“education” \(to take an obvious and proved and textbook-censored indoctrination in ignorance and the “free world” is that portion of the planet composed of allied tyrannies of the right-wing sort. It is a grim and exhausting list, and it could certainly be expanded in length and nuance. I composed it by abstracting from Orwell’s imagined world those aspects which have most in common with our real world. In doing so, I discovered, as I expected, that Orwell is indeed our contemporary not because he was a prophet of some invisible future, but because he understood the internal essence of his own visible present, the post-World War II Europe of 1948. There are those who will object immediately that things are not yet “that bad.” For example, despite tremendous advances in electronic surveillance \(thanks to a bottomless fund of public our televisions do not yet watch us as assiduously as we watch our televisions. But to object to Orwell’s vision on those grounds is as pointless as to object to Swift’s “Modest Proposal” on the grounds that the English in fact do not yet eat Irish children for dinner. Indeed, they do not, any more than Americans make a daily habit of shooting and torturing Nicaraguans and Salvadorans; we simply pay for, and support, a foreign policy under which other people are paid to do it for us. Faced with the actual consequences of our indirect actions \(as Swift somewhat forced to acknowledge our culpability, or even to put an end to it. . . . George Orwell did not invent “doublethink:” he simply gave it a name. Perhaps. But conditions have changed a good deal since the time of Swift, and Orwell’s most important insight was that the major growth industry of the modern state would be that devoted to preventing its citizens from seeing or understanding the consequences of their own or their government’s actions. There are many methods to this end secrecy, claims of national security, misrepresentation and outright lies, statistical manipulation, language designed to obscure or deny the plain facts but the most effective of all is, of course, to find ways of enlisting the complete and abject cooperation of the citizens themselves. Orwell said repeatedly that the worst symptom of totalitarianism, in the long run, is the willingness of citizens especially educated citizens to accede to, to submit to, and finally to support wholeheartedly the oppressions, brutalities, and tyrannies of their governments. It is this transformation of the ordinary citizen, which is figured in the person of Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984. IREMEMBER LAYING the book down with a vague uneasiness that I had not fully grasped the implica tions of Winston’s complete capitulation to his torturers in “Room 101,” nor the fact that he had not merely been beaten down and broken, but instead had been remade in a new, inhuman image a pseudo-man who not only submits to but welcomes the new order. I shuddered at the rats, of course, but I certainly did not understand, as Orwell would have it, that Smith’s betrayal of Julia, his only love, is both inevitable and worse than the rats, in that it represents a conscious choice not only of survival, but of self-assumed brutality of total identification with the torturers. This is a hard outcome, emphasized by the final words of the novel \(“He dangerously of blaming the victim Orwell’s bitter skepticism and elitism always led him in this direction but it is undeniably built into the narrative and into Winston’s character. That is the inescapable meaning of his hard-won recovery of the memory of his selfish childhood role in the death of his mother and sister by starvation. More generally, the Winston Smith we meet and identify with, at the beginning of the book, is a common but hardly admirable social type. A hack journalist in the employ his job is the daily “rectification” of government propaganda he rewrites past news stories, speeches, press releases, the hallowed Times itself, so that each accords with current propaganda. That is, he is in the business of daily lies, of abolishing history. This work, enthralling as it is, requires an amount of conscious schizophrenia, and it is partly this daily self-distortion that leads Smith to buy a journal and begin a private attempt at real writing. The effort is doomed from the first: despite his elaborate precautions, every move he makes has been directly under the eyes of the Thought Police. But it is central to the book’s meaning that Smith should be a writer: a worker in language, a presumed guardian of the linguistic and historical past, who is instead professionally engaged in telling lies. There is a good deal of mordant comedy in Orwell’s depiction of Smith’s daily work-routine. At one point he “creates” an entirely fictional “people’s hero,” Comrade Ogilvy, who sacrifices himself in selfless service to Big Brother. One of Smith’s colleagues is engaged in the suppression of useless words in order to “narrow the range of thought;” another is a poetry editor, the hapless Ampleforth, whose job it is to mutilate editions of English poets. Poor Ampleforth is finally purged and vaporized because, for an edition of Kipling, he cannot find an alternative rhyme for “rod” and “God.” Much of the effect of these episodes derives from the sudden realization that they are already, as Orwell pointed out often in his essays, not very far from the ordinary truth. Anyone who pays close attention to our newspapers knows the ruling principles of popular journalThe final authorities for information are “Journalistic objectivity” requires the permanent assumption of total ignorance international matters, if “they” do it, 18 AUGUST 31, 1984
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