Anniversary of Canada Joining World War II

WWII_letsgocanadaposter75 years ago today, Canada joined its Commonwealth allies and declared war on Nazi Germany, signalling its entrance into the Second World War. And today, Canadians come together to celebrate and pay their respects to this national effort that saw a small nation rise to the greatest challenge in history, and commit sacrifices that would earn the respect of people the world over and stand the test of time.

The declaration came roughly a week after the German invasion of Poland on Sept. 1st, 1939 and the subsequent declaration of war by both Britain and France. Unlike the First World War, where Canada was obliged to become involved as part of the Commonwealth, Canada enjoyed a measure of self-determination in foreign affairs at this time and declared war autonomously. Though it was generally understood that Canada would become involved to support its allies, this decision was a significant event in the evolution of our nation.

British_Columbia_Regiment_1940Over the course of the next six years, Canada would enjoy a changing role in the war effort. Beginning the war as a largely unprepared participant, Canada would go on to become Britain’s most important ally for the next two years. Thereafter, Canadian forces would be a crucial arm of the British war effort, taking part in some of the toughest offensives on the Western Front and in both the air war and the war at sea.

Our first taste of combat came in the Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from Sept. 1939 to war’s end in May of 1945. This would prove to be the longest battle of the war, and certainly one of the most crucial. Between the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Merchant Navy, and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), thousands of Canadians fought and died to ensure the safe passage of troops and goods across the Atlantic to Britain.

operation-overlordThis not only ensured that Britain did not collapse during the darkest days of the war in 1940 and 41. From 1942 onward, it was part of the largest buildup in military history, which in turn led to the D-Day landings, the liberation of France, and victory in Europe. During the Battle of Normandy (June 6th – Aug. 25th, 1944), Canadian forces distinguished themselves in the Battle of Caen and the Falaise Pocket, two key operations that led to the defeat of the Nazis in France.

Between 1939 and 1945, Canada also made major contribution to the air war through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan and the Royal Canadian Air Force. Given that Britain was vulnerable to air strikes from Germany early in the war, Canada became the site of the Commonwealth’s pilot training, and provided countless men and women with the skills they needed to fly fighters, bombers, supply planes and sub hunters.

battle_of_britainThe RCAF would also participate heavily in the Battle of Britain and combat operations in Europe, the north Atlantic, north Africa, southern Asia, and at home. By war’s end, it would be the fourth largest air force in the world. Similarly, the Royal Canadian Navy, which provided escort to British and Allied shipping across the Atlantic, was intrinsic in hunting U-boats, and would become the world’s fifth largest surface fleet by wars end.

In addition, Canada participated in some of the most costly and ugly defeats in the war. This included the Battle of Hong Kong, one of the first battles of the Pacific Campaign which occurred on the same morning as the attack on Pearl Harbor. Here, a total of 14,000 British, Canadian, Indian and Chinese troops faced off against 52,000 Japanese Imperial soldiers and were defeated. Those that survived were taken as slaves, while those countless others were mercilessly slaughtered.

dieppe-dsAnd on August 19th, 1942, the 2nd Canadian Infantry Division took part in one of the most poorly-planned operations of the war – the Dieppe Raid. Here, Canadian, British, Free French and Polish troops stormed a well-defended occupied port in Northern France and were forced to retreat. Of the nearly 5,000-strong Canadian contingent that went ashore, 3,367 were killed, wounded or taken prisoner – an exceptional casualty rate of 68%.

All told, a total of 1,187,334 Canadian men and women were mobilized to fight in the war from a population that numbered 11 million before the war. Afterward, Canada would go on to become a major voice for peacekeeping and human rights on the international stage. This was exemplified by John Peters Humphrey (a Canadian) being the principle drafter of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Canadian troops participating in peacekeeping missions all around the world.

My father placing soil from Bramford by Wilmot's headstone
My father placing soil from Brantford by Wilmot’s headstone

At the same time, some 45,400 Canadians would make the ultimate sacrifice to defeat Fascism, militarism, and genocide – close to half a percent of Canada’s total population. And I am honored to say that this past April, I was able to pay my respects at several Commonwealth cemeteries where many of them were laid to rest. This included Beny-sur-Mer, Ranville, and the Bayeux Commonwealth Cemetery.

My first cousin, twice removed, Wilmot Pettit was one of those individuals who did not make it home. As a member of the Royal Air Force, he was tasked with towing gliders into Normandy on D-Day as part of the Eastern Task Force. While flying over Grangues, his plane was shot down and he and his crew were killed. Today, his body rests at Ranville Cemetery, surrounded by many fellow Canadians and British soldiers who perished on that “Day of Days”.

