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Ever Realize You've Been Living a Lie Your Whole Life?
We read Animal Farm in sixth or seventh grade. I did not like the book. I suspected, in my youthful ignorance, that the author, George Orwell, was a socialist and Animal Farm was an attack on American institutions that provide for our security and protection and economic stability.
You might forgive my error when you consider the year was 1976 or 1977. At the time, “pig” was a derogatory term for police or for anyone in the “white male power structure.” Chief executives of corporations were pigs. Military generals were pigs. Republican politicians were pigs. To a 12-year-old, a book in which the pigs were the bad, evil oppressors of the other animals was an attack on the institutions I was raised to admire.
My suspicions of Orwell led me to neglect his other works. In my arrogance, I assumed I knew what his other books were about. I assumed Nineteen Eighty-Four was a more grown-up version of Animal Farm and the bad guys in the story represented the people I respected most.
Sometime in the 1980s, of course, my perspective shifted. I learned that Orwell opposed Communism and that both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four were warnings: socialism eventually leads to terror. As Harry Truman once said:
“Once a government commits to the principle of silencing opposition, it has only one way to go, and that’s down the path of increasingly repressive measures until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens”
Animal Farm warned of economic disparity; Nineteen Eighty-Four warned of a disparity of human rights. One would follow the other.
I’ve come to realize—and, maybe, you have too—that I was right in 1977. Well, half right. Orwell wasn’t railing against free markets, but he was warning us against the institutions I venerated: the spy state, the military-industrial complex, and corporatism. Perhaps he recognized that those once-venerable institutions would be the very means of our destruction, that those who agreed with Orwell philosophically would surrender too much power to the institutions that promised to protect us from Communism or other threats.
My confession, then, is that I probably knew this all along. I knew that the CIA and the FBI and the NSA and even the US military had the power to inflict great suffering on us all—not just our enemies. I knew Colonel Flagg’s character in M*A*S*H—a paranoid and cruel Army intel officer—was humorous because of an underlying truth. I knew all along that executives of big corporations would sell out their country and, even, their families for a buck. But I venerated them all the same.
‘You know this, Winston,’ said O’Brien. ‘Don’t deceive yourself. You did know it—you have always known it.’
—George Orwell, 1984
In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist, Winston Smith, becomes an operative of O’Brien. Smith believes O’Brien is a senior officer in the underground organization seeking to overthrow the despotic government of Oceana.
After his arrest and beating by Oceana’s state police, Winston discovers that O’Brien was, of course, just a deep cover agent of the state. When O’Brien enters Smith’s jail cell, Winston initially assumes the police had arrested O’Brien, too, but O’Brien forces Winston to admit “you have always known.”
Winston does admit to this:
Yes, he saw now, he had always known it. But there was no time to think of that. All he had eyes for was the truncheon in the guard’s hand. It might fall anywhere; on the crown, on the tip of the ear, on the upper arm, on the elbow——
I have always known. But, in my pride, I fought like a dog defending the O’Briens. I argued that My Lai was overblown, that Agent Orange wasn’t so bad, that torturing al Qaeda prisoners saved lives, that the FBI and CIA needed special powers to discover and punish America’s many enemies, that corporate profits fueled our increasingly wonderful lifestyles. For me, the immediate need for safety trumped philosophical arguments about civil rights.
But I always knew. I always knew that some animals were more equal than others.
It was he who set the guards on to Winston and who prevented them from killing him. It was he who decided when Winston should scream with pain, when he should have a respite, when he should be fed, when he should sleep, when the drugs should be pumped into his arm. It was he who asked the questions and suggested the answers. He was the tormentor, he was the protector, he was the inquisitor, he was the friend. And once—Winston could not remember whether it was in drugged sleep, or in normal sleep, or even in a moment of wakefulness—a voice murmured in his ear: ‘Don’t worry, Winston; you are in my keeping.”
What does a man do when he realizes that he played into his enemy’s hands? That he led countless others into a trap?
Winston Smith succumbed to O’Brien’s tortures and lived out his days in shameful misery, though with a good pension and freedom to move about more or less at will. Winston traded his dignity and humanity for physical comfort.
There were things, your own acts, from which you could never recover. Something was killed in your breast: burnt out, cauterized out.
Is it too late? Have I already let them inside? Or did I recognize the O’Briens in time?
We shall see. But I don’t trust myself. I post these warnings to protect against my inner weakness, my love of safety, my fear of consequences—fear of truth. I write in hopes that, even if I succumb, others may fight on having been awakened by these words.
Resilience begins by recognizing that we have always known—and that O’Brien is both our tormentor and protector.