indulgent navel gazing in a column trying to explain why. I leaned on Orwell like a crutch.

I explained that I and other newspaper scriveners were joining the lowing herds browsing the ether — otherwise known as bloggers, those free-range creatures who mostly chew up the intellectual property of others and spit out their cuds online.

In an effort to find a rationale for this otherwise irrational exercise I grabbed Orwell’s “Why I Write” essay from 1946, in which he lists various reasons for writing.

First is sheer egoism: “Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc.,” Orwell explains. “It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen — in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. … Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.”

I think that was both a salute and a sully to the profession of journalism.

The second rationale, according to Orwell, is aesthetic enthusiasm: “Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. …” Orwell explains. “Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.”

Third is historical impulse: “Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.”

Finally, and probably most importantly, political purpose: “Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Orwell wrote this shortly after he penned “Animal Farm,” but two years before “1984.” He said “Animal Farm” was his first conscious effort “to fuse political purpose and artistic purpose into one whole.”

Orwell wrote against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.

Ayn Rand wrote for free-market capitalism.

Robert A. Heinlein wrote for libertarianism.

Others espouse various “isms” and objective journalism attempts to eschew them, not always successfully.

So, what moves one to write?

As our master Orwell said, “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery.”

Everybody loves to unravel a good mystery, right?

Happy birthday, Eric Blair.

A version of this blog has been posted annually for several years.

Welcome to ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ … again and again and again

In 1983, while working as the city editor of the Shreveport Journal, I penned a soft feature tied to the 35th anniversary of the original publication of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”

I observed in that piece that Orwell’s book was about a totalitarian dystopia in which BIG BROTHER WAS WATCHING YOU, suggesting this was like the infrared camera equipped drones or huge network of cybersnooping computers, long before the NSA revelations. 

The book made the terms “Newspeak” and “doublethink” a part of the political lexicon — long before Fort Hood was merely workplace violence. Name your own examples.

“George Orwell respected language and railed against its abuse,” I wrote in 1983. “He was particularly offended by the propaganda — some of which he helped to write for the BBC in World War II. He saw firsthand the way the press was tricked and subverted for political purposes in the Spanish Civil War. Battles that never happened. Heroes who became traitors.”

In another piece posted here in 2013, I asked whether Orwell was a satirist or a prophet.

Walter Cronkite in a foreword to the 1983 paperback edition of “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” have claimed the book has failed as prophecy only because it has served so well as a warning — a warning against manipulation and power grabbing and the loss of privacy in the name of state security.

And Cronkite couldn’t resist adding: “1984 may not arrive on time, but there’s always 1985.”

Orwell himself called his book a satire and took pains to correct those who saw it merely as a denunciation of socialism.

In a letter written shortly after the publication of the book, Orwell wrote, “My novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-four’ is not intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labour party, but as a show-up of the perversions to which a centralized economy is liable, and which have already been partly realized in Communism and fascism.

“I do not believe that the kind of society I describe will arrive, but I believe (allowing, of course, for the fact that the book is a satire) that something resembling it could arrive. I believe also that totalitarian ideas have taken root in the minds of intellectuals everywhere, and I have tried to draw these ideas out to their logical consequences. The scene of the book is laid in Britain in order to emphasize that the English speaking races are not innately better than anyone else and that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”

Here is an except that might have a hint about current events:

Sometimes he talked to her of the Records Department and the impudent
forgeries that he committed there. Such things did not appear to horrify
her. She did not feel the abyss opening beneath her feet at the thought
of lies becoming truths. He told her the story of Jones, Aaronson, and
Rutherford and the momentous slip of paper which he had once held between
his fingers. It did not make much impression on her. At first, indeed, she
failed to grasp the point of the story.

‘Were they friends of yours?’ she said.

‘No, I never knew them. They were Inner Party members. Besides, they were
far older men than I was. They belonged to the old days, before the
Revolution. I barely knew them by sight.’

‘Then what was there to worry about? People are being killed off all the
time, aren’t they?’

He tried to make her understand. ‘This was an exceptional case. It wasn’t
just a question of somebody being killed. Do you realize that the past,
starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished? If it survives
anywhere, it’s in a few solid objects with no words attached to them, like
that lump of glass there. Already we know almost literally nothing about
the Revolution and the years before the Revolution. Every record has been
destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has
been repainted, every statue and street and building has been renamed,
every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and
minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless
present in which the Party is always right. I know, of course, that the
past is falsified, but it would never be possible for me to prove it, even
when I did the falsification myself. After the thing is done, no evidence
ever remains. The only evidence is inside my own mind, and I don’t know
with any certainty that any other human being shares my memories. Just in
that one instance, in my whole life, I did possess actual concrete evidence
after the event — years after it.’

‘And what good was that?’

‘It was no good, because I threw it away a few minutes later. But if the
same thing happened today, I should keep it.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t!’ said Julia. ‘I’m quite ready to take risks, but only
for something worth while, not for bits of old newspaper. What could you
have done with it even if you had kept it?’

