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1984

May 24, 2004

I wrote this a while ago, and have been putting off putting it here because it’s not about Japan, and it says nothing especially new. And besides, what right do I have to talk politics at you, when you’ve come here to look at pictures of Okinawa? None in particular, I know. But I’m going to, just because I have a voice, and feel an obligation to use it. Not because anything I can say can be of much consequence, but just because I can – because that’s all I can think of to do. To add another voice to the angry electronic chatter.

I haven’t been updating much recently. There are a number of reasons for this – partly, I’ve been busy; partly, I haven’t taken many photos recently; partly, I’ve been redesigning the whole site to make it prettier, nicer, cleverer (soon, soon…). Part of the reason, though, has been that every time I have access to an internet connection, I’ve been more inclined to read the news than to write about fun, trivial things I’ve been doing on my small, safe island. Every time I read the paper, the blue skies and tree-covered hills I can see from my desk seem to fade out, and I feel the horrible fascination of seeing something terrible unfold before one’s eyes.

Living on small island, I’ve had time to catch up on a lot of reading – to read big, fat books that were too daunting when I lived in a city, to read classics that were never quite as appealing as whatever detective novel happened to be to hand – and one book I finally got around to reading earlier this year was 1984. And although it’s more-or-less become a cliché to describe that book as ‘perenially relevant’… today when I read the news, I read about torture in the name of human rights, indefinite imprisonment without charge in the name of freedom, occurring against the backdrop of a war in the name of peace, and I can’t help but think there’s some serious doublethink going on.

One interesting thing, reading 1984, was realising that book’s name has become so synonymous with certain of its warnings – state surveillance of the individual, political control of language – that others often tend to be forgotten. One theme in 1984 concerns the political usefulness of endless war in rallying the public behind a corrupt regime. I wonder, though, whether any previous episode of history could have been a better model for ‘endless war’ than the current War on Terror – not a war against any particular country or organisation, not even a war against a particular doctrine. A war that can be allowed to go on as long as it’s useful, and struck up again whenever there’s trouble at home. What could end the war on terror? The end of al-Qaeda? I’m still not clear what the final, settled-on reason for the war in Iraq was (other than “he was a bad, bad man”), but even Bush and Blair long ago gave up trying to draw any connection there.

1984’s direst warning is that, given the right conditions, a regime could exist that, once in place, would be impossible to bring down. I am not suggesting that any regime today has quite that ambition, but I do think that a lot of the ways in which the world is being changed could pave the way for worse to come. In both the US and the UK – and many other parts of the world – politicians are scrabbling more frantically than ever to please and appease politically unaccountable, usually commercial, interests, and in the process very important freedoms and rights are being trampled on: the right to a fair trial, for example. Freedom of speech. The unacceptability of torture of anyone, whether they be a ‘prisoner of war’ or an ‘unlawful combatant’ (the difference words make: the former are covered by the Geneva convention, and thus torturing them is a no-no. But here the ‘war on terror’ comes in handy again: since it’s not a war on any concretely-definable enemy, that provides a fair bit of room to play around with what you call your prisoners. Finding international law a little inconvenient? Just redefine your terms! Another game that Orwell understood).

I feel vaguely ill at writing all this, shaking my fist from a tiny island at something so massive and far away, and the only people hearing me are… a bunch of my friends, who probably agree with me, have probably heard and thought it all before, and almost certainly came here to see some photos of Japan. Who do I think I am? The best excuse I can offer for getting all political is simply that I feel speaking out isn’t a right but an obligation – the more people who stand up and scream and shake their tiny fists at the outrages committed by their governments, the more chance there is that things might change.

posted in Okinawa4 comments

4 comments:

  1. Posted by tom grundy — August 16, 2006 at 4:39 am

    good stuff nick, and i felt the same after reading it myself – it’s ridiculously, scarily relelvant more and more each day… my fist shaking led to some more direct action during my time in hongkong http://www.globalcitizen.co.uk/rants/activism.html check out george monbiot, you may know him from the Guardian – he’s written a great book called The Age of Consent – A Manifesto for a New World Order… it shows where the real power in the world lies and how we can replace it with a more democratic, fairer system. =o)

  2. Posted by lva — August 16, 2006 at 10:46 am

    Thank you Mr. Grundy. Re-reading the above, I realise I only obliquely mentioned the event that prompted it, and a couple of years on it’s perhaps not immediately obvious what this was, so as a two-years-on postscript to put the above in a historical context, the particular object of my disgust and fury here was the Abu Ghraib scandal.

    Thank you for the recommendation — actually I like Monbiot and I’ve read The Age of Consent: I found it very thought-provoking, and impressive that he manages to make such utterly radical changes to the structure of the world seem not only possible but necessary. What I liked most about it I think was that the book is essentially an optimistic and constructive one, unlike a lot of writings on this sort of topic: that instead of focussing just on what’s wrong with the world the emphasis is really on what might be done to make things better (a much, much trickier point). It’s one of the few things I’ve read in recent years that actually left me feeling a little optimistic about the future of the world.

  3. Posted by tom grundy — August 19, 2006 at 6:18 am

    YES! So true, I’ve read so much about the problems facing us, but it was really refreshing to read Monbiot’s manifesto which actually offers a way forward. The guy attracts a lot of criticism, it’s a shame more writers aren’t as “radical”. I think it’s also cool the global resistance movement now has academics supporting our cause – Naomi Klein, Chomsky and this guy – who write objectively rather than in angry rants… [PS – your blog is still set to Japan time!]

  4. Posted by lva — August 19, 2006 at 1:03 am

    Oho! Japan time, you’re right. Thanks for that, and welcome to British Summertime.

    (Actually, that clock adjustment has allowed me to reply to your comment before you even left it. Brilliant!)

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