George Orwell is one of those figures from the past I admire most. To a very large degree he lived his beliefs. He fought in Spain because he supported the cause, but was sufficiently clear-eyed to realise how corrupt that cause was. Sympathetic to the left by inclination he recognised, as so many did not, the dangers of absolutism. To many he was a pariah as a result, but history vindicated him. He applied himself to the world around him, analysing and documenting what he found with wisdom, intelligence and a prose style notable for its clarity. His essays are generally wonderful, but he is better known for his novels, Animal Farm, and most particularly 1984. These are almost parables, a fictional critique of totalitarianism and the corrupting influence of power.
Much of what Orwell wrote was prescient. 1984 didn’t happen in 1984, but nor was it predicted to. That world does not exist, but so many elements of it do separately, and more so all the time. Language was always a focus of Orwell’s writings, and never more so in 1984 when language itself has been manipulated to deliver the message the ruling power wants, and nothing more. Individuality is frowned upon, compliant conformity is the go, and a docile society is kept compliant by the opiate of the times. Above all, of course, dissent was violently stamped out.
The history of the last hundred years will reveal many societies not dissimilar to that – Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia (and beyond), numerous tin-pot totalitarian states through eastern Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. It’s the blueprint for tyrants everywhere, but the best of them are so sophisticated that you hardly feel the blade going in.
It may seem a long bow for many readers, but for some years now I feel as if many so-called western democracies are drifting in the same direction. In the name of national security our rights as citizens have been curtailed, civil liberties compromised, free speech restricted, and grey illegalities have been committed by our governments. Of course, it’s all for our own good.
To my way of thinking we are as much to blame for this as those who perpetrate this upon us. It’s in the interests of governments and big media that we accept the story peddled to us. With ‘lifestyle’ now in abundance it’s easy to sit back and enjoy the pleasurable fruits of life and to put to one side the unpleasantries. We live in the matrix, fed pap and kept happy by paternalistic governments and a media more concerned in wielding power than in reporting the truth. And we’ve gone along with it.
Once upon a time we would have been in uproar over things that we now accept with barely a comment. Sure, there remain dissenters and others who seek the truth, but in large part they – we – have been marginalised by a government that controls the agenda, and a partisan media who refuse to report on anything contrary to the party line. Over time we as a society have been conditioned to this bit by bit, until the day comes that we simply turn over and go back to sleep. Without knowing it so much of what we once celebrated as a democratic society has been eroded. We live today with our individuality blunted, our sense of justice awry from years of being led astray, and doped up to the eyeballs in any case with the nonsense we’re fed as news. Orwell abounds.
There is much I could claim as evidence for this opinion, but what has prompted me to write today is the recent Australian government initiative to ban members of the public service from posting anything critical of them to social media*. Think about this for a moment: this is a fundamental and very clear attack on our rights to free speech – surely a cornerstone of what our democracy means? It goes further, just in Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Russia, or the days of the STASI in East Germany, we’re encouraged to be stoolies. That’s actually the instruction: if you know of anyone contravening this rule then dob them in.
What sort of society have we become? I’m not being extreme when I compare this to the actions of totalitarian societies. This is what Hitler did, Stalin, this is how they operated. The only difference is that we don’t cart people off yet, the secret police remain behind closed doors. You will lose your job though if you have an opinion and express it. This opinion would cost me my job if I worked in the Australian public service. Think about that.
As much as I’m horrified that this could happen, my horror is made miserable knowing that such news has barely caused a ripple. This has been accepted. No uproar, no outrage, no front page headlines. Bar a few liberal commentators here and there, and the likes of me in the suburbs, this basic contraction of civil liberties has passed without comment.
That’s the real danger in this when we no longer recognise what we are losing, or are too apathetic to do anything about it. We are standing by while so much of what made us who we are, and so much fundamental to our original conception of democracy, are whittled away. There are many reasons why this government has to go (and why the media needs a shake-up), but there is no better reason than the evil being done to our liberty daily, and with a smile. Big brother would approve.
*The same government who said recently it was ok to be a bigot, and wants to rewind our discrimination laws. It’s okay to be racially offensive, but not oky to criticise the government.