Thursday, July 2, 2009


In Dante Alighieri’s immortal poem, The Divine Comedy, the Roman poet Virgil guides him through the Circles of Hell. So George Orwell in his novel 1984,[1] guides the reader through the Circles of a Hell wherein despots plan and execute their grim work. How do despots seize absolute power? Orwell reveals their strategy in his creation of a totalitarian state Oceana and its despot Big Brother. The despot seizes power by the debasement of his people, the ideas they hold to be true and the reality in which they live.

In the recent Iranian election its Supreme Leader declared forfeit, the life of Neda Agha-Soltan, a budding philosopher and musician. As she paused in the streets of Tehran for a breath of fresh air, Neda was carefully targeted and shot through the chest by Basij paramilitary thugs. Her family buried her in the Behesht-e-Zahra cemetery in southern Tehran, a place set aside for the interment of men, woman and children clubbed or shot to death for their protest of a farcical election. Her family and friends were forbidden a memorial service.[2]

The tragic death of Neda Agha-Soltan, however heart breaking, is nothing new. There in Dante Alighieri’s Circles of Hell, is Stalin’s tactical starvation of six million Kulaks, and his paranoid imprisonment, displacement and execution of Russian minorities. However ghastly was Stalin’s Soviet Union, he restricted the use and meaning of words to the praise of triumphant Five Year Plans and images of a joyful Workers’ Paradise.

There also in the Circles of Hell are Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, a Cambodian holocaust dedicated to the creation of a Marxist Cambodia and the North Korean prison-state of Kim Jong Il, a despot as taken by the narcissist pleasures of nuclear blackmail as he is indifferent to the mass ruin and starvation of his people. There also are the bones of an extinct socialist Thousand Year Reich and a still bloody Chinese Communist regime, the human detritus of its gulags, Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen Square, and rapine of Buddhist Tibet.

Orwell writes to a theme: There is only one way to the taking and holding of absolute power. It is in the pitching of a new and radical reality directed to the deconstruction of Western Civilization, its culture, history, principles, government and people. The way to absolute power lies in the falsification of the meaning of old words, in the defamation of habits of thought centered in virtue and rationality, in the diminishment of pride and self-respect, and in the sowing of a sophist contempt for words of faith in a Deity and His Providence.

The tactic is to infuse words that speak to the idea of a sovereign individual, rationality and virtue, a meaning that is collectivist, irrational and corrupt. For it is in the bastardizing of words that impediments to dictatorial power are destroyed. Indeed, words once true, democracy and equality before the law, when assigned an irrational meaning more thoroughly diminish a culture and its people than a knife, gun, or gulag.

Orwell’s protagonist, Winston, suddenly awakened to the pointlessness of life in Oceana, rebels against it. He realizes that the old meaning of words is now prohibited, that Big Brother, has conceived a new language, New Speak, in which a liturgical Ministry of Truth will assign to all words, a new meaning.[3]

Henceforth, while the speaking of words according to their old meaning, “…was not illegal (nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws), nevertheless, their expression would …if detected… be punished by death, or at least twenty-five years in a forced-labor camp.”[4] In Oceana, acceptance of New Speak is mandatory and the new meaning of old words is insane. In New Speak, licentiousness is now virtue. Cowardice is courage, and irrationality is wisdom. In Oceana,

War is Peace,

Freedom is Slavery

Ignorance is Strength.[5]

Winston who once shared with others deeply held beliefs wondered what happened to them? Awakened, he discovers that everything has changed for the worse. For example, he remembers a time, thirty years ago, before Big Brother, when even history was different than the official history of Oceana.

It was not true, for example, as was claimed in the Party history books, that the Party had invented airplanes. He remembered airplanes since his earliest childhood. But you could prove nothing. There was never any evidence. [6]

He remembers a time when he was capable of love, when people he knew and the community in which he lived were sacred to him. He realizes that Big Brother has stolen by stealth his capacity to recognize sacred things, that somehow, sanctity itself has been repealed.

The thing that now suddenly struck Winston was that his mother’s death, nearly thirty years ago, had been tragic and sorrowful in a way that was no longer possible. Tragedy, he perceived, belonged to the ancient time, to a time when there were still privacy, love, and friendship, and when the members of a family stood by one another without needing to know the reason.[7]

Winston resolves that he will not surrender to the omniscient presence of Big Brother. He will rebel. And so, he tries to fall in love with Julia. They find a room and make it their sanctuary. However,

…both realized it could not last. Both of them knew—in a way, it was never out of their minds—that what was now happening could not last long. There were times when the fact of impending death seemed as palpable as the bed they lay on, and they would cling together with a sort of despairing sensuality, like a damned soul grasping at his last morsel of pleasure when the clock is within five minutes of striking.”[8]

Winston’s rebellion fails. He is found out, taken, imprisoned and humiliated. His romance is destroyed. He is compelled to do penance. The Inquisitor explains that the old reality he once believed to exist in the now extinct meaning of old words must be cast aside by his abject act of contrition. He will be required to indulge in the most passionate self-abasement and to abandon the quaint belief that there is anything true or sacred. He must enter a new reality, embrace the new meaning of old words, a new language, New Speak, a new dogma and an infallible Ministry of Truth.

But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, and in any case soon perishes; only in the mind of the Party, which is collective and immortal. Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. It is impossible to see reality except by looking through the eyes of the Party. Emphasis added. That is the fact that you have to relearn, Winston. It needs an act of self-destruction, an effort of the will. You must humble yourself before you can become sane. [9]

Well then, are the old words, the legacy of Western Civilization, now the target of Oceanic deconstruction? What, for example, is the New Speak meaning of the old word equality? Is it still equality before the law, or something else, an equality of result, by which a government may now confiscate and redistribute wealth-- from each according to how much he owns, and to each however much is needed?

And what is the source of this new Living Constitution? Who invented it? And in what way is the meaning of these now living words different from the old words of the Constitution as the Founders wrote them? Are the words of this new Living Constitution infinitely malleable? May these now living words be shaped to a meaning repugnant to a Republic and its Constitution?

Finally, what is there in the new meaning assigned to old words that justifies the destruction of an old civilization and the imposition of a new one? Well, the Inquisitor is nothing if not frank. Here perhaps is the grimmest of all The Circles of Hell.

The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy—everything.

Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution…. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. [10]

What do you think?

Robert F. Harkins J.D.

[1] George Orwell, 1984. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1949).

[2] Guy Jackson, London Afp.

[3] Ibid. P.5

[4] Ibid P.8.

[5] Ibid P. 5.

[6] Ibid. P.37

[7] Ibid. P. 31

[8] Ibid. P. 152

[9] Ibid. P. 59

[10] Ibid. P. 270

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