Tuesday, September 30, 2014

How Big Brother achieves total control in George Orwell's novel '1984'

In Orwell's 1984, the government controls the population through mind-reading and memory replacement. This article was originally posted to Helium Network on Feb. 10, 2014.

Writing in 1948 after the conclusion of WWII, the English novelist George Orwell imagined a futuristic society in which the government had total control over its citizens. This future world formed the premise of his celebrated novel "1984." Many people read it as a warning about the possible consequences of excessive government control.


In recent history preceding the year 1984, the nations of the world merged into three superpowers. Britain, Australia and North America joined to become the empire known as "Oceania," and Oceania's form of government is called "Ingsoc" (short for "English Socialism"). This classification is not very helpful to the reader, as the government is sui generis. Oceania is in a permanent state of war, always against one of the two other empires, Eurasia and Eastasia, alternately. Meanwhile, Oceania's population is generally deprived of food and material goods. The government claims to produce goods, but somehow they are never distributed.

The powers-that-be are referred to as "Big Brother," but it is explicitly questioned within the novel, and never made clear, whether this is a nickname for a single person who actually exists or if it is simply convenient for the government to speak of itself as if there were a single leader above the maze of bureaucrats, control freaks, torturers and hit men. In London, where the story is set, the government is run out of four large government buildings: the Ministries of Truth, Peace, Love and Plenty. Unspeakably bad things can happen in these buildings.

Big Brother is able to read the mind of each person. A book forbidden within Oceania explains the role of mind-reading:
"The two aims of the Party are to conquer the whole surface of the earth and to extinguish once and for all the possibility of independent thought. There are therefore two great problems which the Party is concerned to solve. One is how to discover, against his will, what another human being is thinking, and the other is how to kill several hundred million people in a few seconds without giving warning beforehand."
The mind-reading, and not the war, is the subject of "1984." How mind-reading is accomplished is a mystery, and that is part of what makes it so terrifying. An argument could be made that the mind-reading is achieved through sophisticated behavioral observation. This is certainly part of Big Brother's strategy, as two-way "telescreens" are installed everywhere, including in each person's apartment, and may not be turned off or avoided for any prolonged period of time. (Big Brother detects physical signs of furtiveness, guilt, confusion, shock or dissent. The safest facial expression is one of "quiet optimism.") However, it's never explained who is watching on the other end, nor - to raise the same question that skeptics have raised about God - how those people are cognitively able to watch everyone all the time. There are also grounds within the novel for hypothesizing that there is a supernatural element to the mind-reading, or that it involves some form of science so sophisticated that it appears to the modern reader to be supernatural.


It is a serious crime to dissent or even to raise intelligent questions about Big Brother's intentions or machinations. Such heresies are therefore almost unheard of. They cannot be expressed, verbally or on paper, because Big Brother would instantly know about the crime through one of the telescreens. They cannot even be coherently thought, because one's mind is not private. Somehow, Big Brother knows. (This may have been a precursor to the plot of the 1961 Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life," in which even a small boy is able to thoroughly control the adults around them because he can read their minds and wield severe punishments.)

Image of a research participant with a 32-electrode EEG. © Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license on Wikimedia Commons.
This explains why there is no rival political party, and why government workers are said to work simply for "the Party," which apparently has no need for a name. There is an "Inner Party" and an "Outer Party," but this is not an ideological distinction; rather, it simply reflects an individual's status within the Party, with Inner Party members living a relatively privileged lifestyle. The hero of "1984," Winston, is an Outer Party member who lives seven flights up in a half-century-old apartment building, all repairs for which must be requested through a do-nothing committee. His allowances for food and clothing are meager. He is a "member" of the Outer Party only in the sense that it is his job to work for the government; he is not doing so by choice or conviction.

Winston speaks with an acquaintance, Syme, who makes indirect political critiques such as: "Orthodoxy means not thinking - not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness." Winston recognizes Syme's intelligence and thinks to himself that the government will not allow Syme to live very long, as "there was something that he lacked: discretion, aloofness, a sort of saving stupidity."