‘Not much, perhaps. But it was evidence. It might have planted a few doubts
here and there, supposing that I’d dared to show it to anybody. I don’t
imagine that we can alter anything in our own lifetime. But one can imagine
little knots of resistance springing up here and there — small groups of
people banding themselves together, and gradually growing, and even leaving
a few records behind, so that the next generations can carry on where we
leave off.’

 

Getting your head right, Part 2: Thought Police subpoena sermons of pastors opposing ‘Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance’

When an alert reader first brought this news item to my attention I was certain that someone had taken an item from the satirical website The Onion and disguised it as a news story.

I imagined the original headline had to have been something like: “Houston’s tolerant city officials will not tolerate any intolerance whatsoever.”

But, no, gentle reader, there appear to be too many references to this news from the Houston Chronicle to Fox News to a Houston TV station.

The lede on the Chronicle story reads:

“Houston’s embattled equal rights ordinance took another legal turn this week when it surfaced that city attorneys, in an unusual step, subpoenaed sermons given by local pastors who oppose the law and are tied to the conservative Christian activists who have sued the city.”

Specifically the subpoenas are demanding copies of “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.” Mayor Parker is Houston’s first openly lesbian mayor.

Resistance is futile

HERO is the acronym for Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance. This ordinance apparently protects transgendered person’s “right” to use a restroom consistent with that person’s “gender expression,” regardless of actual biological sex. Opponents have dubbed it the “Sexual Predator Protection Act.”

According to a Fox News account, ministers who fail to comply with the subpoena could be held in contempt of court.

“The city’s subpoena of sermons and other pastoral communications is both needless and unprecedented,” Alliance Defending Freedom attorney Christina Holcomb said in a statement. “The city council and its attorneys are engaging in an inquisition designed to stifle any critique of its actions.”

Opponents of the ordinance, passed in June, gathered 50,000 signatures – far more than the 17,269 needed — but the petition was thrown out due to alleged irregularities.

A court date on litigation aimed at repealing the ordinance is set for January and the subpoenas are part of the discovery for the case on behalf of the city.

City Attorney David Feldman told the Chronicle that the pastors’ sermons are relevant to the case because they used the pulpit for political campaigning that encouraged members to sign petitions opposing the ordinance.

Ordinance opponent, Erik Stanley, an attorney for a group called Alliance Defending Freedom, told Fox News, “City council members are supposed to be public servants, not ‘Big Brother’ overlords who will tolerate no dissent or challenge. This is designed to intimidate pastors.”

In this day and age of constant social media posts and purloined audio and video posted on the Internet, do the Houston officials really even need a subpoena? Perhaps they could take a page from George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”:

“There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live — did live, from habit that became instinct — in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

And once you are found out, there is the certain outcome:

“We are not content with negative obedience, nor even with the most abject submission. When finally you surrender to us, it must be of your own free will. We do not destroy the heretic because he resists us; so long as he resists us we never destroy him. We convert him, we capture his inner mind, we reshape him. We burn all evil and all illusion out of him; we bring him over to our side, not in appearance, but genuinely, heart and soul. We make him one of ourselves before we kill him. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instance of death we cannot permit any deviation … we make the brain perfect before we blow it out.”

 

 

Orwell as prophet: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever’

On this day in 1949 “Nineteen Eighty-Four” was published.

It added to the lexicon: Big Brother, thoughtcrime, newspeak, doublethink, Room 101, as well as the painted slogans WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, and IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.

Today our ignorance is indeed strength for politicians who get away with telling us debt is wealth and “green” will save us all from a warming planet. 

In fact the president recently told us we are not at war with Muslim jihadist, we are at peace.

This week we learned Big Brother really is watching — tapping data from phone companies, Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube, Apple and soon Dropbox, grabbing email, phone numbers, video, photos, audio, documents.

“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” Obama reassured us Friday. “We have to make choices as a society … It’s important to recognize that you can’t have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience.”

He went on to say: “If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress and don’t trust federal judges to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution, due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.”

Trust the executive branch in which the IRS targets tea partiers? Trust the Congress, which passes bills no one has read or understands? Trust the judiciary where something is a fine one day and a tax the next and it is OK to gather the DNA of people who have not been convicted of anything?

The Constitution was written expressly because the Founders did not trust government, and the Bill of Rights was added to even further tie its hands, such as the Fourth Amendment:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

As I pointed out some time ago, our one-worlder president doesn’t believe in fighting a global war against man-caused disasters. His Defense Department (They don’t call it the War Department anymore.) sent out a memo saying: “this administration prefers to avoid using the term ‘Long War’ or ‘Global War on Terror’ [GWOT.] Please use ‘Overseas Contingency Operation.’” And a man standing on a table, firing a gun, shouting Allahu Akbar is merely workplace violence.

“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?” Orwell wrote in “Nineteen Eighty-Four.” “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.”

The last words of the book: “He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”