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Let's talk, eh? A contemporary response to Orwell's 1984

In 1984, Winston and Julia read from the secret book supposedly circulated by the rebels of Oceania. The book is a lampoon of Marxist rhetoric; it is the equal opposite of the Party's lies. Poorly written. Poorly argued. As much a killer of thought as the Thought Police. In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell sought to provide a remedy -- better language, better politics, better world.

by Michael Bryson

It has been twenty years since I first read 1984, and while much has changed with the world and me, the book is still powerful. The first time I read it, I was fifteen years old. The year was 1983. There was much talk in the popular press about whether Orwell’s "vision" had come true. I wanted to read the book before its calendar year arrived. I did, and it burned images into my brain.

How indelible those images were I’ve only just discovered. Reading 1984 again, I experienced many flashbacks. Most prominently remembered was an image of myself, Orwell’s novel clutched between my fingers, my adolescent body laid out on a bed in my grandmother’s house. She had died earlier in the year. It was Christmas season; time was running out; I had to read this book, perhaps my first "adult" book ever.

Other flashbacks came from the book itself: the girl from the Fiction Department, O’Brien, the Golden Country, telescreens, the diary with the speck of dust, rats, and, of course, Room 101. Some of these provoked true flashbacks, others are images that have never left me or have been absorbed by the culture at large. Room 101, for example, plays a role in Martin Amis’s novel, Money.

However, the book also startled me. First, I hadn’t expected to find a subtext about language. In the world of 1984, the official language of the Party is Newspeak. I’d forgotten this, though I remembered some of its ramifications; such as the slogan WAR IS PEACE, which is classic "doublespeak," itself a Newspeak word.

The second fact that startled me stems from the first; the tool of power in 1984 is language. The Party is all powerful, and it uses all of the institutions of the state to maintain its power, including violence on a global scale (war) and violence on the personal scale (torture). But its primary means of maintaining power is language, and Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, is intimately involved in both constructing and deconstructing the "how" of the Party’s dominance.

When I was fifteen, Orwell’s focus on language in 1984 couldn’t have been more than a curiosity to me; however, in the twenty years since I read the novel, my personal and professional interests have circled around and around this subject so many times that it is at the centre of my thoughts on many subjects. To speak more plainly, I left high school, picked up two English degrees, and now work as a communications professional for the Ontario government.

In my post-secondary education I read Orwell’s famous essay "Politics and the English Language," which begins: 

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent, and our language--so the argument runs--must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes.

This essay makes it clear that Orwell assumes language is "an instrument we shape for our own purposes." His rhetoric is optimistic. We shape language, he argues, therefore, the hope for the English language (and politics, and, by extension, the fate of humanity) lies in people making good choices. What’s interesting here, I think, is that 1984 implies the opposite; 1984 is bleakly pessimistic. The citizens of Oceania do not shape language; they are shaped by language.

Orwell published "Politics and the English Language" a half-decade before 1984, which was first published in 1949. Which raises the question: Did Orwell change his mind? Did his optimism wither? I think not. I think he was arguing the same position from opposite sides; that is, he choose separate, opposed rhetorical strategies to argue the same point. What’s his point? Language is the tool of power – and to avoid creeping totalitarianism one must demand clarity and plain speaking.

By the late-1940s, Orwell had been through innumerable ideological battles – and he knew only too well the intellectual and physical costs of war and other forms of power-mongering. One is tempted to say that his idealism had been shattered; he had gone to fight in the Spanish Civil War and was nearly murdered by fighting between factions on his own side. During World War II, he joined the battle against the Axis powers by taking a post at the BBC, where he worked as a type of propagandist for the Empire his earlier writings (such as his personal essay "Shooting an Elephant") had worked so hard to undermine.