Canada_ww2This past year has been an ongoing procession of anniversaries. From the seventieth anniversary of the Normandy Invasion, to the Centennial of the outbreak of World War I, to the seventy-fifth anniversary of World War II, and now the seventy-fifth of Canada entering the war… It certainly makes one feel thankful. At the same time, it reminds us of just how fragile peace and civility are – not to mention how important.

In today’s world, there are still many people who – either out of selfishness, stupidity, grief or ignorance – seek to cause harm or profit from violence. Sadly, these people often finds themselves at the head of an army of willing supplicants. One can only hope that something other than a global effort and a major expenditure of life will not be needed to stop them before it’s too late!

Relaunching an Idea: Red Sky At Night

Many months ago, I was struck by an idea. It is one which has been percolating in my mind for some time, but never really occurred to me as a reason to write. But then, I began to get into the whole “Alternate History” sub-genre of science fiction, examining such works as The Man In The High Castle, Fatherland, The Guns Of The South, and A Rebel In Time. It made me think that there was a good precedent for this kind of idea, and room for expansion.

But first, let me explain what I was thinking. Ever since University I’ve been fascinated by Russian history, particularly the interwar years. It was at this time that the most auspicious achievements and crimes took place in the former Soviet Union, after the death of Lenin and the ascent to power of Joseph Stalin, one of history’s greatest monsters.

Shortly thereafter, Russia became involved in World War II, during which time another monster – Adolf Hitler – committed unspeakable crimes against the Russian people. Over twenty six million people died on the Eastern Front, most of them civilians who had already witnessed such terrible suffering at the hands of their own dictator. In addition, many were victims of Soviet wartime oppression, killed by Stalin for the crime of not fighting hard enough or attempting to find liberation from their Nazi invaders.

From the point of view of Soviet propaganda, the years between 41 and 45 were portrayed as a the “Great Patriotic War”, a heroic struggle for the defense of the Motherland. In some respects this was true, but mainly it was a war between two nations being led by very petty and cynical men, with countless good and innocent souls caught in between. Those Germans who died in the East did so because of a fool’s dream of Lebensraum and racial purity, whereas the Russians who died did so in the defense of their families from both the invaders and the reprisals of NKVD officers.

Reading of all this, I often wondered, what if Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s intended successor, had led Russia during the interwar years? What if he had won the leadership race, instead of the scheming Stalin, and became the man to lead Russia against the Nazi invaders? Would things have worked out differently? Would Russia have still stood and ground up the Nazis, but in a way that didn’t lead to the death of so many millions of innocent Russians. The question is not a new one. In fact, historians have been pondering it for some time, and the entire question hinges on a single event.

This is where the concept of my own alternate history came in. In my story, a single event happens differently, thus giving rise to an alternate history. At the 13th Party Congress in Russia 1924, Trotsky had an historic opportunity. Lenin, before his death, had published his “Last Will And Testament” where, amongst other things, he singled out Stalin as a rude and ruthless character who should never be allowed to come to power. During the years following Lenin’s death, Trotsky was seen as the natural successor, which made him the natural rival of Stalin and his followers.

During the 12th Party Congress, Stalin’s allies helped suppress news of the Testament, but by the 13th, Trotsky was in possession of it and could released it, causing irreparable harm to Stalin’s reputation. Why he did not, and instead chose to make a conciliatory speech calling for unity, is something which historians have debated ever since. In so doing, he essentially guaranteed Stalin’s rise to power and his own exile, which culminated in his murder in Mexico some years later.

Red Sky At Night:
This is the basis of my idea. Instead of asking for reconciliation, Trotsky released Lenin’s Testament to the Party and asked for Stalin’s removal. He was successful, which guaranteed that it was he who would become the new leader of Soviet Russia and its chief planner during the interwar years. As a result, Stalin’s crash industrialization programs (aka. the Five Year Plans) were never launched.

Instead, he maintained Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) and even appointed Bukharin (whom Stalin murdered) to oversee reform and expansion of state-owned industry. This led to a degree of slow recovery for the Soviet economy and improved the lot of its farmers and small private enterprises. And when the Great Depression hit in 1929, Russia would still spared the worst ravages of it while similarly showing signs of growth.

