George Orwell was Wrong

George Orwell's 1984 loomed over my childhood. Years prior to the prevalence of futuristic fiction portraying post-nuclear wastelands, 1984 seemed the most horrifying future possible, one of complete regimentation, hypocrisy, cruelty and the denial of human dignity. While schoolteachers assigned 1984 presumably to give us an impression of what life was like under Soviet communism, the effort backfired: the world portrayed in the book seemed like a reflection of my own public school, P.S. 193, in a distorted mirror, with the principal's office substituting for the torture room described as the "place where it is always light."

The disturbing premise for which 1984 stands is that human beings can be brainwashed. If you revise history enough to serve your purposes, and shout at them in classrooms and from loudspeakers, sealing the one-sided social contract with violence against the independent, humans will fall into line, Orwell said, like so many sheep. People will believe whatever they are told, and are no better than automatons. Reading 1984 can make you feel depressed and suicidal, as if there is no hope for the race and we may as well end it now.

In retrospect, 1984 itself is a revision of history, and the school's use of it to influence us against communism itself seems a form of attempted brainwashing. I do not know enough about Orwell to know whether, in writing it, he was most concerned about the evils of Soviet society or of his own, but the portrait he gives both in 1984 and of Animal Farm of shifting allegiances certainly shows that he knew that realpolitik ultimately ignores all moral issues and will sit down to breakfast with a murderer--or commit murder--when that suits its purposes. A story worthy of Orwell is the one which describes the Nixon administration effort to find a rationale for the bloody U.S.-supported coup in Chile. One adviser suggested the strategic geographical importance of Chile. Kissinger, barely able to keep a straight face, replied, "Yes....Chile is a dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica."

The schools I attended made a show of democracy and of justice without any substance. We held student elections, but the opinions the candidates were allowed to utter came from a cookie cutter, as we discovered in 1968 when a candidate campaigning against the Vietnam war was removed from the ballot. "Another nail in your coffin," the dean observed when this individual made his last defiant speech before the school assembly. At a meeting held to explain to parents this and certain other repressive measures, the principal observed, "What? And let them vote for anyone they want?" Smiling, urbane Dean Wolf would call you into his office and make you understand that you were a piece of shit, beyond redemption. President Nixon, nervous and shaky, would appear on television to describe acts of murderous madness in a vocabulary so technically and morally indirect and obtuse that it was hard not to draw the parallel to the official explanations of the endless strategic repositionings of the great powers in 1984.

The difference, as I came to understand, between 1984 and reality was not the behavior of leadership, which easily slides into lies, torture and empty words, but the nature of human beings, who cannot easily be led or changed. While all of the torments human beings inflict on one another derive from this feature, so do human resilence and persistence. Rather than there being an endless variety of human natures, as the ethical relativists say, there is only one, with relatively trivial local variations. Or, to put it another way, the human heart varies much less than human custom does. An article in yesterday's New York Times, reporting on Islamic African women, described how much they hate polygamy, though they have lived with it for centuries. Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, quoting an earlier work of sociology in his book On Human Nature, lists the things all human cultures have in common:

Age-grading, athletic sports, bodily adornment, calendar, cleanliness training, community organization, cooking, cooperative labor, cosmology, courtship....

And so on, including ethics, government, and law.

We were taught in school that the Soviet people were not like us, a preliminary demonization of the other that is the necessary prelude to war or murder. But when the Soviet system was dismantled in the 1980's, we found out that, contrary to Orwell, seven decades of Soviet rule had not succeeded at all in changing human nature. The worst and the most beautiful part of human beings, both of which had been threatened and suppressed by the Soviets, had simply behaved like the insect described by Thoreau:

Everyone has heard the story, which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterwards in Massachusetts, --from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn.... Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at the first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb,--heard perchance gnawing out now for many years by the astonished family of man, as they sit round the festive board,-- may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!

Thus, people who had been born under Soviet rule, and who never had known anything else, who had been taught that property is theft and that common ownership of the means of production is the solution, that democracy is oligarchy and that dictatorship of the proletariat is the remedy, emerged from the Sovet collapse desiring material things and with an urging for democracy.

