The year before George Orwell died in 1950, he published his classic novel 1984. It is a dark story of a country in perpetual war, ever-present government surveillance, and public manipulation under the control of the Inner Party elite which comprised 2 percent of the population. Big Brother, described as a highly personable quasi-divine Party leader, may not have even existed. The Party “seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power.” Winston Smith, the novel’s protagonist, works for the Ministry of Truth which creates propaganda and historical revisionism through rewriting newspaper articles. Other ministries are Peace (perpetual war), Plenty (economic affairs–rationing and starvation), and Love (law and order–torture and brainwashing
“George Orwell was an optimist,” as Marjorie Cohn quoted Mikko Hypponen in her article, “Beyond Orwell’s Worst Nightmare.”
The National Security Agency (NSA) collects metadata on billions of our phone calls and 200 million of our text messages every day so that our government would read the content of our emails, file transfers, and live chats from the social media we use. In discussing NSA reforms, President Obama talked about Paul Revere’s patrolling the streets at night in the 18th century his the Sons of Liberty, “reporting back any signs that the British were preparing raids against America’s early Patriots.” This weak effort justify NSA’s spying ignored the fact that patrolling streets is not monitoring people’s private communications.
Left out of this argument about the U.S. spying is how the nation’s founding fathers responded to the British searches before the American Revolution. The British used the same “general warrants,” authorizing blanket searches without any individualized suspicion or specificity of what the colonial authorities were seeking, similar to what happens today. In a petition to King George III, Congress protested this unlimited power of search and seizure and charged that they used their power “to break open and enter houses, without the authority of any civil magistrate founded on legal information.” That was the reason for the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures—preventing the United States from becoming another police state.
Almost 200 years later, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover ran his COINTELPRO (counter-intelligence program to “disrupt, misdirect, discredit and otherwise neutralize” political and activist groups. In the McCarthy witch hunts of the 1950s, the U.S. government, under the guise of eliminating communism, used widespread illegal surveillance to threaten and silence anyone with unorthodox political views. The FBI’s “red-baiting” blackmailed, jailed, blacklisted, and fired thousands of U.S. citizens.
In the 1960s, the FBI’s program, “Racial Matters,” targeted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to prevent him from registering black voters in the South. Again the claim of communist activities allowed the FBI to wiretap King’s phones in attempts to discredit him. Their goal was to drive him to divorce and possibly suicide.
An attempt to justify today’s extreme surveillance programs is that it is targeting real threats. Yet an independent federal privacy watchdog, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, has found “no instance in which the program directly contributed to the discovery of a previously unknown terrorist plot or the disruption of a terrorist attack.” The NSA spying program covers everyone—Mexico, Latin America, the United Nations, the European Union Parliament, European leaders—even Angela Merkel’s cellphone. The only reason that anyone knows part of the extent of this surveillance comes from the disclosures by Edward Snowden, an exiled man threatened with decades of prison.
Reforms to the spying program include the requirement that NSA obtain approval from a judge on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before it gets access to the phone records of an individual. Yet this court is secret, and its judges are appointed by the highly conservative Chief Justice John Roberts. Almost no executive branch wiretapping requests have been turned down since the court’s inception in 1978. President Obama has not said that surveillance without judicial warrants or individual suspicion should be stopped.
“The keyword here is blackwhite. Like so many Newspeak words, this word has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink. Doublethink is basically the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
The purpose of unwinnable, perpetual war is to consume labor and commodities. Because the country’s economy cannot support equality a high standard of life for all, the “proles” are kept poor and uneducated so that won’t realize what the government is doing. In that way there is no danger of rebellion. These people live with hunger, disease and filth in ruined cities and towns while the top two percent have clean and comfortable homes in areas separated from their poor. Their pantries are well-stocked with foodstuffs such as wine, coffee, and sugar that are denied to the general populace.
Inner Party member O’Brien describes the Party’s vision to the protagonist of 1984:
“There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always—do not forget this, Winston—always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.”
Leaders of the Inner Party use a culture of fear to control the masses.
“War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.” Read 1984 for yourself.