1984 and the War on Terror

            I went to an all-boys high school. We had four or five female teachers in the whole school and an all male kitchen staff. Those haggard teachers were the most confident ladies ever to give detention. We must have looked at them like the goddesses they were most certainly not. The two newest editions to the female scope at that school were a short, mousy looking girl with bad acne and a pear shaped black woman with a penchant for Sinead O’Connor hairstyles. Needless to say, they became popular on our hormone-riddled campus. I know I looked at them with naïve lust; yet somehow unsure about their merits as a figure for such lustful inspiration. So, when a female of the species arrived onto the campus of Malvern Preparatory School, a silent alarm went off perking all of our collective dog-ears into overdrive. One such example was during our yearly foray into legitimate theatre. During middle school, a troupe performed Orwell’s dystopian future of Newspeak and Big Brother, 1984. All I remembered was the dull lighting, people saying “comrade” too much, and the time when the girl took off her dress. I was barely a teenager and didn’t know about sex at all. But the upperclassman had at least seen pictures and knew that sex involved taking dresses off, but after that, I imagine most of them would have been confused and shy. Nevertheless, her dress hit the floor revealing a pink nightie and a pair of long shapely legs. They embraced and lay on the bed as the curtain fell. Before the dress crumpled onto the stage floor, the young Malvernians hooted like the boys at the USO watching some singer-stripper shriek and shake through her latest hit. I think the poor actress might have expected it, or if she didn’t I wonder if she was disappointed in our lack of appreciation of her courageous acting, or if she was happily pleased her carnal frame could elicit such a response. Either way, that’s what I remember most from the performance. (It’s a burned memory, just like the time that mousy looking teacher picked me up, in her own car, to go to school early, to take a “test.” I was sure I was in for a story to make all the boys jealous. But actually, I just took my make-up Spanish test as she drank a coffee.)

            I watched the John Hurt version of 1984 last night and it was awfully depressing. The world presented was full of intentional lies, torture, inverted sexual perversion, overreaching government, faux meat, dreary clothes and tedious, monotonous production statistics. There was no pleasure; except happiness for the nightly hangings, no emotions; except for joy about acknowledging the meat as non-meat but liking it anyway, no sex; except for the illegal kind that evidently gets you the mind erasing treatment reminiscent of McMurphy’s experience in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The protagonist, Winston Smith, reminded me of this new character Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower. They both have a feeling that what they are doing to help the government is wrong and aim to seek the truth. Snowden talks about how he left a good job with good pay because he felt too complicit in the illegality of NSA espionage. Smith talks about the wars Oceania is fighting against Eurasia or East Asia depending on which truth is truth that week. Snowden mentions how truth against power is never easy. Smith mentions how winning is not important, so much as creating the illusion of winning over a dangerous enemy thereby maintaining the war. The war in the book is tantamount to our War on Terror. Big Brother can change the name of whom they are fighting, just like America’s “Big Government” can change the name of our enemies so long as those combatants fight under the comprehensive flag of “terror.” American foreign policy is well known to be self-governed, hypocritical and sometimes tyrannical. We’ve allowed dictatorial or corrupt leaders sympathetic to American corporations or ideals to stay in power and often removed (or attempted to remove) popularly elected leaders in coups or assassinations. It’s not really a secret; ask Chile, Congo, or Cuba, just to name the “C’s.” Americans are very surprised and usually concerned to learn about the surreptitious and illegitimate tampering with other nations’ sovereignty. We are even more surprised, concerned and angry when we find that tampering isn’t only abroad, but actually recording and accessing our phone and Internet records.

            September 11th changed America forever. The Patriot Act, War on Terror, FAA body scanners, and Homeland Security are all post 9/11 features of the new way of American life and loss of privacy. Many were happy to sign up to be spied on immediately after the attacks with the emotions of seeing the towers fall. But, as time passed, and no attacks occurred, we were left wondering, did the wars help, did the access granted to FBI, CIA and NSA help, did killing Bin Laden help, or did nothing help, and we are still as vulnerable as ever to a style of kamikaze jihadist warfare that can never truly be eliminated? Did Big Brother find the newspeak words: ‘War on Terror’ that he needed to ensure “forever war?” When will we not be terrified of a possibility of terror? Will there be more pictures of presidents on battleships with banners proclaiming “Mission Accomplished” for us to cheer jingoistic chants of “U.S.A.” and wave our flags patriotically while feeling less terrified for a week? 30 years after the movie, 60 years after the book, are we closer or farther away from living under Big Brother’s watchful eyes?