But Communist rule in eastern Europe had also damped down hatred and murderous impulses, and the slaughter in Yugoslavia represents the return of the repressed just as much as elections in Russia do. From this point of view, Thoreau was an optimist. The human heart is strong and resilient, and completely recalcitrant. You can make laws or exercise terror to make people mute, but you cannot make them want to give up their voices. You can make people refrain from murder, but it appears you cannot make them love their neighbor, or even make them not murderous. When the Soviet snows melted away, all life, it seems, went on before.

Orwell was a hysteric. He believed that government can instill fanaticism. Perhaps it can for a short time, but humans bend back to their original shape, like the grass after the hound has arisen from its sleep. It seems more likely, if you look around the world today, that fundamentalisms arise in opposition to government, not because of it. Like democracy and capitalism, government of any kind and fundamentalism follow different rulebooks. Fundamentalism, like capitalism, is a means to an end; fundamentalists believe that the kingdom of heaven, whatever that represents to them, will reign on earth, or that the millenium will arrive and end everything and we will live in heaven. But all governments, even autocratic ones, obey a law of permanence which contradicts all fundamentalism. Once fundamentalists conquer, as they did in Iran, the bureaucrats and pragmatists come to the fore. Running around, screaming and seizing embassy buildings is all very well, but someone must make sure the milk is delivered and the trains run. 1984 represented a world of constantly organized alarms and diversions, show trials, and other spectacles to keep people diverted, frightened and obedient; but the Soviet, Iranian and Chinese experiences all prove that you can only keep that up for so many decades. Not only are the people not convinced, but after a while even the leaders tire and cannot continue. The experiment, as T.S. Eliot said, ends "not with a bang but a whimper." A bittersweet article in the Times described Iranian teenagers, born under the government of the mullahs, sneaking up into the mountains where the girls can take off the chador and everyone behaves like teenagers everywhere, while Iranian politicians try to convince the West that the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, though it can never be rescinded, will not be "enforced". In China, everyone knows it is just a matter of time until the promise made by and to the young man who stood in front of the tank--the most moving image of the late twentieth century--is fulfilled.

The French have a typically cynical saying, "tout casse, tout passe, tout lasse"--everything breaks, everything passes, everything wears out. While, as Robert Frost told us, "nothing gold can stay," it also seems to be true that evil wears out eventually. While the murder in Bosnia represents all human irrationality--pride, hypocrisy, covetousness, hate, and the willingness to demonize and kill--the decision by the PLO and Israel to lay down arms also demonstrates that humans cannot keep up this business of killing for many decades before they desire to stop and become better, different and quieter than they were. Shakespeare's words,

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind...

apply to evil structures as well as to good ones. Long before I married, thinking about the oft-repeated statistics that one or even two out of three marriages ended in divorce, I imagined that there should be nothing easier in the world than for a man and woman to live together happily, mixing mutual recognition and love, making life sweet for one another. For the same reasons, there is nothing simpler than for men to live in peace with one another as well. The desire for quiet, for good cheer, for comfort, is as deeply rooted within us as the contradictory desire for ownership, dominance and adventure.

Philip K. Dick portrayed in The Man in the High Castle a vision of Nazi Germany triumphant, forty years after the war. A moderate faction is coming to the fore, struggling for dominance, renouncing the excesses of its forebears. It is easy to imagine, for it has happened in so many other places and times in the world. One imagines German children playing games of "SS and Jews", then a gradual turnabout revealed, forty or fifty years after the event, by the growth of a literature and cinema idealizing the murdered Jews and yearning for them, culminating in an award-winning film starring matinee idol Karl Kostner, Dances with Jews....

Moderation is what we achieve in a state of rest, while fundamentalism represents the results of motion and disturbance. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, as represented in the French saying, "tout lasse", reassures us that, contrary to Orwell, there is no such thing as a malevolent structure in a steady state. Evil always recurs but always wears out. Exhaustion is our best guarantee of moral, if not technological progress. Dawn comes after sleep. Thoreau concluded Walden, immediately after telling the story of the bug, with these words:

Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.