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Orwell’s Dystopian Future Is Almost Here


There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate, they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live—did live, from habit that became instinct—in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.

—“1984,” George Orwell

Investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, best known for his reporting on the U.S. surveillance state, told me that in the year since he first met whistle-blower Edward Snowden, he went back and re-read Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”

In an interview on Uprising, Greenwald said that what surprised him the most about re-reading the ominous story was that “I had always remembered the ubiquity of the surveillance [in ‘1984’], which was we had a monitor in every single room of every home constantly watching every single person. So, a lot of people said, [our world is] not like ‘1984’ because not every single one of our emails is being read and or every one of our calls are being listened to because nobody could possibly be doing all that.” But, as Greenwald rightly pointed out, in Orwell’s world, “nobody actually knew whether they were being watched at all times. In fact they didn’t know if they were ever being watched.”

In essence said Greenwald, “The key to the social control was the possibility that they could be watched at any time.” Although we have no evidence that the Obama administration is engaging in any organized form of social control in our real world, the most dangerous possible outcome of the U.S. surveillance state is a dampening of dissent because of the mere possibility that the government is watching our every move.

In fact, Fourth of July celebrations in Boston this year will be the focus of intense high-tech surveillance, according to media reports. There is, of course, great irony in imposing “Big Brother” tactics on a day that is theoretically meant to symbolize freedom from colonialism and the hard won rights of personal freedoms. Meanwhile, President Obama’s own appointed watchdog panel has given a mostly unreserved thumbs up to the NSA’s programs. Can it get more Orwellian?

Greenwald knows personally how seriously governments take their right to spy on everyone and keep those programs secret. His own partner, David Miranda, was subjected to a detention and search at Heathrow Airport last year, on the premise of Britain’s “national security” interests, and by extension, the U.S.’ Greenwald’s source, Edward Snowden, faces a lifetime of exile and a possible life sentence for charges relating to the Espionage Act. That the intrepid, award-winning journalist is able to tour the nation freely to promote his book “No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State” is likely due to his deft handling of the news reports he has parceled out, garnering the maximum possible public exposure, and his vociferous defense of his and others’ constitutional rights.

In fact, Greenwald is a former constitutional law and civil rights litigator. During the interview, he rattled off to me the difference between a source and a journalist like it was second nature: “Sources are people in the government who have a specific legal obligation not to disclose things, whereas journalists have been recognized as having a First Amendment privilege.”

But the exercise of that privilege has brought with it criticism from both right-wing and mainstream analysts, including fellow journalists, who see Greenwald’s craft as tainted by too strong a bias. A lengthy exchange between Greenwald and former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller in the paper’s op-ed section last year revealed the establishment conviction that good journalism can remain objective. Keller’s position that journalists should “keep their opinions to themselves unless they relocate (as I have done) to the pages clearly identified as the home of opinion” is reflective of a status quo that tends to identify anti-government opinions as bias while blindly accepting nationalistic tendencies as objective. Greenwald’s answer: “Ultimately, the only real metric of journalism that should matter is accuracy and reliability.”

Citing the history of what journalism used to mean, Greenwald told me, “For centuries … [we have had] crusading journalism with highly opinionated people using journalism as a tool to achieve certain social ends.” In fact, said Greenwald, it was “a way that citizens could hold people in power accountable through writing about them … and journalism has always been this kind of opinion-based, passion-driven activity.” After all, Upton Sinclair’s turn-of-the-century muckraking exposés of the seamy side of industries are among the best examples of American journalism.

Not surprisingly, many mainstream journalists who cover Greenwald, Snowden and the stories of NSA surveillance have betrayed their stated objectivity in embarrassingly obvious ways. The New York Times’ review of Greenwald’s new book referred to the author as a “self-righteous sourpuss,” and Snowden as someone with a “sweet, innocently conspiratorial worldview of a precocious teenager” who “appears to yearn for martyrdom.”

Psychological hit pieces against Greenwald and Snowden are common in the mainstream press, while members of Congress and Wall Street executives are rarely treated to the same level of psychoanalysis. For example, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who was caught telling a lie to Congress over the NSA’s surveillance program, has not received nearly the same level of widespread vitriol as Greenwald and Snowden have. To its credit, the New York Times editorial board did cite Clapper’s lie and referred to Snowden as a “whistle-blower” who “deserves better than a life of permanent exile, fear and flight.” But that stood out as an exception to the widespread denunciations of Greenwald and Snowden (see herehere and here for examples).

In Orwell’s “1984,” traitors to the regime were “thought criminals” who were disgraced by their betrayal of Big Brother. After bring singled out as such a criminal, Orwell’s protagonist, Winston, is instructed by his interrogator to believe he is “mentally deranged.” Although the novel is an extreme depiction of a fascist future, many of the tactics adopted by today’s so-called objective journalists to keep dissenters such as Greenwald and Snowden in line are consistent with Orwell’s dark fantasy. By discrediting those who speak out, it is possible to dismiss the substance of their criticisms. But, as Orwell famously wrote, “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

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