George Orwell’s “1984” Will Receive A Public Reading In London – But Have We Forgotten The Message?

Senate House London - 3

On June 6, hundreds of people will gather at London’s Senate House as a parade of actors, politicians and other notables read George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” in its entirety. But how many of us actually understand Orwell’s message?

Besides a few posts on Twitter, I haven’t written anything about the heinous Manchester terrorist attack. What more is there to say? The locations change, as do the names and backgrounds of the victims, but the rote mourning processes, the denialism and the furious virtue-signalling always remains the same. Why jump into that toxic mêlée all over again?

But I did watch the BBC general election leaders’ debate on television earlier this week, when naturally the subject of terrorism and Britain’s proper response came up, and I was depressed as ever by the paucity of the “discussion” that took place.

Brendan O’Neill picked up on the section of the debate which also caught my attention, writing in Spiked:

Consider BBC TV’s General Election debate this week, which brought together leading figures from the main parties to talk about the problems facing Britain. There was an extraordinary moment during the debate. A member of the audience asked a question about security post-Manchester and the leaders talked about the need for better policing and intelligence and also for rethinking British foreign policy. It is possible, said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and SNP deputy leader Angus Robertson, that our meddling overseas has exacerbated the terror problem.

Then UKIP leader Paul Nuttall chimed in, and he said this: ‘Politicians need to have the courage to name [the problem]: it’s Islamist extremism.’ The reaction was swift and pretty scary. Nuttall was jeered at by the other panellists. ‘NO!’, one said. ‘Paul, Paul, Paul, Paul’, interjected Lib Dem leader Tim Farron. Nuttall has gone ‘straight for Muslims’, said a furious Robertson. Green leader Caroline Lucas said Nuttall was being ‘completely outrageous’ with this suggestion that ‘the violence in Manchester was somehow representative of Islam’.

Nuttall tried to explain himself. ‘Islamism, Islamism, Islamism’, he said over the din that his comments provoked. His point was that he had not said the word ‘Islam’. He hadn’t even used the phrase Islamic terrorism; he had said Islamist extremism. But his protests went unheard. The other leaders and some in the audience continued to shout over him and drown him out; to accuse him of being outrageous and prejudiced for using the phrase ‘Islamist extremism’.

This is an almost Orwellian level of linguistic denialism. For ‘Islamist’ is a perfectly legitimate and apt word for the terrorism that is impacting on cities in Western Europe. The Oxford dictionary’s definition of ‘Islamist’ is an ‘advocate or supporter of Islamic militancy or fundamentalism’. Is this not the right name for those in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Manchester and elsewhere who have carried out extreme acts of violence in the name of the Islamic State or radical Islamist ideology? To boo and demonise Nuttall for using the word ‘Islamist’ to describe those who blow themselves up in the name of ISIS is as nuts as it would be to boo and demonise someone for saying Oswald Moseley was a fascist: these are simply the correct words.

The response proved Nuttall’s point, which was that few politicians have the nerve even to say the word ‘Islamist’, even though it’s a political term in the actual dictionary. This live-TV pummelling of Nuttall for saying ‘Islamist’ really confirmed what the accusation of Islamophobia is all about today: it isn’t about protecting Muslims from genuine prejudice or abuse but rather has become a means for suppressing difficult political and moral questions about our society, its values and the divisions that exist either between communities or within them. That someone can be called ‘outrageous’ and anti-Muslim for using the phrase ‘Islamist extremism’ shows how deep and worrying our instinct to silence discussion about terrorism has become.

There isn’t much I would add to Brendan O’Neill’s warning, except for this: on 6 June, there will be a live public  reading of the entirety of George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, given at London’s Senate House. There has of course been a significant spike in interest in reading 1984, driven predominantly by people who believe that Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump herald the end to what was apparently a Utopian liberal era, and the start of an unprecedentedly authoritarian dystopian future.

The new converts to George Orwell seem to believe either that the architects of these particular geopolitical events used 1984 as some kind of How To guide, or that they themselves might find some clues within the novel to aid their survival during the coming apocalypse.

But here’s the thing. I’ll wager all the money in my pocket that many of the people who show up to this public reading of 1984, or who watch the live stream, will be the same people who never really had much to say about civil liberties violations in the War on Terror (at least when Democratic presidents and Labour prime ministers were in charge), or about the extra-judicial killing of American citizens by drone strike under Barack Obama.

