Orwells Fable, Bushs Reality
Nothing looks as dated as yesterdays futurism. If you watch the old sci-fi film Things to Come, made in 1936 and based on an H.G. Wells novel, youre struck by the naiveté of what it prophesied for 1970. It envisioned all sorts of marvelous new inventions, huge shiny stainless steel gadgets, but it didnt foresee what really happened: compact innovations like the transistor, which, inconceivable in 1936, eliminated the sheer bulk of so many everyday appliances and made countless others possible. Who ever dreamed wed be able to listen to Beethoven symphonies on an airplane?
In another novel, Wells imagined an invention that has become a staple of science fiction: the time machine, allowing passengers to visit both past and future. Even modern electronics hasnt advanced a step closer to this one, because its metaphysically impossible. Transistors cant do much about that.
Yesterdays optimism about the future now looks as superstitious as astrology. But so, in some ways, does yesterdays pessimism. George Orwell gave us a bleak picture of tyranny to come in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Its a great fable, full of profound insights and warnings that remain pertinent. But, as a blueprint of the form tyranny would actually take, we have to say it got some key features wrong.
Orwell envisioned a super-Stalinist socialist society, efficiently ruled by an Inner Party of diabolical cunning. Winston Smith, the books hapless hero, runs afoul of the Party when he begins to dissent from the lies of the Party line, and his torturer, OBrien, explains how the system really works with Machiavellian intelligence. It turns out that the Party has engineered even Winstons dissent! Not only political freedom but free will itself has been abolished.
Its a nightmarish idea, all right, but not even Kim Jong Ils North Korea has managed to approximate it. Orwell himself was too sensible to believe his comprehensive dystopia could ever be realized in fact.
If we mistake the melodramatic fable for literal prediction, as too many of Orwells readers have done, were apt to become too complacent to recognize the forms tyranny actually takes, or to recognize the tyrants we actually face. In fact it sounds overwrought to call the contemporary U.S. Government tyrannical, since President Bush isnt even a reasonable facsimile of Stalin, Kim, or Mao, let alone Orwells OBrien.
Bush, in fact, claims to have delivered us from tyranny by toppling Saddam Hussein before we reached the mushroom cloud stage. He now complains that the Democrats in Congress who voted for war with Iraq are dishonestly withdrawing their support and trying to rewrite history.
But as E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post reminds us, Bush himself capitalized on post9/11 hysteria and the imminent 2002 elections, using dubious military intelligence (which he also distorted), to bully critics and political opponents into compliance. Now that the Democrats, like most attentive Americans, are having second thoughts, he accuses them of making baseless attacks in suggesting that he manipulated the intelligence and misled the American people in order to get his war.
No, Bush doesnt much resemble the villain of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Nor does his brain, Karl Rove. But their campaign to demonize Saddam Hussein and engineer a virtually unanimous public opinion can only remind us of Orwells two-minute hate against the phantom enemy Goldstein, who also turns out to be an invention of the ruling Party; their huge apparatus of homeland security reminds us of Party institutions like the Ministry of Truth; and of course their language has much in common with Newspeak. All this is alarming enough; we neednt press the analogies too far. Bush isnt Big Brother.
What Orwells great fable omits is the gradualism of actual tyranny. He shows us an imaginary tyranny that is already complete. And for the purposes of a cautionary fable, this is fine.
But in the real world, tyranny comes on tiptoe, by stealthy steps and often clumsy improvisation, and its usually exercised by men who, unlike the cold-blooded intellectual OBrien, dont even realize what theyre doing. They may sincerely think of themselves as enemies of tyranny rather than its agents. And instead of devising new institutions of mass control, they may merely take advantage of arrangements they find already in place.
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