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Not bloody likely

July 10, 2013

Orwell, Orwell, Orwell.  The onetime Parisian dishwasher’s pseudonym is fast becoming the favored catchword of summer 2013.  Journalists have discovered a fresh delight in using it as a pejorative to describe a perceived increase in government encroachment on private life.  The NSA’s (supposedly) new eavesdropping programs?  Orwellian!  The militarization of  police forces?  Orwell saw it coming!  Widespread indifference to the expansion of government authority?  Orwell warned us about it years ago!

There’s just one tiny problem with such comparisons: the small matter that the current events to which they usually refer bear no resemblance whatsoever to Orwell’s vision of totalitarianism.  Not in the slightest.

Setting aside the obvious differences between present reality and past fiction–the scope of surveillance in real life versus its extent in Orwell’s more famous writings, centralization versus decentralization, the managed economy versus the free market, and so on–there is a much more fundamental divide between Orwell’s dreams and the modern world.  Let’s take the present case, the leisurely frenzied pursuit of Edward Snowden by the United States government.  In Nineteen Eighty-Four, there are no Snowdens, because the state is so powerful, so knowledgeable, so efficient, that it can remove them from circulation before they cause any trouble for it.  Orwell’s Big Brother is always aware of threats to his power and moves swiftly to counter them.  The offender ends up at best dead, or at worst reeducated.  Do the United States and its fellow nation-states work that way?  Not bloody likely.  First, the US government would never have found out that Snowden walked off with several thousand classified documents if he hadn’t decided to publicize the fact.  Second, after they realized he had fled the country, they made a clerical error on the extradition paperwork that could have prevented his moving on from Hong Kong to Russia.  Third, they got caught encouraging and/or bullying their allies into stopping the diplomatic flight of a foreign head of government on the grounds that Snowden was on board, only to wind up looking very foolish when he turned out not to be on the aircraft after all.  The Orwellian nightmare is supposed to emphasize the absolute power, the absolute mastery, of the state over the individual.  All the Snowden case has done is demonstrate that even a very little poor planning on the part of an individual may be sufficient to allow him to evade the clumsy grasping gestures of the state.

This isn’t what the Orwellian nightmare looks like.  This is what sheer incompetence looks like.  Reassuringly, such blundering also explains why the nation-state will eventually render itself obsolete.  If the state cannot even tyrannize effectively, who can be expected to either respect it or fear it?

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