July 2008

On George Orwell's Birthday

By Walter Lee

On this 105th birthday of Eric Arthur Blair, I celebrated by finishing a re-reading of his best known novel, 1984.  Eric Arthur Blair is best known by his nom de plume, “George Orwell.”  The name has become inseparably linked to totalitarian government, surveillance, and mind control. Of course, Orwell wrote to warn of the dangers of such things; not to promote them.


I read the novel in high school, and had forgotten many of the specifics.  The world of Winston Smith in some ways feels much like the world of today: government intrusion into every aspect of life; perpetuation of continuous war; an undefined, unknowable enemy which promotes emotion-based fear and hatred while somehow justifying all government action.


Perhaps the most troubling aspect is Orwell’s idea of a “mutable past.”  History, even recent history, refuses to stay fixed in the Orwellian world. In my childhood and youth I really didn’t understand this point.  Now I do. Two weeks ago, I received an email advising me to tune into C-SPAN.  Articles of impeachment were being introduced against President George Bush.  Dennis Kucinich was about an hour into his four and a half hour presentation of 35 articles of impeachment. Each of us may have differing opinions as to the substance of the indictments, but the fact that a member of the House of Representatives had introduced them was news.  I got up the next morning and headed to the television to see how this major story was playing out.  To my surprise, there was only the normal drivel on all the major networks, CNN and FOX.  I went to their respective websites.  Nothing!  I found a few references on isolated blogs, but even Google pointed towards the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton.  There was not a single hit on the 12 hour old “news” story on the first three pages.


How could this happen?  How could an impeachment of the President be introduced in Congress and not be news worthy?  Unfortunately, it’s not news until they say it’s news. 


In the book, Winston Smith is employed by the “Ministry of Truth”.  His job is to continually re-write history so all records of past events reinforce whatever “truth” Big Brother is propounding today.  The enemy in “the war” shifts. History is re-written so that they’ve always been the enemy.  Former enemies are now allies.  This is not gradual re-interpretation of fixed events.  It is not the presentation of new evidence that things were not as most thought. It is a declaration that events never happened; of ignoring the things that did; or inventing totally fictitious events that support the desired understanding of reality.  As Orwell says, “The past controls the future, and the present controls the past.”


 It’s easy to ridicule those who deny the holocaust, but there are those who say it never happened.  Likewise, the moon landing is honestly believed to be propaganda by some.  Blair/Orwell raises the question, “How do we know?”  The issue goes well beyond the objective reality of events.  Contrasted interpretations often seem mutually exclusive.  Is American chattel slavery to be defined by Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Gone With the Wind?   Does the Warren Committee’s Report, or Oliver Stone’s JFK define the Kennedy assassination?  Did  Saddam Hussein’s leadership of Iran justify the current war (police action, nation building, whatever it is)?  How are we to know?  Do we live in a world facts can be discerned or a world where we accept the idea that other people can or should define the reality for us?


Maybe we do.  I write this on the eve of the Supreme Court’s announcement of its “Heller” decision (Washington D.C. gun case).  We are waiting for the SCOTUS to tell us what the 2nd Amendment means.  We wait for a legally defining interpretation of our national history.  The court may rule that the Framers and their followers proclaimed a fundamental right of the people.  They might rule that the words must be understood in the way various Appeal Courts have read them for the past 40 years. The specific of their ruling is not my issue, at least here.  The issue is that reality will defined by a decision made behind far away closed doors.


There will be contrarians, some on them on the courts. Unless there is revolution, those who make policy and interpret law throughout the nation will come to heel.  They will say, “This is reality.  The majority of the Supremes have spoken.  Whatever we thought before goes down ‘the memory hole.’  This is the way it is.”  And if the D.C. law is overturned, according the precedent of Marbury v. Madison, this is the way that it’s always been.


 All of Orwell’s predictions have not come to pass.  However, 1984 reminds us how important it is to consider what we know and how we know it. There are reports that stories on Google.com have been known to disappear.  With so much of our collective memory on the web, those who shape information technology shape reality.  If all evidence of a story disappears, did the event happen?  If a fictitious story or theory is repeated often enough, does it become reality? 


What role does memory (individual or collective) play in our worlds?  If individual memories conflict with collective memory, is that insanity?   Is what happened, more than the sum of individual memories?  Court watchers know that eye witnesses are prone to error.  There are times when I learn that even some of my memories are faulty. I certainly know not to trust everything that has been written down. In these days of individual and collective Altzheimer’s—in this day and age where we recognize the possibility of implanted memories—all traditional understandings of history and reality are called into question.


The issue reveals wheels inside of wheels.  The complexity gives me a headache.  I wish at times that I could get past it and come to love Big Brother, but thus far, I can’t.






Thank you, Mr. Blair.