Sunday, July 21, 2013

Orwell Was Wrong

By Robert H.

Surveillance is not the cornerstone of a police state.

1984 is a great book, but it has done almost as much harm as good to the English speaking world.  Our greatest, most definitive account of a modern tyranny is written about an authoritarian state that never existed by a man who had never lived in one (unless you count Burma, where he was an oppressor).  Worse, a meditation on what authoritarianism and cults of personality do to the soul and the mind is read as a sort of blueprint for the perfect police state, a how-to guide.  And the end result is that we think the improbable world of 1984 is what tyranny is like, and judge ourselves by that standard.

Here's the problem: the ultimate concern of the state in 1984 is the soul of its citizens.  The elites don't want to neutralize Winston as a threat or as something objectionable in and of itself, they don't want to use him as slave labor, they want to convert him.  So they spend a fortune monitoring him, testing him, learning his weaknesses and ambitions, and finally breaking and brainwashing him.  

Actual police states could care less about identifying or converting their enemies.  That's why they are so awful.  To a tyrant, possible enemies are to be crushed or used and who cares who gets in the way.  Tyrannies make use of surveillance, but it isn't necessary because it's not necessary to only get the right man.  Informer rats someone out, arrest that someone.  Arrest their family too, why not?  The important thing is that we, the leaders, can do what we want and they, the suspected, can suffer for it.  Police states invade your privacy without due process not because monitoring you is the lynchpin of tyranny, but because they don't care about you privacy rights or due process.  Not caring about you or your rights -- that's the police state.  It's the polar opposite of a state so fascinated with you it longs to observe and convert you.

But that isn't what 1984 told us, so we all have a bug up our butt about the state observing us, even when it doesn't violate our privacy.  For example, streets and sidewalks are not private places where you should feel free from observation.  But whenever the government installs cameras to monitor these places, people go crazy and start complaining about big brother.  

This is on my mind because everyone is freaking out about the NSA (try a google news search for NSA and Orwellian), but very few people are freaking out about, say, the casual brutality with which we treat our prisoners (did you know that thousands of California prisoners are on hunger strike right now?).  Top heavy, bureaucratic programs designed to collect arguably public information with insufficient judicial oversight are not the hallmark of a police state.  Marginalizing a whole class of citizens, writing them off as people whose hopes and feelings and rights matter, and brutalizing them is.   

As an aside, the best look at the modern police state isn't 1984, it's The Gulag Archipelago by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.  It has a lot to recommend it over 1984: Solzhenitsyn is a better writer, his subject is real, and he had personally suffered at its hands.  There is a probably true story in that book about a woman whose husband was disappeared, so she went to the police station to ask after him.  The cops were short on their arrest quota, so when she came in she (and presumably everyone else that day) was arrested, tortured, sentenced for some made-up crime (anti-soviet activities?), and converted into a slave laborer.  Again, that's a police state. No word yet if Stalin also spied on her Facebook photos.

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