Review of “The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984” by Dorian Lynskey


Everything that was politically formative for me happened between 1989 and 1995. Much of it was war.

In November 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, and the Cold War ended. Or at least it started to end. The real end came fast and furious.

The Romanians lynched Ceausescu on Christmas day of 1989. The other anti-communist revolutions in central Europe happened more peacefully, but they were still world-rocking events. Masses gathered in the streets all across the countries of the Warsaw Pact–the band of buffer states forcibly aligned with the Soviet Union since 1945–and demanded their freedom. They got it. By the next summer, there was not a communist government left in Europe.

Then, without anything to guard, the Soviet Red Army picked up and went home.

Two Christmases later, in 1991, the Soviet Union itself ceased to exist. The war that I had grown up thinking would end the world was over. And it ended because the idea that the Soviet Union had been fighting for just disappeared. For me, this was as jarring as if a color had been expunged from the spectrum of visible light.

Not everyone gets to witness an epochal change of that order right in front of their nose, but in the bloom of my youth I watched the complete and sudden extinction of a political ideology. Krushchev had said Soviet communism would bury us, and in the heat of the contest, it seemed like it might. That anxiety had defined my consciousness for the better part of 25 years. And now its root cause was just gone.

In 1992 I earnestly believed the explanation proffered by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama as to why this momentous change was happening. History, he said, had come to an end. The people of the world had had a fair chance to view democracy and authoritarianism side by side, and they chose democracy. Communism–the most common form of authoritarianism–collapsed, Fukuyama said, because it was an unsustainable idea, which had had to be propped up by force, propaganda and central planning for 70 years.

Democracy, on the other hand, was inevitable. Its supremacy, Fukuyama argued, could be summed up in the following observation: once a people became free and democratic, it was unthinkable that they would return to authoritarianism of any stripe, communist or otherwise. This bold claim certainly seemed to reflect the irreversible direction of the times. The Berlin Wall was not going to be rebuilt once it was torn down.

I suppose I found Fukuyama easy to believe because I believed the same thing he did about the gravitational pull of American power. I believed we were on top of the world because we had superior ideas, and anyone with any sense wanted to share in them and be like us.

As the Cold War came to a dramatic end in Europe, I went off to a different war, which I thought was unrelated but actually wasn’t. A week after Iraq invaded tiny, oil-rich Kuwait in August of 1990, I deployed to Saudi Arabia with the Air Force. In liberating Kuwait and defeating the fifth largest army in the world, we proceeded to demonstrate a “revolution in military affairs.”

For 43 days we put bombs on whatever (fixed) target we chose (mobile targets, especially the infamous SCUDs, were a different story), so softening up Iraq’s ground forces that when the time came to fight, most of the Iraqis simply couldn’t do it. They were starving, cut off from Baghdad, lice eaten, half dead. In dropping their weapons and running out of their foxholes to surrender to us in droves, they seemed like all those central Europeans, rushing, glad and relieved, it appeared, toward the side with the better ideas.

So the rest of the world watched as the U.S. military surgically prepared Saddam Hussein’s forces for defeat and then unceremoniously incapacitated them. The Iraqis lost 100,000 soldiers; we lost 383. If you were a recent Cold War enemy of the United States, you probably felt that this seemed like a good time to be our friend. Even our bombs were smart.

The American Moment was such a towering one, it didn’t even need an outsized leader to personify it. Indeed in lacking memorable traits, the faceless patrician George H. W. Bush was arguably just the man for the job. He was proof that American power was institutional. Our ideas were so strong, they did not need a charismatic leader to actuate them. The cult of personality belonged to the age of dictators, now a thing of the past.

But just as Pax Americana was rushing over Kuwait and central Europe, a small eddy of tribal war broke out in the Balkans, in June 1991. Slovenia, the small, northernmost republic of Yugoslavia, declared independence from the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Albanians who ran the rest of the country. A ten-day war ensued; fewer than 100 people died as Slovenia became its own country. But the rest of Yugoslavia then fatefully followed suit, plunging into a series of ethnic wars that lasted five years and killed 140,000 people. Massacres and concentration camps even made a comeback.

When the wars were over, Yugoslavia had split into five new countries.

I witnessed much of Yugoslavia’s bloody breakup from as up-close as an outsider could get. Still in the Air Force, I was stationed in Germany and Italy from 1991 to 1995. I planned the air reconnaissance missions that were supposed to help the United Nations set up safe zones and determine if the warring factions on the ground were violating the latest ceasefire.

I hitched a ride on a UN supply plane and flew into Sarajevo in the winter of 1993, for no good military reason. I was simply drawn to the awful spectacle of a European army training its artillery down on a European capital city, shelling its citizens, trying to starve them to death. Every building in Sarajevo was pockmarked. This wasn’t supposed to happen. The American Moment was supposed to cancel out the possibility of this old European madness for war. So I pictured the world.

Ultimately, the United States was instrumental in bringing Yugoslavia’s wars to an end. After European powers repeatedly failed to conclude a peace deal at talks set up in their grand palaces, the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke sequestered the warring parties in the drab, cut-rate quarters of an unglamorous Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. There he wooed, threatened and cajoled them for 20 days, and on 21 November 1995, Yugoslavia’s wars ended.

Although the end was messy, I still believed I was witnessing American power at its zenith. We were using the allure of liberal democracy and the tacit threat of military supremacy to guide the warring Europeans out of old, discredited patterns of conflict and toward a new order.

So I spent the years between 1989 and 1995 believing that history was coming to an end. Mankind had reached a point at which it would no longer be oppressed, because individual men would have to choose this fate. I held to this high-flown theory because of the concrete facts that appeared right before my eyes. The Wall really had come down. A liberal playwright had been elected president of Czechoslovakia. U.S. power had shown itself to be an insuprable force for democracy. Things were different now, and better.

I was mistaken, of course, but at least I was in good company. The acclaimed Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash was gripped by the same delusion I was, which he phrased in this way: “The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four ended in 1989.” Liberal democrats like Garton Ash believed Orwell’s dire warning had worked, and humanity was now out of the woods.

Of course we are not out of the woods. And although I revere Orwell, it is with ruefulness that I admit his writing is not just masterful and brilliant, but once again useful.

In his wonderful new book, The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, Dorian Lynskey makes a powerful case that Orwell’s best-known novel “remains the book we turn to when truth is mutilated, language is distorted, power is abused, and we want to know how bad things can get.” Written about an imagined future, it is also a guide to the present.


