Is America Becoming Orwellian?
Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report
George Orwell in his classic book, 1984 , depicted a world in which humans had given up their liberties to become the minions of an all-powerful elite. The story suggests that people tend to have an inability to resist tyranny. They have an inclination to give up liberty to obtain security and happiness. The media of 1984 are broadcast technology imagined as totally in the service of the state, and no different from the media of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or of today’s North Korea.
As the control of the media in our own country is coming more and more under the control of fewer and fewer people because of a loosening of regulations that help guarantee freedom of the press, are we becoming more and more a controlled society?
William Gibson [“The Road to Oceania,” N.Y. Times , June 25, 2003] does not think we are heading toward Orwell’s fictional state of Oceania. He says that “driven by the acceleration of computing power and connectivity and the simultaneous development of surveillance systems and tracking technologies, we are approaching a theoretical state of absolute informational transparency,” one in which “Orwellian” scrutiny is no longer a strictly hierarchical, top-down activity, but to some extent a democratized one. As individuals steadily lose degrees of privacy, so, too, do corporations and states. Loss of traditional privacies may seem in the short term to be driven by issues of national security, but this may prove in time to have been intrinsic to the nature of ubiquitous information.
“Certain goals of the American government’s Total (now Terrorist) Information Awareness initiative may eventually be realized simply by evolution of the global information system…It is becoming unprecedentedly difficult for anyone, anyone at all, to keep a secret.”
Some say that Orwell failed to predict the future correctly, but their assertions miss the main point. Orwell, says Gibson, did not fail in any way, but, rather, succeeded. 1984 remains one of the quickest and most succinct routes to the core realities of 1948. (The book was written in 1948 but in the title the final digits of that year were inverted) If you wish to know an era, study its most lucid nightmares. In the mirrors of our darkest fears, much will be revealed. But don’t mistake those mirrors for road maps to the future, or even to the present. “We’ve missed the train to Oceania, and live today with stranger problems.”
Gwynne Dyer, a London-based independent journalist, says the totalitarians never achieved the kind of thought control Orwell and the rest of us feared. [“Orwell Would Be Happily Surprised Our World Hasn’t Become Orwellian,” The Salt Lake Tribune , June 30, 2003] He tells of an incident when he and some other visitors drove past a derelict Orthodox church in Belgorod, Russia in 1982. “There was no church there,” the local Party guide insisted as they watched it recede through the rear window. When they suggested he drive around the block for another look, he flatly refused. “Orwellian,” they said-and then realized by his embarrassment that he knew exactly what they meant. He was used to making the people around him swallow bare-faced lies. But they didn’t actually believe the lies, and neither did he. Sixty-five years of ruthless censorship and totalitarian rule had not even managed to keep lower level provincial party officials from knowing what “Orwellian” meant.
By the mid-1980s most people were getting ready to dump the dictators. A technique for bringing them down without spilling buckets of blood spread by example from the Philippines in 1986 to Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh and Burma in 1987-88, and then to Tiananmen Square in the heart of Communist China in 1989. Not all of these nonviolent revolutions succeeded, but the example was so powerful and the technique so promising that in 1989 the citizens of European countries picked it up and ran with it. Then came the nonviolent revolutions to end apartheid in South Africa in 1994, the overthrow of Suharto in Indonesia in 1998 and the fall of Milosevich in Serbia in 2000. And the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
“1989-91,” asserts Dyer, “was when the balance of power in the world changed. From then on, totalitarianism was on the defensive and a majority of the world’s people (for the first time in history) lived in democratic countries.
“The discrediting of the totalitarian dream and the democratization of a large part of the world were genuine gains for the human race. Coping with too much wealth and leisure is a problem too, no doubt, but a different and lesser one…Frankly on this one I am with George W. Bush: ‘Freedom is a powerful incentive. I believe that some day freedom will prevail everywhere because freedom is a powerful drive.’
“What Bush overlooks, however, is that all the people who overthrew their oppressors in recent decades did it for themselves. It is doubtful that powerful countries with suspect motives can successfully export democracy to others by force and the attempt of the Bush White House to do just that could yet bring a certain aspect of 1984 back to life. Not the politics of it, of course that is now gone in most of the world-but the geopolitics.”
Walter Cronkite described 1984 as “an anguished lament and a warning that we may not be strong enough nor wise enough nor moral enough to cope with the kind of power we have learned to amass…We recognize, however dimly, that greater efficiency, ease, and security may come at a substantial price in freedom, that law and order can be a doublethink version of oppression, that individual liberties surrendered for whatever good reason are freedom lost.” “Doublethink” is a word coined by Orwell, which means, “a simultaneous belief in two contradictory ideas,” as in the above incident regarding the church in Belgorod.
