Are we learning Newspeak as we speak?
George Orwell’s masterpiece novel is 70 years old this week.
I first read it thirty years ago, when 1984 was already a year in the past. But it was clearly then a warning to be vigilant, to watch Big Brother and ensure He/It/They didn’t take over our little part of Oceania (though Ireland doesn’t even get a mention as Airstrip Two, or something).
Yet, despite the fall of the Iron Curtain five years after its setting it’s become more relevant as time goes on.
Orwell had lived the experience of seeing the ideals of the common man being twisted, controlled and eventually stymied by a stronger power, which pretends to be helping, often with propaganda as one of the main weapons. Consider the attempts to halt climate change, pollution, corruption, environmental destruction over the years since the 1960s. They were as effective as the efforts to overthrow communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. Hopefully the current demonstrations from #fridays4future and #extinctionrebellion will have better success, because we can’t afford wait till capitalism collapses under its own weight – predicted to happen soon enough but not before it causes ecological collapse.
The emission of a reality TV series called Big Brother brought the book to the consciousness of a mass of viewers who’d never read as voraciously as some of us do.
And yet, how frivolous a use of the term. How cosy we were in thinking we had control of how we were being observed, could opt in to 24/7 scrutiny for a few weeks in the hope of winning cash prizes and/or fame.
I’ve not read the book again since I was fifteen (I very rarely read a book twice), but recently I’ve been teaching students about dystopias and I’ve watched clips of the John Hurt movie version, which bring it back into focus like a slap to the face.
When I tell the kids where the reality TV show name comes from they’re surprised, but what’s more astounding is the ease with which we have allowed Big Brother (Big Business, Big Data) to take over our lives, to actually scrutinise us more than the TV cameras do on that show.
Though we don’t pause to consider it much, now They can look into our thoughts, from our daily choices and actions in a real setting, not on some TV set.
And I’ve started wondering if we aren’t already starting to use NewSpeak.
At first, we did it to ourselves, since people stopped writing letters to one another, as well as a decline in reading.
Then, when phone texting became a thing, we started shortening words and changing spelling to fit more words in, and speed up messaging. We also started choosing simpler words rather than more complex ones.
Now, though, Big Brother is doing it.
Just like Big Data has figured out that predicting our choices is easier when They are in fact guiding us – as seen in the Pokemon go game – so, I think, predictive text on our phones (and the suggested replies suddenly appearing on our emails nowadays) is designed to do the same to our thoughts: to direct them, shorten them, prune the word selection until we are saying the same thing again and again, using only the few words They tell us to. Eventually, the sentences They construct for us will be considered good enough. We will write what They suggest we write. And, as Orwell so vividly explained, we will think how They want us to think. Simply.
Is there any remedy against this trimming of our mental faculties?
Read the book.
Read the book again (I plan to this summer) and again, and read more books in general.
Almost exactly a year ago I suggested the Scots take their chance at independence like a wide receiver clutches an American football to his chest and legs it.
I stand by that.
At the moment, the Catalans – the people of the region of Cataluña or Catalonia in the North east of what we call Spain – are pondering a similar question.
It’s not quite the same because there will be no referendum.
The right wing government in Madrid are insisting such a referendum would be illegal, clinging to a constitution made when everyone was not quite sure some follower of Franco wouldn’t take over and return the country to Fascism for another forty years, so it was best not to ask for too much. They tried, actually, not many years later, on February 23rd 1981 (I know that because my daughter was born on the 23rd of February and everybody makes a comment; not far from the mind of people even now).
So the pro-independence parties of Catalonia have decided that if they get a broad support from the populace in their regional elections this month, they’ll go ahead and announce independence anyway, to come in after eighteen months of negotiations and preparations.
The answer is the same. Yes.
I fully expect them to get the support they want. If there had been a referendum, I reckon the Catalans would have voted to stay inside a federal Spain, albeit with more autonomy. But they weren’t given that option, and when some powerful fucker from somewhere else says you can’t have something, then it’s not too uncommon for the common folk to say, fuck you, I’m going to take it.
