Sunday, November 20, 2005

Orwell's Oceania and Bush's America: Coming Together

Paris -- Lately, I'm re-reading many of the books I read when I was in high school. Predictably, it's a checkered experience. Some of these cherished works recall, revive and even expand the literary pleasures I enjoyed some 40 years ago; other beloved books betray flaws I overlooked when I was 16. And some of these books reveal insights that were inconceivable back then.

Among my more revelatory experiences has been re-visiting George Orwell’s dystopian classic, "1984." Although Orwell failed to anticipate Western cultural and political reality in the year of his prophecy -- when Reagan and Thatcher ruled real-life Oceania -- he eerily foresaw both the corruption of language and the erosion of civil liberties that marks the second Bush administration, some 20 years beyond 1984 (the year, not the book).

In rereading Orwell, I didn't plan to draw parallels between Big Brother and Boy George. They just kept popping up. I recorded 11 instances in which Orwell somehow anticipated White House jive in the first decade of the 21st century.

For instance, like Orwell's Oceania, Bush's America relies on a constant state of war to instill fear and passion in the masses, and -- in both regimes -- the enemy's identity is an afterthought. Big Brother shifted his enmity from Eurasia to Eastasia and back again. Bush began his bellicose ascendancy by targeting Al Qaeda, then switching to Saddam's Iraq, and now he’s screen-testing among Syria, Iran and Al Qaeda (again) for the role of supervillain. The key, said Orwell is this: "The enemy of the moment always represented absolute evil, and it followed that any past or future agreement with him was impossible."

Note Orwell's stipulation that the purity of the enemy's evil requires that "past" agreements, if they ever existed, must be either forgotten or expunged. Consider, for example, Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Baghdad during the Reagan era, when he was filmed hugging Saddam Hussein. But that never happened, right? We always hated Saddam, and we never sent him vast stockpiles of weapons to help him fight America's previous "enemy of the moment," Iran.

"History has stopped," explained Orwell. "Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right."

Indeed, this White House, as a matter of ideology, loathes even the suggestion that it ever erred. George Bush is pathologically reluctant to admit even the tiniest goof because, as Orwell says, "... by far the more important reason for the readjustment of the past is the need to safeguard the infallibility of the Party. It is not merely that speeches, statistics and records of every kind must be constantly brought up to date in order to show that the predictions of the Party were in all cases right. It is also that no change of doctrine or in political alignment can ever be admitted. For to change one's mind, or even one's policy, is a confession of weakness."

When you think about it, Orwell wrote the monograph for almost every utterance in the oratorical career of President Bush: "It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words."

There is hardly a better thumbnail of the preparations -- by Presidential impresario Karl Rove -- for dog-wagging events such as the "Mission Accomplished" declaration of victory in Iraq on 1 May 2003, or the Grand Ole Opry 9/11 anniversary spectacle in 2005, or Bush's klieg-lit cameo in Jackson Square, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, than this passage from Orwell: "Processions, meetings, military parades, lectures, waxwork displays, film shows, telescreen programs all had to be organized; stands had to be erected, effigies built, slogans coined, songs written, rumors circulated, photographs faked..."

The Bush regime, as a matter of public relations technique, has made into an art form "cognitive dissonance," the ability to sincerely profess two opposite propositions at the same time. Orwell had a simpler term for this skill: "doublethink." It's instructive to recall the definition of "doublethink" while reviewing, for example, Bush's insistence that Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, followed by Bush's later admission that there was no such link, followed by his recent revival of the Saddam-9/11 conspiracy. Orwell: "To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while take account of the reality which one denies..."

Set this sentence against the remarks of a "senior official" of the Bush White House, as quoted by Bob Woodward: "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors."

This is the voice of raw power and sheer arrogance -- which is largely what "1984" was all about. Perhaps the point at which Orwell's Oceania and Bush's America converge are in each regime's attitude toward human cruelty. Orwell gave us the cynically named Ministry of Love and Room 101. Bush has given us Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and "extraordinary rendition" while declaring his personal exemption from the rules of basic human decency embodied in the Geneva Conventions. Power makes its own rules -- and its own reality.

Orwell wrote about this, too: "... But always -- do not forget this, Winston -- always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face -- forever..."

David Benjamin, novelist and journalist, lives and works partly in Paris and partly in Madison, Wisconsin. His latest book is The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked.

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