The Ministry of Truth undertakes two broad tasks. First it analyzes the literary sources of Nineteen Eighty-Four and locates Orwell’s thought among them. Second it illustrates what Lynskey calls the “afterlife” of Nineteen Eighty-Four, showing how it has thrived since its publication in 1949 as an ongoing, highly mutable response to mass culture and reactionary politics. Many of its memes and phrases, such as Big Brother, Room 101, and doublethink, are now known by millions, even if they have never read the book.

Lynskey makes no bones of the fact that his point of departure is the current, post-truth moment of  Trumpism. Sales of Nineteen Eighty-Four, he observes, shot up 10,000 percent in the four days after Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer was marched before the world’s news cameras to tell flagrant, demonstrable lies about crowd size in 2017. That said, though, Lynskey delivers a work of wide-ranging literary criticism, which does an admirable job of “not repeatedly dig[ging] the reader in the ribs” when advancing an interpretation of Orwell that clearly applies to “our present rulers.” It’s an interpretation of Orwell that should stand up well for years to come.

Lynskey’s main political moral is that the societal horrors that Orwell hated, feared and diagnosed with such precision will continue to resurface in new outbreaks of authoritarianism. A book that fixated on the present rightward turn toward yokel fascism would have lamed itself for the future. Orwell, grimly, will go on being useful, and Lynskey’s interpretation of his highly useful book will go on expanding our understanding of it.

The first half of The Ministry of Truth is a magisterial work of scholarship, but delivered with a pleasingly light touch. In it, Lynskey refutes the simplistic notion that Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World should be seen as “rival prophecies, as if both authors were, at the same point in time, given the same brief to predict the future, and we now have to decide which was the more accurate.”

Lynskey guides us through a whole Zeitgeist of utopian and dystopian writing spurred by the Industrial Age, unearthing a trove of fascinating connections.

Huxley, it turns out, had been Orwell’s teacher at Eton in 1918. Both men revered and drew inspiration from H.G. Wells. In one aspect, the course of Orwell’s thought can be traced as a reaction to  Wells’s evolving ideas on politics, technology, and human nature. Wells, for his part, had already mined sources of progressivism derived from earlier utopian visions produced in Gilded Age America. These sources would be passed along as part of Orwell’s genetic makeup as an artist.

One of the visions that inspired Wells was Edward Bellamy’s now forgotten utopian novel of 1887, Looking Backward 2000-1887, which was fabulously popular on release. In it, Bellamy feverishly claimed that history was approaching a rupture point that could only be averted by a socialist revolution. The actuating crisis had been brought on by the vast income inequalities produced by the industrial revolution. The economist Henry George had argued his landmark 1979 treatise Progress and Poverty that such huge disparities were neither sustainable nor desirable. George’s idea that society could be deliberately improved by bold visionaries was Wells’s second American inspiration.

So when Orwell has Winston Smith mutter that the proles were the only hope for the future–a line that belongs unimpeachably to Orwell–it nonetheless reflects a line of thought than can be traced back through Wells’s literary sources to ideas that germinated in progressive America. (FDR not only knew of Bellamy’s books, but included Bellamy’s biographer as part of the New Deal administration.)

Lynskey also dispenses expertly with the accusation that Orwell plagiarized parts of Nineteen Eighty-Four. From the 1880s onward, utopian visions and dystopian countervisions were coming so thick and fast (at least a dozen from Wells alone!) that their narrative elements would have been part of the air that any politically-minded writer was breathing.

There are, of course, a handful of striking similarities between Nineteen Eighty-Four and the dystopian 1921 novel We, in which the Russian author Yevgeny Zamatyin projects the failures of the communist revolution a thousand years into a totalitarian future. But does that mean any novel about a totalitarian future is a “copy” of We?

As Lynskey shows, Orwell the literary critic dissected practically every possible antecedent of Nineteen Eighty-Four, from Gulliver’s Travels to the dystopian 1920 play R.U.R., in which the Czech author Karel Capek makes the first use of the word robot. Subjecting these works to exacting, and often appreciative, criticism would have been an odd way for Orwell (or anyone else) to prepare an act of literary thievery from them. Furthermore, Orwell promoted the publication of We in English before he finished Nineteen Eighty-Four. Enthusiastically saying “Read this book” would have been another unusual move for a plagiarist concerned to cover his tracks.

In some cases it is hard, and perhaps pointless, to say which came first–the literary development of some minatory idea by one of Orwell’s forerunners or its occurrence in real life. H.G. Wells featured a deliberately pared-down English vocabulary as the official language of the 21st century in The Shape of Things to Come. As Orwell had read (and commented extensively) on Wells, it is clear that he modeled Newspeak on this idea. But it was in real life that such a thing actually happened. Churchill’s Minister of Information Brendan Bracken promoted an 850-word vocabulary he called Basic English to simplify government press releases. Wells and Orwell were both cognizant of this and incorporated it into their writing.

Zamyatin’s We features secret police who are a lot like Orwell’s. Neither man could have reflected on this menace, Lynskey argues, without knowledge of the Soviet secret police’s methods.

It is he literary act of synthesis, together with a political point of view, that makes Orwell original, just as it will for future novelists writing about dystopia. One of Orwell’s schoolfriends recalled him saying of Wells’s A Modern Utopia in approximately 1919 that he (Orwell) “might write that kind of book himself” someday. In 1984, as Margaret Atwood sat down to write The Handmaid’s Tale, she drew self-consciously from Orwell, Wells, and the broad dystopian literary stream in which they had swum. Atwood  tells Lynskey that she decided to write The Handmaid’s Tale in part because she identified so closely with Winston Smith.

Politically, Orwell is such a consequential writer that his authority has become the object of strenuous competition in the decades since Nineteen Eighty-Four was published. Almost all of the book’s early critics (including Pravda) read Nineteen Eighty-Four as a straightforward repudiation of all leftist thought. Indeed the consummate neocon Norman Podhoretz argued barefaced in 1983 that, had Orwell survived to see Ronald Reagan stare down the USSR, he would have championed the righteous cause of the right.

This is not at all what Orwell intended. The anti-left interpretation of Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lynskey points out, does not comport with Orwell’s own words or lifelong political loyalties. When an official of the United Automobile Workers in Detroit wrote Orwell asking whether good union members should read Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell wrote back that his novel was “‘NOT intended as an attack on socialism, or on the British Labour Party (of which I am a supporter)’ but a warning that ‘totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.'”

