Part 1 in a series.
by Dr. Michael Tracey
We live in a moment of hyper-consumerism, uber-war and insidious surveillance by a vast security apparatus. But what might it look like if Orwell and Huxley were both wrong.
“The age of maturity that past authors were hoping would come seems not to be the destiny of humankind… Humanity is condemned to seek truth rather than possess it… This would be the vocation of our species: to pick up the task of enlightenment with each new day, knowing that it is interminable.”- Tzvetan Todorov, “In Defence of the Enlightenment.”
In The Empire Strikes Back, young Luke Skywalker asks his Jedi master, Yoda, whether the dark side is stronger than the good? “No,” Yoda replies, “easier, quicker, more seductive.”
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh…” Philip Larkin, The Trees
This essay is, in the first instance, impelled by a deep sense of disappointment at the immense gulf between the grand promise of this country, the United States, and its objective contemporary condition, the sense one has looking out across the landscape with squinted eyes that there is, as Milton writes in Paradise Lost, “Demoniac frenzy, moping melancholy, / And moon-struck madness.” I understand that there is a not inconsiderable dose of normative judgment here, but that is an inevitable and necessary aspect of any consideration of the nature and texture of society and culture. In the words of Noam Chomsky: “Unless we have some fixed and rational standards for judging what constitutes a better society, we will be lost.” (1)
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Briefly, what of today, then? Who are we, where are we, what of the frenzy, the moping, the madness?
In 1985 Neil Postman published what has justifiably become a famous book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (2). In his book he makes a fascinating observation about two visions in the 20th century of how society would evolve. The first is Orwell’s 1984, which invokes the tyranny of a police state, torture, fear, brutality, the famous boot on the face of humanity forever, the disappearance of privacy and human dignity and all of it justified by a forever war. The other is Huxley’s Brave New World, in which a faux happiness derives from consuming mass produced goods, sports, “the feelies,” a supposedly perfect pleasure drug, soma, the elimination of poverty and disease, an end to war, the eradication of vices, of hatred and envy, the absence of anxiety and guilt, and lots and lots of sex. The result? A world peopled by beings devoid of humanity, devoid of the capacity, or desire, to think, or write or govern themselves, totalitarianism in a spa. A place that is utterly dehumanized and banal and no-one knows. In the foreword Postman writes:
In ‘1984’…people are controlled by inflicting pain. In ‘Brave New World,’ they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
It may in fact be, unfortunately, that we have to weigh the possibility that they were both right, since we live in a moment of hyper-consumerism, uber-war and insidious surveillance by a vast security apparatus.
This should not, however, deter us from considering what it might look like if they were both wrong.
It has been said rather sardonically that it isn’t that the modern state doesn’t mind killing its own people, it’s just that it doesn’t want anyone else killing them. This is, of course, an argument that the role of the State, in the end, is fundamentally control of those beings who happen to live within its provenance, and control is all too readily a simile for repression. Why control? Possibly because somewhere in the mind of the State, or perhaps more accurately in the minds of those who hold the levers of power, is a sense that where there is no control, chaos lurks, the Hobbesian war of all on all. Perhaps it is because in a society of disordered pretences and particular interests, control is vital to protect those who have against those who don’t – there is surely a good argument to be had that a lot of crime is actually a low order strategy of redistributive economics.
Today, it might be argued, control and repression are more nuanced than in the past, a shying away from any obvious oppression, unless of course you are a poor wretch who has been rendered to a black site. States represent themselves, in fact, as their opposites, the good-hearted protectors of common folk, guarantors of rights, liberties and freedoms. The attacks of 9/11, and the subsequent war with Iraq and the more diffuse “global war on terror,” however, opened up a space into which slipped the argument that there was now a vital, if unfortunate, need for State action to confront the new menace, all the while couched in the language of the State as the guarantor of our security and, therefore, so the tale continued, of all our freedoms. Repeated ad infinitum in the days and months and years after 9/11 that argument was propelled to the forefront of public discourse and deep into the public imagination. There was a palpable sense that something profound was changing, an old normal buried forever beneath the debris of the Twin Towers, the flames of the Pentagon and a blackened scar in a Pennsylvanian field, replaced by a new normal of fear, anxiety and a deep sense of the need for retribution. There was also that sense that we were under siege by powerful, mysterious, determined forces that were out to destroy “our way of life.” All our daily lives would be affected, with for example the new inconveniences of travel which were inevitable, permanent and deepening – more thorough searches, random secondary searches of poor wretches who were already late for a flight, body scans. Even the simple things – that shampoo bottle, this toothpaste container, the hair gel – simple no longer, all potential sources of death and destruction. It was as if the security authorities, and the legions of the new Transportation Security Administration, with their paramilitary garb and often brusque assertiveness, were as one with the English writer John Ruskin who, it was said by one critic, “could discover the Apocalypse in a daisy.” (3)
All of this, however, slipped quickly and inevitably into the assumptions, the taken-for-grantedness, of daily life, perhaps because it was a means of calming the fears of that daily life – after 9/11 the renowned journal Psychology Today announced that the whole nation was suffering from a generalized anxiety condition. Clues to this mood and reaction were everywhere. Patriotism and support for the wars became unquestionable, and to question was to court damnation and, in the case of a number of journalists, being fired. On camera news anchors wore flag lapel badges, with nary a question as to how this squared with their need to be objective, which in hindsight might have been useful in exposing the clarion call for a war that was a lie. The role of the media – even the mighty New York Times – was, to borrow from Harold Pinter, to use language to keep thought at bay.
