Dushan Wegner is a Czech-German journalist and political commentator. The following essay by him updates 1984 to 2018 and transplants it to Germany. We owe JLH a big debt of gratitude for the translation.
2018, 1984 and the Simple Truths
by Dushan Wegner
Wilfried Schmidt no longer looked out his window. A poster on the house opposite — he knew it already. “Hate is not an opinion!” There was one on the house front immediately opposite. “Hate is not an opinion!” Down at street level another poster, torn at one corner, flapped fitfully in the wind, alternately covering and uncovering the words “No Hate Speech.” In the far distance a helicopter skimmed down between the roofs, hummed for an instant like a bluebottle, and darted away again with a curving flight. It was the Police Patrol, snooping into people’s windows. The patrols did not matter, however. Only the Thought Police were to be feared.
Every noise made by Wilfried was registered by a Smart home device. Wilfried had been able to locate the business he had bought it from. Wilfried hadn’t had to buy it, but who wants to make himself look suspicious.?
There was, of course, no way to determine if you were being watched at any given moment. How often and by what means the Thought Police infiltrated a private apparatus was anybody’s guess. Everything was recorded. Even if they overlooked an incident of hate speech or intended to get someone anyhow, better filters and artificial intelligence could retroactively find the false thought. So if someone wanted to attack an inconvenient politician, they sent the press an e-mail that the politician was supposed to have written years ago. Or a sentence he was supposed to have uttered years before, one night in a bar as an incautious reply to a provocation. There was always something to find about someone you wanted to finish — something that could be interpreted as “hate” or one of the sub-categories of hate. Anyone loyally serving the government and the official line was allowed to openly express hate every day. Hatred and lies against dissidents were rewarded by medals, money from propaganda funds and sometimes even an individual program on state broadcasting.
The past of anyone who deviated from the line was dug into as long as necessary to find alleged “hate.” The credibility of assertions was not confirmed by technical experts, but by moralists according to “demeanor.”
Truth was proven by “demeanor.”
It was necessary to live with the assumption — and instinctively adjust to the fact — that every sentence spoken or written, every post shared, was heard or read by attitudinal experts and assessed for “Hate Speech.”
A kilometer away, the Ministry of Anti-Fake News, Wilfried’s workplace, loomed, massive and white above…
Well, you noticed it some time ago. I transplanted excerpts from the novel 1984 to the year 2018. I re-named Winston Smith “Wilfried Schmidt”, made the Telescreen into the Smart-Home-Loudspeaker and substituted “Hate is not an opinion” for “Big Brother is watching you.” It is remarkable how little it takes to transport 1984 into the present age. Orwell had no inkling of storage and retroactive evaluation. We had to add them.
How many fingers, Winston?
For some time now, the saying has gone around: “1984 was not intended to be an instruction manual!” It is supposed to serve as a warning not to let the state get too close to that novelistic nightmare.
But Merkel and the SPD, ARD and ZDF happened, and we see what is happening and we can’t believe what we are seeing. And it makes no difference to what is happening whether we believe it or not.
In the following, I intend to take an uncomplicated preliminary leap into this casual, everyday insanity, by using several points covered in Wikipedia’s 1984 entry under “Methods of Exercising Power.” And I will be writing about the present day.
Control of the past
They have begun to re-write history. For instance, Tagesschau reported recently that the first Briton was dark-skinned — not likely. Leftists invoke the Scholl siblings, implying they were leftists — historically insupportable. Discussing marriage, they invoke the conservative rabbi, Jesus, and on tolerance they mention the “Jew critic,” Luther — it’s absurd. The effects of re-writing history reach into the present. They portray wide-eyed children who are in reality young men old enough for military service. They manipulate videos of unpopular politicians. (To be sure, they sometimes even admit their untruths, but only after the damage has been done, and the government has been able to carry out the measure in question.) Indeed the creation of new history reaches into the future. They show absurd horror films produced by the film company that produced films for Hitler, and today has the very best relations with big politics. They write a history, a present and a future that support their power. The truth is what serves power.
In the beautiful new Germany, there are two realities. One takes place on the streets and in the squares. The other — if you want to keep your feet on the earth — is what you are obliged to believe, to see and to report.
O’Brien raised his left hand, its back toward Winston, thumb hidden and four fingers out. “How many fingers am I holding up. Winston?”
“And what if the Party says not four, but five. How many is it then?”
The word ended in a scream.
— George Orwell, 1984
I, personally, know teachers (who are increasingly de facto social workers), who are disintegrating internally from the contradiction between what they experience and what it is permissible to say. I get notes from readers almost daly, panicked at their inability to absorb the alternative facts from ARD and ZDF and avoid being isolated by their inwardly more flexible acquaintances and families. Not everyone is born with the same degree of pliability.
“How many fingers, Winston?”
“Four! Stop, stop! No more! Four!”
“How many fingers, Winston!”
“Five! Five! Five!”
“No, Winston, there’s no point. You’re lying. You still believe it’s four. How many fingers, please?”
