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A BOOK WORTH REVISITING:
GEORGE ORWELL’S NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR

By David Berger

On the 26th of October 2005 US President George W. Bush declared that in Iraq “there can be no peace without victory”. In other words, he was saying that war is essential for peace. This made me think of Orwell’s novel where one of the three oxymoronic Party slogans was “War is Peace”. Also during 2005, the Russians, ironically, became the latest population to become addicted to the globally popular reality TV show, “Big Brother”, named after a key idea in Orwell’s novel set in Oceania where,

“it was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time... you had to live, did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

The enigmatic mustachioed Big Brother of Oceania is so called because he is kind, protective and all powerful. It is best to love him. He personifies a government which has concern for every aspect of the individual’s welfare. One might imagine that such brotherly love would even extend to something as simple as employment relations. Australia is witnessing changes in this field, however some people fear that such ‘work choice’ changes might promote a frightened and competitive individualism that is not very brotherly at all. Perhaps, some say, these changes will only produce a type of work ethic akin to servitude. Again this is reminiscent of Oceania, where another slogan of the Party was “Freedom is Slavery”.

Orwell’s novel was written in 1948 as a satire to warn against the possibility of the triumph of a soviet-style socialism in Britain. He set his story in the future (by simply reversing 1948 into 1984) where “The Party” (of Ingsoc, English Socialism) controlled everyone and everything in society by deception, fraud, lies and surveillance. Against this world of face-crime, thought-crime, two-way telescreens and spying children, Winston Smith attempts to rebel. His first act of rebellion is to begin keeping a personal diary (a crime punishable by death). His second is to fall in love with Julia (supposedly an anti-sex league fanatic) and to meet her in secret places beyond the prying eye of the telescreen and Big Brother, for illicit love and sex. Finally Winston joins ‘the Brotherhood’ an ironically named clandestine underground resistance movement. In doing this, he and Julia set themselves up for an end in which they may eventually be vaporized and every trace of their existence will be removed from all records – they will have never existed, not just ‘personae non gratiae’ but, in the language of ‘newspeak’, unpersons.

Throughout the novel there are references to ‘double-think’ and ‘newspeak’.  Double-think is the ability, fostered in all Party members (including Winston and Julia), of being able to believe in two opposite ideas at the same time. An example of this is to believe simultaneously that the earth is both round and flat, if the Party wants people to believe that. Newspeak is a futuristic English which is shorn of adjectives, adverbs, synonyms and obsolete nouns such as ‘freedom’ (because that word is not descriptive of any concept in the future). Recently Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defence, spoke to a gathering of reporters in Brussels to describe the state of war and terror in the world saying,

“There are no knowns. There are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns - that is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know but there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know. So when we do the best we can and we pull all this information together, and we then say, ‘Well, that’s basically what we see as the situation’, that is really only the known knowns and the known unknowns. And each year we discover a few more of those unknown unknowns.”

An inner-Party member from Winston’s Oceania might have described Rumsfeld, in newspeak terms, as a doubleplusgood duckspeaker.

Another intriguing aspect of Nineteen Eighty-Four is the constant existence of warfare between the three great political spheres on the earth: Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. Oceania comprises Britain, the Americas, Australia-New Zealand and southern Africa; Eurasia is Europe and Russia; while Eastasia is made up of Mongolia, China, Japan and South and South East Asia. The areas where fighting (allegedly) occurs are the disputed lands of Africa, the Middle East and the Poles.

Winston and Julia eventually realise that the threat of war, and the occasional incoming rocket-bomb with its ensuing lethal explosion, may only be a deliberate stratagem by the Party to terrify its own people into accepting a state of continuous warfare, which in turn provides stability. Importantly, the Party needs to induce fear and hatred in the populace against a largely unseen enemy, so it exaggerates the risk of war and attack; it keeps the people frightened in order to restrict human rights, justify tight security and surveillance and enhance its own power.

In our modern western democracies we would see this as abhorrent. Our governments would not induce an exaggerated fear in us because there have always been enemies of the state, there is nothing new about terrorists, anarchists, rebels or deadly enemies trying to attack their own or other countries.  But what could be new today is the deliberate use of the spectre of Terror by governments, assisted by a ‘dumbing-down’ media, to limit our rights and to make us give unquestioning loyalty. I find it interesting that Orwell’s shadowy, evil, routinely televised personification of opposition to Ingsoc’s Party, Emmanuel Goldstein, can be seen in today’s propaganda about Osama Bin Laden.

There is really only one crime in Oceania, and that is ‘thoughtcrime’. It is the special area of investigation of the thought-police from the Ministry of Love.  ‘Thoughtcrime’ does not depend on what has been done, but only on what might happen if someone may think in what could appear to be a seditious manner. Is it possible that Australia could make it a crime to think ‘seditiously’?

Not all Oceania’s Britons are in the Party, like Winston and Julia. The majority, the ‘proles’, go about their lives much as the working class has always done, being concerned only with beer, sex, lotteries and sport. The Party keeps them entertained and ignorant – they will not be a source of revolt. The third Party slogan was “Ignorance is Strength”. Fiction machines and song machines create novels and tunes of mental pap for the masses. Once upon a time in Australia people used to create their own New Year’s Eve parties and Bonfire Nights – today the government organises our entertainment for us, under the beneficent gaze of myriad surveillance cameras (“Big Brother Is Watching You”).

Government by the Party in Oceania is carried out by four departments: “the Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture, the Ministry of Plenty with starvation”, their names are deliberate exercises in doublethink.  Winston and Julia work in the Ministry of Truth. Part of Winston’s job is to manipulate the past in old newspapers and records, so that there can be no previous record or report to gainsay what the Party might say in the present. It is akin to postmodernism’s penchant for rewriting history, or George W. Bush recently saying that those who had called into question the existence of weapons of mass destruction, as the excuse for the war in Iraq, were now trying to rewrite history. The inner-Party member, O’Brien, says at one stage to Winston, “Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past... does the past exist? ... We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories... we control the past...”

The secret trysting place above Mr Charrington’s antique shop appears to be ideal, the chance for Winston and Julia to grasp something of a long-lost lifestyle: privacy, simplicity and romance. But then there is the betrayal and arrest, always expected but never anticipated. We know it had to be that way; truth and beauty cannot be allowed to succeed, decency and honesty must be mocked.

They were seduced by the system into trying to overcome that very system, but it only allowed them enough freedom until it moved to mock them. They were seduced and mocked by O’Brien, Charrington, the Party, and their own frail and imprisoned humanity.

Orwell’s novel should not be left to moulder on old book shelves, nor be read only by sixteen year olds at high school. It carries a message for us today, a message made more poignant than ever by the erosion of our rights and freedoms in the names of economics and terrorism

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