“May you live in interesting times” – two political classics and why we need them more than ever

‘May you live in interesting times’  is an English expression which is said to be translated from an ancient Chinese curse. Laced with irony, it conveys the danger and the associated anxiety when national or international events  seem to go through periods of intense change or activity. I don’t know about you, but it certainly feels to me that we are living in interesting times at the moment! It’s not so much the political turmoil (British, European, global) that bothers me, I suspect every generation experiences times when world events seem dangerously unpredictable. No, it’s more the way that power is exercised by a small group over a large group and how the small group gets the large group to behave in particular ways that benefit the small group. I’m talking about lying with impunity, inequality and abuse, distorting evidence (especially about climate change) and stirring up hatred. These things frighten me more and have the potential to damage more of us than the ‘threats’ others would have us fear, for example, North Korea, terrorism or immigration.

In recent weeks I have turned to two very important books which have sharpened my understanding of our present situation. Whilst on holiday in the Summer I read A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, and I have been listening to 1984 by George Orwell, a book that I last read whilst at University.

2017-11-12-21-46-11.jpgI read A Clockwork Orange on my husband’s recommendation, straight after he’d completed it – it’s one of his favourite films, which we have watched many times, but neither of us had read the book. It’s quite short, but also quite hard-going as it is narrated by the central character, Alex, who speaks in ‘nadsat’ a kind of teenage vocabulary of the future, based loosely on Slav languages. I read it with a glossary (though Burgess intended that it should not be), but after while I found I did not consult it, and it flowed better just to read it and understand the sense, if not every word.

It is a book about violence and hatred, between generations, between genders, between different social groups. It is also about social isolation, about fractured communities and about a violent experimental penal system where punishment is presented by the author as nearly as vile as the original offence. Parts of it are difficult to read because of the violence (there is a terrible rape scene at the beginning when Alex and his ‘droogies’ (friends) go on a drink and drug-fuelled rampage through the town), but mostly because it is profoundly disturbing as an example of how a society, or parts of society, can be persuaded to act in the most vicious ways, and how this is driven by collective approval, the power of the group. It is a book about collective moral failure and the breakdown of the social contract which maintains order.

I listened to 1984 on audiobook over a period of several weeks in my car. There were moments when I had to pull over, aghast at what I was hearing. It was written in 1949 and I first read it lazily and only partially in the late ’80s, when I was 19 or 20. At that time the book was only 40 years old, and it was amusing that it described a future society in a year that had already passed (just as Space:1999 became ironic at the start of the 21st century!) The book is now over 70 years old and, frankly, parts of it could describe the world we live in today, our ‘interesting times’. The book describes a totalitarian state, Oceania, said to be based on Stalinist Russia, led by an omnipotent strongman Big Brother. The world is divided into three power blocs – in addition to Oceania there is Eurasia and Eastasia – who are perpetually at war. The constant state of war justifies the indefinite suspension of human liberties and the permanent control not only of human action, but of human thought. Offenders are eliminated, cruelly, and power is exercised through fear.

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Ministry of Truth? A new statue of George Orwell was unveiled at the BBC headquarters in central London this week. The author worked at the BBC for a short time during WW2.

In the context of our own ‘interesting times’ the themes which disturbed me most were, firstly, the ‘cult of personality’ – Big Brother is all powerful and his power is conferred by an artificially inspired devotion. I’ve decided you can have too much personality in a leader and it is overrated. Secondly, ‘historical revisionism’ – populations are manipulated all the time by being told subjective versions of events, both past and present, that suit the teller and are politically expedient. Extremists and the seemingly not-so extreme, are guilty of this, it seems to me. And finally, “2+2=5” – we all believe we think for ourselves, but human beings can be persuaded to think the unthinkable, or believe what is objectively untrue. From big business marketing (corporations who deliberately befuddle our notions of ‘want’ and ‘need’) to political spin (like the numbers attending a political rally, or how happy they are to be there) to selling whole populations a pup, it seems they will dare to persuade us of anything. I fear 1984 could be renamed The 20-teens.

Do you think we are living in ‘interesting times’?

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