Fiction Review: George Orwell's 1984

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I've just finished reading the Signet Classics version of George Orwell's eerie novel, 1984 (also see here). Hands-down, this is the most disturbing work that I've read in recent memory. What I found so disconcerting is that it was published in 1949, yet in many ways could be describing modern times and the future-path that we're on. At several times throughout the book I wondered if Rove and the Neoconservatives have based their entire approach to governing on the principles represented by the Party. I'll come back to this thought with the quotes below.

This is a definite MUST-READ book for anybody interested in a lot of the modern concepts and terms that we use, particularly with regard to politics. Concepts like doublespeak, and the various abuses of human rights and civil liberties all have a lingua franca derived from this book. Beyond that, the level of technical insight is intriguing. For instance, Orwell envisioned the surveillance society, complete with the Internet and flat-screen televisions. In his vision, the Thought Police (another concept originating here) monitor all members of the Party through their "telescreens." Other concepts discussed include oppression, war, the role of fear, hate, and anger in motivating conformance, and the willingness of a people to turn over power to an oligarchy.

Following are some of the quotes that I found most interesting. The page numbers are from the version linked to above. It's a very inexpensive book, so I really do urge people to buy a copy and give it a read. I've rearranged the order of some of the quotes, not to pull a Michael Moore or anything (if you don't know what I mean by that, check out the documentary Manufacturing Dissent), but to allow thoughts and comments to make more sense.

"Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them." (p214)
Before getting into the more dogmatic themes of the book, it is first vital to understand this basic principle of the book. The ability to practice doublethink is tantamount to continually brainwashing yourself. The best example of this is in the quote below from p181. Does this approach sound familiar at all (self-delusion)? No? Maybe some of the news this week will refresh your memory. For example, posted in's daily update on Friday, they note that:
"Yesterday, Iraqi Security Forces continued their offensive against Shiite militias in Basra, as U.S. forces battled Mahdi Army fighters in Baghdad’s Sadr City and 'tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims' protested the Iraqi government’s crackdown on militiamen. Meanwhile, President Bush asserted yesterday that 'normalcy is returning back to Iraq.'"
Along the same lines, they also note today that both the withdrawal and maintenance of troops in Iraq are simultaneously signs of the success of the Iraq War. Doublespeak means accepting these apparent contradictions without question or compromise. As noted numerous times in the book, if you're told that 2+2=5, then you accept that as being true, even if you actually understand that 2+2=4 in reality. Because, really, what is reality, right? *shudder*
"The speech had been proceeding for perhaps twenty minutes when a messenger hurried onto the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker's hand. He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words said, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd." (p181)
This quote provides an excellent example of doublespeak in action. Without pausing or hesitating, the speaker literally switches from railing against their old enemy, "Eurasia," to speaking against the new enemy "Eastasia." The crowd immediately changes gears and, as described in the book, literally rend their signs and banners as heretical, immediately accepting this new truth.

It evokes memories in my mind of what the Bush administration was able to accomplish in the months and years after 9/11. First, al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were the enemy. Then that enemy seamlessly morphed into the Taliban in Afghanistan. And then, again, it morphed into Saddam Hussein and Iraq. By 2003, however, the hypnotized opposition had begun returning to their senses, and to this day we see an increasing backlash against the Bush administration for their deceit and hysterics.

"The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible." (p34)
I love this quote, because for me it harkens back to the famous "Axis of Evil" speech that Bush delivered a few years ago. It also perfectly underscores the very point of the Iraq invasion, in that Hussein was setup as being absolute evil, incapable of negotiation. Ironically, Hussein (illegally) flew over a Congressional delegation in 2002 in an attempt to defuse the impending war (see news reports here, here, here, andhere). As we all know, however, the victor writes (or rewrites) history, bringing us to the next quote.
""There is a Party slogan dealing with the control of the past," he said. "Repeat it, if you please."
"'Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past,'" repeated Winston obediently" (p248)
I will be very interested in 2009 and beyond, depending on the outcome of the 2008 US Presidential election, to see how attitudes and perceptions will change. It seems to be commonly accepted that the Bush administration has overseen great atrocities, many of which could be brought in a cause of action to the charge of high treason. This is, however, why I fear the election of McCain, or even Clinton. They owe too much to the current regime and way of political life. It seems highly unlikely that either the sell-out or the previously implicated (Whitewater, anybody?) could bring themselves to introduce the justice needed to cleanse a generation of its follies, errors, and iniquities.

Let's return to some more quotes.

The above is noted as the Party slogan early in the book. By the end, we come to understand the meaning of these concepts. The last line pertains to the concept of doublespeak, as noted above (as well as to two other associated concepts, crimestop and blackwhite - literally self-disciplining thought crime out of your head, and being able to accept as directed that black is white, even if you would rationally know otherwise).

The second line addresses the Party belief that the only true freedom is in the control of the party. The first line, remarkably contradicted though it may seem, definitely identifies a core virtue in a fascist society: namely, the need for an enemy that can be used to focus the power of the people.