What’s more, Trotsky maintained close ties to foreign communist movements, rather than focusing so heavily on matters at home. As a result, in 1933 when the Nazis demanded a non-confidence vote against the Social Democratic Party, Trotsky ordered the KDP (Communist Party of Germany) to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Social Democrats, a move which did not alter the Nazi seizure of power, but which ensured that they were aligned with the anti-Nazi movement from early on.

In China, rather than advising Mao to go along with the Nationalist government (which turned on them) Trotsky advised that Mao and his cadres remain committed to resisting Japanese invasion and not trusting in Chiang Kai Shek. This prevented the massacre of Chinese Communists, which came in handy when the Sino-Japanese war began in 1937.

When the Spanish Civil War began, Trotsky and the Comintern became the most vocal and committed supporters of the Loyalists, sending them weapons, advisers, volunteers and funds. Much as in our own timeline, this had the effect of making the Soviets look like the chief supporters of anti-fascism, but since the effort didn’t suffer from Stalin’s paranoia and cynicism, the efforts were much more effective and popular. And thanks to Trotsky’s focus on foreign affairs, Commissar Maxim Litvinov, the champion of Collective Security, received the support he needed when he made his pitches to the League of Nations.

But most importantly of all, no purges or Great Terror took place during the late 30’s, which had the effect of undermining Russia’s efforts abroad, embarrassing Russia politically, decimating the Soviet officer corps, and devastating Russia’s agriculture. Russia therefore was in a much better position to coordinate alliances with the Czechs, the French, and rally public opinion towards ensuring that the Nazis were contained rather than appeased.

However, things really came down to the 1938 Sudetenland Crisis. For years, the Russians had been railing against coming to an accommodation with Hitler, largely for their own purposes. However, when Hitler demanded that Prime Minister Benes of Czechoslovakia cede the Sudetenland under threat of war, things finally came together for them. Facing harsh public opinion, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain found that he had little support for his policy of appeasement. French, Czech and League opinion were similarly opposed to any deal with Hitler, having been empowered by Russia’s example. As a result, instead of demanding that Benes give Hitler what he wanted, England and France instead demanded that Poland and Romania agree to allow Russian troops to pass their territory to mobilize against Germany, should the need arise.

These efforts did not materialize, but the appearance of unity on behalf of the League gave Hitler pause. His Generals advised that he back down, facing the likely prospect of war on all fronts, and Hitler was forced to concede. Afterward, Germany suffered from renewed economic problems, and Hitler lost virtually all support. The Nazis fell from power, World War II did not happen, the Holocaust never occurred, and the post-war division of the world between two superpowers not happen.

In the East, Japan found itself trapped as the League closed in to issue economic sanctions and demand that it withdraw from China. Soon, the Japanese Imperial government fell as well, and the threat of war was neutralized. In Italy and Spain, Mussolini and Franco remained in power, but were sure to behave themselves and even rejoined the League of Nations. And of course, Mao and his cadres did not seize power in the immediate post-war years, but instead came to an accommodation with the Nationalists, forming a powerful bloc within the government.

However, there was a downside to all of this as well. For starters, the economic boom caused by the war did not happen. Instead, the global economy recovered slowly throughout the 1940’s and 50’s. What’s more, the accommodation that took place between Russia and mainland Europe after the war, which saw the election of Social Democratic parties in every country and the de-radicalizing of Soviet power at home, caused a rift to form between the Anglo-American world and Eurasia. By 1950, fearing socialist revolution at home, England and America withdrew from the League and formed their own bloc, the Anglo-American Alliance.

Towards the end of the 1950’s, relations began to worsen, as the Alliance condemned what they saw as attempts at subversion in their own sphere while the League condemned the persecution of dissidents and revolutionaries. Both sides became retrenched and a new arms race began, the League and the Alliance scrambling to recruit the best and brightest minds to help them create new and better weapons. By the end of the 1950’s, scientists on both sides of the Atlantic were close to creating the first atomic weapons.

This is where the story opens. It’s 1963, twenty-five years since the Sudetenland Crisis took place, and the world is putting aside its difference to mark the occasion. East and West are coming together in a series of festivals, diplomatic summits, and tourist expos. However, behind the happy veneer of entente, the usual preparations for war continue. And in time, a series of events will trigger a crisis that could very well lead to another war. Much like in 1914, the world is sitting on a powder keg, and all that’s needed for another Great War to take place is for someone to provide the spark.

