Saturday, July 28, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Twenty-Nine

“Symptoms of Orwell’s 1984,” pages 221-228

Readers enjoyed the gloomy portrait in 1984, and were comforted by the thought that only in Russia was the book relevant as description. Then they took steps that gradually converted Orwell's novel into an increasingly accurate prophesy beyond the Soviet Union.

Before 1914 freedom to travel and to speak, to publish and to emigrate, was widely available (at least to white men) outside of the benighted land of the Czars. Russia and its secret police were regarded as horrific. Now the non-Russian world is moving rapidly to non-freedom, though the gap with Russia doesn’t shrink, because the Russians have moved further into tyranny themselves. A Siberian exile in Czarist Russia was a model of freedom compared to Soviet labor camps, while travel to Western Europe has been suppressed even for non-exiled Russians.

Inhibition of the independent thought of first-rate people has been the rule throughout history, from ancient Athens onwards. “In most countries at most times, whatever subsequently came to be thought best was viewed with horror at the time by those who wielded authority [p. 223].” The Soviets (and now the West) have merely democratized the suppression, made it available to all, while the instruments of suppression, the police, have grown more powerful.

Organizations serve their ostensible purpose, but they also promote their own power, and it is this latter service to which they are most devoted. Woe betide the person who tries to publicize the wrongdoing of the police. And the courts enter too late in the game to offer protection to innocent non-conformists. Some prestigious universities can maintain intellectual freedom even in the face of McCarthy-like attacks, but less established schools cannot hold out. Fears of counterrevolutionaries in Russia and communists in the US have created a stifling culture.

Liberalism became established in fighting the increased power of monarchs; now, freedom lovers must counter the enhanced control by police and other organizations. A second police force is necessary, one aimed at establishing innocence, not guilt, of accused parties. Our current institutions make a mockery of the idea that it is better for many guilty people to go free than to convict one innocent: the state’s resources on the side of guilt cannot be matched by an accused person. Nonetheless, the social good really does demand that we worry more about a false conviction than a false acquittal. Perhaps the “assumption of guilt” would be appropriate when authorities are the accused, but not for other people.

The enhanced power of authorities busies itself with the suppression of truth and the promulgation of falsehood. Russians are denied knowledge of the rest of the world, and Chinese intellectuals must renounce any knowledge that does not descend from the approved sources. Not only are dissident thinkers punished, their families are as well. In much of the non-communist world, too, opinions at odds with the official ones will be ignored and their holders ostracized. “There is no longer, even among those who think themselves more or less liberal, a belief that it is a good thing to study all sides of a question [p. 227].” Libraries prune their collections on behalf of purported lovers of freedom: the censorship reveals their lack of confidence in winning arguments with ideas and evidence in a neutral marketplace of ideas. During World War II, British subjects were not prevented from listening to German radio: the tolerant policy of an authority confident in the rightness of its cause. “So long as we prevent Communists from being heard, we produce the impression that they must have a very strong case [p. 228].” We are sacrificing the means of acquiring truth – open and free discussion – to our fears, with the result that the gulf between truth and the officially accepted variety of truth grows to Orwellian dimensions. The intellectual suppression infects education, too. Teachers risk their careers by uttering ideas that deviate even moderately from the official truth. The suppression is accompanied with significant public support, despite the ignorance that is thereby mandated for children.

“Fear is the source from which all these evils spring, and fear, as is apt to happen in a panic, inspires the very actions which bring about the disasters that are dreaded [p. 228].” The fact that the dangers are real and even momentous does not justify a course of action which enhances those dangers. Our world of Orwellian doublethink is not stable; under current circumstances, it is succeeded by the equality of the global grave.

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