Triumph of doublethink in 2003
Orwell warned against the kind of lies we are being fed about Iraq
Wednesday January 1, 2003
This year, I suppose, for many of us will be George Orwell year. He was born in 1903, and died in 1950, and has loomed over the British literary scene ever since. This centenary year there is certain to be an entertaining re-run of the arguments on the left between his supporters, including me, and his detractors who hail back to the good old days under comrade Stalin. So I start Orwell year with a reminder that his famous satire 1984, though essentially an attack on Stalin's Russia, is not exclusively so. It foresees a horrific world, divided into three power blocks constantly changing sides in order to continue fighting against each other. The governments of all three keep the allegiance of their citizens by pretending there has only ever been one war, one enemy. "The Party said that Oceania had never been in alliance with Eurasia. He, Winston Smith, knew that Oceania had been in alliance with Eurasia as short a time as four years ago. But where did that knowledge exist? Only in his own consciousness. All that was needed was an unending series of victories over your own memory. 'Reality control' they called it: in Newspeak, 'doublethink'."
There is doublethink going on now as Oceania (the US and Britain) prepares for war against Iraq. We, the Winston Smiths of today, know that 15 years ago, the US and Britain were in alliance with Iraq. We know that the British Foreign Office sided with Saddam Hussein when he did those terrible things to his own people listed in Jack Straw's recent doublethink dossier. We know that our government changed their own guidelines in order to sell Saddam the ingredients of any weapons of mass destruction he may or may not now have. We also know that the key bases from which US bombers will take off to kill Iraqis are in Saudi Arabia, whose regime is even more dictatorial, savage and terrorist than Saddam's. But where does that knowledge exist? Only in our own consciousness.
Orwell's great novel was not only a satire, but a warning. He wanted to alert his readers to the dangers of acquiescence in the lies and contortions of powerful govern- ments and their media toadies. The anti-war movement is growing fast, in Britain and the US. Fortunately, we can still, as Orwell urged in another passage, "turn our consciousness to strength" and shake off the warmongers "like a horse shaking off flies". If we don't, we are in for another awful round of victories over our own memories and of doublethink.
7 Probably the best speech I ever heard was in the summer of 1999. The speaker was my friend Eamonn McCann from Derry. His subject was the peace process in Northern Ireland, and his theme was the insistence by the state that the population in Northern Ireland must be divided into Protestant and Catholic. For an hour, he had the huge London audience in an almost permanent state of merriment as he quoted from the official documents sent out for the 2001 census.
The documents were quite different to those in England and Scotland. There were for instance 73 different categories of religion specified for the 1.5 million people in Northern Ireland, compared to 17 religions available to the 50 million people in Britain. What amused us was the stubborn refusal of the census authorities to concede that there were people in Northern Ireland who are neither Protestant nor Catholic. Even if you said you had no religion, you were obliged to disclose the religion of your parents or grandparents or the name of your school, so you could be shoved against your will into an appropriate (if inaccu rate) category. Eamonn proposed his only possible answer: "I am an atheist - and I come from a long line of atheists". His point was that if the state insists on dividing people by religion, there is little hope for genuine reconciliation, or for peace.
Last week the Northern Ireland census figures were published. Press reports concentrated on the diminishing gap between Protestants and Catholics, but by far the most hopeful revelation was that 14% of the Northern Ireland population refused to be classified in either group, or said they had no religion. These had duly been "reclassified" as Protestant or Catholic by reference to their school or family. Ironically, one official reason why the Northern Ireland census insists on religious classification is the law against discrimination. The authorities argue that if they are to protect Catholics from discrimination, they must know exactly who is Catholic, and who is Protestant, even if neither is true. The rather obvious answer is that this process discriminates against people who have no religion and are proud of it.