In these duplicitous times it's not surprising to find Nineteen Eighty-Four cited in various contexts and in support of numerous, often opposed positions.
In Airstrip One, where Winston Smith lives and pursues his miserable, haunted existence and which had once, he is fairly sure, been called England or Britain, WAR IS PEACE; FREEDOM IS SLAVERY; IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH — a Nineteen Eighty-Four equivalent of a Tweet with plenty of character space left to add insults, boasts or incantation.
In the world of Nineteen Eighty-Four, all facts are alternative, as in the breaking news, 'Oceania is at War with Eurasia', which becomes within minutes and before your very eyes, 'Oceania has never been at war with Eurasia.' It is not difficult to see how Orwell's gloomy prescience can be a reference for our present-day turmoil and Winston Smith-like bewilderment.
But for events and imbroglios closer to home, what Orwell called a 'Fairy Story' — Animal Farm — is perhaps disturbingly apposite. When the animals rebel, overthrow Mr Jones the farmer and rename Manor Farm 'Animal Farm', they are led by the pigs who 'had taught themselves to read and write from an old spelling book which had belonged to Mr Jones's children'.
The most powerful and influential of the pigs, Napoleon, Snowball and Squealer, propose the principles of Animalism in the form of seven commandments, the first three of which are, 'Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy', 'Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend' and 'No animal shall wear clothes'. The seventh is, 'All animals are equal'.
The replacement of Mr Jones by Napoleon and Squealer (Snowball became persona non grata, although for a while he continued to snipe from the sidelines) was greeted with relief by the animals and had seemed full of promise, yet as time passed the expected improvement did not eventuate.
'Somehow it seemed as though the farm had grown richer without making the animals themselves any richer — except of course for the pigs and [their supporters] the dogs. Perhaps this was because there were so many pigs and so many dogs.
'It was not that these creatures did not work, after their fashion. There was, as Squealer was never tired of explaining, endless work in the supervision and organisation of the farm ... the pigs [Squealer said] had to expend enormous labours every day upon mysterious things called 'files', 'reports', 'minutes' and 'memoranda'. These were large sheets of paper which had to be closely covered with writing, and as soon as they were so covered they were burnt in the furnace.
"There was our Prime Minister, belying his reputation for urbanity and civility, unleashing an extraordinary and confected display of teeth-baring abuse on his opponent."
'This was of the highest importance for the welfare of the farm, Squealer said. But still, neither pigs nor dogs produced any food by their own labour; and there were very many of them and their appetites were always good.
Eventually the day comes when the animals are stunned to see Squealer 'walking on his hind legs'. He is quickly joined by Napoleon 'majestically upright' and carrying a whip. The sheep, having been secretly taught for weeks by Squealer, chant a new slogan: 'Four legs good, two legs better!' and the seven commandments are replaced by one: 'All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.' The pigs raid Mr Jones' wardrobe and dress in his clothes. Tiptoeing up to the Manor House windows to peer in, the animals are shocked to see 'half a dozen farmers and half a dozen of the more eminent pigs' fraternising and 'completely at ease' with each other.
Anyone watching from the Visitors Gallery of Parliament House on 7 February would have had a similar experience to that of the inquisitive animals, except that it would have been in reverse. There was our Prime Minister, belying his normally impeccable dress and reputation for urbanity and civility, unleashing an extraordinary and thoroughly confected display of uncontainably righteous anger and teeth-baring abuse on his opponent. And there was his deputy, face unrecognisably contorted, flushed and bulbous, as he hooted at what were apparently the funniest things he'd ever heard in his life. And there was another front bench colleague simpering genteely — not quite endorsing the frothy slaver of personal vilification yet carefully not distancing himself from it either.
Many of the Prime Minister's party and some members of the press welcomed this transforming effusion of invective as signifying some prime ministerial muscle till now absent. But others noted how abysmal must be our parliamentary performers when a leader so desperately needing his party's support and reassurance pretends to convictions he once scorned and opposed.
