Revisiting Surveillance & Torture: Orwell’s 1984

Long time, no post. I have a two word reason: law school. It’s not over, but it’s slowed enough for me to get back on the blogging horse. And how else does do that but with a discussion of the Surveillance & Torture State that certainly doesn’t look a thing like the government of your own country. </sarcasm> Alright, dear readers, let’s watch the watchers.

Content warning of mentions torture (without detail) and body image issues.

Basic plot: Total government surveillance. Total government control. Out of step means eliminated, and no one can hide. Our hero Winston is rebellious. He hates Big Brother, the image of the government. He writes in a secret diary. He has an illicit affair with another party member. He seeks to join a rebel group to fight against Big Brother. And he is caught. No one escapes. The government tortures him, not for any new information (no, they have all the information), but to change him, to make him love Big Brother. And he changes. Big Brother always wins.

I read this story first in my late teens – high school or college. Definitely before 9/11. I don’t remember seeing so much of my own world in it that time. It was a fantasy; a place possible during the Cold War, but the Berlin Wall had fallen before I knew what politics meant, and all such possible realities ceased to exist for the comfortable and privileged sect of society. White, suburban adolescence had its own horrors, but the government was not one of them. We were so far away from Oceania, that a reality show could name itself Big Brother and it doesn’t inspire fear; it’s just a joke or a literary reference for those in the know.

Now I read it on the other side of a national tragedy and in the hangover of fear where so many Americans are so much more willing to bargain their human rights for security that they hope is not merely illusory. Where we’ve mired ourselves in an endless war against an ever-changing enemy and name the national rage visited on innocent civilian bodies half a world away “patriotism.” Where laws are given titles that evoke the direct opposite of what they are intended to achieve. 1984 seems too possible and too close. I probably was just too naive to see it the first time around.

I know the map between those world of innocence and the world of fear in my own life. I can connect them and follow the road (mostly) that lead us here. My own history has not been erased; we are not yet Oceania there. Yet. Winston wants his history back, seeks it out. But the map has been so thoroughly destroyed that he cannot recognize it when he finds it.

He meets an old man in lower classes (the proles). The old man has his memories of life before the Party and tells Winston the small histories that undermine the false big one. Winston can’t take it though, doesn’t understand it. He is looking for proof of the Big Lie and interprets the small truths as senility. The proles are the answer, but he cannot understand their answer. Winston is locked out of the past.

The constant between my first reading and this one is the intensely dark humor I found in the reason Winston gives up his rebellion. After unknown days or weeks or months of torture where he would confess anything to make it stop but never give up the rebellion in his mind, never lie about the fundamental things, Winston is shown his reflection. A simple act that changes everything. Withered and nearly toothless and starved to bones and sagging skin, he gives in.

And I laugh. Not the mirthful kind, but the kind where you recognize yourself in the character and understand the choice and hate that you understand it and so you laugh.

Winston is willing to die for his beliefs, but he is not willing to be ugly for them. Yes, he still holds onto his truth, mentally  now. Yes, he goes to Room 101 and finally, completely breaks. But the cracks in his resolve, the turning point, the moment when he consciously or not decides to leave the Ministry of Love, that moment is in front of the mirror.

That spoke to me as an idealistic, fuck-the-man-and-the-horse-he-rode-in-on kid. My need to be attractive and desirable and sexy was (is?) the chink in my own activism. I had to face that maybe I was not as committed to changing the world as I thought. That society’s constant pressure on young women to be perfect, to be beautiful, had gotten to me, even though I didn’t believe I was pretty (at least the way I was supposed to be).

The story doesn’t end well. Big Brother wins. Winston loses himself in the Party. But is there hope? Yes, but only in the difference between that world and our own. The proles are watching Big Brother, and if there is any hope, it is in the proles.

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