Orwell reserved his hottest vitriol for the left because he was so outraged at how socialists could (and did) turn on their own adherents with the most horrific methods of the totalitarian right–fabrications, propaganda, show trials and executions. 

Indeed the formative political experience for Orwell came in 1936, the year he fought for the Worker’s Party of Marxist Unification (POUM). The POUM was a Trotskyite militia making common cause with the Russian-backed Communist Party in the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War. The flagrant dishonesty with which the Soviet puppetmasters smeared the POUM and the blank cruelty with which it turned on them in 1936 outraged Orwell. He never forgot the horrible power Moscow wielded in its ability to erase plain facts about his comrades with blatant propaganda, branding them as “capitalist gangsters” even as they fought for the republic. The POUM’s executioners knew they were acting on outrageous lies when they ruthlessly suppressed their former comrades, but they treated those lies as rock-solid truth. The Spanish Communists believed, in effect, that 2+2=5, because that was what Moscow ordered them to believe.

Orwell’s special genius was his ability to imagine how desperate life could become for the common man once a standing government discovered how to scale up Moscow’s mutilation of the truth and impose it on all of society.

Indeed Orwell had the harrowing world of Nineteen Eighty-Four coming all along, and hinted at it darkly in all his earlier books. In Coming Up For Air he envisions:

The world we’re going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan world. The coloured shirts. The barbed wire. The rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep. And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the leader till they deafen themselves into thinking that they really worship him . . .

This is sharpest aspect of Orwell, the part that warns, as he did in a press statement just after the release of Nineteen Eighty-Four: “Don’t let it happen. It depends on you.” Honesty is not the property of the right or the left. It belongs to each individual, and it will fade if not guarded and actively looked after.

Orwell is so memorable at his most dire, it is too easy to forget why he cared about outrages against human decency to begin with. The Ministry of Truth is a valuable book because it captures, not just the fears and warnings behind Nineteen Eighty-Four, but its motivating hope as well. Orwell was an optimist about humanity. Lynskey recalls Orwell’s analysis of Swift’s abiding pessimism in Gulliver’s Travels:

Perhaps Orwell was using Swift to personify his own grimmest impulses, so that he could mount a case against them. However pessimistic he became, he didn’t believe that humans were grubby, worthless, self-defeating creatures. “[Swift] couldn’t see what the simplest person sees,” Orwell concluded, . . . “that life is worth living and human beings, even if they are dirty and ridiculous, are mostly decent.”





Review of “Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America” by Beth Macy


In 2016, the first time Tess Henry’s mother, Patricia, tracks her down in the throes of heroin addiction, Tess is using a social media app to advertise herself as a prostitute. “Sweet Sultry 26” is her handle. Out of jail and off her second attempt at rehab, Tess needs money for her next heroin fix. She is feeding a habit of six shots a day.

After two years of watching her daughter’s downward spiral into dopesickness, Patricia feared the worst when Tess disappeared from her Roanoke, Virginia home, leaving behind her toddler son. After weeks being gone, Tess was surely dead, thought Patricia. Patricia is so relieved to find even a trace of her daughter still alive, she monitors “Sweet Sultry 26” for weeks, sleeping with her cell phone. Even the picture of Tess scarred, pale and emaciated gives her hope.

Such is a parent’s love for her child.

In 2012, there had been nothing especially worrisome about Tess Henry’s life. Too the contrary, she had been a track star and honor roll student in high school. She was two years into college, studying French, gliding along on the invisible privileges that came from growing up in her wealthy suburb of Roanoke. Then, after having her wisdom teeth pulled, a doctor prescribed Tess a 30-day supply of Oxycodone.

Today, with the opioid epidemic finally in front page news, most of us would know that prescribing 30 days of Oxy for post-op tooth extraction pain would be like giving someone a bazooka to go deer hunting. When I got my wisdom teeth out 22 years ago, I got an Advil, not a month’s worth of powerful narcotics.

The path from popping prescribed Oxy pills to injecting heroin was a short one for Tess, as it has been for millions of other Americans. That first, magical euphoria of an opioid high, often experienced courtesy of a doctor’s prescription, is a feeling that rewires the brain and subjugates a person’s entire will to seeking the next fix.

These days drug dealers use this knowledge. They lace common street drugs like marijuana with powerful opioids to instantly hook the unwitting user. It’s called heatpacking.



But about those doctors: their role in America’s opioid crisis is where Macy’s story begins.

The technical term for drug addiction enabled by doctors is iatrogenic addiction. The first wave of iatrogenic drug abuse, Macy tells us, happened in post-Civil War America. Hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and veterans were treated for pain by doctors who would “leave behind both morphine and hypodermic needles, with instructions to use as needed.” The resulting effects of widespread addiction were tragic and disastrous. Dopesickness that time around was called “Soldiers’ Disease.”

All opioids are derived from the the morphine molecule, the same compound found in heroin. Morphine bathes the brain in a lightness and ecstasy which, in sufficient dosage, can override the most excruciating pain. Everyone is different, but the chemical-neurological configuration of almost anyone’s brain is acutely susceptible to this feeling of rapture. Once you’ve had it, you need it again and again. You abandon everything you once held dear to seek the next fix. If you don’t, you’ll become dopesick, violently ill with fever, nausea, and pain that will not subside because the synthetic opioid you’d been using effectively shut down your brain’s receptors of natural opioids such as endorphins. You’ll wish you were dead if you can’t get more morphine.

One of the main effects of opioids is to slow down respiration. This is what users die of; when they take too much, they simply stop breathing.

In 2017, the last year for which figures have been fully analyzed, more than 70,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, most of these from opioids. For perspective, “only” 58,000 Americans died in the Vietnam War. Now we lose more than that each year to drug overdoses, and the trend is poised to climb further before it begins to subside. This is the new normal.

What unleashed such a pitiless beast on American society in the 21st century? Five factors, according to Macy’s compelling narrative.

The major push factor was the aggressive and, as it turns out, fraudulent marketing of opioids by big pharmaceutical companies, particularly Purdue, starting in the 1990s. It was an historically opportune moment for big pharma. Doctors were beginning to regard pain as “the fifth vital sign” and to treat pain seriously in its own right.

