Friday, November 25, 2011

Forget 1968, Let's Talk 1984

I feel I need to begin this post with a disclaimer: every discussion of modern society's descent into Orwellian dystopia is, almost by definition, a cliché attempt at dramatic hyperbole that does little besides demonstrate that the author has read 1984 and keeps half an ear to the ground either politically or culturally. I hope that the bit of text I am presenting here does not fall under that rubric. This is, of course, a hyperbolic exploration of a theme. It is my hope, however, that it will prove to be a fruitful & useful one, rather than merely an exercise in intellectual masturbation.

The reason I have chosen to discuss 1984 now is, to be frank, my revulsion at the way police, the media and the government have behaved vis-à-vis the Occupy movement in the US primarily, but also here, in Canada. My thoughts began from there and went on to ponder a much larger political and cultural reality, but I want to be straightforward & state very clearly that a support for the Occupy movement served as my starting point.

Ultimately, during the course of my musings, I was forced to conclude that we in North America have a serious problem with the language we use to discuss all facets of our political reality. Language has always been a weapon in politics, and no one saw more clearly what it could accomplish in that capacity than George Orwell did in the shadow of World War II. It is therefore difficult to truly grasp how twisted our language has become without contrasting what is happening in our very real, everyday, actual world with the events in Winston Smith's fictitious world of 1984.


In 1984, this refers to a perception fostered by the political régime of Oceania that peace is impossible without perpetual war against either Eastasia or Eurasia (the enemy du jour being retroactively edited into records as having always been the enemy, with the ally du jour receiving the same treatment). The war is not perceived as perpetual, mind, merely as necessary to ensure peace.

In 2011, ten years after the declaration of the War on Terror, we are repeatedly reassured that "Thanks to the [war in Afghanistan] our citizens are safer and our nation is more secure;"
that internationally illegal incursions over the borders of sovereign, ostensibly allied countries in order to commit state-sanctioned murder are "justice;" moreover, the same state-sanctioned murder is celebrated with elation in the streets of the capital of the most powerful country on the planet, a scene disturbingly reminiscent of the cheering depicted during the public hanging of Eurasian prisoners of war in Orwell's book. In a very real sense, then, we in 2011 understand - or at least our governments would have us understand - that WAR is, indeed, PEACE.


This is where the coverage of the Occupy movement got my thought process moving. Now, admittedly, the example I will use for the real world cannot genuinely be called slavery. That is a hyperbolic exaggeration that trivializes the reality of slavery as it was experienced by millions over nearly four centuries & as it is experienced by millions more today in the world's poorest & most despotic régimes. That said, the contrast between what can & cannot honestly be called freedom is one which I feel must be drawn.

In the world of 1984, every party member is free to think exactly within the boundaries drawn by Big Brother & no further. Language itself is being curtailed, remade into newspeak, in order to eliminate the very possibility of heterodox thought. People's minds are being made slaves to ingsoc orthodoxy in order to allow them complete freedom within a terribly limited scope of behaviour. Proles - that is the bottom level of Oceanic society - have far more freedom than Party members, but theirs is a different slavery: no education at all; given the most menial & unintellectual tasks in society; kept drunk & hooked on mechanically generated radio shows meant to keep them distracted & uniterested, proles are slaves to vice, forever unable to manifest into a genuine political or social force.

The modern example, while nowhere near as insidious, is nevertheless worrying in the extreme.

In 2009, the Tea Party movement made headlines by carrying guns & behaving in an intimidating fashion at political rallies under the dual protections of the first & second amendments to the United States Constitution. Their extreme, but ultimately conservative (& therefore Orthodox) message was protected. I can find no instance of police intervening to break up a single Tea Party rally or protest in any periodical online.

By contrast, the more heterodox liberal/socialist message of the Occupy movement has provoked multiple & violent interventions by police to silence, displace & disperse the movement's encampments in municipalities all over North America. The protesters deserve it because they have no clear demands. They are hippies. They need a bath and a job. Never mind their rights as US or Canadian citizens.

No appeals to either the First Amendment in the US or the Canadian Fundamental Freedom of Expression
(which is a little less narrow a right than the American Freedom of Speech in that is a. covers more than speech & b. does not only refer to the citizen's interaction with government) have allowed these protests to resist being shut down or violently attacked by police. In situations like these it becomes abundantly clear that freedom of speech is a freedom only so long as the message being articulated is consistent, at least in part, with the prevailing political orthodoxy. If the message is counter to that, it would seem, then it is not subject to any freedom at all.