This idea got back-benched with my coming to join Writer’s Worth and all our anthology work, but I want to pick it back up. Much like Fascio Ardens (that’s its new title), I’m in the mood to write some genuine alternate history. It requires some staggering research to make these kinds of speculative works seem authentic and plausible, but I want to make it work. Call me crazy, especially since I’ve got it in my head to tackle two separate ideas. But as my grandpa used to say, “Lord hates a coward!”

The Birth of an Idea: Fascis Ardens!

Inspiration is a funny, fickle thing! As I’m sure anyone who’s ever attempted to write knows, ideas seem to come when you least expect them. On the one hand, a person can go months without coming up with an original idea. And then, just like that, inspiration can strike suddenly and without warning. You find yourself not only coming up with an idea, but the concept for a full-length novel!

That’s what happened to me this weekend. Myself and my wife were preparing to head up island to see her family. I was contemplating books that deal with the concept of alternate history, and how ones that deal with alternate outcomes to World War II and the Civil War seem to be especially popular. In the former case, you have The Man In the High Castle by Philip K Dick and Fatherland by Robert Harris, two seminal novels that address what would have happened had Germany won the war.

In the latter case, you have stories like A Rebel In Time by Harry Harrison and The Guns of the South by Harry Turtledove, which merge time travel and alternate history to examine what would have happened if The South had won the Civil War.

In both novels, the plot revolves around a single or group of White Supremacists who use a time machine to bring modern guns to the Confederate Army. This allows the South to prevail, which they hope will prevent the rise of the Civil Rights movement, the end of Apartheid, and other equality movements.

That’s when it hit me! Why the heck hasn’t anyone done an alternate history story where White Supremacists go back in time to make sure Germany won the Second World War? Sounds like something that ought to have been done by now; but to my knowledge, no one’s tackled it yet. I got to thinking long and hard about it, about the plot, characters and potential twists. Eventually, I had what I felt was the bare bones of an idea. It varies slightly from the premise I just mentioned, but in ways I think work! I plan to call it…

Fascio
For those familiar with the Fascist movement of the 20th century, the concept of the Fascio is probably a familiar one. This was basically just a bundle of sticks with an axe tied on that was set afire at public gatherings. The ritual dates back to Ancient Rome, where the burning of these ceremonial bundles was meant to symbolize lighting the way to the future. Italian Fascists, under Mussolini, especially loved this ancient ritual, which they used to draw a connection to the past as much as to point to the future. Like all Fascist rituals, it was an inherent contradiction, more regressive than progressive in nature. But hey, the Fascists didn’t do logic…

Plot:
The story opens in 2050, where the world is reeling from the worst ravages of climate change and Fascist parties are once again taking hold of Europe and North America in response to numerous humanitarian crises. Two young history enthusiasts, believing that the worst is coming, decide to take advantage of an experimental new technology: Time Travel!

Using a machine they gain access to, the duo plan to travel back in time to Germany in 1920, where they plan to find a despondent young military officer named Hitler. Using futuristic technology, they plan to kill him without leaving a trace, and return to the future where things are surely to be much better.

Unfortunately, the time machine sends them to 1941 by accident. Unsure that they will be able to use the machine again in the future, they resolve to kill Hitler during the height of World War II, before he can enact the Final Solution and invade Russia. Relying on their knowledge of history and advanced technology, they manage to kill Hitler at his headquarters weeks before the Battle of Britain was to end and Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Russia) began. After making a hasty retreat, they jump in the return module and set course of the future.

However, once again the machine drops them off in the wrong year. Rather than traveling 109 years into the future, they arrive in 1962, at roughly the same time as the Cuban Missile Crisis from their own timeline, and find a world starkly different than the one they read about in history books. Rather than finding a world dominated by the two superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union, two different but equally menacing empires are in place. On the one side, there’s the Pan-American Alliance, led by the US, and on the other, the Axis Forces.

After combing through some records at the local library, they learn the terrible truth: assassinated Hitler in 1941, rather than ending the Second Word War, led Germany to victory. Without Hitler’s questionable and erratic leadership, Germany avoided making several mistakes which were directly attributable to him. For one, Germany did not give up the Battle of Britain a few weeks shy of victory. By choosing to maintain their operations against the RAF and its coastal airfields, they eventually overcame Britain’s air defenses. This allowed them to come to a cease fire agreement which took Britain out of the war.

Then, in 1942, they invaded Russia and were successful in capturing Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad, all within the space of a year. This led to the creation of Germania, an Empire which reached from Northern France to the Ural Mountains. In the Mediterranean, Italy became the dominant power, with possessions in the Balkans and all across North Africa. The US still went to war with Japan in the Pacific, where they were victorious, but in Europe, the Nazis and their Fascist allies were never defeated.

