Monday, January 10, 2011

A pathology of descent

Shortly before this new year began, Chris Hedges, unleashed this monster of a column, both fantastic and depressing. In it, Hedges notes the two contrasting visions of totalitarianism of Orwell and Huxley, but where as the tendency is to usually pick one as having been more correct than the other, Hedges argues that the Huxley style amusing ourselves to death distraction of our entertainment driven culture is itself opening a path to more overt and Orwellian forms of oppression.

The two greatest visions of a future dystopia were George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” The debate, between those who watched our descent towards corporate totalitarianism, was who was right. Would we be, as Orwell wrote, dominated by a repressive surveillance and security state that used crude and violent forms of control? Or would we be, as Huxley envisioned, entranced by entertainment and spectacle, captivated by technology and seduced by profligate consumption to embrace our own oppression? It turns out Orwell and Huxley were both right. Huxley saw the first stage of our enslavement. Orwell saw the second.
Hedges notes that while a consumerist public has been distracted by a corporate state which marginalizes voices of dissent like that of Noam Chomsky, our country has increasingly come to resemble Orwell's Oceania, where perpetual war leads to perpetually abrogated liberty; and where Manichean dichotomy is used to justify extralegal excess

The psychological torture of Pvt. Bradley Manning—who has now been imprisoned for seven months without being convicted of any crime—mirrors the breaking of the dissident Winston Smith at the end of “1984.” Manning is being held as a “maximum custody detainee” in the brig at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia. He spends 23 of every 24 hours alone. He is denied exercise. He cannot have a pillow or sheets for his bed. Army doctors have been plying him with antidepressants. The cruder forms of torture of the Gestapo have been replaced with refined Orwellian techniques, largely developed by government psychologists, to turn dissidents like Manning into vegetables. We break souls as well as bodies. It is more effective. Now we can all be taken to Orwell’s dreaded Room 101 to become compliant and harmless. These “special administrative measures” are regularly imposed on our dissidents, including Syed Fahad Hashmi, who was imprisoned under similar conditions for three years before going to trial. The techniques have psychologically maimed thousands of detainees in our black sites around the globe. They are the staple form of control in our maximum security prisons where the corporate state makes war on our most politically astute underclass—African-Americans. It all presages the shift from Huxley to Orwell.


The noose is tightening. The era of amusement is being replaced by the era of repression. Tens of millions of citizens have had their e-mails and phone records turned over to the government. We are the most monitored and spied-on citizenry in human history. Many of us have our daily routine caught on dozens of security cameras. Our proclivities and habits are recorded on the Internet. Our profiles are electronically generated. Our bodies are patted down at airports and filmed by scanners. And public service announcements, car inspection stickers, and public transportation posters constantly urge us to report suspicious activity. The enemy is everywhere.

Those who do not comply with the dictates of the war on terror, a war which, as Orwell noted, is endless, are brutally silenced. The draconian security measures used to cripple protests at the G-20 gatherings in Pittsburgh and Toronto were wildly disproportionate for the level of street activity. But they sent a clear message—DO NOT TRY THIS. The FBI’s targeting of antiwar and Palestinian activists, which in late September saw agents raid homes in Minneapolis and Chicago, is a harbinger of what is to come for all who dare defy the state’s official Newspeak. The agents—our Thought Police—seized phones, computers, documents and other personal belongings. Subpoenas to appear before a grand jury have since been served on 26 people. The subpoenas cite federal law prohibiting “providing material support or resources to designated foreign terrorist organizations.” Terror, even for those who have nothing to do with terror, becomes the blunt instrument used by Big Brother to protect us from ourselves.
Update: Glenn Greenwald on a government induced climate of fear

Anyone connected to WikiLeaks -- even American citizens -- are now routinely detained at the airport and have their property seized, their laptops and cellphones taken and searched and retained without a shred of judicial oversight or due process. And this treatment extends to numerous critics of the government having nothing to do with WikiLeaks. In the past month, I've spoken with American writers, photographers and filmmakers -- who are not ready yet to go public -- who have experienced similar and even worse harassment when entering the U.S. Notably, like anyone remotely connected to WikiLeaks, all of them -- given the government's broad surveillance powers -- insist upon communicating only behind multiple, highly fortified walls of encryption. The U.S. Government plainly wants any genuine critics to feel fear, and is willing to use any means -- no matter how lawless and extreme -- to induce it.

Yesterday, computer security expert Chris Soghoian documented how little the DOJ can hope to learn from the court-ordered Subpoena issued to Twitter (given how limited is the information stored on Twitter). But that's the point: the goal of that Order isn't to learn anything; it's to signal to anyone who would support WikiLeaks that they will be subject to the most invasive surveillance imaginable. I met two months ago with a former WikiLeaks volunteer who believes as fervently as ever in its cause, but ceased working with them because his country has a broad extradition treaty with the U.S. and he was petrified that his government, upon a mere request by the U.S., would turn him over to the Americans and he'd disappear into the world of the Patriot Act and "enemy combatants" and due-process-free indefinite detention still vigorously applied to foreigners.

This is the same reason for keeping Bradley Manning in such inhumane, brutal conditions despite there being no security justification for it: they want to intimidate any future whistleblowers who discover secret American criminality and corruption from exposing it (you'll end up erased like Bradley Manning). And that's also what motivates the other extra-legal actions taken by the Obama administration aimed at WikiLeaks -- from publicly labeling Assange a Terrorist to bullying private companies to cut off ties to chest-beating vows to prosecute them: they know there's nothing illegal about reporting on classified American actions, so they want to thuggishly intimidate anyone from exercising those rights through this climate of repression.

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