Purdue released its flagship drug Oxycontin in 1996. It was supposed to relieve severe pain without being addictive, due to its time-release property (“contin” being shorthand for “continuous”). Around the same time, the FDA loosened rules on the TV advertisement of potent drugs, and in 1998 the pharmaceutical industry’s total spending on ads surged from $360 million to $1.3 billion. Purdue pushed Oxy to doctors around the country, offering its sales reps incentive bonuses in the tens of thousands of dollars and luring doctors with Las Vegas getaways and luxury cruises. Sales reps unironically pushed Oxy on doctors as a great way to pay for their children’s college education.

Although Purdue courted doctors everywhere, they found their biggest markets in rural, poor, white America. Appalachia became Ground Zero for the opioid crisis, followed closely by de-industrialized Ohio. When globalization began to take away these regions’ jobs in the 1990s, the widespread alienation and the unemployed people’s loss of a sense of purpose created a major pull factor for opioids.

It was not just an abstract state of despair that threw former coalminers and factory workers into the maw of opioid addiction. One of Macy’s major journalistic achievements in Dopesick is to have sleuthed out the pathway that systemic unemployment took toward widespread addiction. After Appalachia’s main employers cast off the people who had done decades of hard labor in mines and factories, these newly unemployed pursued medical disability as a means of survival. It was as natural for doctors to use the new wave of pain management techniques to treat them as it was for the people to seek them.

This pattern of disability-seeking dovetailed with an increasingly dominant American narrative, that there is a pill for every complaint. Again, though, there were concrete factors at work behind this abstract attitude. A major environmental factor leading to the opioid crisis was the fact that so many Americans were already on pills. This factor (1) helped normalize the idea of medicating almost anything, and, more importantly (2) enabled millions of Americans to trade their old, legal drugs for new, illegal ones, a criminal transaction known as diversion.

As we increasingly medicate a myriad of life-long conditions starting in childhood, we should note a sobering fact which Macy observes: “Almost to a person, the addicted twentysomethings I met had taken attention-deficit medication medication as children, prescribed pills that as they entered adolescence morphed from study aid to party aid.” Some traded Adderol for marijuana, Ritalin for cocaine. A doctor Macy interviewed reported how normalized prescription drug use by children has become in recent years. As a YMCA camp doctor in the 1970s, about one percent of the kids he saw came to camp with prescribed meds. This figure jumped to 10 percent in the 1990s, and by 2012, a third of his campers were showing up with prescriptions, “mostly ADHD medications, antidepressants, and antipsychotics.”

The decisive factor in Macy’s narrative is the widespread determination to see drug addiction as a sin, which calls for cathartic forgiveness and total abstinence, rather than a sickness which calls for evidence-based treatment. We are now far enough into the opioid epidemic to understand its defining statistics. The main one staring us in the face, Macy tells us, is the effectiveness of medically assisted treatment of addition, which means the use of prescribed proxy drugs (such as methadone or suboxone) which, in a supervised setting of addiction treatment offers the best hope for recovery.

Critics of MAT object that it basically replaces one opioid addiction with another, and furthermore, addicts can, and often do, divert their prescriptions for heroin or other narcotics. The pitiless statistics of recovery, however, indicate nonetheless that MAT offers the only viable path toward recovery. It replaces an untreatable addiction with a treatable one.

Moralistic Americans, including some members of the medical, legal, and law enforcement communities, are fixated on the emotionally-satisfying image of a short detox program followed by lifelong sobriety–a road to Tarsus conversion. But this model simply doesn’t work. A Harvard research tells Macy, “What happens is, it takes about eight years on average, after people start [detox] treatment, to get one year of sobriety . . . and four to five different episodes of treatment” to achieve durable sobriety.

Advocate of MAT tout not its higher success rate (closer to 50 percent), but also its overall effectiveness in harm reduction. Any of the dozens of parents of dead addicts in Dopesick would tell you they would prefer even a lifelong protocol of supervised suboxone use by their recovering children to the callous, lethal ideology of cold-turkey detox.

Lurking beneath the facts, trends and statistics that Macy lays bare is the sinister suggestion that America’s power elite regard those dying of drugs as disposable people, and that their disappearance is a positive good. This admittedly outlandish-sounding conclusion actually springs from the confluence of three common ideologies that remain stubbornly popular in America.

The free-market ideology says consumers want whatever they want–good or bad, right or wrong–and that an efficient market simply responds to their demand signal. If the demand happens to run fundamentally counter to the consumers’ interest, it will eventually cancel itself out. We see this ruthless market correction in the 70,000 plus who die annually of drug overdoses. The irrationality of poor consumer choices is simply extinguishing itself.

All-out libertarianism tells us each individual must be protected in his right to make the choices that suit him. It is wrong to intervene politically in such basic decisions. Nannying free people away from free choice is the thin end of an authoritarian wedge, which we should not tolerate. In a country where we imprint on our license plates “Live free or die,” we must be prepared to accept that some people will die as a result of exercising their freedoms.

Finally, religious fundamentalism says we get what we deserve based on the way we live our lives before a divine judge and that, in any case our god(s) will set things right in the long run. If we deserve comfort in an afterlife, we will get it.

Tess Henry died of blunt-force head trauma and was thrown into a Las Vegas trash dumpster. The proximal cause of her death, as nearly as the police could determine it, was a blow delivered by her pimp/dealer. After weeks shooting up on the streets of Vegas, Tess owed more for her heroin supply than she could make turning tricks.

But the way Macy tells the whole story of opioid addiction in America, I can’t help but comment on a more distal cause of Tess Henry’s death. It was, to my mind, a confluence of bad ideas–the three just mentioned. We have so brutalized the idea of human worth in our society that, to stay true to our ideas, we must believe that Tess got what she deserved, and that her mother, Patricia, sleeping with her cell phone when she got the call on December 30th, 2017, got what she deserved. The perfect forces of a free market at work delivered up this result, and it is not for us to call the result good or bad, still less to ask our government to get involved in parenting our children to prevent this kind of outcome. If there is a right or wrong to be adjudicated in the system of free, individual choices that led to Tess’s death, we surrender that task to God in his wisdom.


Nothing to See Here, Folks — 29 June 2019


In the news this week, here is a wonderful analysis of how Americans unthinkingly accept an irrational metric for calculating our country’s astronomical defense budget. I have been saying on this blog for years that questions of defense spending impose a kind of learned helplessness on us as taxpayers: we mutely approve of any outlay for our military, no matter how lavish,  because to do otherwise would be seen as unpatriotic.