When the novel opens, Winston has just purchased a blank diary and a pen, the penalty for which is 25 years forced labor or perhaps death. (Most people who receive the death penalty are killed suddenly and are understood to have been "vaporized," after which the official position is that they never existed and are, in other words, "unpersons.") As a Party worker, Winston is not even supposed to shop at unapproved stores. He begins his unpracticed, stream-of-consciousness writing "in sheer panic." This is his way of dissenting. Recognizing that thoughtcrime was "the essential crime that contained all others in itself" and also that "the consequences of every act are included in the act itself," he wrote "DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER" in capital letters, assuming that "the writing of those particular words was not more dangerous than the initial act of opening the diary." Yet he does not want to be caught: "Now that he had recognized himself as a dead man it became important to stay alive as long as possible."


The possibility of such a thing as thoughtcrime interferes with the usual notion of truth. Whatever Big Brother wants people to believe is what they must believe, or else they will be guilty of thoughtcrime and severely punished. Big Brother therefore is the arbiter of truth. And the only way for Big Brother to present a coherent narrative about the present day is to remove all threats of competing facts that are remembered from the past.

For example, if Big Brother finds it expedient for people to believe that Oceania is at war with Eurasia, then it must expunge people's memory that Oceania was ever at war with Eastasia, rather than Eurasia. What is true now must have been eternally true. Through influencing people's memories, Big Brother is able to control what they "really believe," not merely what they are allowed to say they believe. As an Inner Party member puts it: "We control matter because we control the mind. Reality is inside the skull."

Winston understands this better than just about anyone. His job for the Outer Party is at the Ministry of Truth, where he spends his days reviewing supposed historical records and forging them anew according to instruction. "All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary," as he bitterly sees it. Identifying and correcting paper copies was a grueling task (Orwell did not imagine digital media). The characters referenced in Winston's stories may not have ever existed; the conflicts may not have taken place; the timelines may be off; the language may be anachronistic. Regardless, it is Winston's job to revise the records as instructed. It is the job of the rest of the populace to believe whatever records are kept by the Ministry of Truth; all competing reading material is forbidden. This is undoubtedly why keeping a diary, too, is illegal.

Winston is cursed with a good memory. He knows that what he's writing is, in most cases, false (or there would be no need for him to "correct" the record). Most people have trained their minds to forget immediately anything that competes with Big Brother's current narrative. Winston cannot forget. He is interested in the truth about things, and he knows this will be his downfall.

His gift for memory equips him for rebellion. As a practical matter, he is able to memorize addresses and instructions so that other people do not have to write them down or otherwise compromise themselves in sharing information with him. As he moves from keeping a diary to seeking out political dissenters, he recognizes that "he had moved from thoughts to words, and now from words to actions."


Winston's relationship with a younger woman, Julia, is one of the major plot elements of the novel. Unlike Winston, Julia is not interested in facts that contradict the Party's official version of events, nor is she interested in political theory. She is nonetheless a rebel insofar as she likes sex, something that is illegal. In this, Winston and Julia conspire together.

The Party grudgingly allows marriage only for the purpose of procreation and child-rearing. Winston and Julia blatantly transgress by escaping to a rural area, where they believe there is no telescreen, for the purpose of forming a relationship.

While willing to use adults for the effort of rearing small children, the Party destroys family ties by encouraging children to inform against their parents, and it conditions parents to believe that this is expected behavior. Winston experienced the sudden "disappearance" of his entire family when he was a small boy, and he has no illusions that, even if the Party would permit him to marry Julia, they would be allowed the sort of private enjoyment that they both want.


Torture leading to a forced confession is one of the more straightforward ways that the Party exerts control, as this activity has been used in the real world throughout all of human history. Orwell's gift here lies in his literary representation of the extreme physical pain and disorientation that Winston experiences under torture. He also draws the connection that physical torture can lay the groundwork for the goal of mental submission or mind control.


There are multiple layers of control in "1984." In the world of the future, as Orwell envisioned it, people suffer permanent war, chronic malnutrition, economic control, suppression of dissent, mind-reading, memory control, torture and forced confession, execution and the manipulation of family relationships. Any of these features may be read figuratively to represent struggles in the real world. Taken literally and in combination, they illustrate a world in which people have no freedom whatsoever.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Sir Walter Scott's 19th-century plea for a rational evaluation of supernatural phenomena

Originally posted to Helium Network on June 28, 2012.

Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, written in 1830, is a nuanced and opinionated compilation of anecdotes about European witch-hunts and superstitions about magical beings. The book is a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning more about specific witch trials, including names, dates, places, trial records, tortures, and last words. Although the topics are a bit disorganized, the language is lyrical, entertaining and compelling.

