Learning to Love Big Brother:
George Bush Channels George Orwell
by Daniel Kurtzman
San Francisco Chronicle, Julty 28, 2002
Here's a question for constitutional scholars: Can a sitting
president be charged with plagiarism?
As President Bush wages his war against terrorism and moves
to create a huge homeland security apparatus, he appears to be
borrowing heavily, if not ripping off ideas outright, from George
Orwell. The work in question is "1984," the prophetic
novel about a government that controls the masses by spreading
propaganda, cracking down on subversive thought and altering history
to suit its needs. It was intended to be read as a warning about
the evils of totalitarianism, not a how-to manual.
Granted, we're a long way from resembling the kind of authoritarian
state Orwell depicted, but some of the similarities are starting
to get a bit eerie.
In "1984," the state remained perpetually at war
against a vague and ever-changing enemy. The war took place largely
in the abstract, but it served as a convenient vehicle to fuel
hatred, nurture fear and justify the regime's autocratic practices.
Bush's war against terrorism has become almost as amorphous.
Although we are told the president's resolve is steady and the
mission clear, we seem to know less and less about the enemy we
are fighting. What began as a war against Osama bin Laden and
al Qaeda quickly morphed into a war against Afghanistan, followed
by dire warnings about an "Axis of Evil," the targeting
of terrorists in some 50 to 60 countries, and now the beginnings
of a major campaign against Iraq. Exactly what will constitute
success in this war remains unclear, but the one thing the Bush
administration has made certain is that the war will continue
Ministry of Truth
Serving as the propaganda arm of the ruling party in "1984,"
the Ministry of Truth not only spread lies to suit its strategic
goals, but constantly rewrote and falsified history. It is a practice
that has become increasingly commonplace in the Bush White House,
where presidential transcripts are routinely sanitized to remove
the president's gaffes, accounts of intelligence warnings prior
to Sept. 11 get spottier with each retelling, and the facts surrounding
Bush's past financial dealings are subject to continual revision.
The Bush administration has been surprisingly up front about
its intentions of propagating falsehoods. In February, for example,
the Pentagon announced a plan to create an Office of Strategic
Influence to provide false news and information abroad to help
manipulate public opinion and further its military objectives.
Following a public outcry, the Pentagon said it would close the
office-news that would have sounded more convincing had it not
come from a place that just announced it was planning to spread
An omnipresent and all-powerful leader, Big Brother commanded
the total, unquestioning support of the people. He was both adored
and feared, and no one dared speak out against him, lest they
be met by the wrath of the state.
President Bush may not be as menacing a figure, but he has
hardly concealed his desire for greater powers. Never mind that
he has mentioned - on no fewer than three occasions - how much
easier things would be if he were dictator.
By abandoning many of the checks and balances established
in the Constitution to keep any one branch of government from
becoming too powerful, Bush had already achieved the greatest
expansion of executive powers since Nixon. His approval ratings
remain remarkably high, and his minions have worked hard to cultivate
an image of infallibility.
Nowhere was that more apparent than during a recent commencement
address Bush gave at Ohio State, where students were threatened
with arrest and expulsion if they protested the speech. They were
ordered to give him a "thunderous ovation," and they
Big Brother is Watching
The ever-watchful eye of Big Brother kept constant tabs on
the citizens of Orwell's totalitarian state, using two-way telescreens
to monitor people's every move while simultaneously broadcasting
While that technology may not have arrived yet, public video
surveillance has become all the rage in law enforcement, with
cameras being deployed everywhere from sporting events to public
The Bush administration has also announced plans to recruit
millions of Americans to form a corps of citizen spies who will
serve as "extra eyes and ears for law enforcement,"
reporting any suspicious activity as part of a program dubbed
Operation TIPS- Terrorism Information and Prevention System.
And thanks to the hastily passed USA Patriot Act, the Justice
Department has sweeping new powers to monitor phone conversations,
Internet usage, business transactions and library reading records.
Best of all, law enforcement need not be burdened any longer with
such inconveniences as probable cause.
Charged with eradicating dissent and ferreting out resistance,
the ever-present Thought Police described in "1984"
carefully monitored all unorthodox or potentially subversive thoughts.
The Bush administration is not prosecuting thought crime yet,
but members have been quick to question the patriotism of anyone
who dares criticize their handling of the war on terrorism or
Take, for example, the way Attorney General John Ashcroft
answered critics of his anti-terrorism measures, saying that opponents
of the administration "only aid terrorists" and "give
ammunition to America's enemies."
Even more ominous was the stern warning White House Press
Secretary Ari Fleischer sent to Americans after Bill Maher, host
of the now defunct "Politically Incorrect," called past
U.S. military actions "cowardly." Said Fleischer, "There
are reminders to all Americans that they need to watch what they
say, watch what they do, and this is not a time for remarks: like
that; there never is."
What would it take to turn America into the kind of society
that Orwell warned about, a society that envisions war as peace,
freedom as slavery and ignorance as strength? Would it happen
overnight, or would it involve a gradual erosion of freedoms with
the people's consent?
Because we are a nation at war, as we are constantly reminded,
most Americans say they are willing to sacrifice many of our freedoms
in return for the promise of greater security.
We have been asked to put our blind faith in government and
most of us have done so with patriotic fervor. But when the government
abuses that trust and begins to stamp out the freedom of dissent
that is the hallmark of a democratic society, can there be any
So powerful was the state's control over people's minds in
"1984", that, eventually, everyone came to love Big
Brother. Perhaps in time we all will, too.
Daniel Kurtzman is a San Francisco writer and former Washington
Propaganda and Democracy