In this age of populism and ritual debasement, even abuse is cautiously derivative, rehearsed, lamely theatrical. When Alexander Pope — whose lifelong spinal tuberculosis did not rob him of actual or metaphoric backbone — went on the attack, he did it like this: 'Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings / This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings / Whose buzz the witty and the fair annoys / Yet wit ne'er tastes, and beauty ne'r enjoys'.
That's telling 'em. They were the days.
Brian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.
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20 February 2017
Turnbull retains his amateur status as invective interact-ant. How could he possibly rival Keating the King? Hewson and Howard can never forget. At least we have YouTube to revive memories of greatness.
20 February 2017
I am actually surprised at your reaction to Malcolm Turnbull's short demolition of the deplorable Bill Shorten, who had it coming a long time, Brian. I am quite surprised you see so much in this and ridicule Barnaby Joyce, whose conduct was/is no worse than the likes of Chris Bowen or Tony Burke on the Opposition Front Bench. Parliamentary conduct in Australia, as in most Westminster democracies, is pretty deplorable. Perhaps this is what has led to the rise and rerise of Hansonism? I cannot believe that so many of the opinionati, like yourself, seem to want to see the demise of a Prime Minister, who, with the likes of 'Father' Tony waiting in the wings, at last seems to be finding his stride. Perhaps you are an Old Lefty from your days at Melbourne University and have not realised that Labor no longer contains the likes of Whitlam, Hawke and Keating on its front bench but the likes of Shorten and friends? Your article reads more like something by Zig and Zag than Orwell.
21 February 2017
Very hard to choose between Turnbull's faux spray and Gillard's confected rant against Abbott that had the left gushing with praise.
22 February 2017
It used to be East and West who were deemed never to meet, but now it seems Left and Right are being dragged further apart, especially by the extreme right, as reflected by the comments so far. Bob Hawke showed briefly how balance could and should be done, since like in the army, progress is made by Left, Right, Left... The two are like the wings of a bird. Both efforts are needed for flight. If both wings are clipped equally some flight can be achieved.
But if one wing only is clipped, as by a one seat majority, flight can become impossible. Malcolm Turnbull, on taking over had seemed full of promise, yet “as time passed the expected improvement did not eventuate“. Fearful of being dumped again as leader by the extreme right, he donned their colours, but seemingly has pleased no one,
22 February 2017
i was shocked by the image of Malcolm Turnbull ranting and raving at the other side of the House, with his mob rolling with laughter and egging him on. It was the personification of the school yard bully wanting to win the top position with his mob. that was the point of the game, not tearing down Shorten. in the process, he lost people like me - it really was the final straw in my disappointment in him. there was nothing to admire in the performance.
22 February 2017
Fascinating vehicle through which to portray our times. Perhaps, however, we are not a picture of the past but of an earlier than predicted dystopian future spawned as science fiction by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World set in London in 2564 AD or thereabouts.
22 February 2017
'Would be' commentators on Eureka Street articles are cautioned to be respectful but clearly the caution doesn't apply to authors. I agree wholeheartedly with the comments of Edward Fido. Shorten did indeed have it coming for a long time. All of the insults in Parliament are not verbal. Parliament, particularly Question Time, is replete with low-life theatrics. Shorten asks a question and immediately turns his back on the responder and is guffawing with his front bench, a studied, non verbal dismissal and collective group signal of disapproval of any answer that is likely to emerge. What's the point in feigning interest in the subject of the question ? As to the lefty views of the author, who was it who first said, 'The more things change the more they stay the same' ? When I was putting myself through University in the 1960s part time, after putting myself through Leaving Certificate, there was barely a conservative voice to be heard across the tenured social science landscape. Any academic who advanced a conservative had be seriously unshakeable. There is a mutual attraction between taxpayer funded information instrumentalities and left leaning individuals.