“Four! Five! Four! Whatever you want. Just stop. Stop the torture!”
— George Orwell, 1984
In Orwell’s 1984,Winston Smith was tortured because he could not see four fingers as five. If the Party said two plus two was five, then the citizen had to believe that. Today, the citizen must believe that just because X leads to Y, that does not mean that X and Y are connected. And anyone who infers a connection from an obvious cause is socially isolated. We are living Doublethink. Some citizens are broken by this. But not all. Certain events in history are explained by how incredibly easily an amazing number of Germans, even today, can become comfortable with Doublethink. But just as a completely unmusical person will never learn to play the violin, so those who cannot learn to live with Doublethink are isolated. These who cannot find other ineducable citizens quickly fall silent.
In 1984, hatred of a political opponent is an active part of propaganda. Its instruments are “Hate Week” and the “Two Minute Hate.”
The present government is trying an interesting stunt with hatred. On the one hand, the word “hate” is reinterpreted as criticism of the government line. And the motto appears, “Hate is not an opinion.” The government’s actions are good per se and criticism of them bad and hateful — and outside the constitutional protection of opinion. On the other hand, the actual, conventional hatred of deviators and government critics by politicians and state-supporting journalists is a part of the daily work of politics and journalism.
Comedians such as Jan Böhmerman or Oliver Welke mock the opposition in front of an audience of millions. A Shahak Shapira even makes use of Nazi language in the the battle against deviators — and is rewarded with a state broadcasting program. Hatred of deviators is lucrative — every week is Hate Week at ARD and ZFD.
Previously they cried that what was private was political and revolutionary. It is the other way around when the political reaches into the private — it quickly becomes oppression. The SPD wants “supremacy over the cribs.” (The politician who said such a thing is probably going to be vice-chancellor and finance minister.) The chancellor has psychology inquire of citizens, and informs herself about “nudging” — the subtle manipulation of behavior. (The Newspeak expression for studies of psychological manipulation through the government is actually “governing effectively.”). The Family Ministry invests amounts in the hundreds of millions in propaganda against dissidents. Whoever cannot accommodate his thoughts to the official truth is considered an “unperson” — in Newspeak, “Nazi.”
Children in school are weaponized against their parents who voted the wrong way. Truth is loosely interpreted (for example, I am told that a teacher said that the opposition wants to deport all foreigners, and then asked who in the class was a foreigner). Children will believe anything. The political becomes personal. Leftist, party-line publications describe parents who vote “wrong” as if they were enemies (examples: Süddeutsche Zeitung, Bento, Vice), Not just friendships, even families fall apart if individuals cannot — for reasons of conscience — assume the correct “demeanor.”
Older and retired people who can’t or won’t practice Doublethink (old age brings inflexibility, in conscience as in joints) are socially isolated, become “unpersons.” Those who can’t or won’t believe what ARD and ZDF claim can lose their social net. People consider seriously whether to lie to avoid losing social contacts and being seen as a “Nazi.” But what use is communication if you yourself know it is a lie?
Even someone who just has concerns is considered by propaganda to be an unperson. Thousands demonstrate in Dresden or Cottbus, but they are ignored by the propaganda, and if they become impossible to ignore, they are demonized. Anyone who has concerns about the consequences of the government’s actions is a Nazi, and that means unperson — someone who has to pay taxes and the broadcast fee and just shut up. Otherwise, the Antifa will drop by and remind you that you are an unperson.
In Orwell’s 1984, as in Merkel’s 2018, a new language is being created, partly with new words, partly with the reinterpretation of old words. There is an open attempt to give important words new meaning which in some cases completely contradicts the previous meaning.
In these newer times, “homeland” is supposed to be freed from borders and places, and signify an ideology of dissolved boundaries and globalization. For instance, according to Maas, homeland should no longer be a place but should signify the new “values” prescribed by the government and those close to the government — i.e., an ideology. The (attempted) reinterpretation of homeland, away from “a place where I am at home,” to “an ideology I believe in” is a perfect example of Newspeak.
“Volk” is being reinterpreted to mean everyone present in the land. (Schäuble quote: “Anyone who speaks of the people but only means certain parts of the population is laying violent hands on our system.”) The saying “We are the people” (Wir Sind das Volk) is interpreted as “Nazi” because it implies that not just anyone can be “das Volk.” Ideologues fear nothing so much as the self-confidence of their subjects.
“Citizens” — the noblest concept democracy has to offer — is reinterpreted and devalued to mean “those who have been here longer” (Merkel). Ideologues see people as a mass to be moulded as desired, not as “free citizens who install and remove governments.”
Hating Germany is reinterpreted as patriotism (for example, [SPD Foreign Minister Sigmar] Gabriel’s prioritization in regard to Yücel could be understood that way). Pure Newspeak.
“Stance,” that is, personal backbone even in the face of the powers-that-be, is changed in Newspeak to be support for the government line; that is, the exact opposite of the meaning until now. Today, someone who supports the party line and despises the opposition is praised as having a “stance.”
