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Abbott and co. working from Orwell's playbook


Orwell's 1984Three decades ago the year 1984 attracted an intensity of noting, analysing and explication rarely devoted to other years. Some new expressions entered the language: 'Big Brother', 'Newspeak', 'Orwellian', 'thoughtcrime'; even the year itself, 1984, took on an enduring weight of meaning rarely granted in the march of time.

Of all the spin-offs from George Orwell's great novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Big Brother might be the best known, thanks to reality television. But the Big Brother whose diminishing presence loomed over those tawdry episodes owed little more than his name to the Orwellian original.

In the world of Airstrip One — the 1984 England of Orwell's anti-hero Winston Smith — Big Brother's 'enormous face' gazed from posters on every wall. 'It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran.'

Whether he really was watching, no one was sure; he might not even exist. But in a society where in every room and public building the telescreen — 'an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror' flush with the wall, a 'flat screen' in 21st century parlance — followed every move, every word, every changing facial expression, the mere idea of Big Brother was enough.

The aim of the regime in Oceania, of which Airstrip One is a part, is not merely to hunt down, uncover and punish dissident ideas, but also to make dissident thinking actually impossible. To do this, the regime invents Newspeak, a version of English which when complete will be so pared back, so stripped, that it will fulfil its aim of narrowing 'the range of thought'. 'In the end,' Winston's colleague Syme explains to him, 'we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.'

'It's a beautiful thing, the destruction of words,' Syme says, '... there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of ... It isn't only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms ... what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself.

'Take 'good' for instance. If you have a word like 'good' what need is there for a word like 'bad'? 'Ungood' will do just as well ... if you want a stronger version of 'good' ... 'Plusgood' covers the meaning; or 'doubleplusgood' [for] something stronger still ... Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year', and that way the possibility of deviant or anti-authoritarian thought is relentlessly narrowed.

An essential element in the diminution of linguistic options is 'doublethink', the capacity to hold or cite contradictory positions without recognition of their mutual exclusivity. During Hate Week, Winston is stunned but reluctantly impressed by a speaker's seamless adoption of conflicting propositions. 'A little Rumplestiltskin figure, contorted with hatred' was detailing the evils of the enemy, Eurasia, with whom Oceania was at war. As he spoke, 'a messenger hurried on to the platform and a scrap of paper was slipped into the speaker's hand'.

'He unrolled and read it without pausing in his speech. Nothing altered in his voice or manner, or in the content of what he was saying, but suddenly the names were different. Without words said, a wave of understanding rippled through the crowd. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Eurasia was an ally.'

In Airstrip One, it is not just language that is being diminished, not just people's sense of reality and history being shaken when contradictions are denied, promises inverted, and assurances effortlessly manipulated. The capacity for compassion is also undermined so that a quality of cruel disregard enters into the fabric of daily life.

Winston records in his diary — in itself a forbidden act — a cinema newsreel of 'a ship full of refugees being bombed somewhere in the Mediterranean' and how the 'audience was much amused by shots of a great huge fat man trying to swim away ... then you saw a lifeboat full of children with a helicopter hovering over it [and] a middle-aged woman ... sitting up in the bow with a little boy ... screaming with fright ... and there was a lot of applause from the Party seats ...'

So life in Airstrip One is graceless, demeaning and inhumane for all but those entitled to preferment. Surveillance is increasing, ruling-party secrecy and monopoly on information is rigid, refugees are demonised and language is reduced to sound bites and slogans. The leadership is disjoined from and cynical about the natural world.

When Winston argues that scientific evidence and the universe itself dwarf the Party, O'Brien, a senior operator in the Ministry of Truth, replies that scientists 'invented [the evidence] ... what are the stars? ... They're bits of fire a few kilometres away ... the earth is the centre of the universe. The sun and the stars go round it.'

Just as well it's fiction because it sounds awful doesn't it?


Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, George Orwell, 1984, Big Brother



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Existing comments

Gosh yes, just as well it's fiction. Sounds totally creepy. Doubleplusungood - great word!

Pam | 17 July 2014  

Bravo! In Orwell there is but one God of prescience, and Matthews is his prophet.

Barry G | 17 July 2014  

I can't be sure if this article is meant as pure irony, in an Orwellian vein, or not. It reminded me of the years post 1996, when I would routinely turn on the taxpayer-funded ABC radio national channel and have to suffer lefties like David Marr endlessly bewailing the brutal "silencing" of dissenting voices - ie, David Marr himself and his friends (Philip Adams on late night live, John Cleary on Sunday nights, etc etc,: David Marr had a lot of friends) - under Howard.