On the relative unimportance of the mass media given its corruption and manipulation:

"But the issue still struck her as unimportant. 'Who cares?' she said impatiently. 'It's always one bloody war after another, and one knows the news is all lies anyway.'" (p154)

On how the world has regressed (which seems true if you consider that the apparent - not necessarily actual, but apparent - growth in scientific research and discovery seems to have decreased):

"As a whole the world is more primitive today than it was fifty years ago." (p189)

On the people willingly handing over power to an oligarchy (eerie parallels to the post-9/11 environment, Congress blindly passing the USA PATRIOT Act, and other similar transgressions):

" the same time the consciousness of being at war, and therefore in danger, makes the handing-over of all power to a small caste seem the natural, unavoidable condition of survival." (p192)

"It was always at night -- the arrests invariably happened at night. ... In the vast majority of cases there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared, always during the night." (p19)
Extraordinary rendition, anybody?
" the general hardening of outlook that set in round about 1930, practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years -- imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages and the deportation of whole populations -- not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive." (p204)
Gitmo... the public hangings of Iraqi war criminals (e.g. Hussein, Chemical Ali, etc)... torture (e.g. waterboarding)... the recent dismissal of charges against Marines suspected of killing women and children... And, yes, look at the vehement support for the Bush administration that still exists in some remote corners of the country. One would swear that the entire Neoconservative movement is based on Party principles. Of course, the Islamic Fundamentalists could also be lumped into this category (see here for more on that).
"Physical rebellion, or any preliminary move toward rebellion, is at present not possible. From the proletarians nothing is to be feared. Left to themselves, they will continue from generation to generation and from century to century, working breeding, and dying, not only without any impulse to rebel, but without the power of grasping that the world could be other than it is. They could only become dangerous if the advance of industrial technique made it necessary to educate them more highly..." (p210)
In reading the many references to the "proletarians" (aka the lower class), I have begun to wonder, what if the middle class were eliminated altogether? In the book, Orwell talks about how there always has been, and likely always will be, a Low, Middle, and High division within society. He then talks about the High class being the "Inner Party" and the Middle class being the "Outer Party" - all of whom are subject to the Thought Police and the policies outlined above. However, in looking at how we've been abused as a people over the past few years, I almost wonder if the Neoconservatives believe (incorrectly? falsely? foolishly?) that we can all be treated as proletarians? Or perhaps the Middle class is conforming so well to the Party principles that we don't feel inclined to rebel against the atrocities presented?
"Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing." (p266)
Gitmo... Abu Graib... rendition... torture... need I say more?
"The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy -- everything." (p267)
And here we reach the pinnacle concept of commonality. It seems to be one of those key shared values between the Neoconservatives and the Islamic Fundamentalists. Hatred, that insipid emotion that can be used to manipulate and sway even the most rational personal.

Following are a few stories and quotes that I found this week while reading 1984.

Schneier: Craigslist Scam
A rather shocking story about a scam on Craigslist where a malicious individual posted an ad stating that this fellow had left and abandoned his belongings, and that everything was free for the taking. People did not properly validate the ad, but showed up and started taking things. When the owner arrived and tried to tell people that they were in the wrong, they did not listen, but continued to steal. He's recovered some/most of his belongings, but still... how sad is it that people can read an Internet ad and be so blindly stupid as to believe it, leading them to commit crimes? It's like crimestop, blackwhite, and doublethink.

Barry Steinhardt, director the ACLU Technology and Liberty Project, made the following comments recently on DailyKos, sounding very reminiscent of Orwell's Party world:

"I mean, when we warn about a "surveillance society," this is what we’re talking about. This is it, this is the ballgame. Mass data from a wide variety of sources – including the private sector – is being collected and scanned by a secretive military spy agency. This represents nothing less than a major change in American life – and unless stopped the consequences of this system for everybody will grow in magnitude along with the rivers of data that are collected about each of us – and that’s more and more every day."

Le Monde Diplomatique: Why the US has really gone broke
A very interesting treatise on how US military spending over the last 30 years has nearly bankrupted the country, and how it has relied on bullying smaller countries into lending it money. The parallel with 1984 is that one of the Party approaches to oppressing the people is by maintaining a constant state of economy depression, redirect all surplus to the military machine.

Rick Falkvinge: Why the US is collapsing
An interesting, potentially indicting discussion of the growth of fascism in the US, and how lack of fiscal discipline has contributed to the problem. With the dollar no longer being the preferred world currency, we now find ourselves in a significant position of weakness, unable oftentimes to even make payments on our debt. And yet we wage war.

Universal Nation: Can Soft Power Really be Imperial Power? By Jedediah Purdy
Here is an interesting commentary, written very shortly after 9/11, trying to look for the positives in American culture. It essentially says "if, by empire, you mean one of the most generous countries to have existed, then ok, fine, call us an Empire." This article provides a very interesting contrast to the world that Orwell has described.

"On reflection, the staggering thing about American empire-if that term is the right one-may turn out to be its generosity. Other countries have sapped the resources of subject economies. The US submitted to partners, such as Taiwan and Japan, sometimes to the point of national embarrassment-recall the sale of New York's Rockefeller Centre to the Japanese. The US government also ties itself to the same mast as other countries in the WTO. One can debate the wisdom of neo-liberalism, and point to such glaring contradictions as America's vast and persistent agricultural subsidies, but the overall impression is that the US is trying to play fair."

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At the suggestion of a friend I picked up The Ender Quartet Box Set: Ender's Game, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, Children of the Mind and set about reading through it. I'm currently through the first two books, Ender's Game... Read More

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