He'd been watching the news, and he was quite irate. "All this doublespeak about war crimes is appalling," he said. "That chap Milosevic — I see the U.S. government wants him tried for war crimes."
"Yes," I replied. "All the pundits agree."
"But meanwhile, the news coverage of the Israeli prime minister's visit to the White House failed to suggest that he, also, would be suitable for prosecution as a war criminal. After all, evidence clearly implicates Ariel Sharon in the massacres of hundreds of Palestinian people inside the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. Why aren't the media commentators demanding that he stand in the dock at The Hague?"
"Well, the U.S. government is closely allied with Israel, so …"
Orwell cut me off. "I was asking a rhetorical question. I get it. Believe me." His voice began to waver and fade, so only fragments were audible. "Plenty of examples ... Turkish government ... U.S. ally ... killing Kurds for many years ... brutally suppressing their language and culture ... where's the press?" He coughed, then started again, faintly: "Henry Kissinger ... wholesale murder in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia ... East Timor ... and remember Chile ... Any evenhanded reporting would ..."
"During the last few months," I interjected, "the journalist Christopher Hitchens has raised quite a ruckus about Kissinger and — "
Orwell waved a hand, dismissively. "Scant comfort ... news delayed is news denied ... sickening media manipulation ..."
"You sound way too radical for mainstream media," I exclaimed. "Yet these days you're almost universally revered."
Orwell laughed grimly, in the midst of coughing. His next words were at full volume. "Indeed. Embraced with one hand and watered down with the other. Now rendered as dreadfully weak tea and — "
Then, suddenly, I woke up. The dull thud of a newspaper echoed on the front porch. "Mr. Orwell," I murmured, "what were you saying?" But there was no reply. Just the filtered light of dawn and the far-off sound of "Morning Edition" on National Public Radio.
George Orwell died in 1950. If he had lived long enough to reach the 21st century, it's a good bet that — while treasuring the civil liberties and other freedoms that exist in the United States — he would deplore the deep patterns of indoctrination that undergo constant reinforcement in our society.
"Democratic" processes of intellectual conformity and insidious political propaganda were of great concern to Orwell. Not content to merely point a finger from West to East in his satirical novel about Soviet tyranny, Animal Farm, he wrote a challenging preface, which disappeared from editions of the book for nearly 30 years.
The preface included a downbeat analysis of the conditions of public discourse in England, where "admiration for Russia happens to be fashionable at this moment." Orwell astutely speculated that "quite possibly that particular fashion will not last." But, he went on: "To exchange one orthodoxy for another is not necessarily an advance. The enemy is the gramophone mind, whether or not one agrees with the record that is being played at the moment."
Today, Orwell's record-player metaphor is a bit outdated — we could refer to "the CD mind" — but his statement remains acutely relevant. Ideologies are most pernicious when they're so dominant that they aren't even recognized as such.
What Orwell wrote in his introduction, describing the England of 1945, is no less applicable to the United States of 2001: "In this country, intellectual cowardice is the worst enemy a writer or journalist has to face ... Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. ... At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question."
In December 1946, four months after the United States publication of Animal Farm, Orwell wrote in a letter to literary critic Dwight Macdonald: "If people think I am defending the status quo, that is, I think, because they have grown pessimistic and assume that there is no alternative except dictatorship or laissez-faire capitalism." He added: "What I was trying to say was, 'You can't have a revolution unless you make it for yourself; there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship.'"
Orwell was anti-Communist. He was also a socialist who vehemently opposed the capitalist system — a position that would disqualify him from appearing as a regular commentator on any of America's big TV networks in the present day.