23 February 2017
I wonder if this is an issue of poor behaviour by “the lefties” or is it more accurately a result of the nature of our political system and the relationships between Governments and Oppositions where different ideas are competing for the same space. Oppositions have little power in Parliament and have to make the most of their limited opportunities within the tolerance of the Government appointed Speaker. Speakers vary in how much latitude they allow. I well remember the negativity, obstruction and antics of Opposition Leader Abbott when Julia Gillard was PM. That kind of dwarfs Bill Shorten turning his back on the Government. I can recall Opposition Leader Rudd studiously writing in Parliament and ignoring PM Howard, just as Opposition Leader Howard (the first time around) was ineffectively offensive to PM Hawke. Opposition Leader Whitlam was effective in his scathing mockery of PM McMahon. It goes on and on. PM Turnbull didn’t do anything new; he just didn’t do it very well. Conflict is part of our adversarial system and I doubt it will change soon. Our politicians need thicker skins than many commentators.
23 February 2017
I thought you were really unfair to Malcolm, Brian. As Prime Minister, and indeed as a politician, he has found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. There seems no place at the moment, in this highly polarised body-politic, for a reasonable, urban, civilised person of middle-ground liberal instincts.There is no suitable "common-sense" party of the centre to house the poor chap.If there was such a thing, I believe it would do very well electorally, and Malcolm as its leader would be very poplar...even more popular than he actually still is in spite of being rather disappointing because of the limitations forced upon him. I am very glad that he has started to take Shorten on; he is just as unpopular as he deserves!
23 February 2017
Perhaps my 'Zig and Zag' comment would be more appropriately applied to our parliamentarians. Zig and Zag, being clowns, were at least trying to be funny. Our politicians achieve tragi-comedy unintentionally. All of them. The latest, both in and outside parliament, is Richard Di Natale. I find some of the opinions he voices quite lunar. I must confess I enjoy most of Brian's articles. The personal swipe I should apologise for.
23 February 2017
I empathise with Brian. I was a mature age part-time student at Melbourne University from 1963-1968. There was one outstanding conservative controversialist, Frank Knopfelmacher, in the Sociology Department. The Left (anticipating the New Left) detested him but few dared debate any topic - political, sociological, religious - with him. I remember a debate between him and Lloyd Churchward, a communist in the Political Science Department, on the subject: Is the USSR totalitarian? Churchward, spoke first for the negative and gave a dry-as-dust outline of the Soviet bureaucratic structure and the participatory nature of the CPSU. He was dull. Knopfelmacher by contrast was humorous, polite and erudite. But he began by saying he would ignore what Comrade Churchward had said and present stronger reasons why one might think the USSR differed from Nazi Germany. He quoted academics like F Neumann, H Arendt, K A Wittfogel et al. He then dismantled the straw men he had created point by point. It was a.pyrotechnical performance. But what I remember most was the courtesy both men showed each other. I doubt if any students, whether progressive or conservative, changed their opinions. Neither Churchward nor Knopfelmacher was competing for power.
23 February 2017
I remember a debate between Frank Knopfelmacher and the late, great Max Charlesworth where Knopfelmacher was not that courteous but Max, as always, was a real gentleman. Frank disliked Charlesworth because he was a Catholic who believed Christians should dialogue with Marxists. This was at the height of the Cold War when Bob Santamaria was still going strong and the DLP still existed as a divisive force keeping Labor out of power. Knopfelmacher probably couldn't see Communism would self-destruct and that Catholicism, despite severe self-inflicted wounds, would survive. What a petty world what passed for intellectuality at Melbourne University then was. Several of the 'greats' like Vincent Buckley have passed on, whereas the likes of Lauchlan Chipman found their real forte as academic administrators. The Arts Faculty has almost, but not quite, been 'administered' out of existence. How very, very sad.
24 February 2017
I see Trump's so-called "war with the media" as a positive thing - exposing the reality of spin and embellishment in news reporting that's generally been taken for granted up to now as reliable, At least now Trump's motivating people to decide for themselves.
And I'm not convinced Turnbull's feral outburst was confected - I had the sense he couldn't handle one more utterance of "Mr Harbourside Mansion" without exploding.
Peter Ball and Mariana Spater
29 April 2017
For Brian. We have just been forwarded your beautiful 'Australians in Italy' piece 'Remembering Bernard Hickey'. So special - both the man and your remembrance. Thank you.