The 1984 version of this is subtle. It is considered a strength to be able to believe two completely opposite statements; to be able to forget words & vocabulary that express things beyond the doctrine of the party & to be able to forget the true course of events & history in favour of history as prescribed by the party. In this world, it is willful ignorance which is considered strength, true; but it is willful ignorance achieved through willful & selective amnesia.

The contrast with modern politics is striking. There is no willful amnesia among the modern electorate - merely a glorification of ignorance. How else do we explain candidate Herman Cain's statement that "we need a leader, not a reader?" Or the attacks against Obama as an intellectual, a lecturer-in-chief, a professor or an elitist?

This is a polity in which it is a disadvantage to be educated. The evidence is everywhere: among the websites above, "Harvard-educated" shows up as a slur; there are dozens of news stories google-able with headlines like "don't believe what they say;" for god's sake, Michelle Bachmann repeatedly demonstrates unbelievable ignorance & gullibility & remains a semi-viable candidate in the GOP presidential primary.


Do we live in a 1984, Winston Smith, Big Brother kind of world? I like to think, & hope, not. But the language we use to talk about our politics & the culture surrounding the big questions of leadership, freedom, the economy & our government are geared to produce a very limited & limiting outcome that favours one specific segment of our society. It is difficult to pin down exactly when it happened, but at one point since the 1970s, war did, indeed, become peace. Freedom, while not quite slavery, became a far more limited notion than we might imagine. Education became a liability, not a strength.

There is something worrying in that. The potential consequences of this perversion of political language and culture are terrifying to behold & we should be wary of allowing it to exacerbate the already tenuous situations of our economy & civil rights.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Occupons Montréal: Don’t Listen to the Media

He was working at the base of the statue of Queen Victoria when I photographed him. The tools of his trade were a simple black marker & a small sheet of plywood. What he was drawing was a beautiful, if a little terrifying, piece of artwork. This was the moment that my scepticism about Occupons Montréal faded & was replaced with hope – cautious hope, cautious optimism – but hope nonetheless.


The reason I had felt sceptical, the reason I had felt that Occupons Montréal might fade into irrelevance until I saw it for myself, is rooted in my understanding of other occupations worldwide – most notably, Occupy Wall Street, where the message is much clearer than the media is portraying it to be & the protestors’ organizing prowess & sense of community repeatedly seems to win out against the established powers & authorities. Globally, we are seeing a sort of 1968 all over again – a mass protest movement, simultaneously local & international in scope, with issues ranging from ending war, economic justice, student debt, unemployment, animal rights, etc. The momentum of this movement seems implacable & the energy of the people participating in it is contagious when you are around it.

So when I saw, over the weekend, a headline on the Le Devoir website saying that Occupons Montréal was associating itself with a march for Québec independence (the headline has since been removed), I felt my heart sink. The rest of the world was challenging an unfair, unscrupulous & predatory economic system that is pushing governments to austerity & here I was seeing my city’s Occupation rehashing old battles & using old, still-divisive politics to undermine its own message & popular support with nearly half of Québec’s population.

Except it wasn’t, and it isn’t. The Occupation General Assembly’s Minutes don’t mention a word about sovereignty or independence. The Occupation seems to be about changing the system to make it fairer for the people in our society who aren’t at the top of the wealth & power pyramid; the old battles are being brought up in the media, but not in the discussions I heard people having down in Square-Victoria-cum-La-Place-du-Peuple. Some of the ideas being discussed are frivolous, unachievable, blue-sky pushes for revolutionary, total world-system reform, but mostly what’s talked about seems to be about making the movement work, making the occupation durable &, beyond those goals, it seems to be about making the world better for people who need it. Allowing people not just to exist, but to live.


So yes, my scepticism faded. It faded because of the message of the Occupation, which is simply “Here are the problems foisted on our society by the wealthy & the powerful at our expense & in our name. Fix them. Now.”; it faded because of the people at the protest, who are living together with a sense of community I have simply never seen in Montreal; it faded because artists are sitting next to enthusiastic political activists, drawing pictures & sculpting stones while someone lectures about inequality and social justice, just because this place has given them the opportunity to express themselves in a way they could not before; it faded because in a city where people will riot because a band can’t play a gig for being held up at the border, there is a village of tents cooperating in an astonishing display of direct, deliberative democracy to change things for the better & not only has it not descended into chaos, but it has grown larger, more organized & more beautiful.

The artist with his plywood canvas sat on the plinth of a statue in a true, 21st Century Agora. If nothing else is accomplished by this movement, the community & the sense of being at the bustling, creative heart of a true democracy will nevertheless stay with me always.