George Orwell wrote 1984 as a cautionary tale about the dangers of totalitarianism. Dick Cheney seems to think it is a How To manual.
Last year I wrote about Karl Rove’s bookshelf, how he might have used Machiavelli to advantage in managing the political landscape. I also wrote about how the administration might have learned something from Machiavelli when they were contemplating invading Iraq.
Cheney violated most of Machiavelli’s rules, and has not done well, if his objective was a stable and friendly Iraq. It is not clear to me that that is his objective, especially since he warned of the dangers of occupation way back in 1994. If his purpose was the enrichment of his friends at Haliburton and the Oil Companies, he is succeeding very well. Perhaps that is why he is always so upbeat about it all. But I digress.
Dick may have found 1984 more appealing. In any case, he has been working at remaking our society along the principles that Orwell set out. In fact, Cheney may be concerned because the project is, at this point, 23 years behind schedule and far from finished.
First of all, you may be wondering why I am picking on Dick Cheney. After all, he is just the Vice President. Isn’t George Bush the one with power? Well, Bush may have the power in theory but all the evidence is that it is Cheney that drives the ideological buggy in this administration. After all, Cheney has long been a leader of the Neo-Cons. He took a major part in writing The Project for a New American Century that laid the foundation for Bush Administration policies. The evidence is that Cheney and the Neo-Cons picked Bush as their front man and put him in power. Besides, I just can’t see Bush sitting up nights studying Orwell for clues on how to take over the world. That’s more up Cheney’s line. But, as I said, I digress.
Big Brother is Watching You
The most striking feature of the society portrayed in 1984 is the unrelenting surveillance by the government. People understand that their every move and utterance may be monitored. This is no secret. Telescreens are everywhere and it is impossible to escape the posters that proclaim “Big Brother is Watching You”. People have learned to accept it, even to take comfort that the government will protect them from, well, terrorists, if you will.
Cheney has taken that to heart with the warrantless wiretapping and datamining program that has finally succeeded in being able to monitor every phone conversation and every email with far more efficiency than Orwell ever imagined, thanks to modern computer technology (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/12/24/politics/24spy.html). Furthermore, there are persistent rumors that the government has the technology to listen in on phones (landlines and cellphones), even when they are turned off. It is true if you believe Fox News. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDwy5DCzD8A). If such wiretapping is done with a secret warrant it is perfectly legal, but Cheney does not seem to believe that a warrant is necessary in terrorism cases.
Orwell understood that there is nothing like war to increase support for the government. And the best kind of war is far away, so you can show it on TV in a heroic sort of way and you don’t have to suffer the consequences of war at home. Any dissent can be branded as unpatriotic, even treasonous. This administration jumped to tell people to “Watch what you say”. “Support the Troops” comes to mean “Support the War” and “Support the Government”. The enemy is portrayed as pure evil, therefore the government must be pure good and above any criticism.
And if war is good, then a war without end is ideal. Cheney knows this and has not been shy to talk about “The Long War” against terrorism. Today the war is in Iraq and Afghanistan but it could just as well be anywhere. That is why Cheney keeps tensions high with Iran, North Korea, and Syria. He is ready to spring into action against any foe. In 1984 and today, there is no danger of peace breaking out.
There has to be an enemy to channel anger and cement support for the government that is going to protect us from that enemy. In 1984, the evil enemy was represented by Emmanuel Goldstein (no relation) and anonymous hordes of enemy soldiers. Today Cheney started with Osama Bin Laden, moved on to Saddam Hussein and now seems to have settled on anonymous hordes of terrorists. The arbitrary nature of these enemies is highlighted by the question in 1984 of whether Goldstein was a real person or was simply invented by the government in order to have an enemy to hate, which is never resolved. I don’t doubt that Bin Laden exists but it is possible that he hasn’t been captured because it is better to have him at large, and more threatening, in order to maintain a state of fear in our own population.
The Thought Police could show up at any moment to haul you away and hold you incommunicado for as long as they like, in 1984. If Dick Cheney thinks you are a terrorist, he can do the same to you. Guantanamo is the poster child for these prisons but there are secret prisons around the world that operate under the same principle. Furthermore, the CIA has been known to kidnap people, in a process known as rendition, and fly them to prison and torture in other countries. If they make a mistake, they won’t admit it. Innocent people will toe the line better if they are afraid of arbitrary arrests.
In 1984, torture is employed to break down the prisoner’s individuality and will to resist. Techniques are primarily psychological, including sensory deprivation, and prey on the prisoner’s fears to make them betray their humanity. The primary purpose is to take away any possibility of hope.
Dick Cheney has adopted this model and implemented it wholesale. The main difference is that he has to deny that it is torture. This semantic difference shows that the public is not yet sufficiently indoctrinated. However, the confirmation of Michael Mukasey as Attorney General, despite his refusal to admit that torture is torture, shows that we are making "progress" in this area.
The ability to say one thing and mean the exact opposite. The No Child Left Behind Act systematically leaves poor children behind by withholding funds from schools that are failing through lack of funds. The Blue Skies initiative rewrites regulations to allow more air pollution. The PATRIOT Act eviscerates the Constitution. Need I go on?
We are at war with Eurasia … We have always been at war with Eastasia
Of course, this administration is an expert at rewriting history to meet the needs of the moment. Bush puts these changes across really well. The prime example is the justification for war in Iraq. They went seamlessly from WMDs to establishing democracy to fighting terrorists. It doesn’t matter that there were no WMDs, there is no democracy there and Al Queda wasn’t there at all until we opened up a space for them. Just like in 1984 the media doesn’t seem to notice the changes and reports the latest justification with a straight face. Unfortunately for Cheney, he doesn’t yet have anybody in the Ministry of Truth who can send inconvenient history down the memory hole to oblivion.
The proles were the underclass, who exist below the notice of the government. But they do serve a purpose. It is necessary to have a lower class to do the unpaid work of society. Somebody has to do the unskilled, low paying jobs that keep things going. However, since these jobs don’t require much intellectual capacity, the government consciously kept this class uneducated, so they won’t realize how they are being exploited. As Orwell put it, “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
Poor people are similarly ignored today. Additionally in today’s world, people are reluctant to rebel because they are afraid of falling out of the middle class into the lower class. Cheney doesn’t want the government involved in helping out the poor. He would prefer to let them fend for themselves. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated this with a vengeance. FEMA no longer saw its purpose as helping disaster victims, especially if they were poor. Poor communities were damaged by the hurricane but wiped out by a government that placed obstacles in the way of rebuilding because they clearly hoped that those poor people would just go away.
The Neo-Cons believe that rich people deserve to be rich and poor people deserve to be poor. That is why their policies overwhelmingly favor the rich and hurt the poor. The hope is that people will come to believe that the way things are is the only way they could be. That is why Cheney cries about “class warfare” every time somebody criticizes his pro-rich people policies. “Class Warfare” is actually a throwback to Cold War era red-baiting and seems somewhat out of date today. He is just trying to shut down any opposition with a scary sounding label. He doesn’t actually oppose class warfare; he just wants his side (the rich) to win.
I could go on but you get the idea. It is actually kind of spooky how closely the Administration is mirroring techniques outlined in Orwell’s masterpiece.
Hmm… maybe Cheney really does think it is a How To Book.