It seems far-fetched to compare today's America to the totalitarian nightmare of Orwell's "1984." But the novel can also be read as a warning about the failings of mass democracies, especially in wartimeby Timothy Snyder / November 21, 2004 / Leave a comment
Written in 1948, George Orwell’s 1984 has been interpreted as a fearful description of the power of communism to rule minds. In the actual year 1984, when the novel received renewed attention, no one doubted that its subject was the Soviet Union, the “evil empire” of Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase. Yet reread today, the story, and its setting, give one pause. The action of 1984 takes place not in Moscow, but in London. In the story, London and Britain have been absorbed by a larger transatlantic empire, known as Oceania. The heartland of Oceania is today’s US. In the world Orwell describes, it is not socialism that has failed, but rather modernity and mass democracy. The state has outgrown society, and rulers have found techniques to maintain permanent power while denying prosperity and liberty to their populations. While Orwell is unsparing in his descriptions of torture, violence is not his main subject. In Oceania, people generally believe what their rulers tell them because they cannot articulate their disagreement, or because they lack the imagination to consider alternatives. The power of the state to prevent independent thought is Orwell’s true subject.
Reread by an American in 2004, the novel 1984 finds surprising points of contact with everyday reality. To be sure, the US of today is obviously not the totalitarian society that Orwell describes. Yet Orwell wrote the novel for citizens of democratic societies as a warning about possible futures, and some of his concerns seem rather timely. Take the three slogans of Oceania’s rulers: War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength. The current US president constantly defines the Americans as a peaceful people. Yet the only foreign policy innovation of his administration has been the doctrine of pre-emptive war. The president constantly speaks of freedom; it has become a kind of verbal tic. Yet his administration is the only one since the 1940s substantially to reduce the civil rights of Americans. The word “strong” appears incessantly in official pronouncements of all kinds. The president, it appears, maintains his own strength by purposefully ignoring the world around him. In so far as this makes him more likeable, it is indeed his political strength.
How can such contradictory ideas be persuasive? Part of the answer has to do with the manipulation of the language itself, with what Orwell called Newspeak. In Oceania, Newspeak progressively replaced standard English, reducing the number of words in the language and promoting neologisms meant to curb thought. As everyone knows, America’s official discourse, as typified by the president’s active vocabulary, has declined precipitously. Indeed, the press and public often have trouble understanding what the president has to say, since it is expressed in a kind of ersatz English that, when read, often makes no sense. The press rarely quotes the president, since what he says works only in spoken language, and not always then. But the president’s genius for linguistic innovation is only part of the problem. His administration also generates Newspeak on purpose. The USA Patriot Act (Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism), for example, exploits the positive associations of the words “USA” and “patriot” to name a law that restricts the freedoms of many Americans. The war in Iraq is fought by a “coalition,” not the US army, although 90 per cent of coalition casualties are Americans. The attackers of 11th September were “our enemy, ” a general term that is then applied to people who had nothing to do with the attack, such as Saddam Hussein.
To live in such contradictions is to engage in what Orwell called “doublethink”: “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind and accepting both of them.” Without some notion of this kind, it is impossible to follow the American debate on terrorism. For years now, high officials of the US government have accepted that there is no evidence of any connection between Saddam Hussein and the attacks of 11th September, while nevertheless arguing that there was such a connection. As we now know, the president demanded that his intelligence officers produce a report demonstrating such a link, even as he was informed that there was no factual basis for his claim. Administration officials praise the findings of the congressional inquiry that denies any such connection, and then claim that these reports actually support their own position. These opposing views are expressed by different members of the same administration; more interestingly, they are also expressed by the same person, at different moments. Evidence about the world is not entirely denied, but it seems to be held apart from some deeper truth, accessible only by faith. Some American leaders, the president and the vice-president in particular, may simply have a different conception of truth: it is what they feel to be true at the moment when they are asked. They really do feel it, when they say it, although at some level they know it to be false. This is the essence of doublethink, and it is also perhaps the secret of Bush’s popularity.
