In 1946, George Orwell wrote: “What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.” (from Why I write). By that time he’d already written Homage to Catalonia and Animal Farm.
His famous novel Nineteen eighty-four had yet to be written, but he was obviously very sure about what he was doing: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it.”
Nineteen eighty-four is, outstandingly, a master piece. For this book alone, he should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature, but unfortunately he died much too young.
Remarkable about the novel is that, while being such an extraordinary literary work of the highest standards, this fact has not been able to kill off the actual message of the novel, as so often happens.
Winston Smith works as an editor at the Ministry of Truth. One of his main duties is to rewrite news items and historical texts, as the Party tries to influence people’s lifes, minds and memories. But the Party goes much further. It pries into the minds of people, trying to detect Thoughtcrime and it influences daily life by the telescreens that can be found in every room and that broadcast Party propaganda day and night. The telescreens are also used by the Thought Police to detect subversive acts and thoughts. On every street corner one sees big posters with a severe face on it and the words: “Big Brother is watching you.”
This is London in the future, 1984 (the book was written in 1949). This future is now some 20 years behind us, but this does not mean that the novel is outdated. Not for its literary value nor for its ‘political’ value.
It is supposed to describe communism under Stalin, but more than a reflection on life in the Soviet Union, Nineteen eighty-four portrays the prototype of a totalitarian society. And there are many of those. Look at China, look at several Islamic countries, look at Russia, or Cuba, look at some African countries, think of the United States of America who, under the handsome disguise of democracy, act as a totalitarian state.
It is interesting to study the behaviour of such a State, or Party, or Church. First of all they try to control their own subjects, certainly what they do and say, if possible what they think. Orwell writes about the mechanisms of a state oppressing it’s own subjects and these mechanisms still seem very alive.
Watching people, spying on people.
In 1949 television was something brand new. It is typical for Orwell to have foreseen its possibilities for influencing people. Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi knew very well why he acquired his media empire. I believe that he’s been reading Orwell together with Macchiavelli’s The Prince. Orwell couldn’t have dreamt about the technical possibilities we have today: digital TV, computer, webcam, miniature camera’s, satellite, cell phone, etc, etc. And these instruments are consantly used: we are being monitored by security camera’s wherever we go, our e-mails and websites are tracked, credit card expenditures can be scanned, and so on. Big Brother is watching us.
But while in Nineteen eighty-four people are being bombarded with slogans and political songs of praise, the role of putting our intelects and political instincts to sleep has succesfully been taken over by commercial tv: soaps, reality tv, quizz programs, the likes of Jerry Springer, all of which regularly interlarded with commercials… Be happy, BUY!
Of course, Orwell was writing in the aftermath of the Second World War, and England still had a very difficult time (see for instance the splendid letters in Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road.) But it is true: abundance is better to enslave people.
The same with sex. There he was wrong. Orwell thought that sex would have to be suppressed in a totalitarian world, but the opposite is true. Total freedom works better.
Rewriting history is not wrong in itself, otherwise historians wouldn’t have a reason to exist. New facts are found, new insights too. But rewriting history because one doens’t like one’s history, or because it is not in the ‘interest’ of the present state is another matter.
A well-known and still very painful example is the Nanjing massacre. In december 1937 the Japanese army swept into Nanjing, at that time the capital of China, and within weeks not only looted and burned the defenseless city, but systematically raped, tortured and murdered more than 200.000 Chinese civilians.
An atrocity, more so, an ongoing one, because the Japanese government continues to deny it. Some Japanese historians have tried to acknowledge the facts, but they have been pilloried by right-wing elements in Japan. In 1997 Iris Chang (Iris Chang was a tormented person. She commited suicide at the age of 36. See the obituary published in the Economist of November 27th 2004), an American journalism graduate of the University of Illinois, published a thorough study about the ‘incident’ (what a word): The Rape of Nanking. She became interested by the stories her grandparents told her. These had fled the city before the Japanese came, but they heard enough. In her book she not only tries to find out what happened, she also analyses why this war crime was played down by Japan and the West.
This ‘playing down’ of historical facts is typical for totalitarian societies, and Japan knows something about the practice. Even today (and I quote the BBC News page) “all textbooks – not just history ones – have to go through a rigorous government screening in Japan. But it is the history books that always cause the problem – and not just with neighbouring countries. ” Because not only the Nanjing massacre is denied. In the recent past Korea has reacted furiously because Japanese history textbooks continue to disregard the ‘comfort women’, young Korean women that were enforced as sex slaves for the Japanese army.