The author, Sir Walter Scott, was a lawyer by trade, interested in history and poetry, and is today famous for his innovative novels. The Scotsman's title came from a baronetcy he received from the Prince in gratitude for locating the hidden crown jewels within Edinburgh Castle.

To understand the work as a whole, it is helpful to know a bit about Scott's theological approach. He declares his Christian stance early on. To him, this includes a belief in the soul, something that is relevant to his discussion about whether supernatural beings exist. He insists that "all men, except the few who are hardened to the celestial voice, [know] that there is within us a portion of the divine substance, which is not subject to the law of death and dissolution." This passage hints that he does not find atheism worth discussing. Other passages indicate that he holds the Jewish people in particularly low esteem.

Scott believes that miracles are, in principle, possible, insofar as God might choose to work a miracle, but he believes that God has always been stingy with their application. He says that, of course, a Christian necessarily believes that miracles were performed during biblical days, "by which the ordinary laws of nature were occasionally suspended, and recognises the existence in the spiritual world of the two grand divisions of angels and devils, severally exercising their powers according to the commission or permission of the Ruler of the universe."

Yet, even in Biblical times, such miracles were rare. Scott believes that God was so angry with the Jews that he denied them the opportunity to see the resurrection of Christ. "Shall we suppose that a miracle refused for the conversion of God's chosen people," he says, drawing a comparison between Jesus and the alleged ghost of Sir George Villiers, "was sent on a vain errand to save the life of a profligate spendthrift?" In other words, if God chose not to work miracles that would have been of great importance, why should anyone believe that the ghosts of ordinary people are permitted to walk about for relatively trivial purposes?

Furthermore, he believes that miracles no longer occur. "Each advance in natural knowledge teaches us that it is the pleasure of the Creator to govern the world by the laws which he has imposed, and which are not in our times interrupted or suspended," he writes.

These positions are, however, complicated by his relation of a tale about the conversion of the Icelanders to Christianity. The Icelanders believed that the anger of the gods produced volcanic eruptions. Christian missionaries pointed out that the gods would have had nothing to be angry about before people appeared on earth, yet the volcanoes still erupted then; and if natural forces could cause volcanoes at the beginning of time, surely they can still cause volcanoes today, which means there is no reason to appeal to the Norse gods to explain the natural world. (Ironically, this form of argument could be used against Christian theology, too, but no matter.)

This is only the philosophical frame of the book; not its main content, which is mostly very colorful. "Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft" contains anecdotes about everything from poltergeists that smash china teacups to the apparition of a skeleton that never leaves a man's field of vision, to sailors who drop their murder victim into the cauldron that feeds their slaves. Scott relates at length the legend of Thomas of Erceldoune, also known as Thomas the Rhymer, and his enchanted affair with a queen. He points out that Robert Kirke, who first wrote a Gaelic translation of the Psalms, also wrote a credulous essay called "Subterranean and for the most part Invisible People heretofore going under the name of Elves, Fawnes, and Fairies, or the like." This was written around 1691, and published in 1815 with Scott's backing.

Despite his professed religious orientation — which, despite its expression in uncompromising terms, still feels like an obligatory formality of the times — Scott's many personal theories about the alleged fairy world usually trend toward the skeptical and the rationalistic. His sympathy and outrage about witch-hunts is manifest.

Thousands of European women were burned on allegations of witchcraft in the 16th and 17th centuries. Drawing by Tucker Lieberman.
On the cause of mass delusion, he writes: "most are willing to sacrifice the conviction of their own senses, rather than allow that they did not witness the same favourable emblem" as their compatriots claim to have witnessed.  Delusion can also be individual, and some highly superstitious individuals can work themselves into a frenzy of fear, such that if they believe they are cursed to die, they actually die.

On the cause of nightmares, he posits that people integrate sensory input from the real world into their dreams.

On the cause of false confessions to witchcraft: some are tortured until they confess, others embarrassed by the mere accusation of witchcraft resign themselves to death by execution rather than face being shunned by their neighbors or, if they are superstitious, being tempted by the Devil.

Scott's patience with superstitious people sometimes wears thin, as when he sighs that "the learned Councillor de Lancre" worried about sorcerous interference with the district of Labourt apparently only because "the men are all fishers and the women smoke tobacco and wear short petticoats." Through the sarcasm, one can see that he finds such "arguments" for the abundance of witchcraft to be a haystack of prejudicial nonsense.