In Orwell’s dystopia, the rulers believe that there is no external truth that their methods cannot defeat. Oceania’s population does indeed seem capable of denying external reality in favour of the party’s message, even when that message changes. Some of the most terrifying moments in 1984 take place when it becomes clear that people’s beliefs about the world can be changed at a moment’s notice. When the novel begins Oceania is at war with Eurasia and at peace with Eastasia. Later, Oceania suddenly makes peace with Eurasia and goes to war with Eastasia. Oceania’s population is not expected to endorse this change, since they are not expected to notice it. Instead, they are actively to endorse the new war and to forget the old one. As citizens, they are expected to support war as such and not to ask any questions.
Now it might be too much to expect Americans to remember that, during earlier Republican administrations, the US supported mujahedin such as Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, as well as Saddam Hussein in his war with Iran. To recall these basic facts is to make no accusation of hypocrisy: foreign policy must fit the times and there is nothing inherently wrong with change. These alterations in policy probably made sense. What is chilling is that these earlier policies are seldom recalled in discussion of present ones. More frightening still, though, was the ability of the Bush administration to change the focus of much of the nation’s anger from Bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, from al Qaeda to Iraq. This was indeed like the sudden shift from war against Eurasia to war against Eastasia. No good reason was given; people were expected to go along with it and, in general, they did.
How can rulers achieve this kind of instant consent? Orwell’s cruellest insight is that people have little desire to know the truth. This is an important challenge to a certain kind of optimism in the liberal tradition. The core texts of liberal toleration, such as Milton’s Areopagitica and Mill’s On Liberty, take for granted that individuals will wish to know the truth. They contend that in the absence of censorship, truth will eventually emerge and be recognised as such. But even in democracies this may not always be true.
In Orwell’s novel, the state manages reality by altering public memory of the very recent past. In today’s US, Fox News and talk radio – both closely associated with the Republican party and the present administration – engage in practices redolent of those Orwell describes. One of these is the obliteration of the immediate past when it contradicts the message of the rulers of today. In Oceania, this is the task of the Ministry of Truth. In the US, it is the task of Fox News. When Al Gore recently gave an important speech criticising President Bush, Fox News presented its own “analysis” of the speech rather than the speech itself. Although Gore received more votes in the last presidential election than Bush, he has in effect no mass media voice in the US. The event was re-created, as it were, before it even reached the consciousness of the typical television viewer. It never “happened.” Only the criticism, which was in fact mockery, happened. Another tactic is the conscious destruction of personalities by repeated ad hominem attacks. In Oceania, the state ordered the “two minutes hate,” an exercise in which enemies had to be loudly vilified by the public. In the US, popular right-wing talk radio hosts identify supposed traitors, and expose them to ridicule. After Richard Clarke published his account of the Bush anti-terror policy, talk radio impugned his competence and his patriotism, even though the man had served in four presidential administrations, three of them Republican. Although Clarke was responsible for fighting terrorism under President Bush, he has in effect no mass media voice.
Fox News and talk radio are not, of course, the only sources of information in the US today but they are the main news outlets for a large part of the population. And even the best independent newspapers, the New York Times and Washington Post, failed to present some of the basic facts in the run up to the Iraq war. Similarly, Rush Limbaugh, the leading American radio hatemonger, would never make it in Canada. Talk radio has no international resonance, since what it says has no factual value. But what the rest of the world thinks makes no difference. As one of the rulers of Oceania puts it: “We can shut them out of existence. Oceania is the world.” This is, perhaps, the most impressive achievement of the Bush administration: the creation of a purely American rhetorical space, all but closed to outside influences.
Of course, this rhetorical space is stratified. Some people did listen to Al Gore’s speech. Many people bought Richard Clarke’s book. There is a segment of American society that has no doubts about some of the facts under discussion during the current election campaign. To take one important example: it is simply a fact that Bush used personal connections to avoid the draft during the Vietnam war, while John Kerry served in Vietnam with honour. Yet with the help of Fox News, talk radio and negative television advertisements, the Bush administration and its supporters have clouded this issue for most of the American public. As far as the president is concerned, it is of little importance that one section of the American population understands facts as facts. A larger section of the population can be persuaded by media campaigns. This, too, resembles Oceania. In 1984, there is still a group that remembers the past, and is capable of drawing conclusions about facts in the present. Its members have some understanding of the manipulation of reality taking place around them. They are, however, powerless to change that reality.