In his book on Orwell, The Crystal Spirit, Canadian essayist George Woodcock documents Orwell’s conflicted influences, particularly how the Toryism of his private school days that never left him, even during his days down and out in London and Paris. (During WWII, Woodcock was in England, an anarchist and pacifist, and the object of scorn in some of Orwell’s wartime journalism; though when the met, Woodcock was surprised to find Orwell so pleasant, non-adversarial, even charming.) Quintessentially British, Orwell was ever the polite gentleman, though he was vigorous in his thoughts and could be cold-blooded in his words.

And so, I do not believe he was ever as optimistic as "Politics and the English Language" suggests, nor as pessimistic as the tone of 1984 might lead one to believe. And here I would like to add a point from Thomas Pynchon’s recent introduction to a new edition of the novel. Pynchon pointed out that 1984 includes an appendix – The Principles of Newspeak – which is written in the past tense: "Newspeak was the official language of Oceania." The use of the past tense implies that either Newspeak is no longer the official language of Oceania – or perhaps the nightmare of Oceania has ended; the proles have revolted and won.

*

Since I started writing this essay some months ago, I've been reading newspapers with an eye for examples of reportage that link the world today to the world of 1984. There are many, too many to cite in volume. I want to draw attention to only a few, some that draw attention to the "language is power" thesis outlined above.

On September 11, 2001, we began (or were drawn into) a War on Terrorism. I say "we" to mean not just Canadians, or Americans, or "the West," but all who wish to continue the post-Enlightenment project: building a world based on individual liberty, justice and rationality. This is, of course, not how President Bush frames the question of the war, but it is how I frame it. I also want to know that I have used the phrase War on Terrorism without quotation marks - and have not called it the so-called War on Terrorism. An international battle has been engaged and our best interests are served by winning it.

However - I know you were waiting for the however - the War on Terrorism is not a real war (yes, I know: people have died, are dying, will die). The War on Terrorism is a metaphor, like the War on Drugs (which has also killed people), or the War on Poverty (which kills people, too). A real war is between states or between groups of states. The War on Terrorism is a metaphor for a global police action; it is necessary, tricky, and - like the War on Drugs or the War on Poverty - it is likely to go on for a long time.

However - yes, another one - here we enter the territory of 1984. I am not the first to say this, but it bears repeating; the War on Terrorism as it has been framed by President Bush draws a striking parallel to the perpetual war the people of Oceania find themselves in. Hobbes, The New York Times reported recently, is Vice-President Cheney's favorite philosopher (on the campaign trail George Bush said his was Jesus Christ). Hobbes - who is not a comic strip pet tiger - believed that society was in a state of perpetual war. As the Merriam-Webster online dictionary states it: "the Hobbesian theory [was] that people have a fundamental right to self-preservation and to pursue selfish aims but will relinquish these rights to an absolute monarch in the interest of common safety and happiness." If you're not with us, you're against us; the enemy is out there clamoring to get you. Join us, and we will protect you; abandon us and we guarantee nothing.

This is the world of the current American administration; this is the world of Oceania, one Orwell opposed, one Orwell analyzed in order to articulate how language helps the powerful gain and maintain status and control. But let me state again that I do not believe Orwell was pessimistic. In fact, in re-reading 1984 I was surprised to find some lyrical passages that owe a lot to Keats and nothing to Kafka. The Golden Country: Orwell's Jerusalem (to borrow an image both from Blake and the Bible). The place where Winston and Julia hide from the Party, make love, talk freely, listen to birds sing, dream of a world where they don't have to watch every word, censor every thought. Preston Manning was fond of calling the Reform Party's politics "the common sense of the common people." That phrase contains the danger of nativism, but it is also the root of Orwell's optimism. As Woodcock argues in The Crystal Spirit - Orwell's Toryism never left him; he never shook the belief that individuals, if they trust themselves, contain a common sense that cannot be obliterated. No matter what Big Brother says. No matter how much professional jargon or other abstractions infect the English language. Individuals can choose; individuals can make a difference - perhaps only individuals can make a difference; everyone making good choices, maintaining appropriate decorum.

