Learning to love Big Brother
George W. Bush channels George Orwell
by Daniel Kurtzman
San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, July 28, 2002
Here's a question for constitutional scholars: Can a sitting president be charged with plagiarism?
As President Bush wages his war against terrorism and moves to create a huge homeland security apparatus, he appears to be borrowing heavily, if not ripping off ideas outright, from George Orwell. The work in question is "1984, " the prophetic novel about a government that controls the masses by spreading propaganda, cracking down on subversive thought and altering history to suit its needs. It was intended to be read as a warning about the evils of totalitarianism -- not a how-to manual.
Granted, we're a long way from resembling the kind of authoritarian state Orwell depicted, but some of the similarities are starting to get a bit eerie.
In "1984," the state remained perpetually at war against a vague and ever- changing enemy. The war took place largely in the abstract, but it served as a convenient vehicle to fuel hatred, nurture fear and justify the regime's autocratic practices.
Bush's war against terrorism has become almost as amorphous. Although we are told the president's resolve is steady and the mission clear, we seem to know less and less about the enemy we are fighting. What began as a war against Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda quickly morphed into a war against Afghanistan, followed by dire warnings about an "Axis of Evil," the targeting of terrorists in some 50 to 60 countries, and now the beginnings of a major campaign against Iraq. Exactly what will constitute success in this war remains unclear, but the one thing the Bush administration has made certain is that the war will continue "indefinitely."
MINISTRY OF TRUTH
Serving as the propaganda arm of the ruling party in "1984," the Ministry of Truth not only spread lies to suit its strategic goals, but constantly rewrote and falsified history. It is a practice that has become increasingly commonplace in the Bush White House, where presidential transcripts are routinely sanitized to remove the president's gaffes, accounts of intelligence warnings prior to Sept. 11 get spottier with each retelling, and the facts surrounding Bush's past financial dealings are subject to continual revision.
The Bush administration has been surprisingly up front about its intentions of propagating falsehoods. In February, for example, the Pentagon announced a plan to create an Office of Strategic Influence to provide false news and information abroad to help manipulate public opinion and further its military objectives. Following a public outcry, the Pentagon said it would close the office -- news that would have sounded more convincing had it not come from a place that just announced it was planning to spread misinformation.
An omnipresent and all-powerful leader, Big Brother commanded the total, unquestioning support of the people. He was both adored and feared, and no one dared speak out against him, lest they be met by the wrath of the state.
President Bush may not be as menacing a figure, but he has hardly concealed his desire for greater powers. Never mind that he has mentioned -- on no fewer than three occasions -- how much easier things would be if he were dictator. By abandoning many of the checks and balances established in the Constitution to keep any one branch of government from becoming too powerful, Bush has already achieved the greatest expansion of executive powers since Nixon. His approval ratings remain remarkably high, and his minions have worked hard to cultivate an image of infallibility. Nowhere was that more apparent than during a recent commencement address Bush gave at Ohio State, where students were threatened with arrest and expulsion if they protested the speech. They were ordered to give him a "thunderous ovation," and they did.
BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING
The ever-watchful eye of Big Brother kept constant tabs on the citizens of Orwell's totalitarian state, using two-way telescreens to monitor people's every move while simultaneously broadcasting party propaganda.
While that technology may not have arrived yet, public video surveillance has become all the rage in law enforcement, with cameras being deployed everywhere from sporting events to public beaches. The Bush administration has also announced plans to recruit millions of Americans to form a corps of citizen spies who will serve as "extra eyes and ears for law enforcement," reporting any suspicious activity as part of a program dubbed Operation TIPS-- Terrorism Information and Prevention System.
And thanks to the hastily passed USA Patriot Act, the Justice Department has sweeping new powers to monitor phone conversations, Internet usage, business transactions and library reading records. Best of all, law enforcement need not be burdened any longer with such inconveniences as probable cause.
Charged with eradicating dissent and ferreting out resistance, the ever- present Thought Police described in "1984" carefully monitored all unorthodox or potentially subversive thoughts. The Bush administration is not prosecuting thought crime yet, but members have been quick to question the patriotism of anyone who dares criticize their handling of the war on terrorism or homeland defense. Take, for example, the way Attorney General John Ashcroft answered critics of his anti-terrorism measures, saying that opponents of the administration "only aid terrorists" and "give ammunition to America's enemies. "
Even more ominous was the stern warning White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer sent to Americans after Bill Maher, host of the now defunct "Politically Incorrect," called past U.S. military actions "cowardly." Said Fleischer, "There are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks like that; there never is."
What would it take to turn America into the kind of society that Orwell warned about, a society that envisions war as peace, freedom as slavery and ignorance as strength? Would it happen overnight, or would it involve a gradual erosion of freedoms with the people's consent?
Because we are a nation at war -- as we are constantly reminded -- most Americans say they are willing to sacrifice many of our freedoms in return for the promise of greater security. We have been asked to put our blind faith in government and most of us have done so with patriotic fervor. But when the government abuses that trust and begins to stamp out the freedom of dissent that is the hallmark of a democratic society, can there be any turning back?
So powerful was the state's control over people's minds in "1984" that, eventually, everyone came to love Big Brother. Perhaps in time we all will, too.
Daniel Kurtzman is a San Francisco writer and former Washington political correspondent.