George Orwell, author of the astonishingly prescient book 1984, in 1940 wrote:
Almost certainly we are moving into an age of totalitarian dictatorships – an age in which freedom of thought will be at first a deadly sin and later on a meaningless abstraction, The autonomous individual is going to be stamped out of existence.
When you get to my advanced state of decrepitude you get used to your grandchildren rolling their eyes whenever you begin a sentence with, “When I was your age ……..”
They don’t seem to be interested in the fact that when I was their age:
- There was no toilet paper (even without the privations of pandemics and panic buying) and we had to make do with cut up newspaper;
- We didn’t have a refrigerator and had to make do with an ice box;
- We didn’t have a telephone let alone a mobile phone or an I-phone;
- There was no reticulated hot water and if you wanted a warm bath you had to fire up the chip heater (with the risk of burning the house down) or perhaps use the warm water left over from the boiler when mum did the washing.
And when I attempt to tell them how different today’s world is compared with seventy years ago, I do so not to elicit sympathy (my childhood was at least as rewarding as theirs) but to help them appreciate how quickly the world has changed and how foolish it is to take for granted the benefits of human progress.
I have always believed that knowledge of history is important in putting our lives into perspective.
Consequently I am greatly concerned at how the curriculum in our schools has changed in the last generation or so.
Anyone with a basic understanding of history would have to concede that Australia is one of the most fortunate countries, now living in the most fortunate time in human history. Using the most popular metrics of progress like longevity or per capita income, there has never been more fortuitous circumstances.
And although we are one of principal beneficiaries of this movement of industrialisation, free markets and technological development, many countries, even including some of the poorest have also benefitted. Over the last thirty years the percentage of the world’s population in absolute poverty has shrunk from over thirty percent to under ten percent.
It is easy to take this good fortune for granted as indeed many of us do. But our comparative good fortune in the 21st century has been built on a long arduous grind for progress over many centuries. Unfortunately this is not taught in our schools. Instead of mapping out the long struggle for freedom and human progress, our schools are teaching our children that Western civilisation was dominated by racial vilification, exploitive colonialisation and blatant paternalism.
No doubt in the tortuous path that led us to our current state of liberal democracy, injustices were done and indignities suffered but the endpoint that resulted is for the average citizen the most fortunate outcome in human history. And it is easy to be critical of those in historical times when the cultural mores were different to those of today.
Now our education system, that seems more and more dominated by the politically correct and “woke” zealots of left politics, seeks to downplay and ignore the history of Western civilisation from which we can learn so much. A knowledge of such history and the struggles our forebears had to endure to secure this fortunate life for us is necessary to appreciate how unique our situation is in a historical context and why it should not be taken for granted.
Of course it is easy to be a critic of our society. Even ardent patriots can tell you things we could do better – but given the choice, most of us would still prefer to live in Australia in preference to anywhere else. And certainly the attractiveness of our society is attested to by the number of people who seek to migrate to Australia (both legally and illegally). Those who carp on about our past sins of colonialisation, dispossession and paternalism seldom offer other societies as exemplar communities they would rather live in. And if they did you would expect that such alternatives would share the liberal democratic ideals that we do.
But under the insidious influence of the COVID pandemic we are starting to lose our perspective about important issues of democracy and freedoms. It was ironic that in the week (in response to the Afghanistan debacle) the Prime Minister rightly proclaimed that it is “always right to defend freedom”, we had police and soldiers preventing Australians from leaving their homes and going about the normal lives that our freedom has always allowed us. And how has that come to be? I can’t remember voting in any election to give my State Government such powers.
Even worse, in the beginning our governments said that these were just temporary measures to help “flatten the curve” to enable our medical services to cope with the expected surge in COVID cases. But here we are eighteen months later and lockdowns and curfews and other restrictions to our basic freedoms are imposed on us willy-nilly with little explanation and, I suspect, little justification.
Our premiers continue to justify their actions by proclaiming that they are merely following the health advice. Strangely they never share that medical advice with us. It is probably because we thick-headed members of the public couldn’t possibly understand it and they in their caring munificence must mediate on our behalf for our own benefit. (As Orwell and others have shown, this is a typical strategy for totalitarian dictators.)
This is of course a huge cop out. Premiers might get whatever advice they can, but in the end they are responsible for the decisions. But our state premiers hide behind the so-called health advice (which as I said they never share with us) as if to absolve themselves from taking ownership of their decisions relating to dealing with the pandemic..
And why wouldn’t we believe (as they stridently maintain) our political leaders are merely acting on the medical advice? Queensland Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk didn’t hesitate to spend a few hundred thousands of dollars of taxpayers money in polling marginal electorates as to how they might react to various government options in response to the pandemic. I am sure she wouldn’t have paid much heed to that or let those results colour her response to the medical advice!