Alas, much more examples can be found. Just think about the revisionists, those who deny that the Holocaust happened. In many European countries, certainly Germany and Belgium, revisionism is forbidden by law. One recent example published by the BBC News on December, 14, 2005: “Iranian leader denies Holocaust”. Of course the Iranian president is trying to make trouble in the Middle East. But again, history is used improperly.
What about the recent case of the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk (writer of My Name is Red and Snow) who stands trial because he said in an interview with a Swiss magazine that “30.000 Kurds and one million Ottoman Armenians were killed in Turkey” (BBC News December 14, 2005.) Although this is a historical fact, in Turkey uttering this fact is qualified as “insulting the Turkisch identity”.
Think of the difficulty to try Pinochet, think of disappeared people in Argentine, think of the American lies about Iraq, etc, etc, etc.
Manipulating the news and Newspeak.
There is so much to say about our ‘need’ for news (from pure gossip to high quality journalistic research) that it would lead me too far here. I’d like to highlight two things though: Newspeak and censorship.
Newspeak was a marvelous idea of Orwell. He’d always been interested by the use of language for political reasons: “Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind” (Why I write). In Nineteen eighty-four this is crystalized in Newspeak, a language designed to make thinking outside the Party impossible. Of course, it would be difficult to impose such a language. But ‘labeling’ is now a common practice. Terms like a ‘mob’, ‘fundamentalist’, ‘detainees’… are easy to use without the need for further explanation. Certainly the word ‘terrorist’ is very handy. It can be used at discretion and it neutralizes everything the subject stands for. For instance, if a hungry and unemloyed Bolivian miner throws a stick of dynamite at the Parliament building (with little damage) he’ll be labelled a ‘terrorist’. That’s easy. We know about terrorists and we certainly don’t want to be associated with them. End of chapter. And now the weather report…
Things are going even further when a notorious president of some united states starts talking about “evil states” and the “axis of evil”. This seems more like Oldspeach to me, back to the Middle ages and the inquisition. Amen.
In Nineteen eighty-four it is obvious: you’d better not say what you think or even think what you think. Censorship in many degrees still exists today in the world. Think of China, Cuba, islamic countries, Russia, … In the Soviet Union under Stalin it was obvious for everyone that there was no freedom of speech. Even to copy a poem in a Samizdat publication equaled risking your life.
These dangers are far behind us, except that when you say or publish something, nobody is going to know it, nobody is listening. You are free to express and even publish your opinion, and indeed that makes us think we are ‘free’ citizens. In reality, nothing we say is of any importance, so our situation is only superficially better than that of comrades under Stalin.
The problem is image building. If the news media decide to label striking Bolivian miners as a ‘mob’, then the world will know them as a mob. You can do research and gather evidence and take a lot of interviews and after a lot of work and time and money you might be able to publish an article where you explain the real circumstances. So? In the meantime this news merry-go-round has already forgotten the issue. In the meantime many other ‘news items’ will need rectification.
This is the theme of one of Heinrich Böll’s remarkable books: The lost honour of Katharina Blum.
A young woman, Katharina Blum, leads a quiet and well-ordened life until she meets a young man on a party. They like each other and he spends the night in her small flat. Only the day after, when he’s already disappeared, she hears that he is a terrorist of the Roter Armee Fraktion. She is questioned by the police, because they find it hard to believe that she only met this man a few days before. So far there’s no real problem, but her story is spotted by a journalist of a famous scandal paper. They don’t have scrupules, of course, news has to be made. So Katharina finds herself exposed in the national press as a whore and a terrorist, etc, etc… A friend tries to console her by saying that quality newspapers don’t even mention her name, but she responds: “But everyone I know reads this paper.”
The story is very gripping, and ends dramatically.
A new Book…
Imagine for a moment that mankind were getting tired of the silly stories of the Bible, and even more so, were rejecting the pile of exaggerated conclusions, dogmas and doctrines that have been built on these silly stories. Then mankind might feel the need for a new kind of Bible, one that places man in his proper place, not too high, not too humble. Searching for this new Book, some books might appear inevitable, some books might float to the surface to form a new canon. I think Nineteen eighty-four would be one of these.