Reading 1984 in 2015

I recently re-opened George Orwell’s 1984, which I hadn’t read since I became a supporter of libertarian ideals in high school.

My first impression was to think that we are lucky to have Obama as president of the United States. Because he’s not a tyrant. I don’t like him, or rather, I like the man but not his policies; he’s authoritarian, but he’s not a tyrant. However, if one day the american people elect someone who turns out to have tyrannical goals, we are fucked.

The omnipresent telescreens in 1984 are a good metaphor for our phones, tablets and computers. Sure, they are not operated by the government, nor are they broadcasting propaganda against our will. But in light of the Snowden revelations, we know that basically everything we say or do on the internet can be stored and retrieved by government agencies such as the NSA or the FBI. As all our devices have microphones and cameras, it’s not impossible for the NSA to actually look at what we are doing (although you’d have to be directly targeted by the agency; it’s unlikely that the NSA would like/be able to watch everyone…).
Now, as Obama isn’t a tyrant, there are few cases where this surveillance could become nefarious. Unless you’re a journalist, or a whistleblower, of course.

A lot of people who support the NSA (which very existence has never been proved to have been useful to protect american citizens) will say that they have nothing to hide and thus aren’t afraid of surveillance. Right. But that’s not the point.
Merely giving the government the ability to spy on everyone of us is scary enough. If we wait for someone more authoritarian than Obama to become president, it’ll be too late.
If the next US president decides to crush any opposition, either from citizens or journalists, he’ll have the ability to do so. I’m hopeful some people would get in the way – so this scenario is hopefully unlikely to happen – but still. The only difference between 2015 and Orwell’s 1984 is that we don’t have Big Brother as our president.
The gigantic surveillance apparatus is there. We’re just lucky not to be ruled by a tyrant. If we elected one (yes, Google “Hitler” to see that this is possible), he would have tremendous powers, similar to the ones Big Brother had.

A lot of quotes from the book are eerily similar to the present situation:

“WAR IS PEACE.”
The US has always been at war since World War II. Islamic terrorism (and previously, the Soviet Union), has been a very good excuse to justify legislation and actions by the government restraining freedom. The Patriot Act and McCarthyism are two good examples of that.

I’d argue our education system is now abiding by the “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” motto, by rewarding mediocrity and trying to cast everyone into the same mold (see my post on Education for more criticism of the education system).

“Many of the disappearances were actually suicides. But it needed desperate courage to kill yourself in a world where firearms, or any quick and certain poison, were completely unprocurable”  – So this quote will certainly please fans of the 2nd Amendment. It’s important to understand that suicide here is meant in the context of escape from torture or oppression – and not “just” from mental illness such as depression. (Suicide is respectable when it is done by someone who is capable of reason. Someone afflicted by depression isn’t: his brain is rigged by the disease.)
Apart from the prohibition of firearm possession, this quote also adresses the problem of drug prohibition. The recent trial of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged creator of the Silk Road market, shows how tyrannical the government can be when it doesn’t want you to be able to use the chemicals you want, when you want.

“For distances of less than 100 kilometres it was not necessary to get your passport endorsed” – though realistically, abolishing borders today would be crazy, the notion of borders and passport checks is inherently tyrannical, since its goal is to restrain freedom of movement and privacy. Pushed at its extreme, border control and the absence of privacy (embodied by constant ID checks) get us to 1984. Controlling who enters your country can be desirable, but is dangerous: refusing entry to an Islamic State fighter is probably a sound decision, but who decides who can enter and who cannot? What if suddenly people critical of the government, or journalists, are on the list? Border control is a mess, and it must at least be much more transparent than it is right now. Remember that journalists and their relatives are routinely intimidated, illegally searched and interrogated by government agents when they land in the US.

“tortures, drugs, delicate instruments that registered your nervous reactions, gradual wearing-down by sleeplessness and solitude and persistent questioning. ” – Oh, that looks a lot like the CIA’s “Enhanced Interrogation Program” and the prison system’s use of solitary confinement…

“Even when weapons of war are not actually destroyed, their manufacture is still a convenient way of expending labour power without producing anything that can be consumed. A Floating Fortress, for example, has locked up in it the labour that would build several hundred cargo-ships. Ultimately it is scrapped as obsolete, never having brought any material benefit to anybody, and with further enormous labours another Floating Fortress is built.” – Detailing how the Department of Defense wastes trillions of dollars would take multiple books. Just knowing that the US’s defense budget is more than the ten other largest spenders’ budgets combined should be enough. Or we can look at the F-35 fighter jet program, the latest example of outrageous spending on useless war machines.

“In past ages, a war, almost by definition, was something that sooner or later came to an end, usually in unmistakable victory or defeat.” […] “But when war becomes literally continuous, it also ceases to be dangerous. When war is continuous there is no such thing as military necessity. Technical progress can cease and the most palpable facts can be denied or disregarded.” – Another quote on the state of perpetual war we are in. A great justification for increased military spending, human rights abuses and liberticide legislation.

“[…] practices which had been long abandoned, in some cases for hundreds of years—imprisonment without trial, the use of war prisoners as slaves, public executions, torture to extract confessions, the use of hostages, and the deportation of whole populations—not only became common again, but were tolerated and even defended by people who considered themselves enlightened and progressive.” – Imprisonment without trial is happening in the US (at least in Guantanamo Bay). Torture did happen too (and could still take place, who knows what the CIA has been up to lately). As for the “enlightened and progressive” people defending these techniques, well… I’m not sure the political leaders who have actively endorsed these atrocious acts can be referred to as enlightened or progressive.

“[…] in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. […] With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument, private life came to an end. Every citizen, or at least every citizen important enough to be worth watching, could be kept for twenty-four hours a day under the eyes of the police […]” – Orwell somehow saw the surveillance apparatus coming. Our “telescreens” are called computers and smartphones. They do not yell propaganda at us, but are capable of constantly monitoring us if the government wants to. There are still probably ways (like powerful encryption and the Tor Browser) to avoid NSA surveillance, but the agency is busy trying to weaken and ultimately break them.

“‘You asked me once,’ said O’Brien, ‘what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.'” – This is a terrifying quote. Using your worst fear as a form of torture (which is the whole concept of Room 101) is every tyrant’s dream. I recently read this article from Motherboard about torture using virtual reality (with devices like the Oculus Rift for example), which would effectively make possible the Room 101 scenario. It is truly horrifying, and considering how widely used torture is around the globe, it should at least make us a little bit uncomfortable…

Finally, and this greatly illustrates the need for economic and social experiments, such as the defunct Silk Road or the independent nation I described here, I’ll leave you with this quote, which I regard as an encouragement to expose abuses on our individual rights: “The masses never revolt of their own accord, and they never revolt merely because they are oppressed. Indeed, so long as they are not permitted to have standards of comparison, they never even become aware that they are oppressed.”