What I want to reinforce here is this . . . If there is hope, Winston Smith says more than once, it must lie in the proles. Why? They never lost their humanity, and humanity is naturally good (the kids are all right). The Party cannot defeat the proles; it can only manipulate them (and in 1984, the Party is very nearly perfect at doing that, though Pynchon's argument is intriguing; perhaps the revolution has come and gone).

The point here, of course, is that Hobbes was wrong. That is one of the pillars of Orwell's legacy. He followed another 17th century philosopher: John Locke. Locke's views are often contrasted with the views of Hobbes. I quote from the biographies website:

In uncivilized times, in times before government, Hobbes asserted there existed continual war with "every man, against every man." A time of "no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." On this point Locke and Hobbes were not in agreement (emphasis added). Locke, consistent with his philosophy, viewed man as naturally moral. The reason man would willingly contract into civil society is not to shake his brutish state, but rather that he may advance his ends (peace and security) in a more efficient manner. To achieve his ends man gives up, in favour of the state, a certain amount of his personal power and freedom.

Locke maintained that the original state of nature was happy and characterized by reason and tolerance. He further maintained that all human beings, in their natural state, were equal and free to pursue life, health, liberty, and possessions; and that these were inalienable rights. Pre-social man as a moral being, and as an individual, contracted out "into civil society by surrendering personal power to the ruler and magistrates," and did so as "a method of securing natural morality more efficiently." To Locke, natural justice exists and this is so whether the state exists, or not, it is just that the state might better guard natural justice.

*

From The New York Times (September 11, 2003):

Israelis' ability to adapt, and defy, these bombings demonstrates the amazing strength of this society. When bus bombings first started, for a week after an explosion few people would ride the buses. Now they're right back on them after an hour. The radios used to stop playing upbeat music after a bombing; now they don't hesitate. I have an Israeli friend who constantly worries about suicide bombers. But when I asked her to ask her teenage daughter, Tali Weiss, whether she felt angry about them, her daughter snapped back at her mom, "I'm angry that you don't let me go out" after a bombing.

Continuous war. Fear. Control. If there is hope, it lies in the proles: "let me go dancing." The quotation is from an article by Thomas L. Friedman, which concludes:

Suicide bombing is becoming so routine here [in Israel] that it risks becoming embedded in contemporary culture. America must stop it. A credible peace deal here is no longer a U.S. luxury - it is essential to our own homeland security. Otherwise, this suicide madness will spread, and it will be Americans who will have to learn to live with it.

The danger - Orwell tells us - isn't that suicide bombings will spread (the continuous war will continue); the danger lies in the way the war maintains the status and control of the Party. The physical violence is a manifestation and expansion of the violence against language. In "Politics and the English Language" Orwell writes: "Now, it is clear that the decline of language must ultimately have political and economic causes . . . and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration." 

What is "political regeneration"? One might more easily say what it is not. For this point, I thank Doug Saunders and his December 13, 2003 column in The Globe and Mail. In his column, Saunders recounts two recent encounters with people who told him they have decided to "tune out" mainstream media: one because he believes mainstream media are too right-wing, the other because she believes mainstream media are too "liberal." Saunders concludes:

About seven years ago, a U.S. professor names Joseph Turow warned that we are breaking up into "image tribes," which see only the information that advertisers present to their pre-selected group. He was almost right: Instead of having this tribalization done to us, though, we are increasingly deciding to do it to ourselves.

What is "political regeneration"? Orwell would say it has something to do with small-s socialism. Martin Luther King would say it has to do with civil rights. Pierre Trudeau would say it would provide everyone with equal opportunity. Gloria Steinem would say it would have to include the full integration of women into all roles in society. I'm not going to attempt a definition, except to say that Orwell obviously meant to generate momentum for progressive causes, to give voice to the have-nots, to fight against arbitrary power and inherited influence. And let's also say that he was against stupidity on both the left and the right. Let's be clear that no political platform is bereft of idiocy. "The common sense of the common people": it's all we can depend on - and it's ever shifting.