We all know that being rich has its benefits. At least since the rise of colonialism, the rich, developed world has simply bought the comforts it wants, with nary a thought about what economists call externalities–the costs that our transactions impose on third parties. A UN study published this week measures the social costs of the developed world’s continued production of the majority of the world’s greenhouse gases and finds–surprise!–it is the poorest regions of the world that suffer the leading, and most drastic, consequences of this trend. The resulting “climate apartheid” is projected to impoverish another 120 million people by 2030, ensuring a steady stream of refugees fleeing the developing world for our borders.

The powers that be generally want you to take one of two attitudes toward the wretched, the hungry, the hot-under-the-collar who wash up on our shores desperate for help: (1) that they lack the gumption to make it back “home,” or (2) that the hard, cruel world simply comes furnished with haves and have-nots, a fate determined by the stars and in which we should not meddle. Both myths support the attitude that the displaced poor have nothing to do with “us” and they should not have shown up to disturb our peace. They really should stop indulging in such larks as paying coyotes to traffic them, trying to wade our wild rivers, and occupying our already overcrowded “influx” camps (which are NOT concentration camps).

In related, not quite surprising news, Greenland’s ice sheet is melting even faster than once thought, according to NASA data, threatening to raise sea levels at a proportionally faster rate. Too bad for the billion-odd people who could be displaced or worse by rising coastal waters over the next 30 years.

manhattan flood
The wave of the future?

As CO2 levels rise, it turns out nutrients are being sapped from the crops consumed by the poorest humans (but of course not just them). Scientists have known since at least 2016 that rice is losing its key nutrients in higher CO2 environments. This week a researcher for the USDA revealed on National Public Radio (no link yet) that U.S. Government officials ordered the USDA to suppress a study it co-authored with universities in the United States, China, and Japan that further corroborated this fact. Not satisfied with this Orwellian degree of censorship, the Trump administration also contacted the one contributing U.S. university, the University of Washington, and urged them to quash the paper as well.

Finally, we wealthy denizens of the developed world are invited to behold the forces of innovation coming for us too–or at least our jobs. A study concluded in Europe estimates that the increased use of robots will wipe out 20 million jobs by 2030. But fear not: the rising wave of automation will also lead to the creation of many more, service-related jobs. Said the same kind of visionary politicians as Bill Clinton, who promised in the 1990s that offshoring would enable all American workers to upgrade to knowledge work.


Nothing to See Here, Folks


My hero, George Orwell, was such a great essayist that between 1943 and 1947, the British newspaper Tribune gave him license to write about whatever he chose. He called his column “As I Please,” and many of his anthologized essays from this period still bear this quip as part of their titles.


Today the qualifications for writing about whatever you like are much lower. I pay about 200 bucks a year for my blog and a URL. For this modest price, I get to sit down at the keyboard and expatiate freely for all who have ears to hear. Well, really the resulting blather is for myself, but like a crazy person on the subway, I don’t mind if others listen in and even join in.

In the spirit of Orwell’s “As I Please,” I plan to add a new “column” to my lineup of blog posts. In addition to my rather ponderous essays and book reviews, I will occasionally share shorter bursts of news items, framed with only the lightest touch of commentary.

As a further homage to Orwell, I’ll call it “Nothing to See Here, Folks.” Orwell thought that even the educated, well intentioned people of his time were routinely unable to see plain, ordinary facts right in front of their faces. He wrote an essay about this phenomenon (of course!) and called it “In Front of Your Nose.”

Orwell believed himself to have a “power for facing unpleasant facts.” Although he never said so, he must have believed that most people lacked this power. And so he wrote his essays, which placed unpleasant, or at least unattractive, facts front and center, right in front of his countrymen’s noses.

I also believe the bien pensant of my time have achieved a kind of willful blindness, one that is fostered by mass culture and (much of) mass media. The people who have enough money to shape the content of media go to great exertions to control our attention, surreptitiously suggesting to us what is important and what is not. Like Orwell, I think much of what ought to be important to us is right in front of our noses, and unpleasant to behold.

So with that in mind, stay tuned for “Nothing to See Here, Folks,” in which I will try, as briefly as I can, to draw out of the news facts and ideas that the power elite would like us to ignore.

Review of “Educated: A Memoir” by Tara Westover


Marx’s critics still dispute the meaning of his controversial phrase, “the idiocy of rural life,” which appears in the Communist Manifesto. Did Marx really mean that country folks were stupid, plain and simple? Or was it more complicated than that?

European society was changing dramatically in 1848, when the Communist Manifesto came out. (So was American society.) As steam-powered factories drew the rural poor to urban centers with the force of gravity, the accompanying institutions of town life–schools, offices, laws, taxes, theaters, libraries and so forth–subjected country people to certain civilizing effects.  The social production of knowledge made possible by the city rescued the rural poor from the isolation and ignorance that had marked their lives for generations–the thing that Marx had termed idiocy.

One school of Marx’s interpreters gives the infamous word its usual, literal meaning. Another says the original German Idiotismus has a more nuanced connotation emphasizing the deprived social circumstances of life on the farm, not the endogenous state of mind of those who live there.

I have never felt a need to take sides in this debate. Coming from farm people, though, I have never liked the first interpretation. It stings a bit.

But recently, as I was reading Tara Westover’s Educated, a beautiful memoir of growing up a Mormon survivalist in rural Idaho in the 1990s, I felt one side of the old “idiocy” dispute rising to take hold of me. Before page 100 of Educated it becomes powerfully clear that Westover’s entire family is at risk of dying from–actually, being killed by–her father’s stupidity. And this risk seems to consist in Marx’s idea of rural idiocy, plain and simple.


An abject ignoramus who prevents his seven children from going to school and equates medicine with something he calls “socialism,” Westover’s father, Gene, repeatedly subjects his family to the cruel existential threat of his own insuprable brainlessness.

As a rule, he forbids the wearing of hardhats in the family business of junking. More to follow on this topic.

Twice Gene crashes the family van on Idaho’s icy roads having recklessly, and needlessly, chosen to drive home through the night from Arizona despite approaching winter storms. The first crash results in a serious head injury for his wife, Faye. Afterward, Gene and the kids ridicule her for her black eyes, unwittingly using the same term doctors use for the bruising pattern characteristic of traumatic brain injury–“raccoon eyes.” Even as Faye recovers (without medical care) she is less of a person from this disaster onward, which seems to suit Gene just fine. Before, she’d had her own ideas about what she wanted to do in life.

