Some time from now, what kind of stories will people tell each other about the times you and I are living in? What will their master narrative be for us, and what their master metaphor?
But we have one master narrative already, and we can only hope it will not be our legacy. This master narrative, of course, is Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, of which I wrote before.
Naturally, after the Eastern—or rather Soviet—Bloc and its multitude of iron curtains fell, we thought that European-style totalitarianism had run its course. “Uniquely a twentieth-century phenomenon,” curricula claim, and so it is taught. But where did totalitarianism emerge? Ah yes—it developed out of revolutionary, anti-authoritarian movements, and out of a “promising new era of democracy.” Especially the latter might sound acutely familiar by now. How come our oldest and dearest democracies seem, in the face of terrorism, to become the first to fail, from Great Britain with its vast public surveillance systems and its DNA database to Australia with its efforts so censor the Internet even more scrupulously than China? But we all know, of course, that all this, more often than not, has less to do with terror here and security there but with organized superstitions, a legion of mouthpieces masquerading as values, conservative, traditional, and moral, which unceasingly spew forth in the name of the most totalitarian ideology of all: the supreme, loving, jealous, fearsome, vengeful, fatherly being whose all-seeing eye watches every blink of our existence and penetrates the darkest corners and crevices of our mind for every living, breathing second of our life, in order to reward or punish our compliance or our failures “forever,” as in “for all eternity.” Compared to which Big Brother and his role models were never more than acolytes.
But what about the red, white, and blue? Are we going to take this turn in earnest and together, will there rise a road ahead of us again that features a horizon? A road to achievement, progress, pride instead of bronze-age myths, despair, decline, shock and awe turned into grief, pain, and shame? A road that leads, to sum it up, to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people? Or will later generations look back at the years that lie before us as a tiny spike in the overall statistics, a fragile vehicle’s short and bumpy ride before its inevitable ambush and utter destruction by the concerted efforts of homegrown and foreign IEDs, its day of demise translating into a yearly celebration day for all who are forever of the male, white, and righteous kind of mind?
Sometimes a tiny, prosaic piece of text tells a much bigger story, and the outgoing administration’s letter to those unlawfully imprisoned and eventually released from Guantánamo does qualify as such:
An Administrative Review Board has reviewed the information about you that was talked about at the meeting on 02 December 2005 and the deciding official in the United States has made a decision about what will happen to you. You will be sent to the country of Afghanistan. Your departure will occur as soon as possible.
To which Roger Cohen wrote in the New York Times:
That’s it, the one and only record on paper of protracted U.S. incarceration: three sentences for four years of a young Afghan’s life, written in language Orwell would have recognized.
We have “the deciding official,” not an officer, general or judge. We have “the information about you,” not allegations, or accusations, let alone charges. We have “a decision about what will happen to you,” not a judgment, ruling or verdict. This is the lexicon of totalitarianism. It is acutely embarrassing to the United States.
This letter’s voice has been America’s voice for eight long years, and there are many who wish it to be our voice forever, the voice of One Nation Under God, of an America the world would recognize as the proud and rightful heir to Airstrip One. “Nothing has been more damaging to the United States,” Cohen writes, “than the violation of the legal principles at the heart of the American idea.”
We can only hope that this is but a chapter in our story. We can only hope that this is not our story.