My cousin tells me her nine-year-old daughter rolls her eyes every time 9/11 is mentioned on the news. When the Twin Towers fell, she was only seven. She is already tired of all the 9/11 talk she hears. She reminds me of the catch phrase from an ancient television commercial: "Where's the beef?" Orwell would like that question; it's simple, direct, to the point. "Where are the weapons of mass destruction?" is the question that may yet bring down the government of the United Kingdom's Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Both the style and substance of George Bush's administration is shaping up to be the "ballot question" for 2004's presidential election. American democracy is "self-correcting" wrote the American diplomat who quit is high profile post in the months leading up to Iraq War II. A lot depends on whether or not that statement is true. A lot depends on whether one believes American democracy needs correcting. (A lot depends on a red wheelbarrow, said William Carlos Williams - who knew what he was talking about.) 

Political regeneration is impossible if the trend outlined in Saunders column expands. In a recent essay on book reviewing, I wrote:

You'll never learn anything unless you are open to the other; at the same time, you have a right to stake out your ground and defend it. Some might say it's more than a right; it's duty. Book reviewing confirms the paradox of relationship: How to be open to the other and secure in the self at the same time? It's no contradiction. It's the essence of the job. 

What's good for book reviewing, is good for democracy. What's good for democracy, is good for all of us. Being "open to the other" is not rocket science; it is the necessary component that turns debate to dialogue. It can make information knowledge, can even make it wisdom.

In another article from the September 11, 2003 New York Times, Robert Wright wrote:

Putting yourself in the shoes of people who do things you find abhorrent may be the hardest moral exercise there is. But it would be easier to excuse American who refuse to try if they didn't spend so much time indicting Islamic radicals for the same refusal. Somebody has to go first, and if nobody does we're all in trouble.

Wright is author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny.

*

George W. Bush is the greatest threat to world peace. So said Margaret Atwood, Canada's honourary camp counselor, according to Shelagh Rogers when she hosted CBC Radio's "Morningside." Orwell might have agreed with this, too, but I doubt it. In fact, if British journalist and political commentator Christopher Hitchens is right, Orwell may well have enlisted at Camp Dubya. (He worked for the BBC during WWII, remember; Orwell was no friend of the British Empire, but the Axis powers needed to be defeated.) I find Hitchens argument hard to believe, however. He clearly hopes the military action in Iraq, for example, will create Arab democracies, but he displays little of his usual fierce skepticism for the motivations of Empire.

(Bush is the anti-democratic president; won office on fewer votes than his opponent, locks up suspects without trial or access to lawyers, invades countries by declaring "pre-emptive" war, uses his State of the Union address to spread lies about Iraqi uranium . . . and then there's his domestic policy agenda . . . . See, for example, Bob Herbert's description of the Bush administration's amendments to medicare [New York Times, Dec. 8/03]: 

The drug benefit will be delivered almost entirely through private insurance plans. It would have been more efficient and cheaper to deliver it the same way other Medicare benefits are delivered. But that's not the idea. The Bush administration has mastered the art of legalized banditry, in which tons of government money — the people's money — are hijacked and handed over to the special interests.

The Newspeak spin on the Bush administration's changes to medicare are, of course, that the administration is selling the biggest changes to medicare since 1965 as "giving seniors peace of mind".) 

The challenge 1984 presents us with is the same challenge Orwell confronted in 1939: How to do what's right without doing what's wrong? In 1939 (and earlier), Orwell struggled with how to pursue progressive politics in a highly polarized climate that presented no ideal options. Fight the evil that must be fought, he concluded. Fight one battle at a time. WWII won, he turned to saving the English language - and promoting "political regeneration." Today, we face a similar crisis: How to defeat the terrorists without turning our democracy into a lie? without turning our democracies into Oceania?

This is no idle question.

In the months after 9/11 (cue rolling of eyes), the U.S. released a foreign affairs policy paper that called for U.S. global dominance.