For the second crash (out of two Arizona trips, it should be said), Gene has removed the seatbelts from the family van. He accelerates to 60 mph on the icy road, loudly reassuring his family that he is driving no faster than their guardian angels can fly. When he wrecks, he scatters his wife and children across a snowy field. Tara comes to after being knocked out, but she does not tell the police of her unconsciousness for fear of being sent to a hospital.

On an earlier occasion, Gene impaled Tara’s leg on a piece of scrap iron. He had insisted she ride in a junk bin full of shifting metal he was moving with a forklift. One of Tara’s brothers suffers grievous burns (while junking) on another occasion, and Gene leaves him half submerged in a trashcan of dirty water as he returns to work.

Once, on a big job, Gene has another son, Shawn, ride a pallet balanced on the 20-foot tall boom of a forklift. (Earlier Gene declined to invest in a man-carrier for the forklift, an idea that offended his sense of divine providence.) Shawn is not wearing a hardhat, or any safety gear, for that matter, and when he falls off the pallet onto a concrete wall jutting with rebar, he suffers the first of several serious brain injuries. Weeks later, when Tara rescues Shawn from the site of a motorcycle crash, brain matter oozing from his forehead (the prohibition on hardhats seemingly extended to motorcycle helmets), Gene urges Tara to bring her brother home, where mother Faye will treat him with herbs and oils.

One day, When Gene buys a mechanical shear capable of scissoring through steel girders, the reader is roused by a sense of Chekhov’s Law: this weapon, having appeared on the scene, will draw blood. Gene’s children finally begin to sense the danger posed by their father’s galloping stupidity. But even after Luke, a son who had so far escaped serious injury, is gashed to the bone by the first trial of the Shear (wonderfully, the capitalization is Westover’s), Gene insists on persevering, sending Tara in to master it.

Like anyone raised in a tribe, the Westovers wear their identity markers with pride. They do not wash after using the bathroom, having been taught by Gene “not to piss on their hands.” At 18, Tara energetically refuses to wear a seatbelt in a friend’s car. The subject of childhood vaccinations does not come up until late in the book, and the reader can guess why.

Gene is sustained in life by two overarching beliefs. One is that angels will guard over his family. The other is that his family must constantly earn this protection by obeying the commandments of the Lord. Sundays are taken up with Gene’s droning recitations from Isaiah and other biblical books of prophecy. His only deeply felt sympathy is for the Weaver family, killed in nearby Ruby Ridge by federal agents in 1992 for doing more or less what Gene wants–defending a rural, devout family compound from outside intrusion.

All the harm, superstition and callousness visited on Tara by Gene’s blighted mindset might be chalked up to mere bad luck. Maybe the shuttering of Gene’s mind is the result of a generational difference, of being “old fashioned” or “temperamental.” This illusion evaporates one night when Shawn, an elder son, takes up the authority wrought for him by Gene’s religious extremism. Outraged that Tara, at 15, wants to attend school, Shawn tries to choke her in bed. After suffocating her nearly to the point of unconsciousness (“I awoke with needles in my brain,” she recalls.), Shawn pinions Tara into a painful position of submission. He will let her go, he says, when “she admits she’s a whore.” 

It is the first of several such incidents.

In a moment of self-reflection one night, the pubescent Tara is trying to calculate the correct snugness of women’s clothing. Too tight and you show your contours, too loose and you flash decolletage as you bend to pick up a hymnal. Gene had recently remarked that a whorish woman in church whose blouse was too loose seemed to be flashing him on purpose. As Tara weighs such hazards of fashion, she worries she “might be growing into the wrong sort of woman.”

Even after Tara miraculously makes it into Brigham Young University–she lies that she had been home-schooled and ekes out a good ACT score–and shows signs of achieving escape velocity, she is once again visited by the sadistic, masculine, rural idiocy that has defined her life so far. Elder brother Shawn assaults and batters her in a supermarket parking lot, spraining her wrists and an ankle. (This episode occurs just days after Shawn has dragged Tara by the hair to plunge her head in a toilet for the effrontery of bringing a date home.) In the parking lot struggle, Tara’s outer clothes are tugged from her body. Shawn stands triumphantly astride her, her bra and panties exposed to the world.

Westover clearly relates this humiliating image of her underclothes for a reason. The scene would have conveyed Shawn’s cruelty without this detail. Tara’s wrist bones snap audibly. There is loud shouting and scuffling. Westover leaves the whiff of a near-rape in the episode, I believe to delineate the full scope of the threat that every woman faces just by living in the real world. When one’s own brother comes within a millimeter of committing sexual assault to assuage his own wrath, what cruel madness does the rest of the (unfamiliar) male world hold in store? Every woman goes out into the world with her agency already diminished by the need to guard against this horror.

Late in the book, Westover reveals that Shawn had also terrorized her older sister Audrey throughout her childhood, using similar methods. But ultimately Audrey, her father and mother, and, of course, Shawn justify this abusive behavior as the necessary disciplining of girls who might otherwise get out of line. This Bronze Age code was thriving in Idaho in 2000, and it likely thrives in your street today. It incubates in its worst form, one must believe, in the countryside, wherever the absence of social life permits violent fools to regard themselves as holy men.

These horrible considerations bring home what patriarchy is for. It is a deliberate, structured, reinforced choice, not the mere byproduct of whim, luck or a “difficult” personality. Patriarchy exists so that fathers may transmit to their sons the prerogative to bully, coerce and command their women. Shawn is simply claiming the sadistic “right” to rule that Gene has prepared for him. Tara, at least for a while, accepts the presumptive right of men to define what the “wrong sort” of woman is. Tragically, mother Faye never seriously challenges this right.

Eventually, Tara does achieve escape velocity. She finishes a history degree at BYU and wins a doctoral scholarship to Cambridge. Her ascending flight into orbit around her old world is not smooth, though. Even as she takes two steps forward, leading her through Rome and Paris, to a health clinic to be vaccinated, to a psychological counselor, she repeatedly takes a step back by trying to reconcile with her family in Idaho. It never ends well.

As Tara starts to become her new self, her family settles deeper into old patterns. Her father nearly self-immolates in a foolish junkyard accident (rehearsed, it must be said by the son who had been burned and “treated” with garbage-can water). Physically disfigured, Gene emerges with what Orwell would have aptly called the face he deserved¹–a cross between carrion fowl and Biblical prophet. He proclaims that all the accidents visited on him and his family over the years were a divine rebuke to the idols of medicine and public health. He tries to lead his daughter back to salvation, but she has a new self now, formed by the indelible habit of being able to imagine others’ perspectives. Reading does that to a person.