Erich Fromm describes Orwell’s book as “the expression of a mood, and it is a warning. The mood it expresses is that of near despair about the future of man, and the warning is that unless the course of history changes, men all over the world will lose their human qualities, will become soulless automatons, and will not even be aware of it.” He cites two other writers, who like Orwell, describe negative utopias, the Russian Zamyatin in his book We and Aldous Huxley in his Brave New World, and says these books and Orwell’s express the mood of powerlessness and hopelessness of modern man. All three authors, says Fromm, imply “that the new form of managerial industrialism…is conducive to an era of dehumanization and complete alienation, in which men are transformed into things and become appendices to the process of production and consumption…it is a danger inherent in the modern mode of production and organization, and relatively independent of the various ideologies.”
Yet Orwell, he says, has hope for the human race, a desperate hope. He wants to warn and awaken us. Fromm advises, “The hope can be realized only by recognizing the danger with which all men are confronted today, the danger of a society of automatons who will have lost every trace of individuality, of love, of critical thought, and yet will not be aware of it because of ‘doublethink.’ It would be most unfortunate if the reader smugly interpreted 1984 as another description of Stalinist barbarism, and if he does not see that it means us, too.”
In Orwell’s book Winston is being tortured by O’Brien, a worker for the Ministry of Love. Winston was sure he knew the terrible thing O’Brien was about to tell him-that the Party did not seek power for its own ends, but only for the good of the majority because men in the mass were frail, cowardly creatures who could not endure liberty or face the truth, and must be ruled over and systematically deceived by others who were stronger than themselves; that the choice for mankind lay between freedom and happiness; and that, for the great bulk of mankind, happiness was better. ‘You believe,’ Winston said, ‘that human beings are not fit to govern themselves, and therefore-‘O’Brien pulled back the lever of the torture machine to make a pang of pain shoot through Winston’s body. ‘That was stupid, Winston, stupid! Now I will tell you the answer to my question. It is this. The Party seeks power for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power…We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwittingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?'”
Sin, Lust, and Love in Utah
What do Prostitution, Polygamy and Power have in common? They begin with the same letter and all have played significant roles in early Utah history. Professor Jeff Nichols developed that theme when he spoke to the Humanists of Utah September 11th public meeting. The assistant professor of history at Westminster College explained that his search of the two major Salt Lake City newspapers files found very little mention of prostitution until 1870, the year following the original Golden Spike ceremony marking completion of the cross country railroad system.
His research revealed many colorful stories regarding officials, and public, political and religious institutions and their connections with prostitution. Most of the stories involved the 30-year power struggle from 1875 to 1905 between Mormons and gentiles as they sought social, economic, and political influence. The stories combined prostitution, illegal cohabitation, and polygamy all portrayed as acts of lust, sin and antifamily. The three P’s were underlying themes in the Deseret Territory’s struggle for statehood.
Professor Nichols appearance was sponsored by the Utah Humanities Council’s speakers bureau. His book, Prostitution, Polygamy and Power: Salt Lake City 1847 to 1918 , was published 2002 by the University of Illinois.
Cecilia Wilson came to Utah on an adventure with two friends shortly after they graduated from the University of Nebraska. They were on their way to Seattle or Portland but one of the girls had an aunt in Salt Lake City so they stopped, rented a house and got jobs. The other two have long since returned closer to their roots but Cecilia met and married Wayne in 1981and has been stuck here ever since.
Her childhood was somewhat nomadic, born in St. Louis, Missouri, and living in Flushing, New York, San Diego, California, and Omaha, Nebraska. In Nebraska she completed high school and completed a degree in Medical Technology in nearby Lincoln. She hated the weather, tornadoes, high humidity, and bone chilling cold, so she was anxious to leave after school.
After a couple of years in Salt Lake City she met Wayne while they both worked the graveyard shift at Holy Cross Hospital. He brought a house, complete with washer and dryer into the marriage; she had a Thoroughbred horse. The house was right next to the freeway, except for the railroad tracks between the house and the highway. When a large freight train rolled by you just had to stop talking; you could not be heard.
Wayne decided, when she was 3-months pregnant with their first daughter, that the environment wasn’t very baby raising friendly. Cecilia still remembers that he made her move while she was pregnant. They didn’t move too far, just a couple of miles east of the freeway to a house on a lot large enough to move her horse from the stables to the back yard. She frequently says that she worried all through her second pregnancy that Wayne would make her move again. As she has gotten older her moves have become less frequent and less distant. Six years ago they moved to their current house that is less than a mile from the horse property…the mare died and did not move with them.
Cecilia has worked for Intermountain Health Care for more than 20 years. Her first location was Primary Children’s Medical Center where she first worked in and then supervised the Hematology department in the Clinical Laboratory. She then moved to Cottonwood Hospital in the Laboratory Quality Assurance department and then Transfusion Medicine QA. She then moved to LDS Hospital where she currently manages Laboratory Customer Service for LDSH, CWH, and Alta View Hospitals.
In 1999 she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her treatment involved two surgeries and an aggressive course of chemotherapy. She currently spends a great deal of time talking to and supporting women discovering they are afflicted with this disease. When not working or mentoring she enjoys spending her time gardening, sewing, quilting, and other crafts.