Thus the world was divided into two major power blocs. The US, Canada, Mexico and all of South America joined together and maintained alliances with India, Japan, China and Australia to safeguard against expansion into Asia and the Pacific. Germany, Italy, and their subservient allies came together to dominant Eurasia and set their eyes on the Middle East, Africa, and further East. Both sides developed nuclear weapons, and by 1960, tensions had reached an all-time breaking point.

Hence, the two historians bear witness to a different “Missile Crisis”, which still takes place in 1962, but was between the Axis and Allies, and actually took place. When the bombs begin to fall, they die, since the future they left is now erased from existence. In their last few moments, they realize the folly of tampering with timelines. Such things are just too complicated for people to handle!

And I was thinking about a possible epilogue chapter where the two main characters meet each other in the alternate future they have now created. The world they live in is a post-apocalyptic landscape, roughly ninety years since World War III, where life is hard and people live by a new form or “Iron Rule” – the rule of survival at all costs. Not sure, we’ll see…

So that’s my latest idea, a time traveling alternate future addressing World War II and the rise of neo-fascism in today’s world. I humbly submit to my followers for their approval. So tell me, what do you think?

1984: the year that wasn’t (Phew!)

1984_John_HurtTo finish off this review of the two great satires that encapsulated the 20th century: 1984, George Orwell’s dystopian vision of a totalitarian future. As I’ve said many times in the course of this thread, there has been an ongoing debate as to which vision of the future came true, and it appears that Huxley’s was the one that proved to be more accurate. But as I said in the previous post, the era in which the books were written had much to do with their divergence of opinion. And ultimately, it was the course of history that proved Orwell wrong and vindicated Huxley. But then again, his book was a cautionary tale, something that was not meant to come true, right? Damn straight, so let’s move on…

And as I also spoke about in the previous post (at great length), Brave New World was written within the context of the 1920’s as a satire on Fordism, commercialism, mass-consumption, leisure, propaganda, and the American Way. Beginning in the early 20th century, shorter hours and better pay, coupled with aggressive marketing strategies that targeted the working class, were used to tame an increasingly unmanageable workforce, not to mention immigrants. In addition, it ensured the creation of a new consumer base, on that could fuel ongoing economic growth and industrial expansion. Win-win! Well, sort of… Then, as now, the most effective way to steer workers away from radical organizations and immigrants away from their traditional cultures was seen to be the combination of nationalism and commercialism, consumption advertised as a way to achieve the American Dream of prosperity and acceptance.

IngsocBut by Orwell’s time, a new demon had emerged that threatened to extinguish human freedom. The roaring twenties, a time when bribing the workers seemed both enlightened and possible, ended abruptly with Black Tuesday and the crash of the New York Stock Exchange. Mass unemployment, desperation, drought; all these led to the radicalization of society and the rise of totalitarian ideologies. For the first time since the Age of Revolution, human beings appeared willing to surrender their freedom in exchange for security and a better life. And with Liberal-Democracy largely discredited, people needed a new philosophy to look to for solutions. On the one hand, many intellectuals and workers found a likely candidate in the Soviet Union, the home of Marxist-Leninism and the global crusade against capitalism. On the other, people began to turn to a strange new – but no less radical – philosophy known as fascism. This polarization tore many countries apart, with different segments of society turning on each other to the point of civil war. This trend continued well into, and even after, World War II. The Age of Extremes was born!

Which brings us to George Orwell, an intellectual and writer who turned to socialism at a young age and saw it as the means to cure the ills of traditional liberal-democratic society. After years of championing reform in England, he joined the international brigades and went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Like many intellectuals who looked favorably to the Russian example, he quickly became disillusioned with Soviet Communism, witnessing firsthand its methods and motivations in the field. The Great Purges, in addition to leading to the death of millions of Russians, had the effect of alienating countless intellectuals who had turned to Russia for inspiration over the years. Those who had visited Russia were especially appalled. The liquidation of the Kulaks, the Show Trials, the Great Terror, the constant purging of political dissidents; all of this convinced people just how precious human freedom was, and how flawed social theories that promised utopia truly were.the_blitzDuring the war, Orwell became further disillusioned by the growing trend of authoritarianism in his own and other democratic countries. While he initially approved of the process of “socializing” the economy, a necessity in a time of total war, it soon became clear to him that the process of censoring information, controlling industry, and using war as a means to keep the population united and compliant could lead to totalitarianism at home. These themes were all central to 1984, a book that takes place in a futuristic London that very much resembles London during the time of “The Blitz”. And just like in World War II, England (renamed Airstrip One, part of the global state of Oceania) is at war with another global power named Eurasia. The war dominates the lives of the people, with all aspects of society being slaved towards the need for victory. Industry, security, information, education, and even record keeping; all of these are controlled by The Party, Orwell’s satirical rendition of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the only power in the one-party state that has been in power as long as anyone can remember.