In both Oceania and America, forces deeper than media techniques are at play. Orwell understood that social pressures can be arranged so that falsehood rather than truth will emerge. Just as people can encourage others to be critical and reflective, they can also create an environment in which passivity and ignorance feel safest. The most chilling and unforgettable image of 1984 is the poster of Big Brother, captioned “Big Brother is watching you.” These posters are simply posters. It is not even clear in the novel whether Big Brother is a living person. Yet the posters contribute to a moral climate in which people police themselves, and their own thoughts. Václav Havel, writing in communist Czechoslovakia, described a greengrocer who placed a sign in his shop that read “Workers of the World Unite.” The greengrocer, who has no ideological preferences himself, does this to avoid unwanted attention from the authorities. In so doing, he communicates the idea that it is best to accept the official message of the authorities. Although it pains me (as a former Boy Scout) to make this observation, the American flag now functions in much the same way. In the months after 11th September, Americans displayed the flag as a sincere expression of grief, anger, pride and solidarity. Three years later, high officials of the US government (and leading newscasters) continue to wear flag pins on their lapels. These shiny little flags no longer convey any clear message. Some people wear them to intimidate others. Others wear them because they are intimidated. Many people don’t really give it much thought. And no one wants to court accusations of lack of patriotism in a time of war.
In orwell’s Oceania, falsehood and war bring impoverishment. The state impoverishes society by devoting its resources to fighting a useless war. In the atmosphere of perpetual war, Orwell suggests, people will accept not only abridgements of their freedom, but also reductions in living standards. This appears at first to be a fundamental difference between the Oceania of the novel and the America of reality. Who could accuse President Bush of opposing consumption? Yet on a deeper level, the correspondence between calculated war, calculated falsehood and calculated impoverishment holds true. It appears that the leading figures of the Bush administration had two main preoccupations before September 2001: tax cuts for the rich, and war in Iraq. The attacks of 11th September allowed them to carry out both policies. Strange as it may seem, tax cuts for the rich were presented as necessary in a time of war, and criticism of them was presented as unpatriotic. As a result, the less privileged classes of American society pay for the war in Iraq in two ways: with their lives, because the US army is drawn mainly from the poor, but also in the long run with their livelihoods. The result of big tax cuts during an expensive war has been the creation of a truly frightening national debt. The national debt, about $7.4 trillion, is currently increasing by about $1.69bn a day. President Bush’s last budget included an annual deficit of more than $500bn – a record. More than one in eight Americans now lives below the official poverty line. Over the long run, the increase of government debt means a reduction of government services to the American poor.
These resemblances between fact and fiction should not be pushed too far. But they are a reminder that Orwell’s warnings in 1984 apply to the pathologies of mass democracies – and not just to Bush’s America – as well as to the more obvious horrors of totalitarian states. Orwell asked us to be attentive to language, to believe in truth and to identify the means by which democracy can be corrupted. The key mechanism in Oceania, as in the contemporary US, is the conscious manipulation of the social psychology of war. The population of Oceania is fed regular reports of great victories in Asia, alternating with alarming reports of new threats to the homeland. Here the comparison with today’s US is too obvious to labour. Americans are told of great victories in Afghanistan and Iraq (both questionable), and constantly reminded by vague colour-coded signals from the department of homeland security that terrorists could attack at any moment.
The fundamental similarity between Oceania and America is the disabling of political discussion by the rhetoric of war. As one realises by the end of 1984, Oceania’s continuous wars in Eurasia and Eastasia serve no particular purpose, aside from providing the stimuli that allow the population to be confused, manipulated and ruled. The merits of particular American military interventions are debatable. I believe that the war in Afghanistan was prosecuted without sufficient resources and conviction, and that the war in Iraq was a mistake from the beginning. But the problem for American society is not so much the policies as the ways in which those who make them define and explain them to the public. The struggle against international terrorism by military and other means need not have been defined as a perpetual war of good against evil. We are a country “at war,” as Bush likes to say, and he is a “war president.” This is not a description of a particular action or mood, but of a permanent existential state. The hero of 1984 “could not remember a time when his country had not been at war.” Should Bush win the presidential election in November, the youngest generation of Americans will soon be able to say the same. As a society, we are less peaceful, less free and less informed than we were a few years ago. War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength.