15 January 2010

It's 'Good Morning' Again, Mr. Orwell

In his Life, Love, and Truth blog, Jeff Courter can hit pretty close to home sometimes. He and I have something of a growing mutual admiration and aid society happening right now, and his most recent post--in which he briefly explores some of George Orwell's themes in "Nineteen Eighty-Four" against the backdrop of today's Afghanistan--further solidifies my opinion that we are fellow travelers indeed.

Don't worry: Sherpa's not about to start getting political on your buttocks. But Sherpa is a child of the '80s, and has the parachute pants to prove it. Orwell's book may have been first published in 1949, but it was on every overly earnest high school speech team member's lips back in the Heady Days of Reagan. Or it would have been, had I had my way about it.

Around New Year's Day, 1984, I even took to greeting friends and family with, "Good Morning, Mr. Orwell." It's a wonder I survived to tell about it.

I was recently moving boxes in my basement, and found a gallon-sized plastic baggie of political and novelty buttons from those days of whine and poses. The ones that jumped out at me? "Question Authority," "Big Brother is Watching," and "There is no gravity, the Earth sucks."

Words to live by, my friends, words to live by. Well, more the one about "Big Brother," and less the rather unscientific observation about gravity.

And, hopefully, I have lived by these words, albeit more quietly than when I was younger. And louder. And more perfect.

I had a regular stump speech as a hot-shot student speechifier. It was an award-winning 8-minute fully polished rant against Newspeak, the doubleplusungood ways that Big Government and Big Business attempt to change the way we think by changing our language. In Orwell's dystopian world, things aren't that bad, they're just "ungood." From there, it's just a stone's throw to our own world of slippery language, in which one government's nuclear-tipped Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) is another's "Peacekeeper." One person's "bad breath" is actually a scary-sounding diagnosis of "Halitosis."

In his essay, Jeff applies a jaundiced Orwellian lens toward the Taliban. Not only that, but he pulls off quite the trick and manages to sound downright positive while doing so! I like how he puts things:
Inevitably, Afghans will choose freedom rather than ongoing oppression. So eventually, the Taliban will lose. Some day, extreme, intolerant Islamic fundamentalism will be as popular as Nazism – because both depend on coercion and cruel tyranny to survive.

I also believe the Taliban will be defeated – whether NATO remains there or not.

I have no way to prove this hypothesis today. I simply believe it out of faith. I have faith because I believe in intelligence and virtue. And history shows that these human attributes tend to triumph over oppression.
In Orwell's world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, three super-governments (think of these as stand-ins for the U.S./U.K., Russia, and China) vie for world domination, but are each so powerful that no two can overwhelm the remaining one. War is perpetual, alliances are always shifting, and civilian populations at home--lacking any source of information but a conveniently forgetful, government-owned and -operated propaganda machine--are lulled into compliance by cheap, jingoistic jargoneering.

WAR IS PEACE. FREEDOM IS SLAVERY. IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. (Truly and truthfully, could Fox News or MSNBC do any better?)

I share Jeff's faith in the human ability to withstand and eventually overthrow oppression. I hope, however, that our own base tendencies do not blind us to our own weaknesses, and the inherent weaknesses of the governments we empower. "We the People" is our blessing, and our curse. Even at our very best, "We the People" can be no more perfect than we are ourselves.

I'd like to believe that every U.S. soldier--enlisted, non-commissioned officer (NCO), or officer--would have recognized and protested the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, but they didn't. I'd like to think that our political leaders might recognize that the people most likely to pay for chest-thumping, sword-rattling, cowboy-calls for terrorists to "bring it on" might be our very own soldiers. I'd like to think that phrases such as "Global War on Terrorism (GWOT)" aren't attempts to change the way people think about engaging in wars with muddy strategies or shifting policy goals.

Don't worry, I'm decisively and personally still in the game. I love my country, love my flag, love my weapon, and love my Apple Pie. I even love my neighbors, although I don't always like them. Like every other citizen-soldier, I regularly put my safety and comfort--and the safety and comfort of my family--on the line for what I hold most dear. There are easier choices. There are other temptations.

But I'm Here, and, let's face it, probably headed There.

Because, above all else, I'd also like to think that Orwell was wrong.


  1. Sherpa -

    Great stuff! If you can get everyone to agree to read ONLY ONE BOOK (let's say, for example, the Quran...) and THEN tell them they HAVE TO LISTEN TO YOU to correctly interpret that book, you're pretty close to NewSpeak, IMHO...

    Sorry for getting too political, but I appreciate the shout out! Very nice work! Gives me a reason to keep fighting!

  2. The Bill Moyers Journal interview with Greg Mortenson I mentioned in a subsequent post also touched on your point. Here's what Mortenson said:

    "The Taliban, when they recruit, they go into areas that are impoverished. They give people $500 to $1,000. They-- there's a lot of pressure also that if people don't give their son up for the Taliban, the-- there's extortion or they'll start intimidating or harming the people. And the other thing is many of the despot mullahs keep the people illiterate, and they learn, these young boys, learn how to read the Quran, but they don't learn how to understand Arabic. And the key is-one thing we do in our schools is we teach five languages by fifth grade, including Arabic and English. But we teach the kids not only how to read Arabic, but understand Arabic. And when you read the Quran, you learn that nothing in the Quran says that innocent children and women should be killed. Suicide is the worst sin in Islam. The first word of the revelation to Muhammad the prophet is the Arabic word 'iqra.' And 'iqra' means 'read.' What that means is that it implores all peopleto have a quest for knowledge. And in the Hadith, which is a part of Islam, the teachings, it says, in Arabic, 'the ink of a scholar is greater than the blood of a martyr,' which means that the pen is more powerful than the sword."

    Keep fighting the good fight!


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