In the novel, society is rigidly divided between the Inner Party, the executive branch who’s membership is secret, the Outer Party that is made up of bureaucrats and government workers, and the Proles, the proletariat who have no power or any understanding of how it is exercised. Four institutions dominate Oceania, the Ministry of Love (responsible for breaking the will of dissidents), the Ministry of Truth (responsible for misinformation and propaganda) and the Ministry of Peace (responsible for war), and the Ministry of Plenty (Responsible for rationing and controlled shortages). In keeping with this contradictory appraisal of all things, the three slogans which embody the state’s power are “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”. And above all else, the ever-watchful state is embodied by “Big Brother”, a frightening yet somehow comforting caricature who represents the police state, depicted as a man with cold, dark eyes and a big, black mustache (echoes of Joseph Stalin and the cult of personality).

ministry_of_truthAll of these institutions, the entire agenda of the party, is clearly dedicated to preserving its own power and the total control they have over people’s lives. The war is ongoing, the shortages and fear it inspires constant. Propaganda and monitoring, which includes telescreens and the “Moment of Hate” are inescapable. No one has a moment’s peace or privacy. The people are taught that the war has always been, and with always the same enemy, regardless of the fact that the enemy frequently changes. Thanks to the Party’s control over information, no one knows whats really happening or whether or not a war is even taking place beyond their borders. Thanks to the Party’s censorship of all records, no one knows the true course of history or how they got to where they are. When a person is purged, they simply disappear, and no one knows if they ever really existed thanks to the Party’s control of all census data. Hell, thanks to the Party, no one even knows if it is 1984 at all…

Enter the main character, Winston, a man who remembers something of what life was like before the revolutions and the ongoing war. He is searching for answers, a search which leads him to his love Julia, a woman who actually enjoys sex, contrary to what women are taught in Oceania. The two then meet up with a man named O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party who is apparently a member of the resistance as well. In Oceania, the resistance is a clandestine group that is led by a figure known as Goldstein, a man who embodies all things evil and treasonous as far as the state is concerned (echoes of the Nazi campaign against “The Jew”). Through O’Brien, Winston and Julia are given a taste of freedom and a copy of Goldstein’s manifesto which explains how the Party seized and exercises power. Satisfied with the who, the what, the where and when of it all, Winston is left with only one question: why? Why did the Party take power, why do they exercise it so brutally and repressively, and why do they want force humanity to live a constant state of war and fear? There has to be a reason, right? Right?

ministry_of_loveWell, as it turns out, there is. In the end, Winston and Julia are betrayed and sent to the Ministry of Love. Winston soon meets O’Brien again, and realizes he’s been had, that there is no resistance, and that O’Brien and the Inner Party were the ones who wrote Goldstein’s manifesto. After being tortured and forced to confess his treason, Winston is given the answer he seeks. The Party, O’Brien claims, is interested in power, power for its own ends, the power to tear up minds and remake them however they see fit. The main difference between the Party and others like it in the past is that the Party has no illusions of why it does what it does. Then, to complete the process of torture and brainwashing, O’Brien and the Ministry of Love force Winston to betray Julia rather than undergo his worst fear (in Winston’s case, being eaten alive by rats). When its all over, Winston ends up at the same cafe he saw in an old photograph, one which he was previously ordered to destroy. In this photo, some old Party members who were purged were seen sitting after clearly being tortured, and right before they were killed. In this way, we know that Winston is about to die, but not before he says good-bye to Julia, they confess that they sold each other out under the pressure of torture, and he undergoes the terrifying transformation to become what the Party wants him to be: a loyal and loving servant of Big Brother.

