by Doug Lasken
Vol. 9, No. 2028 - The American Reporter - January 29, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- Animal Farm, George Orwell's nightmare vision of totalitarianism, became a best seller after World War II when the Cold War began. It has been taught in middle and high schools ever since as an allegory of the Russian Revolution, serving nicely to vilify our erstwhile nemesis, the Soviet Union.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, English teachers, the "sleeping dragons" of politics, and perhaps readers at large, have noticed a more general relevance in Orwell's vision. Particularly, the insidious nature of totalitarianism, its cunning and sophistication, are well highlighted in Animal Farm in ways that should be compelling for people in any modern era. This broader relevance has also brought renewed interest in Orwell's other dystopian adventure: 1984.

Central to totalitarianism are information control and manipulation. In 1984, Orwell presents the fictional state of Oceana, whose masses, including the middle class, are beset with poverty and severe alienation. This anxious population is held together by the threat of external enemies.

People huddle in fear as menacing forces hurl missiles upon their shores. Only those in the innermost circles of government know that Oceana secretly fires the missiles at itself. The three great nation states of the world, Oceana (comprising England and Europe), and the other two, which correspond roughly to Asia and the Americas, conduct the ongoing fake war in collusion to keep their wretched populations preoccupied. One candid apparatchik likens the system to three sheaves of wheat leaned against each other, propping each other up in cooperative antagonism.

In Animal Farm, the impoverished "lower" animals, brutalized and exploited by the pigs, are kept in constant fear of the outside world. Every event is "spun" to reveal plots and traitorous schemes meant to bring ruin to the farm. The animals are so intimidated that they have no voice when the state police, a pack of dogs trained by their swinish dictator, Napoleon, tears out the throats of dissenters and free thinkers.

We still have plenty of free speech, so far, and our wars don't seem totally fake, but is it far-fetched to see in the post-World War II manipulation of information some shades of Orwell?

The Vietnam War started as a response to an attack on a U.S. vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin. After the war it came out that the attack never took place. In the Gulf War, Americans were told fictional stories about Iraqi troops throwing premature babies out of windows.

Iraqis heard no such stories. On the other side, Iraqi citizens were told stories about Kuwaiti economic aggression against Iraq which necessitated an invasion. Americans had no clue that Iraqis believed the invasion of Kuwait was defensive. As Gulf War II unfolds, we are told stories about the certainty of horrifying weapons and evil intent in Iraq; Iraqis are told a story about obvious proof that no such weapons or evil intentions exist.

In the last few weeks, a very alarming war of words has erupted between the U.S. and North Korea. We know our side of the story: North Korea has suddenly, and for no apparent reason, gone on the warpath.

And the other side? Ask yourself these questions: What are ordinary North Korean people being told about the situation? Do they see their government as unaccountably bellicose, or are they receiving a radically different scenario from their media?

Chances are that, even if you are an educated and informed person, you can't answer these questions with certainty. Why? Because we are not being told what North Koreans think is going on, just as they are almost certainly not being told what we think is going on.

Is this a conscious, deliberate manipulation of information, a laOrwell? We all know that information about the September 11 attack is manipulated on the other side of the world. Witness the widespread belief that the Trade Towers were felled by secret U.S. or Israeli forces, or that Jewish workers in the Trade Towers were warned not to come to work on September 11.

Is it conceivable that we're being told stories, too?

Of course, every conspiracy theory needs a motive. Why would the populations of the world be manipulated into hostile thought and deed? Who would benefit from this? The obvious answer is arms manufacturers, but there could be other motivations than financial gain. As mentioned above, Orwell's novels explained the use of fear as on organizational tool. In Orwell's future (in the case of 1984, strangely, now 19 years in the past), social problems are beyond the powers of government to ameliorate.

Paranoia and external conflict, manipulated in collusion across lines of seeming oppositon, are means to pacify the masses and prolong a tottering system. Well, if yo'uve been reading the newspapers for the last 10 or 20 years, how many of our most pressing problems would you say have been solved? How many have become worse?

What government wouldn't appreciate a little distraction in a situation like this? And if certain sectors of the entertainment industry are clever enough to make us all believe we need DVD players, isn't it conceivable that other clever folks could induce us to stop fretting about our inability to solve the pressing problems of society, and focus instead on those horrible monsters on the other side of the world? To be fair, we don't seem to have arrived at a totally Orwellion foreign policy. We have some fanatical enemies who don't need embellishment to be threatening. But if our world is about to change, it wouldn't hurt to read Orwell now and then, and wonder if there's more going on than meets the eye.

Doug Lasken teaches English in Los Angeles schools.

Jackie Jura
~ an independent researcher monitoring local, national and international events ~

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