Unfortunately the COVID pandemic has enabled the totalitarian instincts of our leaders to rear their ugly heads. The Italian author, philosopher and social commentator, Umberto Eco, commenting on George Orwell’s work, wrote:
…..at least three quarters of what Orwell writes is not negative Utopia, but history,
Our recent history would seem to bear this out.
Who would have believed two years ago that in Australia we would have police and soldiers patrolling our streets to confront citizens who have dared to challenge the diktats of our authoritarian governments. Who might have imagined that they would provide surveillance to ensure that children’s playgrounds were not used? And who would ever have predicted that the Premier of Victoria would have excoriated citizens of that downtrodden state for going to the seaside to watch the sunset!
And Queensland has military personnel as well as police guarding its borders to prevent we Queenslanders from being polluted by those unclean southerners.
Then there were the police spying on those using parks by way of drones. Big Brother would have applauded!
We have also had the very unAustralian advice that citizens should “dob” on one another just as they were required to do in the totalitarian states run by Hitler and Stalin.
Moreover the “truth” as declared by our dictator premiers is not to be challenged. Daniel Andrews insisted that curfews were justified even though there was little evidence to support this. Others have compelled the wearing of masks outdoors when again evidential support is sparse. But like in all good dictatorships once the “truth” has been proclaimed it is not to be challenged. In totalitarian states the “truth” is not absolute; It is whatever the dictator determines it to be and therefore is subject to change at the whim of the state.
Joost Merloo was a Dutch/American Doctor of Medicine and psychoanalyst. He authored Rape of the Mind, an analysis of brainwashing techniques and thought control in totalitarian states. He wrote::
Many victims of totalitarians have told me in interviews that the most upsetting experience they faced was the experience of the loss of logic, the state of confusion into which they had been brought – the state in which nothing had any validity …….they simply did not know what was what.
George Orwell pointed out that the onset of totalitarianism occurred because ordinary citizens allowed it to happen. He wrote:
The moral to be drawn from this nightmarish situation is a simple one. Don’t let it happen! It depends on you.
As I have pointed out in previous essays fear is the prime tool of would-be totalitarians.
Joost Merloo wrote:
Totalitarian leaders, whether of the right or the left, know better than anyone else how to make use of fear. They thrive on chaos and bewilderment. The strategy of fear is one of their most valuable tactics.
Most totalitarian states begin with a charismatic leader who is able to convince the populace that they are faced with a threat so dire and complex that only the state can deal with it. The bewildered citizens are terrorised to the degree that they cower behind the carapace of state wisdom and state resources, yielding in the process their individual autonomy and subduing their own independent thinking thus submitting their minds and their wills to the dominion of the state.
But now at last there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. As I write NSW has recorded over a thousand new COVID cases in a single day. Now for many this is devastating and I don’t want to discount the suffering caused from this disease and the human tragedy associated from the subsequent fatalities. More and more people however are coming to the realisation the COVID (and particularly the Delta variation) can’t be realistically suppressed. Holding on to an ambition to suppress infections yo zero is a pipe dream. (And indeed if it was achievable could only be attained by locking ourselves off from the rest of the world and imposing forever undue restrictions on our individual freedoms. In short it would not be worth it.)
Our problem is that to date governments have been focussed on only one metric – the number of COVID cases emerging daily. In this way they have avoided confronting the other ills that their ham-fisted suppression tactics have caused.
They have paid little heed, for example, to:
- The adverse effects to mental health of our young people;
- The devastating effects on small business;
- The curtailment of the education of our children;
- The human suffering caused by the forced separation of loved ones.
In this regard their futile attempts at suppression have ignored or discounted the real psychological, economic and social costs of their actions. The number of COVID cases emerging in our communities was never a sufficient metric to assess the efficacy of our response.
By and large our state premiers have seemed to take advantage of the fear generated in the general public to impose restrictions and diminish our freedoms in a dangerous way.
The possible exception has been Gladys Berejeklian who has been reluctant to impose too much on the citizens of NSW and is now leading the push to open up her state subject to meeting immunisation targets. And thankfully at long last the Prime Minister is beginning to show some real leadership in moving to restore our freedoms and open up our society and our economy.
So we have had an uncomfortable brush with totalitarianism. Hopefully our hard won freedoms will be restored.
But it is concerning that so many of us capitulated unprotestingly to the totalitarian demands of our governments cowed by the fear of the COVID pandemic. There are also other insidious threats to our freedom that we must resist. For example the Great Reset is a totalitarian movement leveraging the hyped up fear of climate change to convince us to give up our individual freedoms to the state. And at the same time we must ward off the excesses of “cancel culture” and identity politics.
I will repeat George Orwell’s admonition:
Don’t let it happen! It depends on you.