Cruelty is the worst thing humans do. This is the liberal creed. If it seems like a no-brainer, Westover’s Educated is proof that it is not. Humanity is still haunted by the terrifyingly bad idea of holiness–that one owes primary allegiance to a god or a religious vision or a tribe that claims special access to the sacred. Put that idea in the minds of men isolated from the civilizing effects of town life, and you have precisely what Marx derided as the idiocy of rural life. And you have the terrors that Westover ran from.

Westover’s memoir is a glorious one that reflects the powers of self-creation. But it is no accident that the closing lines of her account reflect, not glory but the bitterness of rebellion–the spark that started her liberation struggle. She has a new self at the end of her book, but it has placed her beyond the reach of her family–the very thing that formed her early on: “You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal. I call it an education.”

Here’s to education then.

  1. In one of his essays, possibly “The Art of Donald Mcgill,” Orwell remarked that at the age of 50 everyone has the face they deserve. He meant that we have had just enough control of our vanity and life experiences to reflect our character in our midlife face.

Privacy and Solidarity: Two Sides of the Same Coin in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”


In chapter one of Nineteen Eighty-Four, as Winston Smith concludes the first, most fateful entry in his secret journal, he acknowledges the dreadful consequences that his thoughtcrime will surely bring:

Whether he went on with the diary, or whether he did not go on with it, made no difference. The Thought Police would get him just the same. He had committed–would still have committed, even if he had never set pen to paper–the essential crime that contained all others in itself. Thoughtcrime, they called it.  . . . You might dodge successfully for a while, even for years, but sooner or later they were bound to get you.

Before I get to my main theme of solidarity, I’d like to take a moment to draw out how succintly Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare mirrors religion, especially the born-again variety of Christianity prevalent in our society. Man is fallen, goes the born-again script. Even before he steps into the human drama, he is marked guilty of a crime that corrupts his every action. A human signals his inherent fallenness by refusing to admit guilt–“hardening his heart against the Lord,” and that sort of thing. This is the crime that “contain[s] all others in itself,” as Orwell put it.

Remember Jimmy Carter and his 1976 admission that he had “lusted in his heart” for women other than Rosalynn? He was pleading guilty to thoughtcrime. And if Carter could lust in private, couldn’t he be guilty of any other sin in the confines of his secret self? Can’t we all?

Anyone who has ever answered an altar call–or perhaps anyone who has sincerely confessed to a priest–knows the crime of which she is unburdening herself when she comes to kneel in the forgiving presence of the Lord: it is the crime of having an ordinary human life, replete with private thoughts.

It is easy to accuse Christopher Hitchens of overstating the case against religion (that it “poisons everything“), but Hitchens knew the same horrifying truth that Orwell reveals in the passage above. Any religion that denies people the right to privacy even inside the 1200-odd centimeters³ of their own brains is a totalitarian regime. Worse, people seem to want this kind of setup. At the root of our religious motives lies the abject desire to be overseen by secret police and to surrender ourselves to the very dictator who gave us a diseased version of privacy in the first place.

(Image: soulteachers)

At the risk of losing my thread, I must also point out that this pusillanimous desire to be ruled in one’s innermost self is closely connected to the religious idea that the world we inhabit is a mere vale of tears, something to be got past–and got rid of–en route to our celestial destinies. A world that ensconces unworthy, second-rate selves is itself unworthy and second rate. The all-too-common religious attitude that welcomes fire and deluge is an outgrowth of this sickly world view.

Anyone who exudes an angelic assurance that the only life worth having is the one beyond the grave fundamentally devalues this life and is living in bad faith all the time.

This world, they believe, is only a fraudulent version of the “proper” world to come. Correspondingly, we are only fraudulent versions of persons. We don’t count.  This attitude, I believe, is an outrage. Don’t let the religious come at you with their obsequious-sounding offers of succor and grace. Their story–a revenge fantasy–is essentially that there was once a conspiracy to ruin humanity and it worked. They, however, can sell you a path to higher consciousness about this conspiracy. You can even rise to master it, but by abasing yourself before a dictator who condmened you to wretchedness before you were born. No mainstream religions are really much better than Scientology in this regard. They all ask you to start by hating yourself.

If there is anything worse than accepting that you should hate yourelf, it is the logical corrolary that your fellows, all seven billion of them, are also worthy of self-hatred. An outlook as monstrous as this calls for solidarity in opposition. Humans must find a way to stand up to the idea that an illiterate shaman can cast us out of our tribe.

Back, now, to the action of 1984‘s first chapter. This passage continues the one started above dealing with throughtcrime. It is Orwell’s depiction of what it is like to be cast out of Oceania’s  leading tribe of Ingsoc, or English Socialism:

It was always at night–the arrests invariably happened at night. The sudden jerk out of sleep, the rough hand shaking your shoulder, the lights glaring in your eyes, the ring of hard faces round the bed. In the vast majority of cases there was no trial, no report of the arrest. People simply disappeared, always during the night. Your name was removed from the registers, every record of everything you had ever done was wiped out, your one-time existence was denied and then forgotten. You were abolished, annihilated: vaporized was the usual word.

Well, if literature has ever envisioned the Biblical idea of being blotted out of the Book of Life (Ex. 31:33; Ps. 69:27) more vividly, I have not yet read it. It is not enough for the fallen to be cast out and condemned. They must be annihilated–made never to have existed. Why? Because they demonstrated in their heresy that there was another way to think, and that heresy will emerge again if it lingers in the record of the dead. The established powers cannot suffer the prospect that thoughts other than their own exist–or ever existed.

Everyone is in a predicament. It is a deeply human task to describe what your predicament is. Your situation–or at least your understanding of it–tells “how life has happened to you” (to jump a few years ahead of Orwell and put Vonnegut’s loopy spin on things). As Winston sits down to write, he asks himself who his intended audience is. For whom is he describing what life has done to him?

For the future, for the unborn. . . . For the first time the magnitude of what he had undertaken came home to him. How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.

This, by the way, is Orwell speaking directly to the reader. In his 1946 essay “Why I Write” Orwell indicates one of his main motives is the desire to have concrete facts put down on the historical record. He wants the world of the future to know that he was in a particular kind of predicament. He wants the world to know that he was an individual. In turn, Orwell understood his individuality as a reflection of the uniqueness of every other soul in the world.