Canada's Prime Minister Paul Martin reiterated the week before he was sworn in on December 12, 2003 that American authorities must honour Canadian passports (contra to the experience of the Syrian-born Canadian whom U.S. authorities shipped from New York to a Syrian torture chamber). The U.S. ambassador to Canada responded by saying the U.S. would do whatever it felt necessary to protect itself. Yes, but. Dear America: Do not kill those things that make you great. The rule of law is the rule of law; it cannot be reconstructed arbitrarily. Just ask Bill Clinton. It doesn't matter what the definition of "is" is. One of the pillars of your revolution was the fight against arbitrary power; do not accede to it now.

In 1984, Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth. His job consists of re-writing old news stories to ensure that the past matches the present. People who have fallen out of favour are removed from official photographs. Industrial quotas are revised. Old enemies are now allies - and have always been allies. In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera writes about how this exact thing happened in Soviet-run Czechoslovakia. My opinion is that Orwell was projecting his own thoughts and feelings about the contemporary media of his day into his depiction of Winston's job. 

Closer to home, it has become common practice for new government's coast to coast to revise the financial statements of previous administrations. Clearly, the past is not stable. The New York Times famously publishes "all the news that's fit to print," but one does not need to be a Noam Chomsky acolyte to see that the media -- and government's -- construct and defend their version of reality (Chomsky calls this "manufacturing consent") in every detail of their presentation. 

[Seminar question: Is The Danforth Review any different?]

Let's look at how we now view Syria, for example. Syria was once described as a terrorist-sponsoring state. Now, U.S. authorities are nonplussed about shipping a Canadian citizen to a Syrian jail. Is Syrian now a democracy? No. What has changed? Bob Dylan asked similar questions 40 years ago in his song "With God On Our Side":

When the Second World War
Came to an end
We forgave the Germans
And we were friends
Though they murdered six million
In the ovens they fried
The Germans now too
Have God on their side.

And then there is this quotation from Time:

The President claims not to follow the polls or even read the newspapers. On issues from tax cuts to Iraq, he refuses to flinch when the numbers and sometimes the facts are against him. When he changes course creating a Department of Homeland Security after he dismissed the idea or speeding up his timetable for giving Iraq its sovereignty he is loath to concede there has been any correction at all. 

Another columnist noted that Bush was surprised to learn from moderate Muslim leaders during his recent trip to Indonesia that the standing of the U.S.A. amongst Muslims internationally had gone down since 9/11. The columnist noted that the President doesn't read the newspapers - and has said he has only one source of objective information: his staff. As the columnist noted: "Two words: emperor, clothes."

There is not - never has been and never will be - an objective source of information. That's why democracies encourage dialogue, debate, vigorous cross-fertilization of views. The founders of our modern democracies created public institutions in order to facilitate the integration of opinions - in order to build strong public policy. The leader of the world's self-proclaimed beacon of democratic light seems to have forgotten this.

"I am a unifier, not a divider," Bush said during campaign 2000.

Yeah, right.

*

George W. Bush is the greatest threat to world peace, said Margaret Atwood. In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell argued: "People who write in this manner have a general emotional meaning -- they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another -- but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying." Orwell is referring to sentences such as: "The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song." Like W.H. Auden, who also came to the conclusion that genuine communication cannot happen unless cooler heads prevail, Orwell wanted writers to be "scrupulous" (attentive to detail), something Atwood's criticism lacks (it does not engage the world as a complex phenomena; it presents a simplicity where a complexity is needed). Note that Orwell's argument is pointed at the critics of the regime. 

In 1984, Winston and Julia read from the secret book supposedly circulated by the rebels of Oceania. The book is a lampoon of Marxist rhetoric; it is the equal opposite of the Party's lies. Poorly written. Poorly argued. As much a killer of thought as the Thought Police. In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell sought to provide a remedy -- better language, better politics, better world.

Hitchens recently released a book called Why Orwell Matters. Orwell matters because he consistently argued both sides against the other. He was a dreamer, but not a utopian. He was an empiricist, a lover and tester of facts. He pressed above all for clarity, knowing it was a precious commodity, knowing that it in itself struck fear into the heart of the powerful, whatever their political leanings. In "Politics and the English Language," Orwell wrote: 

A scrupulous writer, in every sentence he writes, will ask himself four questions, thus:

  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?

