The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the crown. It may be frail – its roof may shake – the wind may blow through it – the storm may enter – the rain may enter – but the King of England cannot enter. – Wm. Pitt the Elder (1763)
What is true of one’s home, that it ought to be protected from undesired entry, especially by agents of the ruling power, is even more true of one’s inner self.
But throughout history there are examples of attempts to invade our minds, by governments, political parties, churches, corporations, criminals, and others. The Holy Inquisition aimed to ferret out heresy, beliefs that contradicted church doctrine. Importantly, the crime of being a heretic did not require public affirmation of heresy; merely believing it was criminalized. And therefore it was often necessary to torture those who were reticent about their beliefs in order to expose them so they could be properly punished. Although it was understood that torture was unreliable, how else do you establish guilt for a crime whose evidence exists only in someone’s head?
In the case of the Inquisition, the actual invasion was used only to extract information (although the example set was intended to deter others from committing similar crimes). Sometimes people’s minds are invaded in order to modify their beliefs; to expunge wrong thinking and inculcate “better” ideas. The methods used to do this include massively pervasive surveillance and psychological pressure, as employed by the East German Stasi, and the enormously disruptive and murderous Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong, which not only eliminated human opponents of the regime, but aimed to destroy the “four olds … old customs, culture, habits, and ideas.”
One of the most extensive, ambitious, and brutal attempts at mass thought control is the system of internment camps operated in Xinjiang Province by the Chinese government. In response to unrest and some terrorism in the region, the government has sent hundreds of thousands of Muslim Uyghurs and other minorities to “reeducation camps,” where they are brainwashed to reject their religion, language, and culture, and adopt those of the majority Han Chinese. Both psychological manipulation and physical coercion, including drugs, beatings, and sexual abuse, are employed to achieve this objective. Children are removed from their parents and educated in special schools to conform to the majority culture.
Most totalitarian states that attempt to control minds have an option for imprisonment or execution for difficult cases, which also serve to produce examples that strike fear into the hearts of citizens who might otherwise fall into “error.” But George Orwell’s 1984 also includes many descriptions of non-violent techniques for molding human psyches and even the whole culture according to the blueprint of the regime.
The most basic and powerful tool described by Orwell was Newspeak, the eviscerated English created by the Party to prevent the internal vocalization – and hence the thought itself – of any concept that was politically dangerous, like freedom, honor, democracy, science, and so forth. Those words did not exist, and the concepts behind them could not be expressed at all in Newspeak.
In addition to the transformation of its language from English (Oldspeak) to Newspeak, the England described in 1984 was characterized by many of the forms of thought control with which we are familiar from non-fictional totalitarian societies. The protagonist, Winston Smith, has a job in the Ministry of Truth which involves changing historical records to agree with the current Party line. Items that report contradictory facts are thrown into a “memory hole” in which they are destroyed, reminiscent of the Soviet practice of doctoring photographs. All publications and broadcasts are strictly censored to prevent crimethink. Surveillance, by the ubiquitous telescreens in every home and workplace, hidden microphones, and of course agents, is pervasive. Correspondence is routinely read. A citizen begins to feel that even his innermost thoughts are transparent to the Party. The Party knows all, but nothing that it tells you is true. All news is Fake News. There is an endless war, but the composition of the sides keeps changing, and the historical record is altered to keep up.
The novel, written in 1949, was deliberately intended to evoke totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union, which employed pervasive surveillance, brainwashing, censorship and historical revision, and of course a captive press. And as in 1984, the threat of arrest and execution – with a degree of arbitrariness added to heighten the fear – hung over the heads of anyone who attracted the notice of the authorities.
I think that the USA is not this kind of society today. Dissidents do not disappear in the night. There is no Big Brother or totalitarian dictator, no single Party that rules all. There is a great deal of political disorder, in fact. But all the components are there, ready to be assembled into what could be one of the greatest of dystopias in history, if Americans allow it to happen.
The most dangerous aspect of all is an ideology, which is accepted by a large number of Americans. It is nothing other than a revolutionary form of anti-Americanism. The disdain for America that has been common in Europe since the 19th century, and which was carefully nurtured by the Soviet intelligence agencies during the 20th century, was – perhaps with the help of those Soviet agencies – imported into the US. The idea was introduced that the problems of America, including prejudice against minorities, the continued existence of poverty despite an overall highly productive economy, and many others, came from an original sin or sins, which could not be wiped away by liberal reforms. Only revolutionary change, which would entail ripping away most of the institutions of government and society, which are fundamentally poisoned by slavery, the Native American genocide, and so on, can create a just and moral nation.
This revolutionary idea became the conventional wisdom in American universities in the 1960s. It is now taught in public schools. And recently a new element has been added to the ideological cocktail: free expression of ideas is now considered less important than protecting marginalized subcultures from offense, and “offense” is defined as whatever the offended say it is. This serves as a rationale for censorship, deplatforming, even the removal or destruction of historical artifacts that offend.
Should this anti-constitutional revolution succeed, the tools to establish a totalitarian society like that described in 1984 are already in place; but today they are being wielded by several large, politically unaccountable, corporations, and not by the regime.
The degree of surveillance that is possible only by electronic means far exceeds that which Orwell imagined. Do you have an internet-connected smart TV? It is almost precisely Orwell’s telescreen; it only needs to be told what to do. Our ubiquitous smartphones are capable of reporting our location at any moment, overhearing our face-to-face conversations and phone calls, and recording our correspondence (spyware to do these things already exists). Many of us have had the experience of searching for something on Google and then having ads for similar items appear on Facebook, a competitor. The tech corporations unashamedly collect an unimaginable amount of data about us and share it between them. And there is no problem in connecting this data to our names, addresses, and even real-time locations.
As social technology comes to support all of our correspondence and telephone calls, our purchases, our medical treatment, our education, our banking, credit, and other business transactions, our access to roads and public transit – indeed, every way an individual has in modern society to do anything, go anywhere, or say anything – the power of the corporations that control it becomes almost absolute.
Until recently the tech corporations have mainly been interested in using their power to acquire wealth. But their intervention in the last presidential selection process – and it is undeniable that they did intervene – made it clear that they can and will use their power in the future to influence more than just their bank accounts.
What is worrisome is that the people running these corporations are also products of the American university system. They share the revolutionary ideology that is popular there. Today they are in a position not only to influence the regime, but to control it, or even to become it.
If that happens, then Orwell’s vision will become bitter reality.