Thursday, November 8, 2012

Orwell Was Right

I've decided to read a book to ring in Barack Obama's second term. No, I'm not talking about The Audacity of Hope. I'm talking about 1984, by George Orwell.

In case you haven't read it lately, I strongly recommend giving 1984 a fresh read. My memory of it was of a book that was clever, but a bit shallow, and one that ultimately imparted a feeling of comfort because, after all, it was pointing a finger at the misdeeds of other societies. (Okay, okay, it's been a long time since I last read it . . . . )

NATO protests, Chicago, May 2012

What I'm finding instead is a book that is both packed with insight into the psychology of the public experience of repression, and startlingly prescient about the specific facts of our world today.

With respect to the latter of these, allow me to quote just three brief descriptions that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up:
In the distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hovered for an instant like a blue-bottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. (p. 2)
We in Chicago are the most electronically surveilled population population in the world. (Can you say "seventeen thousand cameras??) The proliferation of cameras makes the use of helicopters optional.

Of course, they're not really doing anything with all that surveillance, right?
It was always at night -- the arrests invariably happened at night. . . . there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared, always during the night. (p. 17)
Considering that progressive Americans are rejoicing today over the re-election of Barack Obama, despite his failure to close Guantanamo, reverse the legacy of night raids in Afghanistan, prosecute the torturers who carried out extraordinary rendition, and abandon his claim to be able to detain anyone indefinitely under the NDAA . . . this passage is chilling.

But it was the passage that seemed to describe drone strikes really made me stop short:
"Steamer" was a nickname which, for some reason, the proles applied to rocket bombs. . . . The bomb had demolished a group of houses two hundred meters up the street. . . . Thre was a little pile of plaster lying on the pavement ahead of him, and in the middle of it he could see a bright red streak. When he got up to it he saw it was a human hand severed at the wrist. (p. 74)
This description was quite startling to encounter, shortly after seeing the account of Pat Chaffee, recently returned from the Code Pink delegation to Pakistan to protest U.S. drone killings, entitled, "Body Pieces".

I feel quite sure that when I read this passage years ago, I thought, "Well, certainly, that will never happen . . . .

Never say never.

Orwell was right.

Page references are to the 2009 Plume paperback edition.
Image: @Deprogrammer9 Copyright Julie Dermansky 2012

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