My mother sent me a paperback of George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air. I’d never heard of it. I had read his two required-reading classics, Animal Farm and 1984 – in high school or college, I can’t remember which. The former’s satirical look at Soviet totalitarianism didn’t make a big impression on my young brain. The evocation in the latter of perpetual war, Big Brother and the Thought Police scared me witless.
Written in 1938, Coming Up For Air predicted with spooky accuracy the coming of World War II and what would be its grim aftermath. But it is much more than barnyard allegory or dark fantasy. Its narrator, George “Fatty” Bowling, a middle-class British Everyman (he reminds me of John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty), who may or may not be having a mid-life crisis, decries with gorgeous depth of feeling the lost England of his childhood – a peaceful, rural, Edwardian England that was shattered by The Great War of 1914-18.
“1913! My god! 1913! The stillness, the green water, the rushing of the weir! It’ll never come again. I don’t mean that 1913 will never come again. I mean the feeling inside you of not being in a hurry and not being frightened, the feeling you’ve either had and don’t need to be told about, or haven’t had and won’t ever have the chance to learn.”
Orwell admired James Joyce’s Ulysses. Fatty Bowling goes on for stream-of-consciousness pages about summer and fishing, his mother reading by the stove and his father, the village feed merchant, forever dusty with chicken meal. Father doesn’t understand why his feed business is dying even as motor cars rapidly replace horses on the roads. Coming Up For Air is about galloping progress, about personal and political loss.
Midway in the novel, Bowling goes to a lecture on Nazism at the Left Book Club. He alone among the small crowd sees how the speaker is using fear to get his pro-war message across. The speaker wants us all to “get together and have a good hate,” Fatty thinks. Why? “Likeliest explanation, because he’s scared… Hitler’s after us! Quick! Let’s grab a spanner and get together, and perhaps if we smash in enough faces they won’t smash ours.”
Bowling has a vision of “the world we’re gong down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons. The secret cells where the electric light burns night and day, and the detectives watching you while you sleep… Quick, quick! The Fascists are coming! Spanners ready, boys! Smash others or they’ll smash you. So terrified of the future that we’re jumping straight into it like a rabbit diving down a boa-constrictor’s throat.”
This is Dick Cheney talk. Torture talk. Bomb Iran, build walls and fear-the-foreigners talk. Warrantless wiretapping talk.
And so, given Orwell’s warning, it was extremely disappointing to hear about last week’s “compromise” domestic spying bill passing the House. And even more disappointing to read Barack Obama’s limp justification of support in the Senate. In case you missed it, Obama said: “Given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise.”
Forget for a moment that there was no compromise – astonished Republicans admitted that they got everything they wanted and more; the White House jumped to applaud the deal – this bill was unnecessary! FISA (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) works just fine as it is. If the government wants to listen in on my phone calls or tap my email, they can do it, provided they get a warrant for probable cause – not a difficult thing to do in these paranoid times. They can even get the warrant retroactively: Spy now, ask for permission later.
The new bill, which absolves telecommunications companies of six years worth of illegal cooperation with government spies, is a cynical trashing of constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure. I say cynical because the only possible reason for Congressional Democrats, including Obama, to support it is some perceived political gain, like scoring a bigger majority in the House come November, or creating a more “centrist” image for Obama. All the while hoping voters don’t notice that you’re using Orwellian fear-mongering to undermine basic freedoms.
The term Orwellian has long been a part of the cultural lexicon. We think of Big Brother watching, of Newspeak and thoughtcrimes. But what is truly Orwellian, it seems to me, is when we become accomplices in our own oppression. When Winston Smith denounces his lover in 1984. When the other animals help enforce the pigs’ rule in Animal Farm. When the anti-Fascist speaker in Coming Up For Air becomes in his fearful certainty an agent of terror.
We’re doing it to ourselves now. Scared rabbits.