Bubble in the desert

A blog I started whilst on a GE "Bubble" assignment in Nevada. I'm back in Cambridge (UK) now but still miss the desert and my friends out there.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Just finished George Orwell's 1984 - Excellent and disturbing

I’m at San Francisco airport on 6th January 2007 and have just finished reading George Orwell’s 1984, the so called ‘negative utopia’ written in 1950. Ten minutes ago my hand luggage was pulled out for scrutiny. Two sealed jars of Marmite vegetable spread were the offending articles. I could apparently check these glass jars in the hold or put them into a zip lock plastic bag, which they could not issue me with nor could I acquire. All this because some terrorist tried to fashion a bomb with smuggled liquids. Now we are in a state of hysteria about carrying liquids on an aircraft. A security expert once told me that this situation was like a school game of soccer where the whole team runs after the ball at the same time rather than holding their position.

I explained that the Marmite was for a young child who has a lot of allergies and could benefit from something this healthy. The security officer smiled, embarrassed at the ridiculousness of the rules he had to follow but we were both under scrutiny from the closed-circuit TV. This was a disappointing exchange. The guard was clearly a human, a good person he seemed but had rules to follow. I walked through the airport to the bathroom. Over the load speaker I heard, “the national security threat level is currently Orange”. What effect is this having on our psyche? Are we being manipulated by fear in an Orwellian manner?

On an earlier flight, as I started to read 1984, I was looking around at the aircraft’s 20 or so monitors, all on, unable to be switched off by us travelers, all showing the same programmes and adverts.. I smiled grimly as I read about Orwell’s main character, Winston, and his flat with the screen which was always on. The more I read of the first half of the book, the more parallels with our reality flooded in. I had to consciously stop trying to think of parallels with the book since there were too many but the shallow and easy ones were disturbing enough.

I recently heard Ted Koppel talking about Iran and the “Death to America” chants that the kids learn in the playground before their very first day at school at the age of 5 and which adults fervently proclaim whenever there is the sign of a TV camera. What interested me about Ted’s report was that, he said, the chanting was perfunctory and shallow. Iranians, it seems, very much like US computer games, movies and culture. There is some distinctive doublethink here. This is such a close parallel with Orwell’s daily “Two Minutes of Hate” to be almost too obvious. The afterward to the book points out that doublethink (which is sort of maintaining 2 mutually conflicting views at the same time and believing both to be true), is not something to just be attributed to extreme foreign parts. The expression, “the free world”, it suggests, is a good example. During the cold war this “free world” incorporated various dictatorships around the world and basically meant, all countries against Russia. We, in the US and the UK, seemed happy to hold this doublethink contradiction in our minds.

It seemed at first that Goldstein, the main focus of the hatred, was not unlike Osama Bin Laden. Perhaps the convenience of a single hated figure is what society needs. But Goldstein was both more and less than Bin Laden.

Orwell was clearly writing in a time following the arising of the regimes of Hitler and Stalin and that is evident in the story. Routine and mysterious disappearances are well associated with such regimes. Orwell was also writing following the atomic bomb detonations in Japan which appears to be another fundamental influence in his attitude to the nature of future war.

The re-writing of history books is continuous in this Orwellian vision. There are ample examples of this kind of thing in actual human history, some more obvious than others and some completely current.

I liked the love interest in 1984. It seemed to provide a ray of hope and some fight against the system. Following the ‘book within a book’ device that Orwell uses, which I didn’t like much, the end of the story quickly disintegrates into a deeply dark and hopeless vision.

I have found this a very compelling, thought provoking and disturbing read. I may reluctantly have to add this to my list of favourite books. It seems strange to me to reach the age of 38 and only now to take the time to read the source of concepts like ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Room 101’.

It is disappointing to reflect that Orwell would probably be unsurprised by any of the parallels between 1984 the novel, and 2007 the reality. It is odd indeed that I hesitate to even write the words ‘Osama Bin Laden’ on my computer for fear that modern day Big Brother will notice and garner me unwanted attention.

I have often wondered whether we are being manipulated in far more subtle ways than are described in 1984. The popular TV show Crime Scene Investigates (CSI) has always had me suspicious that it is a government funded message. The show is a typical crime drama but the main focus is on how the criminals are caught using modern scientific investigative techniques in the lab. Our heros in white coats usually end the show with a smug tone in their voice having traced the criminal from a single fibre left at the scene of the crime. The subtle message seems to be, ‘don’t commit crime because if you do, no matter how carefully you think you can clean up a crime scene, we will find that one fibre that will lead us to you’. Perhaps it would be nice if the message, if it is indeed such, actually worked but the extraordinary prison population in the US seems to suggest that it is probably lost on the people it might be aimed at.



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