Bill Grigsby: What Would Orwell Say?
What Would Orwell Say?
By Bill Grigsby
Over 50 years ago, George Orwell created Oceania, a literary dystopian society—what he likely suspected was transporting Stalin’s Russia to its logical conclusion. If politics developed independently of other forces, he might have been right—a totalitarian state with heavy-handed social control, what sociologist Erving Goffman, in describing a mental hospital, called a ‘total institution.’ There is little question that the current White House media managers have admired 1984 from afar, and internalized some of its messages.
Orwell got the state apparatus right, even if he was a little off on geography. There is the state surveillance, in the name of war and anti-terrorism, the captive ministries whose missions to serve the public had been mercilessly subverted. The Ministry of Love was responsible for torture of citizens. The U.S. has no ministry of love, but the EPA protects polluters. The Ministry of Truth was responsible for revising history to fit the government’s rhetoric du jour. In the U.S. the Department of the Interior is being used to auction off oil and gas leases at below market prices in environmentally sensitive areas once earmarked for wilderness classification. The Department of Labor searches for ways to erode worker protections. All hiding behind the cover of their mission to serve the public good. Then there’s the figurehead leader, Big Brother, useful for his good looks and the carefully manufactured aura of fraternal trust. The U.S. has a Connecticut Party Boy-turned NASCAR Grand Marshall. ‘Figurehead leader.’ There’s a concept Orwell would identify with.
Orwell’s control was a product of random surveillance, classical conditioning and media saturation. Because one never knew who was on the other side of the omnipresent telescreens, people had to assume they were always watched. One never knew if a co-worker was really a member of the Thought Police, and so the same rule of thumb applied to the workplace. At home children were encouraged to turn in their parents.
The U.S. doesn’t meet this high standard for surveillance yet. North Korea is probably as close to an Orwellian state as has ever existed. The current White House is no Pyongyang, but let’s not misunderestimate them—a partial list of their accomplishments is impressive:
Unelected officials wielding unchecked power and acting in secrecy. What serious student of this White House doubts that scary radical Karl Rove is the man tugging on the puppet strings? Restriction of civil liberties, including denial of due process, marginalizing if not criminalizing protest and confining dissenters to ‘free speech zones.’ An administration that devotes more resources and brain power to managing the media than conducting the business of governance (which has been largely outsourced to private contractors); The ongoing pursuit of a political agenda that produces short-term wealth generation, accelerating inequality, fiscal, environmental and geopolitical train wrecks, alongside systematic dismantling of the capacity of government to reverse course (a risky, double-edged sword of an enterprise). Imagine if Uncle Scar had managed to off Simba. Pridelands indeed. The cultivation of a state of perpetual war to instill fear, fan the flames of patriotism, stigmatize dissent, and create vast, exclusive and shadowy investment opportunities whose trickles dry up after passing through the investment class. Since when has corporate carpetbagging been more lucrative or patriotic? Or a generous campaign donation such a no-brainer?
Had this administration done any one of the above, we could marvel at their initiative and media savvy. But its systematic exploitation of the space between outright lie and sheer dishonesty has allowed BushCo to make significant progress on several fronts, while largely avoiding bald-faced coercion. And for that we can credit not randomly enforced punishment, but a compliant, co-opted corporate news media, whose job is made easier and more profitable by an uncritical consuming public.
Maybe the commercial media haven’t accepted Big Brother as their leader, but they’ve embraced Dubyaspeak as news. Dubyaspeak here refers to the White House media strategy of trying to publicly define concepts in terms of its own rhetoric and actions. Patriotism should illustrate. For the White House, patriotism means justifying its geopolitical actions, however self-serving or detrimental to the welfare of our own or other societies, as necessary. For citizens, patriotism means agreeing with the following equation:
In Orwell’s doublespeak, Patriotism is loyalty (to the White House).
