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

As for Trump, Reuters calculates that he has taken 32 new stances on 13 different issues since his election, which is nothing new since he ran and won a campaign in which he took 141 policy positions on 23 issues over the course of 510 days. He has 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.”

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 earlier this year 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.

Video first posted in 2013.

Revisiting a 35th anniversary revisiting of ‘1984’ — Part 2

Earlier I told you how in the waning days of 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 “1984.”

Then I provided a brief sidebar about Orwell the man.

Today, we pick up that 1983 article several paragraphs down and in mid-stride with a look at how reality can be altered.

(Parenthetical comments are from 2013.)

Big Brother is watching you

Many have noted the marked likeness of Big Brother to Hitler and Stalin. The book’s rebellious Goldstein writes like Trotsky, the Communist outcast rejected and despised by his own party.

Hubert Humphreys, an assistant professor of history at LSUS since it opened in 1967, recalled how the Party members in “1984” switched their hate of one enemy to another when alliances changed. They even tore down banners they had just erected bearing the name of the wrong enemy nation. And they wondered what traitor had perpetrated such a canard.

An illustration from 1983 article about "1984" from a microfilm copy.

An illustration from 1983 article about “1984” from a microfilm copy.

Orwell’s main character, Winston Smith, couldn’t understand how his lover, Julia, could be so duped. “It was rather more of a shock to him,” Orwell wrote, “when he discovered from some chance remark that she did not remember that Oceania, four years ago, had been at war with Eastasia and at peace with Eurasia.”

It is just as much a shock today to teachers who learn their high school students don’t know that in World War II, the United States fought the Japanese, now our allies and suppliers of so many cars and TVs.

Humphreys found a parallel between the attitudes of the book’s characters and those of the members of the Communist Party in the ’30s and ’40s. The Communist Party in America and Europe supported the alliance of the Soviet Union with Germany prior to World War II. But when the German army attacked Russia, the party had to do a flip-flop.

“Using those Orwellian terms, the idea that one day it is one thing and then you just suddenly redefine the term and it becomes the opposite is to be found in the international political world he lived in at that time,” Humphreys said. …

(Rather like Harry Reid saying in 1990 that we have been stealing money from the Social Security recipients of this country. …” while he now says, “It’s not just an exaggeration that Social Security is headed for bankruptcy. It is an outright lie.”)

Prophecy or satire?

People can find Orwellian overtones in today’s politics and in the politics of the ’40s. So, was Orwell a satirist of the ’40s or a prophet of the ’80s?

Some, like Walter Cronkite in a foreward to the latest paperback edition of “1984,” have claimed that “1984” 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 alway 1985.”

LSUS political science professor Norman Provizer says we tend to read prophecy into “1984” when it may be satire. Proviser classifies “1984” in the category of dystopia — the opposite of a utopia. The term utopia, coined by Thomas More describing an imaginary land in 1516, is a pun on the Greek words meaning “good place” — and “no place.”

Utopian and dystopian novels have long been popular — from “Plato’s Republic” to Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis” to H.G. Wells'”Thing to Come” and B.F. Skinner’s “Walden II.” In fact, “1984” has been called a malignant version of Skinner’s more optimistic book.

Though a dystopia may be the opposite of utopia, Provizer doesn’t see it as any more likely to exist.

Orwell, according to Humphreys, probably was influenced by the political turmoil of the ’30s and ’40s. The book was published in 1949.

The was the world of the Great War and the Great Depression. A world in which the League of Nations had come apart. An even greater war had come to pass. Hitler had risen and fallen. Mussolini had done the same in Italy. Frano’s fascism ruled in Spain. Stalin held the reins of power in the Soviet Union.

But Humphreys noted that powerful bureaucracies and totalitarian government were not a new development unique to Orwell’s time. History had seen their equal in the mandarin regime of China and the Byzantine Empire.

“I guess what is different,” Humphreys said, “is the move to use technology and science … Certainly, this was the period in which Hitler was using the radio and FDR was using the radio and Mussolini did.”

(Dr. Joseph) Koshansky suspects Orwell was using satire to say: Don’t use the Soviet model of socialism, especially Stalinism.

“I think Orwell was saying, ‘Be careful of that. Be careful of the phoniness of politicians using socialism for their particular ends.’

“On the other hand you can say the same thing: Be careful of politicians using the word democracy for their own end.”

(Perhaps an example of this would be a politician misquoting someone, taking the misquote out of context, and using that to support a bill that the person quoted would have surely opposed.)

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.

(Sounds like the theme a certain State of the Union speech.)

“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.”

(Perhaps to be continued.)

‘1984’ has come and gone … or has it?

An illustration from 1983 article about "1984" from a microfilm copy.

An illustration from 1983 article about “1984” from a microfilm copy.

In the waning days of 1983 while working as the city editor of the Shreveport Journal I penned one of those tried-and-true mainstays of the journalistic craft — a soft feature tied to the anniversary of some event. In this case, it was the republication on the 35th anniversary of the original publication of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel “1984.”

