Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Are We Living in 1984?  The Return of Hate

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column,  Monday, September 18 / 17

Zack Gross

When the images on our TV, iPhone and computer screens aren't of massive storms, earthquakes and mudslides, they are often of conflict, refugees and what we have come to call “hate.”  The world is in an uproar these days, with the band-aid over our wounds and our unfulfilled promises torn off by people like Donald Trump.

Trump campaigned on the notion that things in the U.S. were really bad and getting worse. Voters either abandoned the Clinton-Obama run of presidencies (millions of former supporters failed to cast a ballot this time) or felt that Trump spoke for them.  Their American dream of prosperity wasn't coming true and they felt (feel) that it was taken away from them by economic and social forces beyond their control.

In their minds, these forces included non-Americans living in the U.S., foreign countries usurping their number one place in the world and social programs that recipients didn't deserve and were too expensive.  Maybe Clinton-Obama promised too much and couldn't deliver.  Maybe they also assumed too much and were out of touch with this growing frustration.

In hard times, anger and frustration have always led to hate speech and action.  Combine the economic meltdown of the past decade with the incidents of terror and climate change-fueled weather events and one can't be surprised by the social tensions existing today.  They have always been around but have come again to the surface.

My father was a poorly educated man who came to Canada as a refugee of the First World War and the Russian Revolution in the early 1920s as a young boy.  He sold newspapers on a downtown street corner at the age of eleven in Winnipeg and worked in various family businesses, none of which panned out very well.

At the age of 30, he enlisted and fought in the Second World War and never really talked about it much.  My mother said he came back “a changed man
,” with some health problems and likely some PTSD.  He never wanted to return to Europe at any point, for example, on a vacation or a veterans' tour.

While he had little education, he did make the effort to keep up with the news, read the odd book and was a liberal-minded person who was known for his kindness to his employees and to the elderly and people with disabilities.  I remember he was always out visiting shut-ins or giving people rides where they needed to go, not as part of any organization, but as a caring family member and neighbour.

One book that he read repeatedly was “1984” by George Orwell which has been acclaimed as one of the greatest books in English ever written.  Orwell wrote
“1984” the year I was born, 1949.  It is about dictatorship, having power for the sake of power, and is so relevant today.  Orwell's model society for his book was, of course, the Soviet Union as the late '40s marked the beginning of the Cold War, when most of the world seemed to have been divided up between Western democracies and Communist dictatorship.

The message of
“1984” is so profound that references to it are still being made today.  Sayings like “Big Brother is watching you!” for instance.  In the book, a man named Winston Smith is a minor bureaucrat in a huge state apparatus that seeks to control how its citizens think, what they believe in and every aspect of what they do.

The vast majority of people have “gotten with the program
,” but Smith actually hates Big Brother and hopes for a revolution that will change the world.  Not to spoil the story for you, he thinks and acts “outside the box” and ultimately is called to account. 

Some of the ways that this regime – called Oceania -  keeps people in line and enlists their support include carrying on a never-ending war with other regimes in the world and holding regular hate rituals to focus rage on both external and internal “enemies” while encouraging adoration of their own leader, the omnipotent Big Brother.  These rituals include a daily Two-Minute Hate and an annual Hate Week.

Like my father before me, I re-read 1984 as my final summer book selection.  Two-minute hates, never-ending wars, people living in poverty with no hope of things getting better – sounds like today!

We can't solve these problems in a brief newspaper column and history tells us that maybe we can't entirely solve these problems period!  Was my father thinking of the Soviet Union when he read 1984?  Was he thinking about his whole life which was dominated by discrimination as a child leading to refugee status, involvement in world wars and striving to make a living for his family?  Who was Big Brother to him?

Zack Gross is a former Executive Director of Brandon’s
The Marquis Project and now co-ordinates outreach for Fair Trade Manitoba.

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