This generosity of outlook is the cardinal opposite of the authoritarian (and religious) imperative to impose conformity and, in so doing, to kill individual conscience.

Everyone in the world is a guardian of that 1200 odd centimeters³ at the core of their existence. This space must remain sacrosanct. But the abject desire to have this space policed keeps cropping up, just like Camus’s Plague. Keep a journal if the idea appeals to you at all. It will help set a watch against the plague’s recurrence. It will describe your predicament, and it will tell the unborn world of the future that you believed in the uniquness of everyone else’s predicament. The dedication page of all our journals says, in some way, “To my comrades, who are not like me.”






Privacy and the Decent Society: Keeping a Journal


In this series I am analyzing the first chapter of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four through the lens of Avishai Margalit’s idea of an indecent society. An indecent society, Margalit writes, is one in which institutions humiliate individuals.

Winston Smith is on lunch break in his dingy flat. Before he seeks the refuge of a small alcove just out of view of the telescreen, he looks out the window and takes in the horizon. Much of London has not yet been repaired from the bomb damage of World War 2. The cityscape that has survived is pitifully neglected: much of it consists of “rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with balks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard, their roofs with corrugated iron . . . .”

In the midst of this ruin, we encounter the next object in chapter one whose purpose is to deny the people of Oceania any measure of privacy. It is the Ministry of Truth headquarters, Winston’s workplace. Orwell writes of it, “It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters into the air.” That’s tall.

Let me remind you that Chicago’s Hancock Building, at just over 300 meters high, dwarfs even the midrise office buildings around it. Were it surrounded only by one-story housing stock, like the crumbling London homes Orwell describes, the Hancock Building would dominate its environment to a stupefying degree.

There are four 300-meter pyramids in Orwell’s London, which house the government’s main ministries. The last time I read 1984, I could not leave Orwell’s description of the Minitru pyramid behind without calling to mind the skyline of Astana, Kazakhstan’s rather zany capital. Dreamed up by a dictator, Astana looks like this:


One of the city’s many baubles is a glittering white pyramid, not 300 meters tall, but imposing nonetheless. Here is a picture:

astana pyramid

I see these images of Astana as reminders that authoritarians do not bother hiding their intentions. They still seek  to humilate the masses by overawing them with the physical apparatus of power (not to mention with the unaccountable expenditure of lots of money, but that’s another story). Despite the publication of Orwell’s greatest novels exposing authoritarianism; despite the publication of The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz; despite the publication of practically everything by Solzhenitsyn, true authoritarians still feel no need to change their stripes. It doesn’t matter to them that their game has been given away.

The point of authoritarian architecture is to remind the individual that s/he could achieve no private life even if she wished for one. The state’s power to plan, spend, build and organize–and, of course, monitor and intervene–will always overmatch the individual’s power to cultivate a private conscience. The authoritarian city is merely the tasteless outward sign of a more dreadful institutional imperative within. Every physcial implement an authoritarian regime builds is ultimately identifiable with the boot Winston sees stamping on the human face forever.

Even in the presence of such hideous strength, though, Winston insists on rebelling. A private conscience is germinating inside him, and it demands to seek the light of day. It will be called to life. We do not yet know what Winston understands about the impulse to think and write. This is how the urge is allowed to express itself early in chapter one:

For some reason the telescreen in the living room was in an unusal position. Instead of being placed, as was normal, in the end wall, where it could command the whole room, it was in the longer wall, opposite the window. To one side of it there was a shallow alcove in which winston was now sitting, and which, when the flats were built, had probably been intended to hold bookshelves. By sitting in the alcove, and keeping well back, Winston was abe to remain outside the range of the telescreen, so far as sight went. . . . It was partly the unusual geography of the room that had suggested to him the thing that he was now about to do.

The thing Winston does in his hiding place will ultimately bring about his death, but he can’t restrain himself. He had recently purchased a simple but graceful diary, of “creamy white paper” so beautiful it “deserved to be written on . . . .”

Orwell hardly ever insinuates anything of the sensual in his writing (Winston’s upcoming love scenes with Julia hardly rank among Orwell’s best stuff), so it is remarkable that he relates Winston’s sybarritic bond with the notebook so naturally. In the store where Winston spied the book, Orwell says he was “stricken immediately by an overwhelming desire to possess it.” Possess it? Such words bring to mind what David felt when he saw Bathsheba, not what most of us feel when we see a Moleskine.

Well, the actuation of our sensual desire is the heart of our private life, is it not? There is a close connection, I believe, between Winston’s Dionysian “strickenness” with the beautiful journal and his Apollonian compulsion to write out plain truths. They suggest the two halves of his innermost self.

When it comes time to put those plain truths down on paper, though, Winston delays. He writes out the date but can go no further. Is he straining under the burden of what he is about to confess? It might be ordinary witer’s block (already!). On the rare occasion when Orwell is funny, he is only coolly so. This may be his writerly idea of an inside joke.

winston writing
Winston begins his diary (Image: tumblr)

But after pouring out an initial passage of junk, Winston encounters a crystallized moment starting to emerge. He recalls the Two Minutes Hate–when all rise and clamorously denounce Oceania’s enemies– conducted the day before in his office. He homes in on its operative effect:

The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but that it was impossible to avoid joining in.Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic.

Winston’s very first exercise in journaling takes him straight to the heart of Oceania’s worst offense against humanity. Any bully or sadist can compel a victim under torture to say or do things against their conscience or principles. A truly monstrous thing, though, is to manipulate an individual’s fears into a genuine feeling of mob mentality. This is a self-immolation of privacy.

Even as the Allies were winning Wold War 2 in Europe, Orwell pereived that the things that gave the United States and its closest European friends a decisive advantage could easily be maintained under conditions of peace–if that peace were seen as constantly under threat. And one such thing was the genuine conviction among the Allies’ societies that they were on the right side of history. If you could just constantly inculcate or regenerate that attitude, Orwell saw, you could harness an unassailable mass support of state priorities. The factories and bureaucracies would never stop humming.

At the end of World War 2, much of the world was understandably fixated on the horrible power of the atomic bomb to erase entire cities from the map. Orwell spied something much more insidious–the power of mass culture and mass communication to erase the individual mind from the collective will. It is Winston’s perception of this threat to human diginity that dooms him to be pursued and killed by the state. The wages of sin are death, after all, and he has committed thoughtcrime.