I tell ya, this book scared the crap out of me when I first read it! It was so gripping that I read the bulk of it in two sittings, (something unheard of for me) and took its many lessons to heart. Foremost amongst these was the message that human freedom is precious, that empathy and feeling are what make us human, and that the last thing we should do with our minds is surrender them to those who promise us deliverance from our suffering and an earthly paradise. I am thus far relieved that his predictions did not come true, for it is how 1984 came to be that is very important, and often overlooked in my opinion. In essence, Orwell feared that the process of total war would continue well into a third world war, that society would be destroyed by nuclear bombs and then overthrown by radical revolutions, and that the world would descend into a series of totalitarian regimes that had learned from the failures of others and could therefore not be overthrown as the others had. But lucky for us, World War III didn’t happen (yet), democratization and socialization spread in western nations, and the Cold War ended. Fears of a totalitarian future have been renewed since 9/11 and the “War on Terror”, but these fears have served to demonstrate how important and enduring Orwell’s vision was.

George-OrwellIn a way, Orwell was a more effective satirist than Huxley in that his vision did not come true. Which, after all, was why he wrote it, wasn’t it? The whole point of cautionary tales is that people avoid what they’re being cautioned about, right? RIGHT? Well yeah! Orwell sought to warn the people of his day what could very well be coming, what could come from the scourges of total war, the desire for security, revolutionary justice, and putting one’s faith in ideologies that promise an earthly utopia. In many respects, its a credit to him that people have to turn to Huxley’s vision to identify the sources of their oppression. It means he did his job!

So thank you George Orwell, and rest in peace knowing that the world is still safe from 1984… so far!

Brave New World Revisited

As a follow-up to my last post, I wanted to delve into the two great satire-epics in more detail. First up, the satire that came true: Brave New World! And as the title says, I would also like to include a little commentary on the thoughtful essay that capped off his thoughts about his magnum opus, its reception, its enduring legacy, and the themes it addressed. There were so many, so where do I begin?

For starters, the central premise in his work: that humanity would be controlled through amusement and pleasure, not fear or brutality. Without a doubt, his commentary was based on the age in which it was written (American society of the 1920’s), an age in which amusement was seen as the cure to all social ills. It might even ventured that if he wrote it a little later, say, during the 30’s and 40’s during the age of totalitarianism and total war, he might have thought differently. One could make this case, but whether by circumstance or design, he ended up being right. In the post-war era, with the death of Soviet Communism, the extension of democracy and the growth of the middle class throughout the industrialized world, it seemed that the forces of repression would need to be more creative if they were going to control the hearts of minds of the people. And, in many respects, they succeeded. With the advent of television, mass advertising, mass consumption, deregulation, globalization, outsourcing, the decline of job security, unions, public broadcasting, and the concentration of industry and information into fewer and fewer hands, personal freedom once again appears to be threatened by the forces of repression and conformity. In fact, in many ways, life today is beginning to resemble life in the 1920’s when Huxley wrote his book. Funky coincidence huh?

But enough background! Let’s get specific. Brave New World opens on the facility where selective breeding takes place under the watchful eye of Mustaffa Mond, one of the ten leaders of the world and the Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning. It is quickly made clear that in Huxley’s world, the World State as its known, all people are predetermined before they are even born. Those who do manual labor are specifically designed for it, their size, physical and intellectual capacities tailored to that purpose. Alphas are the top of the line people, tailored for intellectual work and management, Gammas and Epsilon’s perform the most menial tasks, and Betas and Deltas do all the stuff in between (middle-management and processing, I guess!) In this way, class conflict and expectations are eliminated, no one can feel unhappy with their vocation because they can expect nothing better, and to just to make sure readers are catching on to the subtlety of this assembly-line birthing process, the people in this future revere Henry Ford and cross their chest with a large T when uttering his name. Henry Ford, the man who invented the assembly line and the concept of unskilled labor, who reduced his workers to cogs in the machine, and then bought their loyalty by cutting their hours and increasing their pay. Some saw these as enlightened reforms and Ford as humanitarian; but other, smarter people, saw it for what it was: an attempt at making his workers passive consumers! And what was good for Ford was good for all industrial giants, America soon followed suit and the age of plenty was born! A fitting social commentary, but I’m getting off track here.

Another element that is used to control society are “Feelies”, and like many things in the novel, it took some historical context to teach me the true genius of this concept. You see, at the turn of the century, the relatively new phenomena known as motion pictures were called “movies” (get it?). When sound was incorporated, the term “talkies” came to be used. Sensing the trend, Huxley came up with the idea of “Feelies”, films where the audience were wired into the theater so they could feel everything happening to the actors. Clever! And then there’s the designer drug Soma, a chemically non-addictive substance that people are actually encouraged to use, the process of which is known as “going on holiday”. Whenever people are frustrated, sad, depressed, anxious, restless, or angry, they are encouraged through conditioning and slogans to take their Soma and bliss out. Echoes of antidepressants perhaps? Speaking of conditioning, Huxley sought to portray the forces of commercialism by once again taking things to the next level. In addition to signs, radio jingles, and pervasive ads, people are conditioned from an early age through sleep conditioning to consume, use Soma, and follow the rules of the World State. One such rule is that everyone belongs to everyone else, including in the Biblical sense. Yes, in this world, promiscuity is encouraged and orgies are commonplace, all to keep people satisfied and avoid the pitfalls of monogamous relationships, which include jealousy, infidelity, and crimes of passion.

