The Orwellian Future is Now

Orwell seems to have foreseen the constants of our global and national life in the second decade of the 21st century, writes William Milam

The Orwellian Future is Now
Last week we celebrated the 75th anniversary of the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings on the coast of Normandy in France, when 160,000 men and women of a number of Western countries stormed the 95 miles of beach and cliffs that make up the Normandy beachhead. It was a fitting celebration for one of the greatest battles of the Second World War, one which marked the beginning of the end of Nazi rule in Europe. It was right to celebrate such an occasion, probably the last one that the remaining survivors of the invasion will be able to attend. It will not be celebrated again until 2024. About 10,000 died on that day on those bloody beaches, and those that still survive are in their 90s. Even President Trump gave the occasion the respect it deserved, and stayed strictly on the script his advisors had written for him; it was said by one of his media supporters to be the best speech of his time in office.

A second anniversary, one not nearly so heroic or mythic, but perhaps more relevant to our present and deserving of some notice, slipped by almost without mention two days later, June 8. On that day, in 1949, George Orwell’s classic futuristic novel 1984 was published. It is now 70 years old and has never gone out of print; it had been translated into 65 languages, which ties it for first among pure novels written in English. Unlike many other futuristic novels, some of them quite good, it seems to speak to every generation from different starting points. In fact, the novel hit the bestseller charts again only two years ago just after Trump was elected and his spokeswoman of the day, Kelly Ann Conway, coined the term for the lies the new administration was telling as “alternative facts.” Thus, another modern term was coined from the vision George Orwell had of the future 70 years ago. Had he still been around, Orwell would have called such lies “doublespeak” - as he named the lies the government of the novel used to replace truth.
Doublethink is the ability and willingness to hold two contradictory beliefs as correct, and not get confused or conflicted. In 1984, this was the end result of thought policing

Orwell wrote 1984 just as the Cold War was beginning to be thought of as a permanent condition of international life, and the Soviet Union and its satellite states in Eastern Europe, as well as its imitators in other regions became, in readers’ minds, examples of the dystopian model of the future. But, according to his own words, Orwell really intended to warn us that liberal democracies contain the seeds of totalitarianism as his dystopian empires started as liberal democracies. While the Soviets proved good models in readers’ minds for Orwell’s dystopian fantasy, readers understand his implicit message, which is why it remains popular and always available. Many people see it as a warning that events such as the Trump administration’s aversion to the truth, or in the 1950s just after its publication, when US politics featured loyalty oaths and blacklists of supposed traitors in the era of “McCarthyism,” totalitarian outcomes are imaginable. Nixon’s final years in office before his banishment from US politics also provoked comparisons to 1984.

But 1984 goes deeper than just identifying various seeds of totalitarianism. It looks forward to a political context of perpetual war, gargantuan government, pervasive government surveillance, and constant doublespeak propaganda. In other words, Orwell seems to have foreseen the constants of our global and national life in the second decade of the 21st century, although he sees them in a different context, that of three totalitarian states at war with each other. Apart from that variance, the context he sees is the context I see as I look at the world I know — the US, Europe, South Asia. The US and its NATO allies have been continuously at war in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and numerous other spots in the world against terrorism since 2001, with no end in sight as far as I can tell.

In South Asia, Pakistan and India have been at daggers drawn when not at war since 1947. And if you count economic warfare, Trump is at war with China, our European allies, and even our Southern neighbour, Mexico. In America, the state has become huge and intrusive, and in the classic definition (a regime where the military and civilian bureaucracy is lodged in the very centre, dictating the actual course of the political regime) is trending toward a praetorian state as the wars continue. The European Union, as it tries to unite, has become an overweening presence in the lives of Europeans — at least that is the cry of the British Brexiters trying to escape that embrace. The Pakistani state started and remains praetorian, and India flirts with authoritarianism. Invasive and all-inclusive surveillance grows like a weed in all these countries, devoted to monitoring the opposition rather than the terrorists that have been used to justify it. Doublespeak and censorship is the name of the game in the countries I know.

But it seems to me that while we all are experiencing various aspects of the Orwellian future, Bangladeshis are well ahead of most of us as Bangladesh moves deliberately into the autocratic camp of countries that are now the inheritors of Orwell’s nightmares. The long list of new words, old words with new meanings, that he has added to our political lexicon, as well as the adjective his name itself gave, unwittingly I think, to an important political concept. We call a dystopian totalitarian vision “Orwellian.” And the terms he invented to characterise that dystopian vision are clearly relevant these days in Bangladesh. Surveillance is not only constant, but it is all-inclusive. The term “big brother” (is watching you), might better be “big sister,” but otherwise reflects the surveillance state that he portrayed in the novel. How Orwell dreamed up the “telescreen” through which big brother conducted his blanket surveillance is a mystery as most are not sure if Orwell ever saw a TV screen. But since he wrote most of the novel on the Scottish island of Jura in the New Hebrides, and died of tuberculosis in January 1950, just over six months after it was published it seems a very prescient literary invention.

“Thoughtcrime” is Orwell’s word for a person’s unspoken thoughts or views that are not in conformance with the dominant ideology as prescribed by the government. Those who are somehow found or denounced for holding thoughts or beliefs that contradict government ideology are arrested and tortured by the “thought police” until they recant. Ideology, per se, is not important in Bangladesh, but contradicting the government claim that it won a free and fair election is dangerous. In 1984, one has recanted when he truly believes that two plus two equals five, and he is tortured until he does. Readers may remember the article I wrote soon after the election about a video mocking the election and the government coverup by showing a class of boys that are forced by the instructor to recite like automatons that two plus two equals five, but one boy had to be tortured to do so. Yes, that was certainly taken from 1984. And it was very effective.

“Newspeak” and “doublethink” go together in a sense. Newspeak is abusing language for political purposes, in 1984 language favoured by big brother and the government. Orwell described it as “language designed to diminish the range of thought.” Doublethink is the ability and willingness to hold two contradictory beliefs as correct, and not get confused or conflicted. In 1984, this was the end result of thought policing (i.e. torture) that led the hero to agree that two plus two equals five, and to inform on his lover despite his pledge not to. He loved her, but after his sessions with the thought police, he loved big brother too. Readers may remember my article about the high official in the Bangladesh government, who asserted on Al Jazeera TV that the election was free and fair, and that even if it wasn’t, it was okay to cheat because the government had improved many lives in Bangladesh. No mention of the lives it had taken by judicial murder or enforced disappearances. A good example of newspeak and doublethink.

The writer is a diplomat, and senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.