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Uncomfortable Essay #12: Revisiting the "Proles" and George Orwell's 1984

I will click “publish” on this Essay, and then travel to the demonstration marking the 6th anniversary of the tragic and destructive War on Iraq – a war that has helped destroy both our national reputation and our economy. The demonstration is good; what is far more important is what is done by every individual after the demonstration becomes a memory.

The Tuesday, March 17, 2009, Minneapolis Star Tribune http://www.startribune.com carried a column of mine, "Passive Actors in our own destruction". A primary emphasis was recalling George Orwell's 1984. The first response to the column came from Will, who asked: "My only question to you, Dick, is this: please tell me how the Proles are going to overthrow the establishment." (The complete column follows this essay.)

I don't know why the STrib decided to print my piece. Whatever, the fact of the matter is that for a short while this week, 350,000 people of all ideologic stripes, and many more on-line around the world, had a chance to consider my thoughts, front and center in the best spot on a major newspapers opinion page. At minimum, my guess is that there will be a little uptick in interest in "1984". There were perhaps a dozen pieces of direct feedback to me about the column – from my experience after other columns that is a heavy response. The response was positive. There were no brickbats.

But I have noticed something as this week ends: the recognized leaders of the organizations that are my natural allies, peace and justice (P&J) folks, did not comment to me about the column; neither did the column become a link on progressive websites.

Why? I don’t know. Maybe…. More in a moment.

To Will, I responded that "Overthrow" never entered my mind. If anything, I was "equal opportunity angry" at our entire system, including the present day Proles who are all of us and who have in many ways been "partners in the crime", accepting the unacceptable, playing small rather than large. Reflecting back on 1984 while writing the column, I didn’t see the Proles as innocent victims of Big Brother; rather they had created the monster they now felt powerless to destroy. That’s an uncomfortable indictment…of us, in 2009. Maybe that’s why there was no response.

Orwell was an astute observer of the human political condition, and he observed that the vast majority of humanity – the Proles –were willing to let things happen to them, even beyond the point of no return. At the very end of 1984, the last four words actually, the decision of the main character, Winston, is revealed. (You need to pick up the book to learn what he decided.)

We Proles of today need to play more of an active role to help modify our severely damaged system in whatever ways we can. We have huge power as individuals and small groups, but only if we exercise it (which is hard work). Today’s demonstration, like all demonstrations, is only a small down-payment on the effort we need to expend to truly make the change that is necessary in this country.

In all of these Essays, I’ve tried to be always mindful of Solutions: what is being/can be done.

Thursday, March 19, at the annual conference of the Alliance for Sustainability http://www.afors.org, I absorbed some more hope for our future, including:
1) Singer Mari Harris who inspired, as she always does. http://urbznet.com/mariharris
2) In an afternoon workshop on Transit and the Land Use Connection, John Bailey of 1000 Friends of MN, and Michelle Dibble, of TLC, demonstrated by their presence and their knowledge that younger activists are out there, and there exists a great and knowledgeable infrastructure for promoting progress in all areas about which we are concerned. All we need to do is to look them up. (http://www.tlcminnesota.org;http://www.1000fom.org, and endless others.)
3) And Ken Melamed, Mayor of Whistler, BC, a town of 9500 which is hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics, gave great insights into the power of an engaged citizenry to embark on a process of building and maintaining sustainability, town by town. Of the many pieces of wisdom he offered, this one stuck in my notes: “change has to come from the grassroots level”. That’s us, folks. http://www.whistler2020.ca for more about Whistler’s planning process.

Together, in small and large groups, and yes, individually too, we can get the job done!

Now, if the Alliance of Peacemakers and the Alliance for Sustainability could truly collaborate….

Published in Minneapolis Star Tribune Tuesday, March 17, 2009
“Passive Actors in our own destruction” by Dick Bernard.

“The Star Tribune main headline (3/15) was "After Bailout, $100 M in Bonuses" to "executives in the unit that brought AIG to its knees". AIG states it is "contractually obligated to pay them".

I know only what I read in the papers and on the internet and see on TV. I also worked directly with contracts, full-time, for 27 years, and it would be hypocritical to defend some contracts and reject others. Contracts are contracts.

In this case, most likely, everything was completely "legal": the Congress and the Presidency were bought and paid for by these same institutions that have now wreaked havoc on the world economy. A friend puts it best: the trickle down pipes are clogged.

It's time for the slow, agonizing correction.

The reality on how our economic crisis will play out is that nobody knows, not the experts, not the person in the street. Nobody knows what the short and long term implications are, including those in high level positions. If the geniuses of Capitalism, in executive offices and board rooms and business schools, were as smart as they portray themselves to be, they wouldn't have structured this “house of cards” to fall on top of them.

In a sense, we are all idiots, grasping at straws. We just don't know, except that the future news is probably bad, probably worse than we are able to imagine. We are intentionally kept in the dark. (Ben Bernanke on Sunday's 60 Minutes a possibly nice exception.) It is hard for us to be "informed critics", or agents for change, because we are denied adequate information to become informed critics. This is happening in one of the better educated countries on the planet.

The lawmakers who are still believers in the unfettered free market and even “trickle down”, and fantasy interpretations of the Great Depression and the excess that led up to it, are idiots one step "up" the knowledge chain from most of us. Their devoted followers, the people who keep them in office, and slavishly follow their every talking point, are a step further down. They want to believe a fantasy that never was, and certainly will never be: They think they'll win the lottery. They also like to think that what they have is theirs, and that sharing is their individual option.

I'm reminded of Orwells description of the Proles (the proletariat) in the book, 1984. I recall that Orwell portrayed the Proles as poor, easily manipulated dimwits: the boys hung out with the boys, getting drunk on cheap gin in the local pubs; the housewife cheerily hung the clothes on the clothesline, singing pleasantly as she did her drudge work; everybody was aware that their every move was being watched; but they were mostly left alone except when they had to stop everything to listen to the two-minute hate about the enemy of the day. They were passive actors in their own destruction. Orwell wrote the book in 1949, about the dangers of the Communist utopia, and the just defeated Nazis, but he was writing about us, too, in the first eight years of the 21st Century, in the United States of America. If you haven't reread 1984 recently, do. It is an eye-opener, about us, in the last eight years, especially.

Personally, I think we can recover, but it will be a slow, slow slog, and the true believers in what failed will be the last to be converted. I find myself latching on a wild hope: the present day Proles will create a better nation and world.”


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 21, 2009 8:53 AM.

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