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We Didn't Escape 1984

POLITICS

By D. JOSEPH Menn

BEFORE WE all breathe easy over escaping 1984 without visits to latter-day Room 101's or the introduction of synthetic gin, perhaps we ought to take just one more look at the year that was. Overall, as everyone knows, was writing about Stalinism and its evils, which we in the U.S. and others around the world--including in the Soviet Union--have managed to escape so far. But, as the author told friends and critics repeatedly, the book is also about the possible deterioration of Christian republics. One of Orwell's consumptive predictions, given to the noted critic William Empson, that his book would be used and twisted for political reasons, has unquestionably come true.

Big Brother could have been alive or dead, a man or a god, an ex-socialist or an ex-capitalist. The main thing is, the society Orwell portrays has no real politics; it is just a system of lies and terror which has lost any raison d'etre besides self-perpetuation. And this situation is not all that dissimilar from what we say last year all over the globe and here at home.

In the U.S., 1984 saw the objective decline of politics: a government commission on voter apathy this week released a report on the November elections with statistics that show the sixth straight decline in the percentage of registered voters casting ballots in presidential races. Some of those Americans, no doubt, couldn't see a difference between the candidates. A declining faith in our government has not been replaced by any new hope for opposition or reform. Whether or not the Constitution says we all participate in making decisions of government, the average citizen is helpless against the murky forces of economic powerhouses.

This crisis of participation, a chief trait of the Orwellian world, has not occurred as a result of the natural, uninhibited growth of the state. It has been carefully engineered by the ruling minority of our society. The last lines of 1984 shows an approximation of our own situation: "He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother." There is only one major difference between Oceanin and the U.S. The techniques of government self-perpetuation are different. Our leaders don't torture U.S. citizens, although they explicitly support torture of innocent citizens in many other countries. There isn't enough domestic spying to threaten freedom of thought, although there is enough to warrant concern. But just like Winston, we have been convinced we love a Big Brother, a vague compendium of patriotism and a particular ethical model of selfishness and greed. We believe we have won a victory, just as Winston does.

OUR GOVERNMENT and U.S. corporations are winning the war with a continual barrage of propaganda and positive signals. We are told that a ruthlessly competitive economic system based on private ownership is not only practical but moral. And we believe it, even when the Catholic church declares mainstream capitalism unethical and when millions go jobless and unproductive and huge subsidies go to farmers for not growing food despite epidemic famine in poorer areas of the world.

We are told the U.S. stands for the rule of the people. And we believe it even when faced with innumerable examples, in the past year alone, of U.S.--backed oppression and butchery of the people. The list is long: in the Philipines, Vice-President Bush calls unpopular dictator Marcos a "friend of democracy," and we continue to give the autocratic regime military aid with which it tortures civilian leaders in complete disregard of human rights and other freedoms we stand for. In Panama, this summer the military-backed dictator Nicholas. A. Barletta was declared president in a very questionable election, and President Reagan congratulated the "victor."

In Nicaragua, the U.S. continued its war against the Sandinistas, who were overwhelmingly elected this fall in what international observers described as scrupulously fair procedures. A CIA manual revealed we were instructing rebels to assassinate popular leaders.

The past year saw as well the emergence of many facts contradicting administration accounts of why we invaded Grenada. As the Wall Street Journal's Jonathan Kwitny put it, while "Reagan continued to argue that Grenada wanted its new airport only to serve as a Soviet military base...it is hard to understand how, if the Soviets really thought a Grenadan air facility was important, they could not have built even one runway on Grenada in less than three years." The reason we came out smelling like a rose is that we overthrew a different government than the one we had planned to. Instead of the moderately popular government headed by Cuban ally Maurice Bishop, we toppled the unpopular three-week-old regime of Hudson Austin.

There seems to be a pattern. The pattern is primarily economic, but there are military motivations as well. Just like in 1984, the whole point is the preservation of the status quo. We prop up the Philipino dictatorship because if the country was subject to majority rule, they would almost certainly deprive us of our military base there.

In Central America, markets and private holdings are at stake. Grenada, on the other hand, can be seen as a set-up for image-raising. It domestic affairs as in foreign policy, one of the most disturbing Orwellian parallels is the near fusion of government and media. Both have the same basic goal--to keep things as they are, in the hands of the wealthy few.

NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR was a bumper year for the Ministry of Truth as well as for the Ministry of Peace. Even more jarring than the flagrant and continued lying on factual matters--and the continual media acceptance of same--was the redoubled effort to drown the citizen in a sea of rhetorical democracies and freedoms, whose real counterparts are not found to be present on closer examination.

The real 1984 may not have a room 101 or a Big Brother incarnate, but is that really something to cheer about?

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