The question you might perhaps be asking is if I just last week said it was time to get past this silly notion of nationality, how can I suddenly support the separation of a part of a state from the rest based on that same idea?
I implied patriotism for a place that is just as good as any other place, with people who are just as good, and bad as (equal to, in fact) you and me is a load of wank, there to empower only a few dodgy politicians.
And I stand by that.
And the Catalan question involves a fair few politician of the distinctly dodgy persuasion, who have thus far got fairly rich (actually very fucking rich) off their positions, and a decent handful of whom are being investigated for fraud and corruption and all that good stuff, while they all touted how bad they and their fellow Catalans were being treated by the big bad government in Madrid.
Because the shittiness of their politicians does not negate the Catalan’s right to self-determination. They deserve to decide if they will be a separate country, and they deserve to determine how that country will be run; if it will involve the same kind of structures used up to now or if they’ll try out a whole different thing – or even return to the way things were done during the heady days of 1936 when George Orwell was marvelling at the anarchists of Barcelona, before the war was taken out of their hands by the Nazis and Stalinists.
The patriotism of the Catalans is not better or worse on its face than that of Americans or Afghans. But in the greater scheme of things it will be more positive if we end up with a situation where people are able to run their own small patch of land. I don’t want to say that they’re governed by people closer to them, because I don’t think they should be governed necessarily – I prefer to see politicians as citizen representatives than leaders; which they jolly well should be, to put it nicely.
If the world, or in this case, Europe, was broken up into smaller and smaller pieces then people would have more control over their politicians, would be able to keep closer tabs on them, and make them do what they are supposed to (forward the good of their fellow citizens and the area as a whole) rather than get rich helping out big corporations. Iceland got itself out of debt because the politicians could not hide from the population, and had to do what the citizens said – which in this case was don’t pay those fucking leech banks. Ireland didn’t do the same because our politicians are separated, just a little bit too much, from their constituents, and because they know we’ll vote them back in in four or eight years because we’ve short memories and we’re a little stupid at times, and since we had our independence and a civil war we’re reluctant to go on the rampage again (by we I mean those still keeping their heads above water by keeping their heads down, to mix a metaphor).
Even though Ireland is run by a bunch of arseholes, they haven’t fleeced us as much as the corrupt pigs in Spain have, simply because they couldn’t get away with such opulence if they took all they could. We’d notice if they suddenly had their own helicopters and yachts and private islands. The Spanish have been used to rich nobility for ages, what with that old woman who’d more titles than the queen of England. There is a social circle to which the politicians can aspire, which is kind of lacking in Ireland. Saying that, we did have Charlie Haughey in Ireland, who had his own private island and boat and all that gear, and it took us a long time to ask the question, “how the fuck is he able to afford race horses and the like, and just why is our prime minister called Champagne fucking Charlie anyway?”
But that’s the Irish for ye.
Back to the point.
If Europe is a band of tiny nations, it’s less likely that one arsehole can just do that the hell he wants. Putin rules one huge country, and as such, has power. If we could knock Russia back into a plethora of small principalities (not calling them that, though, since we’d rather not have any princes running them) then he’d only be in charge of one.
It’s hard to do with Russia, but the nationalistic movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that unified Germany and Italy, and Spain and France, too, can be turned back now. It was all well and good (actually, it was shit, cos it caused two fucking world wars) for a while, but we’ve gone beyond that now – we have a unification of Germany WITH Italy and Spain and France into mother Europe, and so it’s fine to go back to having Bavaria and Prussia and Lombardy and Galicia, etc. If Mrs Merkel was the leader of just one Germanic region (not sure where she’s from), then she’d not be able to frog march us all into eternal debt. She’d have to find consensus. And that would be harder to find (a consensus that we all pay back huge banks money they don’t deserve and we didn’t lose) when every other leader had to answer to a population he or she was forced to live closely among.
The smaller the country, the more accountable are the representatives.
And the more necessary for such small nations to band together to pursue common goals.
And those common goals are less likely to be sucking the bell ends of banks and corporations.
So go for it, Cataluña. What have you got to lose? EU membership? Nah. They need you more than they need the Greeks, or the Irish for that matter. Just come back in under better terms.