John Hurt as Winston Smith in 1984 dir. Michael RadfordThe Screaming and Lies and Hatred
When rumours of a new, Tim Robbins-helmed film adaptation of Nineteen-Eighty Four spread in the summer of 2006, I joked with a friend that Robbins’ Big Brother would bear a striking physical resemblance to George W. Bush. This wasn’t a particularly funny joke, though it did speak to the absurd penchant parts of the Left had for demonizing that villainous portmanteau “Bushitler”. Of course Bush is not Hitler, nor does he approach the closest approximation of a modern day Big Brother, Kim Jong-Il, a comparison every westerner who visits The Hermit Kingdom, from the journalist Christopher Hitchens to the cartoonist Guy Delisle, seems unable to resist. North Koreans regularly try to escape from their homeland to the comparative liberty of China. I imagine the notion that the United States is a totalitarian state would strike them as utterly absurd in its naiveté. And yet, in the face of mounting pictorial evidence and declassified legal memos, it becomes clear that over the past eight years, the United States has been engaged in disturbingly routine brutality. Correspondingly, new euphemisms have polluted the American political vocabulary at an alarming rate. “Waterboarding”. “Enhanced Interrogation”. “Extraordinary Rendition”. The corrosive effect politics has on language is readily on display to anyone with a television, or the ability to read a newspaper. Among the many commentators who noted the effect of such terms was William Safire, former conservative columnist for the New York Times:
Some locutions begin as bland bureaucratic euphemisms to conceal great crimes. As their meanings become clear, these collocations gain an aura of horror. In the past century, the final solution and ethnic cleansing were phrases that sent a chill through our lexicon. In this young century, the word in the news ... is waterboarding. If the word torture, rooted in the Latin for ‘twist,’ means anything (and it means the deliberate infliction of excruciating physical or mental pain to punish or coerce), then waterboarding is a means of torture.How troubling, then, that Safire’s former newspaper can rarely bring itself to call waterboarding “torture”, except when practiced by other nations. Here the wilful ignorance of similar facts combines with the destruction of words into a degradation of language that’s horrifyingly visible in real time. Much of the Bush administration’s rush towards torture was achieved through classified legal memos. These top secret documents, many of which were recently declassified by the Obama administration, illustrate attempts to redefine basic English words in troubling detail. Consider the so-called “Bybee Memo”, believed to have been written by Bush administration lawyers John Yoo and David Addington, and signed by Jay Bybee, a federal judge on the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The memo states that for physical pain inflicted on a prisoner to constitute torture, it “must be equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” This redefinition goes far beyond the more modest minimal standards of torture outlined in the Geneva Conventions, the Convention Against Torture, and existing American law. Indeed, it eerily echoes the description of torture in Room 101, the Ministry of Love’s most feared torture site in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The purpose of Room 101 is to expose its victims, those individuals the Party deems guilty of thoughtcrimes, to “the worst thing in the world.” The goal is to deeply traumatize them in preparation for re-education. The cause of this trauma “varies from individual to individual.” For many it’s a gruesome death, but “there are cases where it is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.” “You would like to place [Abu] Zubaydah in a cramped confinement box with an insect,” reads another Bybee memo. “You have informed us that he appears to have a fear of insects. In particular, you would like to tell Zubaydah that you intend to place a stinging insect into the box with him.” For Winston Smith, the worst thing in the world is having his head encased in a mask with two hungry rats. It’s the threat of this treatment that ultimately breaks him. These echoes shouldn’t be surprising. Not when one remembers that Orwell was fictionalizing torture practiced by the very sorts of regimes from which America’s “enhanced interrogation program” was reverse-engineered. If these similarities to Nineteen Eighty-Four are insufficiently shocking, remember that recent reports suggest most of this torture was inflicted after detainees had already told their interrogators everything they knew. The purpose of the torture was to extract intelligence about something no prisoner could provide: the supposed operational link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. Through the inhumanity of Room 101, they sought to create a politically beneficial ersatz history. A Revolutionary Act My intention is not, in my own feeble way, to pile more scorn onto an administration that already looks to be judged harshly by history. Nor do I mean to suggest that a lone American President holds a monopoly on such offences. The egregiousness of the Bush administration’s war crimes, curtailments of civil liberties, and routine mendacity provide the most potent recent examples of such (the term is unavoidable) Orwellian actions, but it is far from an exhaustive catalogue. Consider that even a President that’s in so many ways the antithesis of George W. Bush is prone to milder forms of these offences. The Obama administration’s attempt to rechristen Bush’s War on Terror as “overseas contingency operations” would be laughable if it weren’t evidence of a broader attempt to keep much of the Bush administration’s most objectionable policies in place while making them outwardly more palatable. Perhaps it’s naive to imagine that a citizenry intimately familiar with Orwell’s work would more readily resist its government’s lies and cruelty. I care deeply about literature and journalism, but I recognize how common it is to mistakenly invest things one values with outsized importance and efficacy. But it need not be Orwell providing these lessons. His work is simply an extremely effective conduit for these ideas, expressing them in an accessible manner, guided by piercing moral clarity. Many of its early readers mistook Nineteen Eighty-Four for a jeremiad against Britain. It is, after all, in Orwell’s decimated homeland that the Last Man in Europe resides. In reality, for all his harsh criticism of British political culture, Orwell never mistook post-war Britain for a totalitarian state. He even had harsh words for those, generally on the British Left, who he perceived as vulgarly prone to fits of anti-British sentiment. Nonetheless, Orwell knew that Britain was not uniquely immune to encroachments on liberty. “The scene of the book is laid in Britain,” he explained, “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.” This is the most important lesson Nineteen Eighty-Four has to offer contemporary readers. Those of us lucky enough to inhabit first-world democracies can look to North Korea or Middle Eastern dictatorships with equal parts pity and scorn, and in self-satisfied fashion convince ourselves that great nations like our own could never succumb to such illiberal barbarism. And it’s likely that even such smug self-appraisal would be proven right. For all its faults, Bush’s America remained one of the world’s best countries to live in, but acknowledgement of this fact should not be cause for complacence. The likelihood of the United States, or Britain, or my native country Canada collapsing into a dictatorial police state is infinitesimally slight. But by keeping in mind the many lessons Orwell’s work offers, we can effectively form a bulwark against more modest encroachments, all the while recognizing the deeper, terrible truth: that for all our constitutions and codified liberties, there is ultimately nothing beyond our collective refusal to acquiesce that keeps us from approximating Winston Smith’s “victory over himself”. Even we, even now, can be taught to love Big Brother.
From Michael Anderson\‘s 1956 film version of 1984