* By ANDRZEJ KORASZEWSKI, cross-posted here from http://www.listyznaszegosadu.pl/george-orwella-s-columbian-mistake 21 December 2020.
This brilliant British writer was deeply convinced that totalitarianism armed with an electronic technology, which was an object of admiration by British elites directly after WWII, would bury democracy. When in 1948 Orwell wrote Nineteen-Eighty-four, students of the best British universities looked with cow eyes at Stalin and at the Soviet Union, and many of them were easy to convince of the need of collaboration – out of love, not out of greed.
Orwell’s predictions didn’t come true. First Fascism collapsed under the barrage of economically more efficient and better armed democracies, then Western Europe managed to shake off the excessive admiration of Stalin. We, who found ourselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, were surprised that it was possible for Orwell to know so perfectly and to describe so well the system under which we happened to live. But even here Orwell’s vision turned out to be not such a nightmare, and then Communist censorship fell apart when new technology made it possible to circumvent the state’s information monopoly. Tape recorders and photocopiers started samizdat, heralding the end of Big Brother. The Soviet Union collapsed, progress continued, and we arrived at a point in which the Orwellian vision started to be realized by the rulers of the media which were supposed to put an end to all censorship.
Today Big Brother appears to be huge media companies, like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. They are watching us constantly, they know what we read, what we watch, with whom we have contacts. They suggest what we should read and what we should believe in. They block undesirable (according to them) content on our pages, and when we do not want to understand their message, they close our pages.
Lovers of George Orwell observe with anxiety what the authorities are doing in China and the actions of the Byelorussian dictator, Iranian tyrants, or the ruler of North Korea.
Nations yearning for freedom look with envy at the democratic states. However, those who managed to escape tyranny look with astonishment and horror at the paradox of our times. Democracy is putting a noose around its own neck. Orwell’s mistake gives rise to a fragile hope. He was mistaken; after all, the reality turned out less grim than he thought. In his country boundless love for Uncle Stalin didn’t sweep the broad masses, and the voters who voted for the Left chose a different Left to the Soviet one.
There is a problem with the Left. I totally agree with what Noru Tsalic writes:
I don’t care what your pet ideology is, dear reader – if indeed you care to have one. If you are intellectually honest, you have to recognise the great services that the Labour Movement rendered to society as a whole – to us all. If we work 40 hours a week or less; if we are less in danger to die or be maimed for life as a result of unsafe work conditions; if we expect to be treated with dignity at work and take home a decent wage – we owe all this to the men and women who, starting sometime in the 19th century, fought – often at great peril and disadvantage to themselves – to achieve these things and others, for all of us. The first trade unionists. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude.
The author continues that at some point this movement split. In the beginning it wasn’t so obvious, part of the movement retained its initial purpose – to win a better life for workers; another part concluded that that task could not be achieved without taking power and destroying Capitalism. Both talked about class struggle, demanded justice, one through gradual improvements, the other through destruction of everything and building a new world on the rubble. The idea of a new world was tempting to many.
Then those who “merely” wanted improvements created Social Democratic parties which fought for power and were ready to give power to somebody else if voters so decided. The second stream wanted to give all power into the hands of the proletariat, i.e. the party apparatus. The first stream gradually removed oppression, the second stream created oppression even more unbearable than the one they wanted to fight against. Both called themselves the Left.
Noru Tsalic writes that it is still worthwhile to support liberal democracy, which seems obvious, but the problem is that, like many other brilliant ideas, this one was hijacked by romantics and swindlers. Today calls to dismantle the old world and to build a new Utopia remind us of how prescient Orwell was when he wrote about people preaching that ”war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”. Across the ocean we see now how new racists are fighting using racism, again dividing people according to their skin color and not to the content of their character, how supporters of totalitarianism pretend to be antifascist, how deranged censors are shouting about freedom of speech, how feminists are inviting women to wear hijabs.
The fact is astonishing that ex-Muslims, who have experienced the new totalitarianism themselves, much more often see this hijacking of great ideas, and today are much more often censored by censors from Google. Is the fact astonishing that the brilliant economist, the late Walter Williams, repeated many times that nothing did more harm to the process of the emancipation of black Americans than affirmative action and convincing people that they do not need to feel responsible for their lives? Is it astonishing that he has the support of another black economist (one of the most interesting economists living today), Thomas Sowell? The revolutionary avant-garde doesn’t give a hoot about the real effects of their actions on those they want to lead. For Google or Facebook what’s important is profit (probably not only profit, it’s likely that they are also deeply convinced of their mission), for journalists from big mainstream papers approval of their colleagues, and for the leaders of various political movements power and being leaders are important. If a technique of inciting people to collective madness works, we will apply it until all well-meaning people will believe in what we order them to believe.
Revolutionary romanticism is invariably the same enemy of rationalism, just as religion is invariably an enemy of science, of women’s emancipation, and of real separation of church and state.
Will new communication technologies in the hands of revolutionary romantics turn out to be gravediggers of democracy, as George Orwell feared? For now the censorship of tweets by the President of the US is greeted with tumultuous applause even by people from whom we might expect understanding of what it means. (Often the same people firmly protest, for example, the firing of academics for publishing critical thoughts about Islam.) Lies and incitement to hate are combated through censorship but not through the courts, differences of opinion are solved by shutting up but not through honest discussions. Psychological terror may later move to courts, but their independence crumbles under the pressure from people who demand “street justice”.
Many are ready to blame some algorithms, to think that the idea is correct that the censorship is necessary.
We can quietly hope that this trend will be reversed, that people will not voluntarily give up their freedom, and that they will start to look for ways to neutralize this constant psychological terror coming from revolutionary romantics.
For now, though, more and more people in the free world are afraid to say aloud what they think. In countries like China, Iran, Turkey, Gaza, Palestinian Authority territories, or North Korea saying what you think may end in a prison sentence, torture, and not so seldom death. In free countries, like America (but also the European Union or the United Kingdom) saying what you think may end with having your Facebook or Twitter account closed, sometimes being fired from your job, or only with a demand of self-criticism.
Big Brother’s creeping revolution can be even more dangerous than the rule of tyrants. Could it happen that one day there will be nowhere to escape from the rule of tyrants? That’s what George Orwell was afraid of in 1948. He was afraid of the joining of great technology with romantic rulers who would convince people to give up their freedom. He himself had trouble finding a publisher. Warnings about the brave new world were out of fashion, and a critique of the Soviet Union (even indirect, hidden in a literary form) was deemed in polite society as morally reprehensible. Admittedly, his anxiety turned out to be exaggerated. Was it only the date which was mistaken? Will people have enough courage, determination, and common sense to once again stand up in defense of liberal democracy?
For now the statement that Donald Trump was the first President of the US in decades who achieved a measure of progress on the way to peace in the Middle East may result in cutting off relationships with several otherwise nice people from one’s list of friends, and posting on Facebook the newest song of ISIS fighters that calls for the murder of unbelievers and apostates may end with another warning about the violation of community standards.
It’s so easy to give up freedom, bit by bit, so easy to fall in love with daily minutes of hate, ”War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is power”.
Translated by Małgorzata Koraszewska and Sarah Lawson