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Big Brother is Still Watching You
By Leah Mueller
I didn't read George Orwell's masterpiece “1984” until 1992, when my ex-husband found a dog-eared hardcover copy at a yard sale. In those days, the seminal novel could be had for a dollar, and the word “Orwellian” was used mostly by college literature students and folks who liked to bore people with rambling discussions of conspiracy theory.
I stayed awake until dawn with the book, horrified and transfixed. I shivered at Orwell's depiction of protagonist Winston Smith's prolonged torture in the infamous Room 101, rat dangling above his face, as his tormentor sought to extract confessions from him. Palpable horror emanated from every page of the book, beginning with its description of Winston's attempts to swallow the disgusting, state-sanctioned Victory Gin, and ending with him sitting, utterly broken and vacant, in an anonymous cafe.
“1984” described a totalitarian regime so complete that an individual could not go anywhere without being watched by Big Brother. People were not even safe in their own homes, since in-wall telescreens followed their every move, and authorities encouraged family members to tattle about each other for transgressions against the state. Even more terrifying was the fact that language itself had been altered to prevent individuals from being able to speak against the government. War was referred to as “Peace.” Slavery was called “Freedom.” The Ministry of Love was housed in a building so terrifying that no one had ever been able to get close to it. Orwell described it as “a maze of barbed-wire entanglements, steel doors, and hidden machine-gun nests.” This system of language, named “Newspeak”, existed to baffle civilians into using words that were the opposite of truth.
Concepts became muddled when the language no longer existed to express them. Then, the masses were much easier to control. If people gave up language, they were willing to sacrifice everything else. By robbing people of words, the masterminds of totalitarianism could work their ingenious, sinister magic, and the populace eventually became putty in their hands.
The Trump administration displays many of the earmarks of a group bent upon totalitarian rule.
Arguably, the United States has been a plutocracy for some time, with a tiny number of wealthy, powerful individuals uttering platitudes to lull the majority into compliance. Surveillance has become a way of life for most of us. The NSA is able to dig into our Facebook pages to extract personal information–tidbits that we already share willingly with virtual strangers. Hidden cameras record our movements as we pass through stores and across highways. Whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden are silenced by the government, ignored by the majority of citizens, and forced into exile.
Freedom of speech has been under assault for a long while, but the process has escalated during the past few years. The American public has been taught to embrace platitudes like “Support our troops” in order to silence questioning and quash dissent about our ongoing involvement in the Middle East. As linguist/philosopher Noam Chomsky once said, such phrases have no concrete meaning, and therein lies their power. Like Newspeak, the words can be repeated as an endless mantra, until they become engrained in the public's collective gray matter.
The Obama administration was subtle in its use of doublespeak. Recently, the blatant power grab by the Republican Party forced a new public awareness of language manipulation. Despite the fact that many Trump voters claim to revere the new president's ability to “tell it like it is”, recent events suggest that his administration does the exact opposite. Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway came under fire for her use of the phrase “alternative facts” to describe the discrepancy between the actual number of people present at Trump's inauguration versus his stated perception of the crowd's size. This howl-worthy phrase raised the ire of many, and led to an explosive increase of new “1984” readers.
Still, this did little to quell the falsehoods. Conway, like the antagonists of Orwell's book, was smart enough to realize that the public has both a short memory and a tendency not to question statements if they are repeated many times, in an authoritative tone. Only a few days later, she struck again, using the words “Bowling Green Massacre” as an excuse to deny Muslims entry into the US. Though Conway tried to backpedal when her words were ridiculed, evidence later revealed she had used the same phrase in at least two other occasions. The “massacre” was nothing more than the arrest of two Iraqi refugees in 2011 in Bowling Green, Kentucky-an incident in which no one was killed.
Ms. Conway is a tad too obvious, and this makes her an easy target for ridicule. Many people feel that Steve Bannon, the ex-mogul of Breitbart News, is the real power behind the Trump presidency. He puts a sophisticated spin upon the administration's message, and his words are especially sinister and Orwellian. Bannon self-identifies as a “Leninist”, a designation calculated to appeal to revolutionaries of the right-wing persuasion. In August, 2016, he proclaimed, “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
Bannon's manifesto is seductive, because it leads the listener/reader to believe that he seeks to destroy the evil capitalist empire, and yet Bannon IS the empire. This is Newspeak at its most sophisticated, and a person's brain can do flip-flops trying to pinpoint his actual message. Bannon often rails against the mainstream media, but is the founder of a right-wing media empire. He blames post-crash bank bailouts for the failure of the economy, especially for working and middle income people, yet he honed his chops at Goldman-Sachs for years. It shouldn't be difficult to ascertain that Bannon has his own agenda, yet he is intelligent and cunning, the very antithesis of the Left's stereotype of a right-wing spokesman. Therein lies his power to manipulate so brilliantly.
Meanwhile, Amazon can't keep “1984” on its shelves, since people are ordering the book in droves from an evil corporation that has been criticized repeatedly for putting small bookstores out of business and having unfair labor practices. I'm expecting my copy sometime in March. Buckle up, kiddos, and keep your eyes and ears (and above all, your minds) wide open for the next four years. It's going to be a bumpy ride.