I’ll wager that many of them will have said nothing when their fellow citizens have been tried and imprisoned for singing songs, writing offensive signs, asking impertinent or stupid questions, posting “offensive” tweets or expressing conservative religious views in the town square.

But I’ll also wager that a fair number of them will have reported posts that they found “offensive” on social media in an attempt to get the offending statements removed and the posters banned. I’ll wager that many of the younger student types will have called for The Sun and The Daily Mail to be banned from their university campuses, and for their Students Unions to stop playing certain songs with “problematic” lyrics. I’ll wager that they were the first to demand that boxer Tyson Fury be banned from boxing for holding the wrong views on family values, and to call for attention-seeking ex-LBC radio host/troll Katie Hopkins to lose her job last week.

And I’ll wager that a good number of these 1984 listeners, fearless young defenders of society against creeping authoritarianism that they are, will have cheered along when Tim Farron, Angus Robertson, Caroline Lucas and the rest of the lefty nodding head brigade ripped into Paul Nuttall for the high crime of correctly identifying the deadly ideology which killed 22 young people at an Ariana Grande concert, maiming 116 more.

I’m sure their hearts just swelled with pride and warm affirmation as their left-wing political heroes put that nasty, evil brute Paul Nuttall in his place and shouted down his vile, dangerous hate speech. I bet they sincerely believed that doing so was a great victory for Hope over Hate, that this was how society should best respond to terror attacks. By furiously avoiding looking at the source, assigning the blame to unidentifiable random “evil”, singing some John Lennon and angrily vilifying anybody who dared to react in a different way (such as by looking to identify and name the real problem so that it might be tackled and reduced).

And hearts aglow with courage and moral righteousness, many of these same people will assemble at the foot of London’s Senate House on June 6 and fortify themselves by listening to George Orwell’s stern literary warning about the dangers of groupthink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak and censorship, utterly oblivious to the fact that they are actively serving as advance guard to the Ministry of Truth.

 

George Orwell - 1984 - Thought Criminal - Almeida Theatre

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Conservatives Should Not Apologise For Wanting To Shrink The State

George Osborne Ed Balls Austerity Big Government debate

 

“Tories pull into four point lead over Labour” proclaims the headline in today’s Telegraph, citing an Ipsos MORI poll that put the Conservatives on 33 per cent to Labour’s 29. But not so fast: “Labour opens up five point poll lead over Tories” reads a contradictory headline in the Guardian, talking up an ICM poll that put Labour on 33 per cent with the Tories languishing at 28.

Both polls come packaged together with their predictable narratives – Labour have opened a lead because their Road To Wigan Pier attack on the Conservatives is beginning to resonate with voters, according to their supporters, while the Conservatives are gaining ground because of Ed Miliband’s disarray on immigration and the beginning of the inevitable UKIP implosion, according to theirs. But looking past the partisan spin, neither poll makes encouraging reading for Labour or the Tories. In fact, the inability of either of Britain’s two dominant political parties to command the support of more than one third of the electorate is very damning indeed.

The reasons for the Labour Party’s malaise are fairly self evident – residual mistrust and dislike following thirteen recent years in government, a growing alienation between the party elite and their traditional core voters, total incoherence on the topic of immigration and the UKIP threat, and the abysmal personal ratings of their ex-leader in waiting, Ed Miliband. This blog has covered all of these symptoms of Labour decline at one point or another. But far more interesting are the reasons why the Tories are failing to generate any real approval or excitement, even among their supposedly natural voting blocs. These reasons are simple but stark: the Conservative Party has made a hash of delivering against the promises on which it was (kind of) elected, and has spent far too much time apologising for and excusing its policies along the way.

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Treading Water On NSA Surveillance, Ctd.

Evidently given prior notice of the dissatisfaction that was certain to fall on his head should he fail to announce any substantive changes to the bulk telephony data collection programme that flourished under his administration, President Obama triangulated and managed  to set out a plan that included the illusion of substantive changes. It may prove enough to fool the trusting and the credulous, but there are precious few of those sorts of people left to be fobbed off.

He listens. He gets it.
He listens. He gets it.

The New York Times gives a good overview:

President Obama, declaring that advances in technology had made it harder “to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties,” announced carefully calculated changes to surveillance policies on Friday, saying he would restrict the ability of intelligence agencies to gain access to telephone data, and would ultimately move that data out of the hands of the government.

But Mr. Obama left in place significant elements of the broad surveillance net assembled by the National Security Agency, and left the implementation of many of his changes up to Congress and the intelligence agencies themselves.