And he will probably ask himself two more:

  1. Could I have put it more shortly?
  2. Have I said anything that is unavoidably ugly?

Atwood, and others, enflame an argument that needs to be cooled. Yes, George W. Bush has created the deepest bruise on the U.S.A.'s body politic since Richard Nixon. On January 12, 2004, Paul O'Neill, Bush's initial Treasury Secretary, was in the news saying Bush wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein right from the first moments of his administration; seven months before 9/11 the administration was talking about "how to get it done." (And, of course, the dangerous stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction have yet to be found.)

(George Bush: "The problem with the French is, they have no word for entrepreneur." I saw a comedian on TV repeat this. His routine: "I got beat up in a redneck bar for making fun of George Bush. I quoted him.")

Even as the U.S. administration scores some policy successes, such as Libya's moves to accept nuclear inspectors and other moves that inch that state away from pariah status, unilateralism remains an unsustainable policy -- specifically a unilateralism too often shrouded in secrecy and driven forward by lies. There are significant threats in the world, yes, but they are threats that require carrots as well as sticks. 

The solution, I suggest Orwell would argue, lies in stepping beyond tit-for-tat politics. 

Let's give former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien the last word in this section. From The Globe and Mail (December 9, 2003): “In this era of globalization, the strength and influence of a nation are no longer determined by the number of cannons or missiles in its possession,” Mr. Chrétien said, echoing words Queen Elizabeth II during President Bush's recent visit to Buckingham Palace (she praised international cooperation and multilateral institutions). Chrétien again: “They are measured by the civility and tolerance the nation demonstrates toward its international partners and its openness to dialogue with them.”

Perfect and plain spoken. Orwell couldn't have said it better.

*

2004 is an election year in the U.S.A. Hmmm, democracy in action. By all accounts, the election will be the nastiest yet. Both the Republicans the Democrats are building their campaigns around their core constituencies, and there is little common ground between them.

Bill Clinton was famously a successful president because he "triangulated" well. He could play both sides of an issue and appealed to "swing voters" who would vote either Republican or Democrat depending on the issue. Traditionally, the electorate is considered to be 40 per cent Republican, 40 per cent Democrat, and 20 per cent undecided. However, in 2004, there are few undecided, and both parties are gearing up for a brutal winner-take-all battle.

This essay suggests that polarized political debate is not the best way to achieve strong public policy. Yes, stake out strong positions, but be truly open to compromise, negotiation, collaborative problem-solving. Perhaps it's just the Canadian Way? Perhaps the American electorate will just be re-fighting Hobbes vs. Locke? Perhaps everyone should sit down and re-read 1984 before they go vote? Free your mind instead, John Lennon sang.

If there's any hope, any hope at all, it lies in the proles, if there's any hope at all.

*

Finally, I want to recognize the failures of this essay. Probably I'm too hard on Atwood. Where's the context? What was she really saying? What about 1984 as a novel, not as a set-piece for criticizing the Bush regime? What about the benefit to the world of getting rid of the Taliban and Saddam? Let the questions multiply, let the criticisms pile up. I think I have provided plenty of evidence, plenty of argument; I want to present it with the understanding that it is not perfect. It is an invitation to dialogue. It is a plea for collaboration based on common interests. It is a plea to end "if you're not with us, you're against us." It is a request for a new decorum. A plea for a new decorum. A plea, yes, for peace in our time.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.

 

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The Danforth Review is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. All content is copyright of its creator and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of its creator. The Danforth Review is edited by Michael Bryson. Poetry Editors are Geoff Cook and Shane Neilson. Reviews Editors are Anthony Metivier (fiction) and Erin Gouthro (poetry). TDR alumnus officio: K.I. Press. All views expressed are those of the writer only. International submissions are encouraged. The Danforth Review is archived in the National Library of Canada. ISSN 1494-6114. 

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