Then there’s leadership, the crown jewel of the Bush/Cheney re-election juggernaut. The President makes the tough calls, like finishing the story on goats rather than interrupting just because a commercial jet has crashed into the World Trade Tower. Can’t decide between stupidity or premeditation? Why not just call it leadership! And great leaders know when to delegate—whenever they’re asked to publicly explain gross inconsistencies between their rhetoric and actions. Leadership also entails producing many commercials, the occasional full-length film and spammed editorials asserting what a great leader the president is, just in case you’ve been too busy looking for living-wage work to notice. This White House understands that the more bullshit you sling, the more you’ll get to stick. Leadership also apparently means having the power to kill thousands of innocent people, make Americans international targets, yet find journalists who will report it when you say the world is safer. It would be tempting to say that in Dubyaspeak, leadership is ineptitude. However, there is always the slight chance that this White House could at some point suspend ideology and base a decision on information from diverse sources, perhaps even scientific finding, or (God forbid) the public good. More simple to stick to Orwellian logic. ‘Leadership is whatever we do.’ Expectations for this White House are so low that ineptitude-sold-as-leadership has become ritual, but theoretically it isn’t inevitable.
Democracy is another concept perversely twisted by the White House media machine. Let’s see, the president’s brother the governor paid a private contractor to disenfranchise thousands of legal and overwhelmingly democratic voters in the state that ‘decided’ the 2000 election (careful about bringing this up, though—wouldn’t want the democrats branded as the ‘party of felons’). Instead of a statewide recount in Florida, BushCo pushed for the neoconservative majority on the Supreme Court, in between sermons preaching judicial restraint, to choose the next president. It pushed through with little deliberation a law with a perversely Orwellian acronym—PATRIOT—that expands government power of surveillance, puts a serious chill on open public dissent and protest, and deprives any citizen labeled by the White House as an ‘enemy combatant’ of the most fundamental constitutional right to due process. After liberating/ occupying Iraq, the White House denied Iraqi citizens any right to continue selling petroleum for euros, or to decide whether they wanted American military bases established on their soil. They censored NGOs receiving U.S. funds, some of whom might contradict White House talking points. They triggered the violence in Fallujah after American-Style DemocracyTM Point Man Paul Bremer shut down a newspaper for printing unflattering stories about the U.S. Yet when the wmd rationale for war was crumbling, War Excuse no. 2 (or was it 3? 4?) became the spread of democracy and stability in the Middle East. Too bad Haiti and Venezuela aren’t Middle Eastern countries, I guess. In Dubyaspeak, democracy is any country that occasionally holds elections, including Pakistan, Nigeria, El Salvador, and Russia. White House logic dictates that some countries have too much democracy. Spain and the U.S. come to mind.
Yet it isn’t the breathtaking dishonesty and corruption of this White House that are most distressing. Not even its relentless construction of Orwellian-style control mechanisms. These things are painfully evident to anyone paying attention. Yet they likely wouldn’t survive were it not for the corporate news media’s abject failure to distinguish between substance and chatter, to provide any thoughtful narrative beyond filler between commercial breaks. Without TV imagery, sound bite communication, secrecy, cinematography and careful choreography, this White House, were it subjected to serious scrutiny or genuine transparency by the commercial media, would have imploded long ago.
This is a tale of two presidencies—the flag-waving god-fearing made-for-TV hologram, and the real one that treats democratic process and public service as sacred roasts for private barbecue. We have however been afforded unflattering glimpses of what goes on behind the TV presidency, thanks to independent media and several courageous individuals who have knowingly subjected themselves to the White House smear machine—John DiIulio, Scott Ritter, Karen Kwiatkowski, Paul O’Neill, and Richard Clarke (among others).
Their stories are similar—an administration obsessed with ideology, bankrolled by private industry, accountable to no one, and willing to do whatever is necessary to get its way. If the commercial press can’t break this story wide open, then we’re closer to Orwell’s Oceania than Stalin ever was. Government has found less coercive ways to control mass media and distract the public, and private industry a cheap investment strategy for capturing politicians and public agencies. When entertainment, news, governance and self-interest can be merged with so little notice, who needs memory holes, thought police or Big Brother?
Bill Grigsby, ©2004