The one announcement not earlier anticipated by the New York Times was the fact that the president may be slightly more amenable to the idea of telecommunications companies or as-yet unspecified third parties holding the unconstitutionally-gotten telephony metadata, rather than the NSA itself. The Times reports:

On the question of which entity will hold the storehouse of phone metadata, the president said Mr. Holder would make recommendations in 60 days. Privacy advocates have called for telecommunications providers to keep the data, though many of the companies are resisting it.

And resist they should. Due to the sensitive and highly politically charged nature of the data being held, why would a private firm wish to open itself to potential liability from lawsuits by hosting the data? Furthermore, unsavoury and unconstitutional though it may be for the government to be collating this data, it is probably more secure in the hands of the paranoid and capable people at the NSA than it would be in some corporate data centre.

But all of this is beside the point – it is not the question of where the data is hosted that upsets civil libertarians. If someone robbed banks for a living, the main concern of the public would not be where the robber is hiding the stolen cash before laundering it, it would be the fact that he is robbing banks in the first place. Similarly, the point of contention here is not whether the US government or private telecommunications companies holds vast troves of data about the telephone calls made by US and foreign citizens – it is the fact that the government seeks to monitor and check this information without a warrant to do so in the first place.

It is hard to listen to anything that Obama says on the issue of national security and privacy without remembering that he wouldn’t be saying anything at all had his clandestine spying apparatus not been revealed to the world by Edward Snowden, and that the debate that he now seeks to claim credit for starting would, if he had his way, be held only between competing interests in government, well out of the view or input of the public.

Glenn Greenwald is of the same viewpoint, seeing right through the sham:

The crux of this tactic is that US political leaders pretend to validate and even channel public anger by acknowledging that there are “serious questions that have been raised”. They vow changes to fix the system and ensure these problems never happen again. And they then set out, with their actions, to do exactly the opposite: to make the system prettier and more politically palatable with empty, cosmetic “reforms” so as to placate public anger while leaving the system fundamentally unchanged, even more immune than before to serious challenge.

And how cosmetic these proposed “reforms” really are. Caught in the act of carrying out unconstitutional searches and intrusions into the private communications of US citizens, the president’s response is not to admit any fault, but to utter meaningless platitudes about the importance of “America’s values” while changing nothing of any substance at all:

And now we have the spectacle of President Obama reciting paeans to the values of individual privacy and the pressing need for NSA safeguards. “Individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress,” he gushed with an impressively straight face. “One thing I’m certain of, this debate will make us stronger,” he pronounced, while still seeking to imprison for decades the whistleblower who enabled that debate. The bottom line, he said, is this: “I believe we need a new approach.”

I have just finished reading the excellent essay by George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”. As well as helping me to realise just how pretentious and cumbersome my own writing can sometimes be on this blog (for which I can only apologise and pledge to try harder), it furnished me with this gem, this eternal truth:

If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

And this one:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible … Thus political language has to consist largely of euphamism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers … Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

President Obama, justifying the intrustive actions of the NSA and seeking to cast his proposed cosmetic reforms in a favourable light, and himself as a champion of individual liberty, said this:

“In an extraordinarily difficult job — one in which actions are second-guessed, success is unreported, and failure can be catastrophic — the men and women of the intelligence community, including the NSA, consistently follow protocols designed to protect the privacy of ordinary people,” he declared. “What sustains those who work at NSA and our other intelligence agencies through all these pressures is the knowledge that their professionalism and dedication play a central role in the defense of our nation.”

And this:

And yet, in our rush to respond to very real and novel threats, the risks of government overreach – the possibility that we lose some of our core liberties in pursuit of security – became more pronounced. We saw, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, our government engaged in enhanced interrogation techniques that contradicted our values. As a Senator, I was critical of several practices, such as warrantless wiretaps. And all too often new authorities were instituted without adequate public debate.

Through a combination of action by the courts, increased congressional oversight, and adjustments by the previous Administration, some of the worst excesses that emerged after 9/11 were curbed by the time I took office. But a variety of factors have continued to complicate America’s efforts to both defend our nation and uphold our civil liberties.

The “worst excesses” to which Obama refers? Torture. Extraordinary rendition. Illegal search and invasion of privacy. But “techniques that contradicted our values” sounds so much better, so much more clinical and so much less descriptive of what happened.

This isn’t good, is it?