- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 9, 2003

In his essay "The English People," published at the end of World War II, George Orwell wrote that the English "have known for 40 years… something that the Russians and the Americans have yet to learn: they know that it is not possible for any one nation to rule the Earth."
The English (and eventually the Russian) people came to understand this, at least; their rulers still seem tempted, however.
Orwell is justly famed for his prescience and insight into developments that were entirely invisible to or misread by almost everybody else. Is there a more dead-on vivisection of revolutionary movements than "Animal Farm"? A more eerie foreshadowing of Total Government and the therapeutic state than "1984?"
Some connoisseurs of dystopia argue that Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" (1932) was a more accurate take on our future. And the terror, degradation, poverty and omnipresent coercion of 1984 do seem less like our world so far than the self-administered soma, IQ caste system, soulless bio-engineering and childless, childish hedonism that Huxley envisioned.
Then there are those who find Terry Gilliam's film "Brazil" (1985) an even more clairvoyant projection of then-emergent trends into the present. Co-written by playwright Tom Stoppard and actor Charles McKeown, "Brazil" is named after a pop song whose drowsy melody and insipid lyrics contrast wickedly with the horror of the film's not-so-distant future world.
Trond Fritt, a mega-fan who devotes a Web site to the film, says it "rolls up many of the problems of the century into one big plot: industrialization, terrorism, government control and bureaucracy (from both capitalist and socialized countries), technology gone wrong, inept repair people, plastic surgery, love, and even modern filmmaking."
"Brazil" also refers subliminally to the actual nation: Brazilification has become shorthand for the sociodemographic process now well under way in that giant land, the breakdown of an unwieldy mass of wildly disparate population groups into a stark hierarchy based on wealth and color, ruled by riches and terror, where the law protects only the highest bidder behind well-guarded gates.
Although the proles of Orwell's Oceania live in "faulty towers" that are crumbling about them, their rulers' technological chops, particularly in surveillance, are state-of-the-art. In "Brazil," Central Services is pervaded by the same musty, rusty, retrofitted, jury-rigged style as are the lives of its subjects. Here Jacques Ellul's irresistible "imperialism of technique" has run smack dab into the immovable object of bureaucracy, with internally contradictory results.
In "1984," the persecution has a functional oppressive logic, with no mistake about it; but in "Brazil" it is all a horrible mistake, a bureaucratic blunder. Somehow the latter does ring truer of the modern state: It may well crush you in the end, but it will do so incompetently, incompletely, inefficiently, indifferently, for the wrong reasons, with the wrong weapons, and with cost overruns and shoddy paperwork to boot.
A still more vivid contemporary parallel in "Brazil" is how terrorist bombings, conducted by an underground of guerrillas desperate to restore a human face to this nightmarish world, have become a routine, rationalized feature of everyday life, justifying ever more violent acts of clownish repression.
J.R.R. Tolkien's great dystopia "The Lord of the Rings" is also about the machinations of Power vs. the right to live out one's days in peace and freedom amid the scenes and companions of one's choosing. British artists and thinkers have long been preoccupied with human freedom; they imparted that preoccupation to us Americans, after all.
The problem of the survival of individual human liberty is at the heart of all these great political-visionary artists' work. They have taught us to read the signs and grasp the nature of the totalitarian impulse even in its most mawkish, idealized, "well-intentioned" forms, and we are greatly in their debt.
A number of cultural historians have even argued that while "1984" did prefigure many existing moods and patterns of our age, it has in itself served as a deterrent to the full unfolding of its own horror. Such is the power of the fusion of truth and art.
But this prophylactic effect seems to have very abruptly worn off. In vain one now points to the many features of "1984" the Two Minutes Hate, the constantly changing Enemy, the perpetual war fought by mercenary troops on TV against obscure peoples for obscure reasons, the video (and other forms of) surveillance, the growing gulf between the techno-elites and the average working man, the cultural amnesia, the manipulation and outright erasure of history, the spreading rot of Newspeak that smack of today's political climate. Big Brother? that bogeyman is so last century.
In the late 1800s, when Great Britain was the world's acknowledged hegemon, British social-imperialists vigorously propagandized the common people that their welfare depended upon the fortunes of the Empire. And thus when the great war for empire finally ignited in 1914, the British people "tossed aside sentimental socialist internationalism and became patriots," in historian Bernard Semmel's words.
Britain has yet to recover from that ghastly sacrifice of blood, faith and spirit. Orwell was right about Big Brother and right about one nation trying to rule the Earth. Our open, free, democratic way of life and the good of our very souls are incompatible with imperialist adventurism. Our ambitious leaders have forgotten it is not empire whose price is eternal vigilance, but freedom.

Marian Kester Coombs is a freelance writer.

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