There were other clues to the mood of what really does, on reflection, look like mass hysteria. People were pulled from planes because a) they looked Muslim, or b) had done something that was “suspicious” to the nervous paranoid sitting next to them. Images appeared of disheveled terrorists, of taunted and tormented naked figures in a place that few had heard of, Abu Ghraib, but which in the end, and after the mouthing of a few platitudes as to how unfortunate it all was, so out of step with the normal conduct of war and of how anyhow it was the fault of some country hicks, bad apples, no one really cared about it – unless, of course, you happened to be one of the billion or so Muslims on the planet.
“Gitmo” became known as the place to which the bad guys were sent – even if it slowly emerged that many of them weren’t, they had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or falsely accused by a neighbor and handed over to the military or the intelligence services in return for a cash reward, as rotten a coinage as has ever been minted, but, again, who cared? Funds were made available to small rural towns for new equipment for the police and new surveillance cameras just in case the Taliban or al Qaeda popped by. Intense debate began on the airwaves, around the dinner table, the water cooler, in bars, lecture halls and classrooms about just what was the balance between security and normalcy, security and civil liberties, the rights of “detainees” and “enemy combatants.” Such conversations were almost inevitably accompanied by the thorny question of do we, should we, torture? Are water boarding, sleep deprivation, stress positions, exposure to excessive noise or cold torture? Or, as crafted by the odious John Yoo of the Bush administration and the University of Berkeley, is torture only action that can lead to organ failure and death?
The merchants of doom would mouth the belief that we faced an existential threat to “our way of life,” though there were also those, far fewer in number, who thought it highly unlikely that al Qaeda would be closing down Denny’s anytime soon. There were those who would surely have quoted, had they been aware of it, Hans Meyerhoff’s comment that “reason is a feeble master; and the abyss of the irrational and nothingness looms everywhere.” (4)
Certainly in the months and years after 9/11 it wasn’t just the temper of the time that shifted; the very language of the public square and the private life shook with something new, nowhere better represented than in the fact that we no longer just lived in the United States, we now lived in a volkisch sounding place called the Homeland, where there was an increasing taste for, or at least tolerance of, brutality against the enemy. When Senator Ted Kennedy introduced an amendment that would have defined water-boarding as torture, it was rejected, and when the Democratic Congress finally passed, in 2008, a bill that would limit interrogation techniques to those in the Army field manual – which tends not to encourage the pulling out of fingernails or the slashing of testicles with razor blades or other assorted Torquemeda-esque torments employed by our “allies” in the likes of Pakistan, Morocco and Egypt – Bush vetoed it. Here was the savagery of the authoritarian impulse, of us.
Whether all of this embodies the oppressive totalitarianism of 1984, is some kind of precursor or really is at most a pale shadow of what Orwell feared can be debated, so long as one recognizes that in the end we simply don’t know. We may not be there yet, though the information leaked by Edward Snowden in 2013 about the extent of the NSA’s data gathering on Americans’ communications does not exactly portend well. What is perhaps more readily to be seen is that our culture is in considerable part a distracted place, one defined by simple pleasures and oddities of mind that allow for political and corporate elites to go about the business of running things in pursuit of their narrow interests.
Dr. Michael Tracey is a Professor in the Department of Media Studies at the University of Colorado, although of late his research has increasingly engaged with literature and neuroscience. He believes society – and American society in particular – needs a paradigm shift that recognizes that children are neurological as well as social beings, and that neuroscience is coming to have as important a role to play in explaining children and childhood as any other body of thought. Dr. Tracey previously contributed an extended series on as-yet-unsolved the Ramsey case to S&R.
- Eamonn Carrabine, “Crime, Culture and the Media.” Polity, 2008, p6.
- Neil Postman, “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Penguin, 1985.
- in: James Fields, “Some memories of Charles Dickens.” Atlantic Monthly, August 1870.
- Hans Meyerhoff, Partisan Review, 1959, p294