I thought I would wipe 30 years of dust off and see how the book and the feature hold up to the mirror of time. It ran as doubletruck, newspaperese for the facing pages in the center of a section. The headline was: “Big Brother is watching you.” It included interviews with professors and politicians.

Here is the first excerpt in what may become an occasional series on this blog. Parenthetical comments are from 2013:

By THOMAS MITCHELL

Journal City Editor

Life is about to confront art. Fantasy is about to face reality.

When the new calendars go up on the wall Sunday, they will read 1984. How close will the year resemble the dark vision of a tubercular writer who spent his dying days on a Scottish island 35 years ago writing a modern classic — “1984”?

Ramirez cartoon about Julia.

George Orwell’s 1984 is one in which the telescreen bleats constant propoganda and from which Big Brother’s Thought Police spy. His 1984 is one in which dissidents are beaten and brainwashed until they believe the Party line. His 1984 is one in which the language is being butchered in the name of political orthodoxy. His 1984 is a humorless nightmare in which man has become a cog in the machine of the state. (Sort of like Julia. No, not Orwell’s Julia. Obama’s Julia from the online commercial about cradle to grave government aid.)

Orwell’s book is an excursion into an anti-utopia where reality is a moving target: On Monday Big Brother reduces the chocolate ration to 20 grams a week and on Tuesday there are demonstrations in the streets, people thanking Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to 20 grams. (Sort of like Obama on the sequester. Nov. 21, 2011: “I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic cuts to domestic and defense spending.” Feb. 19, 2013: “Now, for two years, I’ve offered a balanced approach to deficit reduction that would prevent these harmful cuts.”)

Cybersnooping by the NSA

The setting is a dilapidated London, now called Airstrip One. Big Brother and the Party rule Oceania, a nation with a vague geography along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. It is a nation constantly at war with one or both of the other two superpowers. It is a world which smells of boiled cabbage, oily Victory Gin and sour beer. It is a drab world where the color comes from giant posters. “It was one of those pictures,” Orwell wrote, “which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.” (Rather like an infrared equipped drone or huge network of cybersnooping computers. Let’s call it Perfect Citizen. Or as one internal Raytheon email seen by a Wall Street Journal reporter said, “Perfect Citizen is Big Brother.”)

The book made the terms “Newspeak” and “doublethink” a part of the political lexicon. (Like White House spokesmen who refuse to even admit the drone war exists.)

“1984” has outgrown even Orwell’s broad mindscape. The reality of the book, in an Orwellian twist of events, has become a moving target. “1984” has become the bible of anti-socialists, though Orwell himself was a socialist. The image of Big Brother is drawn like a gun to oppose every technical advance, although Orwell was aiming at political and intellectual changes, not science or technology.

Has life imitated Orwell’s art?

Are politicians raping the language? Is tax hike really a revenue enhancement? (Is government spending really an investment?)

Is Big Brother watching? Or just tapping the phone? Or peering down from the security camera on the wall? Or breaking into your computer file?

Speaking Newspeak

George Orwell respected language and railed against its abuse. 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. (Moveon.org ad: “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?”)

One of the major themes of “1984” is the abuse and manipulation of language and information for the purposes of the state. Big Brother dictated: “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” Orwell dubbed this doublethink, the ability to hold two contradictory attitudes simultaneously. (Blacks overwhelmingly voted for Obama though the unemployment rate for blacks is 13.8 percent and blacks account for 25 percent of workers who have been unemployed for longer than 99 weeks, though blacks are only 12 percent of the labor force.)

To Orwell the world of politics was a “sort of subatomic or non-Euclidean world” in which two and two may equal five. (Where a slowdown in the increase in spending is a savage budget cut.)

Few Orwell-watchers can resist calling up Reagan’s changing the name of the MX missile to Peacekeeper. (And a pre-planned, organized, RPG- and mortar-armed terrorist attack on a consulate in Benghazi was really just a spontaneous protest against an anti-Islamist movie.)

Dr. Joseph Koshansky, an assistant professor of history and political science in his fifth year at Centenary (College), is one of those who can’t resist.

Peacekeeper missile launched from silo.

Koshansky said one of Orwell’s warnings is that if one leaves the definition of words to a group or the state, then the group or state will define thoughts and actions.

Of “1984” Koshansky said, “I think this book, a lot times, people will say, ‘Oh yeah, I know about this book, we can use this book to talk about the Soviet Union.’”

But Koshansky said “1984” can be used to talk about any government, whether it is democratic, pluralistic, monarchial, parliamentary or totalitarian.

Orwell, Koshansky says, was warning us of what could happen, that the use of a word or name for something it is not eventually will be accepted and believed. “We forget that they (words) are tentative, creative, ephemeral and sometimes fictional accounts of what’s going on.”

When the president says the MX missile is a Peacekeeper, Koshansky said, he wants us to accept that definition as truth, as reality.

To be continued … maybe.