HH | 17 July 2014  

"We are a conservationist government". Tony Abbott

Frank | 18 July 2014  

I have been watching our local Big Brother for the past twenty years now and he has really become part of the wallpaper, with that leering face that follows you round the room, quoting slogans. extradoubleplusungood.

Alan Slatyer | 18 July 2014  

Fictionnot in Australia.

pat | 18 July 2014  

Thanks for linking '1984' so effectively. Abbot and front bench's manipulation of 'crowd' control, similar to Hitler's, is a worry, too. Is there a text that exposes this?

Dee | 18 July 2014  

"1984" is the one novel I am reminded of several times a week, simply by keeping up to date with Australian politics. No wonder this particular fiction sounds awful.

Ian Fraser | 18 July 2014  

Brilliant! But make a hard copy quickly before that too becomes illegal.

Ginger Meggs | 18 July 2014  

Brian, you have taken the words (but conveyed oh so much better) right out of my mouth. But why do you think he and his cohorts are getting away with it.?

Celia | 18 July 2014  

Brilliant piece of writing and summary of our world , no longer Orwellian make-believe. Applies I would suggest not only to the Abbott government but was converted to an art form by the Labor governments of recent times who managed to makes "rights" out of "wrongs", a stunning sophistication of weasel words.

john frawley | 18 July 2014  

So what is the point that you are trying to make HH? And how is it related to this article?

Ginger Meggs | 18 July 2014  

Are you suggesting that this Orwellian description of ungoodness applies to only one side of Aussie politics? 'Contorted with hatred' would seem to describe the relentless demonising of the PM and his government in the so-called Left media, not to mention the leftie cohort of academics, thespians and general doungooders who believe their political perspective is the only valid one for the Australian people. Orwell was describing the dystopia of communist and socialist states, albeit fictionalising it. Comparing the lawfully elected government of this democratic nation to such a scenario seems to be both cynical and vitriolic.

Liz | 18 July 2014  

"It sounds awful, doesn't it?"........ Indeed is does. But It all sounds strangely familiar, as I imagine every realises. Perhaps it resembles the troubled transition of children from thinking that their parents were god-like beings to realising that they are really fallible humans.

Robert Liddy | 18 July 2014  

There's good in the worst of us and bad in the best of us. Well worth remembering by all those on the denigrate Abbott campaign. Disparaging a democratically elected government using a fictional unrelated comparison is unhelpful when there is no countering balanced view. Comparing Tony Abbott to Hitler suggests a general reading of history is needed. The vulgar budgie smugglers failed, misogyny failed and now it's Hitler - tripleungood try. I’d be very grateful to see a comparison of the union movement with 1984. Amazing control over the silent Fourth Estate and the Fifth.

Jane | 18 July 2014  

GM: is there a chapter in '1984' wherein the government-owned media is overwhelmingly populated by anti-government types endlessly protesting the alleged evils of the regime, with total impunity? Perhaps I read an expurgated version.

HH | 18 July 2014  

For those who criticise Professor Matthews for using a work of fiction, Nineteen eighty-four, to critique the state of political communication in Australia may I recommend an essay, Politics and the English Language, also by George Orwell? It is quite short, 18 pages, and appears in "Why I Write" in the Penguin series of Great Idea. To give you an idea of the tenor of the essay I shall quote the last two sentences. "Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties from Conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time, one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase - e.g. jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno or other lump of verbal refuse - into the dustbin where it belongs." To promote a polite, reasonable and productive conversation on socio-political and economic issues in Australia let's take up Orwell's challenge and prune our 'ungood' verbal habits.

UnclePat | 19 July 2014  

Couldn't agree more UnclePat. Our politicians, academic & cultural commentators, the media (including social media), need to cultivate the language of civility in public discourse - before the toxic effects of the hyperbole of hatred stifle productive debate!

liz | 20 July 2014  

Brilliant! Have admired all your work in Eureka Street. You ring the warning bells so clearly that I hope that Tony Abbot and his Ministry of Lies (sorry Truth?) will read this. It may be too subtle for them though. Their vocabulary is already severely limited as the stuttering, betrayals, simplistic repetition, and three-word slogans show. We need to vote them out before too many people lose all their compassion because they are hoodwinked into believing they are powerless to do anything about it. The comparisons you draw between the Abbot government and Big Brother Winston Smith's tyranny are terrifying.

Annabel | 21 July 2014  

If we really want to get serious, here are some classical Orwellian moves today: killing a child in utero is labelled "termination of pregnancy", contraception is "planned parenthood", and slashing the astronomically high probabilities of death through neglect (or worse) amongst mixed race children is called "stealing a generation".

HH | 21 July 2014  

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