He asserts that the famous verse in Exodus 22, which prescribes death for a witch, uses a Hebrew word that actually means "poisoner." Prior to the 15th century, Scott argues, the Catholic Church was more tolerant of alleged small-time witches because they afforded an opportunity for clergy to be employed in reversing the ill effects of their spells. Prosecutions for witchcraft in the more modern sense, not understood simply as lethal scheming, but as a kind of sorcery that was essentially heretical, were rare in Europe until a late 15th-century papal bull of Innocent VIII sought to connect witchcraft with the Waldensian rebellion that empowered lay people to preach and to read the Bible in translation. The panic about witches infected civil law as well. Shortly after King James took the English throne in 1603, a detailed law was passed declaring witchcraft a felony.

Scott's book highlights the illogical claims and the manifold cruelties of witch hunts and ends on a plea for a more humane future.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Oh No God

Hats off to Darby Conley, the "Get Fuzzy" comic strip artist, for today's strip finessing a problem of religious language among secular people.
Anyone could have done it, but only Darby Conley did, to my knowledge, as this is the first time I've seen it. Problem solved.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A literary analysis of "The Cave" by Jose Saramago

Originally posted to Helium Network on Jan. 7, 2012.

A couple years after winning the 1998 Nobel Prize in Literature, Portuguese author Jose Saramago published The Cave, a novel about human connection in a time of uncertainty and uprooting. The book was soon translated from Portuguese into English by Margaret Jull Costa.

The plot elements are simple – a rural craftsman is taken advantage of by a large company, a stray dog shows up, a young married woman conceives, financial pressures force the family to move – and so the real impact of the novel lies in its psychological and philosophical explorations. The key to the story is in the emotional connections that characters make with each other tentatively. It's in Saramago's expression of how the dog noses his master's hand, how the girl tells her father she's pregnant.

The title evokes Plato's allegory about the human tendency to be captivated by illusions rather than to see truth directly. The surreal climax that gives the book this title does not occur until the last few pages of the story. Yet the entire book is, in a way, a reflection on the varying illusions contained in ordinary life and thought.

One of Saramago's literary tricks is to make lists of apparent synonyms. In one place, he writes,
"Yes, it is true, that no one ever saw him again, but he left us what was perhaps the best part of himself, the breath, the puff of air, the breeze, the soft wind, the zephyr, the very things that are now gently entering the nostrils of the six clay dolls..."
In another, he writes,
"But I've always understood that the secret of the bee doesn't actually exist, that it's a mystification, a false mystery, an unfinished fable, a tale that might have been but wasn't..."
Some readers are put off by this style. Can't one of the world's greatest writers settle on the proper word to convey his intended meaning? That desire for clarity is one of the very philosophical problems with which Saramago wrestles.

In one passage he explains that it is incoherence, not contradiction, that the human character generally avoids. A person is capable of believing and feeling contradictory things while still maintaining a coherent self-narrative. Saramago's lists of similar but non-identical concepts can be seen as illustrations of this principle. Is it breath or wind that ensouls the dolls? Does this side-by-side contradiction matter, especially as it is the province of metaphor and perception anyway?

Another justification for the lists is given here:

"…every now and then, one still comes across the occasional rare exception in this dull world of repetitions, as the Orphic, Pythagorean, Stoic, and Neoplatonic sages might have called it had they not preferred, with poetic inspiration, to give it the prettier and more sonorous name of the eternal return."
Eternal return is the philosophical idea, famously examined in modern Western philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche, that time is cyclical and everything that has happened before will happen again. Thus when Saramago says that his character "was busily planning ruses, tricks, ploys, stratagems, dodges, and subterfuges," he conveys the sense that this person is connected to every other person who has ever plotted deceit. The reader is not presented with a specific kind of deceit but rather with the vague impression of activities that fall into this category: the Platonic form of deceit. The specific character becomes universal and thereby eternal.

Another interesting feature of Saramago's writing is his representation of dialogue without line breaks or quotation marks. While this makes it difficult to interpret which character is making which comment, it reveals how an argument with another person can also be perceived as an argument with oneself. It shows how our contradictions live and breathe within us. We see how readily we can change our opinions to connect with others.