Thanks to all these measures, society is kept controlled and everyone is happy. Well, almost (here comes the plot!) Enter into this world an Alpha named Bernard Marx (recalling the venerable Karl) who is unhappy with society since he does not fit in. His discontent with all things is often blamed on the fact that he is a bit stunted and maladjusted, the result of a mistake rumored to have happened while he was still in the test tube. His partner Lenina (as far as that is possible in a promiscuous society) is more the traditional sort, and the object of desire for multiple main characters. Together, they visit a Reservation, where the so-called Savages who do not belong to the world state reside. Here, they meet John, the lovechild of a former Alpha who got knocked up and was forced to live out her life on a Reservation in former Mexico. When they find him and speak of their world, which he knows about only through stories his mother told him, he decides to return with them. But, much to his chagrin, he does not fit in in this Brave New World either. Lenina and he are incapable of forging a relationship, despite mutual attraction, because of their different values. In John’s world, his views on love having been shaped largely by Shakespeare and traditional “Savage” values, love is monogamous and righteous. In Lenina’s, love is free and cheap, and to be shared openly.

By the end, all the non-conformists are forced to leave, Bernard and his free-thinking friend are forced to live in exile. Lenina goes back to the world she knows, having been rejected and even beaten by John, and John exiles himself to the countryside to live a simple life. But the forces of civilization won’t leave him alone, they chase him to his new dwelling at an abandoned lighthouse and demand he entertain them. Things get a little violet, the crowd is doused in Soma gas (a standard tactic during a riotous event in the World State), and John and the people engage in a drugged-inspired orgy. When he wakes up, he’s overcome with guilt, realizes he will never be left alone, and hangs himself. A sad and fitting ending, the boy who could not function in either the “civilized” or free world resorting to the only out he can think of. Between barbarism and insanity, death appears to be the only option.

In hindsight, Huxley said that he wished he could go back and revise Brave New World, offer some third options and potential solutions other than suicide. For example, he hoped that the idea of the colony of exiles could have been developed more, where free-thinking people could have come up with some solutions to the problems of insanity and barbarism, civilization and its discontents. But arguably, this way was much more effective. In the end, the point of how a “utopian society” crushes the will of sensitive, thinking individuals, how it does not suffer challengers or people do not see eye to eye with it. And lets not forget that good art needs to frighten and offend sometimes in order to make its point. Letting people down easy just waters down the message. At least I think so. So writers remorse aside, I’d say Huxley’s vision was well-rendered in his book and needs no revisions.

And its ingenious really, regardless of whether or not history has proven his vision to be the more accurate one. Because in truth, the totalitarian age, if it taught us anything, was that human beings cannot be forced into anything for long. In order for people to surrender their freedom, they need to be made to do so willingly, and that takes fear and/or the promise of something better. In addition, it also taught us that totalitarian regimes can only truly thrive in underdeveloped corners of the world where they benefit from ignorance, poverty, and a long history of abuse. And even then, they cannot last indefinitely. Modern, developed countries that boast high rates of literacy and take things like mass media for granted require a more subtle approach when it comes to tyranny and social control. Power can never be exercised by a single man, woman or institution, and it cannot be overt. It must take place behind the scenes, where prying eyes cannot easily go, and excesses and abuses cannot easily be proven. Similarly, punishment must be equally subtle, meted out in ways that are either covert or even appear to be benign or beneficial (aka. therapy, mental hospitals, doping, etc). And above all, measures must be taken to ensure that citizens are kept happy, or at least that the majority are kept happy while the rest are kept marginalized and divided. And last of all, there has to be ways to channel or dissuade discontent. Campaigns and institutions that put a happy face on bad things are a good example, as are offices that give the illusion of making a difference or fighting the system, when in fact they are serving it.

Brave New World, ladies and gentlemen! Not as good a read as 1984, but definitely more accurate and prophetic in terms of its vision. Take that, Henry Ford! You and your little Model T too!