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Four more years for Big Brother?

Mark Medish
25 July 2004

In December 2003 a mystery prankster erected a large sign on Key Bridge across the Potomac river, in Washington DC.

“Read Orwell”

Perhaps the culprit was film director Michael Moore, whose Fahrenheit 9/11 about the bellicose extremism of the Bush administration ends with a quote from George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-four.

Is it far-fetched to compare America under the Bush administration to a political order defined by “doublethink” and “newspeak”? Orwell wrote his masterpiece in 1948 and reversed the last two digits. Was it his only mistake not to have called it 2004?

Orwell’s dark vision was largely informed by his insight into the inner workings of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. But it was also a prophetic warning of the potentially corrosive impact of the looming cold war on western democracies.

Life in the society of Oceana that Orwell describes had three organising mottoes. Each does seem to have its eerie echoes today.

War is peace

The first perverse slogan, quoted in Moore’s film, was “WAR IS PEACE”. Its function was to brainwash people into believing that permanent war was normal.

Since invoking the image of an America pitted against the “axis of evil” in 2002, the United States president has proudly declared himself a “war president”. The 9/11 catastrophe has led him to mobilise American society against what he projects as an array of invidious external enemies engaged in an omnipresent conspiracy. To engage in this war is a mark of virility, authority, and patriotism. To refuse it is to be weak, defeatist, and un-American.

The Bush ideologues have transmuted warmongering into a civic virtue. “Bring it on” has become the politically-correct attitude.

To maintain the public in a state of militarised mobilisation, attorney-general John Ashcroft orchestrates a colour-code of threats for citizens: in effect, be scared, very scared, or very, very scared. (Never mind that the administration’s economic message boils down to “don’t worry, be happy.”)

A senior official in the Bush White House told me in 2003 that inside the administration the brothers of war were full of “truculent glee” about launching their pre-emptive invasion of Iraq and equally giddy about the prospects for further armed interventions abroad. Their catchphrase was: “Wimps talk about Iraq; real men are already thinking about Syria.” For the Bush “utopians”, it does indeed seem that perpetual conflict is not a problem, it’s the solution.

If war is peace, war is also profit. One of the most clever innovations of the defense industry has been the privatisation of war through directly outsourcing a large range of activities, including even security, logistics and interrogation services in Iraq, to a clique of heavyweight corporations such as vice-president Dick Cheney’s former employer, the hydra-headed Halliburton.

To be clear, the point is not that the United States faces no security threats. It does, and they are serious. The point is that the Bush administration seems to be in a quest for further threats and that it amplifies them, making it hard to tell fact from fiction. Worse, the reckless campaign in Iraq may have only increased these security risks.

Freedom is slavery

The second motto of Oceana was “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY”. This too has its uncanny resonance in the present. Perhaps the prime example is the Patriot Act, which was passed by a Congress without being seriously debated or even read.

The essential message of the Patriot Act is that the American people's constitutional freedoms are endangering us. (All of them, it seems, except the right to bear arms.) The Founding Fathers were evidently not patriotic enough and did not anticipate the politics of permanent war. On the Bush-Cheney view, homeland security requires the abridgement of liberties. Not satisfied with the first instalment but plainly encouraged by the docility of Congress, the administration now seeks a more far-reaching, privacy-encroaching Patriot Act II.

To help make sure citizens don’t exercise their remaining freedoms too liberally, the government has instituted a confidential phone line. All suspicious activity can be reported. It is important to understand that there is a logic to such initiatives. What if you don’t report such activity when your neighbours do? Will this be registered on the system, and if so isn’t this a step towards “Big Brother” watching us?

Ignorance is strength

The third motto of Oceana was “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”. This insight finds reflection in several aspects of the current White House. To begin with, there is the president’s own aversion to reading and debate.

As worrisome is the cult of secrecy that shrouds the activities of the administration. So many documents are now routinely classified that US officials are constantly confused as to what they can talk about.

The result of expanding government secrecy is a narrowing space for democratic deliberation. The message from Karl Rove’s would-be Ministry of Truth is simple: the less you know, the less you ask, the better for you.

By and large (with a few outstanding exceptions) the establishment print and network media, captured by big corporate interests or fearing retribution, have been enablers of the Bush administration’s campaign to tame public debate.

The consequence for journalists who wish to come to their own conclusions is clear. Under Bush-Cheney, you are either embedded or excluded. The White House has implemented a rigorous policy of discipline-and-punish. Write unkindly and you can kiss your access goodbye.

In our potential Oceana the opposition in Congress often behaves like an annex of the Ministry of Truth. Until quite recently, the Democratic leadership was too intimidated and risk-averse to fulfil its principal role as a check on executive power.

But also, far too many of us in civil society and the private sector heeded the then White House spokesman Ari Fleischer’s warning to “watch what you say” as he equated patriotism with obedience.

1984 is not the present-day USA. But the risks are not pure fiction. What Orwell perceived was that the three dark mottoes go together. External conflict, internal ignorance, and the self-enslavement of buying manipulative media reinforce and need each other.

It is not that it will happen, but we would be complacent to believe that “it can’t happen here”.

Can we change in time? There are signs of a turning-point. The Supreme Court, which may now regret the unprecedented role it played in putting the president in office, seemed to send a clear message in the detention cases that due process still matters and that extra-judicial incarceration is un-American. (Hint: so is torture).

Even the much-maligned CIA recently blew the whistle by authorising publication of a current secret agent’s book titled Imperial Hubris exposing the Bush administration’s ill-conceived war planning, anti-terrorism campaign, and Middle East strategy.

The key challenge for John Kerry and John Edwards is to build on this rising tide of dissent, break the grip of the military-industrial complex, and help shake America free of Bush-Cheney doublethink.

The stakes in this year of decision could not be higher. Give Big Brother four more years and indeed, war might become our peace, ignorance our strength, and slavery our freedom.

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