Demonstrations are described as “diverse,” which really means masked Antifa thugs dressed in black uniforms, or completely monocultural city districts. “Diverse” is a Newspeak word that means the opposite of its old meaning. It is similar to “diversity,” which conveys the opposite of its old meaning. At one time, these words stood for pluralism, but today, in practice, they signify increasingly like-mindedness, and are now enforced by a “Diversity Officer.”
The government finances political PR which advertises that “hate is not an opinion,” and, in the process, removes feelings of serious aversion from the spectrum of lawfully protected opinion. The claim that hate is not an opinion is juridical nonsense, but when it is “in a good cause” the constitutional state becomes more of a symbolic value than a rock-solid foundation. “Hate is not an opinion” is both Newspeak and Doublethink.
The propaganda in 1984 and the propaganda in 2018 are both intended to punish and prevent “Thoughtcrime.”
Speech precedes thought and thought leads again to speech. Therefore speech is where control and punishment of thought crimes begins. So the NetzDG allows the courts to cut off speech. Thus, propaganda campaigns become legal, but opinions that disturb the government are classified as non-opinions. It is an attempt to drum it into the Germans, but also the Poles, the Czechs or the Hungarians that they have no right to determine the population of their homeland.
The meaning up until now of the concept of “homeland” (including borders and self-determination) is being vilified as “Nazi” and replaced via Newspeak with an artificial new concept of the borderless homeland as a globalization-compatible ideology. Anyone who rejects or is incapable of such Doublethink has become guilty of Thoughtcrime and will soon be an Unperson who can only theoretically claim human dignity in accordance with Article 1 of the constitution. Whose property can be burned down any time by Antifa, whose fear is mocked with “meemeemee,” whose family can be intimidated by “performers” (with applause from state broadcasting), whose job and bank accounts can be terminated. When a Thoughtcriminal is declared to be an Unperson there is no outcry and little protest — the fear is great that protest against injustice can also be condemned as Thoughtcrime. You are free to think what you will — but thinking wrong and then expressing it is also a crime.
What constitutes the human being?
The government makes no secret of the fact that thy want to change the citizens’ thinking. All these measures (I ascribe no intention to anyone, but certainly effect and direction) are directed toward eliminating what is individual with the rights that implies — the citizen to be is reduced to a batch of obligations.
What constitutes the human being? Maybe his ancestry. But mentioning it too favorably is evil. Or his talents. Bad idea! The idea that a capability could be hereditary is also problematic. Well, his work, his career and his possessions. All problematic categories. Anyone who wants to enjoy the fruits of his labor instead of giving them up for the grand plans of the government is suspicious. Possession per se is suspicious. The new ideologies enthuse over expropriation for a “good cause.”
I am honestly not sure what these people want or intend. But we can see where it’s headed. Toward the destruction of what is individual. The government is not satisfied with the people, so it is creating a new one.
There are no arguments that will work against propaganda. These people know what they are doing is wrong. They don’t care. Do you really believe that an SPD politician who one day would like a job with a pure-as-the-driven-snow democrat has any scruples today? Do you get the impression that their own word means anything to them? What goes on in the mind and conscience of a CDU delegate who speaks openly about the destructive consequences of Merkel’s policy, and then raises his bureaucrat’s hand to confirm her in her in office? It is a remarkable inner division which I cannot understand, no matter how much I try to imagine it.
No, when they set out to destroy our individuality, it seems to me that the first defense is a very private one.
Let us ask the question that they want to forbid or reinterpret. Who am I? They want to twist what “homeland” means. But do I know myself what is home for me? A person with the proper demeanor, it seems, is one who believes journalists more than his own eyes. Do I want to have this demeanor? They are not secretive or quiet about changing what it means to be a citizen. But do I know myself what being a citizen demands of me? They want to twist what I think is good or bad. But aside from gut instinct, could I explain what I mean by good and bad.?
We could give in, try to twist ourselves, but the very attempt could drive us crazy. The “Know thyself” of the Greeks moves from being a philosophical game to an inner question of survival. Know yourself, or go crazy.
So let us ask the simple questions, new every day, deeper every day. Who am I? What is my homeland? What do I see when I leave my house? What is the consequence of that?
In insane times, the courage to tell yourself the simple truths is necessary. I know who I am. I know where my home is. I know that I have two hands. I know what I see was when I leave my house. Even though the TV roared “Five! Five! Five!” At me all day long, I still know that two and two is four and — dammit! — I will say so!
|1.||SPD — Social Democrats; ARD, ZDF — first and second German public broadcasting|
|2.||Heiko Maas (SPD) Minister of Foreign Affairs; Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU) Federal President|
|3.||Deniz Yücel German-Turkish journalist for Die Welt imprisoned for a while in Turkey|
|4.||Netzdurchsetzungsgesetz [Consummation of the law in the internet] or Gesetz zur Verbesserung der Rechtsdurchsetzung in sozialen Netzwerken [Law to improve consummation of the law in social networks]. Can you say “Net Neutrality”?