Friday, November 30, 2012

Gorram it, 1984 does not have a happy ending

… it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.

You know about Big Brother – not the reality TV show, the world leader who infused his regime with the principles “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery,” and “Ignorance is strength.”

In George Orwell’s prophetic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith is a guy who works for the Ministry of Truth changing the news. If a certain public figure has fallen out of favor with The Powers That Be, Winston is one of the clerks who goes into past editions of the newspaper and changes anything that might tend to show that figure in a positive life. If he has become an “unperson,” the figure is removed from the public record entirely.

(I always thought that was a little unrealistic – surely someone, somewhere, would still have a copy of the old newspapers with the original record. Or later, surely someone, somewhere would have preserved the original record on his hard drive. But as we move our information farther and farther onto a paperless cloud, the idea of being able to manipulate all past records seems more feasible.)

Winston has a small problem of conscience: He remembers. He knows that the unpersons once existed. He recalls that even though today the government is at war with Eurasia and has always been at war with Eurasia, there was a time when we were at war with Eastasia and had always been at war with Eastasia.

He begins to notice that people are miserable, he sees that life is pretty dreary with Big Brother Watching You all the time, and he begins to believe that freedom would be better served if Big Brother is overthrown. But he also knows that citizens are being tortured and killed for believing that – or at least he is able to make a correlation between their beliefs and their eventual disappearance.

By the end of the book, Winston has come to the realization that he was wrong, that Big Brother really has a benevolent spirit and Big Brother really will take care of him for the rest of his life.

Just one tiny problem.

Winston Smith reaches this state of bliss only after having his individuality literally beaten out of him.

Torturing him into compliance did not change the facts:

A constant state of war is not the same as peace.

No matter how long you make the leash and no matter how pretty the chains, slavery is not freedom.

Individuals’ ignorance of the truth is the strength of the State.

And coming to accept and love the liars who say otherwise is not a happy ending.

I write from a conviction that an alternate ending where Big Brother is toppled by force would not be a happy ending, either. Winston Smith takes the traditional path of seeking violent revolution, but his vision is squashed by a greater violence.

In my life and throughout history, real change is accomplished when love, for lack of a better word, stands up to the violent tyrant. The unknown person who stood in front of a tank unarmed and refused to let it pass. The black men who sat down at a whites-only luncheon counter and politely asked to be served. The Indians who defied the British Empire and made salt.

Replacing a violent tyranny by force works for a while, but forcing a change only alters the external facts. The path to true revolution is not a violent path.

That’s why I wrote The Imaginary Revolution: to consider another way past tyranny.

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