Sunday, May 28, 2006

Best wishes on Memorial Day in the midst of war - a comment watching 1984

I wound up watching the DVD of the very fine film of George Orwell's 1984. John Hurt, Suzanne Hamilton, and Richard Burton in his final screen role. Orwell's novel is of course one of the most important books of the century, yet it is not a truly great novel. Michael Radford's film is actually better than the book. I have used this film in teaching a course on the ethics of war, although it is not directly about war, and I am thinking about using it in teaching high school students next fall. There is a great deal of violence and some sex. I am interested in it from a teaching standpoint because it is the apotheosis of a society of total war, totalitarian war, totalitarianism underpinned by war.

The most touching scene in the film is when Julia has stripped away her party coveralls and put on for Winston Smith an ugly, ill-fitting dress and badly applied makeup. I recall discussing this scene with my Harvard Law School students some years ago; they found it oddly (to me at any rate) difficult to understand this display of femininity as an act of liberation and an affirmation of everything human in an inhumanly totalitarian, collectivist world. One young woman in that class couldn't understand why Julia - played by a young and preternaturally beautiful Suzanne Hamilton - would feel the need to adorn herself with makeup and a dress for her lover, why her body on its own wasn't enough. It was very hard for this particular class to see past their own bourgeois feminist instincts that makeup and dresses for a lover were a form of conformity, not, in these circumstances, an assertion of self in the deepest way. That was back in the mid-1990s; perhaps things are different now.

The only society in the world today that truly resembles Orwell's vision is North Korea, and we should give thanks on Memorial Day for the sacrifices throughout the Cold War that largely eliminated the modernist totalitarian regime, its dependence upon war and conflict, and its subjugation of individual freedom, as we also give thanks for people fighting today against new threats to liberty.

The threat today, of course, is from a syncretic pre-modern and post-modern religious ideology, Islamism, jihadism, islamofascism, whatever you want to call it. Olivier Roy is correct in identifying it as a fusion of traditional religious fanaticism enhanced for its adherents by being cast adrift in a world of modernity in which they have no moderating identity apart from a Western derived, ideologically conditioned ressentiment. And the willingness of the post liberal, multicultural democracies to placate the most radical elements of this religious ideology has had the fantastically baleful effect of empowering the radicals and undercutting the ability of moderating influences in Islam itself. The traditional sources of Muslim moderation are now held hostage by the radicals, and the forces of moderation have no confidence - why should they? - that the secular democracies will back them, rather than see to placate ressentiment which, in the end, cannot be placated but which, as with all appetites, grows with the eating.

This is the new, pre-modern/post-modern face of totalitarianism - and, as we learned from Orwell, you cannot fight it if you cannot name it. That is the disaster of multiculturalism over liberal values.


Anonymous said...

Professor Anderson
Woudn't you agree that Myanmar is another country, which fits this profile? If Orwell were writing a novel today, he wouldn't write about a totalitarian society, rather he would rather about a society where there is no order and where the state is non-existent. I think that it is going to be a lot more difficult for totalitarian society to survive this century (globalizaton, technology,...etc.) However,there will be more countries such as Congo where there is no rule of law and where therefore it is possible to buy or to hide anything or anyone.

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Sildenafil Citrate said...

I have to join to you and show my deep condolences to the families that lost a beloved one in that war and I also want to show some kind of tribute to the fallen, peace and love for all!