~Difference of Opinion~
From two of my favorite people who I admire and respect:
An excerpt from a speech given by President Gordon Hinkley during the April 2003 General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints:
“I believe that God will not hold men and women in uniform responsible as agents of their government in carrying forward that which they are legally obligated to do. It may even be that He will hold us responsible if we try to impede or hedge up the way of those who are involved in a contest with forces of evil and repression.”
Hinkley came to this conclusion after, in his own words, “As I discuss the matter I seek the direction of the Holy Spirit. I have prayed and pondered much concerning this.”
Here are a few excerpts from Albert Einstein’s writings in January of 1928 and in the spring of 1929:
“Every thoughtful, well meaning and conscientious human being should assume, in time of peace, the solemn and unconditional obligation to not participate in any war for any reason. No one has the right to call himself a Christian or a Jew if he is prepared to commit murder upon the instruction of a given authority. As far as I am concerned the welfare of humanity must take preference over loyalty to one’s own country–in fact over anything and everything.”
Einstein came to his conclusions without any help from the supernatural. In his words “My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me; the thought of murdering another human being is abhorrent to me. My attitude is not the result of an intellectual theory but is caused by a deep antipathy to every cruelty and hatred.”
Believe It, or Not
Today marks the Roman Catholics’ Feast of the Assumption, honoring the moment that they believe God brought the Virgin Mary into Heaven. So here’s a fact appropriate for the day: Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28 percent).
So this day is an opportunity to look at perhaps the most fundamental divide between America and the rest of the industrialized world: faith. Religion remains central to American life, and is getting more so, in a way that is true of no other industrialized country, with the possible exception of South Korea.
Americans believe, 58 percent to 40 percent, that it is necessary to believe in God to be moral. In contrast, other developed countries overwhelmingly believe that it is not necessary. In France, only 13 percent agree with the U.S. view.
The faith in the Virgin Birth reflects the way American Christianity is becoming less intellectual and more mystical over time. The percentage of Americans who believe in the Virgin Birth actually rose five points in the latest poll.
My grandfather was fairly typical of his generation: A devout and active Presbyterian elder, he nonetheless believed firmly in evolution and regarded the Virgin Birth as a pious legend. Those kinds of mainline Christians are vanishing, replaced by evangelicals. Since 1960, the number of Pentecostalists has increased fourfold, while the number of Episcopalians has dropped almost in half.
The result is a gulf not only between America and the rest of the industrialized world, but a growing split at home as well. One of the most poisonous divides is the one between intellectual and religious America.
Some liberals wear T-shirts declaring, “So Many Right-Wing Christians . . . So Few Lions.” On the other side, there are attitudes like those on a Web site, dutyisours.com/gwbush.htm, explaining the 2000 election this way:
“God defeated armies of Philistines and others with confusion. Dimpled and hanging chads may also be because of God’s intervention on those who were voting incorrectly. Why is GW Bush our president? It was God’s choice.”
The Virgin Mary is an interesting prism through which to examine America’s emphasis on faith because most Biblical scholars regard the evidence for the Virgin Birth, and for Mary’s assumption into Heaven (which was proclaimed as Catholic dogma only in 1950), as so shaky that it pretty much has to be a leap of faith. As the Catholic theologian Hans Küng puts it in “On Being a Christian,” the Virgin Birth is a “collection of largely uncertain, mutually contradictory, strongly legendary” narratives, an echo of virgin birth myths that were widespread in many parts of the ancient world.
Jaroslav Pelikan, the great Yale historian and theologian, says in his book “Mary Through the Centuries” that the earliest references to Mary (like Mark’s gospel, the first to be written, or Paul’s letter to the Galatians) don’t mention anything unusual about the conception of Jesus. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke do say Mary was a virgin, but internal evidence suggests that that part of Luke, in particular, may have been added later by someone else (it is written, for example, in a different kind of Greek than the rest of that gospel).
Yet despite the lack of scientific or historical evidence, and despite the doubts of Biblical scholars, America is so pious that not only do 91 percent of Christians say they believe in the Virgin Birth, but so do an astonishing 47 percent of U.S. non-Christians.
I’m not denigrating anyone’s beliefs. And I don’t pretend to know why America is so much more infused with religious faith than the rest of the world. But I do think that we’re in the middle of another religious Great Awakening, and that while this may bring spiritual comfort to many, it will also mean a growing polarization within our society.
But mostly, I’m troubled by the way the great intellectual traditions of Catholic and Protestant churches alike are withering, leaving the scholarly and religious worlds increasingly antagonistic. I worry partly because of the time I’ve spent with self-satisfied and unquestioning mullahs and imams, for the Islamic world is in crisis today in large part because of a similar drift away from a rich intellectual tradition and toward the mystical. The heart is a wonderful organ, but so is the brain.
–Nicholas D Kristof
The New York Times
August 15, 2003